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Blaise Pascal: Finding God in Revealing Fundamental Truths of Life

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.
-Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

Without doubt, Blaise Pascal is one of the giants in Western thought. He revolutionized mathematics by developing probability theory, wrote one of the first masterpieces of French prose, made important contributions to the science of hydrostatics, and authored one of the most influential theological works in Christian philosophy. The name Pascal is given to the unit of measurement for pressure, the arithmetic triangle, a programming language, as well as an apologetic argument. Even more, Pascal is the inventor of the first calculator and the first public transportation system. Being such a world-changing genius with so many accomplishments in his life, what did Pascal see as most important in life? In two words, “God himself.”

 

Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623 in a Christian household, the third child and only son of Etienne Pascal. Blaise lost his mother at the tender age of three years old and his family moved to Paris, France where he was home schooled by his father. On his own at the age of only 12, Blaise had begun working on geometry and made the discovery that “the sum of angles of a triangle is two right angels”. When his father became aware of this, he purchased his son a copy of the Euclid and quickly began to learn that not only was his son gifted and blessed in mathematics he was a prodigy.

When Blaise was 14 he began to attend Mersenne’s meetings with his father where at the age of 16 he made a presentation on a small piece of paper that showcased many projective geometry theories which included those of the mystic hexagon, breaking new ground in geometry. But this was just the beginning of Blaise’s extraordinary career in numbers. Creating the first digital calculator, making strides in geometric discoveries such as his work on the Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle and his Essay on Conic Sections Blaise went on to become one of the most notable pioneers of mathematics and physics.

Through a number of different events and tragedies, Blaise’s faith was reaffirmed and increased. In the fall of 1651, Pascal’s father Etienne Pascal passed away. The two being extremely close, Blaise wrote to his sisters about the deeper meaning of death and how it coincided with the Christian faith. Many would say that this emotional and faith filled text would later become the beginnings of his philosophical career and the piece entitled Pensees. This also marked the point when his life would began to change and Blaise would began a road to his life’s calling and purpose.

While at this time Blaise was already rooted in the Christian faith it was also at this time that Blaise experienced a horrible, near death accident where his horse charged and dangled his carriage over a river ravine that truly made him turn his life to faith. Though Blaise came away untouched physically, spiritually it was said to have changed him internally and he pledged his life to Christ. This event so affected Blaise’s life that he wrote a reminder of it on parchment and sewed it into the lining of his coat, which was found when he died. This note began with “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…” and concluded by quoting Psalm 119:16: “I will not forget thy word. Amen.”
For the following eight years of his life until his death, he worked on a theological treatise which was posthumously named, Pensees (“Thoughts”). In it, Blaise provides a “Defense of Christian Religion” (the original title) outlining his personal thoughts of human suffering and surveying philosophical paradoxes. While he attends to these arguments rigorously, he ends in humility without a definitive conclusion, ultimately proposing the apologetic argument that now bears his name – the Pascal’s Wager. Simply, “If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing.” T.S. Eliot wrote, “I can think of no Christian writer… more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.”

The English poet Alexander Pope wrote the following poem in honor of Pascal’s understanding of man:

Chaos of thought and passion all confus’d,
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.

Pascal’s genius was not only to revolutionize individual disciplines but also to make connections between them. For example, as one who helped create the field of probability, he was able to apply this reasoning into apologetics. In addition, while the idea of a God-shaped vacuum is a paraphrase of his writings, it is interesting to note that Blaise was instrumental in proving the scientific concept of a vacuum. Even more, his philosophical work against the extremes of rationalism as well as empiricism provides Biblical understanding of epistemology and truth. “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know at all.”

Though Blaise suffered from many health problems and severe physical pain he didn’t let his condition slow his career or alter his moral convictions. At the time of his death at the age of 39, Blaise wrote “And so I stretch forth my hands to my Redeemer, who came to earth to suffer and die for me”. His final years were devoted to giving to the poor, studying science, and visiting churches in Paris. He died a scientist, a mathematician, a philosopher and a great man of faith whose writings and discoveries still impact our world today. Blaise’s life woven with discoveries and knowledge that changed our world and our hearts provides another glimpse of how God can use our lives for everyday doxology.

For a deeper analysis of Pascal’s contributions, visit:
http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/609

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