[Partly Edited 9/23/11 and 9/20/13]

17th Century Search for Order: Pascal

The man we talk about today, Blaise Pascal, is one of the most brilliant men ever.  Now I know I say that a lot, but in History 122, we cover more than 400 years of history in a semester and we don’t spend much time on the lightweights.  Instead, we talk about figures whose impact is lasting: brilliant men like Locke, Descartes, Galileo, Newton and (today) Pascal.

Pascal was, first of all, an outstanding mathematician.  By the age of 16, he was already doing very impressive work investigating conic sections (hyperbolas, parabolas, and ellipses).  Later, he went on to do pioneering work in a new mathematical field, probability and statistics.  He devised what is still called “Pascal’s triangle,” a short-cut that makes it much easier to do probability problems.

At the age of 19, Pascal invented a calculating machine, the fore-runner of today’s computers.  Later, computer programmers would name a programming language after Pascal, honoring a man whose calculating machine is the distant ancestor of today’s computers.

Pascal also did work in the sciences, devising a series of experiments that are often replicated in high school and college science classes because they are such a good model of correct scientific procedure.

Pascal was also a fine writer, considered by those who read French to be one of the 17th century’s greatest masters of French prose.

He did all this despite the fact that he suffered from various illnesses during much of his life and died at the relatively young age of 39.

Like Descartes, Pascal used his tremendous intellectual gifts to help provide order and assurance to the people of the 17th century, and, also like Descartes, he paid a great deal of attention to religious and philosophical questions.

It’s easy enough to see why.  The 17th century was an age of increasing religious doubt.  The church was no longer unified.  Was Lutheranism correct?  Calvinism?  The Anabaptists?  Were any of them correct?

Adding to the skepticism, the constant religious wars. With Christian fighting against Christian and men doing horrible things to one another in the name of Christ, it’s no wonder people had more religious doubts than in the past.  Add to this the break-up of the old medieval synthesis of all of human knowledge—and uncertainty about virtually everything—it’s no wonder Pascal felt a need to help provide a firmer foundation for Christian faith.

Pascal intended to write a great book that would help answer some of the religious doubts of his contemporaries, to show them why they really could believe the traditional truths of the Christian faith.  Unfortunately, he didn’t live to complete the work.  He had written a lot of notes, and he had started to organize those notes, but that’s as far as he got.

Now most of the time, a disorganized collection of notes would be thrown away or put aside and forgotten.  But when Pascal’s friends looked at what he had written, they decided that there were so many good ideas in the notes that they deserved publication.  They published the collection under the title “Pensees”—the “thoughts” of Blaise Pascal.

Pascal’s friends were absolutely right in thinking that other people would find Pascal’s ideas worth reading.  For many, many people, Pensees is among their favorite books.  But while Pensees is a great book, it’s also a sometimes difficult book in its current state.  Pascal’s notes are sometimes cryptic: what can you make of a line like, “Cleopatra’s nose”?

To make the book a bit easier for you, I want to give you a reconstruction of what I think was Pascal’s overall argument.  Having that framework I think will help you to connect the various pieces as you read Pensees for yourselves.

Well, here’s where I think Pascal was going with his argument.

Now one might expect an attempt at assuring people of Christian truth would begin with a thorough presentation of the evidence for the Christian faith.  Apparently that wasn’t where Pascal planned to begin.  He realized that, if people don’t want to believe something is true, they are not going to believe no matter what evidence is put in front of them.  I am sure you all know what he is talking about.  You’ve run into people who disagree with you.  All the facts are on your side.  All the logic is on your side.  But, no matter what you say, they won’t be convinced because they don’t want to be.

Pascal, recognizing the problem, thought that the first step in arguing for the Christian faith was to give people reasons to *wish* Christianity were true.  Why should we wish Christianity were true?  Well, first of all, says Pascal, we ought to wish it were true because without God, and without the truths of Christianity, our lives are desperately unhappy.

