28 February 2021

Betting on Heaven! Using Pascal’s Wager to Evangelize Others

I was lucky. I couldn't NOT believe even wen I tried, but this is a fascinating method of evangelisation.

From New Liturgical Movement

By David Clayton

“Try this for 30 days, and if you don’t like it, we'll return your misery with interest!”

More than thirty years ago, I met by chance a man called David Birtwistle, who asked me this question: Are you as happy as you can be? It was an easy one for me to answer: “No.” “Would you like that to change?” “Yes.” “Let me show you how,” David said. I am using the image of the Prodigal Son as featured in yesterday’s post to represent myself in this scenario.

The Prodigal Son, by John Macallan Swann, English, 19th century

David was older than me - I was 26 and he was in his sixties - and I was introduced to him by a mutual friend whom he had helped and in whom I had seen great change.

What David offered me was the chance to discover a fulfilling role in life through a series of spiritual exercises. I didn’t have to believe in God, he said, I just had to be willing to act as though He existed. I was a bitter and unhappy atheist at this point, and would have run a mile if I had been asked to believe in Christ. But being willing to take actions consistent with the idea of God, this seemed possible. I had seen the effect that this process had had on my friend, so was willing to give it a try.

David gave me a daily routine of prayer, meditation and good works that took up about 10-15 minutes of my day. “Try it for 30 days,’ he said, ‘and if you don’t like it, we’ll return your misery with interest!”

Pascal studying the cycloid, by Augustin Pajou, 1785

What I didn’t know was that David was a devout Catholic, and he was presenting to me his own version of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, was a Catholic, and used his ‘wager’ as a rational argument to draw people into the Faith. He proposed that people bet with their lives that God either exists or does not. A rational person, he suggested, should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas if God does exist, he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).

I remember hearing this argument when I was a high school, and had always though that it didn’t work because, it seemed to me, it wasn’t enough for me to live a life consistent with faith in God. If I wanted to go to heaven, I had to believe in God as well, and that was, I thought not possible. ‘I can’t flick a switch and believe,’ I thought.

The difference with David’s approach as it was presented to me was that he knew, I think, that he could persuade me to take the actions, knowing that I would feel different as a result, and would become a believer, provided I was open to the possibility at the outset. This is exactly what happened to me. Within just one day of trying a routine that included praying to be cared for by a God that I thought might exist, saying thank you at night (‘it’s good manners to say thank you’) and writing a gratitude list of good things that occurred in the day, I was feeling noticeably different. This encouraged me initially to keep doing it and look for psychological explanations for why it worked, based upon the assumption that God doesn’t exist. Very quickly - well before the 30 days were up - I had concluded that these simple actions work for the reason that David said they did: God does exist and He is helping me. I was now a believer. Simple as that.

Blaise Pascal, a contemporary portrait
I suspect that David’s presentation was what Pascal intended as well. Pascal is also credited with saying, “If you are looking for God, then rejoice you have found Him.”
It was a long way from a generic faith in God to being received in the Church, but because I had started on a foundation of truth, continued practice of the principles that David had passed on led inexorably to my conversion. I was received into the Church about four years later at Farm Street Catholic Church in London, and David was my sponsor!

The only condition that David attached to passing this on to me was that I should be ready to hand on to others what he had given to me. This is what drove me to write the two books about the process, The Vision for You - How to Discover the Life You Were Made For, and a condensed presentation of the same process, The Vision for You - A Short Summary of the Spiritual Exercises & a Manual to Accompany Workshops. A group of us who have been through this process have now started to run video-conference workshops that explain the process to inquirers, and allow you to meet mentors who can guide you through the Vision for You Process one-to-one. Anyone who is interested and would like guidance is free to contact me. We endeavor to pass on to others freely what was freely given to us.

The process leads me first to establish a deep relationship with God and then to the discernment process. Under David’s guidance, from this first foundation of a daily routine, he took me through a series of thorough spiritual exercises, in the manner of Ignatian Spiritual Exercises or perhaps the 12-Steps. It culminated in a discernment process by which I discovered God’s plan for me and how to follow it. At no point was I required to be a believing Christian, but everything David asked me to do was consistent with and informed by David’s Catholicism. David seemed content to allow God to call me to Him on that one!

After completing the first part of the process by which I found a deep connection with God, David asked me a question: “If you inherited so much money that you never again had to work for the money, what activity would you choose to do, nine to five, five days a week?” One thing that he said he was certain about, he said, was that God wanted me to be happy. Provided that what I wanted to do wasn’t inherently bad (such as drug dealing!) then there was every reason to suppose that my answer to this question was what God wanted me to do. This process did not involve ever being reckless or foolish, or abandoning my everyday responsibilities, but I would always need faith to stave off fear. He couldn’t guarantee that my dreams would happen exactly as imagined, although it was certainly possible. What he did guarantee though was that by following this call and taking small and sensible steps towards it, I would be fulfilled and discover what God wanted me to do because it would materialize in my life. As He put it to me, “Thy will be done,” is a fact, not an aspiration.

I answered this question immediately. I wanted to be an artist.

In response David told me that there were two reasons why I wouldn’t achieve my dream: the first was if I didn’t try to follow the call; the second was that, assuming that I did try, en route I would find myself doing something even better, perhaps something previously unimagined. When this happens, he said, you will be enjoying it so much you stop looking further.

David also stressed how important it was always to be grateful for what I have today. He said that unless I could cultivate gratitude for the gifts that God is giving me today, right here, right now, then I would be in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. In which case, even if I got what I wanted I wouldn't be happy. This gratitude should start right now, he said, with the life you have today. Aside from living the sacramental life, he told me to write a daily list of things to be grateful for and to thank God daily for them. Even if things weren’t going my way there were always things to be grateful for, and I should develop the habit of looking for them and giving praise to God for his gifts. He also stressed strongly that I should constantly look to help others along their way.
Blaise Pascal’s death mask
My experience is this. Most important first, I became Catholic. Next, I was offered a job at a Catholic liberal arts college in New Hampshire as Artist in Residence which brought me to the United States from the UK. Then my goal developed into more - I wanted to create of offer a formation for Catholic artists. This was created in my next job, when I designed a Master of Sacred Arts program for Pontifex University, where I am now Provost. This also the home of the wonderful Masters program offered in conjunction with Dr Christopher West and the Theology of the Body Institute on the Theology of the Body and the New Evangelization.
Some years after meeting David, and before I came to the US, I was offered the chance to study portrait painting in Florence (I couldn’t believe it!). While I was there, I went to see a priest who was an expert in Renaissance art, an American living at the Duomo. I wanted to know if my developing ideas regarding the principles for an art school were sound. He listened and encouraged me in what I was doing. Then he remarked in passing, even though I hadn’t asked him this, that he thought that it was my personal vocation to try to establish this school.
The Duomo, Florence, Italy
I don’t know what I had said that had made him think this, but I was pleased to hear it and he seemed pretty certain. Then he said something else that I found interesting. He warned me that I couldn’t be sure that I would ever get this school off the ground but he was certain that I should try. As I did so, he said, my activities along the way would attract people to the Faith (most likely in ways unknown to me). This, he said, is what a vocation is really about, drawing people to Christ.
Dice players, Roman fresco, Pompeii, 1st century AD

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