Read Pascal's Wager Online

Authors: Nancy Rue

Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Contemporary Women, #Religion, #Christian Life, #Inspirational

Pascal's Wager (2 page)

BOOK: Pascal's Wager
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Right about now
, I thought,
Grant is probably saying to himself, “Is this woman human?” Don't give yourself credit for an original thought, pal. I've wondered that all my life. The real question is—

But the real question faded right there in my frontal lobe as my mother turned her head to address the tuxedo-clad gentleman on her other side. I could see her face, and it stopped me cold.

Did I miss the cyclone she survived to get here?
I thought.

That was only a slight exaggeration considering the package my mother always—
always
—presented to the world. I'd expected the thick mane of dark hair peppered with gray to be in its perpetual cut-fashionably-short, not-a-hair-out-of-place condition. The square, handsome face to be flawlessly made up. The 22-karat
understated gold necklace to hang in tasteful elegance against something in pure silk.

What I saw was a woman who had thrown herself together en route to the banquet and hadn't bothered to look in a mirror since then.

She was at least two months past the last due date for a haircut. The Riot Red lipstick she saved for evenings at the opera with Max looked like it had been applied with a crayon. And although she was indeed wearing a silk blouse, the points of its collar were at right angles to each other, fouling the two—make that three—chains she was wearing. Two of them silver. One of them gold. As hard as it was to believe, I looked like I'd just had a Merle Norman makeover compared to her.

Max was leaning toward Ellen, hanging on her every word, but I nudged him anyway.

“Why does Mother look like she's running from the glamour police?” I hissed in his ear.

Max shifted his gaze to the head table, and his smile melted into I'm-looking-at-Liz mode. “Isn't she a beauty? Your mother's a beauty.”

“Not when she's playing fashion fugitive. Look at her, Max!”

He did and then nodded. “She should have worn the diamond earrings. I told her, ‘Wear the diamonds—this is the night to drip with them.'”

I gave up. Max himself was donned in his customary ascot and velvet jacket, and as always his hair was even more tousled than mine. Someone who always looked as if he'd just finished conducting the 1812 Overture could not be counted on to reliably assess grooming.

I considered asking Stephanie Wang. She wasn't exactly cover girl material herself, but she'd probably been around my mother more than I had in the last six months.

Which is not my fault
, I reminded myself.
What am I supposed to do when she doesn't return my calls?

What I had done, of course, was tell myself I was better off
not
having to listen to my mother's latest evaluation of my life. But at the moment, that wasn't the point. The point was, Dr. Elizabeth McGavock did not show up to functions given in her honor looking the way she did right now.

I looked across the table at Stephanie, but both she and Dr. Wang were obviously engrossed in what Sam Bakalis was expostulating about to Ellen. Stephanie looked like she was mesmerized by his eyebrows.

“So let me ask you this,” Sam was saying. “I know for a long time you've been able to determine that a baby, before it's even born, has genes for certain diseases. But is it standard procedure now to run those tests?”

“It isn't standard,” Ellen said, “but we
can
do it if there's reason to suspect the fetus might be at risk. You know, family history, that kind of thing.”

“You used the word
fetus,”
Sam said. “Does that reflect your views on life before birth?”

Stephanie Wang giggled nervously. “Maybe we'd better get back to that basil, Max.”

I have to admit, the current state of my mother's style sense slid out of focus. This was too good to pass up.

“And does your picking up on her use of the word
fetus
reflect
your
views?” I said.

Sam met my gaze head-on. “It does, actually. Why do you ask?”

“Are we talking religion here?” I said. “I'm only asking because if we're about to be spiritually mugged, I need to find another table.” Sam raised both hands. “I'm unarmed. But I do reserve the right to present a viewpoint.”

“Just be forewarned: I don't think science and religion are going to mix at this table.” I looked at the Wangs. “Am I right?” Stephanie looked like she'd rather be having a root canal.

Dr. Wang folded his hands neatly on the table. “I'm open to a lively discussion.”

