Monday, January 08, 2007

Playing the Odds on God

While channel surfing today, I ran across a program which included a reference to Blaise Pascal's "Wager" -- his attempt to utilize game theory (a type of applied mathematics) in an effort to influence people to choose whether or not they believe in God. The "Wager," which was included in a collection of notes published posthumously, was at its most basic an exercise by which a person could choose their belief based on their desire to achieve a maximum return on that belief. According to Pascal:

God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
In short: if you believe in God, and He exists, you've won everything; if you believe, and He doesn't exist, you've lost nothing; if you don't belive and He exists, you've lost everything; if you don't believe and he doesn't exist, you've lost nothing.

In the context of modern theology, I can't see how this sort of playing the odds could be taken seriously -- pinning your hope on a next life on the spin of a roulette wheel (I'll put my hopes for Heaven on black 23), or hitting on a 16 in blackjack (thus hoping the dealer busts, you win, and God does in fact exist). However, if I remember correctly from my post-graduate theology courses, Pascal's thesis in some ways follows up on a major theological debate which was taking place in Europe at that time, beginning with Luther: does one get to Heaven through faith, or through good works? Pascal seemingly argues that, regardless of whether there is a God and a Heaven, you should bet your money on good works (just so you don't take any chances with the outcome).

So what do most Christians today believe, or what do they hold as the most important part of their religion? I went into thinking about this question with one thing in mind: naturally, faith in God and a belief in Jesus and the Resurrection must be the most important thing to Christians. However, the more I read, the more that I found that many Christians surveyed practice what has become known as "Golden Rule Christianity." In a survey published in 1997 in Congregations: The Alban Journal, Nancy Ammerman wrote, "...they [the survey respondents] said the most important attributes of a Christian are caring for the needy and living one's Christian values every day. The most important task of the church, they said, is service to people in need." One of my favorite Christian writers, William Stringfellow, lived his life by putting his faith into action and working as a social activist. My own church shares and spreads its Christian faith by being extremely involved in numerous community outreach and global mission projects. Bonhoeffer acted out his faith by opposing the brutal Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Looking at the countless examples of good works performed every day -- Habitat for Humanity projects, medical mission trips, homeless shelters, employment assistance services, job retraining services, food banks, the Bread for the World and ONE Campaigns, Amnesty International, Episcopal Relief and Development, etc. etc. -- hasn't the old, Reformation-era argument become moot? Do a majority of Christians today instead believe that you reach Heaven through faith and good works, instead of either/or? And when was this shift?

I look forward to your thoughts on this. I certainly don't feel I've adequately posed the question, but I know the answers I get will more than make up for this....

1 comment:

karen said...

I tried to get my thoughts together on this question, with a post or two about Jesus and Paul, and their different stances. Paul preached grace, but Jesus actually talks about work and faith being the rule. Martin Luther put the book of James at the end of the Bible in the appendix. I think Paul was getting at the fact that if you follow Jesus, the works will come naturally...we don't have to follow "the LAW" anymore with our faith in Him, because goodness and righteousness come naturally with that love of Him and from Him. I just have the urge to do all the things you mention...Habitat, helping, donating, all that stuff because it comes from my heart, not as an insurance for entrance to heaven. Can't speak for others, though. Great question.