Why Blaise Pascal is Joy and Hope to My Family

I have a friend on Twitter, Ben Nasmith, who is a seminary graduate and a Math PhD candidate. He is the perfect friend to bridge the gap of the theology-minded person I am and the math-minded person my partner Jake Bruehl is. πŸ˜‚ Anyway, we talk theology on Twitter sometimes-he is brilliant. He also likes to talk math; I need to get Jake Bruehl more active online. I promised Ben this post because, like Jake, he experiences the disrespect math gets on a different level than most of us. Ha! So here is the story of how Pascal speaks to us.

When quarantine began, my first class at home was Christian Heritage and it was the week we talked about Blaise Pascal, who was almost inhumanly smart, but even he knew that reason only got us so far. Life is too absurd to be completely explained by reason. Word! Jake was also at home teaching online and heard us talking about Pascal:

Jake: Wait, what? Pascal is a church father? He has a really neat triangle.

Then Jake spends the day teaching the kids and me Pascal’s Triangle. It really is a neat triangle. It also brought us so much joy in a time where I was not necessarily feeling despair but a deep heaviness about the situation we were facing. I knew it was much bigger than what many of us were willing to voice. At this point, we thought it would be three weeks at home–I knew that was wishful thinking, but if you told me it would be over a year, then despair might have been my feeling at this time. Some days, like today, I have these feelings of despair. Writing blog posts like this helps me remember joyful moments in deeply grievous times helps me reorient towards love. We live in the world as it is, not how we want it to be. Joy and hope are still very much present despite all of it. This is a situation where faith and reason came together and great joy was found.

Pascal was an inventor, physicist, Christian philosopher, and mathematician. He was born in 1623 and died in 1662, a short-lived brilliant life. Some of his inventions are still in use today by advanced nations today. I mean Jake still uses his triangle. But even Pascal bumped into the absurdity of life. Not everything can be figured out by reason in this thing called life. So he came up with a wager. Here is the wager.

Okay, first of all, I no longer hold these beliefs about atheism. This needs to be said, and this part of his theology absolutely needs to be cast out. Also, eternal suffering is another reason we are in this terrible situation we are in today in the world of Christianity and politics. But this is how too many Christian leaders understood it at the time (and still do!)–and this is one thing we are worse off for, in terribly traumatic ways. Hell, or eternal suffering, is an abusive theology that should never be taught to anyone, especially children. We have government leaders and Christian leaders worried about CRT, Critical Race Theory, and LGBTQIA+ education but nary a word about something that actually is harmful and makes people feel badly–eternal torture. They fear life and death follows–theologically and physically. What a horrible God who goes beyond what we would ever do to punish our own children. Or, even more absurdly, to punish our child for someone else’s sins–horrible. Why did this ever become mainstream thinking? Also, we need another conversation about how punishment is the most uncreative way to deal with problems. It does not work. The best you are going to get is behavior out of fear and not out of joy and abundance. Another reason a lot of people are not anxious to return to church. To quote Elsa: The fear that once controlled them can’t get to them anymore. And to my atheist friends, I am terribly sorry for the ways Christianity has spread this message. Christianity for far too long has been influenced by philosophers instead of Jesus Christ.

Back to Pascal and the less controversial Triangle. Jake walking around teaching us his triangle is a memory that gave us so much hope and laughter when we needed it most. Jake even taught Pascal’s triangle to my seminary friends in study hall one Thursday night too. πŸ˜‚ I also had fun talking to my classes about this amazing triangle he has. What I do want to say about Pascal’s faith that he did get right is we cannot figure everything out no matter how smart we are: life is way too absurd. We should always seek to learn more, but learn to also live with unknowns. Faith can help us do that, but I will add that it is not the only way to learn to live with unknowns. I know atheists who can live with unknowns better than Christians. I also would not be back in my own Christian faith without atheists. They were good to me and helped me figure out who I am as a Christian. Neither one of us are trying to change each other. Both of us can help each other as friends in this thing we call life. We also cannot wager our way into happiness. Therapy and meds are wonderful inventions as well to help us live in a complex world where incredibly good and incredibly awful things happen.

Jake and I spent our first quarantine anniversary celebrating with Pascal. Faith and reason are not opposed; they work together. Here are some pictures of this joy.

Happy Anniversary to us! Thanks for some laughs and learning, Pascal.
Me so excited to learn Pascal’s triangle.
Looking at this picture isn’t it obvious Pascal’s triangle is the Ruel of 11. Of course! πŸ˜‰
My study hall group mesmerized by Pascal’s triangle
Jake teaching my study hall group Pascal’s triangle.

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