Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Crucified Cosmos: A Reflection on Pascal and Other Things

"If the world existed to instruct man of God, His divinity would shine through every part
in it in an indisputable manner; but as it exists only by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ,
and to teach men both their corruption and their redemption, all displays the proofs of these
two truths. All appearance indicates neither a total exclusion nor a manifest presence of divinity,
but the presence of a God who hides himself. Everything bears this character."

I can't get enough of the above quote because I think it, succinctly, summarizes the fabric of reality as revealed through Jesus Christ in the Scripture. Blaise Pascal has become a kind of patron saint for my mind, as his penetrating depth defies easy categorization. He was clearly a Roman Catholic with heavy Jansenist leanings, if not a full-blown Jansenist in the image of Port-Royal. And yet unlike so many of his contemporary Catholics, he defies both modernism and reaction. He most clearly reviles the Jesuits, who were the shock-troops for early modern Catholic absolutism, while simultaneously undermining it. Vociferous support can do that unironically: the king is as a god on Earth, and we'll kill all who deny this claim, even the king! Revanchist Catholics, on the heels of the Wars of Religion, were willing to grind any opposition to dust, including royal opposition. The most devout were also the most radical, spawning assassinations and rebellions.

But Pascal also didn't have time for the modernists either. He was no fan of Rene Descartes or his philosophy. He deplored a mechanistic philosophy that turned all of material life into infinitely perfectible machines before man's reason. Rather, man was a creature born in flux and chaos. He was likely to make his strong opinions based on tastes that he had no control over, and yet spout them as if they were divinely revealed fiat. Soldiers and stone-cutters reviled each other as degenerate, even as they received their profession from a surrounding context (even if it was in revolt against that surrounding context). Pascal was even clear that faith was no different, with Catholics and Muslims sneering at each other. The fact that any was Catholic was a sheer act of God's graciousness though, for not all were elect and not all made it to the end. Pascal's internally violent religious conversion, with the cryptic and jerky account of discovering the fire of the God of Abraham sown into his coat, was life changing. Pascal lived through the millennarian fervor of the English republic, concerned that Cromwell would export revolution all across Europe. Pascal was a monarchist, but one who never mistook the institution as a channel for the divine. Instead kings, like all men, were prone to foibles, trapped in sin, and doomed to death.

And that's where Pascal's genius shines. He was both a product of the early blooming of French thought, as well as its cautious critic. Pascal believed man was a monster, a product of both a cursed fall and a promised/sealed redemption. Man was but a beast that rotted and died, but also so glorious that he could contemplate his own death and shake his fist against the heavens in defiance of this unjust sentence. And for our contemporary gnu-atheists, I'm sure Pascal would've found it whimsically absurd that there were books written to convince people they had no free will, that reflective scientists denied consciousness, and hundreds of footnotes were deployed to argue that we can know nothing at all. Pascal's day saw the revival of Pyrrhonian skepticism, breeding both the worst kind of Roman Catholic apologetics and spreading to form atheistic philosophical attitudes among elite Frenchmen. He could only rave and rant like a madman about these lazy psychopaths who were too enamored with their own petty learning that they could not see the horror before their eyes. They were to die, waiting their turn for the execution block: why would they not struggle to make sense of their chains? Why would they not spend their days in a fevered search for an answer while they had time? Pascal only could sympathize with the protest atheist who could not have faith, but desperately grasped the fleeting nature of time.

What makes Pascal truly a glorious mind is that he understood the whole equation. Man was not simply desperately wicked or incorrigibly corrupt. Man was not merely an angel in flesh who straddled the world with his powers of intellect and will. He was both. Condemned to die, but with the faculties to quest for a cure, man was the strangest beast. No other creature shares any of mankind's neuroticism. No beast fears death or laments its inevitability. Pascal had a truly Christian mind. I think he was one of the greatest theologians because he grasped the basic truth of the gospel: this world is under the sign of the cross, which promises both an end and a radically new beginning.

Why is this so? Is this merely a game of dialectics, batted between the eternal and the ephemeral until we realize we're fallen angels or the like? No, for the problem is not in us ontologically, but historically. What I mean is not what I (or anyone else) normally mean by history. I mean it in the scriptural sense of Ages: this age and the age to come. One could term it as a kairotic problem. There's a question of maturity and perfection, the gap we see between the original Edenic mandate and what appears in Revelation. The mountain-garden has transfigured into a city, seated on a mountain and flush with flora and fauna with walls, buildings, and a luminous temple of God's presence. The world is corrupted, corrupting and corruptible for a particular reason, not simply as an accident of time or a precondition of matter. It is because God deigned the world, this world/age, to be so in the curse He leveled upon it. And yet Olam haZeh has a certain hope in that its transmutation was not a sheer possibility, but a destiny. For the same God who cursed used the curse to effect blessed redemption. But this mutation does not simply happen, but matures through the particularly disgusting and malform sign of the cross.

