Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Late one wintry evening in 1652, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was alone in his study reading a biblical account of Christ’s passion. What happened next, as best as can be pieced together from Pascal's fragmentary account, was a direct encounter with God.  His notes began with a single word in block letters: FIRE.  It was the kind of devouring fire than burns quickly though the reverie of everyday life, right down to the foundation of one's being.  Two hours passed in what Pascal described as “oblivion of the world and of everything, except God.”  Always a careful observer, he recorded the event on a scrap of paper that had fallen from his Bible and that was found after his death sewn in the lining of his jacket.  "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," he wrote, "not of the philosophers and scholars." 

As a philosopher, Pascal had rejected the false certainty that God’s existence could be deduced by logical argument.  Either God existed, or he did not. When the outcome is uncertain, he reasoned, you have to consider what is at stake and place your bets accordingly.  "If God does not exist," he had written in his Pensées, "one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing.”  Now, sitting alone in his study late at night, he was brought face to face with the very thing he had rejected as unattainable by logical argument.  Certitude, he wrote; and again, as if to bring the point home to himself, he repeated the word: Certitude.

There is obvious irony in the fact that a man whose faith had been comfortably reconciled with uncertainty should find certainty that he had not sought.  In many ways, Pascal's path to God is the opposite of most true believers, who reject uncertainty and insist upon the reality of what they have not seen.  The Apostle Paul was adamant that belief in Jesus' resurrection from the dead was the foundation of the Christian faith, even though he himself had not witnessed it.  Faith for him was "the conviction of things not seen."  So it was that belief in "impossible things" became the hallmark and test of one's faith in God.

Picking up on a phrase from St. Paul, Eric Hoffer observed more than a half-century ago that the "things which are not" are often mightier than the "things that are."  In matters of belief, what counts is not meaning but certitude.  "Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies," Hoffer wrote, " but how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is."  Hoffer died long before the rise of militant Islam, but he would surely not have been surprised by the grim spectacle of young fanatics flying airplanes into the World Trade Center in order to gain immediate entry into paradise.

"To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity," Hoffer said.  And it is precisely this "net of familiarity" that puts dogmatic belief at odds both with the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be.  After all, what characteristic most distinguishes the vision of a new heaven and a new earth in biblical prophecy, if not its newness?  God's world is always new and surprising -- as surprising as the sudden turn in Pascal's life, when he wagered on God and found he had made a sure bet.

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer            

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