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The risk of believing and not believing

We have all heard of the proverbial risk takers in life, right? These are people who enjoy extreme sports like jumping out of a helicopter to land on top of a snow packed mountain and then racing down the mountain side, over cliffs and dodging trees when they get to the tree line in order to beat the avalanche they set off at the top when they landed. There are people who jump off high cliffs to soar to the bottom in some kind of winged suit that looks more like a do-it-yourself superhero outfit somebody might wear for a costume party. There are people who race speedboats, motorcycles, and cars. There are those who shoot the tube in snowboarding.

However risk-taking comes in various packages and doesn't always look the same.

Every year there is a group of people in the United States who lay it all on the line. They sign up for a doctoral programme in clinical psychology, knowing they will have to go into debt for between $100,000 and $120,000. This might sound more like an investment, but trust me, it's a gamble. It is a risk. Where is this risk?

It's not so much about the question of whether or not the person can handle the academic load. It's also not so much about whether the person will be shown to have some kind of psychological disorder and ultimately be removed from the programme. It's also not as much about whether or not any given student's family will be rocked by separation and divorce, which does happen a lot as students become affected by what they are studying and change in ways unanticipated. People grow apart, but that is not the risk I am talking about here.

Every year a new group of doctoral students completes the required classes and is ready to move on to internship. This is a pre-doctoral internship. That means that all the classes are done, and the dissertation is likely well under way, nearing completion, or even in some rare cases already completed. The problem is that every year there are more doctoral students needing to get an internship than there are accredited internships available. That means that some will not get one, and if they cannot get one, they cannot complete their doctoral programmes and get the doctoral degrees they have, by that time, been spending time (about four or five years), energy (to complete all the class work and practicums), and money (for tuition), let alone the relational capital they have been borrowing from their partners and family members (often in a deficit spending relational mode), to get.

So, every year a significant number of otherwise intelligent and ambitious people risk their futures by signing up for a doctoral programme they may or may not be able to complete. In fact, what they are gambling on is that they will not be one of the people who succumb to the numbers, and the numbers are simple. There are simply not enough internships to go around and it is a certainty that many will perish at the end of the thrilling doctoral preparation ride.

This is just one example of common every day risk-taking in which we all engage. My wife likes to take the gas gauge right down to empty and then see how far she can still drive before she actually runs out of gas. It makes me crazy. If I am the passenger in the car while she is engaging in such risk-taking, I feel like chewing a handful of Valium.

When Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he read it from a prepared manuscript. Have you ever sat through a lecture that someone has read from a manuscript? It is usually quite boring. However, the wildfire of concern and revival set off by the spark of attention to the risk-taking that people were engaged in by not taking their standing before God seriously swept New England. They did not have any Valium. They just had to deal with it. It was the realistic and eyes-open consideration of the risk a person takes by disregarding God that provoked a reappraisal and an adjustment.

People like to refer to conversion as “fire insurance,” meaning it's just what people verbalise in order to keep from going to hell. However, verbal affirmation alone, without authentic belief, trust in the truthfulness of the work of Christ, and one's handing over of him or herself to the grace of God, does not work. One does not escape the risk.

What is the risk? The risk is of dying in one's sins that all this business about heaven and hell, a real God, a real saviour, Jesus as the Son of God, etc, etc, is simply the formal construction of human beings, who, in a more rudimentary permutation of human evolution, created religion in order to make themselves feel better about the uncertainty of life and the plain fact that there is no life after death. That is the risk that Christian faith is futile. If a person bets his life that Christianity is false, but there really is a God such as depicted in the Bible, then one is sunk. However, if one bets his life that the Christian faith is viable, is veritas (truth), and it isn't, then one is a fool and perhaps has missed out living life to the fullest by engaging in things prohibited by religious people. As Paul said, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

To trust God is a risk. Not to trust God is a risk. It would seem that risk-taking about what Paul Tillich referred to as the ultimate issues of life is unavoidable.

I wonder if there is a ceiling effect for the number of people who can get into heaven. Is it possible to have signed up for the Christian programme but then not to receive an internship in heaven (so to speak)? Now, there is a thought!

Psychology's place beside science and philosophy

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Published November 08, 2011 at 1:00 am (Updated November 08, 2011 at 8:35 am)

The risk of believing and not believing

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