Sunday, January 20, 2008

Living Well

As I shared in the last post, in his book How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer recounts the history of the West, identifying key individuals whose contributions in philosophy, art, science, and theology affected the worldviews of their own and subsequent generations. Schaeffer did all this without speaking directly to how well these historical figures lived. While reading, though, I couldn’t help musing about which of these individuals from the past can themselves be judged to have lived well.

To be adjudged as having lived well, one’s contribution to the “great conversation” of Western thought (whether an artist, scientist, philosopher, or theologian) should be recognized as a positive one. One’s worldview should be deemed—even from our vantage point—accurate, or at least competitive in the marketplace of ideas. Additionally, one’s life and worldview should cohere, which in turn should mean that one’s life had both purpose and peace (i.e., inner peace, not freedom from turmoil exterior to oneself). On these few criteria, most of the shapers of Western history cannot be deemed to have lived well. Moreover, those that do seem to have lived well shared a Christian worldview.

Of these, I could pick several to contemplate more closely, including Johann Sebastian Bach or William Wilberforce. As a scientist, however, I like to think of Blaise Pascal as one who lived well. Pascal laid the foundations for calculus, and contributed to our understanding of geometry and probability. He invented the adding machine/calculator (which is probably the contribution for which he now has a computer language named after him), the hydraulic press, and the vacuum cleaner. He performed experiments on air pressure and vacuums, and made the first barometer. He also designed the first rapid transit system. Pascal is recognized as one of the founders of modern science; he diligently practiced the scientific method, and was the first to recognize that scientific theories could be falsified but never fully verified. He recognized the power of science but also its inability to make us wise or happy or good. For this reason, he spent most of the later years of his short life reflecting on theology and writing as a Christian apologist.

His quality of life was a direct result of the clarity of Pascal’s understanding of “the human enigma.” For him, an adequate worldview required a satisfactory explanation for both mankind’s unspeakable wickedness and his nearly inexplicable goodness. He found the only reasonable answer in Christianity, with its twin doctrines of the Imago Dei and Original Sin. Man was created in the image of God; hence his possibilities for greatness and virtue. But mankind is fallen; hence his propensity for depravity. This worldview provided the meaning and consistency that enabled Blaise Pascal to live well.

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