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This page is written from the viewpoint of "Wittgenstein's logic of language", but it should not be taken to represent Wittgenstein's own views about the philosophy of religion (see the Introduction to this topic on page 1 of 4).

Philosophy of Religion - Page 2 of 4

Is the word 'God' a proper name? Wittgenstein: The good is whatever God commands, God's will the only standard of good and evil. "Try reading the Bible through the eyes of the Canaanites."

Outline of this page ...

The Consequences of the Unexamined Life (Beginning)

My first response to Albert Schweitzer's view of religion [Christianity] was that it simply eliminated dogmatic religion, the religion of the churches (and of most Christians). Because dogma cannot stand up to the test of reason -- nor of course does anyone claim that it can; that is why it is called "dogma", to designate it as something that has to be accepted unjustified. That is, as it were, the rule of the game -- and, I said, Schweitzer is simply refusing to play that game.

But now I don't know what to say. Because I am strongly inclined to agree with Schweitzer. But perhaps only because: dogmatic religion has done and continues to do a lot of harm in this world. Is this an non-philosophical consideration? Can a condemnation of a way of life belong to philosophy? But what else is saying that "The unexamined life is not worth living"?

Numbers 21.2-3

Then Israel made a vow to Yahweh and said, "If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns." Yahweh listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns ... (Numbers 21.2-3; quoted by Michael Prior, The Bible and Colonialism (1997), p. 24)

And in fact that is what the political Zionists have done in Palestine. And there are many verses like that in the Pentateuch and Joshua. They are a vision of God as xenophobic [exclusivist] and genocidal [exclusionist]. At least that is how this God appears if the Bible is read through the eyes of the Canaanites (Prior, p. 43). Prior wrote that the "land flowing with milk and honey" was also flowing with people, as was the New World, South Africa, and now again Palestine [or possibly again, that is, if the Bible's story is not pure mythology invented for the sake of "nation building", a view which the archeological evidence seems to support].

"... read the Exodus stories with Canaanite eyes." [Note 14a]

If I suggest that Wittgenstein did not have the Exodus sort of "will of God" in mind, I would say that I don't know that, for if "the good is whatever God commands" and there is no other standard than God's will, which was Wittgenstein's view, then anything at all might be the good, even the dispossession of a native population of its home, not merely by "ethic cleansing" but by genocide, both physical and cultural.

Drury wrote down a remark Wittgenstein made to him (in 1949) about Wittgenstein's visit to Russia:

We were walking in the Botanical Gardens, and began to discuss architecture.

The Cathedral of St Basil in the Kremlin is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. There is a story -- I don't know whether it is true but I hope it is -- that when Ivan the Terrible saw the completed cathedral he had the architect blinded so that he would never design anything more beautiful. (Recollections p. 165)

If a [ordinary] man [evil Tsar] might do this, how much more a God-inspired man.

I ask myself, what else might Wittgenstein have had in mind when he told Drury, "Your religious ideas have always seemed to me more Greek than biblical. Whereas my thoughts are one hundred percent Hebraic" (ibid. p. 161)? Wittgenstein's own view was: "If any proposition explains just what I mean, it is: Good is what God orders." [Note 14] And if God orders something monstrous, such as the sacrifice of a child (Kierkegaard's text), then to obey this order is to do what is "good".

And if anyone had said to Wittgenstein, "But this is barbaric", he might have replied "You would not be not wrong -- i.e. incorrect, in saying that" (cf. LC p. 64; see also Rush Rhees' comment, Recollections p. 224 n46). That is, he might have agreed that it was barbaric, but would have respected the sincerity of the believer, the deep seriousness of the believer, of the believer's attitude towards life.

It is true that we can compare a picture that is firmly rooted in us to a superstition, but it is equally true that we always eventually have to reach some firm ground, either a picture or something else; so that a picture which is at the root of all our thinking is to be respected and not treated as a superstition. (CV p. 83)

Wittgenstein and the Last Judgment

According to Paul Engelmann, at the time he knew Wittgenstein:

... the notion of a last judgement was of profound concern to him. "When we meet again at the last judgement" was a recurrent phrase with him ... (Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir p. 77 [Engelmann's translator has made the words 'last judgement' lower case; I don't know if it was Wittgenstein's intention, however, not to refer to the Christian idea.])

For Wittgenstein, at least at that time, the picture of a last judgement is "a picture that is at the root of all" his thinking about life. This is a non-reasonable belief [view], as are all foundational beliefs, but at the same time it is not a statement of fact [In no case is it a testable hypothesis]: it is not like the proposition that I have two hands.

The Sistine Ceiling Frescos

The last judgment is a "picture", but it is not a picture of any possible state of affairs, no more than Michelangelo's God creating Adam is a picture of a possible state of affairs: because the painter did not think that God really looked like that (LC ii, p. 63). The picture would seem to have some other use, but what is that use?

Query: Wittgenstein, painting by Michelangelo, religious belief, metaphors, complex rule.

As if there were some rules, albeit "complex" rules of projection in this case ... But, no, there are no rules of projection ... analogies are made: God the Father, the Creator, is like --. Surely 'God created man' is not a restatement in prose of Michelangelo's fresco (poetry).

What was Wittgenstein's "last judgement"? Was it like a motto: "We must live as if at the end of our life God were going to hold us accountable before ourselves and before everyone else for every single deed that we had done when we were alive"? [cf. passionate clinging to a frame of reference (CV p. 64)] But on the other hand, a man who hopes to be reunited with his loved ones after death is not simply making a metaphorical expression of his love: he really does hope to see the shades of his dear departed.

Wittgenstein is a difficult man to understand, his Philosophy of Religion, his relationship to the Enlightenment e.g. But I would reject any account of Wittgenstein that saw his views about religion as either extremely non-reasonable or extremely reasonable. For example, Wittgenstein did not hesitate to use the word 'superstition' if he thought it applied. When e.g. Drury said that being from Ireland he knew something about the power of religion, Wittgenstein replied, "I'm not talking about superstition but about real religious feeling" (Recollections p. 101).

