Slowly I’m getting up to speed on the life of C.S. Lewis to prepare for a brief trip to Oxford this summer. My friend Jerry Root over at Wheaton College directed me toward solid biographies on Lewis’ life. Right now I’m reading Alister McGrath’s biography published last year in honor of the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death. I’ve found the book is not only an easy read but also highly informative. What thrilled me is that McGrath’s work is the first Lewis biography I’ve read that connects him to Blaise Pascal.
Pascal (1623-1662) was a French scientist, philosopher and theologian. I consider him to be a fine Christian thinker because while he believed skepticism was a dead end he also did not place too much emphasis on rationalism or trying to reason your way to God. While Christianity is not less than being rational, it’s certainly more. My understanding is that during Pascal’s day the traditional arguments for God’s existence did not convince people. Much of his writings then tried to connect religion to what people experienced and sensed as a normal part of their lives. He is well known for saying, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”
McGrath brilliantly links Lewis to Pascal through “desire”. Lewis, similar to Pascal, believed that Christianity satisfied the reason, yet it went further. He writes,
“Lewis opens up a line of thought originally employed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal – namely, that there is an ‘abyss’ within the human soul, which is so great that only God can fill it. Or, to change the imagery, there is a ‘chair’ in the human soul, awaiting some guest who has yet to arrive. ‘If nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in the chair must exist.'”.
This traditionally has been called the “Argument From Desire” and Lewis seemed to bring it to the forefront. McGrath goes on to say that this “abyss” and the desire on our part to fill it reveals not only who (or what) we truly belong to but also the goal (telos) of life. If we sense that the desire must be filled, there must be an ultimate “desire-giver”.
Pascal alluded to something very similar. Most people know it as, “In every person there is a God-shaped vacuum that only God can fill”. Actually, in my study of Pascal, I can’t find that exact quote. However, he did say something close…
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Pascal, Pensees #425]
What do we do with our desires? Desires are not the kinds of things that we should “stuff” down or repress. My observation is when young people are taught to suppress their desires, they are the kinds of things that when bottled up, eventually explode. Nor should we simply try to fill our desires with no wisdom or self-restraint. Our greatest temptation is to turn normal good desires into strong desires in a way where they end up ruling us. There is something to be said for the wisdom in “ordering our desires” rightly. However, both Lewis and Pascal use “desires” as real and natural yet as God-given road markers to point to something very profound.
What both men are telling us is when we try to fill ourselves with everything around us and it still only temporarily fills the reason is because the emptiness inside is an eternal abyss that can only be filled by an Eternal Person. It’s like Chinese food that is delicious but only satisfies the hunger for a brief time afterwards. It seems like two hours later you’re hungry again! If we aren’t clear on this we will take things and people and expect them to fill us eternally. The result of that is disastrous in that we will end up using things (or people) to fill us by asking it (or them) to do something that they were not created to do. Christianity, unlike any other religion says emphatically, “Yes, there is a ‘chair filler’, and it’s Christ who fills you with His eternal loving self.” Only an eternal completely loving person can fill the eternal abyss inside of you.