Epiphanies, Blaise Pascal and “le
pari” (The Wager)
Four books recently caught my attention. The first is a
spiritual biography of Blaise Pascal, the second a reorganization of his
Pensees, the third a detailed analysis of “le pari,” Pascal’s notes on the
wager every human must necessarily make with the infinite, and the fourth an
account of C. S. Lewis’s journey to faith. These four fit together; the first
three stand together as a trilogy, for
to understand both Pascal and his arguments all three should be studied, and
the fourth offers a unique insight into the wager argument.
PASCAL, REASONS OF THE HEART, by Marvin R. O'Connell. Grand Rapids, Michigan:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. 202 pages, index. Softcover.
by a Catholic theologian, the author spends little time on Pascal’s
mathematical and scientific accomplishments, focusing instead on his Christian
convictions. Raised a Christian, and already known by age 23 as a
scientist/mathematician, Pascal underwent a mind change to “fervent
Christianity” in early 1646. When Pascal's sister, Jacqueline, wrote a year
later "my brother is no longer a
mathematician," she meant by this that Pascal’s pursuit of the sciences no
longer defined him; he now belonged to Jesus Christ, and in Him found his
identity. In contrast to most of us in the 21st century, where “what
we do for a living” is our usual way of self-identification, Pascal opted for
the simple word “Christian.” Few of us, even priests and pastors, do that
years later, on November 23-24, 1654, Pascal experienced a second conversion,
an epiphany, a "night of FIRE." Much of O’Connell’s book centers on
that experience, particularly Pascal's written account of it. What he wrote on
that pivotal night in 1654 he later recopied on parchment, and both it and the
parchment copy were found sewn inside his jacket when he died, eight years
later. O'Connell writes, "The paper text -- written hurriedly, smudged,
crowded with excisions and insertions, scarcely legible in places -- was
composed first, composed indeed at the very moment of illumination . . . the
words tumbled forth with a fiery intensity." Read them, and try to imagine
Pascal’s feelings and thoughts as he was totally captured by his Lord. This was
an invasion of grace, a manifestation of God. O’Connell includes the full text
in his book; here is part of it:
The year of grace 1654.
Monday, 23 November …
From about half-past ten in the evening
to about half past midnight.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
Not of the philosophers and the scholars.
Certitude, certitude, Emotion, Joy, Peace.
God of Jesus Christ
Oblivion of the world and of everything except God.
Righteous father, the world has not known You,
But I have known You.
Joy, Joy, Joy, tears of joy,
Jesus Christ ___________
Jesus Christ ___________
is the record of an experience most of us can only long for. I recommend
O’Connell’s book highly. When you purchase a copy, you will, I believe, make it
a "keeper" in your personal library.
of great men and women inspire us. Pascal's life is both scientifically
remarkable and spiritually uplifting. O’Connell’s biography looks at his life
from the second of these, a view that Pascal, himself, would claim was primary.
That he was almost entirely devoted to God no one can deny. It was in following
his God in service, taking in a homeless family with smallpox, that he
contracted his final illness and died at age 39, on August 19, 1662. One of his
last accomplishments in the service of his Lord was the creation of the first
urban public transportation company, so designed as to bring maximum benefits
to the poor. He is best known, of course, for the Pensees, an “apologie” which
he never finished. Begun shortly after his initial conversion in 1654, and
first published in 1670, eight years after his death by his nephew, Etienne
Perier, who worked from scattered, sometimes nearly undecipherable notes, it
has become Pascal’s legacy, often imitated, never surpassed. Many have tried to
expand upon it, to produce an “apologie” as close to what Pascal would actually
have written as possible. One of these, PASCAL, by Jean Mesnard, written in
1965, is worth considering:
Jean Mesnard, Translated by Claude and Marcia Abraham, University, Alabama:
University of Alabama Press, 1969.150 pages, bibliography, Pensees references.
