Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pascal’s Place in the Great Books

Within the last month, I’ve read Calvin’s thoughts on sacraments, Aquinas’s introduction to his treatise on the sacraments, and descriptions by Pascal on the controversy between the Jesuits and the Jansenists concerning the sacraments. It just all fell out that way according to my reading plan; ten years ago when I drew up the schedule, I had no idea the selections for this spring would go so well together.

I gave up on Pascal’s Provincial Letters during the first ten-year plan; it was just too dull for me at the time. Two ironies come to mind. First, I gave up on only two books in that first decade: The Descent of Man by Darwin – who, according to Richard Dawkins, made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist – and The Provincial Letters by Pascal, the very Christian author of the greatest book never written: the Pensées. The second irony: Pascal’s Pensées is one of my very favorite books, and yet I couldn’t find anything to recommend this other classic from the same pen. (Side note: Of all the authors included in the Britannica Great Books set, Darwin is the worst at coming up with titles. The Origin of Species says a lot about species dying out while the fittest survive but very little about the mechanisms by which species originate, and The Descent of Man consistently speaks of Man ascending from lower life forms.)

As I picked up The Provincial Letters this year, though, I found them suddenly fascinating. The Jesuits had issued condemnations of the theologians at Port-Royal, an abbey with which Pascal had an association. Pascal wrote anonymous letters both defending his friends and attacking the Jesuits. Apparently, the Jesuits of the time had published works demonstrating some surprising doctrines: that most sins are not really sinful, that Christians have no need to confess them, and that grace is not needed for salvation. Pascal’s meticulous examination of the Jesuits’ sophistry has me enthralled.

But I’ve been wondering as I read: why did Mortimer Adler include The Provincial Letters in the Great Books set? I can see what believers can get out of the book. Protestants get a good look at some of the problems within the Catholic Church in the Reformation era. Catholics can witness a brilliant writer defending the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist and refuting some Calvinist doctrines. All Christians can find strength in Pascal’s firm declarations that sin is sinful, that Christians should confess their sins, and that salvation requires grace. But what should the non-Christian get out of this work?

I’ve thought of several reasons for keeping the book in a reading program designed for Westerners of all religious stripes. First, the topics of debate help explain one of the most important turning points in European history, surely a topic of interest to anyone who would bother reading such a thing as a canon of Western literature. Second, the careful treatment of ethical questions concerning (among other things) lying, stealing, and killing for self-defense pertain to anyone living in society. And third, in a culture of 140-character tweets, annoyingly abbreviated and unpunctuated text messages, and ubiquitous comment boards on which unfounded opinion stands for fact and sarcasm takes the place of logic, Pascal’s letters demonstrate that length, breadth, grammar, and clear reasoning are as necessary to making a lasting point as grace is to salvation.

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