I will always remember that moment. In the middle of a late-night study in the library, my Asian Bro and I were pushing ourselves to the limit for the semester exams, while most of the campus — if not all of it, was partying hard around us. Twice a year the various faculties of this South West German university open their facilities for a traditional massive party ending each semester. You just don’t miss that kind of party! Except when you have one Accounting exam that can mess up your whole Mechanical Engineering semester. That sounds strange isn’t it? Don’t ask me how it happened, I won’t be able to explain, and anyway we’re here for a whole different subject.
As we went out for a short break to drink a coffee for me and to take down a third can of Red Bull for him — with three more victims waiting in his bag, we talked for some time: mainly about his potential next heart attack, also about the exams, then about the party outside, and about many other things that eventually led us to religion. And this is when it happened, when he gave me a biting slap.
It felt like it, but he didn’t actually hit me — although his blood taurine content at this time could have got him into a brawl with any of the party people walking by. In fact, he hit me with words. I was used to him being sometimes very frank and bordering on insult with his unapologetic sincerity, but I would simply put him in his place without it becoming a big deal. This time, it was different. Although he knew that I was quite a fervent believer, he argued on the actual relevance of beliefs, which was OK and very interesting so far. But then, he unilaterally closed the debate with an « Anyway, religion is for the weak ».
I was speechless. First, because I didn’t know if I was hating or loving that level of openness. We are often so used to the daily desperately neutral small talks with colleagues, friends and even relatives, that it can be a hit emotionally puzzling to put up with such a frank assertion, bringing that little spice to a discussion while touching you right on a raw nerve. And secondly because I was completely baffled: I already had several discussions about religion and spirituality then, which were like practical trainings for my debating skills on Christianity, still, I was clearly not ready for this one! What could I reply? Was there anything to reply? After a few seconds, which felt like hours, I just pulled out a faltering « Nonsense! » and it stopped there. However, this verbal slap created an injury, small enough to be forgotten quickly, and deep enough to remind me sometimes — even years after, that maybe believing in God makes me a weak person.
That was me, almost ten years ago. Things have changed a lot, and now I can proudly say that I am able to reply to my friend, and most important to my own doubts. But, before I give you my red-hot riposte, my unbreakable block against any slap, I MUST introduce you to somebody. You might already know him since he is world famous and even our recent worldwide quarantine challenge saw his hash-tagged name go viral with this quotation from him: « All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone ». Heavy! He is mostly known in France, and unfortunately even there, his fame as a great scientist has overshadowed what could be called a fascinating lifelong conversion to Christianity. (Don’t get me wrong and please read through, because I will not be the 33,742,016th one using the argument of scientists’ late conversions after they denied God’s existence most of their lives, it’s not about that at all)
Blaise PASCAL, born June 19, 1623, died August 19, 1662. What mostly strikes people at first when they look at his life is the premature death. It shouldn’t. In the 17th century France, life expectancy was about 20-something years and a little higher for the upper-middle-class he was part of. He died rather young, true, but what strikes in the second place, and that wasn’t trivial even for the 17th century, is his extremely productive genius. Inventions, mathematics, physics, philosophy, in a little more than 20 years, he has been positively-speaking all over the place, greatly impacting the Western world thinking then and still influencing our world today : the first mechanical calculator and the hydraulic press principle, one of the first projective geometry theorem and the early concepts of probability calculation, the demonstration of vacuum’s existence and the definition of hydrostatic pressure, the philosophical notion of order and the famous Pascal’s wager.
This could be already an amazing legacy, yet what makes it legendary is that he achieved all of this in spite of the incurable disease that was regularly crippling him with pain, the one which ultimately led to his death after three last years of intense suffering. At one time in his life, this disease has had a very negative impact on his personality and his works, yet it eventually drew him closer to God. Still, it wasn’t what we could legitimately imagine: a need to believe in something bigger than his wealth, bigger than his science and the doctors’ one, big enough to give him hope of being healed from his disease. No, surprisingly, it was the opposite: an urge to accept his deteriorated condition in order to apprehend better a God that he already knew since his youth. This is quite extreme: he even used to say that « sickness is the natural state of Christians ». However, setting aside the masochistic aspect of this mindset, it is interesting to see here how deep and passionate his relationship with God already was.