Now most people would stop right there: I know atheists, they would say, who are perfectly happy.  Pascal would understand this, but then say to look closer: are people really happy without God and without the truths of Christianity?  There is all sorts of evidence to the contrary.

1.    Idolatry.  Consider those places where the gospel has not spread. Are people there atheists?  Do they do without religion altogether?  Not at all. Everywhere you go, you’ll find people doing a very strange thing.  They take a lump of wood and carve it into an image, or they take a chunk of stone and carve it into an image, or mold metal into an image.  And then they bow down and worship, “Oh, great lump of wood, I worship you, I adore you, I praise you.”  

Why do they do this?  Pascal says it’s because there is a deep need in every human being for something to worship, and, if we don’t have the true God to worship, we have to find a substitute. Just as, in a famine, people will eat almost anything to alleviate their hunger pangs (boiled shoes—yum!), people will worship almost anything in their hunger for something to worship.

2.    Longing for glory.  Further evidence that something is missing in our lives is our longing for glory.  We all want recognition in our lives, more recognition than we have, and we’ll go to extraordinary lengths to get it, doing some absolutely crazy things. One person wants you to be impressed with them because they *never* touch alcohol, while another wants you to be impressed with how much they can drink without falling down.  

The trouble is that, no matter how much recognition we get, we always want more. Mark Spitz got seven gold medals and seven world records—and, at age 40, he decided he just had to go try for one more.  Michael Jordan, the best basketball player around, had to try for more recognition—by playing baseball!  This unfulfilled longing for sufficient recognition points to a deep unmet need in our lives.

3.    Injustice. The many injustices in our lives are also an indication that we aren’t really happy without the truths of Christianity.  Every one of us has unfair things happen to us, and, often, we can’t do anything about it. We carry these injustices with us all our lives, and sometimes we can’t even sleep because we’re mulling over the injustices we’ve suffered.  Is that a happy life?

And it’s not just the injustices that happen to us.  We’re troubled by the unjust things that happen to other people.  Back to 1993.  I had been teaching at NSU for five years. We started seeing around campus posters about a missing eleven year old girl from Fargo, Jeanna North.  Cute little girl, and everyone’s heart went out to her and her family.  Everyone was hoping that Jeanna was safe, that she’d be found, and returned to her parents. But a while later we found out that Jeanna wasn’t going to make it back home because some pervert had thought his own lusts more important than the life of a little girl.  And those kind of things make you mad.  I didn’t know Jeanna or her family (some of my students did), but it didn’t matter whether you knew them or not: it was a heartbreaking story.  And the trouble is that the world is filled with those stories: you can’t pick up a newspaper or watch television news without seeing a similar tragedy.  How can we call life happy when our world is so filled with injustice?

4.    Tyranny.  Making matters even worse, the injustice so often goes all the way to the top.  We want our leaders to protect us from injustice, but, far too often, they are culprits themselves.  It makes us mad when powerful people do horribly unjust things and get away with it.  And this kind of tyranny fills the world.  Imagine living under the current leaders of Sudan or in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.  Even when things are pretty good in our own country, how can we really consider ourselves happy in a world where tyrannical rulers do so many horrible things?

5.    Irrational wars.  Among those unjust things, near top of the list is senseless warfare.  Pascal has a note about a man who “lives across the river” and says, “Why are you killing me?”  Rivers were often borders between countries.  What Pascal is getting at here is that, if we kill someone on our side of the river, it’s murder—and, most of the time, we’d never think of killing them anyway.  But take that same person, move him across the river into a neighboring country.  Your king declares war, drafts you into the army, and sends you across the river to kill a guy who is just like your friends and family—for no reason at all.  How can we consider our lives happy when we can forced into those irrational wars?

6.    Selfishness.  Further, can we consider ourselves happy when there is so much selfishness around us?  Pascal notes that many human beings seem to derive their greatest pleasure in life from doing things that hurt other people.  And if you don’t believe that, just go to your nearest junior high and watch junior high girls in action. Many, many of them seem to be having the most fun when they are making some other girl’s life absolutely miserable.