I don't believe as a child does [as Paul the Apostle said (1 Cor. 13.11)]. My hosanna has been through the crucible of doubt. (Dostoyevsky [Dostoevsky])

It is not easy to say what Wittgenstein's view of religious belief was, because I don't think that Wittgenstein ever believed that he had fully understood it. [We are more given to seeing finality in this philosopher's ideas than the philosopher himself ever was. I am, in any case, trying to do what is beyond me: to summarize what was the result of a lifetime of thought, reflection ...] In 1950 he wrote:

How God judges a man is something we cannot imagine at all. (CV p. 86)

Note: there are a few later remarks about "the meaning of the word 'God'", and about whether the concept 'God' is essential thought-world of man itself. [Descartes, I think, thought it was. But the discussion there is, not metaphysical, but about the grammar of the word 'God'.]

Is the word 'God' a name?

The way you use the word 'God' shows not whom you mean -- but instead what you mean. (CV p. 50)

God's essence is supposed to guarantee his existence -- what this really means is that what is here at issue is not the existence of something.

Could one not equally well say that the essence of color guarantees its existence? As opposed, say, to white elephants. Because all that really means is: I cannot explain what "color" is, what the word 'color' means, except with the help of a color sample. So in this case there is no such thing as explaining "what it would be like if colors were to exist" [as one might explain, e.g. by painting a picture, what it would be like if there were white elephants, because there do exist elephants that are not white].

And now we might say: There can be descriptions of what it would be like if there were gods on Olympus -- but not: "what it would be like if there were such a thing as God".

And to say this is to determine the concept 'God' more precisely. (ibid. p. 82 [MS 138 30b: 17.3.1949 §§ 1-3])

Shouldn't we then ask: what would it be like if 'God' were not the name of someone [if 'God' were not someone's name]? "... not whom you mean": but then why does Wittgenstein still talk [continue to talk] about God as if 'God' were the name of someone? Why does he use this form of expression? He talked this way to the very end of his life:

God may say to me: "I am judging you out of your own mouth. Your own actions have made you shudder with disgust when you have seen other people do them." (ibid. p. 87)

What else can speak to you except a person? (Obviously I am asking here for a "grammatical explanation" of this language.) But Wittgenstein said to Drury as well that he [i.e. Wittgenstein] did not think "of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful" (Recollections p. 108).

Is Wittgenstein using metaphors [speaking metaphorically]? -- But metaphors [by definition] can be restated in prose, and here there is no question of restating this metaphor, this symbolism (ibid. 107: "They misunderstand the nature of symbolism"), in prose. So why does Wittgenstein talk this way about God [use the word 'God' this way, utter this language]?

(If you say that the symbolism "cannot" be put into words, then, as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus says, you ought to remain silent. But Wittgenstein quoted Augustine with approval: "And woe to those who say nothing concerning thee ..." (ibid. p. 89). When is nonsense not nonsense?)

When I write: "God doesn't play god", it seems clear to me that I am thinking of an Olympian Zeus-type of God [The grammatical model my language follows, that of proper-name, seems to make this evident], even if I say, No, no, that is not what we mean by 'God'. -- The anthropomorphism cannot be eliminated -- not if you want to teach someone how we use the word 'God'. -- And if that use is the word's meaning, then by 'God' we just do mean a super-man. That is the picture children are given (Picture of an invisible super-man) ... but then later in life they are told to stop using that picture, but not to stop using that word. -- Now that is very strange: we remove the definition but still claim that the word is meaningful. "We delete some of the rules of grammar", but how far can we go with this? [Grammar Stripping]

"... shows not whom but what you mean." -- But then what do you mean? 'God' is not the name of someone -- but then why use the word 'God' as if that were exactly what it were? That is the grammatical model [part of speech] according to which the word is used.

Scholastic theology says that we can say what God is not, but not what God is. But "a nothing would serve as well as a something about which nothing can be said" (PI § 304): what is the difference between there being a God and there not being a God? That is, what is the difference between the word 'God' having a meaning or being meaningless (undefined)? -- If we cannot -- And this is supposedly a "real" (nature of God) rather than a logical (definitional) 'cannot' -- say anything positive about God, doesn't this imply that we cannot define the word 'God' in this example of its use (or, we should say utterance)?

"... shows not whom but what you mean." What might I mean by 'God doesn't play god'? That I believe that "the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike", neither as a reward nor as a punishment, that there is neither providence nor fate? I don't believe in God in that sense of the word 'God'. (If someone says that he does not believe in God, he is not stating an hypothesis about the existence of something. And while he may reject some religious pictures, others may find a place in his life [thinking] -- i.e. he may accept others: we could call these pictures senses of the word 'God'.)

How are we taught [to use] the word 'God'? I cannot give a full grammatical description of it. But I can, as it were, make some contributions to such a description; I can say a good deal about it and perhaps in time assemble a sort of collection of examples.

Remember in this connection that although we might perhaps like to give such descriptions of the use of words in a dictionary [were we to compile a dictionary ourselves], all we in fact do is give a few examples and explanations [of meaning]. But remember too that no more than this is necessary. What use could we make of an enormously long description? -- Well, we could do nothing with it, if it dealt with the use of words in languages that we already knew.... (CV p. 82)

Why do we feel uneasy about the grammar of the word 'God'? [Why do we feel uncomfortable with our knowledge, understanding, of the grammar of that word?] Would we still feel this unease after we assembled a [an enormously long] collection of examples? Well, of course, Yes we would. We already know how to use the word 'God' (We could without much trouble assemble a collection of sample uses). --

The "Theory of Descriptions" and the grammar of 'God'

Here is one possibility: We might apply Russell's "Theory of Descriptions" to the word 'God'. Can that word be defined (i.e. a true description of our use of that word be given) this way?

