Monday, March 11, 2013

The Wager

The last few days, I've been working my way through Blaise Pascal's Pensees.   It's been a nifty read, a peculiarly rich mix of essays and fragments of thought, edited from the francais by none other than T.S. Eliot.   Not all of it I agree fact, much of it I don't.   Pascal's defenses of tradition and clear deference to royal authority are just not my cup of tea.

Still, there are minds I enjoy because they're just delightful to be around, and Pascal is good company.  Sipping wine and bantering with him would have been a delight.  Frustrating on frequent occasion.  But like Antonin Scalia after he's downed half a bottle of single malt scotch, it's highly entertaining.

In large part, my populating my Kindle with a free copy of the Pensees rose out of my interest in engaging with Pascal's argument for belief.  Pascal's Wager is a probabilistic argument for belief in God, one that sees faith in terms of the possibility of gain and loss.   I'm on a probability kick at the moment, as recasting our ethical response to existence in terms of possibilities resonates potently with a Many Worlds-friendly theology.

Should we believe or not, asks Pascal.   Let's think of it in terms of a bet, he suggests.  Our existence is finite, but beyond the boundaries of our lives lies either God or oblivion.  If it is God, then our believing during this finite existence will result in either reward without measure or punishment without end.   Finite belief results in infinite reward.   If, however, God does not exist, then our belief may be incorrect, but we have lost almost nothing.  In terms of a wager, it's like paying a dollar for a single lottery ticket when the payout is a bazillion gabillion dollars.    If we win?  Wow.  If we lose?  Eh, it was only a buck.

This is a cute argument, and Pascal presents it in prose that swirls and sparkles.

But as much as I enjoy him, I just don't buy it.   This is not because I'm not a gambling man, although I'm not.   This is because on a variety of levels, the Wager rings hollow.

First and foremost, Pascal's Wager seems too rooted in self-interest to mesh well with the core ethic of Christian faith.  "What's in it for me" is just not the right question to be asking when presented with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  The moment you make that your priority, you've missed the point.  You are no longer seeking first the kingdom of God.  That sort of grasping starts you off on the wrong foot, and things go tumbling from there.  

Pascal's assumption that we're to pursue things from the basis of our own desire for eternal reward seems strangely at odds with how Jesus actually taught us to live.  The ethos of self-giving and compassion, of a radical love for our Creator made real in our actions towards neighbor and stranger, those things don't click with the Wager.   

Second, I just don't buy Pascal's assumption that our finite existence is of lesser value.  As existentialist theologian Slim Shady once put it, you only get one shot.   That doesn't imbue the existence we inhabit with lesser value.  Instead, this existence is freighted with immense weight.  This is it, kids.  This life is the foundation of our eternity.  What exists outside of these moments is of less significance than what we do with the life we've been given.  If that were not true, then our actions within it wouldn't be so gosh-darned important, eh?

Third but related, Pascal's Wager assumes an ontological separation between ourselves and the question of God's existence.  Meaning, the Wager approaches belief as an abstraction, and as a transaction.  It cannot be this, not if it is to lead us to the kind of engagement with God that the Christian faith requires.  Faith is the orientation of the whole self, not a rational construct.  Faith is not a game we play with our minds.  It radically defines us.   We're all in, everything that comprises us, or we do not understand faith.

I'm willing to risk, and to risk all.  But honestly?  This life doesn't feel like a game.