Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

The Christian Religion without Supernaturalism

Introduction: this is the third of three papers about the Philosophy of Religion. But all three concern different aspects of that subject. The first paper concerns the role of authority in religion (sacred scripture, as e.g. the Bible); the second is about Ludwig Wittgenstein's criticism of James Frazer's view of magic as a false science.

This third paper is very different from either of those. It makes use to the ideas of Albert Schweitzer and is written from the point of view of Wittgenstein's logic of language, but it arrives at views that are not those of either thinker, particularly in the final section. It might also be titled: "The life of Jesus seen without mythology and his ethical kingdom of God seen without eschatology", or "A secular reading of the Gospels -- that is, a reading independent of dogma or creed and the silencing of reason".

Related pages: Albert Schweitzer's Christianity, his rational view of religion, and his personal statements in youth and in The Philosophy of Civilization. (What I would regard as my most developed view of the religious world-picture, which is a fourth paper about the Philosophy of Religion.)

Outline of this page ...

The Christian Religion (according to Schweitzer, mostly)

Preliminary: somewhat by thinking about what Schweitzer and Wittgenstein said or wrote, somewhat by thinking about this for myself, this is where my thoughts about the Christian religion had arrived when I wrote this paper, now many years ago. Other thoughts about Christianity were to come much later, and even later, and finally later still (There is no place where someone's thinking is more subject to evolving than in religion).

"God created the world"

"God is love" or "God is the Father". That is one possibility, because if God was made in man's image, then He might have been made many different things from a tyrant to a glutton to a clown, rather than everything that is good and true and noble. But how is the concept 'God', that is, the word 'God' -- which like all words is a human tool -- if it is defined that way, useful to us (what can be done with -- to use a misleading form of expression -- "God so conceived")? It is language that seems to suggest something -- but what exactly does it suggest? Is it a solution to the riddle of existence, for example?

I believe the best way of describing [my experience] is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world.... [This] is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world. (Wittgenstein, "Lecture on Ethics", c. 1929-1930)

"God's love created the world." What can we do with this "picture"? [But "picture" in which sense of the word 'picture'? Certainly not in a visual sense -- and therefore why use the word 'picture' here?] Of what service is this combination of words? Can we deduce the nature of the world from it? Maybe these words are used to guide you in the manner in which you ought to live: live as the merciful Samaritan in the Jesus' story (Luke 10.25-37) lived.

Such words might possibility be useful as an ethical ideal to Schweitzer, but he never speculated about whether the world was created, and he did not regard the concept 'God' as an explanation of the nature of the natural world. And the riddle of existence is as much about the world's how-ness as it is about its that-ness (Wittgenstein's TLP 6.44, notwithstanding).

The Relationship of the God of Nature to the God Within Us

The God of Nature versus the God within the human heart. Which is the true face of God? If I am told: both, that God is both all-powerful and all-good, and that I just must live with this paradox, I can only reply: you are trying me beyond my strength. If it really is "both", then I would say that the concept 'God' is of no utility, at least not at my level of religious understanding. I simply do not believe there is any identification between the Ethical God and the God of Nature, that it is possible to reconcile Christianity's loving father with nature's capricious sadist. If there were divine providence, it would have to be exercised internally, not externally to the human heart, but I don't believe there is (divine providence is not random).

Those were my thoughts earlier. And now I have found my thoughts resemble Albert Schweitzer's in his Christianity and the Religions of the World, which was composed in 1923, when its author was then about of fifty years old (which was also about my age, although now many years ago), which follow.

An Ethical versus an Explanatory Religion

We, as Christians, have ceased to imagine that a living, ethical religion can be the logical outcome of "knowing the world". We are convinced that from the world we cannot gain our knowledge of God, who is an ethical Personality. Facing the terrible problem which the world presents, we strive hard not to despair of God. We dare to admit that the forces at work in Nature are in so many ways different from what we should expect them to be in a world which owes its origin to a perfect creative Will. We dare to admit that in Nature and in ourselves we find much that we feel to be evil. We ... feel that God cannot be "known", but must be grasped by that faith which says: "Nevertheless, I am continually with thee."

Religion is not a knowledge of the divine which springs from the contemplation of the universe. God, we believe, is more than merely the spiritual force underlying the world. Monism and pantheism, however profound and spiritual, do not lead into the ultimate problem of religion. That problem is, that in ourselves we experience God as different from the God we find in Nature: in Nature we recognize him only as impersonal creative Power, in ourselves we recognize Him as ethical Personality.

The mysterious contrast between God and the world, which we thus experience within ourselves, we take into our religion, as Jesus does in His Gospel. (Christianity and the Religions of the World, tr. Johanna Powers (1923; repr. New York: 1939), p. 54-55)

Every rational faith has to choose between two things: either to be an ethical religion or to be a religion that explains the world. We Christians choose the former, as that which is of higher value. We turn away from the logical, self-contained religion. To the question, how can a man be in the world and in God at one at the same time, we find this answer in the Gospel of Jesus: "By living and working in this world as one who is not of the world."

Thus we no longer rely on the bridges formed by ordinary logical thought. Our path leads into the region of naïveté and of paradox.... We hold to the absolutely and profoundly ethical religion as to the one thing needful, though philosophy may go to rack and ruin. That which appears to be naïveté in Christianity is in reality its profundity. (ibid. p. 70-71)

Now, am I willing to say that about philosophy? No.

