Pascal and Percy on the Jews as a “Sign”

“Walker Percy” by Barry Moser

This image of Walker Percy was drawn by Barry Moser (see a story about him and his work at Image, found here). After the success of the Moviegoer (published 1951) Percy wrote to Carolyn Gordon “Pascal is my spiritual father.” The Moviegoer is about the failure to begin the “search” as “everydayness” pulls one to the immediate. Pascal was keen on the search and he railed against the diversions that keep us from it. On the crucial role of the Jews as a sign of the divine presence in the modern world Percy did indeed learn much from his spiritual father.

It is reported that King Louis XIV of France asked Pascal to give him proof of the supernatural. Pascal answered: “Why, the Jews, your Majesty ― the Jews.”

In the Pensees Pascal explains why the encounter with the Jews  “amazes me and seems worthy of attention” (L 454) or he says the Jews “attract my attention through a number of striking and singular features apparent in them,” (L 451). The term singular will loom as an important part of the Percy account of the Jews.

Pascal is famous at compiling his lists, so here is the list of striking and singular features”:

  • They are brothers, part of a single family
  • They are the oldest family/people known
  • Although an ancient people, they have have preserved their tradition (other than in East Lansing MI have you met any Spartans walking around?)
  • Their law is ancient, severe, perfect — and still practiced
  • Their book is the oldest, surpassing Homer and Hesiod and others
  • They worship one God
  • They have received the revelation of divine mystery
  • They wait for the Messiah

One may quibble with the claims for “oldest” in some categories, but the conjunction of features remains “striking” and “singular.”  The Jews are therefore a sign of something beyond science and universal law; they are a sign of something beyond physical and political existence. According to Pascal they are a sign of the order of the heart, the order of love and divine mystery. The Jewish religion he understands from scripture to be about the “love of God” and they were taught that “God rejected all other things.” (L 453) Indeed he says “True Jews and true Christians worship a Messiah who makes them love God.” (L 286)

Percy writes similarly in his essay on “Why are You a Catholic?” found in Signposts in a Strange Land (1991):

The only other sign in the world which cannot be encompassed by theory is the Jews, their unique history, their suffering and achievements, what they started (both Judaism and Christianity), and their presence in the here-and-now. The Jews are a stumbling block to theory. They cannot be subsumed under any social or political theory. Even Arnold Toynbee, whose theory of history encompassed all other people, looked foolish when he tried to encompass the Jews. The Jews are both a sign and a stumbling block. That is why they are hated by theorists like Hitler and Stalin. The Jews cannot be gotten around. The great paradox of the Western world is that even though it was in the Judeo-Christian West that modern science arose and flourished, it is Judeo-Christianity which the present-day scientific set of mind finds the most offensive among the world’s religions. Judaism is offensive because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other.  . . . But for the self that finds itself lost in the desert of theory and consumption, there is nothing to do but set out as a pilgrim in the desert in search of a sign. In this desert, that of theory and consumption, there remains only one sign, the Jews. By “the Jews” I mean not only Israel, the exclusive people of God, hut the worldwide ecclesia instituted by one of them, God-become-man, a Jew.

Very Pascalian.  Being lost in consumption is the contemporary version of Pascal’s “lost in diversion.” Gambling is still part of it — now on line or available at casinos 24/7 as the day and night dissolve into endless diversion. But we have more, much more, for Pascal’s French colleague, Descartes, has triumphed with the “infinity of devices to make our life enjoyable without pain.” So too, scientific theory has swallowed up the world of meaning so that Hawking and Dawkins are the popes of the meaning of existence. The presence of Jews stands at the perimeter of the mystery of God. Both Pascal and Percy hearkened to that sign and attempted to make sense of it. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God of the philosophers. Hawking and Dawkins are at the top of their game in the order of mind; but the heart? The order of charity? They haven’t clue. Pascal had it right —

The infinite distance between body and mind symbolizes the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and charity, for charity is supernatural. All the splendor of greatness lacks luster for those engaged in pursuits of the mind. The greatness of intellectual people is not visible to kings, rich men, captains, who are all great in a carnal sense. The greatness of wisdom, which is nothing if it does not come from God, is not visible to carnal or intellectual people. They are three orders differing in kind .

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