Michael Rota. Taking Pascal’s Wager: Faith, Evidence and the Abundant Life. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Michael Rota teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, which is in St. Paul, Minnesota. In Taking Pascal’s Wager, Rota argues that Pascal’s Wager has viability in encouraging people to believe in God.
Pascal’s Wager is often conceptualized as a bet, in which one looks at the options of believing in God and not believing in God to determine which is more beneficial to oneself, without knowing for certain whether God actually exists. If God does exist and a person embraces God, then that person will gain spiritual health (i.e., hope, inner peace, etc.) in this life and eternal bliss in the afterlife. If God exists and a person rejects God, by contrast, that person will lack spiritual health in this life and will have eternal misery in the afterlife. Suppose that God does not exist, though? Even in that case, a person can have spiritual health by believing in God, and lack spiritual health by thinking that this world is all there is. In short, what does one have to lose by believing in God, or at least seeking God?
Pascal’s Wager, on the surface, can appear to be a selfish calculation, and yet, as Rota argues, it need not be so, for belief in God can encourage one to help others, as well.
In this review, I will look at select chapters and comment on select items.
Chapter 3, “Moral Reservations and the Cost of Commitment,” deserves praise because Rota does attempt to address difficult questions about Pascal’s Wager. Of course, Rota addresses the conventional criticisms of it: that it trivializes faith by making it into a gamble, and a selfish gamble at that, and that it treats blind faith as a virtue rather than, say, kindness or the pursuit of truth. But Rota also interacts with excellent questions. For example, if God is not real, would not a person be wasting his or her time by pursuing devotional activities, rather than other activities during one’s limited time on earth? And suppose that one lived in a country where Christianity was persecuted. Would one do well to believe in Christ then, especially in a scenario in which the Christian God did not exist? In some cases, Rota’s answers are deft and effective; in other cases, he falls back on saying that one should believe because there is a decent chance that the Christian God is real and that one can be separated from God in the afterlife by not believing in God.
A challenge to me in reading this chapter is that Rota seemed to argue that simply believing in God is not enough to gain the benefits of faith in this life: one actually needs to be a good Christian, or, more accurately, a sociable, likable Christian. That can provide a person with social support from the Christian community, and perhaps appease potential persecutors. But, as a person with Asperger’s, I wonder: what if a person believes in God, yet struggles socially? Or what about the many people, period, who struggle in their Christian walk? To his credit, though, Rota in the conclusion does offer practical, albeit brief, spiritual advice about prayer, reading Scripture, and finding a loving Christian community.
Chapter 4, “More Objections to the Wager: Other Religions and Christianity,” addresses a formidable question about the Wager: What about other religions? Objectors have argued that Pascal’s Wager only talks about two choices: Christianity and atheism. Does not the existence of other religions muddy the water, though, by adding other options, with their own benefits and risks? Suppose that one selects Christianity, and it turns out that one had to be a Muslim to enter the good afterlife and avoid hell?
Rota recognizes the gravity of the problem, as is often the case when he deals with detractors of whatever he is defending in this book: Pascal’s Wager, the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments for the existence of God, the arguments for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, etc. In a sense, this chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book, in which Rota argues that God exists and that there is a decent likelihood that Christianity is the true religion.
Chapter 5, “Where Did Physical Things Come From?”, was Rota’s explanation and defense (on some level) of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. This chapter had an inviting, lucid tone, and Rota shone in this chapter as a gifted teacher. Rota argued that contingent beings needed to originate from some necessary being, and Rota clearly explains the difference between contingent and necessary beings. To his credit, Rota believes that the cosmological argument has its limits, for he can think of necessary entities other than God that can cause or sustain contingent entities. A slight qualm that I had with this chapter was that Rota said that a necessary being always has to exist: a necessary being cannot exist at some point and later cease to exist, otherwise the being would not fit the definition of a necessary being, who necessarily exists (always has and always will). Rota’s reasoning here appears sensible, yet I wonder if the contrast between necessary and contingent beings has to be so stark. Could not a god or a creative force have always existed has far back into the past as one can go, yet at some point cease to exist? Rota would probably have a decent answer to this question, and I would not defend my question to the end, but it is a question that occurs to me.
