November Members’ Exhibition till December
December 7, 2021
Wednesday December 8th: Immaculate Conception of The Blessed Virgin
December 8, 2021

Living between faith and doubt

Q: Archbishop J, why do you believe that God exists (part 4)?

Blaise Pascal was a 17th century philosopher, theologian, and mathematician. Trying to build a bridge between belief and unbelief, he came up with a probability argument based on risk. Pascal proposes that we all wager on faith or no faith, and in so far as we wager, we should understand risk and reward.

If I live as if God exists and, at the end of my life, I find out that in fact God does not exist, what is my risk? Very little risk. I would have wasted some time and money and energy. I might have forfeited some pleasure, but at the end of the day the risk is low. However, if at the end God in fact does exist, the reward is infinite—eternal life with God.

On the other hand, if I do not believe that God exists and find, at the end, God does not exist then there is neither risk nor reward. But, if at the end I find out that God does exist, then my risk is infinite: losing Heaven and eternity with God.

Pascal’s wager proposes that it is more reasonable to believe that God exists and act as if God does exist, than to believe that God does not exist and act accordingly.


Struggling with Faith

Many people who struggle with faith fall into this wager. They convince themselves that for the sake of Heaven, it is better to act as if you believe. I suppose this is a version of ‘fake it until you make it’.

By acting as if we believe, we live with discipline and morality and common decency. But this is not faith. This is an ok, halfway-stop in a journey. It cannot be the journey. We cannot rest here for too long. Ultimately, this is practical agnosticism—neither knowing nor not knowing if God exists.

Unfortunately, many people end up in this position of a wager for many years of their life. They go through the motions and do the right things as an external discipline.

Pascal did not wager on the real benefit of faith here and now in this world; his only reward was eternity. While eternity with God is the ultimate gift, living with God here and now is fundamentally different from a wager that only pays out in eternity.


Bumping into doubt

Twice in my life I bumped into doubt. The first time, I was 20 years old when, as I walked out of Mass on a Saturday evening, I heard myself saying: “Unless I find a reason for going, I do not think I will go back.” This shocked me.

Looking back, it was simple. I used to go to Mass to meet up with friends and then to party. But, by this time in my life, most of my friends from that parish were away studying. My main reason was flawed and collapsed before my eyes.

The next day I was at Maracas liming with other friends and one of them, for the umpteenth time, invited me to the Living Water Community youth meeting. I had always jeered at her and the group. That day, because of what I said the night before, I went to the meeting.


Well, the rest is history.

The second time was in my third year of theology. I used to go to the soup kitchen on Duncan Street every Friday morning. One Friday, on the bus back to the seminary, I heard myself say: “If the poor have a special place in God’s heart why when I pray for trivia I get it, but when the poor pray for serious stuff God does not answer.”

My world unravelled as unceremoniously as when a kitten gets hold of knitting. I felt as if I was living in an empty world with nothing giving meaning to the parts. It felt like Yates in his poem, ‘Second Coming’: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”.


The darkness

I had read John of the Cross and some Ignatian spirituality and learnt enough to know I should not alter my course in such a state. I was both shocked and intrigued. Then, I was dismayed and alarmed.

I acted in a counter-intuitive way. I increased my prayer. Every night I went to the chapel and sat in darkness from 11 p.m. to midnight. I said: “I am here, not sure about you, but I am here”.

During this period, I reasoned that if I spent my life as a priest and found on my deathbed there was no God, it would be okay. I could spend my whole life contributing to humanity. I fell into Pascal’s wager.

But there was more. I also turned to helping the poor. “My life would be okay,” I said, “if it touched the lives of the poor in significant ways and accompanied them along their pilgrimage to a better life.”

I wanted to give myself to others. There was no understanding of God anymore.

In the heady days of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven), reading for the Master of Theology, I encountered the masters of suspicion. They drove me to the very edges of belief.

One day, I heard myself saying: “If I continue, I will not have belief in God anymore.” Then I thought: “But if I stop, I could never respect the God that may emerge, a God afraid of human reasoning and enquiry.” I pressed on.

I reasoned, if there was a God, the poor must be His preferential option. I reinterpreted everything from this perspective.

I kept praying; I kept searching; I kept standing before the enigma not as a judge, but as an enquirer, a seeker, a pilgrim who was on a sacred quest.

During those days, I could interpret everything from the perspective of faith and from the perspective of reason. I could not tell you which was true, and which was not true.

I lived Pascal’s wager. It was not enough. I needed more. Intellectually, pastorally, and spiritually, I committed myself to those on the margins. It was a great adventure.


Key Message:

We all live between faith and doubt. Do not settle for quick and easy answers, humble yourself, stand before the mystery and enigma of the world and press into the mystery.

Action Step:

No matter where you are on the journey, consider whether you are still a seeker, still searching for truth. Or, if you have become a judge deciding about God. Humbly sit with the not knowing and enter the inner and outer silence and allow meaning to emerge.

Scripture Reading:

Mark 10:46–52