David WETSEL: Pascal and Disbelief: Catechesis and Conversion in the Pensées. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002. 409 pp. Paper, $39.95. ISBN 0-8132-1328-2.
Reviewed by William J. COLLINGE, Mount Saint Mary's College, Emmitsburg, MD 21727

This is a reprint of a book published in 1994 but completed in 1991. In it, David Wetsel, Professor of French at Arizona State University, addresses the question, "To whom is Pascal's Pensées directed?" He seeks to situate Pascal in his intellectual and religious context and to reconstruct Pascal's own plan for the Apology of which the Pensées are fragments. The first three of the book's five chapters undertake the first of these tasks, while the fourth and fifth take up the second.

In a lengthy introduction, Wetsel gives an overview of the book and surveys recent literature on the Pensées. In addition, he defends two assumptions that govern his study. The first, challenged by some recent interpreters, is that Pascal intended to reorganize his notes into a coherent "Apology for the Christian Religion." Though he acknowledges that "Apology" is a modern term not used by Pascal, he usually refers to the whole work as the Apology (not in quotes or italics in the text), saving "Pensées" for the fragments we possess. The second is that fragments 427-429 constitute a major section of a proposed general Preface to the Apology and provide a key to its intended structure.

Wetsel's first three chapters (which read as if they may have originated as independent studies) examine skeptical and heterodox opinions that were in circulation in France in Pascal's time (1623-1662) and a little earlier. Wetsel admits that Pascal may well not have been directly familiar with many of the works discussed but thinks they are nonetheless important as sources for the skepticism exhibited by the disbelievers portrayed in the Pensées. The first chapter examines le libertinage érudit in seventeenth century France, giving particular attention to François de La Mothe le Vayer (1588-1672), Gabriel Naudé (1600-1653), and the anonymous Quatrains du Déiste (before 1623). Wetsel shows, incidentally, that many of the criticisms of Christianity that are commonly associated with the Enlightenment were already current in seventeenth and even sixteenth century France; there is in fact much continuity between them and medieval Averroism.

Chapter Two concentrates on Isaac de La Peyrère (1596-1676), who held that the world is considerably older than biblical chronology will allow and that there were humans before Adam. La Peyrère's assertion that Adam's fall affected only a small part of the human race struck at the Augustinian doctrine of the Fall and Original Sin, which Wetsel sees as the heart of Pascal's theology. The third chapter turns to the emerging study of comparative religion. Pascal makes a number of references to Islam and to "the religion of China" in the Pensées, but Wetsel concludes that Pascal knew little of the sources on these subjects available in his time. It was important to him, however, to oppose any suggestion that God's saving revelation and grace might have been offered in some measure to non-Christians, whether in the ancient world or in the cultures of which Europe had become newly aware in the Age of Discovery. The effect of the Fall was universal, overcome only in Christ, whose saving grace is made available only though baptism. Wetsel sees Pascal's emphasis on the Fall as reflecting the collapse of traditional Christian cosmology. Because the new "infinite universe can no longer . . . provide an immediate sense of ultimate meaning" (241), Pascal reverts to an Augustinian worldview which is centered in sacred history.

Though Wetsel warns against turning Pascal into a seventeenth-century Existentialist, he admits that Pascal's attempts to unsettle the unbeliever have more to say to us than does his historical apologetic. But who is the unbeliever? Wetsel turns to this question in Chapter Four, focusing on fragment 427. There Pascal contrasts hardened unbelievers, something like the libertins Wetsel has examined in Chapter One, with honest unbelievers who yet seek the truth. Truly hardened unbelievers, who do not care about the possible immortality of their souls, are so unreasonable that, Pascal thinks, only a supernatural cause can account for it. Argument is of no use with them; they need divine grace— "God must touch them," Pascal says. This claim, says Wetsel, "is essentially grounded in the great Augustinian doctrine of Predestination and Election" (15). The hardened unbeliever is not the addressee of the Pensées; rather, Pascal's portrait of him is meant to frighten the seeker (chercheur) by showing him what he might become. Wetsel examines fragment 418, the famous "wager," regarding it as a draft of what would follow 427 in the Preface; its "interlocutor" is much closer to the honest seeker than to the libertin. Pascal's strategy for the honest seeker incorporates a certain skepticism about standard arguments of natural theology, in showing that fallen human reason is too weak to perceive God in creation. The Christian God is Deus absconditus, hidden from those who seek him in nature, without faith. But he has left signs in Revelation, and it is to those that Pascal wishes to turn the seeker's attention. Ultimately, Pascal wishes to show him that "Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or of our death, of God or of ourselves" (fr. 417).

Chapter Five is the only one to which the book's subtitle, "Catechesis and Conversion in the Pensées," directly applies. Pascal's apologetic forms a two-stage process, like the catechumenate (which Pascal knew not directly but from Augustine's De catechizandis rudibus). There is a purificatory phase, which serves "to open the mind of the chercheur to the proofs of Christianity by shocking him out of his illusions concerning the reliability of reason" (352), followed by an illuminative phase, consisting of scriptural proofs of Christianity, particularly through miracles and fulfilled prophecies. But even for the seeker, argument serves only as preparation—only God's grace can give actual faith. This careful, well-grounded (though repetitious) study is valuable for understanding the Pensées, but displays some limitations in its treatment of theological issues. On pages 41-42, for instance, the cosmological argument for the existence of God is called the "ontological argument." More seriously, Wetsel puts unnecessary distance between Pascal and contemporary readers by his assumption that "the doctrine of Original Sin . . . has decayed into a state of almost total incomprehensibility" in the light of geology and evolutionary biology (3). He asserts that orthodox theology has not reconstructed it in a more accessible form, but shows no awareness of attempts (e.g., by Karl Rahner and Piet Schoonenberg) to do so. Perhaps he regards them as too ineffectual to be worth mentioning—but what theological reading of the events of the past century could do them justice without some doctrine of Original Sin?

French sources are quoted in the original, but almost all French quotations (including all from the Pensées) are accompanied by English translations. They are sometimes rather free—e.g., "the human condition" for la misère humaine on p. 373, but I noticed only one out-and-out mistranslation, "reason" for les sens ("the senses") on p. 289. There are good indexes. Though too technical for the classroom, this book should find a home in academic libraries.


Amazon.com - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books