The Contrast between God and the World

"Paradox" was the word that had suggested itself to me. However, with the expression "ordinary logical thought" -- as if there were some other kind of thought (which was illogical but nonetheless not nonsense), -- I think Schweitzer is talking nonsense. The question is: why identify the God who is "an impersonal creative Power" with the God who is an "ethical Personality"? I.e. of what usefulness to us is the concept '[the natural world's] creative Power' if we find no way to connect that to our concept 'ethical Personality'?

Does not what Schweitzer calls Jesus' answer -- "By living and working in this world as one who is not of the world" mean: we must live in accordance with the ethical kingdom of God that we find within in our hearts, recognizing at the same time that we do not belong to the natural world -- i.e. that the values of "this world" and our values are not the same? [Ethics versus Values: unlike man, Nature does not know good and evil (Genesis 3.5)] But doesn't that involve saying that God's values [on the one hand natural, and on the other hand ethical] both are [in the case of the ethical] and are not [in the case of the natural] the same as our values -- and consequently that God both is and is not good?

What to do with this Contradiction

Taken out of context (In context they describe the repentance necessary to enter the kingdom of God, which is that one must love the just and the unjust with the same impartiality that God does) the natural reading of the words "He sends his rain upon the just and the unjust alike" (Matthew 5.45) is that: the God of Nature is indifferent to right and wrong. It is indeed loving [and good in the Greek way (The good man neither harms nor wishes harm to anyone): "My brother has wronged me, but I must not wrong him in return" (Epictetus)] to never return bad for bad; however, we cannot also say that it is loving [good] to return bad for good ("sending rain upon the just") either.

What would the world to be like if the God of Nature were the same as the ethical personality within us? That is found in a myth -- because it is not reality -- from the prophet Isaiah:

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb ... And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. [The baby shall play by the cobra's den, and the child shall lay his hand on the adder's lair.] They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountains: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.6-9, quoted by Schweitzer in The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity (1968), p. 7)

Kant spoke of "the starry sky above and the moral law within". -- But if that moral law is written on the human heart by God Himself, then why are we revolted, not only by natural events, but also by human wrong doing and by so much of what the authors of the Bible say about God? The question of why the same moral law is not found within by all human beings is not a question that can be avoided: when Kant speaks of "the moral law within", when Schweitzer says that "in ourselves we experience God as different from the God we find in Nature" -- who exactly are they talking about?

When David Hume called those human beings who lacked what he said were the sentiments common to humanity -- "monsters" (dysfunctions of nature), he made nothing clearer. He simply surrendered in his attempt to find the foundation of ethics in common sentiment ("feeling") rather than in authority or in reason or something else. (What are the implications if dysfunction is not an accident in nature?)

What do we mean by 'religious faith'?

If one wishes to speak of religion, one must start from it .... [Faith] is not found at the conclusion of any philosophical reasoning. (Etienne Gilson, The Philosopher and Theology (1962) p. 109-110)

However, upon reflection [the "reflections inspired by a thoughtful philosophy"] should one not, even if one does not demand that one's religion be consistent with experience, at least demand that one's religion be self-consistent (logical)? This is not basing religion on philosophy, but it is subjecting religion to a philosophical critique (the critical use of reason). But suppose that demand cannot be met? I don't think that anyone would surrender his religious faith because of it; it would not be called faith otherwise. Schweitzer wrote in 1931:

Whatever our point of view the world will remain for us an enigma. (Out of my Life and Thought, tr. Lemke (1990), Chapter 18, p. 204)

How individuals respond to this enigma (which we call "the riddle of existence") varies: there are several divergent "forms of life" here. I wrote earlier (for the present page is a continuation of thoughts about Wittgenstein's "The good is whatever God commands"):

Faith is the subject of the Book of Job, the man of faith -- not of "faith in the existence of God", but of faith in God's goodness. And given all that Job had suffered, his faith was indeed not consistent with his experience of life (As Job's wife said to him: "What's left for you now, except to curse God and die").

However, I myself cannot accept a counter-factual belief -- i.e. belief in the goodness of the God of Nature despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no place in my life where I am able [temperamentally] to say: "Here I do not use reason" -- meaning, not that much of what I do is not done for any reason, but that there is nothing that I am willing not to subject to philosophical criticism. There is no place in my life where I would want to say: Here I do not use reason. That is my "form of life".

"Why must we do what is good?"

That is not a question; it is instead nonsense. By the definition of the word 'good' used by ethics, whatever the moral good is, that is what we must do. We cannot ask for the justification of this "rule of grammar" as if we were asking for the justification of a statement of fact. (That is a fundamental confusion found in metaphysics (Wittgenstein, Z § 458).) What we can ask is: what is the good for man? (Here there are two kinds of goods to ask about: natural good and moral good. The Greek answer is that the good for a thing is the life that is consonant-consistent with the excellence that is proper and unique to that thing, which Socrates identifies as rational moral virtue.)