Max groaned. “How lively do you want it?”

“What, are we going to see verbal WWF?” Ellen said. “Should I clear the table?”

Sam's eyes were still on me. “I can stay above the belt if you can.”

I hated that. The minute you started to debate with a man, he had to pull out a sexual innuendo. But I forced myself not to narrow my eyes at him.

“You're on,” I said. “Now?”

“No, I think it was my turn to counter,” Sam said, his eyes focused in even more. He obviously relished an argument as much as I did. I doubted that he hated losing one as much, though. “You're saying there is no blend of science and religion.”

“Not if you're going to be completely rational, no.”

“You're a mathematician.”

“She's brilliant,” Max put in.

“Then you've heard of Pascal. Blaise Pascal? Father of geometry?”

“I think you would have to build a case for his paternity, but yeah, I'm familiar with Pascal.”

“I'm a little rusty,” Ellen said. “Refresh my memory.”

“Seventeenth-century mathematician,” I said. “He did some work on vacuum theory. He's credited with developing the first calculator?”

“They named the computer language after him,” Dr. Wang said. “The same fella, yes?”

“Yes,” Sam said. He was all but licking his chops. “Physics, math—he was pure science. All about rationality. The whole ball of wax. But after his conversion to Christianity—”

“Conversion from what?” I said.

“From what I'd guess you'd call perfunctory piety,” Sam said. “He went through the motions, but he didn't internalize any of it. Anyway, after his conversion, he continued to invest all of his
energy in science. Matter of fact, his most productive scientific work was ahead of him. But my point is, he was also about to deepen his understanding of human nature, and
that
is what he's best known for.”

“So he studied psychology,” I said. “That's considered a science.”

“Mmmm, that's debatable,” Dr. Wang said.

“And it's a moot point, anyway,” Sam said. “He didn't study psychology He studied faith.”

“In what?”

“In God.”

I pulled my eyes away from his long enough to roll them. His eyebrows shot up.

“You don't believe in God,” he said.

“Uh, let me think about it—no.” I knew my voice sounded spiky, but that's because I was vaguely disappointed. I'd hoped for an interesting debate. “You will never convince me that there is some spiritual force that controls everything.”

“Why?”

“Because it can't be proven.”

“So you only believe in things for which there is hard evidence.”

“Right.” I gave a dismissive shrug. “I'm a mathematician.”

“You deal with infinity in mathematics?”

“Ugh, this is bringing back memories of college math,” Ellen said. “Dr. Rosenberg, 8:00
A.M.
, Tuesdays and Thursdays.” She shuddered. “I'm going to need another piece of that carrot cake.”

Max looked relieved to oblige and raised his hand to hail a server. I turned back to Sam's intense eyes.

“Yeah,” I said. “Mathematics has an infinity of infinities of propositions to expound.
And
they are infinite also in the multiplicity and subtlety of their principles. Those that are supposed to be ultimate don't stand by themselves—they depend on others, which depend on still others, and thus never allow for any finality.” I
slipped in a smile. “How do you think every math grad student finds a thesis to prove? Anyway, that's infinity.”

“I have a headache,” Max said. “More wine!”

“Infinity,” Sam said, “sounds an awful lot like God to me.”

“To you maybe. To me it sounds like a concept.”

“Which you can't prove unless you someday find the end of it. Never finding the ‘finality,' as you called it, doesn't prove there is no finality—it just means you haven't found it yet.”

“And your point is?”

“My point is that just because you haven't found God yet doesn't mean God doesn't exist.”

Dr. Wang tapped his spoon against his wine glass. “I think round one goes to Sam.”

“No,” I said. “The round isn't over yet.” I homed in on Sam again. “What visible difference does believing in a ‘God' make? I
don't
believe, you
do
believe, but both of us are going to die. Show me the difference.”

“Now we're getting into the
nature
of God. If you're looking for a God who is going to allow you to live on earth forever, you're not going to find that God because that God doesn't exist.”

