Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pascal's Wager Is a Losing Proposition

I've spent much of the last several weeks sick. I don't do very well when forced to rest, which, in my condition, is much too often. Cathi found one of my old journals today and I decided to write up notes that I had made in 2007— also while sick— for an essay on faith and Pascal's Wager. At the time, I was reading The Queen's Physician by Maas. In it, Struensee is in prison contemplating his impending execution when he is visited by a not-very-consoling minister:

Muenter got up from the stool where he was balancing and paced the cell. "A God who can be completely understood by the exercise of reason alone is no God at all," he said."At least he is not the Christian God. What does Luther say? 'To make us live, he first destroys us; to vindicate us, he visits guilt upon us; to bring us to heaven, he leads us through hell.' No, Count, I have no intention of relieving you of your difficulties. I know there are people who say that God is justice and that God is love. Why, that's heathen nonsense! Then there are people, I know, who would prove God by arguing that he is the first cause, the prime mover. Others say that his works are sufficient evidence of his existence. But having said so much it is only another step and we have God as Nature, or at least that portion of Nature which happens currently to be known by us. God as such is not God at all. On such terms, he is merely a fifth wheel. Even as first cause he would be superfluous. Inferences drawn from this concept are as misleading and arbitrary as Descartes' derivation of being from thought. Our understanding, in cold fact, can get along very well without God. But man is not reason alone, I insist . Man cannot live properly without the certainty of something within him that resists destruction. Of course, he may know nothing about this interior certainty and indestructibility. It is possible that he may even deny their existence. In fact, this often happens in crisis, when revelation is near. [emphasis mine]

I have always held in contempt arguments for God from the prime mover concept or where God is relegated merely to those causes and events outside our understanding (the God of Empty Spaces), which inevitably leads to a constantly shrinking place for the divine as our understanding of the universe grows. God is not the unexplained, but the unexplainable. I think that Descartes is here misrepresented: he does not imply that thinking causes existence, but that the existence of thought is ipso facto proof of existence.

The author (or at least the character) is on dangerous ground with Man cannot live properly... Our desire for immortality, no matter how deeply rooted, is no proof of God any more than my desire to win the lottery proves that I am rich. Faith based solely on a desire to escape mortality, to preserve the ego, is hopelessly shallow. We were created in the image of God; it is that image, imprinted on our soul, in the very core of our being, that is the basis for faith. This is not a process of preservation but of destruction, of peeling back the layers of self-deception and laying bare the throbbing core. Death, even marked by salvation and a return to the God from which we sprang, cannot help but be transformative. No guarantee is given that the ego, the fragile personality with its paralyzing fear of non-existence, can survive that singularity: does a butterfly remember its days as a caterpillar? Do we remember our days in the womb?

We are promised a paradise, freedom from our toils and life everlasting. Easeful the forest, its mansions perfected, where we grow and decay no longer. However, much of what makes us precious is defined by our toils, by our pains, by our failures, and by our triumphs over them. What wisdom we have, what knowledge is truly ours, is gained through struggle. What could be the nature of I without these things? What kind of life without growth? What is a single part of a canon without counterpoint? Does the ego become like a book once read, perched on the shelf immortal but static? Or is there some new kind of life, of I beyond anything we may yet comprehend? Either way, the person I have become will be no more and something precious (I like to think) will be lost. Christ leads the way for us and promises that we will be cared for, but does not promise that we will be unaffected or unscathed. Rather, by accepting Salvation, we begin that transformation early: dying of ourselves to live in Christ.

With or without God we must face the specter of mortality, of the fact that irrevocable change may render immaterial or irrelevant much of what we now are. Fear of Death does not justify faith: either way we must face the dark. Either we fear it or we do not. In the end, faith is something like élan, dignity: something which flows from being a whole and balanced individual. Holding your head up through trials and tribulations does not really change anything, does not make anything easier. Stepping forward boldly and putting your head on the executioner's block does not make the blow less bitter, but it is something which we all recognize as worthy of deep, almost fundamental, respect— that resonates with something inside of us, more important than anything that leads up to that moment. Faith, too, is like that: it is an inescapable facet of our construction which we must admit when we are in tune with ourselves on our deepest level. As such, that primordial, personal, uncomplicated faith, once reached, is quiet, all pervading, and unassailable. It is not merely a matter of trust, but a recognition that there is no need for trust.

In that manner, accepting Christ is not a feudal bargain: fealty for immortality. Rather, accepting Christ is an acknowledgement of our salvation, of a salvation we have had since birth, not in the Calvinistic sense that some are chosen to be saved and some are not, but that each and every one of us is individually and personally called to God, indeed, are a part of God. In order to receive what is already ours, the ego, that part of us most interested perhaps in immortality, has to step aside, must be duct-taped into silence, to let us hear our name being spoken. God is not making a bargain, not imposing a fee, but is merely showing the way, telling us what needs to be done. Surrendering our superficial selves is the only way to enter the Kingdom because only by checking our personalities at the door can we be part of something greater. Ironically, through that surrender of self, through faith, we gain the strength to be better individuals: to live with dignity and honor, to be larger than life.

Unfortunately, subduing the self is not a one-time task, but a continuous and often soul-rending struggle. As God is all-encompassing, hiding from God— like hiding from ourselves— simply does not work for long; this does not keep us from trying, however, and the Holy Spirit, speaking in our hearts, must guide us home.

Shalom Shabbat.