And it’s not just junior high girls.  Take us history professors.  We enjoy giving the lectures that make so many of you miserable.

And (joking aside) the thing we should find most disturbing is that the selfishness we so detest in others we do find right in our own lives.  As I look back over my own life, for instance, it’s not really the unfair things that have happened to me that bother me: it’s the unfair, selfish things I’ve done myself: the times I’ve hurt my wife  or my kids or my students by thoughtless, selfish behavior. Some golfers want to get a “mulligan” from time to time on the course—they want a do-over. Well, most of us want a “mulligan” in life: a chance to do right what we didn’t do right the first time.

7.    The uncertainty of life.  Another problem with our lives is that they are so uncertain. Suppose you find that wonderful husband or wife, have those wonderful kids, and that wonderful job.  None of those things are certain.  Kids are a great joy, but, from the day they are born, they are a great worry: are they going to be safe?  Are they going to be ok in life?  Will they make it home from school safe?  And our wonderful romantic relationships: how secure are they?  Is there any guarantee that that person you love with all your heart and who says they love you won’t walk out on you tomorrow? And even when you are sure on that score, you’ve got the same problem as with kids: are they going to make it home safe tonight?  Are they going to stay healthy?   How can we consider our lives happy when they are so uncertain?

8.    And, on top of all this, there is the shortness of life.  Now at 18, life may seem long—especially in history class where 50 minutes seems like 50 years.  But life is short.  Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Bottle” says, “There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them.”  That’s so true.  I don’t have enough time for my wife and kids.  I don’t have enough time to prepare these lectures properly (as you no doubt have noticed).  And how can we consider our lives happy when they are so soon over?

We ought to with Christianity were true, says Pascal, because without the truths of Christianity, our lives are so unhappy.  But, he argues, if Christianity is true, then there are answers to each of the problems above.

In place of idolatry, we have a god to worship who is worth worshipping: an all-power, loving, just god.
If Christianity is true, we have all the recognition we want.  Those who have served Christ will hear from him the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter in to the joy of the Lord.”  And isn’t that the ultimate in recognition, to have positive affirmation from the god who created all things and to receive the ultimate reward for a job well done?

If Christianity is true, injustice is done away with.  All those bad things that have happened to you and everyone else will be undone.  If Christianity is true, the story of Jeanna North doesn’t end at the bottom of a river.  She’ll be alive again and restored to her family as will all the missing children whose stories break our hearts. And shouldn’t we want this to be true?

If Christianity is true, tyranny comes to an end. God’s kingdom will come to this earth with no more injustice—and no more irrational wars.  Instead, the lion lies down with the lamb: no more hurting, no more killing.  Pretty nice, yes?

And if Christianity is true, there’s a power that can and will transform human selfishness, that can take away our hard hearts and give us hearts full of love so that we quit doing the things that hurt other people.

And in place of our short, uncertain lives, lasting treasures in heaven: no moths, no rust, no thieves.  We start in on what C.S. Lewis called the great story that has no end and in which every chapter is better than the last.

Shouldn’t we wish such things were true?  Obviously so, says Pascal.  But wishing something were true is not enough.  One needs evidence as well, and Pascal intended to provide such evidence.

One of the things that impressed Pascal was the fulfillment of Bible prophecy.  He made lots of notes on scriptural prophecies that he believed were fulfilled either at the time of Christ or in later history.  Pascal would have argued that the fulfillment of so many prophecies was solid evidence of the truth of Christianity.

Miracles also supported belief in Christianity.  Pascal believed that there were miracles going on in his own day, and that anyone who really cared to look could find such miracles.

