Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pascal on Original Sin

Sorry for the infrequent posting. My latest excuse is a bout with the stomach flu that layed me out yesterday. March has been pretty miserable. I'm ready for April. Anyway. . .

I quoted Blaise Pascal a couple of times in Sunday's message, "Humanity's Fall." I love Pascals section on Original Sin in his Penses. For your slow consdideration, here is the section in its entirety, entitled . . .


The greatness and the misery of man are both so conspicuous, that the true religion must necessarily teach, that he contains in himself some noble principle of Greatness, and, at the same time, some profound source of Misery. For true religion will search our nature to the bottom, so as perfectly to understand all that is great, and all that is miserable in it, together with the reason both of one and the other. It must also account for those astonishing contrarieties which we find within us. If there be but one principle, or efficient cause of all things, and but one end of all things; true religion must teach us to make him alone the object of our worship and love. But since we find ourselves unable to worship him whom we know not, and to love any thing but ourselves; the same religion, which enjoins these duties, must also acquaint us with this inability, and teach us how it is to be overcome.

Again, in order to render man happy, it ought to teach us that there is a God, whom we are under obligation to love ; that our true felicity consists in being devoted to him, and our only misery, in being separated from him. It ought to show us that we are full of darkness, which prevents us from knowing and loving him; and that thus our duty obliging us to love God, and our concupiscence turning us from him, we are full of unrighteousness. It ought to discover to us the cause of our opposition to God, and our own happiness; the remedies against it, and the means of obtaining them. Let men consider all the religions in the world, with regard to these points, and see whether any one, except Christianity, can give satisfaction concerning them.

Shall it be the doctrine of those philosophers, who set before us no other good than what we may find in ourselves? Is this the sovereign good? Have these men discovered the remedy of our evils ? Is the proper cure, for man's presumption, to equal him with God? And those who have levelled us with the beasts, and offer us earthly gratifications, as our only felicity, have they revealed the remedy for our lusts ? ' Lift up <>

What then is to be the fate of man! must he be equal to God, or to the beasts ? How fright- mi a disparity is this ? What then are we to be ? What religion shall instruct us at once to correct our pride and our concupiscence ? What religion shall disclose to us our happiness, and our duty; the infirmities which lead us from them, the cure for those infirmities, and the means of obtaining it ? Let us hear the answer of the wisdom of God, as it speaks to us in the Christian religion.

It is in vain, O Men! to seek from yourselves the remedy for your miseries. All your knowledge can reach no further than this—that you can neither find happiness nor truth in yourselves. Philosophers have promised them to you, but they promised what they could not perform. They knew neither your real condition, nor your real good. How could they point out the remedy for your diseases, who did not even know what they were ? Your greatest evils are pride, which alienates you from God; and concupiscence, which attaches you to earth; and all they did was to cherish either one or the other. If they likened you to God, it was only to gratify your pride, by making you think that your nature resembled the divine: and as for those who saw the extragavance of such pretensions, they only led you to a contrary precipice; by tempting you to believe that your nature was like that of the beasts, that you might be led to place all your happiness in the sensual delights of irrational creatures! This was not the way to convince you of your transgressions. Do not therefore expect truth or consolation from men: I am HE that has formed you, and alone can teach you what you are. You are not now in the state in which I created you. I made man holy, innocent, and perfect: I filled him With light and understanding: I made known to him my wonders and my glory. The eye of man then saw the majesty of God. He was not in this darkness which blinds him, or under this mortality, and these miseries, which distress him. But he could not enjoy that glory long without falling into presumption: he wanted to make himself the centre of his happiness, independent of my aid. He withdrew himself from my dominion, and as he pretended to an equality with me, from a desire to find his happiness in himself, I abandoned him to himself; and causing the creatures that were his subjects, to revolt against him, I made them his enemies. Man is therefore now become like unto the beasts, and removed so far from me, that he scarcely retains any feeble glimmer of the Author of his being, so much has all his knowledge been either lost or confused. His senses now, being not the servants, but often the masters of his reason, have led him away in the pursuit of pleasure: all the creatures with which he is surrounded, either tempt or afflict him, and exercise a kind of sovereignty over him; either subduing him by their strength, or seducing him by their charms, which is the most imperious and fatal dominion of the two.

