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“Pascal . . . is the most instructive of all the sacrifices to Christianity.”
The Historical Will Hunting
Good Will Hunting is arguably one of the greatest films ever made. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a prodigy who can read books in minutes and solve the most complex math problems at MIT. Everyone, including the Pentagon, wants Will to work for them. However, because of the many psychological issues Will carries from his abusive father, he is self-destructive and unable to use his unique mind for the good of humanity. But when he has a psychological breakthrough with Sean (Robin Williams), he is free to love his girlfriend and use his intellect for the common good.
Now imagine a different kind of ending to Good Will Hunting. Imagine that Will’s mentor, Sean, was a priest or theologian. Instead of the climactic scene in which Will has a psychologically freeing experience, he gives his life to Jesus Christ in Sean’s office. Will then dedicates the rest of his life to applying his genius to studying and defending Christ and him crucified to a skeptical world.
The wonderful thing is, this did actually happen. Will is a fictional character invented by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, whereas Blaise Pascal is a historical person, uniquely created by “the only wise God” (Romans 16:27). Like Will, Blaise Pascal was a child prodigy, scientist, mathematician, inventor, philosopher, and literary genius. He invented the first calculator, which became a forerunner for computer engineering, at age 16. He was a major contributor to probability theory which set the stage for Leibniz to invent calculus. In his 20s, Pascal wrote mathematical and scientific papers that boggled the minds of the intellectual elite of his day, including the great philosopher Descartes.
When he turned his mind to write his first literary work, The Provincial Letters, it became known as one of the greatest works of French prose ever written. Like GK Chesterton after him, whatever subject he touched he excelled and dominated that field. Eight years before he died, Pascal had a “Damascus Road” conversion. He spent the rest of his short life applying his mind toward a book that never was.
Are you interested in reading him yet? Perhaps you need a bit more.
Nietzsche, who despised almost all Christian authors, was most impressed with Pascal. He went so far as to say that he would never forgive Christianity for taking Pascal.
TS Eliot said this about Pascal:
“I can think of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but who 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.”
Pascal is one of the few Christians about whom Christopher Hitchens could make positive statements. Pascal’s Pensées is one of the only Christian books Hitchens ever reviewed favorably.
I find it amazing and even providential that St. Augustine essentially said everything (at least in “seed” form) that needs to be said about theology by the 5th century AD. Similarly, I believe Pascal, arriving at the beginning of the Enlightenment, said all that needs to be said to demonstrate the beauty and truth of Christianity. He is the foremost defender, as Peter Kreeft terms it, Christianity for Modern Pagans.
Hopefully, by now you are ready to stop reading this article and buy a copy of Pascal’s Pensées! But don’t go just yet. I have few more things I’d like to tell you about Pascal first:
- His conversion experience
- His book that never was
- His unique apologetic method
His apologetic method is, in my opinion, is the greatest approach ever conceived among men to win the hearts and minds of skeptics.
Blaise Pascal’s “Damascus Road” Experience
A written description of Pascal’s conversion was found sewn into his jacket. As a result, we know the exact time of his transformation into a zealous faith in Jesus Christ. This was such an earth-shattering event for Pascal that he wrote down his experience on a piece of paper and kept it in his jacket, near his heart, till his death. No conversion experience since the Apostle Paul is considered to be as genuine as Pascal’s due to the fact that Pascal never shared it with anyone. Even atheist Sam Harris wrote about this experience:
“It is true that Pascal had what was for him an astonishing contemplative experience on the night of Nov. 23, 1654—one that converted him entirely to Jesus Christ. I do not doubt the power of such experiences.”
It happened on Monday night, Nov 23rd, 1654 from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Don’t ever say again that nothing good happens after midnight! Here is a taste of what it means to meet God.
Here is the full account of Pascal’s conversion referred to by Pascalian scholars as The Memorial.
“Fire! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, joy, certainty, emotion, sight, joy. God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your God will be my God. Ruth. Oblivious to the world and to everything except God. He can only be found in the ways taught in the Gospel. Greatness of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world did not know you, but I knew you. John. Joy, Joy, Joy and tears of Joy. I have cut myself off from him. They have forsaken Me, the fountain. My God, will you forsake me? Let me not be cut off from him for ever. This life eternal, that they might know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I have cut myself off from him. I have fled from him, denied him, crucified him. Let me never be cut off from him. He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel. Sweet and total renunciation. Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director. Everlasting joy for one day’s tribulation on earth. I will not forget Your word. Amen.”
Apologetics, theology, prayer, Bible study, service, etc. These are all a means to one end: experiencing what Catholics call the beatific vision, what others call being swallowed up in God, what John described as “beholding his face” (Revelation 22:4), and what Paul described as the consummation of all creation and history, God being “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
Pascal seems to have experienced a foretaste of this for about two and half hours one night. Therefore, he is one who is able to teach us not only to love God with all our minds but also with all of our heart and soul.
