The Faith of Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal was a committed Christian who took his faith seriously. As mentioned earlier he belonged to the Jansenist sect of the Catholic Church and his beliefs were greatly influenced by his association with this group. Let's look at some of the Jansenist beliefs. As far as salvation was concerned the Jansenists followed a very literal interpretation of Augustine and thus had a lot in common with the Calvinists among the protestant reformers. For example, they believed in the following

  1. all share in Adam's original sin
  2. man is totally depraved and is incapable of seeking or desiring God on his own
  3. salvation was only possible for the elect chosen by God
  4. Christ's grace offered to the elect could not be resisted
  5. Christ's atoning death only applied to the elect

Here is a quote by Pascal on the above beliefs

… men are saved or damned according as to whether it has pleased God to choose them as recipients of this [efficacious] grace from out of the corrupt mass of men, in which He could with justice abandon them all.

The Jansenists differed from Calvinists in that they believed that the salvation of the elect was not secure and could be lost. They also accepted most of the other beliefs of the Catholic Church not related to salvation. Beliefs such as apostolic succession, sainthood, veneration of Mary, and the nature of the sacrament of communion.

Unlike the Calvinists, the Jansenists taught a form of piety that involved withdrawal from the world and its diversions. This was the one belief of the Jansenists that Pascal had great difficulty with. He couldn't see why it was necessary to abandon mathematics and science when his abilities in these fields were a gift from God. The fact that he remained active in these fields caused many Jansenists to question his commitment.

Throughout most of his life Blaise approached religion the same way he approached everything else — through reason. On the night of November 23, 1654 this all changed. Blaise experienced a mystical encounter with God known as his “night of fire.” He didn't tell anyone what happened that night, but he wrote down an account on a piece of paper and sewed it into the lining of his jacket. The paper was found after his death as they were going through his clothes. The details of what happened leading up to this encounter are not known, but here is what he wrote.

The year of grace 1654,
Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others. From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,


GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day's exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

On this night God touched Blaise's heart and he was not the same afterwards. His friends and family could see that he had changed, but they didn't know the cause of this change. Blaise committed himself all the more to the Jansenist cause, but he never completely gave up his non-Christian friends and his involvement in mathematics and science.

One of the evidences of his changed life was an increased compassion for the poor. Even though his physical health was declining, he often got out of bed and walked among the poorest of the poor in Paris and gave them what money he had. His sister Gilberte told the following story:

One day when he was coming home from Mass he encountered a fifteen year-old girl begging for money. She told him that her father had died and her mother was near death. Blaise took her to the rectory and gave the priest money to take care of her. He begged the priest to find a safe place for the girl to live. In a few days he sent a woman servant to check on the girl and to provide more money. Blaise never told the priest or the girl his name, so the girl never knew who it was that had been so kind to her.

Towards the end of his life Blaise was in the process of writing a defense of Christianity. This was never finished, but his notes were collected and published as the Pensées. His two main purposes in these writings was to show the wretchedness of man without God and the happiness of the life with God. There is more about the Pensées in the section Contributions to Literature. The Pensées are often quoted by Christians of all denominations as well as by philosophers.

Throughout his life Blaise Pascal loved mathematics and science, but he grew to love God even more.