lecture--May 26, 2011]
The Heart has its Reasons
Pascal and Locke
Age of Religious Wars (1559-1689)
In the 16th century, reformers of various types tried to correct the
many problems in European society, trying particularly to fix the
problems within the church. Unfortunately, their well-meaning
attempts at reform tended to increase the turmoil of the
already-volatile 16th century.
The 1559-1689 period is often called the Age of Religious Wars.
This is a bit misleading: the wars were about a lot more than religion,
or at least religion in our limited sense of the world. Religion
was bound up in every aspect of European life, and a change to religion
affected political, social, and economic conditions as well—and even
the art world.
With the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, it’s easy enough for us to see
what was happening. Things like the discovery of the New World
and the invention of the printing press led inevitably to rapid, rapid
changes: and major changes always mean conflict. The religious
differences added fuel to the fire. The Catholic Church was
convinced that it was the only true church, man's only hope of
salvation. On the other hand, the Protestant sects were convinced
that they were the true churches and they were the only hope of
salvation. A sure recipe for conflict! Catholics believed that
the growth of Protestantism was sending people to hell. And
Protestants believed that the continued presence of Catholicism was
sending people to hell. And it's no wonder the wars the resulted
were so bloody.
And it’s also no wonder that Christian apologists were now faced with a
new dilemma. When men calling themselves Christians behave so
badly to other men who call themselves Christians, one begins to wonder
about the Christian faith itself. And as to other faiths?
Islam? Why that was obviously no better. And who would want
to be a Jew? So what’s left? Atheism and agnosticism were
natural enough reactions to religious debacles of the time. Also
widespread was a growing indifference. In France, a group called the
politiques thought that, as far as the government was concerned, one
might eliminate religious considerations altogether. But the most
pervasive problem was uncertainty. In his “Second Coming” Yeats
has a line about the best lacking all conviction and the worst being
filled with passionate sincerity. To a certain extent, that was
the apologetic problem in the 17th century: can one find religious
certainty without the passionate intensity of the zealots who killed in
the name of Christ?
has its reasons: Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal, is one of the most brilliant men ever to walk the
earth. He was, first of all, an outstanding mathematician.
By the age of 16, he was already doing very impressive work
investigating conic sections (hyperbolas, parabolas, and
ellipses). Later, he went on to do pioneering work in a new
mathematical field, probability and statistics. He devised what
is still called “Pascal’s triangle,” a short-cut that makes it much
easier to do probability problems.
At the age of 19, Pascal invented a calculating machine, the
fore-runner of today’s computers. Later, computer programmers
would name a programming language after Pascal, honoring a man whose
calculating machine is the distant ancestor of today’s computers.
Pascal also did work in the sciences, devising a series of experiments
that are often replicated in high school and college science classes
because they are such a good model of correct scientific procedure.
Pascal was also a fine writer, considered by those who read French to
be one of the 17th century’s greatest masters of French prose.
He did all this despite the fact that he suffered from various
illnesses during much of his life and died at the relatively young age
Pascal hoped to use these tremendous intellectual gifts to help provide
order and assurance, to help provide a firmer foundation for Christian
Pascal intended to write a great book that would help answer some of
the religious doubts of his contemporaries, to show them why the really
could believe the traditional truths of the Christian faith.
Unfortunately, he didn’t live to complete the work. He had
written a lot of notes, and he had started to organize those notes, but
that’s as far as he got.
Now most of the time, a disorganized collection of notes would be
thrown away or put aside and forgotten. But when Pascal’s friends
looked at what he had written, they decided that there were so many
good ideas in the notes that they deserved publication. They
published the collection under the title “Pensees”—the “thoughts” of
Pascal’s friends were absolutely right in thinking that other people
would find Pascal’s ideas worth reading. For many, many people,
Pensees is among their favorite books. But while Pensees is a
great book, it’s also a sometimes difficult book in its current
state. Pascal’s notes are sometimes cryptic: what can you make of
a line like, “Cleopatra’s nose”?
