Willy Wonka, Pascal, Doubting Thomas, and the Never Ending Story

Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, the original version, is a movie that our family has gotten to watch perhaps no less than 100 times.  It’s one of Benjamin’s favorites.  As most of you know, Benjamin is a special needs child, and he finds tremendous joy in various parts of that movie.  After you watch Willy Wonka about 77 times, you begin to become interested in things other than the story line. 

Watching it well into the “100th plus” time today, I notice there is a conspicuous lack of cell phones, tablets, laptops, and video games.  Rather than text his mother and grandparents that he has found a Golden Ticket, Charlie has to run all the way home with the news of his discovery.  It is the world of 1970.  No cell phones. Rotary phones.  No cable television.  3 channel TV with rabbit ears.  Transistor radios.  There is no invisible electronic web tying everyone together.

One scene in the movie, a group of golden ticket hunters visit a computer laboratory.  The machine takes up an entire room.  The computer engineer is punching numbers in code on a key pad about the size of an old fashioned desk calculator, and communicating with the machine using punch cards.  By our standards it is a very clunky and cumbersome process. 

There is a very good chance that the computer being asked to predict where the Golden Tickets might be located is programmed with a computer language called PASCAL.

In the late 1960’s and early 70’s in Switzerland, computer engineer Niklaus Wirth developed an innovative computer language for programming and named after the 17th Century mathematician and Christian mystic named Blaise Pascal.  Blaise Pascal was a prodigy in mathematics, writing papers conic sections which drew the attention of Rene Descartes.  He also experimented in some of the first studies of atmospheric pressure, and the effect of air pressure upon liquids, helping to pave the way for early barometers, the invention of the syringe, and the hydraulic press. 

The young Pascal invented what has come to be called the Pascaline, the first calculator; invented for his father who was the presiding judge of the local tax court.

Unlike other thinkers and intellectuals of the Enlightenment, as his investigations of the natural world expanded, Pascal found himself moving more deeply into religious questions.  The spirit of this particular age was essentially the opposite.  Thinkers, scientists, observers of the natural world during the 17th and 18th Century, standing on the shoulders of their Renaissance fathers, were mostly concerned with shedding the great shroud of religion and theology that they felt had been spread over human thought and experience; God talk was something to be left behind, not sought.

Swimming against the tide, Pascal became a follower of a sect within French Roman Catholicism called the Jansenism.  This community was shaped by the work of Saint Augustine, and placed tremendous emphasis on the power of God’s grace over that of religious observances and good deeds; you can imagine that they drew the attention of some in the Church hierarchy.

On the night of November 23, 1654, Blaise Pascal was visited by the spirit of God in such a way that his life was completely transformed – he called it the night of fire.  Upon his death, one of his servants found a piece of parchment sewn into Pascal’s coat, describing what he experienced on that night. 


‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
‘Your God shall be my God.’
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
‘O righteous Father, the world had not known you, but I have known you.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
‘My God will you forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth.
I will not forget your word. Amen.

About 8 years after the death of Blaise Pascal in 1662, a housekeeper was sorting through closets and clothing and happened to notice something sewn into Pascal’s coat. Beneath the cloth was a parchment and inside this was another faded piece of paper. In Pascal’s handwriting, on both the parchment and the paper were nearly the same words. Beside hand-drawn crosses.

Blaise Pascal, the man whose mathematical genius lay as the foundational computational language of the world that we inhabit, from the computer in Willy Wonka to this little magical device I hold in my hand this morning, stood neck-deep in that intersection of scientific materialism and religious mysticism.  It is an intersection that continues to haunt the world in which we live.

While millions upon millions of human beings daily depend upon the insights that Pascal offered regarding mathematics and the properties of hydraulics, which have shaped the cell phones in our pockets, and the syringes used at the hospital this morning, far fewer give Pascal more than a passing glance when considering the depths of religious truth that he shared. 

I wonder, would the doubters of God, would the skeptics, would the Doubting Thomas’s of our age think differently about God, faith, and religion, if they knew that one of the great minds upon which their Twitter, Texts, Tik Tok, You Tube, and Facebook depended had sewn a prayer into the liner of his coat declaring his absolute commitment and obedience to the Risen Christ and the mysterious power of God. 

What is it within us, which demands we maintain suspended animation?  Apart from God?  Why is it that we so often build our sense of “self” upon the insistence of doubting God, and disobeying the dictates of his presence?  Are doubt, nay obstinacy, the only means by which to create a human identity?

