Volume > Issue > Briefly: March 1995

March 1995

Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View?

By Norman Malcolm

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 140

Price: $30.50

Review Author: Philip E. Devine

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was baptized as an infant by a Catholic priest and received formal instruction in Catholic doctrine as a child. But he lost his childhood faith early, and for a time was contemptuous of religion. Then during the First World War he experienced something like a conversion, though not a return to the Church. Instead, he embraced a personal religion which distrusted theology and religious institutions but emphasized the demanding requirements of moral and spiritual purity, from which he in his own estimation fell woefully short. Central to this religion was the Last Judgment. Virtually the last sentence he wrote was: “God can say to me: ‘I am judging you out of your own mouth. Your own actions have made you shudder in disgust when you have seen them in others.'” A number of his followers — including Peter Geach and G.E.M. Anscombe — became Catholics, at least partly under his influence.

This book represents a new generation of Wittgenstein commentary, one that takes these facts seriously, rather than reading him as a radical skeptic, ordinary language philosopher, or ally of the positivistic project of purging culture of all “metaphysical” elements, including religion. Wittgenstein’s friend and biographer Norman Malcolm attempts an interpretation of the spiritual dimension of Wittgenstein, and Winch responds. Their discussion focuses on a remark Wittgenstein made to M. O’C. Drury: “I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”

According to Malcolm, Wittgenstein was referring in this remark to the technical problems addressed in his philosophical works. Malcolm discovers four “analogies” between religion and Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy. The first one: Religion requires accepting “God wills it” as an end to demands for explanation; in Wittgenstein’s philosophy it is a mistake to ask for an explanation of conceptual phenomena — we ought rather to content ourselves with descriptions. Another one: Religion for Wittgenstein was primarily a matter of changing one’s life; likewise philosophical problems are dissolved in action. When we are confronted with someone actually in pain, the problem of our knowledge of “other minds” vanishes.

But, as Winch points out, Wittgenstein did not say that he viewed only philosophical problems from a religious point of view; his remark to Drury surely extended to the spiritual questions that troubled him deeply.

What is missing throughout the book is attention to the communal dimension of religious life. One of Wittgenstein’s best known sayings is that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” which shows the impossibility of private language in which I might be able to record my experiences in a way no one else could understand. So there is no obstacle in principle to the full doctrinal and liturgical life of the Church — as those Wittgenstein followers who became Catholics seem to have concluded.

It is thus surprising to see not only Wittgenstein himself, but two of his most important followers, lapse into a religious solipsism. There are mysteries and ineffable matters in the religious life, and in an important sense each soul is alone with God. But we can defend religion against charges of nonsense and narcissism only by placing these aspects among observable practices and public doctrines whose meaning is, at least relatively speaking, clear.

In the Shade of the Terebinth: Tales of a Night Journey

By Gabriel Meyer

Publisher: Forest of Peace Publishing

Pages: 144

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Janice Daurio

It’s been a long time since some of us have looked at the lists of recently published fiction. We’ve long ago given up trying to find a book with both moral values and literary merit, still less something with a religious theme. Whatever artistic merit some valueless fiction might have is spoiled by that valuelessness. On the other hand, some well-intentioned pious works are, for all their good intentions and moral value, best used for propping open the door, as Flannery O’Connor said of one such pious novel. In Gabriel Meyer’s In the Shade of the Terebinth, however, we find rest for the soul and food for the hungry heart. The book is well written and satisfies aesthetic longing, and it does more than inspire moral heroism: It is a religious book suitable for meditation and spiritual reading.

Meyer has many gifts, spiritual and literary. Two of the literary gifts are an intense sense of symbol and a delightful power of description. The structure of the book is particularly intriguing, 13 tales pieced together in a narrative about a boy finding a ring in Jerusalem: “He’d had to blink at it for several moments in the noonday glare — when the limestone blinds — before he could tell just what had fallen into his upturned palm. A stone tossed down from the heaven of high courtyard windows to annoy him? A dying air-borne insect determined to flutter to the last in his hand’s shallow grave?… But it was not the carcass of an insect which he fingered under the gaze of the yellow-dust Jerusalem sky. It was a small black ring.”

I don’t want to give away the plot, but this is an absolutely wonderful story about the boy’s finding out about his origins, which are dark and mysterious and even frightening to him. Are not our origins also mysterious to us?

The ring depicts a great oak (the terebinth has often been rendered as “oak” in English Bibles) with 13 rune-like designs arranged as a crown around it. There is a wonderful Jewish and Christian “feel” to the novel.

The tales will reacquaint you with some old friends (and enemies), but in a way which will — and, I’m sure is meant to — catch you off guard. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead gives two very minor characters from Hamlet center stage; something like that is going on in these 13 tales, but the (for the most part) minor characters who are the heroes of these tales figure in a much more important story than Hamlet, a story which is also true.

