Westmont Magazine Blaise Pascal
The Right Ordering of Body, Mind and Heart
An Excerpt from “Longing for God: Seven Paths to Christian Devotion” by Gayle D. Beebe and Richard J. Foster
The infinite distance between body and mind symbolizes the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and charity, for charity is supernatural. . . . There are three orders differing in kind. — “Pensées”
The best embodiment of the right ordering of our love for God is Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a brilliant philosopher, scientist and social critic who appropriated much of Augustine’s thought into his own age. Pascal’s central concern was to demonstrate how the orientation of our will determines the outcome of our life. Against the background of the disastrous religious decline that followed the Thirty Years’ War (1618- 1648), Pascal argued that the Christian faith was not contrary to reason but worthy of reverence and respect.
If we think this idea does not sit well today, it certainly did not sit well in mid-seventeenth-century Europe. The entire continent had witnessed the brutality, chaos and terror caused by factional fighting among Christians. How could Christianity be reasonable, let alone deserve reverence and respect? Why should people want it to play a role in the reconstruction of Europe? What would it produce in the future since its effect in the present had been so disastrous? (Sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it?)
These and other questions propelled Pascal to address the nature of truth, primarily through his pivotal “Pensées.” The Christian faith is true, he said, because it offers the best understanding of human nature: why we are the way we are and what we can do to remedy our condition. The Christian faith neither glamorizes our strengths nor ignores our weaknesses. It identifies both as a part of human nature, but then demonstrates that we will find mastery over our nature only through Jesus Christ. For Pascal, we must rise above our human condition to escape our plight.
The Right Use of Reason
In the “Pensées,” Pascal defines the human condition using three words: boredom, inconstancy and anxiety. Unless we recognize this state, the questions to which Christian truth responds do not make sense. Although Christianity is true, its truth is relevant only when we address our true condition.
Pascal also describes how our imagination distracts us from an accurate view of our own reality. Because Western society believes reason is supreme, it is difficult for people to see its limitations and how easily it is diverted from what is real. Pascal mounts a vigorous challenge to Descartes’s Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). No single phrase has done more to challenge God’s revelation than this famous maxim and the confidence it expresses in human reason, especially in the new scientific method that marked the seventeenth century. Pascal helps us see that we are not creatures ruled exclusively by reason but are in fact equally influenced by instincts and habits—many of which are highly irrational.
In Pascal’s day, as is true now, it was intellectually popular to be a skeptic. Yet throughout the “Pensées,” Pascal shows that the person who remains a skeptic has not considered all the evidence for belief in God. The problem with skepticism is that we never make a decision. But life requires decisions. We must decide how we will live and what we will do; we must answer the question of how our life will be invested. In always doubting we fail to recognize when we must exercise judgment.
Pascal is perhaps best known for his “wager” argument, in which he compares coming to Christian belief with placing a bet. This argument states that if we cannot prove the existence of God, it is still better to believe in him than to bet he does not exist and find out we were wrong. Pascal wrote this work to encourage people disposed to skepticism to at least consider the possibility of God’s reality. He believed that we could experience and know this reality, but it would not follow the lines of “proofs for the existence of God” that were crafted during the Middle Ages. These proofs did not address the inherently religious question of truth, which deals with why we need God and what our life would be like if we never discovered him.
For Pascal, the inherently religious question of truth is addressed by six key questions.
“What religion,” he asks, “will teach us our true good, our duties, the weaknesses which lead us astray, the cause of these weaknesses, the treatment that can cure them, and the means of obtaining such treatment?”
These six questions combine to form a powerful tool for evaluating any truth system. Through them we can arrive at the answers that guide every legitimate religious quest.
Both “Great and Wretched”
Pascal made a fascinating study of the paradox of how human beings are both “great and wretched.” This is a defining contribution of Pascal to all religious thought. Throughout history various writers have either elevated or debased human nature. Take, for example, the contrasting ideas of Plato and Freud. Plato argues that the highest form of human nature is reason, and that reason works to make our passions subservient in order to reach our true end. Freud, by contrast, argues that reason is not supreme but is the handmaiden of passions. In fact, if it were not for reason directing passion to some measure of socially acceptable expression, passion would destroy our life and inevitably unravel civilization.
This contrast is exactly Pascal’s point. Where, other than in the Christian faith, do we find a depiction of humanity that includes both sides of our nature and then instructs us on how to rise above our nature to find meaning and purpose? This, according to Pascal, is the genius of Christian thinking. We cannot emphasize our greatness or our wretchedness to the exclusion of the other or ignore our need for a remedy. Additionally, it is too trite simply to say that this is why everyone needs Jesus. The need for the remedy provided by Jesus must be demonstrated before the remedy provided by Jesus can be received.