That's the point Pascal grasped but most Protestants are totally ignorant of. Scripture, particularly the NT, emphasizes again and again and again how salvation is integrally connected to the living shape of Christ. And what sign are we given? Christ crucified. It's that Christ that is in us, that St. Paul would call the hope of glory. It's that Christ that the Spirit forms and shapes us into. It's that Christ that God the Father preordained to be the means His Word would save and redeem the world that lay under sin and God's anathematized quarantine. All of this is to say: you can't be saved without your own cross. If you don't die now, you will later. Mortification, a being put to death, is a process intrinsic to salvation. Idiot Evangelicals who think sanctification is something that merely comes "later", with salvation being simply linked to justification, are radically deceived. I sympathize with  both Pascal and Calvin, where the latter emphasized assurance against a penitential regime of the Church but the latter would find this assurance as a sure way for shipwreck. In my age, I think Pascal is probably more right, being both a better fit for the contemporary epoch as well as being more biblical. Ironically, Calvin's emphasis on assurance ended up producing more anxiety, as assurance was linked to salvation. If you lacked assurance, you might lack saving faith, and Calvin was quite clear that he agreed with Augustine in noting that temporary faith was a real phenomenon. Perseverance of the saints never meant once saved, always saved. And yet many Reformed suffered under the knife of a self-inflicted vivisection of the conscience. You get odd stories, such as where only after John Owen believed himself to be assured of his salvation that he began to attack the connection between assurance and salvation.

Again, the problem is not simply things as they are but, unlike the body/matter-loving Christians of the 20th/21st century, things are bad. For God had created this age to be an imperfect one of growth and transfiguration. There's a typological parallel between Eve birthed from sleeping Adam's side and the dead Christ's pierced side pouring out blood and water, the elements of His bride, the Church. The difference in types truly shows how horrifying sin truly is, and what the curse had contained through a brutal regime of hard-work, suffering in life-giving, and mortality cut off from immortality. But more importantly, God had chosen to hide Himself in a peculiar form. Why not simply make things perfect? And once fallen, why not just fix it? Christ created rational creatures that He draws into the most peculiar relationship. All of heaven and earth sing of their Creator, but the Creator shrouds Himself in darkness. He speaks, but in riddles. The creation bears this mark, the sign of wisdom, but wisdom now crucified. There is a difference between programming and self-discovery. The latter does not mean, or require, a human autonomy in contrast or in differentiation from divine providence. Man plans in his heart, but God directs his footsteps. Advocates of free-will like to contrast God's creation of humans, as rational and willful creatures, not robots. So far, that's basically true, but that is totally irrelevant if God is accountable for the salvation of these creatures. Those who use these arguments to argue for a powerless God who can't stop or intervene in affairs know nothing of the Bible. In Scripture, humans are simultaneously open and free, while never outside God's will. Luther's deterministic pessimism, bordering on the manichean, is as equally delusional as the Jesuit's Molinistic optimism in Human rationality and the integrity of creation.

It's for this reason that the body-positive approach in Christianity is both technically correct but, at a fundamental level, stupid. As this post rightly points out, a lot of the modern love of the body is due to air-conditioning and indoor plumbing. Sneering at the history of Christianity is ridiculous when you realize the conditions of life they lived in. But unlike the above author, who veers towards a neo-Platonic/Vedantic bifurcation between the world of flux and the eternal, I think Pascal deftly addresses this problem without submission. The fact is that the Bible is very earthy, and does not shy away from either the brutality or materiality of life (a feature of a not-yet perfected world God made which was made a struggle from God's curse on Adam's sin). Yet, at the same time, the spirituality of the NT points beyond the earthly coil.

What has happened? Has a "Greek" or "Persian" otherworldly and speculative dualism corrupted the earthy wisdom of the Hebrew? By no means! But the disjuncture of the ages reveals an impending perfection. The sea would vomit up its dead, the dust of bones would be rejoined and enfleshed. The answer to Ezekiel is: yes, these bones will live. But why like this? Again, Pascal's figurative Jansenism was clear that none of these things was simple flux. The chaos of contingency was not simply a thing to be ignored as one ascended to higher planes. Rather, it too revealed God's work, His will, and His plan. Why so much sweat, blood, urine, and various other bodily fluids? So we might know our time is short, that we might know that things are not simply as they are. And yet the age of man, the anthropocene, reminds us of God's bounty. 70 years are allotted to man, even 80. But like fools, we can easily confuse a temporary blessing for eternal glory; the sign is collapsed into the thing signified.

When we begin to think in terms that I've laid out above, I think we'll learn to think more like Christians. This doesn't resolve problems, but sets them in a proper context. Providence doesn't give a more flat or transparent meaning, but its opacity is understood. We finally see God's darkness as luminous. We stop trying to exchange the cross for some other means of glory. For the sign of Christ is not something we move on from in pursuit of better things, or is merely the first step on our ascending path. It is precisely in Christ crucified that the axis mundi is revealed.

Pascal has saved me from either a wholly confusing and contingent universe of random events and from hack mythology. The latter allows us to give God the glory, but it's a pious fraud; the former is honest, but has lurches towards a kind of Platonism (escape the flux), non-descript Theism (God gives random blessings for no discernible reason), or agnostic deism (God's not really involved in things). The Christian position, in its particularity and its peculiar standing, is only recoverable through this lens that Pascal crucially (pun intended) understood. I praise you, O Lord, for your servant Blaise Pascal. Amen

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