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Christian scientist Blaise Pascal (1623 -1662)

Posted by Travis Threats on

"Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds are concerned with the ordinary.”

“The strength of a man's virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts.”

         -Blaise Pascal

Devout Christian Blaise Pascal was a mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer. I have purposely put Christian before his name to emphasize its ultimate importance. In Wikipedia he described as a “French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer, and Catholic theologian.” Note his religion is the last thing mentioned, most likely because of the common thought that one’s academic accomplishments are more important than one’s faith.

Although raised in the Catholic faith, Pascal had a dramatic conversion to becoming more devout, which influenced his writings for the rest of his life.
His born-again experience is described on the academic peer reviewed website International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://iep.utm.edu/pascal-b/ as such:

The crucial event of Pascal’s life and career occurred on November 23,1654, between the hours of 10:30 pm and 12:30 am. Pascal lay in bed at his home in the Marais district in Paris when he experienced the religious ecstasy or revelation that his biographers refer to as his “second conversion” or “night of fire.” He produced a written record of this momentous experience on a sheet of paper, which he then inserted into a piece of folded parchment inscribed with a duplicate account of the same vision. This dual record, known as the Memorial, he kept sewed into the lining of his jacket as a kind of secret token or private testament of his new life and total commitment to Jesus Christ. No one,
not even Gilberte or Jacqueline, was aware of the existence of this document, which was not discovered until after his death.

This personal revelation is the most important aspect of his life. In addition, he contributed greatly to mathematics and science. This despite no formal higher education in sciences and never having held an academic position. He was in such ill health that he was what is today referred to as “home schooled” His first discovery was at age 16. In mathematics, he contributed to understanding of the conics in geometry and probability theory. His major invention was the first functional mechanical calculating machine. In science, he demonstrated
that barometric pressure decreased with altitude and the possibility of a vacuum. His work in physics included Pascal’s Law, which informed the basic physical principals in what became the field of hydrostatics. This discovery led to the invention of the hydraulic press used in everyday machinery such as hydraulic brakes in cars.

He was an ardent believer in the scientific method of direct observation, rather than relying on reason for discovery. Thus, he was a true scientist. However, unlike many other scientists, he realized the limitations of science and that belief in God required faith, which was beyond even the highest of human’s intellectual abilities.

After his revelation in 1654, his writings switched primarily to that of faith, becoming a Catholic theologian that is still revered to this day by the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, it published in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World the following statement “Christ fully reveals man to himself.” This position was based on Pascal’s words in his theological work Pensées - “Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through  Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know the meaning of our life or of our death, of God, or of ourselves”- Pensées, 417 (Catholic Education Resource Center, catholiceducation.org)

These accomplishments both in theology and science were accomplished by a man who died at the relatively young age of 39.

This blog will now concentrate on just two of his theological quotes, the ones at the top this entry.

In both quotes he talks about our everyday word, our everyday behavior. In the first, he speaks of “the ordinary.” Think of all the things which are considered “ordinary” : The sun rising, the birth of a child, our ability to walk and talk, birds in flight. Our world was created by God and thus it is precious, special.

Every year about 1.5 million attend the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. In 1912 Japan in a gesture of friendship gave approximately 3000 cherry trees to this country. I have never been, but I would like to attend this festival. No doubt some of the events are crowded and many people jostle to get a picture of these beautiful trees. My point is not to disparage this event but to state that beautiful flowering trees are in many places. Some people think that a vacation needs to be in some “exotic” place, although during the pandemic the term “staycation” came into more common use- discover the joys in your own hometown or in proximity. Here in my state of Missouri, the flowering dogwood is beautiful, as featured in this blog post. However, since they are “ordinary” people do not flock to St. Louis to see them. People seek out the extraordinary in some cases because they are so dissatisfied with their day- to-day life. These days it seems many people are trying to compete on social media concerning all the “great” places they have been the “great” things they are doing. This searching for happiness in the “other” does not lead to happiness. They cannot enjoy the wonders that God provides everyday around them, it is not “enough.” This unappreciation leads to disconnection
with God.

In the second chosen quote, Pascal is referring to why we often admire people. We admire those who win an Olympic medal, make a great scientific breakthrough, or make a significant contribution to the arts. These are all wonderful things and should be admired. It is the achievement itself that should be admired. We must be careful to not elevate the person above others, as if their specific spiritual gifts make them more important than others. The
achiever is more accomplished than most, a positive trait, but that not more worthy than others. We are all equal in the eyes of God, all capable of sin, of folly, of unkindness to others. We are also equal in the eyes of God, all capable of virtue, of wisdom, of altruism.

Pascal was a famous scientist. He no doubt was proud of his accomplishments. Here I am hundreds of years past his death, and I am writing about him and quoting him. His discoveries were the result of hard work. This should also be a source of pride. However, it is his life of faith that is the most defining characteristic of him. It is how he lived his life with faith in God. This life of faith is available to all of us, not just the especially talented or accomplished. The life examined via God’s word and faithfully lived that is the true measure of a person. A person could be of great renown but if this person in their daily life is devoid of the love for others, an appreciation of the grace of God, and faithfulness as shown by good works in their daily lives, then his or her life is for naught.

To combine the meaning of both quotes, via our faith let us make our everyday lives and our everyday acts the cause of celebration of that faith. As the simple but powerful hymn says “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me for the Bible tells me so.” This gift of love is for us all, all the time. His gift is everywhere because God is everywhere.

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