After Church – Wittgenstein and Interpretation: What Do You Mean?


What if what you mean isn’t actually what you mean? I tend to talk past people, that much is certain. The accumulated weight of knowledge, reason, and experience lead me to think and examine everything in strange, unorthodox ways. Of course, communicating this remains the biggest problem of them all. Language does not fit in a neat 1:1 ratio between your brain and the other person; add to that their ideas about concepts in general, and chaos ensues. How do you remedy this? Well, in a way, you don’t. What you realize instead isn’t that people use language wrong. Rather, they talk and speak using the same descriptive words and symbols but they mean something different by them. To provide a relevant example from a Biblical context, let’s take a look at 1 Peter 3:15 (already used heavily on this website, but why not return to the well once more?):

15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence…

Have you heard, read, or seen this verse before? What way would you decide to interpret this without (or willfully ignoring) context? The primary interpretation heard in conservative evangelical circles, and the one which I knew for a very long time, meant something to the effect of “defending the faith”. To put it in more technical terms, we’d call it the modern discipline of “apologetics”. If someone asks about your faith in Jesus Christ, you must answer them with full knowledge, data, and evidence to back up your beliefs. Christianity, after all, takes its basis in historical fact, hence making it the one true religion (detect the sarcasm here). When we talk of “belief” in this sense, we mean the total accumulated belief in both religious experience and (to show outsiders) empirical, logical evidence.

And, of course, this is exactly the way most English speakers in the Western world imagine and implement the concept of knowledge. Religion fits into the grand pie of knowledge as in every other case, and believing fits neatly into proving. Website like Answers in Genesis operate under a similar model.

Do I begrudge them for this? Not at all! They put hard work into taking a secular world’s perspective into account and showing the validity of the Gospel message from a variety of perspectives. However, the pitfall comes with the person riding the fence. Considering how Christians receive their faith, especially little ones, they (and I) perceived that if something were to “disprove” the Biblical narrative, our faith would somehow be shot. One little break in the framework would make the whole deck of cards tumble, and then we would find ourselves in the position of doubt. I assume that’s what happened to the majority of Christians growing up and going to college; they found science most stimulating due to its ability to answer questions of a physical nature with great accuracy. The Bible remained abstract, while science remains right in front of human sensory perception.

The Enlightenment fundamentally changed how we view the Bible, all said. And that happened hundreds of years before any of us were born, as the grand progress of civilization meant that we would accept these assumptions about Christianity without any thought as to their consequences, or how they would affect Christians trying to “defend” their faith in ways both accurate (William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga) and utterly excruciating (Kirk Cameron, love you dude but sometimes your stuff with Ray Comfort just makes me cringe, as in the banana debacle).

On the other hand, giving an account for one’s faith might not mean a legal sense, or in the sense of gathering up evidence. Perhaps “belief” means something fundamentally different here. I could say, for example, that I’m sitting in a chair right now. To communicate that information to other people, I would say “I believe that there’s a chair and I’m sitting in it”. I have no reason to doubt this information, due to me sitting in this rather comfortable chair. Is faith like that? Do I “believe” that Jesus Christ rose from the dead in the same way a chair supports my bottom? Is it a factual account of things that happened, or more like an idea that dictates the way you live? As Wittgenstein might say:

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. But of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

Wittgenstein sought to remove all questions from philosophy; his initial Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus basically says that we cannot know anything because there’s actually nothing to know. All that stuff is a human construct. Language provides us with the ability to tangle ourselves with questions that cannot be answered because the flaws lie right within the very structure of our communicative devices. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus came about as a result of seeking “truth” only in the vein of mathematics – it provides an answer, but a terrifying one. Listed in a huge sequence of logically substantial proposition, it strikes with exact precision on, well, everything. As a wonderful related example:

6.4 All propositions are of equal value.

6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.

If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.

What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.

Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.

Ethics are transcendental.

(Ethics and aesthetics are one.)


7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

The traditional interpretation says that we cannot talk about ethics precisely for this reason. Many people miss, though, that this basically removes ethics from the realm of traditional debate. I.e., what is and is not ethical do not remain up for grabs. We show ethics, we don’t merely think about it (with any luck!). So when God states something like that in the Bible, God must relay it in this way so that we can do rather than watch. I imagine most Christians think the doing remains fundamental, if not necessarily the thinking.

4.1212 What can be shown cannot be said.

Scientific answers, in a phrase, aren’t necessarily meaningful ones. They might be, buttressed by philosophy, reason, or religion, but scientific evidence does not exist to give meaning to our lives. That correlation came over time, and we merely stumbled into it. That, to me, seems the fundamental problem that we have in the modern world: we mistake science for meaning, scientism for religion. And that’s a very grave mistake. If you think of Christianity in this vein, it opens up more than you might imagine.

So I ask: what do you mean? That’s just the best question to ask about anything. Otherwise, you go down the rabbit hole without a parachute – and the misunderstanding will continue.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.