We must love because we are convinced, if we are convinced of this, that love is for mankind the highest good, as it says in the Gospels: "to love God with one's whole heart and to love one's neighbor as one loves oneself in an neighborhood without boundaries". On one account of ethics (and the Socratic account of ethics is very different), this has for us the logical status of an irrational "categorical imperative": we do not justify this conviction: "it is not found at the end of any line of philosophical argument"; although any proposition can be justified by other propositions, that is not the foundation of this conviction, which has no foundation but which instead serves as the foundation for other propositions. It is an axiom of our ethics; it is -- from the point of view of logic, that is, -- where we begin, regardless of at what point in our lives we may have come to accept it.

Was Job's conviction of that type? It did not stand or fall to evidence, but was, despite any arguments or evidence to the contrary, the foundation of all his thinking. The foundations of our lives do not themselves have foundations:

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 ... (Wittgenstein, CV p. 83)

"Love is for man the highest good." Question: but what has that to do with God? I.e. where does our concept 'God' connect up with this? "The way you use the word 'God' shows not whom you mean -- but instead what you mean" (CV p. 50, a remark from 1946, although Wittgenstein himself to the very end of his life always used anthropomorphic forms of expression as if he did mean "whom"). But to identify God with love or with truth and goodness seems to me to say nothing at all: God simply falls out of the consideration by virtue of being an unnecessary addition to it (a superfluous concept); this is Ockham's razor. God may be a Creator [or the Ruler of Nature or Providence] or God may be a judge -- but a God who has no task to perform is simply superfluous (the word 'God' mere sound).

Someone who replies "God works within us" has said nothing for which criteria for truth or falsity can be invented (cf. "A dream is not slight evidence; it is no evidence at all" (LC ii, p. 61)). Altruism is a fact of nature, but so is selfishness. To call altruism God working within us, does not account for selfishness -- but it does return us to the God of Nature -- but as the creator also of human nature, of the impulse we find in our heart to all that is true and good and noble -- and our desire for those rather than the impulses towards vice we find there as well. (The Holy Spirit versus the spirit of this world and all it loves. God is not silent in us.)

If "God within us" is a picture of God's existence that it is impossible to verify -- the picture of the God of Nature is not. Not, that is, if we are willing to state empirical conditions -- "God is known by the things he has made" -- for determining the nature of the God of Nature. The world might have been other than it is (We can describe many an alternative how-ness for it), but the world that actually exists reveals only a God who is creative, not one who is a moral personality. In that sense we are not made in the image and likeness of God, of the God of Nature, that is.

Indeed, the God of Christianity bears no resemblance to the god of Nature and not much to "the God of the philosophers and schoolmen".

The Person of Jesus

For me it is enough to regard Jesus as a teacher, as the religious master of sorts, at least in that many of his words are applicable to our ethical world-picture and, I believe, also for Schweitzer (but only in the sense that we cannot share Jesus' world-picture and so the Amen cannot always come before He speaks, for Schweitzer wrote that Jesus "was not a teacher ... He was an imperious ruler", but a too historical Jesus may also be offensive to our moral and religious sense). But maybe for Wittgenstein it was not enough: "I can understand it when [Jesus] is called [God] ..... If he did not rise from the dead, then ... he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and we are once more orphaned and alone." (CV p. 33, a remark from 1937). The title 'religious teacher' is nonsense if there is no religion to teach, and is not the Christian religion about the relationship between God and the world and mankind (Jesus said to call God our Father)? Schweitzer did, in some sense, believe in God -- i.e. he found the concept 'God' serviceable, whereas, once I grammar strip (if by 'concept' we mean 'rules for using a word') it of everything anthropomorphic (as I must), is there anything worthwhile left that I can do with it? Well, we mean countless things by the word 'God', as e.g. the sense that life has, although unknown, a meaning, and that it is a good rather than an evil meaning; that too is 'faith in God'. One Christian religious faith is that despite the appearances, reality is as Jesus said it is, and "metaphysics" of that kind is also what we mean by the word 'God', as is the faith Schweitzer describes, that the God of Nature is somehow (who knows how) the same as the Ethical God.

"Two kinds of naivete"

There are two kinds of naïveté: one that is not yet aware of all the problems and has not yet knocked at all the doors of knowledge; and another, a higher kind, which is the result of philosophy having looked into all problems, having sought counsel in all the spheres of knowledge, and then having come to see that we cannot explain anything but have to follow convictions whose inherent value appeals to us in an irresistible way. (Christianity and the Religions of the World, p. 71-72)

The highest knowledge is to know that we are surrounded by mystery. (ibid. p. 78)

So in the end, on the non-Socratic account of ethics, we are left with nothing but ethical conviction? Given the logic of our language [our method of reasoning], could it be otherwise? The foundations of our lives cannot themselves have foundations (There is no bedrock beneath the bedrock). Solzhenitsyn in his Nobel Lecture asked: why do you persist in denying what your heart can't deny? Refusing to accept one's conviction that absolute good and evil (i.e. categorical imperatives) exist -- simply does violence to the human heart. Regardless of what the rest of Nature may be, man is -- and this is a fact of Nature -- an ethical being. Were it true that "morality comes from the barrel of a gun", what we call 'morality' -- i.e. that concept -- would not exist, because it would be indefinable (A dog does not have morality; it accepts whatever it is trained to do. What a dog does is amoral, but it is impossible for what a human being does to be other than moral or immoral). "I choose to do what is wrong because I have the power to do whatever I like" is already a confession of recognizing right and wrong, good and evil (and in Socratic ethics it is irrational, because there virtue is knowledge).

