Analysis

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Before his death in 1662, the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, who was also a dedicated Christian, had planned to write a philosophical and theological work that would be both a rational defense of the Christian faith and perhaps a spiritual autobiography, along the lines of Augustine's Confessions . He did...

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Before his death in 1662, the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, who was also a dedicated Christian, had planned to write a philosophical and theological work that would be both a rational defense of the Christian faith and perhaps a spiritual autobiography, along the lines of Augustine's Confessions. He did not survive to complete this work, however, and the work known as Les Pensees ("Thoughts") is a collection of his notes for this incomplete magnum opus.

Because the Pensees were not put in order by Pascal himself, various editors and scholars of his thought have organized these notes in different ways, so it isn't really possible to analyze the work's structure. One can, however, discuss a couple key features.

First, the notes are of varying length and completeness. Some are very short, as short as a single sentence, or seem like only random aphorisms or fragments of larger ideas. Others, however, are long, well thought-out, and/or clearly written in what seems like nearly their final form.

Second, Pascal focuses on both natural religion—knowledge of a Supreme God by reason—and on the Christian faith in particular, through discussion of Scripture. Furthermore, the nature of human beings as not only rational but also volitional and spiritual beings is a major focus. As part of this, one particular argument has become quite famous: the so-called "Wager," which could be summed up in these lines:

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

According to Pascal, we are not just thinking machines, but holistic beings, with will, desires, hopes, and fears, and so we must engage with the question of God's existence not just with rational argument but with the question of personal commitment.

Context

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Blaise Pascal’s reflections on religion make up a large body of notes, written between 1654 and his death in 1662, intended to develop a work called “Apologie de la religion catholique.” Composed at different times after a moving mystical experience, the contents of Pensées appeared in print posthumously. These reflections reveal Pascal as belonging to the group of fervently Christian writers who reject the usual claims of natural theology in order the more sharply to separate faith from reason.

Jansenist Influence

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Pascal’s thought expresses the influence of the Jansenists, a seventeenth century Catholic order indebted to the theological views of John Calvin, one of the Protestant reformers. A group in conflict with the Jesuits, the Jansenists lived at Port Royal, near Paris, where they taught several central beliefs: the total sinfulness of humanity, salvation through God’s predestination, grace as sole means to salvation, and the need of the faithful to hold to a Christian belief that can never be proved by reason.

Though never an official member of the Jansenist community, Pascal visited them frequently (his sister belonged) and wrote in their defense in a bitter controversy with the Jesuits. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician as well as a religious writer, aware of the significant mathematical developments of his day. Living an austerely self-disciplined life, he gave away his wealth in an effort to exclude all pleasure and vanity from his practices.

The Existence of God

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Pensées expresses numerous reflections concerning a few central themes. The Christian religion as known by Pascal teaches two essential truths: “that there is a God, to whom men may attain, and that there is a corruption of nature which renders them unworthy of him.” Pascal insists that if people deny either of these truths, they must fall into atheism, end up with the philosophers’ god so popular among deistic thinkers of his time, or find themselves reduced to a complete pessimism. The Christian God worshiped by Pascal does not require a philosopher’s proof of existence, and he writes, “It is a wonderful thing that no canonical author has ever made use of nature in order to prove God.” Pascal argues that humanity’s miserable state does not justify total pessimism for the reason that the God worshiped by Christians, as by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is one of love and consolation.

Pascal claims that God becomes available to people only through the mediation of Jesus Christ. Although Pascal makes clear that a person is a “thinking reed,” one’s thinking capacity can nevertheless function religiously only to make clear one’s absolute finiteness, one’s total separation from God’s actual infinity. In writing about faith, Pascal stresses the utter uselessness of reason for religious purposes. “Faith is a gift of God,” he insists. “Believe not that we said it is a gift of reason.” Yet reason is never to be disparaged, since it performs its own important functions and provides the key to whatever dignity humanity may achieve.

