I confess that a fortnight ago I sidled up to the window prepared to bet the ranch on Mr. Pascal’s proposition. A seductive fellow, Mr. Pascal.
A seventeenth-century intellectual so public that over the next four hundred years nobody ever felt obliged to ask — “I’m sorry, to which Mr. Pascal do you refer?” — Blaise Pascal is frequently described as a philosopher and mathematician. In his posthumously published work, Pensees, which is still read and wrestled with to this day, he posed a question that has long teased the spiritually tentative. It went like this. Pascal posited that every human being must confront a basic question in life: Should he assume that God exists? Or should he assume that God does not exist? Simple enough, eh? If the individual opts for the former, he must deny himself some temporal pleasures of earthly passage, but, if the assumption proves to be correct, he wins personal salvation and eternal life. If he opts for the second assumption, however, he may feast on the delicacies, sensual and otherwise, of the human banquet but knows for a certainty that he will be allotted not one single day beyond physical death.
As you can see, Blaise Pascal was, at least in this instance, more of a mathematician than a philosopher. (Some of his modern followers consider him to be the father of probability theory.) Pascal was making it comfortable for the skeptical to occupy common ground with the faithful. If you took his wager, you were under no obligation to believe in God: Under the terms of his pragmatic calculation, you could merely assume the existence of God. You could be acceptably Christian, that is to say, without necessarily believing in the divinity of Christ. (If this strikes you as some kind of leftish flimflammery, well, that would be your own smallminded judgment, not mine.)
As I say, I was relieved to know that I could take Pascal’s wager and declare a victory of sorts. I wouldn’t be returning from this inquiry with utterly empty hands. Even so, I was aware that taking his bet would never be comprehensively satisfying. It would soon reveal itself as a philosophical cop-out, just as it had done for all those Pascalian odds-players down through the centuries.
I felt the urge to move on from Mr. Pascal and was pleased to discover that I had built some momentum. I was still spiritually malnourished, but I sensed that faith was out there somewhere, hovering, and that my job was not to await an epiphanic event — some dramatic Pauline conversion — but rather to open myself to the power of The Word. My job was to let Him into my life, rather than trying to barge into His.
I picked up a Bible given to me in the middle of the last century by Grandmother Freeman. I should report that it is in embarrassingly pristine condition. In a single sitting, and relishing every verse for its King James diction, I read the four Gospels. (Biblical scholar alert! Avert your eyes from what follows. We have disturbing reports of an amateur thrashing about on your turf.) John, who seems to be the heartthrob of doctoral students with his propensity for complexity-verging-on-opacity, did not do it for me. William Blake may have been thinking about John when he wrote: “Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read black where I read white.” I have nothing against John, personally or pastorally, but I have only one lifetime to spend on this project. Nor did Mark or Luke make the tumblers fall into place on my particular combination lock. Both of them are duly chiliastic, but they tend to veer off into clubhouse chatter in what amounts to a Members-Only lounge. I have been elevated from the waiting list, praise the Lord, but I’m still no more than a provisional member of His club.
But Matthew! The much underrated Matthew! To my untrained eye, he must be reckoned either a) the apostle with prophetic powers greater even than the God whose earthly life he chronicles; or b) the world’s most reliable stenographer. The latter seems far more likely, with Matthew cast as the wire-service reporter who, after swearing off color and hype, locks in the timeline and then nails the quotes. Take the sermon of all sermons, which launches in Chapter Five. Matthew records the Beatitudes with what appears to be absolute fidelity to somebody’s original text. We not only have the perfectly sculpted “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” but we have the soaring, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Ask yourself: Did Matthew jot down rough notes at deadline, making up stuff like a cable news guy with five minutes to air? Did Matthew get a sketchy translation from some descendant of a shepherd who claimed to wander by the Mount that day? Or did Matthew transcribe faithfully the timeless Word of God in all its shimmering beauty?
Matthew is nothing if not comprehensive. He gets around to the Beatitudes only after he has recorded the baptism, the fast in the desert, the temptation by Satan, even after He has chosen the twelve apostles. Every stern condemnation, every ferric commandment seems to be inscribed here. And then there is the Sermon itself, the longest speech by Christ, I’m told, in the New Testament. In Chapter Six, I found myself falling into step with the familiar rhythms of the Lord’s Prayer. And along the way I received a gift of insight. I now understand, finally, what people mean when they speak of the “comfort” of prayer. It’s an anxiety dispersant, a peace finder. I even managed to forgive myself my trespasses without tripping over the sibilants.
Yes, I recited His Prayer aloud, but only after first closing my office door. There is nothing more disconcerting to our cultural overlords than public displays of religious devotion: In more than a few urban fiefdoms, peeing in the street may be frowned upon, but praying in the street is cause for more general alarm. Next time I am moved to pray, I must ask myself, should I comply with the strictures of the ruling culture? I shall think on that question. (I am reminded by the morning journal that closed-door praying is not without its own risks. I was speaking only to God today, but I must contend with the possibility, report the media, that Alexa was listening in and may have since reported me to Mr. Bezos or Mrs. Bezos or whoever’s now in charge of monetizing my confessional data.)
I do not know much about Matthew. I read somewhere that in a previous life he had served as a tax collector, for which I have found it in my heart to forgive him. Whatever the details of his resume, I am indebted to him for providing what touched me as an indispensable vade mecum.
I have at least two other things to think on, the one procedural and the other more substantive. The single most Frequently Asked Question about this series is one form or another of this one: Why are you scribbling for this site when you could be counselling with wise men or reaching out to august sources or Googlegrouping with those similarly benighted? The answer is that I write to find out what I believe. (I was once quoted on this very point by the founding editor of this journal. Trust me, one never forgets one’s first quotation by the founding editor of this journal.) I cannot feel confident that I have arrived at the truth until I write it down, stare at it, and then sign my name to it. The late Sherman Kent, who served for a time as the nexus between Yale University and America’s intelligence services and was thus a constant visitor to the central file, made the point windily but well: The reason it’s worth writing it all down “is that by doing so (you) will come into intimate contact with the chief philosophical assumptions behind (your) existence.”
And finally, my own most FAQ. How far have we travelled and where are we now? Manifestly, there have been disappointments. For one, I had hoped for many years to feel a tug, a real sleeve-pull, toward Rome. Many of the people I cherish most in my life are Catholics, either born to the Faith or converted somewhere along the way. (One of the most blessed chapters of a long life is that magical decade during which you are invited to attend more mid-life baptisms than funerals.) I long to be with them, my Catholic friends, but as I acknowledged in Part Two of this series, it is not yet to be.
The other disappointment is that as I stumbled my way forward, advancing doggedly if uncertainly, I encountered no theatrical markers. None whatsoever. Now, I’m not so high maintenance as to require an angelic visitation backed by heavenly chorus, but a somewhat bigger finish, I thought, would not have been out of place. These were, from my perspective at least, developments of an earth-shaking sort. I have calmed myself in this matter with a memory of Malcolm Muggeridge, that dear man. Malcolm had spent years, decades, developing his own faith and when I asked him how it had finally come together for him, he admitted that he had at one time expected a bit of punctuation – a thunderclap, perhaps, or at the least a burst of well-sung song. In the event, he said, his faith had simply “unfolded.”
I am not exactly sure where I am on this journey — thanks to Malcolm, I see it as less of a meandering and more of an unfolding — but it is beginning to feel very much like the path toward home. Walker Percy, one of America’s great faith-seekers who posed for years as a novelist, wrote something that sticks with me. In The Moviegoer, Percy’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, freeze-frames his own spiritual journey this way: The search is “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be on to something is to be in despair.”
Just so, Binx.