Incense burned at the foot of the small altar. The musky air accumulated within the confined space, saturated with haze. I could feel the Lord's presence as I sat in prayer to the One who saved me from my trials and discomforts. Certain thoughts used to flood my mind - ones of suicide: the bastardized martyrdom - for instance. All of my human pains and sufferings lifted high! God, I worship thee.
Or so I once thought.
I soon returned back to the concrete, realizing that a mere fifteen minutes stood between my ten-thirty class and me. I loved waking up in the morning to God's presence. I knew that my weaknesses would consume me throughout the day; it was good insurance for me to think that He would work through me, serving as prophet. So clearly defined is the task of the infatuated man.
I quietly cursed internally, remembering the time. I hastily threw on my jacket and dark-striped bow tie and headed to the garage. A smile broke across my face as I strolled the distance from the back door to my Chevrolet. It was a modest car, one that the humble drive. Even a miniature crucifix hung from the rear-view mirror!
Excitement overtook me as I contemplated today's lesson. The painting of de Champaigne's Augustine lucidly arose, bringing along with it a sense of wisdom and direction. There seemed a lack of traffic; people had to take up their roles in the world: consumers began desperately haggling with the car dealers; doctors took up their instruments of salvation; alcoholics lounged soporifically, already past their third round of drinks.
The parking lot of the institution was another matter. Hordes of students rushed from their vehicles, frantically trying to avoid lateness. For me, tardiness was never an issue, for there was always a reason for everything: lateness was just another detour of God’s omnipotent schedule. Every time this thought arose, I would suppress the plaguing retrospection of my father's untimely death; his death was a counterexample of God's flawless punctuality.
Miss Reginauld, the secretary, peered at me upon my arrival through the main entrance of the Emmanuel Building of Arts and Sciences. I nodded encouragingly as I passed her desk, noticing the great mesas of papers stacked on the coffee table. The elevator arose to the second floor and I stepped off, quickly reviewing the main points of the lecture. An anticipation emerged: my students would soon discover an argument so genius and reasonable that only the most amateur of thinkers deny. Lines of Pensées repeated themselves monotonously within.
I made the third right down the hall as I overheard Miss Reginauld answer the phone. She was such a lustrous woman, her blonde hair beautifully coupled with those brown eyes. Oh, but I rarely occupied my mind with such sinful reflections. Right then, a memory quickly exposed itself: once, in high school, I recalled a time when my pastor reassured me that sexual immorality is the climax of humanity's fallen nature. "Sexual sin," he added, "is the cause of most of the world's chaos." This was a motif of countless sermons.
It was five minutes until the start of class. Most of the students were settled in their seats. Marcus sat in the second row of chairs, listening to his headphones. The sound of heavy bass was audible to all points of the room. A few seats from him, Jessica, the sophomore, slouched in her chair. She sat there silently, her auburn dreadlocks falling on both sides of her face, anxiously waiting for any potential opportunity to learn more about the mindfulness of Buddhism. David, the theology major, strolled into the room seconds before I gave my initial greeting, sporting a t-shirt that said Jesus Saves. There were several other students there that morning.
"Good morning everyone," I said cordially, still excited about the lesson. "Throughout the course, you all know, we have been discussing many theories about religious belief. Some experts say that belief is due to neurological predispositions while others take another route by claiming that it is due to family upbringing." I noticed a smile break out on David's visage as he removed his Bible from his satchel. "But today," I continued, "I want to explore another dimension of the theological arena - one that has been ignored throughout this semester: secularism."
By the look on the students' faces, I could tell that we were treading on a feeble and unfamiliar ground. At this point, I distinctly recalled a certain requirement of the institution that all students should behave in a certain godly manner. The college was a religious school, and the classes were taught with a pious tinge. So much for this kind of education...
Just then, as I turned to write a brief outline of the class on the chalkboard, Emily walked in the room. Her demeanor was one of intensity; her eyes seemed to droop as a result of the rigorous college life. She accepted her current circumstances and tried not to bring much attention to herself as she took a seat in the back. Marcus turned to her, finding any distraction possible to save him from his compelling disinterest; he was a business major.
