Church Fathers P: Blaise Pascal

Church Fathers P: Blaise Pascal

Romans 1:16-25

by Daniel Harrell

We live in an age of trust in scientific verification. Statistical metrics and outcomes measures—resulting in the confidence-inducing phrase “studies show”—provide sufficient proof to validate every assertion and win any argument. A recent study (ahem) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 2047 retractions of bio-medical and life sciences articles. A scientific study of bad science if you will, the study showed a quarter of the retractions stemmed from straightforward error—somebody made a mistake. But the rest occurred due to misconduct, fraud or plagiarism on the part of scientists themselves. I’ve learned from my years of involvement with science and its claims, there’s the data but then there’s the interpretation of it. A friend (who also happens to be a theoretical physicist at Oxford), likes to remind people how a scientific explanation of observable phenomena does not explain everything. Sure, ask why a kettle is boiling, and one right answer is because a heat source has transferred thermal energy across the container wall into the fluid, increasing the mean-square velocity of the H2O molecules, which is proportional to the temperature T, which once reaching 100 degrees C, causes a collective phase transition from a condensed liquid state to an expanded gaseous state. On the other hand, another right answer to why a kettle is boiling is because somebody fancies a cup of tea.

Since the Enlightenment, theists and atheists alike have sought scientific explanation for the existence (or non-existence) of God. Employing what’s called “natural theology,” some theologians readily look to nature for telltale signs of a Creator, designs that imply a designer. A beautiful sunset may inspire faith, but its hardly proof. Recently, some Christians have singled out phenomenon like the composition of blood or the complexity of eyes and argued that science alone cannot account for for their evolution by natural processes alone. There had to be outside help. The same with the current mystery of human consciousness, or the precise physical constants necessary to sustain life in the first place. The mathematical identity of the electromagnetism, for instance, has so far defied mechanistic explanation given the extremely low probability of its ever having happened. There must be a God out there somewhere. If indeed the simplest explanation is considered the best, what could be simpler than “He’s got the whole world in his hands?” Take the so-called Big Bang. Science can trace back to the beginning of the universe 13.7 billion years ago (give or take), but it has no idea about what made the Bang boom. Christian theologians happily answer by turning to the first sentence of their Bibles. We eagerly read, “In the beginning, God…” and smile. The challenge for natural theology, however, is what to do once science figures these things out. When you have a valid theory for blood or eyes or consciousness or electromagnetism or the Big Bang—a theory not needing God—then what to do you do?

I’m continuing my summer installment of sermons on “Church Fathers,” this year with Letters P and Q. Last Sunday we looked at the early church martyr Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. This week I fast forward fourteen hundred years to a French mathematician who happened to be a top rate religious philosopher too. Blaise Pascal, born in 1623, is famous for founding probability theory but probably best known for deriving the principle that pressure of a fluid at rest is transmitted equally in all directions, explaining what happens in that kettle of water before it boils.

Religion in Pascal’s family had not been especially important until 1646 when they became acquainted with a French Christian movement that emphasized human depravity and the necessity of predestined divine grace. Pascal’s affections turned toward God, he nonetheless continued his mathematical and scientific pursuits, which resulted in an early calculator, the syringe, the hydraulic lift, the wristwatch and the first bus route to Paris, but then applied his analytical talents to pursuing knowledge of God. Pascal is best known to those good at faith but bad at math for his so-called wager. It was a bit complicated:

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness?”

I first came across it as a teenager in seventh grade Sunday School. You may remember my telling you about my teacher, who happened to be the mayor of our city, telling us that even if Christianity proved to be a hoax, doing what Jesus says will still shape you into an good and responsible citizen. Leave it to a politician to dilute Pascal’s apologetic into a civics lesson. What a dumb Sunday School lesson! I didn’t buy it. If Jesus didn’t die and rise from the dead and reckon to come back and blow me to bits on account of my wretchedness (which is how we understood things down south), then why waste even a minute of my life trying to behave? I was 15 with hormones. I didn’t want good citizenship. I wanted cute girls. I had no interest in being moral for the sake of civic pride. I wanted to be a moral young man because I was taught that if I wasn’t, I’d end up a charred young man treading flames in some lake of fire while weeping and gnashing my teeth. You heard what the Bible said: “The wrath of God would be revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppressed the truth.”

Pascal was less concerned with dodging damnation than he was with attaining redemption and grace, resurrection and joy. This could be his in Christ, but how could he know God exists and that the risen Jesus is real and right? Pascal himself admitted that faith cannot be proved. It’s like Homer Simpson once wagered with Marge: “What if we picked the wrong religion so that every time we go to church we only make God madder and madder?”