In a section of the “Pensées” which poses one of the most penetrating critiques of human nature ever penned, Pascal addresses the ways in which we divert ourselves from what is real. Pascal explores the psychology of motivation, the reasons we concoct to keep from thinking of God and the causes behind our many diversions. His insights are a marvelous extension of Augustine’s idea that all sin is ultimately an attempt to fill our need for God with everything but God. Ultimately Pascal confronts the extremes to which human beings will go to avoid thinking about the nature and reality of God.
Examples of diversion abound in our society as we continue to witness the unbridled lust for wealth, power and prestige. The enormous energy we consume pursuing “the good life” leaves us feeling completely depleted of any life at all. Our culture is riddled with the tragedies of people who have succumbed to debilitating and destructive addictions. From video games to sexual compulsions to drugs and much more, we see the toll exacted by our inability to face our human condition honestly.
A beautiful but troubling example of this is captured in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.” The novel is set along the Northern California coast just south of San Francisco. Its central character, Doc, is a biologist who turns his training into a legitimate business catching and selling marine life to various enterprises. The book itself is a wonderful portrait of the humanity of the people our society often pushes to life’s margins.
President Gayle Beebe and Richard Foster signed copies of their book, “Longing for God,” on campus in April.
In one scene Doc is pondering the nature of life and observes, “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and return to his mansion with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate and bifocals?” What a poignant consideration of our destiny. Are we simply pursuing possessions that ruin our health without ever improving our soul? Or are we pursuing a life built on lasting values that capture the deeper life of the spirit? This is exactly what Pascal wants us to confront: the troubling diversions we cultivate to keep from considering the reality of God, the nature of our life and our need for a remedy that God alone provides.
The Three Orders: Body, Mind and Heart
Having laid this preliminary groundwork, Pascal now takes up his central teaching on the spiritual life: the right ordering of our love for God. Deeply influenced by the Jansenist movement and its recovery of Augustine’s teaching, Pascal outlines how we ascend through the three orders of reality (body, mind and heart) to find a life of humility and holiness in the unchanging presence of God. He writes:
The infinite distance between body and mind symbolizes the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and charity, for charity is supernatural. All the splendour of greatness lacks luster for those engaged in pursuits of the mind. The greatness of intellectual people is not visible to kings, rich men, or captains, who are all great in a carnal sense. The greatness of wisdom, which is nothing if it does not come from God, is not visible to carnal or intellectual people. There are three orders differing in kind.
The body, as the lowest order, is governed by desire, Pascal says. These desires lead to a life of unbridled lust and activity, with no sustaining principle other than conspicuous consumption and the acquisition of power and resources to keep this consumption going.
It is easy to find examples of this kind of life. Consider a story from Scripture: the parable of the prodigal son. The troubling point of this account is the son’s willingness to give up a life of responsibility and meaning to pursue wanton pleasure. The only measure of his life is his ability to indulge his desires whenever and however he wants. There is no boundary to his appetites. Fortunately, he eventually runs out of money and is forced to rethink his situation. His thoughts turn to his home, his previous life with his loving father, and so he returns. The story is a wonderful illustration of the reception we receive when we return to God, who is the true home of the human soul.
Or consider the people of today who are consumed with their physical appearance. They spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours doing everything they can to look beautiful. But a simple disease or a freak accident can take their beauty in an instant. What then remains? Virtually nothing; their life has been built on something fleeting. When the surface features they have cultivated fade or are taken away, there is no longer any meaning to their life.
Any life lived on the order of the body alone will end in emptiness. We simply cannot sustain meaning when the only measure of life is endless experience. The order of the body inevitably collapses under its own weight.
Pascal’s next order of reality is the mind. Although higher than the body and its master, the mind is still natural and unable to bring us into direct contact with God. However, the mind does prepare us for contact with God. Through the right use of reason we can recognize false belief systems and understand how they fail to bring about the meaning, purpose and fullness we seek. Pascal shows that the order of the mind cannot prove the existence of God or even produce a revelation of God, but it makes us aware of our need for God, his provision in Jesus Christ and our need to yield to this provision if we are to discover the life we long for and seek.
Social observers often refer to our society today as a “knowledge society.” By this they mean we have placed a high premium on what can be known. But this establishes a vexing dilemma. The problem with living on the order of the mind is that if we do not rise above it, we develop arrogance in our knowledge and know-how.
We have all met people who are incredibly bright—and know it. They enjoy displaying their masterful intellect and relish every opportunity to be the center of attention. Pascal suggests that people who live on the order of the mind and do not learn to use reason properly inevitably develop a pride that blinds them to areas where they are ignorant or ill-informed, including their need for God. This blindness must be penetrated by humility if we are to ascend to the highest order, the order of the heart, where God reaches us not through our desires or intellect but through the allegiance of our will.