We might use this way to say what we don't mean, given our own particular religious beliefs. I will answer No to each of the following questions for the sake of clarity, to make the idea clear.

"Do you mean by 'God' the one whose avatar is Krishna?" No. "Do you mean the one whose prophet is Mohammed?" No. "Do you mean the one who became man and was crucified on the cross?" No. "Do you mean the Creator of heaven and earth?" No. "Do you mean theism's Providence?" No. "Do you mean deist's Clockmaker?" No. "Do you mean the one who bound Prometheus to the rocks?" No.

And yet we mean all those things by the word 'God'. So it seems that 'God' has a general meaning {the class of all descriptions} and particular meanings {the class of some descriptions}, and the members of the latter will vary by religion and religious denomination.

-- No, what we are looking for is a special insight into how we use that word, an insight that will cut through the contradictions [the contrary ways that we use that word]. What we are troubled by is the contradictions; -- whereas, we just have to accept them as part of that word's grammar, if, that is, we wish to describe that word's usage [rather than pass judgment on whether that "form of life" has anything to recommend itself to us, as if, after all, one might "just accept" the contradictions! Schweitzer wrote: "I employ the word 'God' in its historical definiteness and indefiniteness" (the protean grammar of the word 'God')].

But that detracts a little from [the word's] usefulness, as it detracts from that of a table that it stands on four legs instead of three and so sometimes wobbles. (PI § 79)

Yes, but although we may not care so much in the case of [other] mythological beings, in the case of God [our concept 'God'] we really don't want this table to wobble! (Too much, as it were, rests on it.)

Nothing makes sense. But the symbolism is important.

Why do we continue to utter the word 'God' given that this word has no clear meaning? The word 'God' belongs to a world picture that we no longer use, the picture of a world of Gods [Note 15]. It is not reasonable [critical] to continue using a word that has been deprived of its meaning. [We cannot speak of a "revised" or "evolving" concept here so much as of a concept supported by the shadows of former rules.] But on the other hand:

The symbolisms of Christianity are wonderful beyond words. (cf. Recollections p. 102)

We would lose a great part of our humanity [natural history] were we to abandon, if we can keep, religious symbolism in our determination to abandon religious dogma. Here we can speak of religion as feeling and symbolism as opposed to [versus] religion as dogma, and this distinction is important. But then again, the replacement of the gods with a single all-powerful, all-seeing, everywhere-but-nowhere God -- in other words, the replacement of a coherent picture [i.e. the picture of gods] with monotheism's utterly incoherent "notion" (The quotes mean: it does not even rise to even that level of vagueness) -- has arrested our natural development which would simply have seen the end of the world [age] of Gods and its replacement by thorough-going reasoning. In other words, the preservation of the symbolisms of religion appears to come at too high a cost.

But then again, we are not talking about something at the outskirts of our life (a mere decoration like "the Bible as literature"). We are, instead, talking about our life's foundations, which are both ideational and emotional.

Our experience of life and the concept 'God'

One could perhaps "convince someone that God exists" by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such and such a way.... Experiences [not visions or sense impressions, but e.g. suffering of various sorts], thoughts [but not conjectures (speculations)] -- life can force this concept ['God'] on us. (CV p. 86)

The Christian faith -- as I see it -- is a man's refuge in this ultimate torment [which is: when a man feels lost, in need of infinite help, in despair over his own character]. (ibid. p. 45-46)

Why are older people more drawn to religion than younger ones? Is it because life is an education in despair [and, strange to say, at the same time an education in hope]? Perhaps orphaned children have learned despair -- but not in the sense of "my sins have gone over my head".

Someone has an experience about which he says: "I have been in the lion's den and I have walked out. But not because I deserved to walk out. Not because I was worthy of pardon. I have been given a second chance at life -- but not because that was due me; it is rather by the grace of God. I have been raised like Lazarus from the dead. I feel like Scrooge on Christmas morning: I feel like a newborn baby; I know nothing."

Do I understand this person or not? Do I understand the prisoner who tells me that "it hurts to be guilty" [that the consciousness of guilt is physically painful]? What do you mean you "know nothing"? How are you any different today than you were yesterday? If someone says, "You are too young to understand what I am talking about", if Wittgenstein tells Parak that he has been "born again", do I understand him or not?

There will be cases where we will differ, and where it won't be a question at all of more or less knowledge, so that we can come together [i.e. say that we mean the same thing by this language]. Sometimes it will be a question of experience [i.e. of having lived life], so you can say: "Wait another ten years." (LC p. 63)

And why shouldn't understanding [the meaning of this language] depend on one's personal experience? But not: "because doesn't it?" That is, here we mustn't let the sense of the word 'meaning' fluctuate [wander] all over the place: there are some senses of that word where we will say Yes, some No, some Unclear what to say.

The cases that interest what I have called "Wittgenstein's logic of language" would be the cases where the question is not 'Do I understand?' but 'Do we understand?' -- i.e. is this language defined or not? And here we could say: On the one hand, I understand what Wittgenstein said to Parak (i.e. I can take part [participate] in this language-game; it is not like the case of 'Milk me sugar' (PI § 498 ff.)); but on the other hand, I do not understand it (i.e. this is something outside my experience).

But on the other hand: there are cases where I would say that the language is undefined (meaningless), regardless of anyone's experience, and regardless of that language's being commonly used. For example, if someone says "This happened to me not because I merited it, but instead it was by the grace of God." I would say that the expression 'grace of God' is undefined, that all this person is expressing is that something good unjustly happened to him. Someone says it means that:

He sends his rain upon the just and the unjust alike.

Why should anyone express gratitude for arbitrariness? What is the difference between this God and a capricious elf?

"This language-game is played." (PI § 654). A language-game is not reasonable (or unreasonable); it is not based on grounds (OC § 559). -- So, according to Wittgenstein's philosophy, our response should be: I don't know why we express gratitude, but we do.

