Pascal: The First Modern Christian

By Oakes, Edward T. | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August 1999 | Go to article overview
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Pascal: The First Modern Christian

Oakes, Edward T., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

As way of dividing up history into discrete, manageable wholes, the habit of clustering events according to centuries is probably no more (or less) superficial than any other. And surely it must be safer and more reliable than bandying about such descriptive monikers as "the Age of Faith," "the Enlightenment," "the Atomic Age," and so on, for at least the century-unit is known to be arbitrary, stemming as it does from the decimal system of numbering, which itself probably arose from the happenstance of ten fingers on the pair of human hands.

Unfortunately, the broad-stroke descriptive label, like some post-it note that sticks to everything it touches, will often enough get applied to the century marker in any case--despite the objections of more fastidious historians, who rightly fear that this habit of nomenclature may seduce the unwary. For such catch-all tags as "Age of Anxiety," "Age of Chivalry," etc. can be wildly inaccurate, or at least too sweeping. And no name for a century has been more misleading than that often used for the seventeenth: the Age of Reason. Not only did this century see the worst of the witch-hunting craze, but it also had to endure the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), at root a European civil war of religion--and, like all wars of religion, a clash of unbridled irrationality.

Yet just as centuries take on a certain inevitable identity from the very habit of invoking them so often (hence this Millennium Series), so too do these centuries soon come to assume the very descriptive characteristics by which they have so frequently been identified. Not for nothing has the seventeenth century, despite its infamous displays of irrationality, been known as the Age of Reason. Any century that began with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) as a five-year-old boy and concluded with Voltaire (1694-1778) as a seven-year-old, and during which Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) lived most of their lives and Baruch Spinoza all of his (1632-1677), is bound to strike later centuries as an eminently rational era.

However repellent and violent the wars of religion were or however vehement the waning years of the witch-burning craze undoubtedly must have been, we cannot help but see the seventeenth century in terms of what our civilization has embraced and what, on the basis of that embrace, it has abjured. Wars of religion and witch-burning appall. Reason is hailed as the splendor of our species (yes, even today, despite what the Nietzscheans and Heideggerians might claim). Thus the Age of Reason is celebrated for what we most value in it, and in ourselves. We condemn its horrors, but only on the basis of its glories.

Indeed, very few textbooks in the history of philosophy would deny to Descartes, that quintessential man of the seventeenth century, the title of Founding Father of modern philosophy--and precisely because of his systematic and methodical elevation of reason. His method for rational inquiry, based on consistently held doubt toward all doctrinaire assumptions of the human mind, is usually seen as modernity's decisive break-out from the fettering chains of the medieval synthesis, which itself was formed from a prior fusion of reason and faith painstakingly soldered together over several centuries in the late Middle Ages. Because of Descartes, reason now regards itself as a fully adult faculty, free at last of the tutelage of dogma and tradition. It is to Descartes, above all, that we owe the idea of rationality as an all-purpose acid through which every tenaciously held belief of the human mind must pass.

In that setting Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) emerges as the man who became, as I shall argue in the rest of this essay, "the first modern Christian." I would even include in that judgment the deep reticence and privacy of his spiritual life, for Pascal rarely revealed the movements of his soul to any but his most trusted spiritual directors. Modernity often regards religion as a private affair of the heart and looks askance at too public displays of religious emotion; and there too Pascal strikes a remarkably modern note.

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