The Identification Made by Faith: the God of Nature = the God of Ethics we find within us

... Christianity, as the most profound religion, is to me at the same time the most profound philosophy. (Christianity and the Religions of the World, p. 82)

The God who is known through philosophy ["the First Cause of Being, as He manifests Himself in nature"] and the God whom I experience as an ethical Will do not coincide. They are one; but how they are one, I do not understand. (ibid. p. 74)

I want to say that Schweitzer's "I do not understand" is self-mystification, "bewitchment by means of language" (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 109), word magic. But suppose it were replied: the limit of sense and nonsense is concept formation (i.e. the invention of followable rules), and that by 'I do not understand' Schweitzer means: I cannot find a conception, a way of looking at things, a "theory", that will solve [dissolve] this riddle for me? The riddle exists because Schweitzer identifies these two pictures [facets] of God. -- But that identification is an act of religious faith; in Schweitzer's thinking it is an axiom [foundation]. How?

God as the will to love

All living Christianity is pantheistic, since it regards everything that exists as having its origin in the source of all being. But at the same time all ethical piety is superior to any pantheistic mysticism, in that it does not find the God of love in nature, but knows about Him only from the fact that He announces Himself in us as the will to love. The First Cause of Being, as He manifests Himself in nature, is to us always impersonal. To the First Cause of Being that is revealed to us in the will to love, however, we relate as to an ethical personality.... the idea of love is the spiritual ray of light that reaches us from the infinite ... (Out of my Life and Thought (1990), Epilogue, p. 241, 240)

Love is part of what has its origin in "the First Cause of Being". (To state that is simply to note the interconnection of concepts. The statement is tautological, but a tautology may serve as an axiom, and maybe as a statement of faith [I don't know].)

To keep the God of Nature is to answer the riddle of existence [which would be the picture of God as "the First Cause of Being", which, I think, means: the ultimate cause of all that is], but to keep the God of Nature is to lose ethics [The values displayed by so much of the natural world, being cruel and bloody, are not the values of Christianity, nor of the good man, for "the good man harms no one and makes even his enemies better" (Plato, Republic 335e).]

"... is to answer the riddle of existence." But what kind of answer is it? Does it not simply replace the riddle of existence with the riddle of God? Because the God of Nature, if He is known by His creation, is amoral -- and as human beings who believe that we are made in His image precisely because we have a moral conscience, that makes Him "incomprehensible" to us -- i.e. it makes the concept 'God' useless as a tool for understanding anything. (But Wittgenstein himself did not agree that it is useless.)

"We must accept that we live in the midst of mystery." But the mystery is not made clearer by introducing the picture of a Nature God to that mystery: it simply adds a mystery to a mystery. It makes nothing clearer. On the other hand its absence makes nothing clearer either.

Where is the kingdom of God?

The Delphic commandment "Know thyself" contrasts with the Biblical commandment "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not". That is the contrast between Greek philosophy and religion: reason versus authority, freedom (within the limits of reason only) versus obedience (without limits, as shown by Abraham). The religion of Jesus may, as Schweitzer says, require thought about the kingdom of God, but it nevertheless ends in faith: it demands theological thinking (thinking within the limits of an externally imposed world-picture), not philosophical thinking. On the other hand, it cannot end in dogma (and the silencing of reason) according to Schweitzer.

"Religion within the limits of reason alone" is no religion.

From an ethical point of view: why or how is monotheism superior to polytheism? I do not see it. If we are unable to recognize the God of Nature as the ethical God within us, then why not say that there are two Gods? And indeed a dualism based on the opposition of Good and Evil was a common view in antiquity, going back to Zarathustra. Why has it fallen from favor? It has at the very least this to recommend itself, it is not unreasonable: it does not present us with contradictions, the notion of a God who is at once amoral, immoral and moral. Dualism had been Augustine's view before his conversion (The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity p. 41).

Therefore one cannot say that Schweitzer's Christianity was somehow reason alone without faith. Making that identification -- of God as Nature with God as ethical Personality -- was an act of faith.

Should doing what is good (Socrates) always be characterized as an act of love (Jesus)? What is gained (made clearer) by this characterization? Maybe that it connects Jesus to Socrates in their moral universalism. On the other hand, the world-pictures of Socrates and Jesus were very different. One demands self-sacrifice, the other self-control. There is a profound disconnection here: both Jesus and Socrates demand that we think and try to understand, but only Jesus adds (for example): you must think about the meaning of my words, if you are able to understand them, but you must never question whether God, our Father, is the author of all good.

This world cannot be transformed into the kingdom of God without a transformation of human nature, the human weed in Voltaire's garden. But human nature cannot be transformed without some loss of our humanity: we would cease to be man as we know man, having been made "like the angels" (stripped of all human imperfection, death and disease), which is what man would be in Jesus' supernatural Messianic Kingdom of God. (Of course that is not the Socratic view of this question: "Know thyself", for man becomes more human, less beast-like [Man is born a beast but may become human], by living in accord with the excellence that is proper to man. The only human imperfection is ignorance: the darkness we wander in is our condition -- but is it not essential to our nature.)

