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Heavenly Body and a Need to Know



“Of course you have heard of Pascal’s Wager?” my friend asked. 


“Uh, remind me,” I said, knowing where his question was headed. Our recent conversations had turned to matters of the hereafter and who was still left from our old college gang.  


We let the young waitress refill our coffee and gather-up our pastry plates. Now retired from a legal career, my friend had returned to school for a masters in theology.  Well, he said, Pascal argued when in doubt whether God exists, why not bet on a higher power, thus opening the way for life eternal. 


I nodded, half agreeing that Blaise Pascal, the 17th French century philosopher, mathematician, had been on to something. 


But as a skeptic and fence ridder with matters of religion I offered up, “That’s if one needs to know whether there is a heaven.” I quickly prefaced believing in God had nothing to do with heaven. “They are apples and oranges.” 


My friend proceeded to lay out like a good barrister the consequences of betting against Pascal, citing supporting scriptures. But my mind jumped into man’s need for certainty. Wasn’t that really what our conversation or Pascal’s Wager was all about, certainty? And man’s high anxiety over his finiteness?


After talking about varying prescriptions regarding entry into the heavenly loft, my friend and I agreed to take up matters later.


That night, at home, I contemplated Pascal. He was an ascetic, meaning someone who abstains from pleasures, a Catholic and died before he was forty after some illness which he refused to treat.  A Google search claims he was a child prodigy and was one of several who established the first mechanical calculator.  


He was also a follower of Jansenism which was a split-off movement in Catholicism which claimed Christ did not die for all man’s sins. Just some? Its tenet, many persons were predestined to damnation.


Perhaps this thinking is where Pascal came up with his wager. Was Jansenism, an exclusionary club, believing heaven is offered only to the few who believe in a higher power? Further exploration into one of his most influential works, the Pensees, which translates as ‘Thoughts’ might shed light on the inner workings of his mind. I put it on a reading list.


Regardless, whether some three hundred plus years ago, or today, Pascal’s wager soothes mankind's angst about uncertainty, the big core fears: death, abandonment. The key to get around them, the heavenly afterlife, but only with a belief in God. One goes with the other. So why worry?


Not a bad strategy. And workable for many. 


But just as humans have a hard time with the finiteness of life, the culture of mankind also has difficulty with the arbitrariness of it all. 


Pascal, the mathematician and rogue Catholic, knew this about his brethren and endorsed the Abrahamic tradition of monotheism, as well as the concept of everlasting existence espoused by Christianity and Islam. Being a formulaic, he fed desperate minds and hung out an eponymous quote for the ages.`


Pascal’s Wager has survived the past several hundred years as one of  those fox hole bromides because man needs a formula for living. We are a species needing guideposts for the Way. What are we to do with our sins, our thoughts therein, the need for reassurance of who we are or are not? What do we do with doubt? And the fear it triggers?


 What if there were no Bible or Koran? What would we do? What if there were no priests, rabbis, or ministers? Or counselors, psychologists or pontificators on matters of life and death?

 

I have no argument with Pascal. His wager makes for good contemplation. But how many of the over 8 billion persons on earth have heard of him, his wager, or for that matter have ever read the Bible, or Koran or any other religious document? Many get along fine, others don’t. 


Pascal’s wager aside, some people need little reassurance that they are good. They trust how the universe unfolds, and that it does so regardless of their actions. They don’t cling. They are alright one way or another whether there is a heaven, or there is not. And belief in their afterlife has nothing to do with how they behave. They take a higher road, because it is in their nature to do so, not because they get a grand pay off at the end of it all. 


Good sayings and good books are for pondering and can give us a deeper understanding of the human experience. But those who author them are mortal and have no more a clue about the tomorrows than those who never contemplate them.


I’ll meet up with my barrister friend again. I’ll not try to convince him of my way of thinking; acceptance of the uncertainty of it all.  


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