A Royal Ruin: Pascal’s Argument from Humanity to Christianity
The Bible is God’s anthropology rather than man’s theology—Abraham Heschel
We humans often puzzle over our own humanity, scanning our heights and our depths, wondering about and worrying over the meaning of our good and our evil. No other animal reflects on its species like this. Here, and in so many other ways, we stand unique among living creatures. Why does a young student go on a homicidal rampage at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, murdering thirty-two fellow humans, and then kill himself? Why does evil strike so hard and so erratically?
In spite of these upsurges of human evil, we are also struck by the beauty, courage, and genius wrought by human minds, hearts, and hands. After every tragedy, heroes emerge who rescue the living, comfort the dying, and put others above themselves in spontaneous acts of altruism. Humans make machines made to torture others, and humans make music sublime in its ability to give pleasure. Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn ponders the complexities and contradictions of humanity in “The Burden of the Angel/Beast”—the distinctively human discomfort with being human and not understanding the origin and meaning of our own humanness.
We go crying, we come laughing. Never understanding the time we’re passing. Kill for money, die for love. Whatever was God thinking of?
The meaning of human existence is a question as perennial as it is perplexing. It haunts our songs and our poems, it stalks our relationships, and it troubles our philosophies and religions.
In the seventeenth century, a young scientific and philosophical genius, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) marveled at our enigmas and inscrutability in Pensées.
What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, the glory and refuse of the universe!
Yet this was no mere marveling. Any worldview worth its rational salt needs to offer a sufficient explanation for both human greatness and debauchery. Pascal goes on: “Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.”
Any worldview worth its rational salt needs to offer a sufficient explanation for both human greatness and debauchery.
Pascal believed the answers were found in the Bible. We find greatness in humanity because we are made in the divine image. However, that image has been defaced (but not erased) through the fall into sin. There is something wrong with every aspect of our being, but we remain noble in our origin. There are, to invoke Cockburn again, “rumors of glory” found in humanity.
From the greatness and wretchedness of humanity, Pascal developed an argument for the truth and rationality of Christianity. While his ingenious argument has been reconstructed in more detail elsewhere, we will consider its basic structure, which provides a fruitful point of discussion with seeking and questioning people today.
The genius of the Christian perspective is that it explains both greatness and misery without exalting one above the other.
The genius of the Christian perspective is that it explains both greatness and misery without exalting one above the other. Our nobility, expressed in the achievements of thought, for example, is due to the divine image. Because of this, we transcend the rest of creation. Yet we abuse our greatest endowments, wasting our God-given skills on trivia and diversions, because we know we will die and do not know what to do about it. We are the corruption of a former original. Pascal says:
The point is that if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss. But unhappy as we are (and we should be less so if there were no element of greatness in our condition) we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood.
In other words, we are royal ruins. We possess some truth, but we cannot rest content in what we naturally know. We feel our own corruption; and in so doing, we realize the human condition is somehow abnormal, flawed, and degenerate. In the context of surveying human greatness and misery in many dimensions of life, Pascal says: “It is the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king.”
In surveying human philosophies and other religions, Pascal notes that they either exalt humans at the expense of taking seriously their weaknesses or reduce humans to nothing at the expense of their significance. In his day, many were impressed by the philosophy of the Stoics, who asserted that humans were great in reason and courage and partook of the divine essence of the universe. Yet they made little allowance for human weakness, cruelty, uncertainty, and fragility. Thus, they exalted greatness at the expense of misery.
On the other hand, various skeptics, such as Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), delighted in showing the weakness of human reason and the arrogance of our pretensions. Yet the skeptics downplayed our ability to reason properly and the significance of human achievements in science, art, and elsewhere. As Pascal said, they should have been more skeptical of their skepticism.
While the specific writers that Pascal addressed are not commonly discussed today, the tendency either to overrate or underrate humanity is still with us. Many examples abound, but I will briefly inspect one worldview that today overrates humanity: the New Spirituality (or sometimes called New Age spirituality).
The New Spirituality is an amalgamation of ideas drawn from many sources. But whether it is the best-selling book, The Secret (hawked by Oprah Winfrey), the popular books by Deepak Chopra, or the movie, “What the Bleep Do We Know,” the New Spirituality claims we are divine beings who can tap into unlimited potential through a change in consciousness. (In this way, it is somewhat similar to Stoicism.) We are limited not by our sinful condition, but only by negative thought patterns. The “secret” of The Secret is “the law of attraction”—we attract good things to ourselves through positive thoughts and negative things to ourselves through negative thoughts.
This blind optimism and inflation of human abilities appeals to our pride, but it is radically out of alignment with reality. Yes, humans achieve much of what they conceive, but there are limits for finite beings qua finite beings. Thought itself does not create reality ex nihilo. Moreover, humans inflict evil on others willfully and repeatedly. We cannot explain this away on the basis of the negative thoughts of those who are victimized. Consider the millions of untouchables (or Dalits) of India. Their three thousand years of subjugation by the upper Hindu castes cannot be explained on the basis of low self-esteem in the Dalits. That would blame the victim unjustly. Rather, human beings, given their fallen propensity to exalt themselves over others artificially, have unjustly oppressed these image-bearers of God for three millennia. “Man’s inhumanity to man” is a fact of human history, in India and everywhere else under the sun. Even a royal ruin should be able to see that and search for an adequate answer.
The Christian worldview conserves both our greatness and our wretchedness in a profound revelation, something not available to unaided human reason, as Pascal points out:
Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.
The biblical account of our creation and fall best fits the facts of human reality, argues Pascal. He does not condemn reason in toto, but rather points out the limits of what can be known apart from divine revelation, which encompasses spiritual and cosmic realities not available to finite and fallible knowers when shut up to themselves. However, Pascal counseled that we must “listen to God”—meaning, deeply attend to what God has communicated in the Bible—to discover this liberating truth.