Rather than speaking of "salvation" -- which is an idea that plays no role in my thinking about life: it is not a picture that has any place in my thoughts (although I could give it one such place if I wished) -- in the Philosophy of Religion pages, I should have written: If someone acts always from love, then he already lives in the kingdom of God (if the verse is rendered "The kingdom of God is within you") -- what, then, could life after death accomplish? If we love, we are already one with the God who is an ethical Personality. But as I did write there: that is not the only hope many or most Christians have: their faith is in a Creator (the God of Nature), who can answer for them the question of the riddle of their existence, let them see their loved ones again, and give them eternal life. (The notion of happiness beyond the grave is not a simple one to figure out: Augustine's "perfect possession of the greatest good" is not something one can imagine/picture.)

The Delphic precept "Know thyself" -- What does it mean? "The kingdom of God is within you." -- What does it mean? Are there most important questions to ask than these.

The word 'Heaven' (in contrast to 'the heavens') is not the name of a place. Its grammar is not that of a location-word. By the word 'Heaven' you say what, not where, you mean. (cf. "The way you use the word 'God' shows not whom you mean ...") However, Jesus and Paul made no distinction between the words 'Heaven' and 'the heavens'; their world-picture is not ours.

"My kingdom is not of this world" means for Jesus that our present world is not his kingdom, but, rather, his kingdom is our world transformed as it soon shall be into the supernatural kingdom of God. That is according to Schweitzer's reading of Jesus' eschatology, which unlike the creed of the Church, does not push the kingdom of God off into the future indefinite and indifferent or to "up there" in Heaven.

"The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17.20-21) is the old translation, found e.g. in the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible. -- But now the official Catholic translation is "The kingdom of God is in the midst of you", which in an obvious sense is false: it would make no sense to answer the question "Where?" by saying "It is already here". But on the other hand, "in your midst" can be taken to mean "within you": If you want to know where the kingdom of God is, look within your own heart; for if you do not find it there, you will not find it elsewhere either. On the other hand, "in your midst" may simply mean: its appearance is imminent: "Can't you read the signs of the times?" (Matthew 16.3, Luke 12.56) The transformation of this world into the supernatural kingdom of God is happening even as Jesus speaks: "Repent! for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4.17).

But we do not live in Jesus' world; we do not live in expectation of the imminent appearance of the supernatural kingdom of God. What can those words mean for us, then? Schweitzer wrote:

We have constantly to remember the inexorable law, that we can only bring so much of the Kingdom of God into the world as we possess within us. (From The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle [1931 tr., p. 389], quoted by Joy in Albert Schweitzer, An Anthology (1956), p. 112)

"Already within you"

Adding the word 'already' to Luke 17.21 -- Would "God announces himself within us as the will to love" be the meaning of "the kingdom of God already within you" (which is Paul Glynn's rendering of the Greek)? But what of Jesus' strange words in reply to the question of when the kingdom of God will come [ibid. 20]? As if to say, you will know when it will come, if you look within yourself, because the kingdom of God is "already within you", which suggests that willing to love ["love-doing" by analogy from 'wrong-doing'] is the kingdom of God, not only the mark of belonging to it. Would the Lord's Prayer's "thy kingdom come" then be the call by the prayer to himself to love?

But, [to use Plato's form of expression in Parmenides 135b-c], "then what becomes of", "what are you going to do about" eschatology? Which is the kingdom of God: a condition of heart ["one thinks with the mind and loves with the heart" is a form of expression that does not recommend itself to clear thinking about the logic of our language] -- or this world supernaturally transformed by God into his kingdom of love? If an individual lives Jesus' ethics of love, that individual belongs to the kingdom of God -- but that could, at most, only mean that the kingdom of God has come in the particular, not in general sense, for the whole of "this world" has not be transformed into the kingdom, "this world" so full of disease ["the mystery of pain"] and hatred. Or is it that loving can hasten the coming of the kingdom (as, according to Schweitzer, Jesus either says or his words suggest), as if to say: sooner will God bring his kingdom to replace this world if he sees that you love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself, which you "already have it within yourself" to do?

The world-picture of the historical Jesus cannot be ours

... theological science at the end of the nineteenth century was forced to admit that the ethical religion of Jesus shared the supernatural ideas of late-Jewish belief in the messianic kingdom, and indeed that it also shared with it its expectation of the approaching end of the world. Here it becomes clear that there is no purely historical foundation for religion. We must take the ethical religion of Jesus out of the setting of his world-view and put it in our own. Whereas he expected the kingdom of God to come at the end of the world, we must endeavor, under the influence of the spirit of his ethical religion, to make the kingdom of God a reality in this world by works of love. (Albert Schweitzer, "Religion in Modern Civilization" (1934), appended to Seaver (1947), p. 337)

You can see that there is in my heart a voice that obeys Jesus -- you see it here, before your eyes, entirely before your eyes. Who was it that built this hospital? It was not the doctor by himself. The doctor has only built because the Lord Jesus told him, "You must love all the people here in Gabon and you must take care of them." This hospital is therefore a village of the Kingdom of Jesus. Therefore all of you who come to this hospital need not ask, "But is it true that there is a Kingdom of Jesus?" You see it before you, the Kingdom of Jesus. (7 December 1930 "The Second Sunday of Advent" in The African Sermons (2003), tr. Melamed, p. 129)

... the mission of Jesus was to enable every man to discover the Kingdom of God in himself. (quoted by Norman Cousins in Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné (1960), p. 124)

There are many religions that are called 'Christian'. Anything we might say about the Christian religion per se is said from a point of view. But of points of view there are many.

