Etudes Epistémè (2019-07-01)

Playing the Fool: The Subversive Literary Apologetics of John Bunyan and Blaise Pascal

  • David Parry

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 35


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John Bunyan and Blaise Pascal seem unlikely bedfellows – a fiercely Protestant English artisan with only vernacular literacy and a devoutly Catholic French polymath. Yet there are striking affinities between the two in their theologies, spiritual experience, and apologetic methodologies. Both believe that conversion requires divine intervention, yet both quote St Paul’s words Fides ex auditu / “Faith cometh by hearing” (Romans 10:17), thus involving human persuasion in conversion. Though both sometimes employ rational propositional arguments, both see rational argument as insufficient to change a person’s affections and will. Both Bunyan and Pascal adopt literary strategies of persuasion to faith that seek to bypass and subvert their readers’ cognitive defences. Pascal’s famous “wager” (pari) is often criticised for seeking to compel an impossible belief in something of which one is not persuaded. However, this criticism misconstrues the literary context. In this section of the Pensées, Pascal is speaking “selon les lumières naturelles” (“according to natural lights”), adopting St Paul’s rhetorical strategy of “speak[ing] as a fool” (2 Corinthians 11:23) by inhabiting and subverting the thought categories of his pragmatically self-interested worldly readers. His initial goal here is not to compel belief but to persuade readers to participate in a sacramental environment in which they can more readily be habituated into faith. Bunyan’s literary apologetic likewise draws on the model of St Paul and Bunyan’s imaginative fiction is a form of playing the fool which, like Pascal’s apologetic literary strategy, appropriates and reinscribes the thought categories of readers towards a vital faith.