Re-Reads: “God Owes Us Nothing”


From left to right: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), Pierre Nicole (1625-1695), Jacqueline Pascal (1625-1661), Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694)- a Jansenist Cloud of Witnesses

This is the first in an occasional but ongoing series of posts about books I have read, giving them a second look.  The first post will review the book by the late Lezsek Kolakowski, God Owes Us Nothing (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

The singer-song writer Randy Newman wrote a ditty some years ago called “The World Isn’t Fair,” in which he chastised Karl Marx for trying to rectify the world’s iniquities.  The song is terrible, but the last lines are striking:

Oh Karl the world isn’t fair
It isn’t and never will be
They tried out your plan
It brought misery instead
If you’d seen how they worked it
You’d be glad you were dead
Just like I’m glad I’m living in the land of the free
Where the rich just get richer
And the poor you don’t ever have to see
It would depress us, Karl
Because we care
That the world still isn’t fair

The song acknowledges Marx’s criticisms, but points to what it takes to be a painful truth:  there is no justice in this world.  And, for Newman, who is like Marx an atheist, it means for some there is no justice at all.

I thought of this song when looking over the notes in my copy of God Owes Us Nothing, one of the last works by the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski.  The book is about Pascal’s Jansenism and its legacy, but is much more than that.  It is also a reflection on the quintessential early modern philosophical conundrum, that of theodicy:  how to reconcile God’s goodness and justice with the existence of evil in the world.  The book was, as far as I know, Kolakowski’s only foray into theology, and though it has several major flaws, it is still a very interesting book, if only for some of the issues it raises.

The burden of book is to show that Pascal and the Jansenists (and by extension the Protestant Reformers) believed what the church had always believed about predestination was abandoned by the Church in condemning it. (37)  He wants to show that Pascal and the Jansenists were wrong, and that what was needed was a theology that could adapt itself to a new civilization. (57)  He takes the debate over freedom of will to be an either or affair, and says both Aquinas and Trent are ambiguous on the matter. (40-42)  Problems abound:  he ignores the doctrine of sanctification altogether.  He never considers that God’s bestowal of grace might actual regenerate our nature and make us capable of cooperation, but seems to assume it must be total inert passivity before God or complete freedom from his grace (i.e., God first gives us grace to perform good works, then we contribute, then he completes our salvation).  He seems to take Augustine, the Jansenists, Luther, Calvin and Calvin’s followers to all be saying precisely the same thing about grace, which is highly debatable, to say the least. (36-37) His conclusion seems to be that this rigorous idea of how one achieves salvation was the preserve of martyrs, and since by the 17th century Western civilization no longer consisted of such, it needed to change to survive.  (44-45, 105)  The Jesuits created a comforting way to salvation for the emergent middle classes of early modern Europe, and the Church, by condemning Jansenism, implicitly rejected Augustine and embraced the Jesuits/modernity.  (109)  Moreover, he condemns Pascal and the Jansenists for being excessively morbid and harsh, suggesting that the primary reason for the harshness of their faith was psychological: since they were miserable people, they wanted everyone else to be miserable too.  (197)

About that psychology:  his reading of it is entirely unfair to Pascal though not to his thought, since it is rather morbid.   It apparently never occurred to Kolakowski that Pascal’s unhappiness might have been caused by his brain, not his ideas: in the Pensees at least he sounds like a depressive, and had he lived in this age might be a lot more “happy” on some fairly mild forms of anti-depressants.   There is not always a close correlation between the ideas one holds and one’s personality profile.  Kolakowski’s intriguing discussion about God having no obligations to anyone lacks nuance, and his treatment of Jansenist/Augustine/Protestant thinking resembles Pope Francis’s critique of “rigidity.”  It is not hard to see parallels here between the need to make the faith “easier” for an “ordinary decent Christian” as he puts it (105, 197,and the push to make communion open to those in adulterous unions by the Pope and his supporters.  The basic message is the same: times have changed, and the Church needs to change in order to survive.  Looking back on reviews of the book, I think the reviewer Kirkus Reviews pretty much spot on about it being “brilliantly cynical” but shows how far one can take a gnostic reading of church history combined with a Manichean idea of grace.  Finally, I suspect Kolakowski was engaging in a work of projection using thinkers whose ideas he didn’t really understand all that well in order to tar those he did.  At certain points he made clear he was really thinking of his former fellow Marxists when he critiqued Pascal for his dour fatalism. (35) His depiction of Augustine sounds more like Marx to my eyes, with its esoteric emphases and “right side of history” triumphalism.

But what mostly stands out in retrospect is Kolakowski’s tin-eared view of history.  This side of 9-11, it is clear that the Church is very much still living in the age of martyrs–just not in the West.  And we are still living in the end times, even if our civilization is different:  Kolakowski claimed that in the “new world” of seventeenth century modernity it was “a hopeless task” to convince people to “stifle their curiosity and their mundane interests” in order to live up to the demands of the gospels. (105) This sort of un-argued assertion makes me think he was not well acquainted with the Roman Empire which the Church converted in Late Antiquity.  And his suggestion that a serious preoccupation with one’s eternal destiny was the preserve of “medieval peasants and artisans” which could never appeal to the 17th century aristocracy is so crude that, again, it recalls the more monomaniacal class analyses of Marx. (45)

In short, Kolakowski seems to think that modern Christians don’t believe in life after death all that much and therefore it makes Christianity’s demands seem unjust as regards this life; ergo, the Church needs to adjust its demands, rather than trying to convince them that life after death and eternal judgment are realities more important than life on earth.  What he failed to see is that, once you eliminate the hope of heaven, you eliminate any prospect of justice in this world too, as Randy Newman understood.  Odd that a hack song writer could realize what a great philosopher could not–that the motto of the Hapsburg emperor really was true, if not in the sense he intended:  non sufficit orbis, “the world is not enough.”



Alypius Minor



~ by Alypius on January 16, 2018.

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