There was a problem, however.  Pascal believed that miracles had a tendency, not to convince, but to condemn.  He notes how pharaoh reacted to Moses miracles: hardening his heart and insisting on going his own way despite the miraculous evidence in front of him.  Pascal notes how frequently those who saw both the Old Testament and New Testament miracles stubbornly went in the same direction no matter what miraculous sign suggested they were headed the wrong way.

The trouble, says Pascal, isn't really in our heads:  it's in our hearts.  No matter what intellectual evidence is put in front of us, we stubbornly cling to our own ways.

If we were rational creatures, says Pascal, we would behave far differently, living by Christian truth even if there wasn’t 100% evidence for it.  He discusses what has come to be called “Pascal’s Wager,”  a consideration of how a rational man would behave if there was only a chance that Christianity were true.  My cartoon version of the wager:

Suppose your gambling on a coin toss game.  If you call heads and you are right, you win.  If you call tells and you are right you win too.  But what you win is very different.  If you call heads and you are right, you win everything: the money, the car, the dream vacation, the girl or guy of your dream—everything.

If you call tails and your right you win—well, let’s say a handshake from me.  Now, what would you call, heads or tails?  Any rational person would call heads: there is something great to win, and nothing of any value to lose.  Even if they odds weren’t 50/50, even if they were one in a thousand, you’d call heads, taking the chance of winning something really worth while.

Pascal says we have to place a wager on the existence of God and on the truths of Christianity.  We make our wager by the way we live our lives, choosing either to live as if there’s a God or to live as if there isn’t.  What do we stand to win and lose with this wager?

Well, suppose you wager that God exists and that Christianity is true.  And suppose you win: you’re right!  You made the right guess!  What have you won?  Eternal life, eternal joy—you’ve won everything.

But suppose you are wrong.  You lose the bet.  What have you lost?  Nothing.  You won’t even know you’ve lost because you’ll be in a pine box six feet under.  Really, there won’t even be a you anymore.

Now suppose you wager the other way.  You wager that God doesn’t exist and you live your life accordingly. And suppose you win: you’re right!  You made the right guess!  What have you won?  Nothing.  You won’t even know you’ve won because you’ll be in a pine box six feet under.  There won’t even be a you anymore.

But suppose you lose.  You wagered that God didn’t exist and it turns out your wrong.  There really is a God, and Christianity is true.  What have you lost?  Everything.

So what’s the logical, rational way to bet?  To bet that God exists and to live your life accordingly, right?

But we don’t do it that way.  Although there is a direction we can take in our lives that promises us every good thing we prefer to head in a different direction which, in the end, has no chance of leading to anything at all.

There something so twisted in us that, if there were two glasses in front of us, one filled with a chocolate milkshake and the other filled with sewer water, and if God said to us, “Drink the milkshake,” we would say, “No!  I want the sewer water.”

And that, says Pascal is in some ways the greatest proof of Christianity.  Christianity gets human nature exactly right.  We are wonderful creatures that God loves and wants to keep for an eternity of joy with Him. But we also are fallen creatures with a sin nature drawing us away from God and keeping us from doing what we know is right.

So what is to be done about that?  Pascal’s answer (right on the first page!): the machine.  Now what is this “machine”?  I think what Pascal is talking about is the mechanics of religion.  Go to church. Read your Bible. Pray.  Seek God to the best of your ability.  And then—well then God takes care of the rest and gives you the assurance you need.

Something like this seems to have happened to Pascal himself.  At one point in his life, he had an experience so important he wanted never to forget it.  He made a short note, and carried it with him the rest of his life.  Here is some of what he has to say:

    The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November…


    “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” not of philosophers and scholars.
    Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.

    The world forgotten and everything except God.
    He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
    Sweet and total renunciation.
    Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
    Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth.

For Pascal, it seems that one day devoted entirely to seeking God gave him all the assurance he really needed, the assurance that he had found, not the god of the philosophers and scholars, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  

Is this a better method of finding religious assurance than that of Descartes?  I’ll leave you to decide as you prepare your answers to potential essay question six.