If you ever wondered what it would be like to read tweets and Facebook updates from a 17th-century genius, check out Pascal’s Pensées.
Born in France in 1623, Blaise Pascal was a brilliant mathematician and physicist, then philosopher, then theologian. Pascal’s Pensées are similar to someone scouring your entire hard drive and all your notebooks, after you have died, for every thought (or pensée) you had scribbled down. Pascal’s family and friends did that after his untimely death at the age of 39. The fragments were rearranged, edited, and published in 1670 as Thoughts of Mr. Pascal on Religion and on Some Other Topics.
Some of his “thoughts” make no sense. “Even [Pascal] may not necessarily have remembered the ideas which prompted the jotting down of some key word or phrase,” wonders Anthony Levi in the Introduction to a new translation of Pensées from Oxford University Press.
Getting to #19
But for every incoherent sentence here or there, you’ll run across a line so penetrating that it demands you stop reading and ponder hard, indefinitely. Most of them are short and punchy (he would have schooled us on Twitter). Still today, Pascal makes us think.
That’s what happens with #19, when Pascal writes,
Man does not know on what level to put himself. He is obviously lost and has fallen from his true place without being able to find it again. He looks for it everywhere restlessly and unsuccessfully in impenetrable darkness. (Pensées, 8)
His point here is that we humans don’t know quite what to do with ourselves. On one hand, we know we’re special creatures, above dolphins or squirrels or grizzly bears. We have souls. And on the other hand, we know something is missing. We have fallen from our “true place” and we can’t figure this thing out ourselves.
What Is Human?
To be human means that we are awesome — but not that awesome.
The Bible tells us that God created man and woman in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26–28). This sets us apart from every other creature. God spoke us into existence to uniquely reflect his majesty and worth. We are of more value than the birds (Matthew 6:26). We have been “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). It doesn’t matter how we look, or how smart we are, or what family we come from. God made us, and that is amazing. Human, you are awesome.
But not that awesome. We are, after all, just human — which means we are not God. It goes like this: You are awesome because you are human, but not that awesome because you are just human. To be just human means we are utterly dependent upon God. “Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” (Psalm 39:5). “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Humanness means we’re here and then gone, and God provides every detail of our sustenance throughout this vapor of a life. Without him we would not exist. And this should make us feel very small. Awesome, but small.
But we are also fallen. Pascal again: “[Man] is obviously lost and has fallen from his true place without being able to find it again.” Everyone knows that something is missing.
Sin has marred our lives from what they were meant to be. We are still in God’s image, but we are tainted. Sin, at its heart, hates the fact that we’re creatures. We’d rather be God ourselves.
Sin has corrupted God’s image in us by separating us from him, the one who sustains our very lives by his word. Though we bear God’s image, we don’t shine forth his majesty and worth, and we all know it. We have fallen short of God’s glory — we lack God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Therefore, our awesome-but-not-that-awesome reality must be qualified with “fallen.” We are fallen awesome-but-not-that-awesome.
When Jesus Came
That’s the whole world. We humans walk around fallen. Every human to ever live has come with this glitch of not living up to the purpose for which we were made. Well, there was one human. . . .
Jesus, the eternal Son, became an awesome-but-not-that-awesome human like us, walking on this earth in our shoes, getting hungry like us, growing weary like us, being tempted like us — and he didn’t fall short of anything. He never sinned. He didn’t lack God’s glory.
Jesus perfectly shines forth God’s majesty and worth, and blazed the trail for a new humanity of unqualified awesomeness. In the deepest sense of the phrase, when Jesus came into our world, God was bringing awesome back.
Peter tells us that Jesus suffered for us, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18). Which means, the one who perfectly shines forth God’s majesty and worth died on the cross in the place of us who have fallen short of perfectly shining forth God’s majesty and worth. Whole awesome suffered in the place of fallen awesome to bring us to God. And therefore, sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God, through faith in Jesus, rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2). In fact, we can’t even fathom the weight of glory we’ll experience one day (Romans 8:18–21).
So there’s one pensée.
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