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Pascal’s Fire

I’ve been thinking a lot about Blaise Pascal (1623-62) lately, a great mathematician and scientist, as well as a great Christian apologist and controversialist. Imagine, say, Stephen Hawking crossed with Hillaire Belloc, and you start to take the measure of the man – a very useful type in an age of seemingly endless controversy.

In the mid-seventeenth century, people began to feel the collapse of the old geocentric science, “tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” John Donne wrote at the time. The ancient Ptolemaic system with earth at the bottom (not “the center,” as C. S. Lewis shows in his great little book The Discarded Image [1]) was a pagan, not a Christian model. Dante used it marvelously to sort sins and vices, virtues and holiness. But it wasn’t essential to Christianity.

Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, developing our understanding of conic sections and cycloids in geometry, and studying probability (in his not very worldly “worldly” period, he tried out the numbers in betting establishments.) In his early teens, he invented a kind of computer, correctly understood vacuums (as Descartes did not), and much more.

But Pascal also thought about cosmology in a novel way, still not much appreciated by the world. The old hierarchical order was psychologically satisfying, but the new universe – essentially the sprawling, horizontal one we still have – lacked a proper vision of our human place in creation.

“Pascal’s Wager” – that it’s better, even in mere mathematics, to bet on the existence of an infinite God than not – is well known. That argument never really moved anyone, however, and maybe was not even intended to do more than merely to state a fact.

But in cosmology, Pascal made a brilliant move. The modern universe is much larger than the older one, and God larger still. Indeed, Pascal realized that the universe revealed by the new science was still finite. It’s a textbook definition that God is infinite, which is to say, not finite. He’s not an object in the world, not even the whole world, but immeasurably beyond the world.

Spiritually speaking, that means we cannot go to God on our own steam. In mathematics, if you move 1, or 1000, or 1,000,000 miles closer to an infinitely distant point, it’s still infinitely distant. We may turn our minds and hearts to God and find Him, of course. But that’s because He crosses the infinite distance between Himself and us. He alone has the infinite power needed to do so.

An abstract view, you may say. Until you realize that this might be a mathematical way of suggesting why Jesus needed to come to us. We couldn’t go to Him; He made the crucial move first.

At the same time, Pascal looked at the infinitely small, all the way down to absolute nothingness: no matter, energy, time, space. In a way, we – as created beings – are infinitely greater than nothing because it took God’s infinite power to bring us into being out of nothing. No being in our cosmos can cause another being to exist ex nihilo. It’s a power that transcends all the beings and forces in the universe.

Image: Pascal by Louis Devedeux, 19th century [Musée Quilliot, Clermont, France]

It was in this strange in-betweenness of human life that Pascal rooted his view of us as wretched and exalted: wretched in our poverty, weakness, and sin; exalted in our position not only as created beings, but a special kind of being that can understand its own position in Creation. His most famous work, the Pensées [2], is an unfinished effort to show how the Bible offers precise answers to the big questions.

Pascal worked out all of this while being involved in various religious controversies. The first, with the Jesuits, who in his day, he believed, were using a false casuistry to exonerate wealthy penitents and confuse moral judgments.

For a taste of how Pascal skewered them, try the Provincial Letters [3], especially number 4, which begins: “Nothing can come up to the Jesuits. I have seen Jacobins, doctors, and all sorts of people in my day, but such an interview as I have just had was wanting to complete my knowledge of mankind.”

Controversy, however, was only valuable for him as a means to an end. There’s an old Zen Buddhist proverb: “Better to see the face than hear the name.” After all the polemics and analysis, Pascal was granted a special grace. After his death, there was found, sewn into his clothes, a memorial that read:

The year of grace 1654,

Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,


GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

Two HOURS of illumination. There is perhaps nothing like it – or Pascal – in all Christian history. We could do with another such Christian today.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.