Sunday, May 28, 2006

Wright and Wittgenstein

One of the things I'd like to do in this forum is note some reflections on books I read--not so much full-blown reviews as response essays that are prompted by my reading. Hopefully that will serve to cement those thoughts a bit more firmly in my mind so that I can have better access to them over time. In that vein . . .

Our small group just finished reading N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus. There are many things to admire about the book, and Wright discusses a number of important issues that Christians would do well to consider. But for me, the abiding impact of the work will be in the worldly vision of Christianity that it lays out. In saying that Wright's vision is worldly, I mean only that it is profoundly centered on God's efforts to renew this world rather than encouraging us to retreat from it or war against it. And strangely enough, reflection on this (deceptively complex and multi-faceted) theme made me think of Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein said that the postulation of life after death could not answer the problem of life's meaning because that problem would simply re-emerge in the next life. I think he was right. Moreover, I think that his point is one with which Christians should fervently agree.

In other words, it isn't a particularly Christian response to someone's crisis of meaning to point out that since he will live forever, there is really no need to be concerned--that the specter of pointlessness melts away in light of his perpetual existence. To begin with, those in the midst of such crises aren't likely to be comforted by the prospect of an eternity to ponder why they are here, as though the problem of a limited lifespan and the problem of meaning are one and the same. Even the possibility that that life might be one of considerable bliss doesn't really get to the heart of their concern. They want to know why they are here and what point life could possibly have period, regardless of when or where that life happens to be lived. In light of these thoughts, the idea that they are simply here so they can get somewhere else rings more than a little hollow.

Our lives require us to put so much effort into things--jobs, relationships, family, etc.--that the thought that none of that effort really matters (because, after all, meaning is to be found in the life beyond this one) is bound to generate despair rather than cure it. Is it psychologically possible to get up every morning and devote ourselves to pursuits that we believe to be meaningless? My guess is that more than a few suicides have resulted from exactly such a thought.

It is in addressing these concerns--common, I expect, in our day--that words like the following have a potential to transform that goes far beyond any appeal to immortality:
If you build on the foundation in the present time with gold, silver and precious stones, your work will last. In the Lord your labor is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that is soon going over a cliff. Nor, however, are you constructing the kingdom of God by your own efforts. You are following Jesus and shaping our world in the power of the Spirit; and when the final consummation comes, the work that you have done, whether in Bible study or biochemistry, whether in preaching or in pure mathematics, whether in digging ditches or in composing symphonies, will stand, will last (Challenge, 180-1).
Clearly, this quote only touches the surface and, indeed, Wright's book as whole only intends to touch the surface. But it presents a glimpse of a vision of life that will compel my attention for some time. Because if there is any chance that what I do every day will last--that it matters today and is not just something to do while I am waiting for "heaven"--I think that is something that deserves more than a passing moment's thought.


Mark Traphagen said...

You have hit squarely upon why Wright has meant so much to me; he has expanded the horizons of my Christian faith and given me something so much bigger to live for than "by and by."

AJK said...

"Expanded the horizons" is a good way to put it Mark. He's articulated some things that I've inarticulately felt for a long time. It's unfortunate that he's become such a controversial figure in some quarters that his basic vision probably aren't appreciated as much as they should be.

Anonymous said...

Kadlac, this is Matt Krueger. I concur with this post whole-heartedly. I think our peers spend much more time wondering what is the good life here than what will happen hereafter. On a diff't note, Sarah and I will be moving to Bawlmore in August; I will clerk there for a year, and she will start a phd program in clinical psych. at Catholic U. We'd love to visit y'all (I'm practicing) before too long--and you'll, of course, be welcome in Bawlmore.