My own little take on Pascal’s Wager

April 20, 2014

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 
For he who has died is freed from sin. 
But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. 
For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 
The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

– Romans 6:3-11

This is the night
of which it is written
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me
and full of gladness…
O truly blessed night,
when the things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

– From the  Catholic Easter Proclamation recited at the annual Easter Vigil Mass

Easter Sunday. The sky is blue, the crocuses are pushing up from the ground, cardinals are hovering around the bird feeder. After a long winter, spring has finally come to Western New York, where I am spending this Easter as I usually do, with my parents and other family members. Over the past week I have engaged in traditions that, for Christians, mean temporarily setting aside our daily concerns behind and entering into another dimension: the realm of story and myth. During these days, Christians commemorate the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, his unjust suffering and death, and his glorious resurrection three days later. During these days, we celebrate the centre of our faith: the belief that God is alive and moving through our troubled world, transforming our pain and suffering into grace and salvation.

During this week, I have found myself meditating on faith. Looking at the world we live in now, with its continued war and violence as well as the destruction of human and non-human life, it can be difficult to maintain a belief in God’s mercy. And for me, as an academic in a secular milieu where atheism or at least agnosticism is most often the default belief system, I find the premises of my religious faith are constantly being challenged. When I look at the history of Christian apologetics (the efforts by theologians to justify the truth of faith through the use of reason) for guidance, one of my favourite arguments is that put forward by seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal. According to “Pascal’s Wager,” as it is called, all of us human beings bet our lives on the possibility of either God’s existence or non-existence. If we do not believe in God, we are unlikely to seek to live according to Christian principles; we are more likely to pursue earthly pleasures and personal gain. If we believe in God, however, we will set our aim on salvation and the infnite reward of heaven. For Pascal, even the possibility of this infinite reward should be enough to convince a rational person to embrace a life of faith.

Though groundbreaking in its time and still invoked today by many Christian apologists, Pascal’s Wager has also met with much criticism. While it might be true that we bet our lives on whether or not God exists, these critics say, we do not know what kind of God this might be. For example, what if God is evil? In that case, any sacrifices we might have made in the hope of an eternal reward will have been in vain. Conversely, if God is truly benevolent and merciful – if his love is unconditional and universal as Christians believe it to be – then why do we need to live according to a set of precepts or even profess belief in order  to obtain a divine reward?  Then, there is the argument of inconsistent revelations – what if, for example, the God that exists is not the Christian God, but perhaps Zeus, or Odin, or one of the many other divine figures that have graced the stage of human belief systems over the centuries?

For me, there is much truth in Pascal’s wager. As of this writing, God’s existence (or non-existence) has not been proven. Whether we choose to believe, disbelieve, or remain undecided, not one of us can claim to know for sure. Knowing full well that I could turn out to be wrong, I choose to believe – but not for the reasons that Pascal has argued we should. While I hope that I will some day meet Christ face to face in heaven, the truth is that I am already meeting him here and now, on this earth, every day.

Contrary to its public image, the Christian life is not about devaluing our earthly existence. Yes, it is true that we hold a dualist view of the world; we believe that there is a transcendent realm beyond this one where God lives – a transcendent realm we all aspire to reach. At the same time, we also believe that God is immanently present in the world we inhabit: in nature, in our joys and sorrows, and most important, in our relationships with one another.

For me, there is no need to make a bet on eternity. My own experience of Christianity has much more to do with my llife here and now. As a Christian, I am given the opportunity to have a relationship with a loving God who consistently offers strength and mercy – to constantly strive to overcome my innate tenency toward wrongdoing, knowing that God will help and support me every step of the way. As a Christian, I am admitted into a two-thousand year-old community of imperfect but courageous people who are striving to transform our world into the image of the one whom we dare to call its Creator – people like St. Augustine, Michelangelo, Teresa of Avila, Maximilian Kolbe, Oscar Romero and so many others who have lived out their faith in the best way they know how. As a Christian, I am encouraged to constantly seek divinity in my daily existence, to see God’s face in every person I encounter, to find strength even in times of hardship. I am called to love all, to give of myself generously to others, to seek peace through justice, to see beauty and meaning in our world, even when it is at its most chaotic. If this is not the recipe for a happy life on earth, then I do not know what is. And if I can do this, then even if my initial bet on God’s existence (and benevolent nature) turns out to be false, I will not have lived in vain.

I wish a happy Easter to all who celebrate it, and a blessed journey to all.

 

 

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