Wittgenstein and Christian Historicity

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Sean B. Palmer

Jun 10, 2010, 7:37:10 AM6/10/10
to Gallimaufry of Whits
“Christianity is not based on a historical truth, but presents us with
a (historical) narrative & says: now believe! But not believe this
report with the belief that is appropriate to a historical report, -
but rather: believe, through thick & thin & you can do this only as
the outcome of a life. *Here you have a message! - don't treat it as
you would another historical message!* Make a *quite different* place
for it in your life. - There is no *paradox* about that!”
(Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, P. 37e. MS 120 83 c: 8- 9.12.1937.)

Wittgenstein said that he wanted to write poetry only as one would
write a poem, and this remark of his may show how far short he fell
from this desire. Though his statement is essentially passionate, he
describes it in terms of a mathematician: "the central hypothesis of
my passion can perhaps be described in the following terms..." But
even a mathematician would not usually talk to their partner like

Another strange thing about this remark is that it's almost as though
Wittgenstein were put off from thinking about it from other angles.
It's almost like sometimes he gets too intoxicated with his own good
ideas. Though mine feel often more cultured, in the sense of something
growing slowly on a seabed, his are much more firm and stark. So my
own thoughts are nebulous, but I tend to remember his really well. His
thoughts shout too loud.

In terms of errors, I do not know, for example, why Wittgenstein felt
that he must divide to conquer. Here he has created two separate
categories, two distinct language games in his own terminology: one
about historical report, and the one about morality. And he says
strangely that what we read in Christianity is simply not of the
former, but of the latter; whereas we find that even the most
outlandish and skeptical modern theories countenance at least some
degree of historicity. The one that suggests Paul himself invented all
of Christianity, for example, at least entails that Paul must have
been a person and written many things.

But Wittgenstein's thought is noble. It's almost as though he had here
an idea for a poem, and then expressed himself like an angry teenager.
He doesn't know what to do, so he lashes out in this slightly peculiar
way. I would not know what to do either, but I try to refrain from
Wittgenstein's mode of expression. I at least think that I get the
basis of his poem.

The situation might be comparable to an interesting conceit by
Tolstoy: he presents the nativity of Jesus as a bare structural
outline, saying that there was a son born to a woman named Mary, who
wasn't expected by Mary's husband Joseph. That's it. Then as we get
the rest of the story, we are perhaps supposed to think "well, what
does it mean then that he came as an unexpected child?"

This gives us ostensibly an historical fact, but it is refracted
through so many layers of other meaning and possibility that it's not
as though we use it entirely differently from an historical fact, just
that we are to consider it as more valuable and multifaceted. But any
social historian could tell you that already. When you read accounts
of a Civil War, you of course have to keep in consideration which side
the author is on. And you never quite get a neutral view, but there
you can presume that the two propagandae cancel out. And what do you
do when you read about people striving for victory and going to war
against their neighbours? Montaigne enjoyed biographies because, he
says, there is so much that you can get out of them.

One bold thesis of Christianity may be that being a good person is
more important than being a clever one. In that sense, facts would
almost appear to become a useless pursuit. But they could only be
useless in the same sense that clothing yourself is useless. "Search
for the big things, and the little things will be added to you"?

There may be a parallel here with the miracles. The early Christian
writers record Jesus as enquiring which is more difficult, to perform
some impossible physical feat, a miracle; or to forgive someone of
their wrongs? There may be many things that one takes from this, but I
wonder if one such thing is that it sets up the Christian message as
being more difficult to grasp, and to truly take on board, than a
physical impossibility. Imagine if being good required a level of
belief which is a more difficult endeavour than to believe that pink
elephants often buy kebabs. Well, the contention may be that this is

This is about as Socratic as I can get about Christian historicity.
This says very little indeed, however, about Christianity itself. This
is simply a means of diverting attention from peculiar habits. Once
you have a riddle, it is tempting to think that you have solved it and
then should share the answer around. But what about when a riddle can
only be solved, as Wittgenstein says, "as the outcome of a life"? Then
you share it by being good, not by being clever. So anything that has
been clever herein can be disregarded.

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