August 19, 2003

Theology After Wittgenstein

Category: Theology :: Permalink

Tonight, I finished reading Fergus Kerr’s Theology After Wittgenstein. I can’t say that I understood all of it. In fact, I’m certain that I didn’t understand a lot of it.

Still, it was well worth reading and probably worth rereading in a year or two. Some books you understand completely with no effort at all, but often that’s because you already understood what the author was talking about. Other books stretch you. They’re hard to read, not (necessarily) because the author is unclear but because they’re forcing you to think in different ways.

That was the case with Theology After Wittgenstein. To start with, I’ve never studied Wittgenstein or, for that matter, any modern philosophy. At times, Kerr lost me, though I have to admit that he is often quite clear and even, as one reviewer says, “droll.”

But Wittgenstein himself wrote to challenge the ways people are accustomed to thinking and he wanted his material to be read slowly because he wanted people to think through what he was saying, not simply to let their customary way of thinking be challenged but to put up a fight, and then gradually to see what Wittgenstein was saying. And Kerr’s book, as it traces the relationship between Wittgenstein’s attack, for instance, on certain views of personality and our theological thinking often required me to slow down and think furiously. Having now been forced to think in a different way, I may profit from the book more on a second reading.

One part I (think I) did understand was Kerr’s critique of the idea that the “real me” is some hidden thing deep down inside me, something which can be separated from history, relationships, and so forth. He quotes Timothy O’Connell:

In an appropriate if homely image, then, people might be compared to onions…. At the outermost layer, as it were, we find their environment, their world, the things they own. Moving inward we find their actions, their behaviour, the things they do. And then the body, that which is the ‘belonging’ of a person and yet also is the person. Going deeper we discover moods, emotions, feelings. Deeper still are the convictions by which they define themselves. And at the very centre, in that dimensionless pinpoint around which everything else revolves, is the person himself or herself — the I (20).

I suspect there’s a connection between this (Cartesian) view of personality and the way people often protest that their actions don’t represent who they “really” are (“That’s not the real me!”) or the way that a criminal’s mother will claim that “deep down” her son is really a nice person, as if his actions or his relationships can somehow be separated from who he is.

Similarly, I suspect that this view of personality — what makes me me — has significant theological ramifications. Take what is often called “nominal” church membership. We sometimes think that, in the case of a “nominal” member, his connection to the church is merely “external” or “formal” or even, perhaps, “legal,” but that it doesn’t affect who he really is in any significant way. But that’s like claiming that being a Barach — that is, being a member of this particular family — has nothing to do with who I really am.

Now if I had absolutely no contact with a club but they added my name to their membership rolls and didn’t even tell me about it, then in that case my membership in the club might be termed merely nominal. But even then it would define me in some way. I might (in my ignorance) claim that “the real me” isn’t a member of that club, but the claim would be false: I really would be a club member, whether I knew it or not. All of my experiences and relationships do affect my personality: they make me who I am, and I am not me apart from them.

That’s true even if I wish to escape from those relationships. I may wish passionately that I were not a Barach and that I didn’t have any ties to my family, but that wouldn’t change the fact that I am a Barach and do have ties to my family. I might wish passionately that I weren’t a member of Christ’s church — or I might simply ignore my membership and live as if I weren’t a member — but that doesn’t change the fact that I am, in fact, a member.

Even in the case of a member who has nothing to do with the church, then, his relationship to the church isn’t “merely nominal,” a fact with no significance. Even in that case, his church membership still makes him who he is. And his rejection of that membership also makes him who he is: an unfaithful member of the church, a rebel and a traitor instead of a faithful son.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:09 pm | Discuss (0)

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