A Cryptic Thought
According to Peter Kreeft, God in his mercy struck Blaise Pascal down at a young age before he could turn his “pensees” into a dry academic tome. Instead, we have the brilliant sketches that fly off the pages like sparks. Once when I was a teenager, I wandered into my dad’s study in the subterranean layer of our basement and pulled Pascal’s book off the shelf on a whim. I stood transfixed. Reading Pascal for the first time is always an electrifying experience.
Lately, I’ve been drawn to one of the man’s more cryptic thoughts: “The motions of Grace; the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.” I first encountered this haunting saying in the epigraph to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, a book that brings Pascal’s words to stark life.
“The Motions of Grace”
The motions of Grace: This is God’s good world and in Christ “all things hold together.” The word made flesh actively sustains his creation. Our Lord’s creative sustenance is present-tense. Moreover, his hidden hand is in all the circumstances of our lives, no matter how seemingly bleak. Kierkegaard famously observed that life is lived forwards and understood backwards. He’s right: We usually have to look backwards to see how the Lord was working in all of the situations where he seemed most absent. Frederick Buechner calls this practice “listening to your life.” Try it sometime. It’s a recipe for discovering the motions of grace.
“The Hardness of the Heart”
The hardness of the heart: Why don’t we see the motions of grace? In a word, our hardened hearts cloud our vision, closing us off from the healing reality of Christ’s immediate proximity. But here’s the thing: He’s right there, whether we recognize it or not. It’s also worth pointing out that a statement like “in him all things hold together” is an article of faith–not just an intellectual commitment. It’s a confession of the heart, rather than a mere argument of the head. I highly recommend saying out loud, “Jesus is here,” especially when you feel deserted.
External circumstances: If we limit our gaze to “life under the sun,” the view is shot through with impermanence. Nothing is new, nothing is safe, and nothing lasts. In our cultural moment here in America, the discipline of history is becoming very important. Whether we’re religious people “deconstructing” our faith tradition, or disillusioned citizens examining the compromised DNA of the American experiment, we’re coming to recognize the vital significance of historical consciousness. But history that examines only “external circumstances” is a remarkably barren field and can yield an abiding sense of cynicism and even despair. What do we do?
Consider these wise words from George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture:
“Since God’s work appears to us in historical circumstances where imperfect humans are major agents, the actions of the Holy Spirit in the church are always intertwined with culturally conditioned factors. The theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the Spirit. The Christian historian takes an opposite, although complementary, approach. While he must keep in mind certain theological criteria, he may refrain from explicit judgments on what is properly Christian while he concentrates on observable cultural forces. By identifying these forces, he provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.”
Marsden’s admonition aptly summarizes Pascal’s words. When we survey the historical landscape, let us never forget the three key dimensions of reality: “The motions of Grace; the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.” When we take a critical look at the historical underpinnings of our particular faith tradition, let us never forget the three key dimensions of reality: “The motions of Grace; the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.” When we survey the brittle landscape of our own lives, may we never forget the “motions of Grace; the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.”