Pascal's Method for Presenting the Christian Faith
by Tim Keller
Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.
Blaise Pascal was a brilliant 17th-century French mathematician and physicist who had a dramatic Christian conversion experience and thereafter devoted much of his thought to Christianity and philosophy. He began to assemble notes and fragments he hoped would be woven into a book called The Defense of the Christian Religion, but he died just two months after his 39th birthday and it was never written. Those fragments, however, were published as Pensees("Thoughts"), and it has become one of the most famous Christian books in history.
One of the most interesting of Pascal's Pensees is the one quoted above. Here Pascal looks holistically at how to present the Christian message to those who do not believe it. He begins with the psychology of non-belief. He says that people are not objective about religion (here meaning Christianity). They really despise it and
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don't want it to be true—yet fear it may be true. Some of these are fair-minded people who see good, well-thought-out reasons Christianity is not true. Others are not so fair-minded, and they just vilify and caricature it. But no one is neutral. People know instinctively that if Christianity is true they will lose control, and they will not be able to live any way they wish. So they are rooting for it not to be true, and are more than willing to accept any objections to the faith they hear.
How should Christians respond? Pascal thinks there are basically three stages to bringing someone on the way to faith. First, you have to disarm and surprise them. Many people hope Christianity does not make sense on any level. They especially enjoy hearing about professing Christians who are intemperate, irrational, and hypocritical—this confirms them in their non-belief. When, however, some presentation of Christian faith—or simply a Christian believer's character—comes across as well-informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful, and generous, then this breaks stereotypes and commands a begrudging respect.
After this, Pascal says, we should be somewhat more proactive. "Next make it attractive, make good men wish [Christianity] were true." We might object to the term "make" and suggest that Christianity is already attractive, but that's to miss Pascal's point. Of course he isn't saying we should make Christianity into something it's not; rather, we should reveal, point out, and expose its existing features. But the phrase "make good men wish it were true" gets across that this takes determination and ingenuity. We must know our culture—know its hopes—and then show others that only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfillment, that only in him will the plot lines of their lives ever have resolution and a happy ending.