"Thank God so few people were hurt!" (But if it's that way, then why was anyone hurt?) Nothing here makes sense. But if we really press the person and he responds "We were just lucky, I suppose", we know that he is not giving expression to the original feeling: he is rationalizing his expression to conform to our expectations.


If I know what I am talking about -- but in this instance that not important, because even if my account is ahistorical, the idea of my account is important -- the Reformers wanted to throw "All Souls Day" [the day after "All Saints Day" when people visit the cemetery to remember their dead loved ones] out, but it just ended up coming back again (as "Totensonntag") -- because it met, because it meets, a deep human need (longing). That is why it was there (in the Roman Catholic calendar) to begin with.

The Saturday before Easter is my favorite day in all the year -- the day of our Blessed Lord's resting in the grave. It's a day on which I love to think of all the Dead dear to me. (George W.E. Russell, Arthur Stanton (1917), iii, Stanton wrote to his mother, 29 March 1869)

"Lord, where Thou art our holy Dead must be;
Unpierced as yet the Sacramental mist,
But we are nearest them and nearest Thee,
At solemn Eucharist."  (ibid. vii, a poem by "G.W." which Stanton quotes in a letter, 8 March 1909)

The only religious practices that can be pruned away are those that are not rooted in human feeling and experience. So you could say that: we must learn to reject, if we feel we must reject -- and if this is possible, which it may not be -- dogmatic religious belief without at the same time losing religious symbolism. We shouldn't want to impoverish our life so.

What matters, what is important is that it [one's practice of religion] be genuine. Some can say the rosary, whereas others cannot. But even going through the motions may or may not be genuine. [Things I can do: light a votive candle for the dead, accept a priest's blessing, make the Sign of the Cross using holy water, believe in the real presence in the Eucharist. Why can I, why do I revere these things? They form my sense of the sacred (Euthyphro's holiness or piety). Things I cannot do: make the Profession of Faith, march in a procession, visit a religious shrine, pray (except the Lord's Prayer, but even that very rarely), many other things.]

"Life can force this concept on us." But what kind of concept is this? Vague, vague, vague, wobbly maybe. Again and again: "God is x, but at the same time God is not really x." A word that no one can define but which we still all of us use [utter] -- what is this? [And what kind of impossibility is this?]

Essence is expressed by grammar. (PI § 371) [This rejects the notion of "real definition": we define words, not things; and, therefore] Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar. ["Are eyebrows going to be talked of, in connection with the Eye of God?" (LC p. 71)]) (PI § 373)

When thinking about Life-philosophy Schweitzer did not use the word 'God' (which in the context of his religious ministry and in critical-historiographic theology of course he was forced to: "When I must use the language of traditional religious idioms, however, then I employ the word 'God' in its historical definiteness and indefiniteness"). Wittgenstein, who did not distinguish between Life-philosophy [which was not a category he used] and religion, quoted Augustine, "But woe to those who say nothing concerning thee ..." This [using the concept 'God' to think about your own life] is a real contrast [or may be a real contrast, depending on what Wittgenstein meant by 'God', which, being of a kind with what everyone means by 'God', is not terribly clear]. [Schweitzer and Wittgenstein about Augustine]

Preface to my study of the Philosophy of Religion

In context of Michael Prior's The Bible and Colonialism: a moral critique, the Philosophy of Religion and Critical-History (historiography) intersect. But I have never studied the methods of historians [historiographers = writers of history], and this is a serious limitation. For example, I do not understand by what standards secondary sources are created in the context of ancient history. I do not know how historians write ancient history, how they collect evidence, e.g. verify ancient texts -- [i.e. determine if a text is a description of events that really happened, or if an ancient city or political unit ever really existed, or if human beings ever actually lived in a particular way (e.g. Herodotus says in his History (2.35-36) that the Egyptians kneaded bread dough with their feet [the opposite of the Greeks who kneaded bread dough with their hands], and that whereas the Greeks relieved themselves outdoors the Egyptians did so indoors [They used sand boxes])] --; what limits they set to their own speculations, constructions of "satisfying explanations" (or myths) to make coherent pictures out of fragments of evidence; -- where do they set the limits of historical reconstruction ("hypothesis-making")? And I have not studied archeology either -- i.e. how archaeologists work; what their standards are: how they draw conclusions e.g. [Note 16]

I think that for me religion is rather like the natural sciences in that: I never asked to know anything about it, but like anyone else my elders wanted me to know (although the only result was for me to think I (more or less) knew what I did not know). Left to myself I would have been a Socratic of the more skeptical sort [Socrates without his religion (depth)? but only his cross-questions, and doubts] from my youth forward -- if my thinking had not been confused by [become perplexed by] the introduction of religious instruction at a young age. In my case belief in mysteries came to the result of simply a confused state of mind. Although ... I can say with Wittgenstein that "What men mean when they say, The world is there, lies close to my heart" (LE/Notes p. 16) -- that, indeed, the question of the riddle of existence has been the only religious part of my outlook that has never left me. (Note that although it too has never left me, I would not say that my ethics is religious: only Kant's "starry sky above" not his "moral law within" would I call religious in my case, although with respect to loving God and doing only good to one's neighbor, Plato and Jesus' held the same view, Plato through reasoning, Jesus through religious genius working on tradition.)

Even if thought, once more awakened, should only attain to an incomplete and unsatisfactory world-view, yet this, as a truth to which we have ourselves worked through, would be of more value than ... any sort of authoritative view to which ... we cling to on account of its supposed intrinsic value without having any real and thorough belief in it. (Schweitzer, The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization 2nd ed. (1932), tr. C.T. Campion, Chapter 5, p. 102)

That seems a criticism of the Catholic and Reformed Christian churches: parishioners who "cling to [an authoritative view] on account of its supposed intrinsic value" as we are taught to do from childhood, but "without any real and thorough belief in it". For as Schweitzer asked in a sermon: "What have you ever done from love of God that you would not have done anyway? or from love of neighbor as yourself that you would not have done anyway?" Schweitzer was asking for Nietzschean sincerity. What does it mean to love God and your neighbor as yourself? To give thought to that question, to form one's own world-view, regardless of whether it turns out heterodox but, something of one's own that one has "real and thorough belief in", is to be sincere. (I think that is what Schweitzer was talking about. Or he may have been alluding to the various creeds of the Christian churches. The Catholic "Profession of Faith" -- how many Catholics understand its tenet or believe everyone of them? What does "descended into Hell" mean, for example? And what does it mean [amount to] to believe that?)

