blaise pascal

Pensees 82-83


An argument for the existence of God from mystical experience (part 1)

One typical example of contemporary debate concerning the existence of God is the 1994 debate between William Lane Craig, a prolific and popular Christian apologist, and philosopher Michael Tooley, held at the University of Colorado Boulder. In that debate, both participants, the theist and the atheist alike, focused upon the various rational proofs for the existence of God. Indeed, in his opening statement Craig listed five rational proofs for the existence of God, including some traditional ones like the cosmological argument as well as a few that are either original or are updated versions of traditional arguments, such as his argument from intelligent design. There is no small irony, however, in the reliance of modern apologists for religious belief upon these logical proofs of God’s existence in their attempts to persuade atheists. While it must be acknowledged that certain of these arguments do hold some persuasive power, all traditional religious systems, including Christianity, disclaim the power of reason to comprehend the divine. Instead, it is the unanimous testimony of all of the world’s great religions that the summum bonum of the religious life is the suprarational mystical experience of the utterly transcendent.

Even Thomas Aquinas, whose famous “Five Ways” are among the rational arguments most commonly used by the proponents of theistic belief systems, found himself forced to disavow, or at least disvalue, his life’s work in the face of his own mystical experience of the transcendent. According to Alban Butler’s 18th century Lives of the Saints,

… while saying Mass one day, he had some sort of visionary experience that caused him to stop work on the Summa theologica and declare that he was done with writing, as “All I have written seems to me like straw compared with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

The early modern French philosopher Blaise Pascal seems to have experienced something similar to Aquinas one night in 1654, prompting him to write an ecstatic poem which he sewed into the lining of his coat, where it was discovered only after his death. The description he provides of his experience begins,

From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,


GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob

not of the philosophers and of the learned.

Aquinas and Pascal each seem to find themselves incapable of describing their respective experiences without resorting to cryptic, metaphorical language. While Aquinas, Butler writes, never described his experience to anyone, Pascal, describing it only to himself, can find only the word “fire” to explain what he has experienced. Each of them had discovered that, as the Christian bishop and mystic Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his fourth century mystical treatise on The Life of Moses, “the divine is by nature something above all knowledge and comprehension.” Aquinas was inspired by his experience to cease his writing while Pascal was inspired to begin his; both men were prompted by their new awareness of the insufficiency of human reason to understand God.

The abundance of accounts such as those of Aquinas and Pascal both lead the Christian apologist away from an over-reliance on the rational arguments for God’s existence and themselves act as an alternative to these rational arguments. The ubiquity of accounts of mystical experiences from within each of the world’s great religious systems provides a compelling argument in favor of the existence of a divine transcendent order or entity, the simplest English term for which is God.

Review: Great Books of the Western World

Great Books of the Western World
Great Books of the Western World by Blaise Pascal

My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Pascal’s thought is simply incredible. From the beginning of this book, which includes Pascal’s “Provincial Letters” on the Jansenist vs. Jesuit controversy, through Pensées, which makes up the heart of this book and the heart of Pascal’s thought, to the end of the book in Pascal’s scientific and mathematical treatises, there is never a dully moment, never a moment worth missing. Throughout all of his writings, Pascal is witty, engaging, and insightful. Pensées, Pascal’s greatest and, unfortunately, forever unfinished work, is a masterpiece of philosophy which does not receive nearly as much attention today as it should. In this work, Pascal presages nearly every major development in continental (and even analytic) philosophy since his lifetime; one can see foreshadows of existentialism, especially the thought of Kierkegaard; of Hume; of Derrida and Foucault; of Nietzsche; it is all there in 924 aphorisms of varying length — anywhere from a partial sentence to a full essay — hardly a one of which would not provide fuel for hours of thought, reflection, and meditation. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the end of philosophy: the living of the fullness of life.

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