Pascal, the Hidden God, Wagers, and the Burden of Seeking

“Let them at least learn the nature of the religion they are attacking, before they attack it. If this religion boasted of having a clear vision of God, and of possessing Him plain and unveiled, then to say that nothing we see in the world reveals Him with this degree of clarity would indeed be to attack it. But it says, on the contrary, that man is in darkness and far from God, that He has hidden Himself from man’s knowledge, and that the name He has given Himself in the Scriptures is in fact The Hidden God (Is 45:15). Therefore if it seeks to establish these two facts: that God has in the church erected visible signs by which those who sincerely seek Him may recognize Him, and that he has nevertheless so concealed them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their hearts, what advantage can the attackers gain when, while admitting that they neglect to seek for the truth, they yet cry that nothing reveals it? For the very darkness in which they lie, and for which they blame the Church, establishes one of her two claims, without invalidating the other, and also, far from destroying her doctrine, confirms it” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 194).

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal is most well known for his famous wager – an argument for belief in God based on probability. However, his theological thought went far beyond simple wagers, and with his gift for brilliant prose, Pascal laid out the Burden of Seeking more clearly than any other writer in the Christian tradition has.
Scripture abounds with examples of God withdrawing His presence from people, prompting the prophet Isaiah to declare that the God of Israel truly is a God who hides Himself (Isaiah 45:15); the Psalms are full of cries for God to cease hiding Himself and to make His presence known. Many of the greatest saints in the church felt abandoned by God – St. John of the Cross devoted an entire volume (‘The Dark Night of the Soul) to the time when one feels the withdrawal of God’s presence.

It is often said that there is no proof of God, and that belief in God requires evidence, and that one making the claim that God exists is required to produce evidence. If one does not meet the burden of proof, then belief is not warranted. One must have proof to be convinced of the existence of God.

“To obtain anything from God, the outward must be joined to the inward; that is to say we must kneel and pray alone, etc. so that proud man, who would not submit to God, may now be subject to the body. To expect any help from this outward act is superstition; a refusal to join it to our inward acts is pride. For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much machines as mind. And hence the means by which a man is persuaded are not demonstration alone. How few things are demonstrated! Proofs convince only the mind. It is habit that produces our strongest and most accepted proofs; it guides the machine, which carries the mind with it unconsciously. Who has proved that there will be a morrow and that we will die?” -Blaise Pascal

Here is another glimmer of the genius of Pascal – the limits of proof. Belief in God depends on more than just proof, because more than just the mind must be convinced of the existence of God. Simple knowledge of God in the form of mental assent will not lead one to salvation – God desires a personal knowledge.

However, as Pascal so astutely noted, Christianity does not claim to have a clear vision of God, plain and unveiled for all to see. Here he notes one of the most foundational aspects of Christian theology: that unless one pursues God wholeheartedly, God will remain hidden.

One aspect of Pascal’s brilliant ‘Pensees,’ is showing the wretchedness of reason – the result of man being far from God and in darkness. It is this condition that keeps man from arriving at God via a logical syllogism – and Pascal recognized that there is also a personal and relational aspect to God that goes beyond logic and reasoning. This certainly doesn’t negate the value of logic and reason but merely shows that via logic and reason alone one cannot arrive at knowledge of God in the personal way.

God is personal – therefore He must be sought after in a personal way. The burden is therefore not one of proof but of seeking. God has promised to meet those who seek Him on the road of their seeking.

Pascal’s famous wager is often dismissed as being nothing more than a blind leap in the dark or an irrational gamble. I concede that it is both of those things – unless the promise of God to meet the seeker is true. If that is the case, then it becomes more than a simple pragmatic wager. It becomes a way to engage someone to seek after God. Pascal was no doubt aware of this, and I can imagine him, with a smile on his lips, stating his famous wager knowing that if one was moved to sincerely seek God by consideration of the wager, that God would indeed reveal Himself to them.

Given these considerations, Pascal’s Wager is less of a flying leap in the dark than a step towards belief; epistemologically, one cannot simply will oneself to believe anything without some kind of warrant. Pascal would say that there is indeed sufficient warrant to make that first step towards belief.

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