"... and everyone knows it is foolishness"

Many of us have heard the hymn "Praise God, from whom all blessings [i.e. good things] flow ..." The implication is that nothing bad comes from God. Obviously this is a tautology; there is no question of verification here. It puzzles anyone who thinks about it why anyone would say that God is both all good and all powerful [omnipotent]. Of course there is a contradiction [inconsistency] here, although not a formal [logic] one but one of experience. And so Original Sin is introduced, but that runs contrary to God's omniscience: God invents a creature which must suffer for its disobedience although God knows full well that that creature will be disobedient. Nothing here makes sense [stands to reason]. The strange thing is: that everyone knows that it doesn't make sense.

"It does not even pretend to be reasonable"

Anyone who reads the Epistles will find it said: not only that it is not reasonable, but that it is folly.

Not only is it not reasonable, but it doesn't pretend to be. (LC p. 58; cf. 1 Cor. 1.18-24)

The Christian religion is not a "reasonable" collection of beliefs. The spirit of this religion -- i.e. the spirit of dogma -- is the opposite of the spirit of philosophy. And so why should this religion be regarded with respect? Because its symbolisms speak to the human heart? Wittgenstein's attitude toward dogma was not so simple as that. He said that although he found the symbolisms of Catholicism wonderful beyond words, any attempt to rationalize those symbolisms was offensive. In Wittgenstein's view, "Anyone who reads the Epistles will find it said: not only that it is not reasonable, but that it is folly." (LC p. 58; cf. 1 Cor. 1.18-24). It was not dogma per se that Wittgenstein criticised, but what was done with the dogma. And so again here is a real contrast with Schweitzer.

All these contradictions. "What I really feel like saying here is that distorted concepts have done a lot of mischief, but the truth is that I just do not know what does good and what does mischief." (CV p. 72) -- When Wittgenstein says 'what does good' here, he means: what has the power to change a human being. -- That is the type of good that needs to be done. "I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of you life.) .... The point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you" (ibid. p. 53).

Etienne Gilson wrote that he found his Roman Catholic faith more satisfying [as an explanation] than philosophy, which in any case could not undermine his religious belief in God; and, in the rationalism of Descartes, who was also a Roman Catholic, what has been divinely revealed is far more certain than our surest knowledge. But if religion does provide an answer to the riddle of existence, one has to ask: what answer does it provide: just who is the God of Christianity e.g. and what was the picture of the world that Jesus had? Do I accept this God's morality; do I share Jesus's world picture? And if I do not, then what use is this religion [considered as dogma] to me.

What do we mean by 'Reasonable'?

An assertion of faith is not an adequate response to a literary, or historical or archaeological question (Prior, p. 226n5).

The Bible can no more be assumed to be an historical record of events than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey can be. Any claim to the contrary must state its methods of verification. Otherwise, the contents of these books should be assumed to be legend and myth. There can be no justification for treating stories in which Gods participate in any other way. The standards by which ancient historical narratives are judged cannot be any different from the standards by which contemporary history writing [historiography] is judged: That there was an "Age of Miracles" that has since ended is not a reasonable belief. And questions about the facts of history (historical events, "what really happened") cannot be answered by "an assertion of faith": e.g. "The Bible says ..." That is not, as it were, a move in this language-game, where critical questions must receive critical answers. Anything else is unphilosophical [irrational, unreasonable, uncritical]. This is how a reasonable man lives [thinks] -- i.e. all this belongs to a definition of 'reasonable' [to that word's grammar]: this is what we mean by 'reasonable'.

"Dare to think!" [question, doubt]; the alternative is an eternal childhood. This daring is the very heart of the Aufklärung according to Kant: Stop submitting to dogma [silencing your mind] and think critically about all things (including dogma) for yourself. If anyone rejected this view, we would say that this person was irrational, someone we could not reason with: we would say that this person was "unreasonable", "dogmatic", and those would be words of condemnation.

And yet there are many who read the Old Testament as if it were a history book -- beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden, Noah in the Ark, and ending with Jonah in the whale --. [Note 17] We would say that people who read the Bible this way are uncritical -- unreasonable. In the past -- and still in the world of peasants [poor illiterate, or barely literate farmers] -- there were people who had been exposed to only one set of facts from only one point of view. But of people who have been to school and therefore should be familiar with other points of view -- it is "reasonable" to say that their teachers [schools] have failed to educate them, that they have been cheated, not awakened from their "dogmatic slumbers".

But, on the other hand, we could say: but this questioning will not take us very far: we will "soon strike bedrock" (PI § 217; cf. 326) -- i.e. the ultimate groundlessness of all believing. [The foundations of our life do not themselves have foundations.] But it does not follow from this that we ought not to critically question fundamental values and foundations. One cannot believe both that, according to critical-history, the Old Testament's story of the bondage in Egypt is legend and that, according to the Bible, this story is history [the record of an historical event]. There are not two truths: if critical historical research contradicts a naive reading of the Bible, then that naive reading has to be given up: the story in the Bible is not a record of events -- although that is its form ("historical narrative"), but something else, some other genre of literature. It is not reasonable to continue to believe despite evidence to the contrary.

"An historical belief requires a critical-historical justification, not a statement of faith." Yes, that is what we mean by 'reasonable'. But reason is not the only form of life.