We know the Greatest Story Ever Told, of which other people’s stories are but a part; in this way we are reminded that our own stories — with their little and big worries — are part of a cosmically larger story, whose author is omniscient. We can take comfort in the fact that this larger story has a happy ending.

Certainly one of the biggest obstacles to meditating on the life of the Lord is its familiarity, or rather, what human weakness does to familiarity — a vice which may not have a name, but could be called over-familiarity. Meyer’s book gives the unwary reader a fresh look at what may have become state.

The Homeless

By Christopher Jencks

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 161

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Paul Friedman

Both the Left and Right have perpetuated myths about the homeless. Christopher Jencks, a sociologist at Northwestern University, is a debunker of ideological assumptions on both sides of the fence, using raw data to dispel some commonly held misconceptions about the homeless.

The author persuasively assesses the number of homeless at approximately 400,000 in 1987-1988, up from 100,000 in 1980. This is a considerably lesser figure than the two to three million estimate promoted by homeless activists in the early 1980s. Jencks concludes that the spread of homelessness among single adults is a byproduct of the elimination of involuntary commitment at, and evictions from, mental hospitals; the introduction of crack cocaine; increases in long-term joblessness; and restrictions placed upon the building of cheap hotels. One could add the spread of single motherhood and the decline in the purchasing power of welfare recipients.

Jencks recommends stop-gap solutions. He sees a return to involuntary commitment of some of the mentally ill as humane and necessary. He is especially fond of the “flophouse” idea for supplying short-time housing, noting that current shelters are on average 30 percent empty and many of the homeless refuse to avail themselves of them. What is needed is a private “cubicle” room arrangement where each person has privacy. This might entail converting some warehouse space in nonresidential areas, or local governments looking the other way when enforcing building-code requirements. Jencks also urges more benefits for single mothers and their families, noting that any reform in this area will cost more money rather than less.

Jencks sees a short-term solution in the development of a day-labor market, where people could work for part of the day, and then would receive vouchers for food and a place to stay. One has to question, however, whether someone making $20 or $30 in a few hours of panhandling would prefer to do some real labor that might take twice the time for the same or lesser amount.

While some of the correctives proposed in The Homeless may be problematic, the book nevertheless provides some solid data from which to form a reasoned perspective on the issue. With the amount of opinion being floated today over airwaves based on nothing more than conjecture and ideology, we perhaps owe Jencks a debt of gratitude.

Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism

By Samuel Francis

Publisher: University of Missouri Press

Pages: 237

Price: $37.50

Review Author: Brad Stetson

Francis and Frum are conservative journalists who complain that American conservatism hasn’t demonstrated the courage of its anti-“Big Government” convictions, and has actually embraced liberalism’s premises.

Francis contends in a series of reprinted essays that “virtually every cause to which conservatives have attached themselves…has been lost, and the tide of political and cultural battle is not likely to turn anytime soon.” The current villains in Francis’s narration are the neoconservatives, who, according to him, are really liberal wolves in conservative sheeps’ clothing. They are responsible for what he sees as contemporary conservatism’s effete critique of liberalism. Francis’s polemic against neoconservatives is so shrill as to at times approach the ad hominem.

Frum frankly recognizes the opportunities conservatives had in the 1980s to enact their agenda. But the Reaganites failed to codify into policy the decisive government cutbacks, race-neutral laws, prolife reforms, and stringent tax-abatement programs they spoke of. In the end, they didn’t eliminate even one major spending program, and increased federal spending — in real terms — from $808 billion in 1983 to $1,144 billion in 1989.

Reading these works in the aftermath of last November’s electoral earthquake is instructive. Neither author suspected, let alone anticipated, what was in the wind, and so one wonders if conservatism is as impotent as they claim. How conservatives handle their leadership of Congress may well determine whether Francis and Frum are accurate or whether theirs is a grandiloquent case of “Dewey Wins!”

Dead Right

By David Frum

Publisher: Basic Books

Pages: 230

Price: $23

Review Author: Aaron W. Godfrey

James Traub writes about the recent history of City College (CCNY, College of the City of New York), a unique educational experiment that produced enviable results between 1920 and 1970. For most of this century, its clientele has largely been the sons of poor and ambitious Jewish immigrants. The focus of City College was the development of a love of learning. In this it succeeded, since over the years City College produced a higher percentage of graduate students and more Nobel Prize winners than any other public institution in the nation. The academic facilities were spartan, the professors demanding, and the standards rigorous.

Located in Harlem, City College had neglected that community, and relatively few of its graduates were African-American. In the troubled 1960s there was pressure for the College to admit more non-whites, until in 1970 open admissions was adopted.

Open admissions has changed the character of City College and, in the minds of many, has devalued its degree. In addition, the College has been troubled by the intolerant African-American polemics of Dr. Leonard Jeffries; there are those who believe that the College has been handed over to his activist followers, which will hasten its decline still further.

There is a long chapter on Jeffries and his manipulation of the African-American community, and on how rhetoric, outrage, and questionable historical theory have treacherously deceived African-American students into thinking that a major in Black Studies will be a passport to a solvent and productive life.

