Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Ultimate Wager


My brother Kuri recently graduated from UOG and one of the last classes that he took was a philosophy of religion class. I’ve always enjoyed it when Kuri takes philosophy classes because he’ll talk to me about his readings and I’ll share my ideas with him. Although I would probably never be hired into a philosophy department, my social scientific training was primarily philosophical. Philosophers created the foundations of all social sciences. When I was in Ethnic Studies, it was frustrating having to read so many long dead white Europeans pontificate about the world, but later on I realized that such is the power of knowledge. Their ideas became part of the regimes of knowledge we know today. They moved from being the rantings of a particular person into the universal ways in which we are supposed to see the world.

One discussion we had recently was over the issue of Pascal’s Wager. Here is the gist of what Blaise Pascal proposes:

1.     There either is a God, or there isn’t a God.
2.     Life is a game, like a coin flip, and it can either be heads or tails
3.     Given the evidence we have, we can’t actually fully defend either of these propositions
4.     You have to make a choice, you have to “make a bet”
5.     When you look at the potential gain and loss given these choices, one of them clearly outshines the other. If you choose God, you can win everything if you are right, but you don’t actually lose anything if you are wrong.
6.     The choice is clear. Bet on God.

I have always thought of Pascal's Wager to be interesting because you can interpret it in so many ways. You could say it is for religion, against religion, you can say it is secretly appearing to support one and really supporting the other. I like to think about it through where it fits in within Christianity itself.

When we see how it evolved as a religion, what Saint Paul did to help it expand it beyond just Jews, but to anyone who has faith, he helped plant the seeds for it to become an inclusive global religion, but also for it to be as a philosophical framework, kind of crazy. Anyone can find salvation; can find their way to God as long as they have faith. Someone who lived a life of terrible deeds, killing, raping, stealing, molesting altar boys, no matter what you did, none of it matters, what matters is that you have a truly authentic moment of faith in God.

An evangelical Christian gave me a flyer the other day that outlined why Pascal's Wager can be considered both right and wrong. In the flyer there is a man who is standing before Saint Peter, and Saint Peter asks him why he should be allowed to enter the pearly gates. The man says, I never did anything bad. Saint Peter laughs. The man said, I always tried to do good. Saint Peter laughs again. According to Christianity, all you have to offer God is your faith, that is actually all he wants. He doesn't want you to give to charities, he doesn't want you to stay faithful to your spouse. He doesn’t even want you to not go around killing people. The only thing that truly matters is your faith.

But faith is a tricky thing. Somedays you might be filled with faith. Other days you might find yourself empty of faith. Finding faith doesn't mean it is always with you, and losing it or never having it doesn't mean that you will never discover it. The thief who was crucified next to Jesus Christ is a perfect example of that. He had never accepted Christ before, never had an ounce of faith really. But for one brief moment he had faith in Jesus Christ and for that he was saved.

The story of the thief is a big part of the marketing of Christianity in terms of expanding itself, but if you accept it, then you have to accept the inverse. Some people may go their entire lives with strong faith in God, but one day they are so tested, it is shaken they lose it. What if they die on that day? What if their faith decreased by 50% on that day?  Does God average it out? What if it fluctuated all day, and they went from cursing God in the morning to praising him in the afternoon? I sometimes think that life must be a very strange reality TV show for God.

On the one hand Pascal's Wager is a cheapening of the religion experience that is supposed to be spontaneous, and faith appear like a thunderbolt or some vibrant beautiful growth. But it doesn't actually matter where faith emerges from. That is one of the things people don't realize about God. He doesn't care what you've done, so long as you are truly committed to him. The nature of Christian faith means that what Pascal says is also completely in line with how belief works. How many movies are there where someone is pretending to be someone and ends up eventually accepting the mask as who they really are? Or an adequate reflection of who they want to be?

Such is the premise for so many movies about terrorists, secret agents and informants. You end up realizing after an interesting amount of drama that the fake you, was the you you always wanted. That the you who was pretending was the fake one, and that the you you have become is the real one. This is one of the ways in which we can truly understand the role that God plays in our lives. The consciousness and identity that we have is ours, but it is not who we really are. It is the thing we create to deal with the world around us, but what we exist for and what we truly are lies in what God intended.

Lady Gaga’s song “born this way” states this very clearly. “I’m beautiful in my way / Cause God makes no mistakes. Those who are homosexual or bisexual or some other “abnormal” sexual identity may claim to be “born that way” but the problem with this is it implies that God approves of such behavior. It is therefore necessary to criminalize and delegitimize that lifestyle in order to take the “blame” out of God’s hands and put it in the identities that humans create for themselves. Hence having an abnormal sexual identity means to be drenched in a house of sin that you have made for yourself. It is to be chained by your own choices.

Those invested in the perpetuation of a certain version of what a Christian church could be find an infinite amount of duress at a point like this. If certain things such as abnormal behaviors are genetic or part of God’s design than it leads to questions of whether or not human churches are in line with God’s plan. If such things are inherent, intended and not tricks of nature, tricks by the Devil than it means one of two things. It means first that there is something wrong with God and that he is approving of things he should not be. But this cannot be true because this is not a debate over whether the chicken or the egg came first, the answer to that debate is always “God came first.” The second thing this implies is that the Church must change to reflect God’s design. If human beings are not abnormal by choice, then it must be part of who they are and the church should change to accept and reflect that. Since every system of power relies upon exclusions I seriously doubt any church would ever want to take on such a task.

In its own way, Pascal's wager is part of God's plan. It is something that aligns with what we know of the universe and the path to Heaven. Even if you may have manipulated faith in an attempt to appear to be more Christian, to hedge your bets, ultimately at the end of the day, if it actually brings you to the point where your faith is real, God and the host of angels will celebrate your arrival on judgment day. Pascal's Wager is therefore something Christian churches should also incorporate into their evangelism. Forget the marches of old ladies holding pictures of aborted fetuses. The church should instead make big billboards at the ITC Intersection that blare "If life is a coin flip and one part gives you eternal salvation and the other side nothing, wouldn't you vote for God every time?"

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