Monday, October 01, 2012

Pascal and scepticism

Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662)

We distinguish between two kinds as assurance, (or doubt). One is of one's own personal standing before God, the danger of hypocrisy, the occurrence of unwarranted doubt, the thought that Christ would not be the Saviour of a sinner such as me. There is need therefore to make one's calling and election sure. The other concerns the objective standing of the Christian faith, with doubt as to the reliability of the Gospel message. Or doubt about the reality of the whole.  Each can be assailed by scepticism. In the case of the second kind of doubt, the following can occur:

A Christian person, stepping back, and finding himself in a sceptical mood which he has not sought or indulged, may ask (or find himself asking):

Can it really be true that there is deliverance from evil by means of God taking the form of man and being hung on a cross, that this can provide deliverance for countless multitudes of people from the their sin, and they are granted a new nature and in time a resurrected body through which they will enjoy unalloyed holy bliss without end?

Such scepticism does not take the form of doubts about elements of the faith such as, How can there one a person who is both God and man? Can this body be raised again from the dead, incorruptible? It is not as if there is some doubt about an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, with all other doctrines remaining the same.  To such a person it may be obvious that the human sickness is deep and dreadful. The law of God may seem to be perfect. And so on. It is not this or that element that falls under suspicion, but the whole edifice that suddenly appears fantastic. So the fact that archaeologists can show that the walls of Jericho once behaved in a peculiar fashion, probably some millennia ago, does not help either. The  problem is that the whole fabric or texture of the faith, standing back from it and considering it as a unity, seems utterly incredible, paper-thin. Like a fairy tale. Changing this or that part of the tale will not help much, and may cause further difficulties, because the faith in total, in all its familiarity, seems to be a tightly woven web, insubstantial, floating in air rather like a Chinese balloon – white or pale blue - made of tissue paper.

Incidentally, nether The Narnia Chronicles nor The Lord of the Rings  nor any other Christianity-shaped fairy tale are not likely to be of any help in bringing such moods out of the tail spin of scepticism and permitting a recovery of faith. If in such an attack the Gospel seems to be like an idle tale, then no number of other idle tales, however well they are presented,  will help.

Nor (I think) is such scepticism a matter of the sheer improbability of the Christian story. Not at any rate, the improbability of there being divine redemption from sin. After all, assigning probabilities to a story is a matter of the probability of background beliefs, in the light of which one can and assign probabilities to the story. So how does one begin to assess the probability of the extraordinary singularity that is the Christian story? Yet some of the scepticism may be fed by something close to improbability, the ‘incongruity’ (let’s call it) of death on a cross being a part of this story of redeeming grace, what Paul refers to as the ‘foolishness’ of the thing preached.

If this occurs, what is a person to do? What can be do?

Pascal’s Wager

At such a point it may be that Pascal’s remarks on faith and reason on the Pensées will be of help. He famously wrote

‘Either God is, or He is not’. But which side shall we take? Reason can decide nothing here; there is an infinite chaos between us. A game is on, at the other side of this infinite distance, and the coin will fall, heads or tails. Which will you gamble on; According to reason you cannot gamble on either; according to reason you cannot defend either choice……

Yes, but you must bet. There is no option, you have embarked on the business. Which will you choose, then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which will profit you less. You have two things to lose: truth and good, and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness. And your nature has two things to avoid: error and misery. Since you must necessarily choose, it is no more unreasonable to make one choice than the other. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and loss in calling heads, that God exists. Let us estimate the two chances; If you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; gamble on His existence.*

The standard riposte to this invitation to choose is that the situation is more complex that this: Either God and then bliss, or nothing and then nothing. There are, as Paul says, gods many and lords many, and so umpteen alternatives to the ‘God (the God of Christian theism, let us suppose) exists and then bliss’ alternative immediately suggest themselves.

But the existence of a multitude of possibilities each of which could be wagered is not likely to dilute the appeal of a Pascal-type wager to the Christian in the grip of scepticism. For what overcomes him is not some version of Christianity. The very features which make for the offence of the Cross are what make it attractive to him, and winsome. What afflicts him is a sudden, unannounced doubt about the reality of the whole. A sceptical attack. The features which make the gospel both an offence and attractive are the very same features that feed that attack, and make the Gospel suddenly seem incredible. What Tertullian called the ‘impossible’ is but a hairsbreadth from the literally unbelievable. A less offensive gospel, with the sharp edges shaved down and the corners rounded, would be of no help.

So for all the vulnerability of Pascal’s Wager to certain logical objections, it may still provide help for the sceptical Christian who is faced with a stark choice akin to (but not identical with) the choice made famous in the Wager. How? For the Christian afflicted by this kind of doubt, the alternatives are stark, ether the wonderful account of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, or nothing.
So such scepticism may be staved off, or starved, by a ‘leap of faith’. Or better, by the resolve to hold on by one’s fingernails until the attack passes. Then, in retrospect, such a leap may be seen to have been enabled by God’s grace, a ‘hope against hope’ of Abramic proportions. Intellectualism may suffice day to day, but in extremis, fideism - the will - may come to the rescue.

* These passages are from Pascal The Pensées trans J. M. Cohen, (Penguin, 1961) from pages 156-7