The Wonder World of the New Testament

Man cannot make use of electric light and the wireless, and, in the event of sickness, have recourse to modern medical and clinical aids, and at the same time believe in the wonder world of the New Testament. (Rudolf Bultmann [1884-1976], quoted in Werner Picht's The Life and Thought of Albert Schweitzer, tr. Fitzgerald (1964), p. 240)

None of us believes that it is possible to walk on water, anymore than we believe that it is possible for Tibetan monks to levitate. This is not to deny that some may be holy, spiritual, even saintly men, but we don't believe that they can raise themselves off the ground by meditating. Claims of levitation can be seen as hyperbole. He is so spiritual that he could levitate, if that is, men could levitate, which of course they can't. (But maybe I am just replacing one myth with another, as in "When they say x [miracle], what they really mean is y [hyperbole]".)

But all this is as if the Gospels had been written in our times. But they were written by men who believed that God could reveal the truth to them in dreams and moments of inspiration, even the truth about historical events: God revealed to me that Jesus said such and such words and did such and such deeds in his life among us. (I was not present nor was this told me by anyone who was or had spoken to anyone who was; God revealed this to me directly.)

Aren't there people who believe that the miracle stories are historiography (accounts of "what really happened"? What does it mean to say that someone believes that Jesus really walked on the water? Did the artists of the Italian Renaissance believe that they were portraying an actual event? I don't know; they may but they need not have. What consequences does such a belief have in the way the believer lives his life? It may not have any, but what consequences does believing that the Battle of Waterloo was in 1815 have for how you live your life?

Rather than saying "Man cannot", Bultmann should have said "Some men do not" -- i.e. these two "forms of life", one credulous, one scientific -- are inconsistent; however, many an individual human being's thoughts just are inconsistent.

There are at least two possibilities I can think of, although there may be many more. First:

What is to be done with Jesus' miracles, transfiguration and resurrection in the Bible? Nothing is to be done with them. They are to be left alone. [Note 1] There is no explanation for them that will ever satisfy us. The writers of the Gospels did not think as we think, but in a way we cannot appropriate (e.g. we do not believe that a dream or "inspiration" can reveal history to us; that is utterly foreign to our world-picture). There is, on this view, no way to find "the historical Jesus": we can find only Jesus in the Gospels, and they are already religion, already a religious interpretation of who Jesus was (even the Synoptic Gospels). At most we can try to place the Gospels in their historical context.

But on the other hand:

The miracles are only a problem [riddle for us] if they are regarded as historiography [an account of "what really happened", although that may be, as in the view above, what the authors of the Gospels believed them to be], which of course they are not. They are stories that all might begin "Once upon a time", as might Jesus' parables. The miracles as hyperbole: if there were a man who was the perfect expression of God's love, that man would be able to do these things, to make the lame to walk, the blind to see, our dead loved ones to live again. [Note 2]

It no disparagement of Jesus to say that when he spoke of "the merciful Samaritan" and of "Lazarus at the gate", he was not recounting historical events. It would have been absurd for anyone to have responded to Jesus' story of the prodigal son by saying, "What was his family's name; in which town did they live? I think I may know them." (Stories are told for many reasons.)

Stories are told for many reasons, not only to record historical events. Myths can impart religious truth (as the Parables do), and fairy tales can contain all sorts of absurdities. Wittgenstein's different kinds of language games comparison can be applied here. Storytelling consists of a variety of "games" (where what defines a game is its rules).

That is different from saying that everything said about Jesus is necessarily "once upon a time", however. From an historical point of view (historiography), it does seem clear, or "reasonable to say", at least that: Two thousand years ago there lived in Palestine a man whom we know by the Greek-Latin name "Jesus", who was addressed as "teacher", and who died in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilot by being crucified. His teaching often was in the form of story telling (parables), and whatever we know of his existence, life and words (although there also appear to be many interpolations) comes from the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. Beyond that, we know that his picture of the ethical kingdom of God and the love that is necessary to enter it, has lost none of its the power to change the direction of some men's lives. Although for some, e.g. Wittgenstein, Christianity is a religion about being redeemed from their sins or sense of their own sinfulness, and that is what draws them to Jesus. There are, of course, Biblical scholars -- Schweitzer e.g. -- who believe that we can know much more than that about the historical Jesus.

But, on the other hand, what do we mean when we say that an account is "reasonable"? For what I said was reasonable above has all been disputed. ("Proved beyond a reasonable doubt" means proved beyond any objective doubt -- i.e. any doubt that can be proved or refuted, either by the evidence or by the test of contradiction, one way or the other. What Isaac Newton called "hypotheses" are not objective. Nor is what we are inclined to find plausible or implausible.)

History [Historiography] and the New Testament: The Origin of Miracles

[Observing that the type of fantastic events narrated in Homer were no longer occurring in the present age, it] was inevitable that the question should be asked: can we believe the epic poets and take all they tell us for literal fact? (J.B. Bury, The Ancient Greek Historians (1908))

... the principle of Rationalist historians: that what was possible once is possible still, and what is incredible now is incredible always. (ibid.)

