Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Folly of Faith, The Path of Truth

When we live close to God, our sight is restored: when we use our eyes, they bear witness to his truth. Pascal’s advice to his friend may seem skeptical, but it is correct, begin with the folly of faith, and you will attain knowledge. This folly is wisdom; this folly is the path of truth.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 115-6

Reflection – Pascal’s wager may not be entirely familiar to everyone. He suggested to a skeptical friend that essentially we are throwing the dice on whether God exists or not. If He does not exist, and we act as if He does we have risked little, living a good decent religious life and then passing into non-existence. Meanwhile, if He does exist and we act as if He does not, we risk everything—eternal damnation for the sake of a few passing pleasures. He concluded his advice by suggesting his friend essentially ‘fake it until he makes it’—go through the motions of faith and religious observance, and eventually as he does so faith will come to swallow up his skepticism.

So yes, Pascal’s wager does seem cynical, and always has to me. It has also never seemed all that persuasive. If I was a non-believer I would counter that spending my life—my only life, my few short years of existence—serving and obeying a non-existent God seems to risk everything I’ve got with no possibility of return.

Anyhow, the debate around Pascal’s wager and its legitimacy as an argument for faith has gone on for centuries. Ratzinger is picking out just the one aspect of it, however, for commendation. Namely, that as we go through the motions, as we live as if God does exist and act accordingly, we do come to see the truth of His existence.

The folly of faith leading to the path of truth: this is a paradox of almost Chestertonian scope. It’s as if we are asked for directions to some nice ordinary destination—the corner store, say—and begin by saying, ‘Well, first you have to jump off this cliff, but at the bottom of the cliff there’s a nice level footpath that takes you straight there.’

We begin with wild assertions—God is three and one! Christ is God and man! Christ is risen from the dead! God’s Spirit dwells in us by faith and the waters of baptism!—and having jumped off those formidable cliffs, can only then say with courage and conviction that 2+2=4 and that little boys and girls should keep their promises, and that life is a good thing and should not be thrown away or destroyed.

This is our Christian claim, and it is being borne out by experience. The most obvious and banal perceptions of reality, ‘common sense’, rest upon wild mysticism and divine mystery. As society increasingly rejects the mysticism and the mystery, common sense has flown out the window. Already we destroy lives by the million each year, promises mean nothing to little boys, little girls and (alas!) big boys and girls either, and I’m sure 2+2=4 is up for the chop next…

Well, I’m not going to rant about the world and its evils today (sighs of relief from the readership…). It is this strange conviction that the folly of faith leads to the path of truth that I want to focus on. That drawing near to God and calling out to God is the pre-condition for seeing things as they are.

If we allow this, even for the sake of argument, the implication is that we are all in the position of the man in the Gospel who is blind and begging at the side of the road. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” This is the human race, you see. We do not see rightly, until God touches our eyes. We do not know what’s what, until we cry out to God for mercy. We don’t know that 2+2=4 (symbolically speaking) until we confess that 1=3 and that death leads to life and that Christ is, in fact, risen from the dead.

Confessing these unfathomable and invisible mysteries, we can then see all things in the light of God’s truth, and enter into and rejoice in the true beauty and goodness of all created things. If anyone is reading this who doesn’t have faith—well, maybe Pascal’s wager is not such a bad risk after all. What do you think?