chapter  6
15 Pages

The politics of religious commitment

Pascal and Dostoevsky
ByDennis Vanden Auweele, Hanna Vandenbussche

How exactly can religious faith emerge authentically? Can it at all emerge from the recognition that religious faith is beneficial for an individual or society? An argument that is generally attributed to Blaise Pascal is that the potential benefit of belief in (the Christian) God is much higher than non-belief in (the Christian) God. From this, Pascal hopes that a disposition of self-humiliation might follow that renders human agents receptive to divine revelation and grace. This argument was famously criticized by William James in The Will to Believe who held that insofar as faith is perceived as merely beneficial to human beings, it cannot emerge authentically. The reverse is often claimed about the political theology that emerges in the philosophically saturated prose of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky could easily be misread as criticizing Pascal because Dostoevsky is often simplistically associated with fideism. This point of view emerges because Dostoevsky famously holds that proofs and arguments are no use to belief – they can only strengthen already present belief, and not engender belief itself. This point of view of Pascal and Dostoevsky as one an apologist and the other a fideist is insufficiently complex. Dostoevsky was univocally appreciative of the philosophy of Pascal, which can be taken as a first clue that the Saint Petersburg writer and the Clermont theologian have more in common than appearances would suggest. Rather than rehearse a dry juxtaposition between Pascal and Dostoevsky, this paper will be a back and forth between their arguments in order to mine their respective philosophies for insight into what is at work in religious commitment.