If you can do Math, you can do Theology

I think any biographer of Pascal has a difficult task.  Brilliant, ill, and aristocratic, Pascal lived much of his life up in his head.  The Abbe Jean Steinmann does a passable job with his life, though I found myself bored at times and skipped or glazed over portions of his work.

I do give Steinmann credit, however, for bringing out some of the remarkable aspects of Pascal’s mind.  The 17th century witnessed an intellectual explosion that has no equal afterwards.  A list of intellectuals from that time still should dizzy us — Newton, Descartes, Hume, Hobbes, Galileo, Leeuwenhoek, Boyle — the list could go on and on.  We talk flippantly about the “pace of innovation” today and yet surely we can’t begin to hold a candle to that era.  While I have no familiarity with most of the names on the list of 17th century notables, Pascal stands out to me as the most passionately Christian of the lot, and he was no slouch with math either.  He invented the calculator and gets credit for advances in projective geometry and probability theory.

Having not read it all, the book gets no full review, but it did inspire a few thoughts. . .

  • Euclid

Euclid had a profound impact on Pascal’s early life.  One might almost say Euclid “inspired” him.  Euclid got Pascal to see the world and use his mind in wholly new ways.  I know that Abraham Lincoln also had a similar experience with Euclid.  When we consider that every major intellect probably from the Renaissance onwards cut his (or her) teeth on Euclid, we might surmise that perhaps only Plato and Aristotle have had more influence from the ancient world.

And yet, for whatever reason, Euclid has fallen off the face of the earth.  Why do we not use Euclid for geometry classes?  The answer is likely not, “Well, modern geometry texts hold the students attention much more effectively.  They’re more exciting, more memorable.”  Chronological snobbery probably has something to do with it.  Some might add that geometry has advanced beyond Euclid and we have new ways of approaching the subject, thanks to thinkers like Descartes and Einstein’s.  But (in keeping with Jacques Maritain’s dictum) the only way to fight against the tradition is to first know the tradition.  In my own math education I had never had a whiff of the story of math, or knew how anyone in the past solved any problems.  For me math meant memorizing formulas.  Contrast this with Steinmann’s description of how discovering, on his own, how the angles of a triangle must equal 180 degrees changed Pascal’s early life.*

  • Math and Theology

Over the last few years I have often heard comments like, “We should learn to read the Bible as literature,” or “We must learn to see the poetry in theology.”   I concur with both sentiments and applaud the drift away from viewing Scripture as a list of isolated proof texts.  But I never hear how math or science should impact our theological thinking.  Some use science to “prove” aspects of the Bible, but I have yet to hear someone show how thinking “mathematically” can help you think theologically.

This is unfortunate, and perpetuates misperceptions about math and science.  If God invented both literary and scientific minds surely both lead to him, not just in the details, but in the “big picture” as well.

Enter Pascal, whose wonderful imagination (good for lots of things besides literature) led him to make theological conclusions based on his genius for math and science.  Pascal argued for the idea of vacuums, against much of the establishment of his day.  But he took the issue further, arguing for the infinite divisibility of matter, which then became a springboard for the proper place of reason in faith.  We see him use math in other ways, such as the “spiritual perfection” of numbers showing the fallenness of the world.  For Pascal some things are simply just self-evident and beyond reason, but his “math sense” led him to these ideas.

Whatever we think of some of Pascal’s conclusions, if we taught math as Pascal learned it, I think we would see math and science rejuvenated, and our theology enriched.

  • Dominion

Pascal’s illness meant that he lived only a few short years after starting to take his faith seriously.  We need not call it a “conversion experience,” but clearly Pascal had some kind of experience in the last few years of his life that intensified his faith and changed his life.  Some see Pascal rejecting reason, math, etc. in his latter years.  I wouldn’t go that far — I would say that Pascal may have been going through a recalibration period that tragically got cut short by his death.

I wrote elsewhere about the concept of dominion and I will try not to repeat myself too much.  The Pensees have brilliant insights, but they lack a fullness that you see in more mature Christian thinkers (granted, of course, that it was very much an unfinished work).  Pascal’s brain (and his heart) burned at fever pitch.  I don’t blame Pascal for this.  Had he lived longer I’m sure he would have written something monumental and deep.  As it is, of course, the Pensees are a classic, but Pascal did not have enough distance from math and reason to welcome it back fully into his thought, this time in the proper place.  For example, he wrote that, “Curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it.”  Surely this is too harsh.  Those who want to talk about their discoveries might do so mainly with the intent of enjoying them further, for enjoyment increases when we share it.  Pascal seems a bit too jaded, a bit too sure of himself as a “new convert,” and this portrait of him shows that he may not have been at home with himself either.

But all in all Pascal’s life should strongly encourage the right brained that yes, they can do more than defend Creation by design.  Their mathematical insights can give rise to profound truths about the world.

*Alas, Steinmann fails to mention how Pascal did this, just that it happened.  Maybe he expects us to figure it out on our own, like Pascal.

^ Some great quotes from Pascal . . .

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

When a soldier complains of his hard life (or a labourer, etc.) try giving him nothing to do.

The heart has its order, the mind has its own, which uses principles and demonstrations. The heart has a different one. We do not prove that we ought to be loved by setting out in order the causes of love; that would be absurd.

Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in him we find both God and our wretchedness.

Jesus is a God whom we can approach without pride and before whom we can humble ourselves without despair.

Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind. This is the consummation of his difficulties, and yet it is his very being.

Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.

We know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.