What follows is my attempt to reconstruct the outlines of Pascal’s
overall argument, an argument that, in my opinion, is one of the best
defenses of Christian faith ever written—even incomplete as it is.
Well, here’s where I think Pascal was going with his argument.
A reason to wish
Christianity were true: the unhappiness of people without God
Now one might expect an attempt at assuring people of Christian truth
would begin with a thorough presentation of the evidence for the
Christian faith. Apparently that wasn’t where Pascal planned to
begin. He realized that, if people don’t want to believe
something is true, they are not going to believe no matter what
evidence is put in front of them. I am sure you all know what he
is talking about. You’ve run into people who disagree with
you. All the facts are on your side. All the logic is on
your side. But, no matter what you say, they won’t be convinced
because they don’t want to be.
Pascal, recognizing the problem, thought that the first step in arguing
for the Christian faith was to give people reasons to *wish*
Christianity were true.
Why should we wish Christianity were true? Well, first of all,
says Pascal, we ought to wish it were true because without God, and
without the truths of Christianity, our lives are desperately unhappy.
Now most people would stop right there: I know atheists, they would
say, who are perfectly happy.
Pascal would understand this, but then say to look closer: are
people really happy without God and without the truths of
Christianity? There is all sorts of evidence to the contrary.
1. Idolatry. Consider those places where the
gospel has not spread. Are people there atheists? Do they do
without religion altogether? Not at all. Everywhere you go,
you’ll find people doing a very strange thing. They take a lump
of wood and carve it into an image, or they take a chunk of stone and
carve it into an image, or mold metal into an image. And then
they bow down and worship, “Oh, great lump of wood, I worship you, I
adore you, I praise you.”
Why do they do this? Pascal says it’s because there is a deep
need in every human being for something to worship, and, if we don’t
have the true God to worship, we have to find a substitute. Just as, in
a famine, people will eat almost anything to alleviate their hunger
pangs (boiled shoes—yum!), people will worship almost anything in their
hunger for something to worship.
2. Longing for glory. Further evidence that
something is missing in our lives is our longing for glory. We
all want recognition in our lives, more recognition than we have, and
we’ll go to extraordinary lengths to get it, doing some absolutely
crazy things. One person wants you to be impressed with them because
they *never* touch alcohol, while another wants you to be impressed
with how much they can drink without falling down.
The trouble is that, no matter how much recognition we get, we always
want more. Mark Spitz got seven gold medals and seven world
records—and, at age 40, he decided he just had to go try for one
more. Michael Jordan, the best basketball player around, had to
try for more recognition—by playing baseball!
This unfulfilled longing for sufficient recognition points to a deep
unmet need in our lives.
3. Injustice. The many injustices in our lives are
also an indication that we aren’t really happy without the truths of
Christianity. Every one of us has unfair things happen to us,
and, often, we can’t do anything about it. We carry these injustices
with us all our lives, and sometimes we can’t even sleep because we’re
mulling over the injustices we’ve suffered. Is that a happy life?
And it’s not just the injustices that happen to us. We’re
troubled by the unjust things that happen to other people. Back
to 1993. I had been teaching at NSU for five years. We started
seeing around campus posters about a missing eleven year old girl from
Fargo, Jeanna North. Cute little girl, and everyone’s heart went
out to her and her family. Everyone was hoping that Jeanna was
safe, that she’d be found, and returned to her parents. But a while
later we found out that Jeanna wasn’t going to make it back home
because some pervert had thought his own lusts more important than the
life of a little girl. And this kind of thing makes you
mad. I didn’t know Jeanna or her family (some of my students
did), but it didn’t matter whether you knew them or not: it was a
heartbreaking story. And the trouble is that the world is filled
with those stories: you can’t pick up a newspaper or watch television
news without seeing a similar tragedy. How can we call life happy
when our world is so filled with injustice?
