Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is an intriguing figure in the history of intellectual thought. His is a story of unquestioned genius and remarkable ingenuity. He not only made major contributions to the fields of geometry, probability theory, and various fields of science, but was also an inventor of one of the first calculators. All this before his untimely death at the age of 39! Having lived most of his life as a nominal Christian, in his mid-30s, Pascal had a profound religious experience, sometimes referred to as a “night of fire,” and he thereafter gave his life to the Christian faith.
What’s interesting about Pascal is, even though his magnum opus was to be in Christian apologetics, he saw a limited role for apologetic arguments. He once observed, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.”
Speaking specifically about apologetics, he says:
The metaphysical proofs for the existence of God are so remote from human reasoning and so involved that they make little impact, and, even if they did help some people, it would only be for the moment during which they watched the demonstration, because an hour later they would be afraid they had made a mistake.
Mere intellectual belief versus a confrontation of the heart
What Pascal meant by “proof” here is the (often very complex) formal arguments given in an academic setting. He was not necessarily discounting the value of these arguments in all respects. He was simply making an observation that these formal arguments have a limited value for actually convincing people.
Now, despite the fact that I specialize in philosophy and apologetics, and I see great value in apologetic arguments, I think he’s right! Almost no one in the history of the world has come to believe in Christianity purely on the basis of formal arguments. You can’t, as it is sometimes said, argue someone into heaven.
Pascal thought genuine knowledge of God must involve more than merely being convinced intellectually of its truth. For Pascal, it is knowing in a deeper way. Pascal thought of this as a knowledge of the heart. Heart knowledge, for him, is not simply emotions or desires, but the deepest form of knowing reality, including our intuitive knowledge of first principles. Peter Kreeft has said, “Like Augustine, Pascal knows that the heart is deeper than the head, but like Augustine he does not cut off his own head, or so soften it up with relativism and subjectivism and ‘open-mindedness’ that his brains fall out.”
Why isn’t head knowledge enough?
The reason head knowledge is not enough is, unless there is incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, we tend to believe what we want to believe. In most cases, if we don’t want to believe something, we won’t. We will find ways (often very subtly) to shut ourselves off from the force of arguments. It definitely happens, from time to time, that one succumbs to an argument that keeps us up at night. But this, it seems to me, is the exception.
When it comes to changing our worldviews, it takes a richer confrontation.
A good example of someone reluctantly coming to Christianity is C.S. Lewis. He says, in his autobiography:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. 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. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?
Lewis’ full conversion to Christianity came some time later. An important step toward his conversion was coming to see Christianity as a “true myth.” As a literature scholar, Lewis loved the myths of the ancient Greek gods. He found them inspiring and deeply moving. But when it came to the Gospels, though they did not read as myths, they had, in a way, the same kind of depth. After an almost all-night discussion with a couple of his close friends (including J.R.R. Tolkien), it was suggested that the Gospel was like a myth in the sense that it provided a narrative to live by, but, as he says, “with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” This brought together his rational desire for the truth and his desire for meaning and purpose. But it wasn’t an argument. It was a way of understanding the Christian claims that made a huge difference on his journey toward becoming a Christian. Christianity became something to which he was drawn and yielded his life.
The Value of Arguments
This is not to say that apologetic arguments are unimportant. To the contrary, I think they are part of making Christianity attractive. Arguments were certainly important for Lewis in his journey. People have intellectual roadblocks, and it is the arguments that can address these roadblocks. I have known people who think certain objections (e.g., textual issues, the problem of evil, etc.) are simply insurmountable. However, when they see the objection addressed in a thoughtful way, they are intellectually freed up from something that had previously stood as a barrier. This can be a powerful and important moment. But the point is, it is one step in the journey.
No one is simply argued into heaven because this is not the intended purpose of the apologetic arguments. They have great value along the journey of faith, but it takes a lot more than just arguments. Let’s be clear: they don’t save. It is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ that saves (Romans 1:16).