Meditation on Faith and Reason: Pascal’s Pensées

“It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”[1]

These words, found in a collection of writings penned by Blaise Pascal, were meant to become part of a congruent apology for the Christian faith. But Pascal died before they could be systematically arranged and published, leaving us to ponder how they fit into a fully-orbed Christian worldview. Today, they are found under the contemporary title Pensées. Accentuating the classical paradox between faith and reason, Pascal argues that reason alone cannot perceive God. Yet he demonstrates that only Christianity brings faith and reason into complementary positions.

Humans come to know the truth not only through reason, but also through the heart, Pascal writes. For though reason can derive the understanding of “first principles” (like space, time, motion, number), it depends upon the heart to supply the foundation of such knowledge. Reason’s relationship to the heart is one of acceptance and vice versa. That which the heart knows cannot necessarily be proven by reason, just as not all rational deductions are intuitive. As Pascal wrote, it is as “pointless and absurd for reason to demand proof of first principles from the heart before agreeing to accept them as it would be absurd for the heart to demand an intuition of all propositions demonstrated by reason before agreeing to accept them.”[2]

The inability to know perfectly humbles reason. Pascal purports that “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”[3] Certain truths cannot be proven logically for “everything that is incomprehensible does not cease to exist.”[4] Reason is not the only means by which humans learn; instinct and feeling are also means by which we come to know.

Still, it cannot be denied that humans use reason to come to the truth. Pascal himself used reason to defend belief in God in his famous wager argument. As Pascal poetically states in Pensées, “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.”[5] The ever-present danger of man’s thinking is seen in two excesses: “to exclude reason” and conversely “to admit nothing but reason.”[6]

The seeming paradox between faith and reason finds its unity within the Christian faith. Pascal proclaims that “no one is so happy as a true Christian, or so reasonable, virtuous, and lovable,”[7] because one can be totally reasonable and have faith, having come to know God; but one cannot know God and argue that he is a Christian solely from reason. That’s the background of Pascal’s statement, “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”[8]

Brian Pinney is the BibleMesh administrator.

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (London: Penguin Classics, 1995), 127.

[2] Ibid., (110), 28.

[3] Ibid., (423), 127.

[4] Ibid., (149), 49.

[5] Ibid., (200), 66.

[6] Ibid., (183), 55.

[7] Ibid., (357), 106.

[8] Ibid., (424), 127.