4. Tyranny. Making matters even worse, the
injustice so often goes all the way to the top. We want our
leaders to protect us from injustice, but, far too often, they are
culprits themselves. It makes us mad when powerful people do
horribly unjust things and get away with it. And this kind of
tyranny fills the world. Imagine living under the current leaders
of Sudan or in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Even when things are
pretty good in our own country, how can we really consider ourselves
happy in a world where tyrannical rulers do so many horrible things?
5. Irrational wars. Among those unjust things,
near top of the list is senseless warfare. Pascal has a note
about a man who “lives across the river” and says, “Why are you killing
me?” Rivers were often borders between countries. What
Pascal is getting at here is that, if we kill someone on our side of
the river, it’s murder—and, most of the time, we’d never think of
killing them anyway. But take that same person, move him across
the river into a neighboring country. Your king declares war,
drafts you into the army, and sends you across the river to kill a guy
who is just like your friends and family—for no reason at all.
How can we consider our lives happy when we can forced into those
6. Selfishness. Further, can we consider
ourselves happy when there is so much selfishness around us?
Pascal notes that many human beings seem to derive their greatest
pleasure in life from doing things that hurt other people. And if
you don’t believe that, just go to your nearest junior high and watch
junior high girls in action. Many, many of them seem to be having the
most fun when they are making some other girl’s life absolutely
And it’s not just junior high girls. Take us history
professors. We enjoy giving the lectures that make so many of you
And (joking aside) the thing we should find most disturbing is that the
selfishness we so detest in others we do find right in our own
lives. As I look back over my own life, for instance, it’s not
really the unfair things that have happened to me that bother me: it’s
the unfair, selfish things I’ve done myself: the times I’ve hurt my
wife or my kids or my students by thoughtless, selfish behavior.
Some golfers want to get a “mulligan” from time to time on the
course—they want a do-over. Well, most of us want a “mulligan” in life:
a chance to do right what we didn’t do right the first time.
7. The uncertainty of life. Another problem
with our lives is that they are so uncertain. Suppose you find that
wonderful husband or wife, have those wonderful kids, and that
wonderful job. None of those things are certain. Kids are a
great joy, but, from the day they are born, they are a great worry: are
they going to be safe? Are they going to be ok in life?
Will they make it home from school safe? And our wonderful
romantic relationships: how secure are they? Is there any
guarantee that that person you love with all your heart and who says
they love you, is there any guarantee they won’t walk out on you
tomorrow? And even when you are sure on that score, you’ve got the same
problem as with kids: are they going to make it home safe
tonight? Are they going to stay healthy? How can we
consider our lives happy when they are so uncertain?
8. And, on top of all this, there is the shortness of
life. Now at 18, life may seem long—especially in history class
where 50 minutes seems like 50 years. But life is short.
Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Bottle” says, “There never seems to be
enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them.”
That’s so true. I don’t have enough time for my wife and
kids. I don’t have enough time to prepare these lectures properly
(as you no doubt have noticed). And how can we consider our lives
happy when they are so soon over?
We ought to with Christianity were true, says Pascal, because without
the truths of Christianity, our lives are so unhappy. But, he
argues, if Christianity is true, then there are answers to each of the
Another reason to
wish Christianity were true: the happiness that comes with God
In place of idolatry, we have a god to worship who is worth
worshipping: an all-power, loving, just god.
If Christianity is true, we have all the recognition we want.
Those who have served Christ will hear from him the words, “Well done,
thou good and faithful servant, enter in to the joy of the Lord.”
And isn’t that the ultimate in recognition, to have positive
affirmation from the god who created all things and to receive the
ultimate reward for a job well done?
If Christianity is true, injustice is done away with. All those
bad things that have happened to you and everyone else will be
undone. If Christianity is true, the story of Jeanna North
doesn’t end at the bottom of a river. She’ll be alive again and
restored to her family as will all the missing children whose stories
break our hearts. And shouldn’t we want this to be true?
If Christianity is true, tyranny comes to an end. God’s kingdom will
come to this earth with no more injustice—and no more irrational
wars. Instead, the lion lies down with the lamb: no more hurting,
no more killing. Pretty nice, yes?
