Sunday Sermon with the Reverend Jethro

Pascal’s ‘Wager’


My Text today: I Kings 19: 11 -13

I was reflecting a while ago on Pascal’s ‘Wager’ Argument. You know, the one that runs, roughly, ‘If you were asked whether you would place a bet where the cost was little or nothing, where, if your bet didn’t come off, you lost nothing, but, if your bet was successful, you’d won everything, would you not place that bet? So, consider placing a wager on God: if He does not exist, and you have bet that He does, what have you lost? Nothing. If, however, you have bet that He does not exist, and He does, you will have lost everything for all eternity!
Or, as set out in his Penseés,

The Wager uses the following logic (excerpts from Pensées, part III, §233):

    1. God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.
    2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
    3. You must wager (it is not optional).
    4. 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.
    5. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
    6. But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves. [Wiki]

This might seem like a shabby procedure – a cynical manoeuvre, rather than a wholehearted, deeply sincere way of almost-believing, becoming what John Wesley called ‘an almost-Christian’, something to be abhorred by all Evangelicals. Surely, believers must be able to believe wholeheartedly, sincerely, holding nothing back, else it’s too superficial a thing to be dignified by the word ‘belief’.

Or is this just the kind of scrupulosity that was Luther’s trouble? He was unable to accept that his act of confessing was itself acceptable to God, and so he questioned the whole concept of confession as a Sacrament, and from that followed, as we know, a very great deal. Some people are troubled by a kind of ‘obsessive-compulsive-disorder’: did I really lock the door? Better go back and check… Did I check properly?… Better go back and check again… Well, I know I checked in a rudimentary fashion, because locking the door has become so habitual that I just do it, so, was my re-checking similarly perfunctory?… And so it goes on. Some people develop a like obsession with cleanliness, washing their hands over and over again till the skin is inflamed and dry, haunted by the thought that there might yet be some unseen dirt lurking. And so, I would say, with your belief: mouthing or just thinking the words ‘I believe…’ is probably the hardest part for many. So, why not just say (or think) the words, adding, if you like, a Johnsonian ‘…and there’s an end on’t.’

When I put the ‘wager’ argument to someone a while ago, in his reply, he wondered why God doesn’t – since He’s Almighty – make it thunderingly obvious for us, unmistakeable and unequivocal.

And that’s where the biblical account of Elijah at the mountain of God in the Lesson comes into play: Elijah – whose very name is a compound of parts of the two most ancient ‘names’ for God – despairing that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel have turned the whole nation away from worship of God, to worship of Baal, goes back to the holy mountain – not so much to seek counsel and reassurance, as to upbraid Him. And, as we know:

… he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

‘… a still, small, voice. He was not to be found in the whirlwind; nor was He to be found in the earthquake; He was not to be found even in the fire. It was in a ‘still, small, voice’ that He was to be found, or rather it was in that ‘still, small, voice’ that God revealed Himself to Elijah. So perhaps, rather than looking for God to write ‘L O, I A M’ in vast fiery letters across the sky, we should listen for ‘still, small, voices’: God almost imperceptibly nudging – faintly whispering in the ear.

Just two more points, and I am done: the first concerns a Confirmation Sermon I once heard delivered by a splendidly Evangelical Assistant Bishop in a pronouncedly Anglo-Catholic Diocese. Its thread ran along these lines: Do you love God?… but perhaps you haven’t yet arrived at the point where you can confidently affirm ‘Yes, I love God’, nevertheless, by being here today, you surely will answer ‘Yes’ to the question, ‘Do you want to love God?’. Finally, as you will have expected, he asked, ‘Do you want to want to love God?’ God, I am convinced can work in and through our grubbiest motives. Pascal put it with devastating simplicity: ‘”Console thyself, thou wouldst not seek Me, if thou hadst not found Me.’


© Jethro 2018