The Wager Argument

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Nevertheless, Pascal sometimes does come close to a kind of reasoning about God—as in his famous wager argument for belief in God’s existence (although this argument was intended primarily for skeptics who deny the importance of religious belief). In another place Pascal treats the relation of humanity’s miserable condition to its finitude in such a way that he gives something resembling an argument for the necessity of God’s existence. This latter argument rests on the awareness that the “I” of Pascal is really a thought. Had Pascal’s mother died before his birth, the “I” of Pascal would never have existed. The conclusion is that Pascal is clearly not a necessary being. Pascal sees also that he is neither eternal nor infinite. He asserts that “I see plainly that there is in nature one being who is necessary, eternal, and infinite.” This approximation to one of the classical demonstrations of God’s existence indicates that Pascal was more concerned to argue that proofs cannot induce one to accept the Christian faith than to claim that proofs are unqualifiedly impossible of formulation. Such proofs, even if possible, turn out to be religiously useless and unimportant.

Pascal contends that people know that there is a God without knowing what God is. (In this claim he is inconsistent; he also asserts in one place that people can never know God’s existence.) He insists that people also can know there is an infinite while remaining ignorant of its nature. Numbers cannot be brought to an end. This means simply that people can never mention a number that is the last one. Therefore, number must be infinite. Similarly, aware of the infinite’s existence and unable to know its nature, people fail to know God’s nature and existence because God lacks extension and limits. People have absolutely no correspondence with the God that Christians worship in faith. The Christians who refuse to give reasons for their faith are essentially right, according to Pascal. They present their God as a “foolishness” to a world that often complains because the Christians cannot prove this God’s existence. Some critics reasonably criticize Christians for holding beliefs that are beyond proof. Pascal attempts to reply to these critics by arguing that it is reasonable to believe. This he does primarily by producing his famous wager argument.

The stakes are clear, in Pascal’s view. “God is, or He is not.” The agnostic can argue that because reason is unable to decide the issue, one need make no choice either way. Pascal insists that this will not do—that people must wager. They must choose. “It is not optional; you are committed to it.” Pascal claims that people own two things as stakes in such a wager: their reason and their will (blessedness). They have two things to lose: the true and the good. Human nature involves also two things to avoid: error and misery. Now, according to Pascal, since reason is unable to make the decision, the issue must turn on humanity’s blessedness. How is this to be decided? The answer is that if people wager on God’s existence, they stand to win everything, losing nothing. Thus, to wager for God’s existence means the possibility of either finite loss (if God does not exist) or infinite gain (if God does exist). Humanity’s wager stakes a possibility of finite loss against one of infinite gain; namely, happiness. People can therefore make only one wager: that God does exist.

What Pascal set out to prove was not that God exists but that people ought to believe in God’s existence. Once made, however, the wager does not necessarily bring one to the Christian God, as Pascal was clearly aware. Yet the wager is a fruitful beginning. Doubters who make the wager can still use the possible way of “seeing through the game” associated with the reading and study of Scripture. They can also seek to control their passions. In this present life, the person who wagers will be better off for having made the wager. Such a person will be driven to associate with others who have already been cured of their malady. Like them, the person must act as if he or she believed. According to Pascal, no harm can come to such a person, for he or she will be “faithful, honest, humble, grateful, benevolent, a sincere and true friend.”

Reason and the Will

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To read Pascal as if he sought to debase the functions of human reason would be to read him wrongly. Because reason is incapable of knowing what God is does not alter the fact that humanity’s greatness is tied to reason. Pascal insists that thought is not derived from body. Thought is its own kind of entity. Reason alone permits people to know the misery that marks their condition, but this very knowledge accounts for their dignity: “To be miserable is to know one’s self to be so, but to know one’s self to be miserable is to be great.” Only humanity can possess this kind of knowledge, which is denied to the other elements in nature. What makes Christianity the solely adequate religion, in Pascal’s view, is that Christianity teaches the otherwise peculiar doctrine that human misery and greatness are inseparable. People need to come to terms with their miserable condition, though they cannot fundamentally alter it. This gives both people and religion something important to accomplish. The central religious problem is to learn to control the human will rather than to pile up theological knowledge by reasoning. To cure pride, lust, and ego-centered aggressiveness remains the fundamental task of the Christian religion.

Concern about human willfulness occurs in numerous passages in Pensées. Unlike the reasoning powers, the will operates according to the human perspective. People find themselves in bondage to their passions. For this reason, custom is a most important necessity of any possible social existence. Against Michel de Montaigne, Pascal argued that people should obey custom simply because it is custom and not because it is reasonable. People should also obey law as law in order to avoid sedition and rebellion. Pascal insists that classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle wrote about politics with many reservations. “If they wrote of politics, it was as if to regulate a hospital for madmen.” Pascal could not believe that such people thought reasoning about politics the most serious business of life.

