2 NOVEMBER 2002, Page 38


When Wittgenstein picked up not the poker but the crucifix


My heart goes out to the young just enjoying their first term at university. I remember well, in October 1946, the excitement of moving into college rooms at Oxford. The quest for knowledge seemed to me then the noblest of human activities, and still does so in a sense. (In the sense that, without it, humanity would perish ignominiously.) But I am under no illusions that knowledge brings satisfaction; merely hunger for more, and despair at ever being what Francis Bacon called 'a full man'. I had a good education, and some remarkable teachers: and I have been educating myself ever since by writing books. But at the end of it all, and my 74th birthday imminent, I find that I have merely been exploring the limits of my own ignorance. I agree with Dr Johnson: 'There is nothing so insignificant that [would rather know it than not know it' and I have always proceeded by that rule. But what I do not know stretches to infinity. And I am no nearer knowing the answer to the question which matters most — perhaps the only question that matters at all: is there, or is there not, a God?

If I turn to the theologians, I get little help, for they argue from within the system of belief. The best they can do is a negative: to warn us of the dangers of non-belief. Thus Karl Rahner argues, 'If men cease to believe in God so that the very concept of God disappears from their minds, humanity will become nothing more than a collection of very clever monkeys, whose ultimate fate will be too horrible to describe.' A powerful point, but in no way a proof of God's existence; indeed, many would argue that Rahner's warning describes precisely the direction in which we are heading. If I turn to the philosophers, I find a little help. The two most significant of 20th-century philosophers, in my view, were Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I have learnt most from Popper in all mundane matters but nothing about God. Wittgenstein is quite different. Most people would say he was an agnostic. He himself said, 'I am not a religious person.' Students of philosophy, among whom he is more influential (and revered) than any other modern thinker, would say, 'Of course he did not believe in God. How could he since he argued that truths of metaphysics, of ethics or aesthetics and above all of religion are ineffable?' Typically, the long entry on him in the Orford Companion to Philosophy does not think it worthwhile to discuss the subject.

Yet there is every reason to believe that Wittgenstein thought that God existed, and that God was very real to him. The phrase am not a religious person' has to be understood in the special sense he meant when he said he was not a 'creative philosopher'. He hinted at the meaning when he said (1946), 'I cannot kneel to pray because it's as if my knees are stiff. I am afraid of disintegration (of my disintegration) if I become soft.' The explanation of this cryptic saying given by Professor Roy Holland and the late Professor Norman Malcolm (whose book Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? I commend to all) is that Wittgenstein felt that his philosophical work, which absorbed all his energies and intellectual resources, was demanded of him; that if he gave himself to prayer, with the intensity it would require, he would disintegrate; that is, his philosophical concentration would be broken. The statement nonetheless implies that he had an impulse to pray, which he resisted so as to maintain at burning pitch all his intelligence for the philosophic commit ment required of him by God, presumably.

In discussion with his friend M. O'C. Drury religion keeps cropping up; indeed, the remark he made to Drury about not being a religious person goes on: 'But I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.' He spoke of 'confessions' and of his hope for 'a new life'. He said he expected and feared a Last Judgment. He read the Gospels again and again, and knew them thoroughly. He thought that Christianity was right to stress human 'wretchedness' and 'anguish'. In the first world war he prayed fervently to become 'a decent human being' and volunteered for a dangerous post to this end, He told Drury that all he wanted from his philosophical work was that it should be 'God's will'.

These are significant pointers to a twintrack approach to God. I don't think that Wittgenstein thought God's existence could be proved. He denied that any of the celebrated philosophical proofs of God's existence ever had, or could, bring an individual to belief. He thought it a waste of time and anyway unnecessary — why should we assume some sort of proof was needed? He thought, rather, that the acquisition of faith was a personal process which proceeded out of our individual lives, becoming 'conscious of sin', of despair, and then of 'salvation by faith'. Faith was doing, 'amending one's ways', 'turning one's life around', a phrase he used repeatedly. His faith was much closer to that of the born-again Christian than the delicate ratioci nation of a Martin D'Arcy or a Karl Barth.

One passage in Wittgenstein's writings I find especially helpful. Operating in the way he did, mainly by teaching and conversation, he worried periodically that his hard-won ideas would be appropriated unacknowledged by others. But in 1947 he commented:

Is what Jam doing really worth the labour? Surely only if it receives a light from above. And if that happens, why should I worry about the fruits of my work being stolen? If what I am writing is really of value, how could anyone steal the value from me? If the light from above is not there, then I cannot be anything more than clever.

This phrase 'a light from above' is a powerful concept and one that must appeal strongly to all writers and thinkers, indeed all artists, too. We sometimes call it 'inspiration', without realising that it is an essentially religious term. If something inspires us to resolve a specially knotty problem, or pen a key passage in exactly the right way, or give birth to a completely new idea, that inspiration must necessarily have come from someone — a being or force beyond our personality. It is what the Greeks meant by enthusiasm or a pneumatic experience, a breathing into us of virtuosity. The Apostles experienced it at Pentecost. Just as sailors who have experienced the terrors of the deep, or soldiers who have learnt true fear in action, tend to believe in God in some form or other, so I think the greatest minds learn from experience that there is, occasionally, a greater mind pushing them on or opening a door. Galileo faced up to the Pope and Church precisely because he was aware of some external guidance in his exploration of the solar system. Newton's religious faith was similar in origin, as was Einstein's in restructuring the Newtonian universe. I am tempted to add that atheism is an infallible proof of a second-class mind, and that even agnosticism indicates lack of intellectual rigour and thoroughness. But that brings me up against the case of David Hume, and I am not ready to pursue that line of inquiry. Nor am I sure how to deal with Charles Darwin, who seems to have put God and science in quite separate compartments — a cop-out. Wittgenstein's admission of a form of divine intervention, 'the light from above', seems a valuable insight. I myself have felt it when a nothing becomes something, a confusion suddenly resolves itself into a pattern, and a paragraph stands up and shouts its certitude from the rooftops. Thank you, Witters old boy, and thankyou. Almighty God!