Such is the present state and condition of men! Still a feeble instinct remains of the felicity of their primitive nature; while they are plunged in the miseries of their own blindness and lust, which is now their second nature.

From the principles which I have here laid open, we may discern the cause of all those contrarieties, which have astonished and divided mankind.

Observe all those emotions of greatness and glory, which the sense of so many miseries is not able to extinguish; and consider, whether they can proceed from a less powerful cause than original nature.

Know then, proud mortal! what a paradox thpu art to thyself. Let thy weak reason be humbled; let thy frail nature be silent. Know that man infinitely surpasseth man; and learn from thy master thy real condition, to which thou art thyself a stranger.

For, in a word, had man never fallen into corruption, he would have continued stedfast in the enjoyment of truth and happiness; and had he never been any other than corrupt, he would have possessed no idea either of truth or happiness. But so great is our misery, (greater than if there had never been any thing noble in our condition,) that we retain an idea of happiness, though we are unable to attain it; we feel some faint notion of truth, while we possess nothing but falsehood; incapable both of absolute ignorance, and. of certain knowledge. So manifest is it, that we have once been in a stale of perfection, from which we are now unhappily fallen.

What then does this avidity on the one hand, and this impotence on the other, teach us, but that man was originally possessed of a real bliss, of which nothing now remains but the footsteps and empty traces, which he vainly endeavours to fill up with that which surrounds him; seeking in things absent, the relief which he does not obtain from such as are present, and which neither the present nor the absent can bestow upon him; because this infinite gulph is only to be filled by an infinite and immutable object?

It is nevertheless astonishing that, of all mysteries, that which seems to be furthest from our apprehension, I mean the transmission of original sin, should yet be that, without which we must remain utter strangers to ourselves. For undoubtedly nothing appears more offensive to our Reason, than to hear that the transgression of the first man attaches guilt on those, who being so vastly distant from its fountain, seem incapable of being involved in it. This communication is looked upon by us, not only as impossible, but even as very unjust. For what can be more repugnant to our miserable rules of justice, than eternally to condemn an infant who is incapable of exercising his will, for an offence in which he appears to have had so little a part, that it was committed six thousand years before he was in existence ? Certainly nothing seems to us more harsh than such a doctrine. And, yet, without admitting this incomprehensible mystery, we are utterly incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our present condition, has all its turns interwoven in this abyss : insomuch, that man is more incomprehensible without this mystery, than the mystery itself is incomprehensible to man.

Original Sin is foolishness to men. We allow it to be so. We ought not therefore to reproach reason for not having this knowledge; because it is not pretended that reason can fathom it. But this foolishness is wiser than all the wisdorft of men; (the foolishness of God is wiser than man. 1 Cor. i. 25): For, without this, what could we say of man ? His whole state depends on this imperceptible point. Yet how should he be made acquainted with this by his reason, when it is a thing above his reason ; and when reason, instead of discovering it to him at first, disinclines him to believe it when it is presented before him ?

These two opposite states, of innocence and corruption, being once laid open before us, it is impossible we should not recognise them.

Let us trace our own emotions, and observe ourselves; and let us see, whether we do not discover the lively characters of these different natures.

How surprising it is, that so many contradictions should be found in one and the same subject!

This two-fold nature of man is so visible, that some have imagined him to have two souls: one single subject appearing to them, incapable of such great and sudden transitions, from immeasurable presumption to the most dreadful abject- ness of spirit.

Thus, the several contrarieties which would seem most calculated to alienate men from the knowledge of any religion, are those very things which would rather conduct them to the true.

As to myself, I confess, that as soon as ever the Christian religion has revealed to me this one principle, that human nature is depraved, and fallen from God, this opens my eyes to see every where the proofs of that fact. For nature is now in that state, that every thing, both in us and out of us, bespeaks our loss of God.