On the order of the heart, we orient our will to the will of God. This enables us to order the intellectual concerns of the mind and satisfy the physical needs of the body properly. That is to say, to be oriented to God is to allow each order—our body, mind and heart—to find its proper expression. To elevate either the body or the mind over the heart is to ensure the dissolution of our life. We must use the mind and we must satisfy the body, but left on our own without the completing influence of the heart, we can never create a life with God.
Each element of Pascal’s system reflects his overwhelming interest in motivating people who no longer consider God to be real to consider again the questions of truth. Each aspect of his approach is a request that they contemplate the relevance and truth of Christian faith. This is the ultimate destiny of human life.
What is riveting about Pascal is how he anticipated postmodernism. He could see a time when absolutes would be negotiated. Pascal recognized that a time would come when science would be our enemy, not our friend. He could see, even in the seventeenth century, that people were losing confidence in the reality of God and the necessity of embracing truth. He recognized that people are led astray by insidious philosophies with ruinous results. Pascal’s effectiveness as a spiritual writer is rooted in the way he forces us to consider our own dilemmas and offers to guide us toward a meaningful life anchored to God. He is not preachy, telling us how to think, but instead asks us to consider the questions at the foundation of every search for truth and works to galvanize our longing for God.
The profound thinkers who address the right ordering of our love for God have guided Christians in every age—and they continue to guide us today. By considering how we can order our love for God properly, we better understand how all of our loves and desires help us find the life with God we seek.
Reflecting and Responding
On November 23, 1654, from about 10:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m., Blaise Pascal had an experience of the transforming love of God that changed the entire direction of his life. He had been reading the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus prays before giving himself over to be crucified. As he read, suddenly the room was filled with the flaming presence of Christ as perfect Love. The word written in the book was confirmed by the Word present in the Son.
On parchment paper Pascal wrote out a terse stenographic account of what happened. At the top he etched a cross surrounded by rays. He sewed the parchment sheet inside the lining of his coat and it was only after his death that the document was discovered. And what was written there?
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have separated myself from Him: I have fled from Him, denied Him, crucified Him.
Let me never be separated from Him.
We keep hold of Him only by the ways taught in the Gospel. Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s training on earth.
This experience, which Pascal called his “second conversion,” led him to abandon nearly everything. He sold his coach and horses, his fine furniture and silverware, and gave the money to the poor. Never again would he sign his name to his own writings, nor would he let his name be mentioned in praise. He left Paris and went to live among a Christian renewal group, the Jansenists, as a “solitary.” Rather dramatic, you say. Yes, it was . . . and is.
Pascal’s analysis of how human beings avoid God by means of constant distraction is brilliant. At one point he observes that our problems would be solved if we could learn to sit quietly in our room alone. What a challenge for us postmoderns with all our gadgets of distraction. “How do we do that?” you may ask. Well, we “just do it.” That is all.
I am also taken by Pascal’s insight that human beings are both glorious and wretched. We are glorious because we are created in the image of God; we are wretched because of our fall from grace. Today people want to tilt in one direction or the other: all gloriousness or all wretchedness. But we are both. This insight helps us immensely in dealing with people. When another person seems all glorious we are not deceived—wretchedness is just around the corner. Conversely, if we see only wretchedness we know there is gloriousness in this person. God’s good image may be eclipsed but it is not gone. And it is given to us to call it forth.
The head pains that eventually took Pascal’s life at age thirty-nine ultimately grew so severe that he was unable to continue any mental exercise. One of the last things he wrote was a prayer asking God to use his illness for a good end:
Lord, whose Spirit is so good and so gentle . . . grant that I may conform to Thy will, just as I am, that, being sick as I am, I may glorify Thee in my sufferings. . . . Unite my will with Thine and my sufferings with those that Thou hast suffered; grant that mine may become Thine. Unite me with Thee. . . . And thus, having some small part in Thy suffering, I shall be filled wholly by Thee with the glory which it has brought to Thee, the glory in which Thou dost dwell with the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.
O Lord, Pascal’s prayer is so magnanimous it takes our breath away. Perhaps we had better start more slowly. So for this week we ask that you will show us how to like people a little more. Normally we would say “love,” but we fool ourselves too often with that word. “Of course I love people,” we say to ourselves. So perhaps learning to “like” people a little more is a good starting point.
Are there people at work we don’t like very much? Help us, Lord, to like them more and more, and maybe someday we will discover to our surprise that we do genuinely love them. And perhaps through learning to love them more we will come to love you more. This we pray in the good name of Jesus. Amen