Beliefs and Desires – Thoughts on Pascal’s Pensees (Listening to the Saints)

I used to write a “Weekly Word” every Friday, devotional thoughts geared towards the CSF students at PSU Berks.  This summer I am bringing the Weekly Word back in hopes of providing spiritual support to the students while they are home.

Blaise Pascal lived in France in the mid-1600s and by all accounts was a brilliant, well-rounded man.  He contributed both to mathematics and physics as well as to Christian philosophy.  I think he would fit in well on a contemporary university campus, at least on the academic side of things.  That is why I think looking at some of what he wrote will be helpful for college students.

His most well-known work of philosophy is called Pensees (thoughts).  Pascal had hoped to write a full defense of Christianity but died before completing it, the notes for this book were put together after his death and published as Pensees.  My theology professor in seminary considered Pensees one of his favorite books.  I read it probably about five years ago and I’ve returned to it recently, reading a few portions every couple days or so.  I am finding it more interesting the second time through, now knowing what to expect.  I think there is a lot of food for thought here for college students

Pascal writes:

The will is one of the chief factors in belief, not that it creates belief, but because things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them. The will, which prefers one aspect to another, turns away the mind from considering the qualities of all that it does not like to see; and thus the mind, moving in accord with the will, stops to consider the aspect which it likes, and so judges by what it sees – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 31). . Kindle Edition.

I’ve spent a lot of time in ministry studying apologetics, seeking to provide answers to people’s questions and objections to faith in Jesus as well as providing positive reasons a person ought to believe.  If you read much in Christian apologetics, you soon get the impression that there is a simple formula: present the evidence and any clear-minded, rational person will believe.  Not all write in this way, but many do.

It does not take long to see the problem with this.  First, many clear-minded and rational people do not believe in the Christian gospel.  Second, if you think about it, most of what we do throughout the day is not a result of rational thinking.  We do not take time to analyze every choice we make.  At times we seem to run on auto-pilot, making choices almost without thinking about it.  Think of the time you drove home and when you arrived you had no memory of your drive.  You were lost in thought and just going through the motions, motions you had gone through dozens of times.  Or think of your choice to go to the movies last weekend.  You probably went to one of the bigger budget, well advertised movie (and we say advertising doesn’t influence us!).  In the theater you had a moment of enjoyment in front of the big screen, pulling for the good guys and hoping the bad guys got justice.*

This is sort of what Pascal is talking about in the above quote.  It is our will, not just our belief, that moves us.  The will prefers some things, causing us to look at things differently. The will moves us to things we like, things we desire or love.  This may even get to the point where we believe something is bad for us but we like/desire it so can’t help but do it (stories of young men and women who struggle with pornography come to mind).

Along with this, Pascal realizes that we want people to like us.  Often we are unwilling to recognize our own shortcomings: “Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them, and to be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 32). . Kindle Edition).  And we prefer people who support us no matter the decisions we make, rather than those who tell us hard truths: “For is it not true that we hate truth and those who tell it us, and that we like them to be deceived in our favour, and prefer to be esteemed by them as being other than what we are in fact? One proof of this makes me shudder” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 32). . Kindle Edition).

What is a true friend?  The person who affirms us no matter the decision we make or the person who has the guts to call us out when we make a wrong decision?  I think we all would agree, upon rational thought, that it is the latter.  But when it comes down to it, who do we surround ourselves with?  Are we putting our beliefs in motion, that we need people willing to challenge us in our lives?  Or do we go with what makes us happy, flattery and affirmation?

Pascal again:

They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.

Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence, although he then spoke in sincerity and without passion – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.

May we seek true friendship, finding people willing to love us for who we are and who challenge us to grow into even more mature people.  May we do this even when it hurts.

And may we realize that correct beliefs are only part of becoming a full human.  May we learn to love and desire, to will, things that point us closer to Jesus Christ.

*My thoughts in this regard have been influenced in recent months by reading some fantastic books by the likes of James K.A. Smith and Myron Penner, just to name a few.

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