And if Christianity is true, there’s a power that can and will
transform human selfishness, that can take away our hard hearts and
give us hearts full of love so that we quit doing the things that hurt
And in place of our short, uncertain lives, lasting treasures in
heaven: no moths, no rust, no thieves. We start in on what C.S.
Lewis called the great story that has no end and in which every chapter
is better than the last.
Shouldn’t we wish such things were true? Obviously so, says
But wishing something were true is not enough. One needs evidence
as well, and Pascal intended to provide such evidence.
Evidence for the
truth of Christianity: fulfilled prophecy
One of the things that impressed Pascal was the Scripture and
fulfillment of prophecy. He made lots of notes on scriptural
prophecies that he believed were fulfilled either at the time of Christ
or in later history. Pascal would have argued that the
fulfillment of so many prophecies was solid evidence of the truth of
Evidence for the
truth of Christianity: miracles
Miracles also supported belief in Christianity. Pascal believed
that there were miracles going on in his own day, and that anyone who
really cared to look could find such miracles.
The limits of
There is a problem, however. Pascal believed that miracles had a
tendency, not to convince, but to condemn. He notes how pharaoh
reacted to Moses miracles: hardening his heart and insisting on going
his own way despite the miraculous evidence in front of him.
Pascal notes how frequently those who saw both the Old Testament and
New Testament miracles stubbornly went in the same direction no matter
what miraculous sign suggested they were headed the wrong way.
The trouble, says Pascal, is in our hearts. No matter what
intellectual evidence is put in front of us, we stubbornly cling to our
The evidence of
probability: Pascal’s Wager
If we were rational creatures, says Pascal, we would behave far
differently, living by Christian truth even if there wasn’t 100%
evidence for it. He discusses what has come to be called
“Pascal’s Wager,” a consideration of how a rational man would behave if
there was only a chance that Christianity were true. My cartoon
version of the wager:
Suppose your gambling on a coin toss game. If you call heads and
you are right, you win. If you call tells and you are right you
win too. But what you win is very different. If you call
heads and you are right, you win everything: the money, the car, the
dream vacation, the girl or guy of your dream—everything.
If you call tails and your right you win—well, let’s say a handshake
from me. Now, what would you call, heads or tails? Any
rational person would call heads: there is something great to win, and
nothing of any value to lose. Even if they odds weren’t 50/50,
even if they were one in a thousand, you’d call heads, taking the
chance of winning something really worth while.
Pascal says we have to place a wager on the existence of God and on the
truths of Christianity. We make our wager by the way we live our
lives, choosing either to live as if there’s a God or to live as if
there isn’t. What do we stand to win and lose with this wager?
Well, suppose you wager that God exists and that Christianity is
true. And suppose you win: you’re right! You made the right
guess! What have you won? Eternal life, eternal joy—you’ve
But suppose you are wrong. You lose the bet. What have you
lost? Nothing. You won’t even know you’ve lost because
you’ll be in a pine box six feet under. Really, there won’t even
be a “you” anymore.
Now suppose you wager the other way. You wager that God doesn’t
exist and you live your life accordingly. And suppose you win: you’re
right! You made the right guess! What have you won?
Nothing. You won’t even know you’ve won because you’ll be in a
pine box six feet under. There won’t even be a “you” anymore.
But suppose you lose. You wagered that God didn’t exist and it
turns out your wrong. There really is a God, and Christianity is
true. What have you lost? Everything.
So what’s the logical, rational way to bet? To bet that God
exists and to live your life accordingly, right?
The real obstacle to belief, and the ultimate proof of Christian truth
But we don’t do it that way. Although there is a direction we can
take in our lives that promises us every good thing we prefer to head
in a different direction which, in the end, has no chance of leading to
anything at all.
There something so twisted in us that, if there were two glasses in
front of us, one filled with a chocolate milkshake and the other filled
with sewer water, and if God said to us, “Drink the milkshake,” we
would say, “No! I want the sewer water.”
