wittgenstein and jesus

In an attempt to atone through my own efforts for my previous sinful post, i offer the following easter musing, albeit an heretical one, as a conciliatory gesture to whomever it may concern.

The second to last paragraph of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus offers an increadible hermeneutic:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

Wittgenstein’s text is not supposed to tell us the truth about the world; rather, it is intended to train us to think. Once we have worked through what the Tractatus is saying, we will have become wise enough to realize that the text itself is flawed and can now be abandoned. Wittgenstein’s text is a tool, not the truth.

(The difficulty of Wittgenstein’s idea lies in the temptation to abandon the text before it has taught you all it had to say. You must first understand why the text is true, only afterwards should you reject it as meaningless. If you cannot see the truth of the text, then you have not yet understood it.)

If we approach the easter story with this idea, we might be able to somewhat reconcile those who want the text to be true and those who despise it as nonsense. The text points to the truth, but cannot adequately formulate it; however, the text must be carefully understood before it is abandoned. Anything short of that would be intellectually dishonest – or at least unwittgensteinian.

I shall not claim to unpack or even to have understood the whole meaning of the easter story. Nevertheless, i wish to show what i am suggesting. Hence the following short and weak theological phrases. The death and resurrection of Jesus have always meant at least: (1) God loves us and (2) he has a means of saving us. In a yet briefer form: love is and love saves. This is what the text has taught me. There is an idea, a concept, ‘love’ (laying down your life for your friends) that exists in the sense that it is important and effective. Moreover, this idea of love will save us. It will solve our problems – many of our problems, including death.

What remains unclear is how this works. The christian story of why this is possible appears preposterous. Not because it is historically unlikely, but because it is incoherent. Here all of the traditional objections might be inserted. If God is love why does he require a bloody sacrifice? If Jesus is God why must he, and how can he die? How does this death accomplish anything for us? Et cetera.

These objections do not, however, invalidate the story; that is because we have already listened to what it had to say (or some portion of it). The objections strengthen our understanding of the ideas therein by showing why the text fails itself, why it must now be thrown away so that we can move on to better formulations of what it tried to say. The text must now lay down its life for us, its friends.

Making these objections before we had understood and accepted the truth of the text would have been counterproductive. Christians will not much care if we tell them their beliefs are unlikely and incoherent. However, if we can show that the text points to truths that exceed its own formulations, then perhaps they might understand our attempts to improve upon it. We must listen to the text of the bible carefully and learn from it – but then it must indeed die if it is to rise again with a new, more reasonable and better body.

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One Comment to “wittgenstein and jesus”

  1. Or, as that secular saint, ‘Picasso the Rascal’ said,
    “Art is a lie that reveals the truth”.

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