Reasons to Believe

Take Up and Read: Pensées

This current blog series on Reflections is intended to encourage Christians to read more vigorously by providing a beginner’s guide to some of the Christian classics in such fields as theology, philosophy, and apologetics. Hopefully a very brief introduction to these important Christian texts will motivate today’s believers, as St. Augustine was called to in his dramatic conversion to Christianity, to “take up and read” (Latin: Tolle lege) these classic books.

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This week‘s book Pensées is by Blaise Pascal and is considered both a theological and philosophical masterwork. It was intended to be Pascal’s apologetics magnum opus until illness prevented him from finishing it.

Why Is This Author Notable?

Frenchman Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was one of the founding fathers of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. A true Renaissance man, Pascal was as a mathematician, physicist, logician, inventor, and an intuitive Christian thinker and apologist. For more about him and his accomplishments, see my article, “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Blaise Pascal.”

What Is This Book About? 

Pascal had been preparing a book on Christian apologetics when he died prematurely at 39 years old of something akin to stomach cancer. His unfinished apologetics work (consisting mainly of a series of organized notes, outlines, and fragments) was first published in 1670 under the French title Pensées (pronounced “pon-sayz” and roughly translated “thoughts”). While Pensées is more of an outline or a series of short comments and essays than a complete book, it remains a very popular text in philosophy and in Christian theology and apologetics. 

To get a taste of Pascal’s content in the Pensées consider this aphorism on the level of human diversion in life:

“Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”1

Pensées is divided into four broad sections:

  1. Section 1 contains comments and essays on various philosophical and theological topics, with classifications and titles provided by Pascal himself;
  2. Section 2 also covers many individual philosophical and theological topics, but these classifications and titles were provided by an early translator of the Pensées;
  3. Section 3 is entitled “Miracles” and contains three of Pascal’s essays on issues relating to the topic of the miraculous and its connection to Christianity; and
  4. Section 4 contains various fragments written by Pascal but not found in the first copy of Pensées.

Some of the topics addressed in this work are critical in understanding Pascal’s religious life experiences and his thinking about faith. For example, Pensées includes an entry entitled “The Memorial” that describes the details of Pascal’s dramatic conversion to Christianity. The topic for which Pascal is best known is also addressed under the entry “The Wager” where he reasons about the prudential wisdom of betting on God.

Why Is This Book Worth Reading?

While consisting only of many individual comments and essays, the Pensées is widely considered a philosophical and theological classic. Even though it was written almost 350 years ago, the content of Pensées is so compelling it remains a perennial bestseller. One can only wonder of the apologetics brilliance of the book had Pascal been given the time to complete it.

Blaise Pascal was a unique Christian thinker who provided a penetrating and provocative analysis of Christianity’s broader world and life view. Reading and studying Pascal’s unfinished apologetics masterpiece constantly challenges and inspires me. I regularly read from the Pensées in my apologetics and devotional studies.

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Endnotes

  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 133/169, 17.

Subjects: Books, Christian Literature, Reading