Tag Archives: Faith and Reason

A mathematician’s use of proof and faith

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician born in 1623. He is famous for his study of the concepts of fluids, pressure and vacuum.  He is noted for having written one of the strongest defenses for the scientific method. As a child prodigy, he had a deep fascination for mathematics and physics, and by the time he was a teenager, he had invented over 20 different machines, including the mechanical calculator. Pascal is credited with adding significant new thinking in the areas of geometry and influenced the development of what we now call modern economics and social science. For many classical thinkers, Pascal was not only a mathematician but a philosopher of mathematics. Some of his later works looked at how we might be able to discover truth. His book, Little Schools of Port-Royal was a geometry textbook of sorts that was not published until after his death. In it, he argued that all propositions needed to be based on already established truths. The problem with this proposition, he continued, was that every established truth would require other truths to back them up, wherein the idea of “first principles” would never be reached. Although he believed geometry was the closest to coming to understand truth, he concluded that ultimately, any principle upon which we build other principles can only be grasped (or “defined” as he argued) through intuition. It was at this point that Pascal was convinced of the necessity of submitting to God in searching out truth.

Pascal is remembered and celebrated as a scientist. His name has been given to the unit used to measure pressure, a computer programming language, Pascal’s law of hydrostatics, Pascal’s triangle and, of course, Pascal’s wager. In the world of literature, Pascal is regarded as a great author of the French Classical Period and is considered a master of French prose. His writing used satire and wit to oppose the rationalism of the philosopher Descartes (Descartes’ writings would influence John Locke, who would in turn influence one of our founders, Alexander Campbell).

However, what many folks may not know is that Pascal was also a theologian of sorts. Although he was by confession a Roman Catholic, he was a member of the Jansenist Movement within the Roman Church. Jansenists preached a form of theology which they credited to Augustine of Hippo. It is important to remember that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk before the Reformation. Augustine’s theology had a significant impact on Luther, Calvin and Zwingli and Augustine is often referred to as the “Protestant Church’s Saint.” Some historians argue that the Jansenists, to which Pascal belonged, were Roman Catholics with deep sympathy for many of the key doctrines articulated by the Protestant Reformers, of which justification by faith and limited atonement were most notable. Pascal’s most influential work was Defense of the Christian Religion. In it, he approached the Christian faith from two opposing philosophies to thoroughly confuse the reader and drive the reader to such despair that he or she would embrace God. Such a method is not my first choice in trying to share the truth of God’s existence with the world, but it does serve as an example that every generation is often overwhelmed with the multiplicity of truth claims. All those claims to truth have been used by many to explain why they do not believe, yet for Pascal, it was what drove him to faith. His philosophy and his scientific approach led him to believe in a Supreme Being, but it wasn’t what led him to Christ.

In 1654, only eight years before his death, he was involved in a carriage accident. One night following the accident, he had a “vision” that led him to embrace Christ. On his death in 1662, a note written on that night was found in his clothes. A portion of that note is as follows: “Fire. The God of Abraham…the God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God…This is eternal life, that they know you the one true God and J.C. [sic] whom you have sent…May I never be separated from him.” It is said that Pascal spent the rest of his life in devotion and service to God. One of my favorite quotes from Pascal is, “Faith is different from proof; the latter is human; the former is a gift from God.” I have been a part of a church that has always encouraged me to love God with my mind as well as my heart. There are many Christians who love God with only their mind. They navigate easily through the philosophies of the world and even Scripture to a sure belief in a Supreme Being but wonder why their hearts are empty. There are many Christians who love God with only their hearts. Their faith risks becoming nothing more than sentimentality and they live in fear of new ideas that might overwhelm them. Pascal reminds us that the Triune God comes to us through both the mind and the heart. Proof leads us to the Master. Faith gives us the strength to follow the Master.