By way of retort, many of Pascal’s contemporaries turned to natural theology. As we also heard read this morning, “What can be known about God is plain, because God has shown it. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So people are without excuse.” The idea seems to be that any unbiased observer ought to be able to find God in nature. This is the excuse people use all summer for spending Sundays at the lake. Except this is not what Paul says. Read one more verse and we see that these whom Paul described as finding God in nature already believed. “Though they knew God,” Paul wrote, “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.” People already knew what was good and right and real, but they twisted it or maligned it. 70% of scientific retractions resulted from misconduct, fraud and plagiarism.

Still, data is one thing, its interpretation another. Theists look at sunsets and complex bacteria and objectively deduce a divine engineer or intelligent designer. Atheists see the same sunsets and bacteria and say nature is random and purposeless. Given all the death and disease, any designer would have to be merciless and evil.

For Pascal, unbiased scientific evidence was not why he wagered on God—if indeed there could ever be such a thing as unbiased scientific evidence. It’s one thing for there to be absolute truth, it’s another thing to think you can absolutely know it. Incontrovertible evidence would nullify any need for a wager. There would be no such thing as faith. Like it or not, God cannot be proved. Belief has to come from the heart. Pascal, an eminent mathematician and brilliant scientist, nevertheless understood that faith superseded rational understanding. “Do not be surprised at the sight of simple people who believe without argument,” he wrote. “God makes them love him and hate themselves. God inclines their hearts to believe. We shall never believe with a vigorous and unquestioning faith unless God touches our hearts, and we shall believe as soon as he does so.”

Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, echoed Pascal: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son our Lord, in order to perceive and to understand that God Almighty, the Father, is Creator of heaven and earth. If I did not believe the former, I could not perceive and understand the latter.”

In his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, Barth argued that the God we try to deduce from natural observation ends up much more reduction than deduction. “In all this mist,” he wrote, “the prime factor is provided by the illusion that it is possible for men to hold communication with God… without miracle—vertical from above, without the dissolution of all concrete things and apart from the truth that lies beyond birth and death.” Paul put it more plainly elsewhere: “We walk by faith and not by sight.”

“I wonder at the boldness with which persons undertake to speak of God,” Pascal said. “In addressing their argument to unbelievers, their first move is to prove Divinity from the works of nature. I should not be astonished at their enterprise, if they were addressing their argument to the faithful; for it is certain that those who have the living faith in their hearts see at once that all existence is none other than the work of the God whom they adore. But for those in whom this light is extinguished, and in whom we purpose to rekindle it, persons destitute of faith and grace, who, seeking with all their light whatever they see in nature that can bring them to this knowledge, they find only obscurity and darkness; to tell them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them, and they will see God openly, to give them, as a complete proof of this great and important matter, the course of the moon and planets, and to claim to have concluded the proof with such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our religion are very weak.

“It is an astounding fact that no canonical writer has ever made use of nature to prove God. They all strive to make us believe in Him. … There are three sources of belief: reason, custom, inspiration. The Christian religion, which alone has reason, does not acknowledge as her true children those who believe without inspiration. It is not that she excludes reason and custom. On the contrary, the mind must be opened to proofs, must be confirmed by custom and offer itself in humbleness to inspirations, which alone can produce a true and saving effect… [But] Faith is different from proof; proof is human, faith is a gift of God. [As the apostle writes in Romans 1, “the just shall live by faith.”] It is this faith that God Himself puts into the heart, … and makes us say not I know, but I believe.

As to the Big Bang Singularity, or the Everywhere Stretch, or any complexity in biology or physics or psychology—understand that any absence of explanation does not imply the presence of God. Faith can never be based on questions science has yet to answer. Ours is not a God of the gaps in knowledge, but Christ “who is all and who is in all.” Faith fills our hearts and mind with wonder as gift. Sunsets are composed of observable light particles refracting through water and dust. But they are also beautiful. Boiling kettles of water are the result of transferred thermal energy causing a condensed liquid state to expand into a gaseous state, but they also make tasty tea. An expanding universe may be the eternal recycling of time and space condensing and then reemerging throughout eternity, but if so, its awesomeness and magnitude would still correlate with what we’d expect to see in a universe made by the Almighty and Eternal Creator Christians worship.

This disparity regarding the meaning of data was why Blaise Pascal considered faith a wise wager.“Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false. If you gain, you gain everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation.”

In June, 1662, Pascal, doing unto others as he would do unto Jesus, sheltered a poor family who had contracted small pox. Rather than deprive them of housing, he moved out and gave them his home, but not first without contracting the violent illness himself. He lingered two more months before dying at age 39, having placed his bets