Here are a few of Pascal’s answers to such questions:

“Human beings must be known to be loved; but Divine beings must be loved to be known.”

“Faith is different from proof; the latter is human, the former is a Gift from God.”

“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”

“Love has reasons . . . which reason cannot understand,” Blaise Pascal

The response of the contemporary Doubting Thomas would probably be something akin to – unless I see the lab reports I will not believe.  Unless I see the corresponding data and the secondary equations I will not believe.  Unless I see XYZ I will not believe.  All of which is simply another way of saying, unless I see for myself, I will not believe.  Unless I prove for myself, I will not believe.  Unless you make it about ME, the satisfaction of my curiosity, I will not believe.

Dr. Ian Hutchison regularly stands before groups of students and faculty at universities around the country to making the case for the reality of miracles, for the reality of God, for the reality of things like the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So that they will take him more seriously, Dr. Hutchison visits with them in their own language, their own milieu.  He presents his case as Hypothesis’, not unlike that of a scientist making a case.  Regarding the Resurrection of Jesus he has Three Hypothesis’:

One – we are not talking about a real resurrection.  It is a story, a myth, a Gospel train running on the borrowed steam children’s bedtime stories, or the adult fantasies of Pagan fertility gods and goddesses dressed up in Jewish lore by a small band of romantics in the first century.  Because you see, a literal resurrection would contradict the “known” laws of nature – what we know of nature to this point in human history.  It is a myth, one of those “almost but not yet” propositions, that might capture the imagination of some lesser lights, but not those with the power to reason and think critically.

But this would make the first disciples liars, or propagators of fantasy.  And as Dr. Hutchison asks, “How could an untruth logically support high moral character?  How could it have sustained the apostles through the extremes of persecution they experienced in founding Christianity?”

Two – There was a literal and bodily resurrection of a first century Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Dr. Hutchison wants to appeal to the materialist and scientific sensibilities of his audiences, and so he asks the rhetorical question – “How can a scientist be a Christian?  How can a scientist believe in a miracle?  In a resurrection?”

He answers his own question by stating that science cannot disprove the resurrection . . . because the natural sciences speak to the mechanics and working of the world of nature.  Science functions primarily by observation and experiment, miracles by their own definition are “abnormal, non-reproducible, and so therefore cannot be proved” by scientific method.

I love the way Dr. Hutchison puts it, “It does not take modern science to tell us that humans don’t rise from the dead . . . people knew that perfectly well in the first century; just as they knew water does not instantly turn into wine.”

You see, the scientific method, the materialist worldview, is not calibrated in such a way as to give evidentiary proof that a miracle exists or does not exist; and the insistence that all of known human existence must find a place within the boundaries of the laws of science, and that nothing might exist outside of those boundaries, is a proposition of metaphysics; and perhaps might be its own sort of statement of faith rather than statement of fact.

“Science offers natural explanations of natural events. It has no power or need to assert that only natural events happen.”

I sometimes like to think of this as insisting that the entire Cosmos and utterance of God climb into our contemporary, yet incomplete, existential tool box called scientific materialism; perhaps the truer invitation is for us to crawl out of our tool box and recognize that we are the smaller entity in the Universe. 

“Quit pretending to be the Center of the Universe, that spot has already been taken.”

In fact, Dr. Hutchison insists that the true measure of Jesus’ Resurrection is the historical record; and in that regard, we have as much evidence as for most other events in ancient history.

Three- Dr. Hutchison says, “Perhaps I was brainwashed as a child . . . you might guess I was brainwashed to believe in the Resurrection as a child.  But no, I did not grow up in a home where I was taught to believe in the resurrection. I came to faith in Jesus when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University and was baptized in the chapel of Kings College on my 20th birthday. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are as compelling to me now as then.”

The reason I really like what Dr. Ian Hutchison has to say about the intersection of reason, science, and the life of faith in God, is that “Ian Hutchison is a plasma physicist and Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He and his research group are international pioneers exploring the generation and confinement of plasmas hotter than the sun’s center; experimenting on a world-leading magnetic confinement device they designed and built. The research aims to understand how to produce practical energy from controlled nuclear fusion reactions, the power source of the stars.” 

Like Blaise Pascal, Ian Hutchison is a scientist who has been touched by the Risen Christ.