Without this divine information, what could men have done, but either become vain from the remaining sense of their former grandeur, or dejected by the consciousness of their present infirmity ? For, not discerning the whole truth, it was impossible for them to arrive at perfect virtue: some looking upon nature as uncor- rupt, and others, as irrecoverable, they could not but fall into vanity or sloth, the two great sources of every vice. They could only, either give themselves up to vice, through meanness of spirit, or escape from it, through pride. For those who knew the excellency of man, were unacquainted ivith his corruption; so that while they escaped, perhaps, from indolence, they were lost in conceit : and those who were sensible of the infirmity of nature, were strangers to its dignity ; so that while they were delivered from vanity, they plunged themselves into despair.

Hence arose the various sects of the Stoics aiuj Epicureans, the Dogmatists, Academics, &c. The Christian religion alone has been able thoroughly to cure these opposite vices; not driving out one by means of the other, according to the wisdom of this world; but expelling them, both, by the simplicity of the gospel. For while it exalts the righteous, even to a participation of the divinity, it makes them understand, that, in this superior state, they have still within them the fountain of all corruption, which renders them, their whole life long, subject to error, to misery, to death, and to sin; and it assures the most impious, that they still may partake of the grace of their Redeemer. Thus awing those whom it justifies, and comforting those whom it condemns, it so wisely tempers hope with fear, by this two-fold capability both of sin and of grace, which is common to all mankind, that it abases us infinitely more than unassisted reason could do, and yet without driving us to despair; while it exalts us infinitely more than the pride of our nature can do, and yet without rendering us vain; thereby demonstrating, that being alone exempt from error and vice, it belongs only to itself to instruct men, and at the same to reform them,

We have no idea either of the glorious state of Adam, or of the nature of his transgression, or of the mode in which it is transmitted to us. These are things which took place in a state of nature. very different to ours: they transcend our present capacity, and the knowledge of them would be of no use to deliver us from our miseries. All that is of importance, for us to know, is this, that through Adam we are miserable, depraved, and at a distance from God; but that we are redeemed by Jesus Christ; and of this we have astonishing proofs in this world.

Christianity is most surprising. It obliges man to acknowledge that he is vile, and even abominable, and yet enjoins him to aspire after a resemblance of God. Were not things thus set against one another, this exaltation would render him extravagantly vain, or such a debasement would render him horribly abject: For misery leads to despair, and a sense of dignity inclines to presumption.

The Incarnation discovers to man the greatness of his misery, by the greatness of the remedy that was needed for his relief.

In the Christian religion we find neither a state of abasement that renders us incapable of good, nor a state of holiness that exempts us from evil.

No doctrine can be more suited to man, than this, which makes him acquainted with his twofold capacity of receiving and falling from grace, on account of the two-fold danger to which he is always exposed, either of despair on the one hand, or of pride on the other.

Philosophers never inspired men with sentiments proportioned to both these conditions. They either inculcated notions of unqualified dignity, which is not the true condition of man; or else of unqualified meanness, which is as little so as the former. We ought to feel a sense of our meanness, not as a character of our original nature, but the effect of repentance; not such as should lead us to continue in that meanness, but such as should make us aspire to greatness. We ought also to have a sense of our dignity, but of that which proceeds from grace, and not from merit, and which begins by humiliation.

No man is so happy as a real Christian; none so rational, so virtuous, sO amiable. How little vanity does he feel when he believes himself united to God! How far is he from abject- ness when he ranks himself with the worms of the earth!

Who then can refuse to believe or adore this heavenly light ? For is it not plearer than the day, that we see and feel within ourselves indelible characters of excellence? And is it not equally true, that we experience every hour the effects of our present deplorable condition? What else, therefore, does this chaos, this monstrous confusion in our nature proclaim, but the truth of this double state, and that with a Voice so powerful, that it cannot be gainsaid.

1 comment:

Janice Phillips said...

Thanks for posting these quotes from Sunday's message. I was going to request them so this is perfect for my "think it over" and "work it out" follow up.