Why shouldn't one form of life culminate in an utterance of belief in a Last Judgement? (LC p. 58)

What would we say? That this form of life is not what we call 'reasonable'? But are we not then forced to say that there is no choosing between forms of life: all are of equal value? -- I.e. they are all of no value. It is only within the context of a specific form of life that we can talk about the value of anything. Of course this does not stop us from condemning one another's views (OC § 611).

"Reason itself undermines reason." What are we to we do with something like this?

Someone says: "Someone has written a book. He says that in this book he has written what God told him to write. That God has revealed hidden truths to him and he has written it down in this book. And I believe that this is true. [And I believe him, believe his book.]"

That could be a foundational belief. You could certainly characterize [classify] it as bizarre or strange. But what can you really say against it, against someone who is willing to believe something like this without anything we would call proof? -- But what would 'proof' ['grounds', 'justification'] mean here? what would it look like?

Why shouldn't one form of life be founded on belief in a book? [Note 18]

[Philosophy of Religion - Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4]


Note 14a: These are the words of a North American Indian exegete [namely, Robert Allen Warrior], who said:

The obvious characters for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land ... I read the Exodus stories with Canaanite eyes.

Quoted in Michael Prior, "The Bible as Instrument of Oppression" (1995), reprinted in A Living Stone (2006), p. 185 [Prior, "A Land Flowing with Milk, Honey and People" (1997), repr. idem. p. 176n23] [BACK]

Note 14: "Your religious ideas have always seemed to me more Greek than biblical. Whereas my thoughts are one hundred percent Hebraic." What does it mean? I think it is explained here, Schlick's second conception being the "Greek" one. [Hebraic and Greek: Abraham and Socrates contrasted.]

"The good is whatsoever God commands"

Schlick says that theological ethics contains two conceptions of the essence of the Good. According to the more superficial interpretation, the Good is good because God wills it; according to the deeper interpretation, God wills the Good because it is good.

I think that the first conception is the deeper one: Good is what God orders. For this cuts off the path to any and every explanation "why" it is good, while the second conception is precisely the superficial, the rationalistic one, which proceeds as if what is good could still be given some foundation.

The first conception says clearly that the essence of the Good has nothing to do with facts and therefore cannot be explained by any proposition. If any proposition explains just what I mean, it is: Good is what God orders. (LE/Notes p. 15, remarks from 1930. According to the TLP, only the propositions of natural science are not nonsense; they alone state facts.)

There is no theodicy in the Old Testament: instead we are referred to Leviathan: who are you to question my ways? [To Job neither explanation nor justification is given: God does what he wants and there's an end to it.] The Good is whatever God says it is [commands]. This may have been what Wittgenstein meant.

But on the other hand, Wittgenstein may only have been being emphatic, because even a non-religious ethics ("The Greek conception of the good") cannot be given a foundation -- [or what would it be? what would the word 'foundation' mean here? Later note: maybe the foundation would be that: the specific excellence that is proper to a thing, which is a question of fact, is the good for that thing] -- by philosophy as conceived by Wittgenstein (PI § 124), because such philosophy is only descriptive of the facts in front of all of us.

But on yet another hand, "The good is whatever God commands" appears to be exactly what Wittgenstein did mean when he said to Drury that Wittgenstein's own religious ideas were "one hundred percent Hebraic": the Good just is whatsoever God says it is.

What is the standard in the Old Testament of the Bible?

That it is good to do whatever the Lord God commands, regardless of whether what is commanded is good or evil, because the ability to distinguish good from evil belongs to man after the Garden of Eden: "You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." The serpent's words have no other meaning. In the Garden of Eden, good was whatever the Lord God commanded -- because there was no other standard of measurement (or, rather, the word 'good' was without meaning; there was only God's commandments). After the Garden man, who is endowed with discourse of reason, must use his reason to ask what is morally good and what is evil, and that means that the good is not just whatever God says.

Of the contradictions in the Bible, none is more fundamental than that.

Related pages: a difference between philosophy and religion: Abraham vs. Socrates: reason (questioning, demanding to understand) vs. faith (trust that silences questions, obedience). Abraham after the birth of morality, i.e. after the Garden of Eden.

Salvation and the doctrine of the elect

If God really does choose those who are to be saved, there is no reason why he should not choose them according to nationality, race or temperament. (CV p. 72, a remark from 1948)

Does not man's sense of fairness revolt against the picture of God Wittgenstein suggests here -- i.e. are not our concepts 'fairness' and 'goodness' connected? What is the difference between God so-pictured and the devil [Imagination's "monstrous gods" -- why does the concept 'God' exist?]? And yet, that does seem to be a "one hundred percent" Biblical view. That is certainly the God of Abraham. (Then is God not good? According to Wittgenstein it is nonsense to say that God is good or evil: because whatever God wills is the good: there is no standard other than God's will.)

Nonetheless, contrary to Wittgenstein's remark, according to Jesus the kingdom of God (salvation) does not belong to any particular tribe or nation or race, but to whomever -- and only to whomever -- as an individual lives according to God's ethical will (i.e. the ethics of love which is "the sum of the law and the prophets", which Jesus says is the will of his father in Heaven). The Messiah (or, in Greek, "Christ") Jesus thought would introduce a kingdom of God ruled by love rather than a Messiah who would introduce a kingdom of God ruled by power (i.e. one who, as according to tradition, would exalt the Jewish nation above all the other nations on earth).

And so when Wittgenstein says "there is no reason", that is not the teaching of Jesus. (There is of course an inherent contradiction [in sense], maybe an inescapable contradiction, between calling for men to repent of their wrong-doing (failure to love) and amend their lives, and saying that those who are to be saved -- i.e. those to whom the kingdom of God belongs -- have been pre-selected by God.)

And the solution to that riddle? Which idea is the historical Jesus' teaching? I think the notion of an "elect" was added by those who wished to explain why some men had "ears to hear and eyes to see" while others had not when Christ came among them. On the other hand, that may simply be what I would like to believe, because certainly, the notion of "the elect" does not belong to my own "image of Christ" (Dostoyevsky).