Chapters 6 and 8 concern the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. For Rota, the fine-tuning argument demonstrates that an intelligent being designed the cosmos. Rota’s responses to most of the objections to the fine-tuning argument that he cites are effective, overall. In my opinion, an exception would be his discussion of the multiverse. An objection to the fine-tuning argument is that there are a lot of multiverses out there, many of which lack life, so it is not such a statistical wonder that at least one of those universes came together in such a manner as to support life. Rota did not clearly address that objection. This chapter had a lot of probabilistic equations. Rota said that, if both God and multiverses exist, then there is a greater likelihood that many of those multiverses would have life, for God is a God of purpose and life. That is an interesting point, but it fails to answer the objection. Rota’s ultimate answer seems to be that, apart from a designer, the likelihood of life existing in any universe is minute. I am unclear why that would be the case. Even if Rota addressed that question, he could have been clearer and more direct.
Chapter 9 is entitled “The Beauty and Existential Resonance of Christianity.” Rota argues that Christianity offers a beautiful moral standard while accounting for the reality that we fail to live up to it. Later in the book, in chapter 12, Rota states that it makes sense that a God who exists would hide himself rather than making himself overly obvious—-so that people would believe in him voluntarily and for the right reasons. Rota also states that a God who exists would probably start a church to pass on God’s teaching and assist people to follow it. Rota essentially believes that Christianity is moral and makes sense, that it is the sort of revelation that the fine-tuning necessary being who started the cosmos and cares for it would make. The problem of hell was occurring to me as I read this chapter, though. Would a loving God condemn people in hell, especially when so many people seem to lack the opportunity to embrace God, or Christianity? This question is especially pertinent because the threat of hell looms large in Pascal’s Wager. Perhaps Rota should have given the usual stock responses to that sort of question, and that would have made the book better. I doubt I would have been convinced, though.
Chapter 10, “Counterevidence: Divine Hiddenness and Evil,” was actually an effective chapter, as it discussed the problem of evil. Rota addresses the question of whether the suffering that God permits is overkill, assuming God allows people to suffer to improve them morally and spiritually. Rota essentially asks how we would quantify the appropriate amount of suffering: is any suffering too much? That is not entirely convincing, but it is a thought-provoking response. Rota’s discussion of Van Inwagen’s treatment of suffering was helpful: Inwagen rejected the idea that God is directly responsible for specific acts of suffering, but Inwagen believed that God permits a world in which suffering exists for educative purposes. God does not directly cause a person’s illness for a specific reason that is tailored towards that person, in short, but God permits a world in which illness exists for a general purpose. Rota’s discussion of Eleonore Stump’s interaction with the problem of evil had some edifying aspects, specifically Stump’s discussion of God’s concern about the spiritual and moral health of Cain and God’s attempts to reach out to him. The prominence of hell in this discussion somewhat spoiled it for me, though.
Chapter 11, “Historical Evidence for Christianity: The Resurrection,” contained classical apologetic arguments for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. An advantage to this chapter is that Rota interacts with challenges from detractors to such arguments, such as John Shelby Spong. Rota places some emphasis on the claim that certain church fathers knew the apostles, as well as the Christian creed and appeal to eyewitnesses that Paul cites in I Corinthians 15:3-8. Rota also stresses that Paul believed that the resurrection was bodily, which would be consistent with the Gospels’ presentation of an empty tomb, and would preclude the possibility that the idea of Jesus’ resurrection arose from a mere hallucination. This chapter was all right, and yet I believe that questions can still be asked. What, for example, would Rota do with the second century “Gnostic” Christian teachers who claimed to receive their teaching from someone who knew an apostle, or apostles? While most New Testament scholars reject Robert M. Price’s view that the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-8 was a later interpolation, agreeing with Rota that it was an earlier creed that Paul received, Price, in my opinion, still asks valid questions: if an early creed—-the official creed that the church passed on to new initiates—-mentioned five-hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus, why does no later New Testament Gospel mention that specific appearance of Jesus? And, even if Rota is correct on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, does that necessarily prove that Christianity is the only divinely-authoritative religion, or that everything Jesus said and taught is true? Are there other possibilities? Could God authorize Christianity, while still revealing Godself in other religions, as well? That brings to mind another criticism I have: Rota defends Christianity without really presenting arguments that other religions are wrong, or deficient. That is significant, in light of the “other religions” argument against Pascal’s Wager.