Though he understood the limited possibilities of reasoning, Pascal never degraded reason. Reasoning allows people to encircle the universe in certain ways, but “instinct” and “the heart” are essential allies. “How few demonstrated things there are!” Pascal laments in one place. People are as much automata as minds. No one should ridicule custom in view of this fact. Agreeing with a philosopher such as David Hume, Pascal says it is custom that permits people to believe that tomorrow will dawn and that people must die. Custom influences people to act, while reason directs only the mind. Habit, including religious practice, remains a routine needed in every day and age. “We have to acquire an easier credence—that of habit—which without violence, art, or argument, makes us believe things and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that our mind falls into it naturally.” Pascal claims that life would be easier for people if reason were unnecessary, but because nature has not so arranged matters, people need to supplement intuited first principles with limited demonstrations.

Knowledge vs. Judgment

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Pascal makes a distinction between knowledge and judgment. For example, geometry is a matter of the mind, while subtlety is a function of intuition. People must judge things either literally or spiritually. Honoring reason, people should accept its limits, knowing what it can and cannot accomplish. Although there is criticism of the Pyrrhonists (skeptics) for some of their beliefs, Pascal shows that he was favorably disposed to a partial skepticism concerning the powers of reason. People can at most achieve a “learned ignorance.” Different from the natural ignorance of all people at birth, a learned ignorance is gained by a few “lofty souls who, having traversed all human knowledge, find that they know nothing. . . . This is a self-aware ignorance.” Between these two kinds of ignorance dwell the great numbers of the intelligent who “disturb the world and judge wrongly of everything.” Genuine philosophers are those who learn how to laugh at philosophy.

The imagination and human sickness are two important elements that shape people’s constant susceptibility to deception. The wisest person can hope only to modify, never to eradicate, these two sources of illusion. People tend naturally toward wrong judgment. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to escape the binding conditions of their own vanity. Their actions are motivated by self-love. What makes the Christian view of Incarnation important is the radical cure it suggests for humanity’s pridefulness. People must hate religion as long as it teaches what it must: that the misery of humanity is objective and absolutely ineradicable except by God’s grace. This side of Pascal’s thought shows a relation to the long tradition in Western thought concerned with the numerous psychological and cultural obstacles in the way of genuine discovery of self-knowledge. These obstacles are, for Pascal, as much connected with the human will as they are with the mind. It is as if people want, in some deep and buried way, to judge things wrongly.

Atheism and Deism

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Pascal mentions atheism and deism as the greatest competitors of a genuine Christian faith. He understands how atheism may be a mark of a strong intellect, though only up to a point. Atheists have blind spots when they come, say, to the notion of immortality. Pascal asks why atheists should deny dogmatically the possibility that a person might rise from the dead. He wants to know which is the more remarkable: that a living being should appear at all, or that a once-living being should be reborn. By custom, the atheist accepts the fact that there are living beings and then seems astounded by the religious notion of rebirth. Here the atheist puzzles Pascal. On the other hand, the deist seeks to know God without revelation, meaning without the mediation of Jesus Christ. The deist thus misunderstands Christianity, ending with the philosopher’s God of proofs and first principles rather than with the God of redemption. Pascal clearly aligns himself with those who assert that the Christian faith cannot fully be translated into philosophical terms.

Original Sin

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Affirmation of the original sin of all people is a necessity for Pascal. The evidence for this affirmation is that all people are born disposed to seek their own interests, a disposition that runs counter to the necessary conditions of order. Wars and revolutions arise from people’s pursuit of self-interest even when their reason tells them that they should attend to the needs of a commonwealth. People should usually seek the general as opposed to the particular interests of a community, but most often they do not. Facts like these Pascal takes as indicative of some basic flaw in human willing. The glory of the Christian religion stems from its insistence on people’s inherent sinfulness. “No religion but ours has taught that man is born in sin,” Pascal writes; “no sect of philosophers has affirmed it, therefore none has spoken the truth.” This dark doctrine, so stressed by Pascal and borrowed from Calvinism, helped to bring him into disrepute among the Jesuits, who thought he emphasized it disproportionately. Yet he was quite aware of the nonrational nature of this doctrine and made no effort to prove it.

