Thursday, May 17, 2012
Playing Cards With Satan and You Know Who
Katja and I recently went to a performance at the university of Igor Stravinsky’s opera, The Rake’s Progress. We were disappointed in the production, but I did get involved in the climactic scene in which the Devil challenges Tom Rakewell to a game of cards for the possession of his soul. The Devil says he will cut the deck three times. If Tom correctly identifies the card at the bottom of the deck three times in a row, he’ll keep his soul. But if he misses even once, the Devil wins. The Devil cuts the cards, and Tom, thinking of his lady love, says the Queen of Hearts. The Devil turns the cards over, and, lo and behold, it is the Queen of Hearts. The Devil cuts the deck again; Tom guesses the Two of Spades. He’s correct again. Then Tom is right with the third and final card. The Devil was exasperated. I personally thought that God must have intervened on Tom’s behalf. But even so, the opera had a tragic ending. The vengeful Devil turned Tom into a raving lunatic, and he spent his remaining days locked away in the madhouse.
Tom Rakewell’s card game reminded me of an experience I had at age thirteen. Like many teenagers, my peers and I had been debating whether God really existed. I wasn’t that religious. Our family belonged to the Presbyterian Church, but we only attended on Easter Sunday. I never heard my parents express opinions, one way or the other, about God’s existence, but I was already disillusioned about Santa and the Easter Bunny and suspected that God might be just one more version of adult trickery.
Finally, to resolve the nagging question, I decided to put God to the test. I took a deck of cards from my parents’ bureau dresser and shuffled it several times. I decided that, if God really existed, he could prove it by telling me what playing card was at the bottom of the pile. I closed my eyes, silently posed my question to the Almighty, and concentrated as hard as I could. An image of the Five of Clubs popped into my mind. I waited a few seconds till I was certain. Then I held my breath and turned the cards over. I nearly went into shock. The card I uncovered was …. the Five of Clubs! I was astonished and shaken. I realized that, with fifty-two cards in the deck, there was one chance in fifty-two of predicting the correct card. That’s not beyond possibility. However, to do that the very first time with reference to such a momentous life question was beyond belief. The odds might as well have been a million to one.
I looked around the living room for vapors or auras or some other sign of a mystical being’s presence, but everything seemed normal. I considered testing God one more time. Then I thought that wouldn’t be right. I’d done my test; I’d gotten my answer. On the other hand, if I did give God one more opportunity and got the correct card again, that would be hard to dispute. After wavering back and forth, I shuffled the cards again and cut the deck. I made my prediction and turned the deck over. I wasn’t even close. No revelation from Heaven above. I was partly disappointed, partly relieved. I tried one last time, and I was wrong again. Either God didn’t exist, or he’d turned his attention to more important matters. A True Believer would probably say that God had shown me the truth, but, since I failed to accept his message, he’d left the game. A True Skeptic would find it all amusing and say that you can never know what’s likely to happen in our chaotic universe. In essence, anyone can make of it what they will. From my adult perspective, I’d have to conclude that this wasn’t a good test in the first place. If God were out there watching over us, he probably wouldn’t bother to prove himself to a 13-year-old. After a few weeks I forgot about the issue of God’s existence and starting thinking about girls instead.