Personally, I asked myself, when? When in such a hectic and fast life could anybody find time to seek God: to build a relationship with him? Not only did he start his scientific works pretty early — at 16 years old he published a geometry theorem still known today as Pascal’s theorem, he actually dedicated all of his short life to expand his knowledge and the world’s one at the same occasion. In fact, he has been building this relationship in many ways all through his life, making of his conversion to Christianity a progressive ascension to the Most High. Unlike the common thinking at that time, Blaise Pascal was neither a late-deathbed-converted Christian, impervious to religion until his time came; nor the social butterfly that his lavish lifestyle and company seemed to betray during the few years while he distanced himself from religion. In addition to the strong Christian education received from his father during his childhood, his spiritual life along the years has been punctuated by a few particular remarkable events:
– around 1631 as a small boy he is struck by the strong arguments in favor of religion his father opposes to famous free-thinkers he knew,
– in 1646 he discovers Cornelius Jansen’s thought in its Discourse on the Reformation of the Inner Man,
– in 1651 he publishes a Treatise on the vacuum in which he demonstrates the vacuum’s existence in opposition to most scientists and the Church,
– one night of 1654 he lives a mystical experience that he immediately transcribes in a work entitled Memorial,
– and in 1656 he witnesses the miraculous healing of his niece’s incurable disease.
All those events, and before his disease did it too, have contributed to draw him both always nearer to God and to an eye-opener: the paradoxical combination of greatness and misery in man, and his complex equilibrium between infinity and nothingness.
Driven by an intense and intimate journey, Blaise Pascal, reaching the last stop, affirms in his notes composing the unfinished work, Thoughts, that God is the only truth, and that at the end of the day the believer prevails over the mathematician. This, only if one necessary condition is validated: being humble, accepting one’s inherent weakness to be able to reach God and enjoy his grace. For the scholar and Christian that he was, it must have been both terrifying and relieving to come to such a conclusion, still he made his choice and in an ultimate attempt he encourages the readers to do the same, to do their own wager: bet that God exists or that he doesn’t.
The wealth, the intelligence, the fame, Blaise Pascal had everything our society would associate with strength. For sure his sickness was like a crack in the flawless screen that then people had to maintain and showcase daily — and even today actually. But let’s forget about the appearances. Inside him, we could definitely find strength, the strength of a family’s firstborn, the strength of a motherless boy, the strength of a young scientist not afraid to confront his older peers and Church, the strength of a man powerless to fight against steadily growing pain and inevitable death yet strong enough to bear them and to refuse giving up his works. All about him was strong, and I guess that my bro would agree on that. So here we are, I can lastly reveal what I would have liked to reply to this slap, something simple yet powerful. I would have said: « Yes, you are right, I’m weak ». What? It’s not what you expected?
In fact, I have no doubt that being strong is good and that, as much as I can, I should stay strong while facing the hurdles and sorrows in my life, nevertheless with years I came to believe that you just can’t be strong every time. One day something will break you. Ok, you will likely be able to get back on your feet and be strong again for many other years, but it’s not guaranteed, neither the fact that no other wave will ever come after the first one, crashing and demolishing everything that had been rebuilt. And then, I had the chance to learn that God doesn’t want me to be strong every time, and that by the way he didn’t even create me to be like that. He created me and all the other human beings with so many amazing abilities allowing us to achieve great things like Blaise Pascal and others did. Among those abilities, there is an acute awareness of our limitations, of our weakness in relation to so many things, such as death. Although we often refuse to admit this weakness, during most of our lives — or all of it for some of us, although we forget it thanks to our jobs, our family life, our entertainments; it is there, always, waiting for one day, even the last one, to pop up in our lives. So instead of fighting against it, I learned to embrace it and be at peace with it. Ironically, I believe this is the way given to us in order, somehow, to be strong every time: by admitting that ourselves we can’t, only with him we can face everything, anytime, because he is the only one who can do that.
I am not weak because I believe in God, I believe in God because I’m weak.
To me, this is where it all starts. Blaise Pascal discovered it, and until his last breath, he was living this concept, benefitting of the peace he could get from it. His last words were: « May God never abandon me ». These can be considered as the tinged-with-fear-deathbed-last words of a then feeble man facing the unknown. Conversely, I think this was the courageous final message of a Christian who accepted his weakness all along his life, physically and spiritually, in order to be made stronger through his faith, and who knew that all that he achieved on earth as well as all he would achieve in heaven was depending on God. Now as for me, I’ve finally been able to answer my friend’s critic and my own questioning. To me, as a Christian, I am defined by weakness. But not exactly the one that my friend meant when he slapped me. It took me years to understand that it was brave to accept that kind of weakness. A paradoxically bold weakness. The one that once grasped thankfully, leads us to « the courts of the Lord’s house » where all that we ever needed is awaiting us.