volume is an “analytic reorganization of Pascal’s theological writings from
which emerges the true meaning and intent of the “apologie” that Pascal planned
to compose … .” (page 9 of the translator’s introduction). Along with
O’Connell’s book, I recommend it to Metanexus readers.
often reads the Pensees as disconnected thoughts, not as a whole. Mesnard has
connected them with his own impressive, yet never intrusive, commentary, and
thus presents them as a unified whole. Pascal had lectured from the notes in
1658, and one attendee at that lecture, M. Filleau de la Chaise, published an
account of it in 1672. Mesnard has
attempted to replicate that lecture.
most challenging of all the Pensees is "le pari," the WAGER, elements
of which appear throughout his work. Here is part of what Pascal actually
233. …Let us now speak
according to natural lights. If there is a God, He is infinitely
incomprehensible, …We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He
is …Let us then examine this point, and say, "God is, or He is not."
But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here… A game is
being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails
will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the
one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the
propositions. …(But) you must wager. It is not optional… You have two things to
lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your
will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to
shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather
than the other, since you must of necessity choose.
…Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is... If you
gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without
hesitation that He is. …there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life
to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what
you stake is finite. … (You say) "… I …am forced to wager, … and am so
made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?" … at least learn your inability to
believe, since reason brings you to this…. Endeavour, then, to convince
yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your
passions. … Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all
their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow,
and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by
which they began; by acting as if they believed… .
242. … it is certain that those who have the living faith in their
hearts see at once that all existence is none other than the work of the God
whom they adore. But for those in whom this light is extinguished, … to tell
them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them,
and they will see God openly… and to claim to have concluded the proof with
such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our
religion are very weak. … nothing is more calculated to arouse their contempt…
267. The last proceeding of reason is to recognise that there is an
infinity of things which are beyond it. …
277. The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.
Many scholars, William James among them, have
criticized the wager. In a recent
internet (Google) search on the
words “Pascal Wager,” nine of the first ten sites found were those of atheist
organizations finding fault with it. But, in the words of O'Connell (page 188),
"Pascal's retort was that the wager embodied a moral decision, not an
intellectual demonstration or even an argument." And this leads me to the third book of the “trilogy:”
GOD, ESSAYS ON PASCAL’S WAGER, edited by Jeff Jordan, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman
& Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1994. 168 pages, index, notes,
book is about spiritual things, and is devotionally edifying. The reader
encounters in it Pascal, the human being, and how he worked out his
relationship with the infinite. It is inspiring. In contrast, Mesnard’s book is
an “intellectual search,” and Jordan’s book is neither of these, but entirely exercises
in logic. In it, nine essayists explore the wager. John Ryan points out how,
while Pascal formulated the wager in its most famous form, others before him,
as early as Plato’s Socrates (in the Phaedo) had anticipated the argument. Ian
Hacking writes on the wager’s logic, Richard Foley on pragmatic reasons for
belief, and Thomas Morris on questions of evidence. Objections to the wager,
including moral considerations, the many-gods argument, and others are addressed by Phillip Quinn, George
Schlesinger and Jeff Jordan. It is a source to which one may return many times
to pursue “le pari” as an intellectual problem.
mathematical and scientific accomplishments place him among the “greats” of
secular history. His life and writings, particularly the Pensees, place him
among those we hold with deep respect in the culture of Christianity. He and
his ideas can be studied devotionally, apologetically or intellectually, all
profitably. His wager can be taken seriously, by sincere seekers after the
divine, or easily sidestepped in one or more ways found on atheist web sites.
And that leads me to the fourth book in this set:
THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith, by David C. Downing. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002. 191 pages, index, bibliography, notes. Hardcover.
“I believe in no
religion.” Clive Staples Lewis, 1916, age 17.
“Christianity is God
expressing himself … .” Clive Staples Lewis, 1931, age 32.
Born in 1931, I well could
have made both statements at similar ages.
I suspect I have read every published word Lewis ever wrote. In his book
SURPRISED BY JOY, 1955, Lewis himself speaks of his conversion, and it was that
book, among others, that played an important part in my own understanding and
embrace of the Christian message. So it was with great expectations and
anticipation that I began this volume.