“Besides,” Ellen said, “I think there's more to life than just hanging out until you die.”

“I'll drink to that!” Max said, lifting his glass. “To all that is in between. Good music, good friends—”

“Good conversation,” Sam said. He tilted his water glass toward me.

Now I know
, I thought,
why I always wish born-again Christians had never been born the first time
.

Sam had gotten preachy, as far as I was concerned, and I was again disappointed. There was something attractive about him. His intensity—no, his casual command over his intensity…no, maybe it was his chin.

Would you stop! I
scolded myself.
He's a pompous jerk you don't have time for
.

“Coffee, anyone?” Stephanie Wang was saying. “Last call before the speakers.”

I nodded at the kid with the coffee pot who stood at her elbow. I was going to need some caffeine for the rest of
this
evening. I was about to reach for the cup when Sam put his hand on top of mine. I glared at it, but that didn't seem to have the freeze-drying effect my glare usually had on guys reckless enough to try to play touchy-feely with me.

“What?”
said.

“Just consider this one argument, and then I'll drop it.”

“Could I have a signature on that?” I said.

He reached inside his jacket and took out a pen.

“I was speaking figuratively,” I said.

But he was already scrawling his name across a cocktail napkin. I noticed the skin on his hands was smooth and olive-colored. Not that it mattered.

He pushed the signed napkin toward me, and I gave it a bored glance. His eyebrows were expectant.

“Go for it,” I said. “What's your argument?”

“It's not an argument exactly—it's more of a wager. And it isn't mine. It's Pascal's.”

Dr. Wang snapped his fingers in recognition. “Pascal's Wager.”

“You've heard of it,” Sam said.

“Yeah, but give me a refresher course,” Dr. Wang said, smiling at me.

Sam leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. My mother, if she'd been at our table, would have been appalled.
He learned his social skills in a pool hall
, she would have said.

“It goes like this,” Sam said. He focused on the chandelier as if to get his cues from it, and yet his eyes went beyond it. He was being a little dramatic as far as I was concerned. But I listened, as did everybody else at the table. Even Max looked entranced.

“At the far end of what we're calling infinity,” Sam said, “a
coin is being spun. It will come down heads or tails. How it lands will reveal to you whether there is a God—heads—or whether there isn't—tails. You have to wager. We all do. A choice has to be made.”

“I've made mine,” I said. “Tails.”

“Based on what?”

“Based on reason.”

Sam dug hungrily into his pants pocket and produced a nickel, which he placed on his thumbnail. “Can you reasonably tell me how this coin is going to land if I flip it?”

I shook my head.

“Reason can't make the choice for the figurative coin either. We've already established that reason—hard evidence—can't prove either way. So the wager posits this: If you wager that there
is
a God and you live your life as if there is one—if the coin comes up tails—you've lost absolutely nothing. But if it comes up heads and there
is
a God, you've won everything.”

The eyes I'd been watching all through dinner took on a fiery quality, as if they were in the throes of some deep passion. I went for the cream and stirred my coffee.

“I remember that now,” Stephanie Wang said. “I read it—it's the wager that every man makes.”

“But I'm not so sure about every woman,” Ellen said. She was half smiling at me.

“Heads is a safer bet,” Sam said.

“I'll pass,” I said. I nodded toward the podium where some campus muckety-muck was adjusting the microphone. “Looks like it's show time.”

Everyone else started scraping chairs and rearranging themselves in their seats. Sam just looked at me. I waited for, “Can we finish this discussion over coffee sometime?” But it didn't come. I had to concede the eye-holding contest and shift my focus to the front. The introduction of Dr. Elizabeth McGavock was just winding down.

“Tonight, as we hear her speak, I'm certain it will become clear to you why we are honoring not only Dr. McGavock's twenty-five years at Stanford Hospital, but also the quality of work she has done in that time. Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Elizabeth McGavock.”

BOOK: Pascal's Wager
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