And that, says Pascal is in some ways the greatest proof of
Christianity. Christianity gets human nature exactly right.
We are wonderful creatures that God loves and wants to keep for an
eternity of joy with Him. But we also are fallen creatures with a sin
nature drawing us away from God and keeping us from doing what we know
The answer to the
faith dilemma: the machine
So what is to be done about that? Pascal’s answer (right on the
first page!): the machine. Now what is this “machine”? I
think what Pascal is talking about is the mechanics of religion.
Go to church. Read your Bible. Pray. Seek God to the best of your
ability. And then—well then God takes care of the rest and gives
you the assurance you need.
Something like this seems to have happened to Pascal himself. At
one point in his life, he had an experience so important he wanted
never to forget it. He made a short note, and carried it with him
the rest of his life. Here is some of what he has to say:
year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November
God of Abraham, God of
Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy,
peace. The world forgotten
and everything except God He
can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels. Sweet and total renunciation. Total submission to Jesus Christ and
my director. Everlasting joy
in return for one day’s effort on earth.
For Pascal, it seems that one day devoted entirely
to seeking God gave him all the assurance he really needed, the
assurance that he had found, not the god of the philosophers and
scholars, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And yet there is perhaps something to be said for
the God of the philosophers and scholars—or, at least, for the
philosophers and scholars might show us about the God of Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob. An example: the works of John Locke.
and the Reasonableness of Christianity
John Locke (1632-1704) was an important English philosopher,
psychologist, and theologian and--almost by accident--one of the most
important political thinkers ever to live. Locke’s brief Second
Treatise of Government outlines the theory of government that Jefferson
would later use for his Declaration of Independence and thus,
indirectly, helped establish the most important core principles of
Locke had a genius for clear, persuasive,
right-to-the-heart-of-the-matter argument. You can easily read
his most important theological work, “The Reasonableness of
Christianity” in an hour or two, and I suspect most of you would find
it both easy to follow and exceptionally persuasive. I think also you
would be impressed with the way Locke solves simply and clearly what
seem difficult apologetic problems.
First of all, Locke believes that Christianity *is* reasonable, the
thinking man’s religion par excellence. Locke believed that there
were three kinds of ideas 1) ideas in accord with reason 2) ideas above
reason and 3) ideas contrary to reason. Like Aquinas, he believed
that all Biblical ideas were in the first two categories, either in
accord with reason or “above” reason.
Further, Locke insists that gospel message is simple and clear: it
doesn’t requires the ingenuity of an Aquinas or a Calvin to understand
Christian truth. He notes (at the end of the work) the Christ
preached to the poor, “And if the poor had the gospel preached unto
them, it was, without doubt, such a gospel as the poor could
understand, plain and intelligible: and so it was, as we have seen, in
the preaching of Christ and his apostles.”
[Locke includes a lot more on
these lines, defending a simple understanding of the Gospel against
those who would complicate it needlessly, “This is a religion suited to
vulgar capacities, and the state of mankind in this world, destined to
labour and travail. The writers and wranglers in religion fill it
with niceties, and dress it up with notions, which they make necessary
and fundamental parts of it; as if there were no way into the Church,
but through the Academy of Lycaeum.”]
Locke, a good-natured man with a good sense of humor, is here poking
fun, I think, at the needless complexities of stuffy-professor-like
theologians. But also, I think, Locke is pushing for what C.S.
Lewis will call “mere” Christianity. Locke wants an end to
sectarian strife, and thinks, perhaps, that a KISS strategy will do
according to Locke
So, how do we keep it simple? Well, start with the basic
Gospel. Locke walks us down the “Romans Road.” Adam fell
through disobedience and lost paradise, and all his descendants
inherited his fallen state. “All have sinned and fallen short of
the glory of God.” How are we to escape the consequences of
sin? Believe that Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living
God. What evidence to we have to believe this? The miracles
Jesus did, the scriptures he fulfilled, and his own statements all help
bring us to faith.