The teacher turned to his disciples. "So, when you hear the world secularism, what comes to mind?" This was always a great initial question; the responses would allow me to judge their hearts from a perspective far removed from them. I quickly locked eyes with Emily, who nervously started scratching notes on her pad.
Just then, Jessica said, "I think of loneliness when I hear the word." I nodded in acknowledgement. She continued: "When I meditate or use mindfulness training, my perspective becomes one with the universe. If that experience were to disappear, my life would seem rather empty." So close, I thought to myself, yet so far.
"Anyone else?" I asked after a brief pause from Jessica's comment.
A group of math majors started mumbling amongst themselves. David saw the challenge and tried, gallantly, to rise to the occasion. "Emptiness is a great way to describe the secular stance," he exclaimed, nodding to Jessica. "But I would go even further and say that the secular life is void of meaning." A kind of luminescence emanated from David as he prayed, inconspicuously, for Jessica's soul. Emily frowned at his comment, looking up from her pad in discontent. "Interesting, very interesting," I said.
The quest of the faithful must continue. I quickly glanced back to the board and observed the word benefits; the word served as a mental segue to explain Pascal's divine reasoning.
"So," I began, "I think we can all concede that the secular person is missing an aspect of life that is found within the life of a religious person." Emily flicked an annoying string of hair away from her eyes. Enthusiasm ravaged within me. "What kind of benefits do religions bestow?"
Marcus remained quiet, totally oblivious to the dialogue. There is a certain solace that results from indifference. This was the fortress that he preferred; where others concerned themselves with finding the logical answer, he delighted himself with ruthless apathy.
Peaceful images of Chinese monks arose within Jessica's mind. Last semester, she decided to take a semester abroad for an anthropology course. Perhaps the most significant experience was the lesson with a Buddhist guru. In an instant, Jessica reminded herself of all the positive benefits - both mentally emotionally - of mindfulness meditation. "My experience with Buddhism is that it provides many cathartic remedies for mental unrest and emotional anguish. I think there is even scientific studies that show the benefits."
David seemed to experience a struggle at the mention of science. He opened up his Bible with what looked like a reflex action.
In response to Jessica, I conceded. "You are right. There is scientific evidence for mindful meditation. Does anyone wish to add anything else?"
A hasty glance to David: he avoided my gaze as he prayed, once more, for Jessica.
The main point of the lecture continued. "We can concede that there are some benefits to religiosity." I hesitated for a brief instant, and in order to remain honest to my pupils, exclaimed, "However, secularists would rather focus on the negativity of it. This is an interesting position. What kinds of things is religiosity responsible for, if any?" To this question, Marcus immediately put his head down on the desk.
I remembered the chemistry major - the tyro representative of the hard sciences. "Carl, what do you think about all this?"
Carl, once he heard his name, placed his hands on the surface of the desk nervously. On he went with his commentary: "I do believe there is positive and negative aspects of religion. Religion has presumably solved many emotional issues, but it has created many revenues for tyranny," he said, as he momentarily analyzed the properties of the fatal chemicals used in the Jonestown juice.
Carl’s reply filtered through my scrutiny and approval resulted. I must admit, I pondered to myself, I must be honest – religious feelings cause both good and bad. My father crept into my mind at that instant: an example of the bad. Of course, this did not seem like the sort of bad that Carl spoke of. He seemed to imply the treachery of some religious people – the self-proclaimed human mediums of God's grace. Yes, I thought, he meant this! Deep down, something flowed inside me; my heart was heavy. I needed an interruption to ease this tension: it was time for the pièce de résistance.
I nodded to Carl and turned around to the chalkboard. My hand rose with elegant dexterity (I must admit that it was Christ working through me!) as I wrote the letters of the marvelous name: P-A-S-C-A-L. Little bits of chalk crumbled discreetly as it connected with the board. There was a serenity that gave the sound of the scribbling a slight mystique. From the audience's visual perspective, one could see the evidence of the Holy Spirit. It was I. God's grand scheme is emanating in the form of a theologian. Oh, the benefits of faith! The euphoria! It was vaguely similar to the buzz of a cigarette, but much more purposeful.
