Can You Argue Your Way to Faith?

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The number of philosophical-theological texts that are only remembered for their philosophical elements and not for their theological arguments has always amused me. Given theology’s marginalization in most of modern life, our selective reading of texts that contain theology isn’t surprising, but it is tragic. The act of ignoring theology portions of famous texts often leaves us with an impoverished view of what certain eminent philosophers were really trying to say.

Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and methodological skepticism are foundational components of modern philosophical thought, but the essay in which they occur ends in what is meant to be a compelling argument for the existence of God. One of Kierkegaard’s best known works, Either/Or, is mostly remembered for the first half – often published alone as The Diary of the Seducer – which seriously taints our understanding of Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

The most frustrating example of this kind of thing is the violence we do to one of Pascal’s most notable philosophical contributions: his wager. Pascal’s wager asks a simple but straightforward question: is it more reasonable to choose a finite, certain good or an infinite, uncertain good? His argument, as might be obvious, concerns the reasonableness of believing in Christ and salvation in him – as opposed to not believing and risking the loss of that salvation. Critics in philosophy debate argument’s validity and critics in the church usually feel uneasy about the seemingly utilitarian approach to evangelism. However, both miss the whole point of Pascal’s wager. In the first instance, he doesn’t posit the wager in order to prove the reasonableness of belief in Christ; he posits it to deny that faith is the product of rationality alone. “At least get it through your head,” he argues, “that, if you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions, since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so. Concentrate then not on convincing yourself by multiplying proofs of God’s existence but by diminishing your passions.”

The great treasure of the Christian intellectual tradition is indeed worthy studying holistically, and the arguments about the existence of God it contains should be learned and presented. But what Pascal tells us is that we shouldn’t expect the re-presentation of discrete arguments for the existence of God to gain universal assent. Too many modern Christian apologists gave assumed that, if people aren’t converting, it’s just because we aren’t presenting the cosmological argument persuasively or loudly enough.  This misunderstands the nature of faith, as well as of the nature of the human person, who believes as much based on what he loves as on what he knows. Arguments about the existence of God are important, but they are neither the fullness of the intellectual tradition nor the sufficient for evangelism. You often have to love the good before arguments about the good are persuasive to you, As Pascal closes, “I tell you that you will gain even in this life, and that at every step you take along this road you will see that your gain is so certain and your risk so negligible that in the end you will realize that you have wagered on something certain and infinite for which you have paid nothing.”

Cole Carnesecca

Cole Carnesecca is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.