Pretty simple, yes? And Locke keeps it simple, anticipating
possible objections and answering them clearly and concisely.
If we need faith in Jesus for salvation, what about those who lived
before Christ? The Jews were told ahead of time that Christ was
coming. If they believed that, no problem.
What of those who hadn’t heard? They are accountable only for
what they have heard as Jesus makes clear in the parable of the
talents. From those to whom much is given, much is
expected. Those given little aren’t expected to match up.
And for those who haven’t heard the full gospel, there are at least
hints of it, and faith in those things is sufficient. Abraham
believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. I
don’t see a direct reference, to the Romans passage, but what Locke has
in mind here is an elaboration of Paul’s thinking, “When
the gentiles which have not the law do by nature those things contained
in the law, these having not the law are a law unto themselves which
show the work of the law written in their minds their hearts also
bearing witness in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by
Jesus Christ according to my gospel.”
Well, then, what’s the point in spreading the gospel if those who
haven’t heard might still be saved? Well, we need help. It’s true
that in the works of Confucius or the Stoics one finds most of the
elements of Christianity, but when ethical principles come from a human
philosopher they amount to no more than suggestions we can take or
leave. We need standards with authority behind them.
Also, the outward forms of religion needed to be changed. As
Jesus told the Samaritan woman, God seeks those who worship in spirit
and in truth.
Further, we weak humans need the assistance of the Holy Spirit Jesus
sends to live righteous lives.
And, speaking of righteous lives, here too, Locke is exceptionally
helpful. If we believe in Christ, we will start doing our best to
obey, to lead righteous lives, and a moral life is a sign of God’s
is the law of that kingdom, as well as of all mankind; and that law, by
which all men shall be judged at the last day. Only those who
have believed Jesus to be the Messiah, and have taken him to be their
King, with a sincere endeavor after righteousness, in obeying his law,
shall have their past sins not imputed to them; and shall have that
faith taken instead of obedience, where frailty and weakness made them
transgress, and sin prevailed after conversion, in those who hunger and
thirst after righteousness (or perfect obedience), and do not allow
themselves in acts of disobedience and rebellion, against the laws of
that kingdom they are entered into.”
“He did not expect, ‘tis
true, perfect obedience, void of slips and falls: he knew our make, and
the weakness of our condition too well, and was sent for a supply for
What Locke seems to say here is that all human beings will be judged by
God. We will escape a portion of that judgment but believing in Christ
and demonstrate that faith by following a general pattern of obedience,
even if we occasionally slip up. Add to this Locke’s comments on
those who haven’t heard the gospel and what happens to them, and we
certainly have a faith that’s much easier to defend than (say)
Calvinist Christianity. It certainly appears reasonable.
and the truth
And also very reasonable, Locke’s ideas on how we should handle
religious disagreement. These ideas are more clearly expressed in
Locke’s “Third Letter Concerning Toleration.” Locke draws here,
by the way, on earlier idea from Milton, but he expresses the argument
for toleration exceptionally clearly.
How does Locke defend religious toleration without sacrificing belief
Easy enough. Locke believed Christianity was unquestionably true
(see above). Because he was so convinced Christianity was
true, he believed that all Christianity needed was a fair opportunity
in the marketplace of ideas.
Suppose you were headed to the store for apples and found two
bins. One had good, wholesome, fresh, delicious apples. The
other was filled with worm-eaten rotten apples. Which would you
choose? Would I have to force you to choose the good
apples? Not at all.
Locke believed that, just as consumers free to choose would pick good
apples over rotten apples every time, they would, if free to choose,
pick the true religion over anything else. If you have a choice
between a good, wholesome true religion, and a rotten, stinky, false
religion, which do you choose? Kind of a no-brainer, yes?
And the same principle applies to the ideas that divide Christians
too. If all are free to express their ideas, the truth will stand
out, and inevitably triumph. The only thing that might stop the
triumph of truth is its forceful suppression—or, perhaps the fact that
we have run out of time.