Friday, July 29, 2016

Perhaps Pascal Was Right

I’m currently reading a series of e-books called Top Down to Jesus by Robert Kurland, a scientist and blogger at Reflections of a Catholic Scientist. Book 1 is called Pascal Was Right! This first installment contains Robert’s road to faith, his ties to Judaism as well as insights about his moral choices as a Catholic. He also explores Pascal’s Wager in terms of contemporary decision making involving the gains and losses for scenarios in which probabilities are known (like flipping a coin), or not known (like how much will I earn in the stock market today). I highly recommend the series; especially for analytical types who make a serious effort to be impartial. Please note that being analytical and being impartial don’t necessarily go together.

The discussion in the book on Pascal’s Wager reminded me why I’m not a big fan of it. In my own words, the wager basically goes like this: one should believe or behave as if God exists, since the reward if true is infinite (heaven) and the punishment of believing and acting otherwise is also infinite (hell). On the flip side, if it is not true, you can still have a good life and, of course, you will eventually die either way.

The wager seems to imply that we can “fake it until we make it”, but God knows our hearts. Also, by what authority does Pascal declare what will get us to heaven or not? Is intellectual belief enough? The demons do as much. Is it by our works alone? Not according to Catholic teaching (see CCC paras. 1996, 2005). Is it by faith alone? Not according to the Bible (see James 2:24). Do we simply declare Jesus our Lord and personal savior and ask Him to come into our hearts? Is that in the Bible? It’s not. I have not read Pascal’s original writings in detail, but I find it interesting that the wager does not mention Jesus in any of the iterations I’ve seen. All this gets into the big topic of Christian Justification, which I think is too broad a subject to be handled by a bet.

Although I’m not a big fan of Pascal’s Wager as an evangelization tool, I do wholeheartedly agree with Robert’s final assessment of it, provided one were to accept the wager and then sincerely, prayerfully and diligently deal with difficult questions like the ones above.

“One can start off along the road to faith and believe using reason as a road map; the deeper, in-the-heart faith which is the destination will come with God’s grace. And thus the subtitle of this book.”1

Perhaps Pascal was right after all!

1. Robert J. Kurland, Top Down to Jesus Book 1, Pascal Was Right! (Robert J. Kurland, 2016), e-book, Kindle location 400.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Habits of Faith and Problem Solving

The book I’ve written about faith, reason and problem solving will be available at all major online book outlets, hopefully by the end of the summer. It’s called Faith with Good Reason: Finding Truth Through an Analytical Lens and the foreword is written by Stacy Trasancos, PhD.

The book is a practical look at faith, reason and problem solving for dealing with the common realities we all face—for all things visible and invisible. When I was chosen to become the program leader and instructor for a specific kind of problem solving and decision making process for my job, I began to see commonalities between the rational processes I was learning and some of the reasoning of the various Catholic thinkers I was reading. If you think about analytical problem solving, it's about finding "truth" objectively, regardless of feelings, strong opinions, past experiences or intuition; finding truth even when empirical evidence is lacking or impossible to obtain.

Although the book is already written, I continue to come across aspects of problem solving that can relate to the spiritual life, such as this article about three habits of creative problem solvers.


You may think a method of analytical problem solving is only about observable evidence. It is not. Most often it is physically impossible for us to obtain all the data we need or want to answer all the questions we have. In fact, I don’t remember a single instance at work when we had all the evidence we wanted at our disposal, therefore we need to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.

Uncertainty can help us see things from a new perspective, but without some comfort level with uncertainly, we can become fearful and revert to a “fight-or-flight” mentality, which is detrimental to any critical thinking process. For problem solving, the “fight” instinct might lead to irrational thinking, jumping to conclusions and being overwhelmed by the scope of the mess. The “flight” instinct might cause you to give up, pass the buck or waste mental energy blaming others.

It can be similar with the spiritual life. Uncertainty about the future, all the evil in the world, all the conflicting opinions, what we should do, or who to believe, can result in a “fight-or-flight” spirituality. Fighting for your faith, or just fighting to keep your faith, without a clear understanding of it can lead to irrational thinking, jumping to conclusions and being overwhelmed by the scope of the mess. Flight from faith can be just that…giving up with a bunch of poor excuses. If you take the time to seriously study your faith, you will become more comfortable with uncertainty.