When Wittgenstein says Greek, he means the Greece of the philosophers.

Euthyphro could have replied that "pious" was by definition equivalent to "loved by the gods". Orestes had a religious duty to kill his mother because Apollo ordered it, and there was no other criterion by which he could be judged. This is what he believed until he met Socrates ... (W.K.C. Guthrie, Plato: the man and his dialogues: earlier period (1975), p. 123)

But Socrates did not believe in the ancient stories about the gods, neither that the gods did abominable deeds (Euthyphro 6a) nor that they quarreled among themselves (8e) about "the just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable" (7d, tr. Jowett). Socrates asked Euthyphro, in effect: Is the good good because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is good? (cf. 10a). The Greek philosophers would have answered: the latter, despite the "popular religion" of men like Euthyphro (Orestes, Abraham, and Wittgenstein; Socrates' conception of the good may have been "rationalistic", but it was certainly not "superficial": there was a profound purpose as well as method in it).

What would it mean for me to say that 'God is good'? One possibility is that God is one thing, and physics another (Schweitzer, the contrast between the God of nature and God as an ethical personality; cf. CV p. 71 [MS 137 42a: 30.5.1948]). Another possibility is that by the word 'God' I mean whatever is good and true, love of which (i.e. "philosophy") is what "love God with your whole heart" [Matthew 22.36-40] means to me, although that is not the only thing I mean by the word 'God', but far from the only thing. Wittgenstein says that it makes no sense to say that God is good (or not-good): the 'good' is [by definition] whatever God commands: God and the meter standard play the same role.

There is no right or wrong; there is only the Law, and the Laws are made by God (In the Bible, sometimes he will negotiate, however). -- That Wittgenstein's "100% Hebraic" notion of right and wrong. Nothing is inherently right or wrong -- i.e. 'right' and 'wrong' are simply other words for God's will. "... as gods knowing good and evil" -- i.e. as I read this story, by eating the fruit offered by the serpent man will himself become lawgiver.

That, however, is not the only sense in which Wittgenstein may have intended 'Hebraic', if indeed he intended it in that sense at all. [BACK]

Note 15:

The word 'god' in the Classical World

According to Gilson, in the Classical world the title 'god' was applied to anything that had power over the lives of human beings; and so a river was a god, an emperor [e.g. Augustus Caesar even while he was still alive] was a god, the weather was a god. (Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy (New Haven: 1941), p. 6ff) [BACK]

Note 16: I think the following means that much [if not most] of what we call "ancient history" of this region is not an account of what actually happened but speculation about what may have happened:

Two primary sources, archaeological and literary (biblical and extra-biblical), are available to the historian of Syro-Palestine, and these are supplemented by insights from geography, sociology, anthropology, historical linguistics, Egyptology, Assyriology, etc., each of which disciplines has developed independent methodologies. (Prior, p. 229)

Informed speculation is still speculation [remains speculation]. An account of what we may reasonably imagine may have happened. An account that is consistent with such facts as there are. But 'consistent', 'possible', does not mean "really" or actual [truth].

[Speculation remains speculation, the theories of scholars are still no more than imagination added to the facts [i.e. added to the believed to be known facts (which may be mistakes [delusions, even wishful thinking] and are always subject to [at the mercy of] further historical evidence); -- remember that there is no grammatical essence of the word 'fact' and also how Kant and Goethe saw facts; we hear the word 'fact' and assume we know "what is meant by that word", which is something that we certainly don't know without a grammatical investigation of the particular case] and theories should never be treated as if they were the facts themselves [never allowed to be substituted for the facts]. The theory is not the reality: even the cleverest theory about distant historical events is at best only a picture of a possible reality [of a possibility]: it may have been that way (which implies that it may also not have been that way).] [BACK]

Note 17: Were it not that in most cases this is done unthinkingly (as a confusion carried over from childhood), it would seem strange that human beings were willing to accept [some of] the Old Testament stories [narratives] as history [historiography], even ones that include fantastic events [prodigies] like the Parting of the Red Sea. -- As if we could simply eliminate the miraculous and what remained would be the history of actual events ["what really happened" (Thucydides)]. But if the miracles (e.g. the "parting" of the sea, the angel of the Lord's "passover" slaughter) are regarded as myths, then shouldn't the rest of the historical narrative (e.g. of the bondage in Egypt) also be regarded as myth (unless verified independently of the Bible)? That is to say, if the miracles are myth, then there is no reason to regard the rest of the narrative as anything other than myth as well.

If someone says that he believes in the bondage narrative as an historical fact but not in the story of Noah as an historical fact, what should we make of this? How does this person choose his "history"? "I believe that some events narrated in the bible really happened; that is my faith. But of course I don't believe in the fantastic stories told about the Greek gods; those stories are mythology." This is not an example of critical thinking -- but it is exactly how children are brought up in religion. Many human beings just do not ask, never learn to ask, questions.

What is lost if a biblical narrative is regarded [read] as a myth?

... as if history (in the sense of a record of what really happened) were the only literary genre worthy, or even capable of communicating religious truth. (Prior, p. 249)

As if Jesus's parables did not communicate religious truths.

Biblical scholarship says: Remember, it is not as if books were only ever written for one reason. And the Bible is a collection of books ("The Book of ...", "The Book of ..."). The books in a library are of various kinds (genres); even of historical narratives there are different kinds: historiography, historical fiction, fiction, legend, epic, allegory, myth (including fable: the teaching or educative myth). (cf. ibid. p. 270)

Remember, too, that language is not used only one way: what appears to be a statement of fact may only be a metaphor. So that when Yahweh says to destroy such-and-such a people it may only mean not to imitate those who do evil, and when Yahweh demands exclusivity he may, as Jesus does, be stating how anyone who wants to live and remain in the "Promised Land" ("Kingdom of God") must behave. The text may not intend to give a license to commit genocide or to persecute those who are not among the "chosen people" ("elect"). (cf. ibid. p. 262-263)

But can we say of the above reading [as metaphor] of the text: "That is the plain sense of the biblical narrative, and the way the text has been used" (ibid. p. 283)? No. Any text can be made inoffensive by reading it as a metaphor. There are fundamental differences between the world views of the New and Old Testaments (cf. ibid. p. 272). Parts of the Old Testament simply are exclusivist and exclusionist. Prior speaks of "rehabilitating the Bible", and suggests only this way to do so: "The Christian Church reads the Old Testament in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ" (p. 284). But this is a religious answer to the question, not a critical one [and, in any case, there are also texts of the New Testament whose doctrines need "rehabilitation", e.g. predestination ("the elect"), damnation]. Recall what Prior has already said, that as an answer to a critical question:

An assertion of faith is not an adequate response ... (ibid. p. 226n5).

