Wittgenstein and the Christian Faith
Wittgenstein tended to view every problem “from a religious point of view” because of his Christian background. Wittgenstein was engrossed in Christian belief and theology for the first eighteen years of his life.1 He received an education in the vocational sense – he was taught in a religious institution to train for the priesthood and then later a bishop.2 Although one could say this was simply because priests and bishops enjoyed a position in high society in Vienna (Wittgenstein’s hometown), Wittgenstein must have shown an interest in the material to be chosen in his family.3 Even entering into secondary school (the equivalent of high school in Vienna), Wittgenstein was registered as a Roman Catholic.4 However, this religious focus did not exist forever. Wittgenstein’s sister, Gretl, was able to convince the young Wittgenstein that faith was a childish endeavor, that his mind should be put to something of good use.5 However, Wittgenstein did not abandon the faith; instead, it took a distinctly darker turn in changing Wittgenstein’s Christian viewpoint from the God of grace to the God of judgment. There was no redemption for Wittgenstein, but a need to set one’s own house in order and solve his own sin. These early encounters with his sister shaped his discussions of Christianity.
However, what redefined his religious view was a chance encounter with the works of Tolstoy. Most persons, including Bertrand Russell, believed that Wittgenstein had become religious after World War I, where he served as an artilleryman.6 In a small bookshop, Wittgenstein encountered Tolstoy’ The Gospels in Brief, and he carried it with him everywhere.7 He prayed constantly, and was known by his fellow soldiers as the “man with the Gospels”.8 Tolstoy has been said to be the main inspiration for the works of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; his Gospel, removing the divinity of Jesus, sought to bring out the greatness in Jesus’ words towards a greater social consciousness.9 This did not mean that God did not exist; on the contrary, Tolstoy affirmed the existence of God but changed the focus. Christianity did not lay in a single act of salvation, but a continual process of denying the flesh, making one’s self independent of outward circumstances and being able to help the poor and the needy.10 Removed from divine context, this is exactly what Jesus did, and Tolstoy embraced this interpretation. The Gospel of Tolstoy was a process of changing the self, a total and complete commitment to the Christian ethic.11 It was not about some obscure church structure, or bizarre and utterly inconceivable revelations that only a select set of people could understand. The true teaching of Christianity was, to Tolstoy, characterized by a love for others, a total commitment to the redemption of the world.12 We must make the world a better place; it is not up to some supernatural deity, though He will help us in times of need. He has given a task, and we must do it; it is despair upon the human condition and its irredeemable state that leads to an acceptance of Christianity. Thus, Wittgenstein’s concern with the self made his acceptance of Tolstoy’s work a natural fit. Wittgenstein embraced this theological perspective, and it changed his works in the process.
The Notebooks of 1914-16
As the religious viewpoint of Tolstoy affected him, Wittgenstein now sought to understand his faith through logical terms. The first working of this theological understanding comes early in the form of the Notebooks, which work out the ideas of the Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus in their early stages. Wittgenstein was never one to accept anything on blind faith, and Christianity, he assumed, must have a rational and understandable basis. Beginning with entries on June 11th, 1916, Wittgenstein take a particular interest in the “meaning of life”.13 In fact, Wittgenstein literally says that the name that is given to the meaning of life is God.14 Since he knows that the world exists (which is a mystery in itself), we have been placed into it somehow.15 However, we generally find that there is something problematic about the world we have been placed into, and the problems are what we call meaning.16 If humans are placed from the outside, whatever placed us in our current position must come from an outside source; the meaning of life must lie outside the world.17 Our will also comes from the outside as well.18 Wittgenstein also declares that the will is either good or evil, which makes them relevant to the meaning of the world.19 Thus, any talk about the will, God, etc., are all placed within religious language that lies outside the world. Prayer is doing what Wittgenstein has said in the passage: thinking about God, or the meaning of life.20 Wittgenstein seems to believe that the meaning of life, the will, and these kinds of concepts lay outside the world, a distinctly religious idea. Whatever the case, Wittgenstein has directly stated that meaning cannot equal the facts.
Regardless, to understand the meaning of life, the concept of facts need investigation. The will can only do things that are good or evil; it cannot change the world as a whole in any way.21 For Wittgenstein, the facts of the world are set in stone; the will from the outside cannot change them. Even if good and evil acts can penetrate the impregnable facts, no one could tell if there was a direct causal connection between what act a will performed and what change occurred in the world as a result of it.22 For Wittgenstein, the facts can only be shown in language; good and evil acts, thus, can only change the boundaries of the world, not the facts.23 The boundaries are akin to a world view or how I perceive the facts of the world. One could even call it a holistic examination of the facts, and an interpretation of those facts in light of my solipsistic eye. Let us say that every person believes in the facts; I know certain things about the world, such as water is H20, or that I live in America. However, I have no idea where these facts come from, or why everything in the world fits some unknowable logical construct. This presents a problem; Wittgenstein offers a solution: believe in a God. He is not entirely direct on this point, but he recognizes the importance of religious belief. To believe in a God means not only to understand the meaning of life, but to see that the facts of the world are just the beginning of understanding the world as a whole.24 The world is not made by us, but given to us; in this sense, what humans feel is an odd dependence on an alien will, what Wittgenstein calls “God”.25 To make the point even more obvious, Wittgenstein then equates God with the facts: “However this may be, at any rate we are in a certain sense dependent, and what we are dependent on we call God. In this sense God would simply be fate, or, what is the same thing: the world – which is independent of my will.”26 Without any of these ideas, there is no meaning of life; like it or not, the meaning cannot exist within the facts for then it would just be another fact. Everyone would certainly know it by now, and there would be no question about the meaning of life, yet people still wonder what the true meaning of life may be. What Wittgenstein offers as a cure is belief in God, living in the eternal present: thoughts of worry over the past and the future are like an albatross around the neck. Wittgenstein finds that there are two kinds of people in the world: the happy and the unhappy.27 The happy live eternally in the present, content with their status and place in the world.28 They have found accordance with the alien will, and accept it. On the other hand, there are the unhappy people.29 These persons constantly strive for redeeming the past, enhancing their future, and whatever else they can to pursue life in the here and now. They are never content with the facts of the world. Wittgenstein encourages the life of the happy, the life in accordance with God and the facts. Thus, language must have a definite structure and purpose towards this end, the life of the happy.
1Dallas M. High. “Wittgenstein: On seeing problems from a religious point of view,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 28 (1990): 107.
9 Leo Wiener, Introduction to The Gospels in Brief, by Leo Tolstoy (New York: Barnes and Noble), 2004, ix.
10High. “Wittgenstein: On seeing problems from a religious point of view,” 108.
11Wiener, Introduction to The Gospels in Brief, xii.
13Ludwig Wittgenstein. Notebooks 1914-1916 (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1971), 11.6.16.
24 Ibid, 8.7.16.