Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart

The Library of Religious Biography (produced by Eerdmans Publishing) is an excellent series of very readable books on the lives of William Gladstone, Billy Sunday and George Whitefield, among others. Marvin O’Connell has just written the latest work in this series on the life of Blaise Pascal, father of the modern computer, who is perhaps best known for his collection of writings Pensées (Thoughts). Much of Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart is devoted to the tumultuous religious environment of seventeenth-century France in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the theological controversies which engaged Pascal. The following is a brief sketch of his life, with particular emphasis given to his conversion and subsequent testimonials in his Pensées.

Readers may recall that seventeenth-century France was known as le grand siècle ("the great century"), for it witnessed the reign of Louis XIV and Cardinal Richelieu and produced such luminaries as the skeptic Voltaire and the essayist Montaigne. Little known perhaps, during this period and the century to follow, Europe also experienced a great spiritual awakening among Protestants and Catholics. Indeed, whereas philosophical works comprised five percent of the books published in Germany in 1740, devotional Christian literature commanded twenty percent of the book trade. In France this spiritual renewal took the form of Jansenism; its most famous convert was Blaise Pascal. Blaise was born in 1623 in Clermont, France. His mother died when he was three and his father Étienne, who never remarried, raised and educated him and his two sisters. Étienne was the second ranking official in Normandy and an honnête homme, a cultivated gentleman who upheld Christian principles out of duty and engaged in intellectual discourse in the Parisian salons. As his granddaughter would shrewdly write later,

"Étienne Pascal was a pious enough man, but he had not yet received the gift of illumination. He did not yet recognize the full extent of the duties of the Christian life. Having conformed himself to the mores of those worthy people who frequented the fashionable salons, he thought he could combine the values of secular success with the practice of the gospel." (p. 51)

But when he was bedridden from a fall (his son was then 22), Étienne came under the spiritual direction of his caretakers, formerly notorious revelers who had given their lives to Christ to serve the sick. The Pascal family began to consider seriously the claims of the Church, but except for daughter Jacqueline who soon joined the convent of PortRoyal, their "conversion" was only an intellectual assent. The caretakers took a particular interest in young Blaise, already evidencing the mind of a genius, and gave him devotional books and scholarly works by a Flemish professor named Jansenius.

Witnessing the subtle influence of humanism upon Catholicism in the l600s—the elevation of moral virtue and the supremacy of reason, the idea that humans were innately good—Jansenius immersed himself in Augustine’s works. In the fifth century Augustine faced a similar controversy when Pelagius, a monk, declared that we were not born into original sin and that we did not need the internal work of God’s grace to choose the good. Augustine, and ultimately the Church, condemned such teaching as heresy.

Jansenius’s defense of Augustine was published posthumously in 1640, and it stirred a fierce debate within the Catholic church, for his reading of Augustine, particularly that God’s grace was irresistible, was seen to align with the Protestant Reformer John Calvin. Jansenius’s preaching of the limits of reason, the enormity of sin and the desperate need for God’s grace was offensive to many minds in this Age of Reason, but interestingly, several nobles and intellectuals did follow his teachings, notably the great mathematician Blaise Pascal.

Blaise’s conversion to Christ—"the night of fire" as he called it— occurred in 1654 upon reading of Christ’s crucifixion. That night he furiously wrote of this reality and only after his death eight years later did others learn of this experience when a worn parchment was found sewn into his coat containing two ragged copies of the following testimony:

"The year of grace 1654. Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement. . . From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past midnight. Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals. Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace. The God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Forgetfulness of the world and everything except God. One finds oneself only by way of the directions taught in the gospel. The grandeur of the human soul. Oh just Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. I have separated myself from him. They have abandoned me, the fountain of living water. My God, will you leave me? May I not be separated from him eternally. This is eternal life, that they may know you the one true God and J.C. whom you have sent. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I have separated myself from him. I have run away from him, renounced him, crucified him. May I never be separated from him. One preserves oneself only by way of the lessons taught in the gospel. Renunciation total and sweet. And so forth." (pp. 95-96)

Shortly before his conversion, Blaise had spent hours with his sister Jacqueline at the convent of PortRoyal discussing his growing weariness with the temporal things of this world and his inability to know God. Author O’Connell writes,"The contrast between his sister’s serenity and his own restlessness served as a stark notice that acceptance of God by the human intellect did not necessarily entail an embrace of him by the human heart" (pp. 90-91). Pascal expressed his plight in a tract, "On the Conversion of the Sinner," which he penned sometime before his night of fire:"It is one thing to know God and to want to reach him. It is quite another to bring these aspirations to fulfillment when the soul remains ignorant of how to do so" (p. 93, italics mine). Yet like Moses before the burning bush, Pascal was shown that God, his holiness, his splendor, transcends all that the mind can comprehend. Reason alone was insufficient to bring him to God; it is only God’s Holy Spirit who leads us to the Cross where Christ makes us righteous, liberating the heart and mind to know Him intimately.

O’Connell’s analysis of Pascal’s conversion is right on:

"Neither Moses nor Mary Magdalen recognized at first who it was that spoke to them. Similarly Blaise Pascal had not appreciated the reality that had confronted him at his first conversion eight years before. Or rather— so it seemed to him now—he had tried to absorb that experience the way a philosopher and a savant would have absorbed it, as if it were an idea, a notion, conforming to the demands of the limited human intellect, and had tried to adapt it to the standards of the honnête homme and the successful man of the world. It was not that he now judged these considerations unworthy or un-useful; they had become for him simply irrelevant. For how could one compare, say, Descartes’s bare, cold idea of the First Cause of a thinking substance to the rapturous apprehension of Mary Magdalen in the garden, when, looking directly into the face of the risen Jesus, she said to him out of her full heart, "‘Rabboni!’" (p. 100)

for Christianity and treatises arguing against the supremacy of reason and science to lead one ultimately to truth. As he contended,"Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it" (p. XI). His defense of Jansenism, eighteen Provincial Letters, was published anonymously in 1656-57, but he never finished assembling his collection of observations, his Pensées, for his health deteriorated only a few years later. He died in 1662 at the age of 39. The first edition of Pensées was published in 1670 and has since been read worldwide. I leave you with a few excerpts.

"The Christian’s God does not consist merely of a God who is the author of mathematical truths—but the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. The God of the Christians is a God of love and consolation: he is a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom he possesses: he is a God who makes them inwardly aware of their wretchedness and his infinite mercy: who united himself with them in the depths of their soul: who fills it with humility, joy, confidence and love: who makes them incapable of having any other end but him."

"Those who judge of a work by rule are in regard to others as those who have a watch are in regard to others. One says, ‘It is two hours ago’; the other says,‘It is only three-quarters of an hour.’ I look at my watch, and say to the one,‘You are weary,’ and to the other,‘Time gallops with you’; for it is only an hour and a half ago, and I laugh at those who tell me that time goes slowly with me and that I judge by imagination. They do not know that I judge by my watch."

"Man is full of wants: he loves only those who can satisfy them all."

"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason."

"What is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up."

"It is natural for the mind to believe and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false."

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