Even a legendary history tells a story, and is it honest to say that the story's meaning is the opposite of a straightforward reading of the story -- i.e. that what is plainly ethnocentric [exclusive group identity] is actually universalist? Is not the "plain" reading of the Pentateuch that its god is like the gods of Greek mythology -- i.e. sometimes he commands that good be done, and sometimes he commands that evil be done, just as any very powerful man may do?

It is for us to judge God's commands by man's hard won standards of goodness, not for "God" -- i.e. the ancient authors of books -- to tell us that whatever these authors say God wills [commands] is good. As to this God's rewards to his faithful, I would rather be slaughtered with the Canaanites: better wronged than to do wrong. Morality doesn't come from the barrel of a gun ("might makes not right"). Whether the narratives are read as mythology or as historiography does not change this: that if God commands that wrong be done, then God is wrong; indeed, then God is not God.

But in saying this, am I simply taking the opposite view of "the good" to Wittgenstein's?

One or the other of these statements may be true, but not both [exclusive disjunction]: Either God is good, or everything that is said about God in the Bible is true. But dogmatic Christians want to have it both ways [conjunction]: God is good, and everything that is said about God in the Bible is true. But can the religious position be maintained without "rewriting" (i.e. re-reading, re-interpreting in a way that is not the "plain sense") the Bible -- i.e. reading the New Testament into the Old. Isn't that called "making a pretext of the text", reading the text according to a pre-established (PI § 107) interpretation?

Problems with "the Word of God" (Catholic Bible redaction)

The Catholic Church's solution is to maintain the conjunction but to exclude morally unacceptable texts from its liturgy ("the most solemn forum for the use of the sacred scriptures"), and so e.g. Numbers 21.2-3 (quoted above) is not among the "readings" from the Bible read during Mass (ibid. p. 273, 275). But, first, exclusion from the liturgy does not mean exclusion from the Bible: the texts remain there for anyone to read and "learn" (cf. ibid. p. 274) from: they remain "the Word of God" which must be accepted by all believers.

And, second, is this passing over in silence, rather than confronting the moral problem, honest or dishonest?

In practice ... church-going Catholics encounter virtually none of the land traditions which are offensive. (ibid. p. 275)

Roman Catholics, in my experience, actually know very little of the Old Testament. (I myself, despite many years of church going, never knew that such texts existed.) What would Catholics think if they knew about the "offensive" texts that they are obliged to believe in? There would be some troubled souls.

Would it not be more honest to say that God is good, and that not everything that is said in the Bible about God is true (which was Plato's view of Homer)? I can say this because I do not think we should try to "rehabilitate" the Bible, and if we do not read the Bible as "The Word of God" -- i.e. as "necessarily the truth" -- then there is no need to.

But this solution to the problem is no solution for the believer who wants to remain in the Catholic Church [It is like the irrelevance of Wittgenstein's logic of language to Socrates' problems]. But Schweitzer did not have -- or need to have in order to remain in his Church -- that type of religious faith: he regarded that type of faith as a pre-Enlightenment way of thinking. Belief in "revealed truths" belongs to the same age as belief in dreams as revealers of otherwise unknown truths [hidden realities].

Prior calls the way the advocates of colonialism have read -- and still read -- the Bible "naive". I know very little about Biblical scholarship. What I remember are two views that my teacher held: (1) that the Bible is a book for adults [i.e. understanding it requires mature thought (cf. the Apostle Paul's "... thought like a child")], and (2) that it is not biblical to call the Bible "holy". Professor Trudinger never explained his second statement to us. (This statement may be the origin of my conclusion on the next page.) [BACK]

Note 18: If all foundations are without foundation, then why not build on a religious foundation? Like Descartes' doubt of everything except his own existence, from which he will build up his system of beliefs [assertions]. How is dogmatic religion different?

Sacred scripture, the Bible e.g., might be the foundation of a life; it might be compared to a starting point, like Descartes' foundation. However, in the case of dogmatic religion, neither the content nor the consequences of the sacred text are required to be either self-consistent or consistent with beliefs [and methods of verification] that do not derive from [are not built on the foundation of] sacred scripture, such as beliefs about the history of ancient China, Portuguese grammar and particle physics. So, it is not so simple as just saying: "built on that foundation"; -- we have to look at how it is built (e.g. rationally or irrationally).

A sacred text that was as rational -- (Self-consistency as the sole standard: the "principle of contradiction" without regard to "standing up to the evidence of experience" [empirical evidence]) -- as the philosophy of Parmenides might be described. However, the Bible is not that text. At most the believer might say: I believe that the Bible is consistent even where I cannot prove that it is; and wherever it may appear inconsistent to me, this is because I do not understand it. Might someone not think this way? People do think that way. (At most, you might discourage this [type of thinking] or encourage it. (cf. LC p. 63-64))

But surely it cannot be acceptable to a student of philosophy merely to draw deductions from received principles, which is what basing one's life on the Bible amounts to [The Bible as axiomatic, which is its role in divine theology]. Philosophy does not merely draw deductions from received principles -- i.e. the student of philosophy must question the principles themselves, not merely question what can be derived from them. [BACK]

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