Pascal’s Wager and Christ’s Presence in Communion

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought2 Comments

The most recent edition of RELEVANT Magazine contained an intriguing article by Jason Boyette, author of the “Pocket Guide” series of books…and a Baptist.  Boyette openly wrestles with his tradition’s take on the presence of Christ in communion.  Most Baptists traditionally believe that communion is purely symbolic and merely a remembrance…there is no special presence of Christ (whether spiritual or physical) in communion.  This is sometimes called a “memorialist” position.  Boyette offers some great thoughts as he entertains certain challenging Scripture passages and the majority tradition of the Church.  The article is worth reading in whole, but the most intriguing part was his application of Pascal’s Wager to experiencing the presence of Christ in communion.  Though I am not a memorialist, I still found Boyette’s thoughts here challenging and motivating, so I offer this section for thought:

The case for regular Communion is an easy one to make, and as a Baptist I’m perfectly willing to admit that somewhere we’ve made a wrong turn.  I understand the historical background behind a de-emphasis on Communion, but it’s such a central part of Christian worship—and it has been for two millennia—that moving it to the sidelines seems a gross overreaction.  This is why these days, you’ll find more and more evangelical churches increasing the frequency of Communion rather than diminishing it.

But the Real Presence is still something I can’t quite take as an article of faith.  Because that is exactly what is required to believe the wafer becomes Christ’s real body and the wine physically changes into His blood: it takes faith.  Faith that communion is a supernatural event, not just an event of remembering.  Faith that Jesus wasn’t just talking in metaphor in John 6.  And that kind of faith is difficult for me.

Still, I keep returning to Pascal’s Wager.  It’s an idea the 17th century philosopher proposed as a reason to believe in God’s existence, and which contemporary Christian apologists still cite as a decent piece of logic.

It goes like this: it makes sense to live life under the probability that God exists.  If we’re wrong, we don’t lose much because we’ve lived a full and moral life and have nothing to be ashamed of.  If we’re right, we have everything to gain.  Salvation.  Heaven.  The presence of God.  But if we live life under the assumption God does not exist—and end up being wrong about that—then we’ve made a tragic mistake.  We lose everything.

What if you applied Pascal’s Wager to the question of the Real Presence in the Eucharist?  If we take it believing Jesus really is present in the consecrated host and the Communion wine, then the best-case scenario is that we’re right, and we should be commended for treating it as a deeply sacred, serious event.  Worst case?  We’ve observed an event of remembrance and symbolism—an event which points to the life and resurrection of Jesus—only we’ve done so with a slight misunderstanding of what it means.  Still, not a huge loss.

But if we bet against the Real Presence and it turns out we’re wrong?  Yikes.  We’ve made a big mistake.  We’ve marginalized something essential to the practice of Christianity. 

For me, I am at philosophical rest with what I think the Bible says about Communion.  I take the middle ground with Calvin, believing that Christ is present during the act of Communion in a spiritual way.  Calvin’s point (which makes sense to me) is that Christ, having ascended to God, now seated at the right hand of the Father, is bodily present there (of course the metaphysics are fuzzy). But, through His Spirit, we are mysteriously “brought up to heaven” to commune with Christ there (or perhaps Christ is brought to us on earth through the Spirit). To me, that makes sense of the gravity of statements like “This IS my body,” coupled with other passages about WHERE Christ is (in heaven) and HOW He manifests His presence to us (by His Spirit). 

But for some, they aren’t convinced by what I’m convinced by and remain in limbo.  If you’re at that point, I think the Wager application here is marvelous.  Maybe you don’t need philosophical or exegetical arguments (though you shouldn’t look past them), but you need an existential apologetic.  If so, try this out.  I can testify that, alongside the intellectual understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist, my experience of it has helped build a cumulative case for what I feel is a “comfortable” understanding and experience of Communion.  Although, how can one ever be fully comfortable with something and Someone so powerful and mysterious?

 

 

Jason Boyette, “Remembering Communion,” RELEVANT Magazine, 44: March-April 2010, pp. 80-82.

2 Comments on “Pascal’s Wager and Christ’s Presence in Communion”

  1. Great post Zac. The most helpful point for me was to resolve to find intellectual sabbath in the "Mystery" of it. I do not really understand the Trinity. I cannot fathom the insurmountable depths of the incarnation. So why try so hard to discern the sacrament? Jesus said "Do This", not "understand this". The more I simply ask God to feed my soul by faith through obedience in partaking of the Eucharistic feast, the less I feel the need to comprehend the why and how of it.

    My doctrinal statement on the Eucharist.

    The Lamb invites us to HIS meal, in white garments, radiant and pure. He gives us his flesh to eat as the unblemished lamb. He gives us bread to share, apart from the toil of the curse. He pours out his blood, overflowing, dark and rich and red as grace. The wine we drink, is a hint of the joy that HIS atonement has purchased. We feast with HIM together, and together we dwell in the presence of the Father through the indwelling communion of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Zach! Really made me think.

    To weigh-in on with my initial thoughts, I have two comments.
    1) I agree that the pendulum DID swing too far and is now coming back to a more healthy perspective on Communion. While I don’t think literal transubstantiation is supported by Scripture, it is a command from Christ to partake of it, and probably align closely with you (and Calvin) in regards to the spiritual "communion" we have in the experience.

    I grew up in Lutheran churches in which communion was taken quite seriously and practiced frequently. Then in my college and for years afterward, I attended non-denominational churches where it was rarely, if ever, practiced. The church we are in now partakes of Communion weekly and it has been wonderful to re-connect in a way I hadn’t realized I was missing.

    2) As to Pascal’s wager, my thought is that this might be okay as a starting point, but is somewhat weak for a solid foundation of faith. It smacks too much of "fire insurance" to simply say "I’m not sure what’s right, so I’ll go with the safe bet." If that’s merely the foot in the door that gets a person to seek out Truth and relationship with Jesus, great. But if that is the only "transformation" happening in a person’s heart, then it seems likely that they have not given their heart to Christ by faith. Philosophically and logically it is a good starting point. But theologically, it feels weak to me. But I may be wrong, and am open to more thoughts.

    Love to you and your family, Zach…and congrats on the recent installation! =)

Leave a Reply to Josh Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.