Sunday 30 July 2006

For the love of God (26): Why I love Wittgenstein

A guest-post by Sam Norton

“If what we do now makes no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with”—a remark which Ludwig Wittgenstein made to his friend Drury, skewering the universalist heresy.

Wittgenstein was a deeply serious man, and I believe he developed insights which all theologians need to absorb. While it is debatable whether he was in fact a Christian, he certainly believed in God, and he infamously saw things “from a religious point of view.” While at service on the Eastern Front in World War I, he was known as “the man with the gospels,” as he never went anywhere without taking Tolstoy’s summary with him.

He was a rather tortured soul in terms of his sexuality; he revered Augustine (the greatest influence on his own thought—he felt the Confessions to be “the most serious book ever written”); he hated virtually all modern music (you could “hear the machinery in Mahler”); and he gave up all his wealth to his sisters, since he felt that they were the only people unlikely to be spoiled by it. Clearly, in a different era, he would have been a monk, possibly a hermit. I find him a compelling human being: complex, flawed, yet gripped by the claim of the divine upon his life.

What is most important about Wittgenstein is his method of philosophy, which prevents a fruitless pursuit of metaphysical “solutions”; more precisely, it teaches us what metaphysics actually is. Thus Wittgenstein’s method is a necessary discipline for theologians, as it prevents us from mis-characterising the nature of Christian doctrine. As he put it himself: “Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.” Wittgenstein has had a great influence on contemporary theology, from Stanley Hauerwas to Herbert McCabe—and it seems to me to be a wholly beneficial influence.

While most understandings of Wittgenstein emphasise the “Sturm und Drang” of his life, I think there is also an under-appreciated current of joy. He used to relax by going to the cinema, especially enjoying Westerns—and he found this to be of value. He wrote early in 1947, “I have often learnt a lesson from a silly American film”—and I believe that he watched something that year which gave him some inner peace, that allowed him to believe that his life was worth something after all. After all, his last words were: “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” I like to think it was what he had in mind.


Anonymous said...

Good one!

I haven't done the One Book thing, but reading Wittgenstein changed my life. In this case, no book in particular--I kept hearing his name in some earlyish college philosophy courses, asked questions which got unsatisfactory answers, so read the Tractatus online one night. Next day went to the library and promptly read everything else by and about him I could get my hands on.

I'm not sure if I can read either philosophy or theology without him in mind (he practically ruined much of philosophy for me, but probably nothing that didn't need a bit of ruining). Not as some sort of filter, but as a reminder to keep matters connected to life.

I agree on the joy; I think it came from compassion (a strange word to apply to such a severe person), and that because Wittgenstein recognized sin and the need for forgiveness. Our language is for our lives, not a ladder for assaulting the heavens. In this sense, his work seems far more humane, more down-to-earth than that of any other philosopher I've read. I can fit it to a theology of the Cross.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding contribution to the series. LW does it for me too. You point to some of the salient bits of the philosophy, and capture the spirit of the philosopher. LW did indeed lead a devoutly religious life (Kierkegaard, as well as Augustine, was a favourite Christian thinker), practicing a rigorous askesis, and he spent a lot of his later life engaged in what we would call pastoral care. LW was, after all, a therapist - indeed, an exorcist, healing us of the "bewitchment of language". Doubt, as he said, plays black.

As for LW's influence on theology, you mention Hauerwas and McCabe - you could have added Lash, Linbeck (and the post-liberals) - and, of course, Rowan Williams. Those who have not read Fergus Kerr's Theology after Wittgenstein (1986), have a hole to fill.

Never baptised, but gratefully prayed for on his death-bed by a Catholic priest, LW was a thinker who detested most theology, yet who reminds Christians that "faith is under the left nipple" (quoting Luther), that the face is the soul of the body (admiring Blake), that predestination is "less a theory than a sigh, or a cry" (thickly reading Calvin), and that there is an inextricable conceptual connection between faith in the resurrection and the practice of love. Passing a Bible-thumper in Cambridge one day, LW shook his head and said, "If he really meant what he was shouting, he wouldn't be speaking in that tone of voice."

By the way, LW's most eminent disciple and expositor in recent philosophy of religion was D.Z. Phillips - who sadly died last week in the university library here in Swansea.


Ben Myers said...

I was so sad to hear of the death of D. Z. Phillips. He was certainly a great thinker and a great Wittgensteinian.

Anonymous said...

By a stroke of serendipity, I answered the door today to a tourist who asked if I had heard of Wittgenstein. He thought the great man had once lived on my road. Perhaps... but I suspect, alas, not in my house.

byron smith said...

thuloid: you read the Tractatus, and then went on to read later Witt. Were you disappointed, relieved, confused, or satisfied with his later thought after the Tractatus?

Anonymous said...

Well, I knew it was supposed to be a 2-stage deal going in. The [i]Tractatus[/i] was fascinating, but the later work really hooked me. To a perfectionist, there's something maddening about philosophy--the more you do, the more problems you have to work on. Entities are multiplied and great abstract castles are built and no loose ends are ever tied up without making more. W's later work offered an alternative. So I'd have to say I was relieved and even grateful.

Drew said...

Thanks for this.

I very much like the Tractatus, and while not ignorant of the potential, had never done the work of connecting it to theology.

Anonymous said...

Hi Thuloid.

Re. "no loose ends are tied up without making more" - yup.

Wittgenstein said: "What is ragged should be left ragged."

Sam Charles Norton said...

Kim - very saddened to learn of the death of DZ Phillips. He's been quite an influence on my thinking (sometimes through disagreement, but that's a good thing).

BTW I believe that LW was baptised into the Roman Catholic church as an infant: "The eight children of Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein were baptized into the Catholic faith..." (Ray Monk's biography, p8 of my paperback edition).

Anonymous said...

Rev Sam - thanks for correcting me on LW's baptism. I went to Monk for LW's death, I should have gone there for his birth as well!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

The late (Ana)baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon was very influenced by the later Wittgenstein. He did in 2000 just after completing the final volume, Witness, in his 3-volume Systematic Theology. He devotes quite an argument in that work to LW's being a "secret Christian" much like Dag Hammarskjold. I was skeptical of that going in, thinking that LW only gave evidence of a bare theism. But McClendon makes a very strong argument full of deep readings of LW's work. He also shows its continuing significance for contemporary theology.

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