Pascal’s Wager in a Post-Modern Age

October 7, 2011

…Reviewing the film “50/50”

Abstract: I have not done a movie review on this blog before (albeit, this is still a young blog) and I don’t plan on reviewing movies regularly. However, this movie struck an interesting chord in me as I watched how a young man today might face the coin flip of a chance at surviving a rare spine cancer.  The climax of the movie (which I promise not to give away) is an existentialist commentary on how one might face and deal with reality. At first glance, it might seem that this doesn’t belong on this particular blog but, as Paul Tillich might say, 50/50 raises a question that Christ has an answer to. This is a message that challenges the Christian more than any other.

As you may know, Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century writer commonly known for his mathematical theorems. He also turned out to be a quite provocative philosopher. I personally do not know a whole lot about him and I’m not trying to claim so, but I understand that he proposed an interesting way of viewing belief in God. There are only two ways two see the world and there are only two ways that the world can actually exist–beyond what anybody believes about it. Either you can believe in God or not and then God either is or is not. Pretty straight forward. However, the provocative part is what he concludes. By sheer probability Pascal says it is just overall rational to believe in God because if God does exist, and since belief warrants heaven then we stand to gain everything good. If not then we simply end up with nothing. Juxtaposed next to the possibilities of someone who doesn’t believe: if God doesn’t exist then our end is nothing but if God does exist we risk hell, an infinite suffering. Just by sheer risk calculation where good and well-being is desired it makes more sense to believe in God than not.

Just to be clear, I do not endorse this at all as a means to evangelization because the Good News is not “Believe because you you’ll end up in hell if you don’t.” We were never meant to merely get on God’s side because of fear of hell. The ideal is to truly desire and love God for no other reason than that God is.  Nothing more. Any other foundation is a house built upon the sand.

That aside, Pascal’s wager raises an interesting point about reality that I think needs reiterating in our time. Reality, truth, meaning, logos, beingwhatever word you might insert here as the ultimate principle and referent to the question: “why is there something rather than nothing?”–this “something” is here, is the principle of our own “eye” and has characteristics to it that are beyond our ability to fashion or re-fashion. That being said, our earnest effort in life by and large is to be able to say words that correspond to this reality. No one would be an atheist if they themselves thought it was a stupid idea. However, we have a lot of people who are taking the strong or weak agnostic route (weak meaning an agnostic who believes in some deity that we can know nothing about and strong meaning that we cannot even know whether or not God is unless we die and God is). The reason that Pascal’s wager is so important now is because both forms of agnosticism is sitting on the fence and fence-sitting is just a refusal to face the reality of things. And the reality is this. A reality exists beyond our individual belief. Are we willing to face the “other”?

The film “50/50” raises this question in the context of (I assume) the typical young adult man who has neither strong beliefs about religion nor about the meaning of his own life, much less, life in general. The lead, Adam, is played by Joseph-Gordon Levitt. A young man of 27 who works for public radio is suddenly made aware of a potentially-life threatening cancer of the spine. Discovering that there is only a 50% chance of survival for a person of his age, he faces his mortality and wrestles with the questions that ensue. Given that the only people in his life are his lukewarm girlfriend, an otherwise well-meaning but shallow-minded bestfriend, a father with alzheimer’s, a smothering mother and a 24 year-old therapist-in-training, Adam struggles for clarity.

The direction of the movie takes an interesting turn in the escalation of the plot. As the decisive moment for our protagonist draws near he makes the startling observation that everyone was so intent upon trying to make him feel better that people were constantly avoiding the truth of things. Nobody wanted to face the strong possibility of death. All he heard from people was “it is going to be okay” or “Don’t worry about it.” Adam’s conversations never got beyond those few words, when all he wanted was, more or less, someone to help him face the reality of his situation. Accusingly he adds that nobody is willing to say the truth.

While I more or less disagree with the overall trajectory of the movie’s message, it does do a very good job at presenting contemporary mentality through a series of well-choreographed scenes and the above scene rings very true as a caricature of present culture. However, I would like to bring this accusation to Christians in particular, myself included.

Christians need to be able to help others face reality as people who also have trouble facing it themselves. One of the interesting things about Pascal is that he too was Christian, but that didn’t prevent him from asking some of the questions surrounding the foundation of faith. Searching for why we believe is crucial to faith itself! It is an experience that we can translate over for those who are still searching for any kind of truth at all. If Christians took a second to realize how many people are not asking so much what is in the Bible but why the Bible at all, not so much what the Church says but why and how she says it, not so much what we believe but how we are able to believe then the world would be in for another “awakening.” That is not to say that the “what” is not important but it cannot by separated from the “why” and the “how.”

Jesus calls himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Jesus did not simply call himself the Truth. Truth without a Way is like a painting left in the forest. If there is nothing to lead me to the painting I will never see it. And Life without Truth is certainly hell–an aimless wandering in the vast expanse of sense data. What Jesus is to us then is an answer to the most basic philosophical question: Why is there something  rather than nothing? Christians could answer the question simply and necessarily with “Jesus.” But would that be sufficient? Yes and no. The answer is certainly true but the “why” and “how” is really the substance of faith, the nature of relationship with God. Jesus calls us, no longer slaves to arbitrary commands of the old law, but friends because we know what Jesus is up to and the moral life flows from that. That has always been the spirit behind the Church’s teaching. But this raises a challenge to the seekers.

God told us that those who seek with all their heart will find God. God tells us that because seeking with our whole heart is what it will take–nothing less. If one spends only five seconds trying to wikipedia or Google God, God will not be found. That is not to say that it is impossible to come to faith on the internet I simple mean to say that true knowledge of something is really entering into a wholly personal relationship with it. A good fashion designer does not come to be from half-hearted ideals and purely natural talent. As Chesterton says, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. It takes crappy first drafts, all-niters, passion and grace. With God, all must be willing to expose themselves to their own weaknesses and ignorance only then will we be shown the vast fullness of God.

Agnosticism is simply the option to give up looking–to give up. As an offspring of skepticism, how can it ever escape the black hole of solipsism?

Pascal was provocative, not so much because of his ability to assess risk and gain, but because he speaks about a reality of our situation, namely that there is objective truth that we must discern truthfully and with integrity.  50/50 retrieves the wager again for us today. Do we face reality and ascertain an answer for ourselves or continue to run from it? The reason this question is so important for Christians is  do we face the reality that we are in majority are not living up to our Master’s teachings and ideals or do we continue to just assume that we are. In the end, Christians must be able to speak the truth boldly about the human situation before they can truly understand and share an understanding of the God for us.

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