The author, a professor of
English at Elizabethtown College, has written many articles on Lewis, as well
as a book, PLANETS IN PERIL, which studies Lewis’s famous Ransom trilogy. He
looks at Lewis’s inner life, on the factors that influenced his spiritual
journey, and on the issues that commanded the attention of his keen intellect
along the way.
Lewis did not have an
experience like that of Pascal, of course; those who have had one are
fortunate. The rest of us must come to Christ gradually, an unfolding (dare I
say “evolutionary?”) process. For Jack Lewis it was to take a fifteen-year
quest, one that led him through strange pathways. Atheism in his youth turned to materialism, mind-matter dualism
and the occult, then idealism and pantheism in the 1920s. In the summer of
1929, at age 30, Lewis had a “mystical experience” while riding on a bus
(surely as prosaic a setting as one can conceive). In SURPRISED BY JOY, he describes his subsequent decision to
“enter in” with these words: “In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and
admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most
dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Lewis’s 1929 conversion
experience was, however, to theism, not to Christianity. He began attending church worship services,
and engaged in prayer, but only because he thought he ought to make some overt
gesture toward his new philosophical position. Two years of his quest were to
follow. David Downing describes these two years in chapter eight, and does so
powerfully. Even knowing the result, I found myself caught up in the narrative,
urging Lewis on, almost like watching a baseball game television replay. Two
steps forward, one step back, and then, on September 28, 1931, while riding in
his brother’s motorcycle sidecar to Whipsnade zoo, it happened. In Lewis’s own
words, “I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was
driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that
Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. “ This, too,
was an epiphany, hardly a “Damascus Road” event, but a manifestation (breaking
through) of God, none-the-less.
Downing’s book does not
speak of “le pari” directly, but it is evident that Jack Lewis followed the
wager’s advice with the heart of a sincere seeker. Blaise Pascal would approve.
the sincere seeker after the divine I make three additional comments. First,
the Pensees were never finished; Pascal died prematurely. He did not have the
opportunity to write, and rewrite, “le pari” and it remains a fragment, one
each person can accept or reject as useful. To criticize him because the wager
is not completely thought out is cavalier.
the critical event in Pascal’s life was surely the experience he had in 1654,
two hours of knowing God as few others have been privileged. Surveys indicate
that roughly 1/3 of Americans will testify to having had one or more
epiphanies; I’m one of them. My
conversion to Jesus Christ came about much like that of Jack Lewis. Following a
quest of two years, it happened. I sat
down on a sofa. When I sat down I was not a Christian. When I arose, I was.
Each epiphany is different. An account of another one, much different than that
of either Lewis or Pascal, may be found on my website at www.burgy.50megs.com.
consider how God reaches a human being. The human cannot reach God by reason,
he can only take reason as far as it will go, and recognize that reason has
limits. But a human being CAN do one thing, he can convey to God, even a God he
does not believe exists, that he is willing to believe. I think that’s all God
ever requires, a willingness. The atheist calls it “Fake it till you make it,”
but that phrase presupposes no God exists. My own conversion did not come
because I was pretending to believe, for I did not do that. It did come when I
was willing to believe, and it was God who made the contact. My claim is that
this is the core of Pascal’s argument.
In the epilogue to
Downing’s book, one more event is mentioned.
In July 1963, Lewis, famous for his spiritual imagination, in a coma
with what would be his last illness, awakened and asked for water. As his
friend, Hooper, began to draw it, Suddenly sitting up, Lewis stared intently
across the room. He kept looking, and then exclaimed, several times, “Oh, I
never imagined. I never imagined.” With a rapturous expression on his face, he
then fell asleep.
Dei, Denver, Colorado (About 2600 words)
of this essay was published as a book review in PERSPECTIVES, the quarterly
journal of the ASA, Volume 50, #1, March 1998.
ASA's web site is