“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Hamlet very famously summed up the human predicament as follows: “To be or not to be. That is the question”. Yet a moment’s thought surely tells us that in fact the real question is: “To believe or not to believe”. Shakespeare’s hero simply asks whether living is preferable to suicide. To decide for the God of Jesus, however, holds out the prospect of eternal bliss. Shall we opt for it or not? Most people in Europe seem to be declining the offer.
In this blog I want to look at this most central of all questions and to try take some small steps towards finding out why some believe and some do not. How can we increase our faith, and what is the best way to try and persuade people to take that leap?
When Stephen Hawking died recently there was universal agreement that here was a uniquely gifted and determined man who had made an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the universe in the teeth of extraordinary physical difficulties. Yet such insight into the wonders and beauty of the cosmos did not lead him to a belief in God.
This is not unusual of course. I love to read books of popular science – I could almost take for my motto that quip of Martin Amis: “I don’t know much about science but I know what I like” – and have recently been delving into a work by Carlo Rovelli which seeks to explain quantum physics to the layman. Again, though he writes brilliantly of the awe-inspiring intricacy and splendour of the sub-atomic world, the author is not persuaded to attribute this to a creator, let alone to the Christian God.
We are all free to believe or deny, but it seems to me there is a fundamental problem with scientists opting for atheism. The scientific endeavour is built on openness, on curiosity and hunger for knowledge, on flexibility of intellect and the willingness to follow where reality leads, unencumbered by prejudice. Agnosticism in scientists I can understand, but atheism seems to me to be, well, unscientific. It closes off an (infinite) option. Nevertheless, the fact is that an awareness of the beauty and wonder of creation is no guarantee of faith.
What then is the door to belief? Ultimately, Jesus said that no-one can come to me unless led by the Father (John 6:44), but how can we best help others to believe, apart of course from setting a Christian example in our own lives?
One person who has always seems to me to give a unique insight into this problem is Blaise Pascal (1623-32). He was a man of towering intellect and inventive genius who had rediscovered Euclidean geometry for himself by the age of 7 and later invented the first calculating machine, made significant scientific discoveries in optics. He wrote two spiritual masterpieces (Provincial Letters and an unfinished work, Thoughts ( “Pensées”), which remain as alive today as they did when they appeared. He died at the absurdly young age of 39.
Pascal certainly valued very highly the use of thought and reason:
“Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. but even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this.”
(From Les Pensées)
Nevertheless, he saw that reason, though essential, (he was a scientist after all) was only one of the human faculties required if one wanted to reach the ultimate truth. The mistake scientists make, he said, is to rely on reason as the sole means of attaining truth. This approach is fine when they are dealing with the physical universe but, when they try to go beyond that realm, this limited method tends to inflate the ego rather than encourage the humility necessary to reach out to the transcendent God. No, for Pascal,
“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”
(From Les Pensées)
But what did he mean by the heart? Not just emotion, certainly. For him “heart” combines reason with humility, imagination, intuition, insight, faith and love: a holistic understanding. Central, too, is a loving reaching out to God. This is the approach, for example, that enabled St Therese to trust God with a holy daring.
Pascal’s starting point is that without God man is truly wretched. Listen to his grim summary of a Godless universe:
“Imagine a group of men, chained up and all condemned to death. Each day some have their throats cut in the presence of the others. Those who are left see their own fate in those just like them and, looking at each other in sorrow and hopelessness, await their turn. This is the image of the human condition”.
(From Les Pensées)
This might at first reading sound unduly pessimistic and it is certainly not a popular message today. Nevertheless it makes the point powerfully that without God we ultimately live in a hopeless, compassionless universe. Pascal believed that if we do not grasp this central point, it makes it very difficult for us to search for God – why should we? Unfortunately, life for so many of us, especially here in the West, is now so cushioned and sheltered from the reality of death that often we have no urgency to reach out to the possibility of a God.
Acute awareness of our wretchedness without God, then, is almost a prerequisite of our reaching out to him. “Man is great insofar as he knows himself to be wretched” (Les Pensées).
Again, a controversial and challenging statement.
Many commentators consider that Pascal had a pathological hatred of mankind and dismissed us as worthless. This is untrue. In fact he believed we were of infinite worth, but only because God loves us infinitely. Without God we are truly lost.
Once he has demonstrated our need of God, Pascal goes on to set out the reasons why Jesus, who fully shared our humanity whilst being fully God, is the only true answer to our predicament. He draws the agnostic on to read the scriptures.
“We only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot now the meaning of our life and our death, of God or of ourselves. Thus without Scripture, whose only object is Christ, we know nothing, and can see nothing but obscurity and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself”
(From Les Pensées)
The scriptures demonstrate that only Jesus, both God and man can, by his death, save us from eternal darkness.
Ultimately we must take a gamble. If we bet everything on Jesus, we win eternal life, if not, we lose essentially nothing. (Actually, Pascal stresses that we have no choice but to gamble – drifting along means we have chosen to deny God).
This brings us back to Bartimaeus. Like him we should long with all our hearts to see and trust that God, though unseen, is really there. This longing gave him the “heart” so cherished by Pascal. Bartimaeus SAW (that is, he recognised Jesus as God – who else could restore sight to the blind?) before he saw with his eyes. Jesus healed him because of his faith. For Pascal, to search for God is to find Him. But do we really search?
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in the first volume of his extraordinary trilogy of books on Jesus, brilliantly teases out the crucial difference between the scientific explorer and the one truly searching for ultimate meaning. He points to the Magi, or wise men. Like astronomers, they were experts in the movement of stars, but they were seeking something much more significant. Similarly, cosmologists just seek the stars; wise men seek Him who created them.
As I’ve mentioned before, Abbot Herbert, the former Abbot of Ampleforth, who in his old age became a curate at Leyland St Mary’s, used to visit my parents’ house when I was a young man. This was indeed a great blessing. He called round once when I was home from university and reading “History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell (who of course was an atheist). I remember him raising an eyebrow ever so slightly and suggesting I also read “History of Philosophy “ by the renowned Jesuit priest and author Frederick Copleston. Before writing this blog I had a quick look, out of interest, at their respective entries on Pascal. Russell devotes two sentences to him and dismisses him with contempt. Copleston devotes 20 pages to a subtle and enlightening exposition of his genius.
I always suspected Abbot Herbert saw things clearly.