Blaise Pascal

CARL OLSON

The short life of Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was one of intense intellectual brilliance, physical anguish, and mystical vision. The son of a French bureaucrat, Pascal exhibited extraordinary mathematical and scientific abilities at an early age.

Blaise Pascal
(1623-1662)

By the time he was twelve he was working on problems in geometry on his own, and he had invented a mechanical calculator before reaching his mid-20s. He would produce key works in the study of atmospheric pressure and vacuum, resulting in the complete outline of a system of hydrostatics, the science of how liquids exert and transmit pressure. Other studies addressed issues such as projective geometry and theories of probability.

But Pascal was not just a mathematical genius; he was a Catholic whose faith grew in fits and starts before finally emerging in full maturity on November 23, 1654. It was on that evening that he had a "definite conversion," the result of a mystical vision that lasted two hours and which he called a "night of fire." In this powerful event, known as the "Memorial," Pascal experienced "Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, The God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals.… The God of Jesus Christ." Not long after this mysterious encounter with God, Pascal began writing notes for what he planned to be a thorough apologetic for Christianity. However, he started to experience serious physical ailments and was often unable to sleep for long periods of time or consume much food or drink. He died at the age of thirty-nine, his body ravaged by illness.

The notes, many of them just short phrases or paragraphs, that Pascal had been putting together for his work of apologetics were collected and published as the Pensées. Despite its fragmented nature — or perhaps partially due to it — Pensées forms one of the most unique and powerful defenses of the Christian faith ever written. It does not reflect a systematic or scientific approach to apologetics, but "owes its force to the wealth of psychological perception which it embodies." (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). Instead of using Thomistic proofs, which were oriented to readers who accepted — at least generally — a common worldview and approach to knowledge, Pascal addresses the condition of mankind without God: wretched, lonely, corrupt, and lost. He recognized that people of his time were turning their backs on objective truth and could not be approached on the basis of shared cultural beliefs or naked logic alone. This is why Peter Kreeft explains in Christianity for Modern Pagans (Ignatius, 1993), his excellent guide to the Pensées, that "Pascal is the first postmedieval apologist. He is 'for today' because he speaks to modern pagans, not to medieval Christians.… He is the first to realize the new dechristianized, desacramentalized world and to address it."

Just as the twentieth century novelist Walker Percy perceived that humanity is immersed in a "modern malaise," Pascal clearly saw that people without God must either stare into the dark, cold hole of meaninglessness, or turn to distraction and false happiness for comfort: "We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness." (Pensées, 401). Man must desire the truth in order to seek it; without an inner hunger for truth, no amount of logic or argument will suffice: "Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies [are] so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it." (Pensées, 739).

It is this sort of apologetic approach to non-Christians, especially those who can accurately be called secularists or materialists, that needs to be embraced. While some people live without God out of simple blindness or lack of knowledge, there is most often a conscious decision to avoid or reject God underneath the layers of apathy and indifference. As Kreeft, himself a philosopher, admits: "One of the things that delay our finding God is ignorance. That can indeed be addressed by purely rational apologetics. But the primary obstacle is an attitude of the will, and this must be addressed by a different kind of apologetics: Pascal's kind." And this "kind" of apologetics is absolutely personal and logical, for it is both rooted in and oriented towards a Person who is both divine love and logic: Jesus Christ.

Four hundred years after Pascal's death, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council penned Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. At the heart of this great document is a simple phrase — "Christ fully reveals man to himself" (GS 22) — repeated often in the years since by one of the architects of the document. Undoubtedly that man, Pope John Paul II, has long been aware of these words of Pascal: "Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or of our death, of God, or of ourselves." (Pensées, 417)

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Carl Olson. "Blaise Pascal." CatholicExchange.com (June 5, 2001).

This article reprinted with permission from CatholicExchange.com.

THE AUTHOR

Carl E. Olson is director of catechesis and evangelization at Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Church in Springfield, Oregon. His articles have appeared in This Rock, Envoy, The Catholic Faith, and New Covenant.

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