Pascal’s Wager in Pluralistic Cultural Context


Blaise Pascal

Yes, I must admit that the last several posts have not really been about missions… at least not directly. This is not a drift away from missions but trying to look at missions as it is (in part) grounded in Biblical, Philosophical, and Historical Theologies. For example, I might find commendable the obedience of a hyper-Calvinist to God in evangelizing in accordance with Matthew 28:18-20. However, I can’t help but be concerned that the individual’s theology is inconsistent with his practice.  I am not a hyper-Calvinist (not really a Calvinist at all, I guess), but I believe that a better grounding of what I do benefits— Jerusalem DOES have much to do with Athens (whether Tertullian or we like it or not).

Blaise Pascal developed “Pascal’s Wager“, drawn from Thoughts (Pensees) that argues for faith in God over an against doubt or rejection (translated):

Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? Let us see: since a choice must be made, let us see which offers you the least interest. 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 avoid: error and wretchedness. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weight up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.”

The basic argument is essentially game theory. The way to minimize risk is to believe as opposed to unbelief (in God). However, William James in his essay “The Will to Believe” quotes Mahdi (not sure which one… “Mahdi” is a title from Islamic Tradition… perhaps he was referring to the one who was part of the 19th century Mahdist revolt in British Sudan. Or maybe he is referring to the eschatological figure in that religion).

“I am the Expected One who God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not!”

The argument is essentially the same. However, at least from a Christian standpoint, the argument seems much weaker. The idea that god (as described within the Islamic system) and his messenger should be believed since the gain is much greater than the loss, only makes sense if there is no competing system.

Pascal’s Wager essentially works in a setting where there are two essential positions: Unbelief (or nominalism) in a religious system versus Belief in that same religious system. Things fall apart in a pluralistic culture.

Does that mean that nothing can be said? To me, it might be a solid wager in the broadest sense. There is a basic soundness that believing in God if God exists is of greater benefit then the loss associated with believing in God if God does not exist.

Still I am not sure that Pascal’s Wager is all that useful in missions. Nearly everywhere now, cultures are either pluralistic or are dualistic where Christianity is an outsider sytem. The idea that having religious faith “makes sense” on some level may be comforting to some. However, in a pluralistic society, there are too many options.

Still, we live in a time when the vestiges of logical positivism remain (at least for the moment) so there are still some that feel that faith and truth are at war. Works such as that by Pascal and William James (and the various challenges to naivety of scientific exuberance, “Popperism,” and positivism) help some realize that the realm of faith can be an intellectually safe place to dwell.

It seems to me that Christians should avoid the extremes of placing faith in stark contrast to logic (faith against cognition) on one side and “scientifically proving” faith on the other side.

With the growth of post-modernism, faith is given more respect (as long as it is tinged by doubt). Faith is necessary (even unbelief takes a certain amount of faith of one sort). The growing challenge is that faith communities must learn to welcome both “thinkers” and “feelers.” Both are made by God and both have a place in His church.

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