Legacy of Faith

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What makes Pascal’s Pensées an enduring work is the classical manner in which one aspect of the Christian tradition in theology receives forceful and passionate presentation. Its confessional and personal nature also makes it a work that can help individuals who, like Pascal, find themselves caught up in a struggle to make sense of Christian faith once they have abandoned belief that natural proofs of God’s existence are possible. One-sided in emphasis, Pascal’s work tries to show that Christian faith is reasonable on its own terms even though not susceptible of rational proofs divorced from reasons of the heart. No matter how extremely emphasized, Pascal’s views about the depravity of the will help to counterbalance the more optimistic humanistic conceptions of human perfectibility.

Through Pensées runs a sense of the fragility of human life—a constant reminder of something most people know when they think about it but which they often wish to forget. A sense of the contingency of life, of uncertainty about its duration, pervades Pascal’s writings. A mystical sense that there is more to finite existence than meets the finite eye drives Pascal to fall back on intuition and feeling when reason proves unable to establish the kinds of certainty many religious persons hope to find.

Pascal’s portrait of human misery involves a kind of metaphysical sickness. Reasoning people are caught between the finite and an infinite whose nature they can never hope to fathom. They own a will to self-deception, marked by an endless pursuit of means by which to divert attention from this very fact. On the other hand, a critic may well say that Pascal is too much a puritanical thinker—unwilling or unable to point out the genuinely redeeming features of natural processes. The Pascalian picture of humanity illustrates the more somber side of Puritan thought and feeling. “Imagine a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, of whom every day some are butchered in sight of the others, those remaining seeing their own fate in that of their fellows, regarding each other with grief and despair while awaiting their turn; this is a picture of the condition of man.”

Obviously, some of Pascal’s thoughts reflect events of his own life. He shunned pleasure and picked up the radically austere notions of the Jansenists. Nevertheless, his version of Christian faith remains a recurring theme in the long, unresolved competition between those who argue for a natural theology and those others who insist that revelation is not to be explained in philosophical terms. Pascal’s Pensées is the expression of a man who seemed to need this specific version of Christian faith to find life itself a meaningful affair.

Additional Reading

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Adamson, Donald. Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker About God. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Explores how Pascal dealt with the insights and conflicts produced by his mathematical, scientific, and religious experiences.

Coleman, Francis X. J. Neither Angel Nor Beast: The Life and Work of Blaise Pascal. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. An insightful overview of Pascal’s life and work, good at placing Pascal in the context of seventeenth century thought.

Davidson, Hugh M. Blaise Pascal. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This good first introduction to Pascal discusses his major philosophical and religious works.

Davidson, Hugh M. Pascal and the Arts of the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Discusses Pascal’s views on the nature and variety of human experience.

Hammond, Nicholas. Playing with Truth: Language and the Human Condition in Pascal’s “Pensées.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994. Scholarly yet readable discussion of the role that human language plays in argumentation, especially as it relates to the human condition as addressed by Pascal. Thorough bibliography and index.

Jordan, Jeff, ed. Gambling on God: Essays on Pascal’s Wager. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994. Pascal scholars explain and evaluate the most controversial features of Pascal’s philosophy of religion.

Kolakowski, Lezek. God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. An important philosopher of religion reflects on the main points of Pascal’s views about faith and the relationship between God and humankind.

Krailsheimer, Alban. Pascal. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1980. A short but serious overview of Pascal’s thought, including his mathematical and scientific accomplishments.

Marvin, Richard O’Connell. Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997. A worthwhile discussion of Pascal’s efforts to reconcile the demands of human rationality and the yearnings of feeling and hope, especially as the latter are expressed religiously.

Melzer, Sara E. Discourses of the Fall: A Study of Pascal’s “Pensées.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Critical discussion of the major dilemma in Pensées, that is, a strong claim for belief in a transcendent God (although limited by human language and understanding) set against an element of uncertainty.

Morris, Thomas V. Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1992. A clear and sensitive interpretation of Pascal’s struggle to identify what the meaning of human life may be.

Nelson, Robert J. Pascal: Adversary and Advocate. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. A critical study of Pascal’s works, including a valuable section on “the thoughts” in relation to the “advocate” position. Focuses on the ultimate question that chiefly concerned Pascal. Includes notes, index, and bibliography.