Pascal’s Apology for the Christian Religion
Very soon after his conversion, Pascal must have begun scribbling notes for this great apologetic work he was planning called an Apology for the Christian Religion. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) Pascal died before he even wrote the first sentence of the first chapter of this work. His family found pieces of paper all over his desk and room (and in his clothes!) with notes Pascal had jotted down for this work. One of the gems we’ve discovered is a piece of paper with the chapter divisions of this work. Pascal had planned 28 chapters. We also know it was designed to be a dialogue between a Christian (like Pascal) and a Skeptic (patterned after the French skeptics of the 17th century), probably in a similar format to Plato’s dialogues.
Pascalian scholars have vigorously debated everything else about this work that never was, and rightly so. We can never really know how Pascal would have written it had he not died. However, what we do have is Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (French for “notes”), around 1,000 “notes” in all. And despite being scattered, disjointed “notes,” Pensées is still known as one of the greatest apologetic and philosophical works of all time. Imagine if he finished it!
Pascal and Chesterton
This reminds me of what someone said about GK Chesterton: “What wonderful things Chesterton would have had to say if only he had been an educated man!”
There’s another interesting parallel between Pascal and Chesterton worth mentioning: Chesterton died a few weeks after he completed his Autobiography, while Pascal died before he could even write the first sentence of his great apologetic work. Clearly, God in his wisdom knew what was best.
Pascal’s Apologetic Method
This is the first of many articles I will be writing on apologetics. The method or approach I am following is the method that Pascal had for his Apology for the Christian Religion. He states his method most succinctly in one of his “notes”:
“Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is worthy of reverence and respect; then we must make it attractive, to make good men wish it were true; and then prove that it is true. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises the true good” (Pensées 187).
This is absolutely unique among apologetic methods throughout church history. In fact, Catholic philosopher, Frederick Copleston, had this to say about the uniqueness of Pascal’s approach:
“I think that Pascal’s originality and genius as an apologist shows itself precisely in his concern with the moral preparation for faith.”
“Make good men [and women] wish it [Christianity] were true…”
We find a beautifully balanced combination in Pascal that is rarely seen in Christians of the past or among those alive today. It is the balance between heart and mind, heat and light, and affections and intellect. Pascal, perhaps more than any other apologist, desired to capture the heart of the skeptics of his day and yet in no way neglect their minds.
We know the Apostle Paul spoke in tongues more than all the rest of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:18), and yet he also composed the greatest theological treatise ever written: Romans. Paul had this balance, and so did Pascal.
Despite being Catholic, Charles Spurgeon has been known to quote Pascal and speak fondly of him in his writings and sermons. Spurgeon seems to be right in line with Pascal here in this approach:
“To answer skeptical cavillings will be labor lost until grace enters to make the mind willing to believe; fools can raise more objections in an hour than wise men can answer in seven years, indeed it is their mirth to set stools for wise men to stumble over. Let the preacher aim at the heart, and preach the all-conquering love of Jesus, and he will by God’s grace win more doubters to the faith of the gospel than any hundreds of the best reasoners who only direct their arguments to the head.”
Pascal believed we must capture their hearts before we can convince their minds.
“And then prove to them that it is true.”
Even though Pascal’s approach uniquely begins by targeting the heart, he ends by demonstrating through solid reason and logic that Christianity is true, “proving from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18:28). Jesus Christ was the center of everything for Pascal. In fact, listen to this note written by Pascal in the margin of one of his manuscripts.
“Jesus Christ is the object of everything, and the center to which everything tends. Whoever knows Him knows the reason for everything.” (Pensées 690)
What a mighty truth scribbled in the margin!
Pascal’s entire plan for this work and apologetic method orbits around Jesus Christ and him crucified. As Pascal says elsewhere:
“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)
As Peter Kreeft rightly comments in probably the greatest commentary on Pascal’s Pensées:
“Miracles are like arguments: they do not create faith, though they can refute errors and unfaith. The Cross is more powerful than any miracle or any argument. Ultimately, what makes us believe is not miracles or arguments but the power of the Cross.”
My upcoming articles will be following the apologetic model that I believe Pascal had planned for his Apology for the Christian Religion.
The first half will focus on how to “Make good men [and women] wish it were true. . .” The second half will focus on how to “then prove to them that it is true.”
The next article will begin where most Pascalian scholars agree Pascal planned to begin in order to rouse his skeptical friends from their illusion of security and make them wish Christianity were true. It just so happened to be the one subject they least wanted to think or talk about: death.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. R.J. Holingdale, Penguin Books, London, England, 1992, p. 57. ↩
- Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY, 2004, p. 257 fn. 35. ↩
- Michael H. Macdonald and Andrew A. Tadie eds., The Riddle of Joy: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989, p. 11. ↩
- Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Leibniz. Vol IV. Doubleday, New York, NY, 1963, p. 172. ↩
- Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined & Explained. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 1993, p. 316. ↩