Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wittgenstein's Poker and Easter Morn

If it were to happen today, it might make for riveting reality TV. Two celebrated philosophers — Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper — in a confrontation at the Cambridge Union on October 25, 1946.

The ambitious Popper, fresh from publishing the English translation of The Open Society and Its Enemies, had come to give an academic paper critical of Wittgenstein’s approach to ethics. The eminent Wittgenstein, seated by the fire, eventually picked up a poker from the grate and may or may not have threatened Popper with it during an argument about the nature of moral ideas.

Eyewitness accounts of the encounter differ in many details. Bertrand Russell, Stephen Toulmin, and the other luminaries present could not agree afterwards whether the poker was red-hot, or whether Wittgenstein actually brandished it. Popper himself later claimed he had told Wittgenstein to his face that an example of a self-evident moral principle was “Never threaten visiting speakers with pokers.” Others recall Wittgenstein leaving the Cambridge Union before Popper’s remark was made. All agree, however, that an acrimonious meeting took place, at which Wittgenstein picked up a poker.

Drawing on the research conducted by David Edmonds and John Edinow, the theologian N.T. Wright uses this incident to illustrate how so many of the conventional arguments against the truth of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection are so off the mark. The fact that the Gospels differ in various details, and were not written down until about fifty years after the events they describe, does not mean that nothing happened. To the contrary, as a matter of evidentiary method, the differences suggest that something did happen — something too unpredictable and paradigm-breaking to be dimissed as merely the concoction of early Christians cooking the historical books.

Rereading the various accounts of the passion story during Holy Week, I tried to keep Wittgenstein’s poker in mind. Take, for example, the insightful centurion, who in the synoptic gospels speaks a word of affirmation immediately after the crucifixion. In Mark, the centurion says, “Truly, this man was God’s son.” In Matthew, the statement is essentially the same, but is uttered only after the occurrence of an earthquake Mark doesn’t mention. Luke, too, has a somewhat different emphasis, having the centurion say, “Certainly this man was innocent," using a Greek word (diakaios) whose connotations go well beyond the legalities of guilt or innocence to the realm of justice and right relationship with God. In John, the non-synoptic gospel, the figure of the centurion does not appear.

The divergence in the Gospel narratives doesn’t mean the underlying story of the empty tomb and a risen Christ is at heart a tall tale spread by a vast conspiracy. To the contrary, when one examines the evidence of the eyewitnesses, as reflected in an oral tradition recorded two generations later, and analyzes it in the context of what we know about the first-century Jewish world, the opposite inference is the more likely one. As Wright shows in Surprised by Hope, that world was most certainly not expecting the resurrection of one person as an event to usher in a new historical reality. Yet if something unprecedented didn’t happen, why did the usual Roman repression not succeed in vilifying the victim yet again? Why was the world, for so many, now turned upside down?

Ultimately, the answer to these questions depends on faith, not appeals to history. Wittgenstein’s poker, whether red-hot or not, is a useful analytical tool to help keep history from becoming a stumbling block that gets in the way of faith. I'm reminded of this pssage in T,.S. Eliot's East Coker:

"There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience,
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been."

Jesus put it more directly: "Behold, I make all things new."

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