This is something that I find admirable about Ian Hutchison, Blaise Pascal, Doubting Thomas – they are establishing a relationship with Jesus Christ that is not the result of a prevailing cultural wind, having been brainwashed by contemporaries and culture – Blessed Thomas who doubts – the Apostle with the questions, is giving a gift to many through the ages.  And I am grateful for that gift; the gift of asking the question, the gift of looking for a tactile relationship to the living God; ideas about the Resurrection, talk about the Resurrection, conjectures about the Resurrection – those are fine in their own way – substitutes of a sort – but they are not the thing itself.

Thomas is insists upon having something more.  In God’s infinite love for His children, that need, that desire, that journey is granted to Thomas.  There is nothing easier for the skeptic, living in a skeptical age, to do than create a puzzle, a riddle, an intellectual/scientific obstacle course for a deity they have no real desire to meet, know, and ultimately follow.  It is not difficult to construct a box in the imagination of our hearts that we have no real expectation that God will fit inside; it is a very skilled and high functioning avoidance mechanism.

One of the miracles of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ through time and space is that although many, many such boxes are built; the Risen Christ continues to meet the Doubting Thomas’ of every age in the midst of their own neighborhoods, in their own textbooks, in their own laboratories, in the midst of their own fortresses of knowledge and research, and say to them – “Touch me here, listen to me here, follow me here.  Do not doubt, but believe.”  The miracle of faith is bestowed, and many, many, continue to follow.

Sometimes believing in the reality and truth of Christ is simply a matter of seeing it with new eyes.

The Reverend Harry Pritchett, an Alabama boy who retired as Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, shared a story at Sewanee on one occasion:

Once upon a time I had a young friend named Philip. Philip was born with Downs Syndrome. He was a pleasant child—happy, it seemed—but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children. Philip went to Sunday school at the Methodist church. His teacher, also a friend of mine, taught the third-grade class with Philip and nine other eight-year-old boys and girls.

You know eight-year-olds. And Philip, with his differences, was not readily accepted. But my teacher friend was creative, and he helped the group of eight-year-olds. They learned, they laughed, they played together. And they really cared about one another, even though eight-year-olds don’t say they care about one another out loud. My friend could see it. He knew it. He also knew that Philip was not really a part of that group. Philip did not choose nor did he want to be different. He just was. And that was just the way things were.

My friend had a marvelous idea for his class the Sunday after Easter. You know those things that pantyhose come in—the containers that look like great big eggs—my friend had collected ten of them. The children loved it when he brought them into the room. Each child was to get one. It was a beautiful spring day, and the assignment was for each child to go outside, find a symbol for new life, put it into the egg, and bring it back to the classroom. They would then open and share their new life symbols and surprises one by one.

It was glorious. It was confusing. It was wild. They ran all around the church grounds, gathered their symbols, and returned to the classroom. They put all the eggs on a table, and then the teacher began to open them. All the children stood around the table.

He opened one, and there was a flower, and they ooh-ed and aah-ed. He opened another, and there was a little butterfly. “Beautiful,” the girls all said, since it is hard for eight-year-old boys to say “beautiful.” He opened another, and there was a rock. And as third-graders will, some laughed, and some said, “That’s crazy! How’s a rock supposed to be like new life?” But the smart little boy who’d found it spoke up: “That’s mine. And I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different. And for me, that’s new life.” They all laughed.

My friend said something to himself about the profundity of eight-year-olds and opened the next one. There was nothing there. The other children, as eight-year-olds will, said, “That’s not fair—that’s stupid!—somebody didn’t do right.”

Then my friend felt a tug on his shirt, and he looked down. Philip was standing beside him. “It’s mine,” Philip said. “It’s mine.”

And the children said, “You don’t ever do things right, Philip. There’s nothing there!”

“I did so do it,” Philip said. “I did do it. It’s empty. The tomb is empty!”

There was silence, a very full silence. And for you people who don’t believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened that spring day. From that time on, it was different. Philip suddenly became a part of that group of eight-year-old children. They took him in. He was set free from the tomb of his differentness.

Philip died one summer. His family had known since the time he was born that he wouldn’t live out a full life span. Many other things had been wrong with his tiny body. And so, not long after, with an infection that most normal children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died. The mystery simply enveloped him.

At the funeral, nine eight-year-old children marched up to the altar, not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death. Nine eight-year-olds, with their Sunday school teacher, marched right up to that altar, and laid on it an empty egg—an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg, a few saying softly, “The tomb is empty.”

Doubting Thomas, Philip, Blaise Pascal – they have all found one another in that other country.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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