The Incarnation and the Possibility of Theology as Science: Toward a Post-Wittgenstein Appreciation

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” [Thereof one cannot speak, thereover one must be silent.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 7)

Wittgenstein’s contention seems reasonable enough: If something transcends (or even falls below?) the ambit of human discourse, our total “language game” – the words we use and how we use them – then it cannot be spoken about; and if it cannot be spoken about, then any attempt to talk about it winds up constituting nonsense, with the further problem being that this nonsense has the appearance of being anything but on account of our being able to utter the words, and concatenate them in that particular way.

Such would seem to be the case with theology considered as possible science. Theology proper purports to speak of the inner life of God, the reasons for those actions He is believed to have carried out in history, and the ultimate reasons of the inner logic of these actions.  A priori, though, and taking Wittgenstein’s comment (and, really, entire philosophical project) into account, there seems to be compelling reason for thinking any such science impossible: science as we usually understand it is not possible if one cannot speak about that which the science claims to speak; and God, if He exists, necessarily transcends any finite language game on account of what He would have to be–even any talk of Him existing would already seem to be nonsense by that fact, thus rendering any spoken preamble to theology that has as its necessary consequence the very possibility of theology utter nonsense, and pernicious nonsense for having proven so–bewitching. If we take Wittgenstein seriously, then, take seriously the challenge he poses, we appear to be placed on a trajectory the ineluctable termination of which is the claim that the theologian proper is deluded, and any talk issuing forth from his mouth as a theologian nonsense.

That being said, if the theologian is right, if God has in fact become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, all things are turned on their head. For if God has in fact become incarnate, then He has entered our total language game, insinuated Himself into human discourse, thus making theological talk and discourse not nonsense; this would leave open the possibility of theology as science–nay, would make it possible.

One could object that the very talk of God becoming incarnate is itself nonsense for the very reasons mentioned above, and thus that any argument that proceeds from the starting point of speech about the incarnation being an actual condition for the actual possibility of science is a contemptuously ridiculous non-starter. Of course, one may continue, the theologian would point to the actions of Jesus as confirmation of the possibility of theology on account of the fact that we can speak of them – those signs and wonders he is purported to have carried out – just given that the real possibility of speaking about suggests the possibility of the language game being able to accommodate within itself speech pointing to that which transcends it; but this, one might object, assumes what needs proving, which is already shown to be impossible a priori, anyway. Such an objection to theology as science, consequently, has immense force, and all the appearance of great weight that must crush every hope of the theologian considered as such.

This objection to the possibility of theology, however, misses one thing: the potential infinitude of the silence that is encountered between action and word – a silence around which we can move, though of which we can never speak directly. That is, the objection forgets the very condition for the possibility of the intelligibility of Wittgenstein’s claim, that we can in some way speak meaningfully about (though not of)–silence, the silence between words encountered through the dash or hyphen, the silence between our words of love and our love-as-ecstatic-act. And as an encounter with silence is to stand face to face before an abyssal immensum that need not remain within the bounds of the finite, an encounter with silence is a always and already a potential waiting for that which could stand within it and fill it with Its presence.

(N.B. These thoughts on silence and the possibility of theology in face of Wittgenstein are profound, and thus not mine.  I have received this from Max Picard, to whom I owe an immense debt of gratitude.)




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