There comes a time in almost any undergraduate theology class when professors like me must respond to the question: Why believe?
This may come as a surprise to those who think theology professors pressure students to believe through catechesis and apologetics or, on the contrary, covertly aim to strip students of their faith. Both are wrong. Even the most diligent academic study of theology, guided by professors who are comfortable with doubt and youthful searching, take students into the vicinity of life’s big questions. And, when those questions press in, there is the professor — who is paid to take on challenging questions and who has a life and a story, too.
I am no huge fan of Pascal’s answer to the question of why faith is reasonable. Yet part of my own answer echoes his: Even if Christianity is a myth, I sometimes say, it is a damn good myth. In posthumously published notes, the 17th-century French philosopher proposed what has come to be called Pascal’s Wager. No one can know with certainty whether God exists, yet nothing less than everything may be at stake in believing in God — heaven rather than hell, eternal happiness rather than eternal misery. On the other hand, if God does not exist, nothing remotely comparable is gained or lost either way. The rational choice is thus to wager that God does exist, believing and living accordingly.
Now, I am not sure whether Pascal’s Wager in its strictly rationalist version has ever convinced anyone ever. But I am quite sure that it lands with a thud on modern ears. Never mind that fellow philosophers have raised all kinds of objections — that’s just what philosophers do. The problem for serious atheists, honest agnostics, and the vague “nones” who occupy more and more of my classroom seats, is that any threat of eternal damnation in the fires of hell leaves them cold, at best. Though I find a nuanced portrayal of hell such as C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce to be credible and merciful, too often it presents such an obscene image of a cruel and vindictive God that moderns simply reject the whole business.
Even as a Christian believer, I have my own objection: Fear is a poor reason for faith. It is the call to love God with all my being and love my neighbor as myself that makes my heart sing — and risk. Still, I have found a clue in an unlikely place for improving both on my nonchalant “it’s a damn good myth” and possibly on Pascal’s Wager.
A good friend of mine is a strong and occasionally caustic agnostic who is also a good conversation partner. An engineer, he has been a practical hands-on tinkerer since his youth. Though nothing prevents an engineer from being a believer, in his case an affinity for the tight cause-and-effect realm of things seems either to have predisposed him to or reinforced a strictly materialist worldview. Researchers speculate that some people carry what they call a “God gene” that produces a receptor in the brain for experiencing the mystical and transcendent. I have to wonder because my friend offers such a striking example of its possible absence. I’m no geneticist and I really have no desire to diagnose a friend, but here’s the thing: I knew he had little interest in poetry, but he recently remarked in passing that he doesn’t even like fiction. “God gene” or not, here was possible evidence of what might be the same thing — a poetry gene, or the lack thereof!
And that is my clue. My admittedly less rigorous version of Pascal’s Wager is not a calculation of risk but a jump at an opportunity: I get to live inside a poem — indeed, an epic, a song cycle, a drama in verse.
A generous but still agnostic take on religion is that it clearly does answer a deep human need. If the vast majority of human beings through the eons have in some way been religious, that too is an evolutionary datum that even a strictly materialist worldview must take seriously, not dismiss prematurely as unenlightened or retrograde. We need meaning. We need to explain the cosmos to ourselves. This is the objective, non-pejorative function of a “myth.” We need to place not only our own lives but our communities and peoples and species and ecosystems into a grand story.
But what if it is “just a story” — to say nothing of a “myth” in the pejorative sense of a delusion? Here’s where something like Pascal’s rationalistic wager does kick in. Let’s do the math, so to speak:
Option one: I live my life as a nonbeliever. If I am fortunate, I get to enjoy many small if passing pleasures in life. One of them is to see through the long religious delusion that I believe has gripped humanity, as I discard all superstitions about ghosts and gods and other unseen forces, heroically facing up to the cold hard facts of a vast and lonely universe. If I carry this brutal honesty to its conclusion, I am willing to admit that my unbelief, too, might possibly be a delusion, for the universe is so very vast as to be unknowable, offering no ultimate and indisputable formula. My situation is in this way little different than that of believers, but I have the courage to admit it. The universe does not know my name, and the few life companions who do know my name will — in the cosmic blink of an eye — both forget me, and themselves be forgotten. Still, I can somehow console myself in needing little consolation.
Option two: I live my life as a believer. I join with the myriads of human beings (and perhaps others, on other planets and realms) in an epic journey. Hints of transcendence twinkle in and through the ordinary stuff of reality; if I train myself to pay attention, those hints may even be offering to shimmer, shine, then illumine. Meanwhile, even as the honest unbeliever is unafraid of hard facts, I have room for nagging doubts. After all, uncertainty is part of any good story and inevitable on this epic quest. Being wrong at least about some things, and perhaps many things, is part of the very drama. But if worse comes to worst and my faith indeed proves completely ungrounded, I still have the brief but simple pleasures of the unbeliever to fall back upon. I, too, have been tending my garden, as Voltaire’s Candide concluded might be the best we can do. The atheist can hope for simple pleasures and friendships, before all goes dark; the believer experiences this too, and arguably all the more richly. For right or wrong, I will have lived inside a poem.
Of course, as a Christian, I do not simply live inside the genre of poetry — no one can — but inside a particular and particularly epic poem. I believe that the Creator of this vast and wondrous universe knows my name — every name, noticing and caring for every sparrow that falls. Yes, there are falls. Again, this is a poignant and sometimes tragic drama with a real and unfinished plot, not merely a few sappy lines on a greeting card. But that is why, in the most surprising plot twist of all, the otherwise mysterious Creator has joined us on the journey.
If people are responsible for the worst fall of all, God has — since calling Abraham — been straining and luring and cajoling to call out a new people that will live among all peoples as a blessing to them. And when those who know themselves to be God’s people fail yet again (sometimes by claiming to be God’s only people!) God patiently shows up as still on their journey with them. God thickens the plot by taking on their suffering, joys, and very flesh — Jesus Christ, God pitching a tent among us.
In the version of the poem that I believe I hear God inviting me into, allusions and subtexts and counterpoints are so intricately rich that I have to be generous to those in other religions, living within other stanzas, in what may yet turn out to be the same poem. “All will be well and all manner of things will be well” and I can be generous to those who are tone deaf, who lack the poetry gene, whose honest questions simply are too unshakable, and who fail to hear the poem at all.
In short, as a believer living inside the poem of salvation history that ever climaxes in Jesus Christ, I have many more reasons than Pascal offered. I do not think this is just a myth or a wager. But if it is, I’m all in.