Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How Will You Wager?


In our lives, we have to make decisions constantly. These range from small, relatively unimportant decisions like choosing between Coke and Pepsi, to critical life decisions like the choice between going to college or heading straight into the workforce, marrying or remaining single, and one side of a moral debate and the other. One decision that is more important than any other by its very nature is the decision of whether or not to believe in God. I say "by its very nature" because the decision has eternal repercussions.

From France With Wisdom

One of my favorite books is Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft, which deals with this most important decision by outlining and explaining the Pensées (Thoughts), by Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a French-Catholic philosopher, scientist, and apologist who lived during the 17th century. He was a contemporary of Descartes, and until the 19th century was the only philosopher who didn't jump on the ideological bandwagon misnamed the "Enlightenment." Contrary to common misconception, he was not a Jansenist (the heretical group condemned by the Church during his time), at least in terms of his own theology, although he was associated with Jansenists. He was, however, a great physicist, mathematician, and inventor; he invented the first working computer (the Pascaline, a mechanical calculator), vacuum cleaner, and public transportation system. In the area of philosophy, Pascal is best known for his "Wager," which is an argument for the reasonableness of believing in God. The argument is not in any way a proof for God's existence; it is more of a thought experiment that approaches belief in God by a cost-to-reward analysis. Many philosophers and theologians throughout history have believed that the existence of God can be proven with varying degrees of certainty. For the sake of the Wager, Pascal assumes that you cannot prove the existence of God by reason alone, using philosophical arguments. Pascal instead wants you to consider what you can gain or lose by choosing to believe in God or not.
Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.  Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.
Not Wagering is Not an Option

Many people are turned off by the idea of "betting" about God's existence.  Isn't is selfish and low to believe in God "just in case" He exists so that you can go to heaven (or not go to hell)? Of course it is! Okay, then wouldn't it be better to just remain an honest agnostic? No. Why not? Why not just choose to not wager at all? "...you must wager," says Pascal, "There is no choice, you are already committed." All of us are like ships embarked on a journey. We see a port through the fog, and we have the choice of putting in to that port or not. Eventually though, the ship will run out of fuel, and the opportunity to put in to the port will be lost. Intellectually, it is possible to be agnostic, to say, "I don't know whether or not God exists." However, it is impossible to actually live as an agnostic (I know from experience)––you're either going to live as if God exists or as if He doesn't exist.

Love Stoops to Conquer

The Wager does presuppose some things. For example, it assumes that belief in God is necessary for salvation. However, this assumption is a basic tenet in most major religions, and there are very good theological reasons for believing it. Any religious ideology that includes both salvation and free will must also include the possibility of damnation (For more on this topic, see my post, "A Door Locked from the Inside"). Furthermore, Pascal never claims that the belief resulting from a selfishly made "bet" on God's existence is in any way sufficient for salvation. However, God is not a cosmic dictator; He is more like a lover, and love stoops to conquer. God will accept the less than ideal motivations a person has for believing in Him at the start of their journey, but that doesn't mean that He will be satisfied with them. In the book Christianity for Modern Pagans, Peter Kreeft offers a beautiful analogy for this. He says that God is like a parent watching their child learn to walk––pleased and filled with joy at the toddler's first clumsy steps, but not totally satisfied until the child is running around the yard with other children. God loves us the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way.

Motivation––Not Proof

The Wager cannot convince a person that God exists (it isn't intended to), but it can convince them that indifference and agnosticism are not reasonable options. There is an epidemic of apathy in our world today, especially in our country.  Apathy is like an infection that is resistant to all antibiotics, the antibiotics being rational argument, and the person's appetite for the truth is like their own immune system––both together work to kill the infection. Upon hearing about Pascal's Wager, many skeptics object: "I won't believe in something just because I can gain something if it turns out to be true. If God exists, knows everything, and wants me to believe in Him, then He knows exactly what it would take for me to believe. Since I don't believe, God must either not exist or not care enough to reveal Himself to me. In either case, why believe in Him?"

Seek and You Shall Find

I am completely sympathetic with the skeptic's objection. The only reason that anyone should ever believe anything at all is because it is true. However, I disagree with the skeptic is in his assumption that God has not already done what is necessary to convince him to believe. Jesus says, "Seek, and you shall find" and through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, "You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13). When you seek me with all your heart. The question is, are you really seeking God with all your heart? Are you really laying down your weapons––surrendering your passions and opening your heart and mind to the possibility that God is real and He loves you, or are you arbitrarily setting your criteria for belief at a level which you know that God probably will never accommodate, so that you can fool yourself into thinking your unbelief is justified? "Unless x, y, or z happened, then I will not believe in God." When a person sets an ultimatum in this way, they are demanding that God overwhelm their decision to live apart from Him. God cannot do this without undermining the person's free will.  
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't (Pensées).
Pascal divides people into three groups: Those who have sought God and have found Him, those who are seeking God and have not yet found Him, and those who neither seek God nor find Him. Those in the first group are reasonable because they have sought, and happy because they have found; those in the second group are reasonable because they are seeking, but unhappy because they have not yet found; those in the third group are neither reasonable nor happy, because they are not seeking and so they have not (and cannot) find. Notice that there is no fourth group consisting of people who find without seeking.  If you decide that you don't want to know or love God, He will not override your decision – God is a lover, not a rapist. He invites, He doesn't coerce. When two of John the Baptist's disciples asked Jesus where He was staying, He replied, "Come and see" (Jn 1:39). If you've already made up your mind that the Christian God is unreasonable, oppressive, childish, or even just too good to be true, and that nothing will convince you otherwise, then you can rest assured that God will leave you alone.

Momento Mori (Remember Death)

We all have a terminal illness called mortality. Every second that passes brings us closer to that moment when we will face our death. To live in a way that ignores this fact is seriously delusional, which is why atheists who seem happy and content with facing their death are in such a dangerous position. God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4) but if your heart is set against God and the truth, then there is no way for Divine Mercy to reach you. That is why it is so important that we pray for all those who do not believe in God, and especially those who do not even seek Him. I hope you will join me in this prayer, and thank you for reading! God Bless!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Sources:

Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

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