Last week, I highlighted the remarkable mathematical and scientific accomplishments that distinguished the short life of French thinker Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). His ideas and inventions rightly earned him the title of “the first modern man.” But science and math weren’t the only fields Pascal impacted—his writings on theology and apologetics remain a treasure of historic Christian literature. In this post, I’ll describe Pascal’s conversion experience and involvement in the church. (See part 1 for an introduction to Pascal.)
A view of River Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
Whole-hearted convert to Christ
While Pascal was raised in what could probably be called a nominal Roman Catholic family, at age 31 he underwent a profound religious experience. He had his spiritual encounter while crossing the Seine River in Paris, reportedly during a storm. The nature of this encounter is unknown as Pascal apparently never described the specifics of the experience.
However, though Pascal told no one of this event, he did write a memorial to it. He carried this testimony with him the rest of his life—he even had the words sewn into his clothes! The memorial was discovered only after his death; a portion of it reads as follows:
Night of Fire
God of Abraham, God of Isaac,
God of Jacob, not
of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt,
Joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ…
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels…
Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ…
Let me not be cut off
From him for ever!1
From that night onward, Pascal devoted his life principally to his philosophical and religious writings. Some critics of religion claim that Pascal turned his back on science after his religious conversion and even repudiated his scientific accomplishments. They charge that religion always inhibits science.
Yet both of these assertions are incorrect, as pointed out by eminent historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston:
…in abandoning himself to God he [Pascal] did not renounce all scientific and mathematical interests as ‘worldly’; rather did he come to look on his scientific interests in a new light, as part of his service of God.2
Eventually Pascal became associated with the controversialJansenist movement, centered in Port-Royal, France. While never actually identifying himself as a Jansenist, Pascal was sympathetic to at least some of their theological teachings.3For example, he agreed that man’s fall into sin affected human nature radically and disabled man from doing anything pleasing to God, apart from God’s special grace. Pascal also believed that it is God who imparts the light of faith to mankind.
Pascal defended the Jansenist movement from its critics within the Catholic Church. In fact, Pascal’s The Provincial Letters, consisting of a witty and satirical polemic against the moral theology of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus), is renowned for its writing style; today The Provincial Letters is considered a literary masterpiece of French prose. Indeed, as theEncyclopedia Britannica says: “Pascal was embarrassed by the very abundance of his talents.”4
Christian apologist to the end
Pascal was preparing a book on Christian apologetics (Apologie de la religion chrétienne) for his skeptical friends when he became seriously ill. The affliction (possiblycarcinomatosa meningitis stemming from a malignant ulcer of the stomach) was lengthy and caused Pascal terrible pain.5
Unable to work, he dedicated himself to helping the poor and to his devotional life. He died August 19, 1662, just 10 months shy of his 40th birthday—thus ended the life of one of the great pioneers of modern science and one of the most original Christian thinkers in history.
Pascal’s unfinished apologetic work (consisting mainly of organized and unorganized notes, outlines, and fragments) was subsequently published under the French titlePensées (pronounced “Pon-SAYZ” and roughly translated as “reflections”).6 While actually more of an outline of a book than a complete book, Pensées’ content is so profound that it remains a perennial bestseller. Two uniquely Pascalian themes introduced in the Pensées seem especially relevant today: the Christian solution to humanity’s paradoxical nature and the importance of intuition in human thinking.
Next week I’ll discuss what we in the twenty-first century can learn from Pascal’s views on these two themes.
- All direct Pascal quotations in this article are taken from thePensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, revised (New York: Penguin Books, 1995).
- Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 4 (New York: Image Books-Doubleday, 1994), 155.
- Copleston, 156.
- The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “Pascal.”
- Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 2.