It was not inevitable; nothing philosophical is bound to happen. Was it a philosophical insight -- or was it simply an expression of confusion about the various reasons stories are told?

Of the second and third persons to tell (i.e. retell) the miracle stories of the Gospels, we might say that those persons were credulous. But what of the first person to tell those stories? What was his intent -- e.g. was he a myth-inventor or was he someone who told lies about history? Did his hearers understand his stories as myths [fables] or as history? Were those ancient hearers more aware of the various uses of stories than we are? They needn't have been less. Were the miracle stories originally intended to be understood as historiography -- an account of "what really happened" -- or at least an account of what "must" have happened, given that Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah? ('Christ' is the Hellenistic Greek word for the Hebrew word 'Messiah'; the words 'Jesus Christ' mean, or originally meant, 'Jesus Messiah'.)

We call anyone who believes in phantastic stories credulous -- but what do we the call the inventor of those stories? Did the earliest Homeric poets believe that the gods had done this, that, and so on? We know that even before the time of Plato, Homer could be accused of telling falsehoods about the gods; but did Plato believe that the stories in Homer make claim to be historiography? (What, an historiography of the gods? -- I don't think so! But Plato's Euthyphro did.) Yes, what of the first person to tell the miracle stories -- what was his intent?

Bruno Bauer [Note 3]: there was no historical Jesus; Jesus never existed. cf. Homer's Odyssey: the character of Odysseus is credible, compelling; one might easily believe that there must have been an actual human being behind Homer's fantastic tale; -- but there is no "must" about it; there need not have been an historical Odysseus. Need Jesus ever have existed? There is no evidence [there are no secular sources of confirmation] apart from the New Testament that he did. Do I believe in miracles or magic, that someone can make the blind see and the lame walk, or raise the dead? Thus why should I believe that the rest -- i.e. the non-phantastic parts -- of the story actually happened? The only answer is Schweitzer's: the thesis that Jesus never existed makes it more, not less difficult to account for the existence of the Gospels and of the early Church. (Bauer also argued that the Apostle Paul never existed.)

"Naturalism". What is amazing to me is not that this type of explanation of the miracles was invented, but that anyone ever found it compelling [satisfying]. "There was fog along the lake's bank and that is why Jesus appeared to his disciples, who were credulous men, being of course uneducated fishermen, to be walking on the water." That type of explanation of the miracles, in my view, trivializes the Gospels, as does alluding to various mass-psychological phenomena to account for them.

Bultmann: we cannot believe in "the wonder world of the New Testament". But it is only a wonderland if the stories of the New Testament are all regarded [read] as historiography -- or if any of them is regarded as necessarily historiography. The Bible only needs to be demythologized if we ourselves first mythologize it. One need not start out by believing that the story of the Wise Men in the Gospel according to Matthew is historiography -- and then later reject that view: one might recognize it as a story (not a myth if the word 'myth' suggests deprecation, as if the only use we made of the word 'myth' were to mean 'untruth') from the start, just as one so recognizes the parables as stories right from the start. What we cannot believe in is Jesus' world-picture of the imminence of the supernatural kingdom of God, because clearly it was not imminent [The "cannot" here is logical impossibility, if we use the word 'imminent' the way we normally do, and there is no reason to use it any other way; by 'soon' we do not mean 'in the long term' nor do we mean 'time as seen from the perspective of God' (whatever that is when it's at home)]; Jesus was mistaken, as were his disciples, the early Church and all who shared his eschatological expectation.

If the Gospel story of the Wise Men, or of the shepherds on Christmas Eve, is "only" a story, then why shouldn't the miracles be likewise only stories?

In contrast to a Christian religion, Jesus' serviceable ideas, his ethic of love, his picture of the kingdom of God, the story of his life and death, do not require the authority of the person of Jesus, nor even his ever having existed (cf. Recollections of Wittgenstein (1984), p. 101). The good is compelling in itself, whether found in history or in myth.


Philosophy is all about trying to put the question marks deep enough down -- i.e. all the way down. (CV p. 62: "One keeps forgetting to go right down to the foundations. One doesn't put the question marks deep enough down.")

The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 129)

My Own "Conclusion"

The kingdom of God is within you, or it is nowhere. Either God lives in you, or God does not live at all. Is that a metaphor? It is a picture, but one which may be profound, because by 'God', whatever else we may mean, we mean: the perspective of eternity, the perspective of being in but not of this world. It is Jesus' kingdom of God without supernaturalism. The author of the Acts of the Apostles has Paul say in the discourse at Athens:

God made all men to seek Him, that perhaps by groping their way [towards Him] they might find him, although He is not in fact far from any of us. (Acts 17.27)

The question is, that if the only place one finds God is within oneself, then is 'God' anything more than another name for one's moral sense (which includes our sense of piety or reverence and the perspective of wisdom as well)?