My divine inspiration continued: "Blaise Pascal's famous wager was that a person is better off believing in the God of the Bible because that decision rests upon infinite gain or loss: if God does exist, the person is saved, whereas if he denies God and God does in fact reign supreme, he will be banished to an eternity in hell." Once again, I thought about my old pastor: Sexual sin... chaos.... Just think of how many students will be saved from hell and admitted into heaven! This is my duty, as God's chosen, to preach the name to all nations.
"So," I said, after the brief spiritual experience, "can anyone in here find a reason why this argument is unsound?" Emily stirred in her chair. I realized, before I outlined this lecture, that none of my students would be able to combat Pascal's wager. Sure, there were those skeptics that claimed that a life totally based on a falsehood is one that God is foolish to ignore. An all-knowing God would, they say, see right through the naïve lie of shallow belief. Although, my God would reward the agent for his attempted faithfulness. What is faithfulness? The ability to make that leap of absurdity. God surely saves those who take this leap. Here, the skeptical arguments parish.
Emily politely raised her hand. This came as a surprise due to the candid nature of the class. I pointed in her direction, expecting an answer already disproved by the calculus of faithfulness. "I have heard Pascal's wager before," Emily started. "It is a really interesting concept. Professor, do you think this life is worth living?"
Not expecting this question in return, I glanced over at Jessica before answering. "I do think that life is meant to be experienced to the fullest while we are here on earth, yes." Just then, I remembered the great commission. "There are always people in this world who are in need of spiritual assistance. And as long as there are people to help, life is always necessary."
Emily's face grew worrisome. A demeanor of empathy appeared. It looked as if she did not know if she should proceed. Her hands came together and nervously intertwined.
"Well, sir," she said with the utmost respect, "What would you do if you did not have the ability to live eternally? If your experience of existing ended at death, don't you think that you wasted a lot of time trying to live according to God's will?"
I sat down in the chair beside the chalkboard. Great angst moved over me as I reviewed, over and over, Emily's response. How long have I practiced Christian doctrines? How long have I sat in church, listening to the Sunday sermons? How much time have I devoted to studying a single book? How much time have I spent feeling guilty for myself? All of these questions trespassed my consciousness. Reason would come to my rescue, I thought, and rescue me from this seemingly horrible reflection. No, time has not gone to waste! The notion of praying for God's guidance was trivial in my stupor; with it, the realization that I might have wasted away my life to a delusional cause overcame me. I closed my eyes, and frantically sought shelter from my own interrogation.
Class ended a little early that day. I had much thinking to do. The Chevrolet glided through the spring air, eventually arriving at my humble home. You see: I give ten percent of my income to the church. Christ’s people needed such a mundane thing like money so humans can do his work.
I became even more critical than before. Over and again, I pondered Emily’s questions. They bothered me. The thought that I could have wasted away the majority of my life to some falsity was simply unacceptable: unacceptable because I always thought that He was real.
The sound of the car door shutting echoed off of the trees in the forest beyond. Treading uncertainly, I walked the concrete pathway to the front entrance. Coins jingled as I scrambled in my side pockets for the house keys – scrambling, and contemplating whether I would ever rest assured again.
My steps were heavy and determined. Gripping the lighter, I lit a cigarette, which would soon serve as the sacred incense of my prayer. Abandoning every other care, I kneeled in search for guided answers: waited for God to respond.
No answer came.
Then, I felt a strange urge. While my thoughts were completely under my own control, I noticed that I had the power – that very instant – to blatantly think that my own thoughts that arose were misinterpreted as God’s voice. Peculiar; bizarre things happened since Emily’s questions.
David strolled along College Avenue, right behind the campus chapel. There was a certain pep to his step, as he promenaded to his dormitory. Earlier, he felt an obscure sense of anger – a holy anger – inflamed by Emily’s question in the theology lecture. However, that feeling deteriorated; the afternoon worship session left David feeling cathartic.
Pascal’s wager remained on his mind for some time after that day. He knew, most certainly, that it was better to err on the side of Christ than to live life in hedonistic vanity. When David remained attached to this line of reasoning, he neglected Emily’s objection to Pascal’s genius. He was always the sort of person who lived contently within the vast sea of emotion; David, the surfer of the tides.