Saturday, July 11, 2009

Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees, Edited, Outlined & Explained, by Peter Kreeft and Blaise Pascal

This book feels like two books in one since it is essentially Pascal illuminated by Peter Kreeft. Both are profoundly insightful writers. What is attractive about Pascal’s Christian apologetic is that he gets down to the existential issues facing us as human beings rather than just offering arguments for the existence of God and evidences for the Christian faith. He does do some of the latter but his main contribution is a unique approach to the human plight.

What is the ‘human plight‘? It is that we are both wretched and glorious. Man is a mere reed , but he is a thinking reed and though the universe can swallow him up, he alone can wonder and comprehend the universe. This wonderful ability to reason, create and wonder can be lost by the presence of a mere fly or something as terrible as malice or pride. We have infinite potential as well as infinite means by which we can squander our potential.

One cannot speak of the human plight and not mention death, which is our foremost plight other than sin. We do not die like the other animals die. Animals try to avoid death and struggle against it, but they are not scandalized by it like humans are. Stoics and pop psychologists tell us to accept death as a natural part of life but the inner prophet in us screams “Do not go gentile into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas).

Pascal goes on to delineate two contradictory parts of our nature: our metaphysical greatness and our wretchedness. Any religion that claims to truly diagnosis the human condition has to deal with these two realities.

I could go on and summarize all of Pascal’s (and Kreeft’s) insights but that would take far too long. The greatness of this book is that it contains Pascal’s best notes from the Pensees and good exposition/commentary by Kreeft. Pascal was the first thinker to really bring apologetics down to the nitty-gritty practical level by speaking on the human condition and the need to find a solution to our plight. His talk about human vanity, the pseudo-solutions of diversion and indifference, along with his proposal on how to find the real solution, is stellar. In the past, I could only make limited sense of Pascal’s wager but now that I’ve read him more I can see how it rationally fits into his whole apologetic approach. The only regrettable thing about this book is that Pascal never got to use his Pensees or ‘Thoughts’ in writing an actual book himself.