Rogers, Ben. Pascal. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Steinmann, Jean. Pascal. Translated by Martin Turnell. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. A critical biography following the life of Pascal in connection with his works. Includes a major section on Pensées. A valuable study showing the human context that gave birth to Pascal’s thoughts. Helpful illustrations; well indexed.

Topliss, Patricia. The Rhetoric of Pascal: A Study of His Art of Persuasion in the “Provinciales” and the “Pensées.” Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1966. Part 2 of this work focuses on Pensées, including discussion on the relationship between argumentation and style. Bibliography.

Wetsel, David. Pascal and Disbelief: Catechesis and Conversion in the “Pensees.” Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. A helpful discussion of Pascal’s approach to an affirmative religious faith, which Pascal develops and defends in a context of skepticism.

Daniel Taylor John K. Roth

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Adamson, Donald. Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker About God. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Explores how Pascal dealt with the insights and conflicts produced by his mathematical, scientific, and religious experiences.

Coleman, Francis X. J. Neither Angel Nor Beast: The Life and Work of Blaise Pascal. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. An insightful overview of Pascal’s life and work, good at placing Pascal in the context of seventeenth century thought.

Davidson, Hugh M. Blaise Pascal. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This good first introduction to Pascal discusses his major philosophical and religious works.

Davidson, Hugh M. Pascal and the Arts of the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Discusses Pascal’s views on the nature and variety of human experience.

Hammond, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Pascal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. This volume contains interpretive and critical essays by leading scholars who assess Pascal’s philosophical and religious views.

Hammond, Nicholas. Playing with Truth: Language and the Human Condition in Pascal’s “Pensées.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994. Scholarly yet readable discussion of the role that human language plays in argumentation, especially as it relates to the human condition as addressed by Pascal. Thorough bibliography and index.

Jordan, Jeff, ed. Gambling on God: Essays on Pascal’s Wager. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994. Pascal scholars explain and evaluate the most controversial features of Pascal’s philosophy of religion.

Kolakowski, Lezek. God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. An important philosopher of religion reflects on the main points of Pascal’s views about faith and the relationship between God and humankind.

Krailsheimer, Alban. Pascal. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1980. A short but serious overview of Pascal’s thought, including his mathematical and scientific accomplishments.

Marvin, Richard O’Connell. Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997. A worthwhile discussion of Pascal’s efforts to reconcile the demands of human rationality and the yearnings of feeling and hope, especially as the latter are expressed religiously.

Melzer, Sara E. Discourses of the Fall: A Study of Pascal’s “Pensées.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Critical discussion of the major dilemma in Pensées, that is, a strong claim for belief in a transcendent God (although limited by human language and understanding) set against an element of uncertainty.

Morris, Thomas V. Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992. Provides a lucid introduction to the key themes and issues in Pascal’s thought.

Natoli, Charles M. Fire in the Dark: Essays on Pascal’s Pensées and Provinciales. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2005. This book probes Pascal’s reflections on salvation and the mystery and revelation of God.

Nelson, Robert J. Pascal: Adversary and Advocate. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. A critical study of Pascal’s works, including a valuable section on “the thoughts” in relation to the “advocate” position. Focuses on the ultimate question that chiefly concerned Pascal. Includes notes, index, and bibliography.

O’Connell, Marvin R. Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997. An important biography that situates Pascal’s life and thought in the religious and political context of his time and place.

Pascal, Blaise. The Provincial Letters. 1656-1657. Reprint. Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer. New York: Penguin Books, 1967. Widely read and controversial when they appeared in 1656-1657, Pascal’s letters satirize Jesuit theology and defend the Jansenists against heresy charges. The book was placed on the Index of Prohibited Works in 1657.

Rogers, Ben. Pascal. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Steinmann, Jean. Pascal. Translated by Martin Turnell. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. A critical biography following the life of Pascal in connection with his works. Includes a major section on Pensées. A valuable study showing the human context that gave birth to Pascal’s thoughts. Helpful illustrations; well indexed.

Topliss, Patricia. The Rhetoric of Pascal: A Study of His Art of Persuasion in the “Provinciales” and the “Pensées.” Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1966. Part 2 of this work focuses on Pensées, including discussion on the relationship between argumentation and style. Bibliography.

Wetsel, David. Pascal and Disbelief: Catechesis and Conversion in the “Pensees.” Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. A helpful discussion of Pascal’s approach to an affirmative religious faith, which Pascal develops and defends in a context of skepticism.

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