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Blaise Pascal

Either God exists or he doesn’t. Which alternative will you wager on? You can’t avoid choosing one or the other; you have embarked on the wager already. A refusal to choose carries the same result as choosing that God does not exist. What if you choose to bet that God exists? If you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. Make a bet that God exists.”

Infrequently has the power of this argument, known as Pascal’s wager, been denied, even by those who don’t find it compelling. The risk of not believing in God, if he does exist, far outweighs the risk believing in God if he does not exist. The gamble is between eternal damnation on one hand and philosophical misjudgment on the other. If we believe and are wrong we’ve lost little, but if we don’t believe and are wrong we’ve lost everything. Pascal believed that reasonable men should bet on God’s existence.

Blaise Pascal did not limit his apologetical arsenal to reason alone. “The heart has reasons which the head knows not” is perhaps the most famous line of this genius mathematician and physicist. In the Age of Reason, Pascal loudly proclaimed that reason alone is a blind guide. He attempted to lessen the dominating influence of medieval scholasticism on Christianity and to restore the important role that faith plays in understanding the doctrines of the Church.

Pascal was born in 1623 in Clermont, France. After the death of his mother three years later, Blaise and his two sisters were raised by their father Etienne, a mathematician working for the government. The senior Pascal moved his family to Paris in 1631 in order to oversee personally the education of his children. Blaise’s mathematical genius was evident at an early age. He is said to have discovered Euclid’s first 32 propositions on his own by the age of twelve. At sixteen he composed a brilliant treatise on conic sections. Three years later his invention of the first mechanical calculator gained him widespread fame.

In 1646 Pascal came under the influence of an austere form of Christianity called Jansenism. The movement derives its name from the bishop of Ypres, Cornelius Jansen, whose book Augustinus, the textbook for the Jansenist group, was an attempt to rediscover Augustine’s ideas on grace. Jansenism held that the fall of man had left him without freedom of choice. Man was incapable of refusing grace offered by God. The implication is that God condemns men for committing sins that were impossible for them to avoid because they lacked grace that God did not provide. This is not the all-merciful, just God of the Bible but the cruel God of Calvin.

Jansenists believed that the humanity of Christ was overemphasized at the expense of his divinity. This mistaken notion led them to perform extreme acts of mortification, to oppose devotion to the Sacred Heart, and to propose a return to the ancient practice of performing public penances.

When the Jesuits rose to challenge them, the Jansenists enlisted Pascal’s help. His Provincial Letters was aimed directly at the Society of Jesus. He accused Jesuits of moral laxity with Machiavellian intent: They allowed differing moral opinions within the order to play to the consciences of all men so as to retain their great influence. Although it was a masterpiece of French satire, the book had little impact on the resolution of the controversy. In 1654 Pope Innocent X issued the first formal condemnation of the Jansenist heresy.

The great and lasting work of Blaise Pascal is his Pensees, or Meditations. It is a collection of preliminary notes for a proposed book titled Apology for the Christian Religion. While containing Jansenist musings, this orthodox work contains valuable material for the budding apologist.

Against the atheist’s disbelief in Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, Pascal marveled at the birth of a baby. “Which is harder, to be born or to rise again? That what has never been should be, or that what has been should be again? Is it harder to come into existence or to come back?”

Responding to Jansenists using Augustine’s writings to justify disobedience, Pascal says, “If Augustine were to appear today and enjoy as little authority as his modern defenders concede, he would not accomplish anything.”

On confession: “The Catholic religion does not oblige us to reveal our sins indiscriminately to everyone. It allows us to remain hidden from all other men, with one single exception, to whom it bids us reveal our innermost heart. It lays on this man the obligation of inviolable secrecy, which means that he may as well not possess the knowledge of us that he has. Can anything milder and more charitable be imagined? And yet, such is the corruption of man that he finds this law harsh, and this is one of the main reasons why a large part of Europe has revolted against the Church. How unjust and unreasonable the heart of man, that he should resent the obligation to behave toward one man as it would be right, in some ways, to behave toward all. For is it right that we should deceive the others?”

When science claimed to have outgrown the necessity of religion and its revealed truths, the greatest scientist of the day produced a classic defense of the ancient Christian faith. Pascal died in Paris in 1662, having received the last sacraments of the Church.

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