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The Religious Affiliation of Mathematician, Philosopher
Blaise Pascal


From: Raymond J. Seeger, "Pascal, Passionate Pilgrim" in The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 34 (December 1982): pages 96-97 (http://www.asa3.org:16080/ASA/PSCF/1982/JASA6-82Seeger.html; viewed 26 September 2005):
...Blaise Pascal, physicist and layman, was an intellectual pilgrim passionately concerned with the relation of religion and science in his search for truth...

Pascal's theological interests were aroused in 1646 by two bonesetters in Rouen, who were required for an accident to his father. They introduced him to a Protestant-oriented Catholic sect known as Jansenism; it was based upon a strict interpretation of the Bible and upon rigorous practice of its preaching. This socalled "first conversion" of Pascal was essentially intellectual.

Following his father's death Pascal had a strange interlude characterized by his procurement of women servants, a carriage, et al. He became fascinated by the theater and gambling. After a couple of years, however, he developed a scorn for these worldly activities and resorted to reading the Bible (he knew much of it by heart), the Stoic Epictetus, and the sceptic Montaigne. He concluded that the study of man was more important than the study of science.

His experience of the world of the spirit began with a mystical illumination which he had late on the night of Nov. 23, 1654 after agonizing over the plight of man. This "second conversion" was truly of the heart. He wrote a memorial of his certitutude encountered in a vision of fire (cf. the burning bush of Moses); the Word of God is the Living Word revealed in the mystic grace of Jesus Christ-heart felt rather than mind-full. He rejoiced with tears and renunciated his past. He became an ascetic, wearing a concealed iron belt with points. (Upon his death a parchment recounting his experience was found sewed under the lining of his doublet.) Pascal went to live with the solitaires of the Jansenist Port-Royal-des-Champs, where he was known as M. de Mont.

In 1656 he was requested to defend Jansenism against attacks of the Jesuits. His scheme was to write letters telling the actual facts to a provincial friend-Les lettres provinciales by M. Louis de Montalte. With great humor his first letter tells of an interview with an anti-Jansenist about the controversial doctrine of grace. in the second he interviews a Dominican (Thomist). The next seven letters deal directly with the Jesuits through various interviews. Letters 10-16 analyze crittically the Jesuit ethics, particularly casuistry. The last two defend Jansenism in view of it's condemnation by Pope Alexander VIL He was encourage by the miraculous healing of a supposedly incurable lacrima fistula in the corner of the left eye of his niece Marguerite when she touched a Holy Thorn from a relic said to be Jesus' crown of thorns. Pascal had a new seal made with the inscription, "Scio cui credidi" (I know whom I have believed - 11 Tim. 1: 12).

In 1657 Pascal conceived the idea of an apology based upon reason to counter atheism; he had become convinced of the errors of Stoicism and Pyrrhonism. He started making notes on scraps of papers, backs of bills, etc.; to be sure, he had a prodigious memory, but it began to cloud shortly thereafter and his illness prevented the completion of this project. The executors of his will, his sister Gelberte and the Duc de Roannez, published these fragments as his Pensies in 1670... it represents Pascal's spiritual growth.

The Pensies begin with an explanation that religion is not contrary to reason. Pascal himself was opposed to scholasticism with its metaphysical proofs of God's existence. He was opposed to philosophy, particularly that of Rene' Descartes, the so-called father of modern philosophy. For him religion had become primarily a matter of the heart, of grace-full faith, which transcends reason. "The heart has its reason which reason does not know" (# 277). His approach, however, is similar to his scientific method, i.e., facts leading to theory via induction-called the immanental method. There is, of course, no experimental check, so that one is advised to wager on God's existence; the odds favor the great reward if successful and little loss if not. Indecision is itself a decision...

The thoughtful Pascal, however, cannot be regarded as a great thinker, but he reveals in his Pensies the emotional faith of a great Christian. He lived and died a Roman Catholic; he practised love (charity). He was wont to borrow funds to give alms ananymously; he turned his own home over to a family with smallpox. Toward the end of his protracted illness he was reluctant to have communion with its associated confession, which might distress his family with its suggestion of last rites. He did receive it on August 19, 1662, after which he died with the words, "May God not abandon me!" He was buried in his parish church, St. Etienne du Mont. The attending pastor... attested to the orthodoxy of this humble and sincere man, whose outstanding sin was his intellectual pride. Later he retracted his opinion so that Archbishop... insisted that this revision be inserted as a preface to the pending publication of the Pensies. (The priest later retracted his retraction.) The publisher, however, merely failed to publish the first edition, but began with a second edition -- without the preface...

In early life Pascal sought social fame and personal love, but his spirit gradually darkened upon becoming aware of the vanity of the world's rewards. He sank into despair, which became alleviated only by his realization of the saving grace of Jesus Christ." He hastened to warn others, but only aggravated his continual illness; he died at 39 -- comparatively young.

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Webpage created 26 September 2005. Last modified 26 September 2005.
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