Before I proceed to the biographical parts of Rota’s book, I want to make a comment about the apologetic element of Rota’s book. It should have had more Pascal: more references to and interaction with Pascal’s thought! Pascal, as Rota knows, did not just present Pascal’s Wager but offered other apologetic arguments, as well. From Phil Fernandes’ 2004 article, “The Apologetic Methodology of Blaise Pascal” (http://www.leaderu.com/apologetics/pascalmethodology.html), I gather that some of Pascal’s arguments coincide with Rota’s approach, whereas others diverge from it. Pascal was leery of the cosmological and teleological arguments, but he probably would have loved Rota’s moral and existential arguments and appeal to beauty. Pascal also employed a historical argument for Christianity, so he overlaps with Rota on this, even though Rota’s arguments are more up-to-date from a scholarly standpoint. Mentioning and interacting with Pascal’s apologetics would have made this book better. Rota could have mentioned and briefly engaged Pascal’s problems with the cosmological and teleological arguments, before justifying his own appeal to them. On historical arguments for Christianity, Rota could have offered a judgment about where Pascal’s historical argument fell short, and how recent scholarship can improve historical arguments for Christianity, or offer better arguments.
The following three chapters are biographical, as they discuss three figures who made a decision for God and found happiness as a result, notwithstanding significant challenges. Chapter 13 is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rota talks about how Bonhoeffer in prison had a joyful, loving attitude, and Rota attributed that to Bonhoeffer’s faith. To provide a more rounded portrait, however, Rota should have discussed the view that Bonhoeffer was a Christian atheist, and possible struggles that Bonhoeffer had. This goes back to my critique of Chapter 3: What about Christians who struggle?
Chapter 14 was about Jean Vanier, who left a promising position in academia to work with the developmentally-delayed. This chapter had beautiful things to say about the love that developmentally-delayed people can show, and how those who work with them can feel free to accept themselves in their presence. This coincides with Pascal’s argument that serving God can bring blessings in this life. The picture of working with the developmentally-delayed was rather one-sided, however, for that kind of work can also have its challenges.
Chapter 15 especially spoke to me. It was about Immaculee Ilibagiza’s struggle to forgive, and the things that God told her to help her to forgive. I have been criticizing this book for not acknowledging struggling Christians enough. This chapter was an exception.
Notwithstanding my critiques, I give this book four stars. Rota is an engaging and lucid author, and he wrestles with tough challenges.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!
On my blogger blog, Steve Hays left the following comment:
There’s an irony inasmuch as Rota’s theology is quite divergent from Pascal’s Jansenist theology.
Just to judge by the review, I don’t interpret the wager the way he does. It’s not about choosing or believe or not believe based on a cost/benefit analysis. Rather, I think Pascal’s wager is intended to make otherwise complacent or religiously indifferent people consider the stakes for the first time.
As a Jansenist, moreover, I doubt Pascal thought you could just will yourself to believe in Christianity. Rather, he suggests that people should immerse themselves in a religious environment where they are more likely to experience God’s presence and grace. Faith may catch on. That, in addition to Pascal’s conventional apologetic arguments.
In other words, I think he’s using the wager as a first step. After that, people should expose themselves to different forms of evidence. Both intellectual evidence and Christian worship. That gives people reasons, as well as a more conducive setting to experience God.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Rota overlapped with you on some of what you say.
Interestingly, Rota in one part of the book does seem to engage Calvinist, or Calvinist-like, ideas. He acknowledges their possibility, but he seems to advise people to act as if they have libertarian free will. At least that was my impression.