Pascal’s Wager Applied to Parenting and Education

You may have heard of Blaise Pascal, one of the giants in the history of math and literature. That’s right–both math and literature. He had an IQ of above 160. Blaise’s father gave Pascal a classical education. Blaise studied Latin and Greek early on, and started to explore geometry on his own at age 12. He came up with theorems, such as what came to be known as the “Pascal’s triangle.” At 16, he wrote a mathematical treatise on the properties of the sections of a cone at age 16. At, 19, he invented the calculating machine to help his father’s business. He wrote many other treatises that laid the foundations of math and physics. Before 20, Pascal became well known in the academic circles. Living in a city like Paris, Pascal was also exposed to a worldly and fashionable life. He became rich and famous.

But he was not happy. He was living in a time of self-evident religious faith, led by skepticism of Montaigne and the rational empiricism of Descartes. His mind constantly hungered for truth, but his association with these “free-thinkers” did not help. Things began to change when his father started to attend Jansenist renewal movement, a theological movement that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace and predestination. At the encouragement of his father, Pascal began to study the Bible seriously. After many years of wandering, one night, while reading John chapter 17, Pascal had a powerful spiritual experience, which he quickly wrote down and stitched to his coats and told no one.

That night, Pascal experienced what he calls “mind on fire,” meaning he was not only filled with true joy which he never experienced before, but he began to understand the spiritual world of God, soul, and purpose of life, in connection with everything else in life. He realized that the problem with most men and women of his time, the Enlightenment thinkers, was that they believed in progress by human reason alone, and that way of thinking is an act of man’s rebellion against God, and that it limits man’s ability to understand the things of God, life, and true happiness.

Pascal wrote all these deep insights down in a series of notes later named “Pensees” in defense of the Jansenist community which was under heavy persecution from the Catholic church. The result was that his writings were so brilliant that Voltaire, the greatest of the Enlightenment thinkers (an atheist), considered Pascal the finest prose writer of France.

At the core of his challenge to the skeptics of his day is what Pascal calls his “wager”: Trust and obey the living Christ and see if everything else in life is not going to make better sense. Either trust your own reason for everything, or trust that Christ’s forgiveness and love is what you need and see that your mind will be set on fire.

Applying Pascal’s wager to our parenting and education will go something like this: Either choose to raise your children focusing only on the academic progress, or believe that the mere focus on academic progress is a great idol, and that true understanding of all things (spiritual and natural) and happiness that follows comes only when parents and children humbly receive the grace of God in Jesus Christ. That’s Pascal’s legacy. That’s Pascals wager.