What does it mean to call Schweitzer's hospital an outpost of the kingdom of God? We cannot say that Schweitzer's thought was philosophy rather than religion; it was not "reason alone", nor did Schweitzer imagine it to be. He wrote [c. 1925-1928] to Oskar Kraus:

To your assertion that I do not make a sufficiently sharp distinction between religious and philosophic thinking I can only reply that this has, I think, always been characteristic of me. (Albert Schweitzer: His work and his philosophy, tr. McCalman (1944), p. 71)

"Religion within the limits of reason alone"? We might ask as well about "religion within the limits of language alone". That question might make the limits of Wittgenstein's TLP clearer to us: religion and the vastness of what cannot be put into words (about religion as it is lived). Of course that vastness is not rational ("discourse of reason") and therefore it is not philosophy.

Belief in the supernatural is not rational, and it is excluded by "religion within the limits of reason alone", although not by a description of religion without the limits of reason alone.

Note 1: This note is a radical extension of Martin Luther's position:

The Gospels follow no order in recording the acts and miracles of Jesus, and the matter is not, after all, of much importance. If a difficulty arises in regard to Holy Scripture and we cannot solve it, we must just let it alone. (Quoted by Werner Picht from [p. 13 of the English translation of] Schweitzer's Quest [see Note 3 below], p. 270n14)

Luther's way may be one way that someone is able to keep the faith: by not expecting there to be an answer to every religious question, by being willing not to understand. That is not, however, the only way, and it was not the way that Schweitzer had learned from his father.

[Albert Schweitzer's] father represented the position that Christianity was a religion men could understand with their minds and could affirm with their hearts. (Marshall, Poling)

"... could understand with their minds". -- The Enlightenment insistence on the use of critical reason causes the miracles -- if they are read as historiography -- to be an unnecessary obstacle for many human beings who might otherwise be drawn to the ideas of Jesus' -- i.e. to his ethic of love and picture of the kingdom of God. "Let us recite the mystery of faith ..." the priest says in the Mass. -- But are "mysteries of faith" essential to our picture of Jesus, or only to the doctrines of the early Church which had lost faith, due to its not happening, in the imminent return of Jesus and arrival of the kingdom of God?

When Jesus says "my yoke is light", Schweitzer applies this to burdening men with dogma. Schweitzer did not want human beings to "keep the faith" in the sense of silencing thought about dogma -- but in the sense of living according to Jesus' ethic of love. If a thoughtful man could not say "Thy kingdom come" and "... as we forgive those who have wronged us", would it be clear what he meant by calling himself a Christian? But why must a Christian believe in -- i.e. recite, mouth -- a verbal formula, an "articles of faith", that makes no difference to the way he lives -- and which, in any case, he does not understand?

Can one be a follower of Jesus if one does not share the eschatology of Jesus' own world-picture? As in many other instances, this is where I want to say "in some sense a Christian, and therefore also in some sense not a Christian", and I would apply that both to Schweitzer and to Wittgenstein, who seem to me to stand, in their attitudes towards religion, near opposite poles of Christianity. [BACK]

Note 2: The solution to the problem of miracles in David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874):

All unexplainable, supernatural events are regarded as mythical components of the sources and as such they have no place in an historical presentation. This bars the way both to their rationalistic explanation and to their supernatural interpretation, but it permits their interpretation as symbols of religious significance. (Werner Picht, tr. Fitzgerald, p. 214)

But, on the other hand, if we remove the supernatural interpretation, then haven't we done away with the religion, as we most often use the word 'religion'? One doesn't believe in history: historical facts are not a matter of faith. Remove the supernatural from Christianity, and we no longer have a Christian religion -- if, of course, by 'religion' we mean beliefs about essentially supernatural or mystical things -- i.e. about things which are outside human experience. Then we only have the history of the man Jesus' life, not the story of Christ. This belongs to why I said I think it is impossible to remove the miracles from the Gospels: because the Gospels are already religion; the miracles are not an addition; they are not an add-on to the narrative, but are essential to it; they are offered as proofs to the messengers of John the baptizer who had come to ask Jesus if he was "the one who is to come" (Luke 7.20-22), although Jesus says that John himself is that one, implying the Jesus is the Messiah (ibid. 7.27). There is no possibility of extracting [recovering] an historical Jesus from the Gospels without doing away with religion as belief in supernatural doctrine, which is what Christianity has traditionally been (although it wasn't of course for Albert Schweitzer). So it seems.

I myself view the miracles as on the same level as the parables about the kingdom of God, because of course in that kingdom there are neither blind nor lame to be cured, and Jesus is the one God has chosen to bring in that kingdom. (My view, however, does not have its origin in historiography but only in my own reflections about what for me their place is in my picture of Jesus Christ.) [BACK]

Note 3: Bruno Bauer (1809-1882): "There was never an historical personality Jesus." (Quoted by Werner Picht, p. 213)

About Bauer Schweitzer wrote: "For us the great men are not those who solved the problems, but those who discovered them. Bauer's Criticism of the Gospel History [1841-1842] is ... the ablest and most complete collection of the difficulties of the Life of Jesus which is anywhere to be found." (The Quest of the Historical Jesus [1906], tr. W. Montgomery (1910), p. 159)

Bauer came to see, not only theology, but also Christianity itself as "the false expression of truth", and to hate it for being this (Picht, p. 213). On the other hand, one might instead speak of his love of the truth rather than of his hatred of falsehood. [BACK]

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. 2nd revised edition. Last revised: 20 June 2010 : 2010-06-20 (Original last revised 25 August 2006)

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map