Wittgenstein on Christianity
A Good Friday meditation
From Culture and Value, University of Chicago Press, 1980, tr. Peter Winch, 32e, emphases in original:
Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief that is appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it. There is nothing paradoxical about that!
The "nothing paradoxical" may be an allusion to Kierkegaard who is discussed in nearby entries from 1937. For Kierkegaard, it is is absurd that God should become man and die the death of a criminal, but this absurdity or paradox is precisely what the Christian believer must embrace. Wittgenstein appears to be rejecting this Kierkegaardian view, but also the view that S. K. also rejects, namely, that Christianity is grounded in verifiable historical facts such as that Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans, died, was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead.
I interpret Wittgenstein to be saying that Christianity is neither an absurd or self-contradictory belief nor an historically grounded one. It is a groundless belief, but not groundless in the sense that it needs, but lacks, a ground, but in the sense that it is a framework belief that cannot, because it is a framework belief, have a ground and so cannot need one either. Christianity is a form of life, a language game, self-contained, incommensurable with other language games, under no threat from them, and to that extent insulated from logical, historical, and scientific objections, as well as from objections emanating from competing religious language games.
But is it true?
When Jesus told Pontius Pilate that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth, Pilate dismissed his claim with the cynical, "What is truth?" As I see it, the Wittgensteinian fideist cannot similarly dismiss the question of the truth of Christianity. If it is true, it is objectively true; it corresponds to the way things are; it is not merely a set of beliefs and formulas that a certain group of people internalize and live by, but has an objective reference beyond itself.
Here is where the Wittgensteinian approach in the philosophy of religion stops making sense for me. No doubt a religion practiced is a form of life; but is it a reality-based form of life? And no doubt religions can be usefully viewed as language games. But Schachspiel is also a Sprachspiel. What then is the difference between Christianity and chess? Chess does not, and does not purport to, refer to anything beyond itself. Christianity does so purport. A religion cannot be reduced to a language game or a form of life.
I grant that in religion orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy. But correct practice presupposes correct belief. Belief in turns refers us beyond the immanence of practices, rites, rituals, formulas and the like; to believe that such-and-such is to believe that such-and-such is true. The very intentionality or object-directedness of belief ‘resurrects’ the question of the correctness of what is believed, and thus the question of objective truth.
The question whether Christianity is true cannot be evaded by a late-Wittgensteinian detour into ordinary language.
Coming soon: an extended post on Wittgensteinian fideism.