Here’s a helpful tip from the article; create certainty in the rest of your life. The more habit and ritual you create in your day to day life, the more stamina you'll have when uncertainty shows up. Have a regular prayer time each day, receive the Sacraments often (weekday Masses/confession), read spiritual books grounded in Truth, and perform corporal/spiritual works of mercy regularly. These spiritual habits will give you strength when faced with uncertainty.


Failure results in negative emotions like shame, fear and frustration. As a result many of us hide it. Hiding a problem, or a failed attempt to solve it, can delay the solution and potentially make things worse.

A good problem solver will not internalize setbacks; they will learn from them and perhaps use any new data from the failed attempt for the next attempt. He or she is also humble enough to get others involved. Instead of thinking, “I failed; better make sure nobody knows” they will think, "That attempt failed; let’s learn from it."—Big difference.

Catholicism and Christianity in general is a lot about forgiveness and second chances. We are to strive for holiness, but oftentimes we are more interested in what we want than what is right or what is true, living more for ourselves than for God. Sin is essentially a refusal to let God have His way in our life, so we have setbacks. Re-frame your spiritual setbacks and learn from them. Don’t think “I failed; better make sure nobody knows.” Re-frame it; only your attempt has failed. Ask for help. Involve others. Go to confession.


The article refers to having a "growth mind-set" rather than a “fixed mind-set”. A growth mind-set basically believes that things can get better with effort, learning and help from others. A fixed mind-set sees no way to continue. Don’t think to yourself, “I’m not smart enough to solve this problem.” Instead think, “It is not solved yet, but it can be, perhaps with new skills, knowledge or help.” Add the word "yet" to your thinking. "There is no answer, yet." or "I’m not sure what to do, yet."

The virtue of hope is needed in the spiritual life to keep us moving. "I’m not as faithful as I should be, yet." or "I’m not sure how to grow spiritually, yet." We need a growth mind-set, but what effort are we putting forth for growth? What new knowledge or skills do we require to improve? How will we seek the help we need?

The Catechism says in paragraph 1821, “In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere to the end.” We should take comfort knowing that it is always possible to grow spiritually if we understand the mystery of God as an invitation. The negative view of the term “mystery” is that we can never hope to fully understand it or prove it and we will never be perfect (fixed mind-set). The positive view says there is an inexhaustible well of truth and love from which the soul can drink with the assurance that the well will never run dry (growth mind-set).

"We first make our habits, and then our habits make us."
John Dryden

Monday, July 18, 2016

Adopt a Terrorist Today

The recent atrocity in Nice France and the ambush killings of police officers here in the U.S. reminded me of this blog post by Fr. Burke Masters, Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Joliet, IL. It’s about a challenge to love as God loves and a call to holiness by praying for our enemies and those who persecute us. The post goes so far as to suggest that we spiritually adopt a terrorist. Perhaps it could be a terrorist currently planning another attack in the very near future? Perhaps we can even make it personal by giving him (or her) a name? During my morning prayer discipline, I pray the Lord somehow reach them with the Way and the Truth and the Life; to help them see how they are living out the precise opposite—being lost, with lies and death.

We may say this is all too hard. It’s not possible for a human to love exactly as God loves or be perfect as God is perfect. There is truth to that, but if we live by this negative attitude we forget that all things are possible with God and blow off the whole idea. We then reject the challenge. We also forget that being perfect as God is perfect is written as a command, not a suggestion (see Matthew 5:48).

Challenges are good; they help us to focus and grow. Athletes need to push themselves to improve and it’s painful and uncomfortable. Students need to be challenged by their schools and instructors in order to reach higher levels of learning. We are currently writing our goals for fiscal year 2016 where I work, and the challenges presented to us by our superiors are a bit intimidating. If we are not pushed and willing to accept at least some stress, we will not advance.

It’s the same in the spiritual life. We tend to pray for the things we want and the people we like because it’s easy and comfortable. While this is not objectivity wrong, we should challenge ourselves to remain vigilant in asking God’s will and consider who needs our prayers the most, regardless of our feelings. In this way we can ensure our prayer life is not linked to our own selfishness.

Consider it like “fasting” from our favorite and most comfortable prayers to try a narrower path. I’ve heard it said that it is impossible to truly hate someone if you pray regularly for that person. Try it sometime as an act of the will. Of course, we should pray for all the victims of terrorism also, but this is not very challenging to do. Prayer for the killers is uncomfortable, but being comfortable is not what Jesus promised us and is not the purpose of our life.

“Our salvation will come in the measure that we love our worst enemy.”
—unknown spiritual writer