Monday, January 26, 2009

Pascal's Existential Shock Treatment

One of Blaise Pascal's apologetic techniques involves what Bernard Ramm referred to as "existential shock" (Varieties of Christian Apologetics). Pascal utilized this technique to awaken skeptics from complacency and indifference. Ramm elaborates:

"Pascal's use of existential shock was perhaps the biggest weapon in his arsenal. It was an attempt to deal a solid blow to the skepticism and indifferentism of the Frenchmen ...

By existential shock we mean Pascal's method of shocking Frenchmen out of their complacency by vivid contrasts, by sharp jabs at frightful inconsistencies, by penetrating analyses of the foolish modes of existence, by pictures of despair placed along side of pictures of grace and redemption. A smug, sophisticated French skeptic must see himself hanging between time and eternity, as a delicate smudge of protoplasm which a piffle of poison could exterminate, as a disposed king miserably remembering his former greatness, and as a discontented wretch who suspects that there really is blessed contentment somewhere. But where?"

Pascal applies "existential shock" in a variety of his arguments, including his anthropological argument. See for instance his fragment describing humans as "feeble earthworms."

His anthropological argument provides an existential shock in the sense that it calls upon skeptics to confront and explain the seeming paradox of human nature -- that human beings are capable of much good, but are also capable of extreme evil and exhibit signs of wretchedness.

"Existential shock" is a viable apologetic technique today, particularly when addressing those who are indifferent, apathetic, or perhaps just unaware of the absurdities of everyday life in a media-driven culture.

6 comments:

Brian said...

Good post. I think most people pigeonhole Pascal because the only thing they have heard is the wager. And they suppose that he is trying to prove God's existence through the wager somehow.

Instead, even the wager was part of the "existential shock" treatment. In context, he was employing various means to try to stir the apathetic, skeptical, and self-dependent to snap out of their fog.

I appreciate the post, as it helps fill in the contextual blind spots in the common understanding of Pascal and his approach.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks, Brian. As you observe, Pascal has much more to offer than his often misunderstood "wager" argument. I would argue that he's not quite the overt fideist some paint him to be, either.

Here are four helpful books related to Pascal: 1) On Pascal by Douglas Groothuis; 2) Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft; 3) Making Sense of it All by Thomas Morris; 4) and, of course, Pensées by Pascal.

Adel Thalos said...

Excellent post. Thank you.

I truly appreciate learning that Pascal uses a method that comes naturally to me.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks, Adel. I believe Pascal is one of the neglected treasures of apologetics and discipleship.

cl said...

Hi Robert,

First-time visitor here, followed the link off AnswerBearer. I enjoyed this post, and I agree with what Brian said about Pascal getting pigeonhold re the wager. I especially took relevance from the following, and though rarely successful, I also attempt to shock atheists

...out of their complacency by vivid contrasts, by sharp jabs at frightful inconsistencies, by penetrating analyses of the foolish modes of existence, by pictures of despair placed along side of pictures of grace and redemption.

Also, congrats on your books. I'll be stopping by now and again, and you're welcomed to my blog anytime.

The Warfare Is Mental

Robert Velarde said...

cl, welcome and thanks for the comments. As an interesting side note, one of my original ideas for my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis was to have a dialogue between Pascal and Lewis, but obviously the endeavor ended up going in a different direction. I may yet bring these two together in a possible follow-up book.