[Partly Edited 9/23/11 and 9/20/13]
17th Century Search for Order:
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
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
Pascal was also a fine writer, considered by those
who read French to be one of the 17th century’s greatest masters of
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
And it’s not just junior high girls. Take us history
professors. We enjoy giving the lectures that make so many of you
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?
In place of idolatry, we have a
god to worship who is worth worshipping: an all-power, loving, just god.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
The trouble, says Pascal, isn't really in our heads: it's in our
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
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
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, heartfelt, joy, peace.
forgotten and everything except God.
He can only be
found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Sweet and total
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.