I’m reading sections of Pascal’s Pensées in preparation for teaching him in a couple days. When reading the whole thing this summer, I was overwhelmed by the tedium — particularly the biblical proofs that Jesus was the messiah (surely this has been tackled before, as satisfactorily as one could hope for…). The selections, for which I am following a colleague’s suggestions, cut right to what people seem to find most appealling about Pascal: his cynical psychological “realism.” I’ll admit, for example, that I find his meditations on the need for diversion pretty compelling as I have been coping with a bit of listlessness of late.
I’m starting to wonder, though, if Pascal’s cynicism and his tendency toward what we would anachronistically call “fundamentalism” are necessarily linked. In particular, I wonder if the famous “wager” (also included in the selections, for a second day of discussion) represents a variation on The Girlfriend’s “negative” proof of the existence of God. One could paraphrase it as such: you can’t really know anything for sure about arguably the most important question in the world, and I know you’re a calculating piece of shit who’s only out for his own advantage — so why not bet on God? And then he cynically assumes that one will “get into the habit” of being a Christian, which will effectively lead to becoming a “sincere” believer — whatever that could possibly mean in his terms.
I wonder if this is what ultimately motivates reactionary strains of Christian theology. You have a general lack of satisfaction with modern thought, which somehow “doesn’t take account” of an important fact, and you also have an exhortation to practice Christianity that feels strangely cynical. And invariably, there’s an earthly authoritarianism that comes along with this, as in Pascal’s thesis about the “mystical foundations of authority.”
It’s as though all the talk of transcendence amounts to little more than an impotent gesture of dissatisfaction. Does anyone read Chesterton and really get a sense of a vibrant relationship with God, for instance? It seems more like his embrace of Christianity is a platform for sneering.
As for visions of social justice, the unworkability of the reactionary Christian’s program is a feature, not a bug — as we can see when someone like Ross Douthat consecrates one of his columns to praising the transcendent genius of papal social teaching in confounding all our usual ideological divides, etc., when in reality, papal social teaching is completely incoherent, amounting to little more than a cynical attempt to keep the Church’s impossibly contradictory constituencies “on board” by providing something for everyone. All these stupid secular people with their actual informed plans! How immature of them! How nihilistic! They don’t account for transcendence! Or, to translate it into more accessible terms: they don’t account for the fact that they suck because they’re not on our fucking team.