Traub raises many important questions about public higher education, and suggests steps that need to be taken to shore up academic standards.

City on a Hill: Teaching the American Dream at City College

By James Traub

Publisher: Addison Wesley

Pages: 371

Price: $25

Review Author: Francis X. McCarthy

A Tremor of Bliss is a handsomely bound volume of reflections by writers you’ve heard of — if you keep up with who’s hot, names familiar to readers of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and the fashionable quarterlies — offering accounts of their conflictual or sometimes inspirational relationships with the saints. The quality of the pieces varies — some gems, some duds, some historical and informative, some quite personal and moving. Overall, it’s a book worth buying and reading, if contemporary writers and their opinions on the saints is your cup of tea — after all, there aren’t many others like it.

I read the book without stopping. In it can be found tasteful skepticism, stylish doubt, well-written anger about the possibility of psychic abuse inherent in the very idea of sanctity, new spins on old martyrs, and multi-cultural moments — done with an acute awareness of the limits of our now post-post-modern life and its cold consolations, themes most of these writers are fond of and usually handle with aplomb.

But over the years I’ve had my fill of this, and the truth is I was ultimately disappointed by this book because — and this is embarrassing to admit in such a skeptical age — I’m just not in the market anymore for anything that doesn’t relentlessly purvey hope. Things have gone much too far in the opposite direction. We are desperately in need of what the saints can provide — miracles — for a high culture sorely lacking in any sensitivity to them. And while it’s there in what’s said about the saints themselves, it’s the lives of the writers that this book mostly concerns itself with, and that’s another story.

Don’t misunderstand me, I liked a lot of what was in the book — some of it was humbling, some of it allowed me moments of contrition — but I was hoping to see saints at work sanctifying writers’ lives and instead I came away more concerned about the fate of the saints in the hands of many of the writers.

Let’s face it, most of us, including yours truly, in this tortured and miserable century of ours, have venerated just about everything other than sanctity at some point or other, and all the alternatives have been found wanting. And I’m afraid writing is way up there on the list of idols to worship, for writers purport to offer some truth, but it’s not necessarily the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The successful writing life is fraught with many a peril, not the least of which is the cult of celebrity. The biographies of the greatest are often horror stories of one kind or the other — lives of misery, usually to some extent self-induced and quite avoidable by folks who didn’t want to be prophets raging in the wilderness (not necessarily the same as prophets chosen by the Lord). Still, some writers are called out to pass judgment on the passing scene, and their suffering induces an aura of sanctity, Flannery O’Connor for one, whose letters are among the greatest testaments to heroic suffering I have ever read. I wonder what she would have thought of this anthology.

The other book, The Kiss from the Cross by Ronda DeSola Chervin, is a work born of suffering, the author having lost her only son to suicide, an event which shook her life and faith to the depths. She works her way through various of life’s disastrous possibilities — illness, loss of loved ones, failure, poverty, despair, persecution, abandonment — taking each calamity as the occasion to examine the example of a suitable saint and his perseverance when faced with such difficulties, in hope of inspiring those of us similarly troubled to find consolation, meaning, and assistance from the source of life, love, and hope. In moments of sadness and suffering, this book should be a source of real consolation and hope.

A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints

By Paul Elie

Publisher: Harcourt Brace

Pages: 325

Price: $22

Review Author: Dale Vree

The Catechism is a runaway bestseller, has already been extensively mined and commented upon in both the Catholic and secular press, and doesn’t quite seem appropriate for a “book review” (how would you like to be asked to review the Nicene Creed?).

Nonetheless, some notice should be taken of the Catechism‘s significance. One of the great scandals of the postconciliar Church has been that fewer and fewer Catholics know what their Church professes. But the greater scandal has been the failure of so many priests, sisters, and catechists, et al., to teach their people — the most charitable explanation being invincible ignorance among the teachers. But now that we have this volume, that explanation won’t do anymore.

There’ve been buckets of misinformation dumped, not only in Catholic colleges and high schools, but at the parish level. Have you ever gone to, say, a required adult class for the baptism of your infant or for your child’s first confession, and been told, “Oh, no, the Church doesn’t believe in Purgatory anymore” or, “Well, the distinction between mortal and venial sins is obsolete” or, “We now know the Devil isn’t a real creature” or, “The morality of an act depends on the circumstances” or, “Don’t worry about what the Church says, just follow your conscience”? If you’ve ever had to endure such baloney, you’ll want to go to your next such meeting armed with your Catechism. This is a tome not just for buying and reading, but for using.

A footnote: There’s been much ballyhoo about the Catechism‘s use of so-called non-inclusive horizontal language, as certain scribbling ideologues feign invincible ignorance of generic language. Scribblers need to quibble. More significant is the fact that Holy Mother Church is referred to in the Catechism, not as “it” but as “she.” The Church is the Bride of Christ, and Jesus didn’t marry a neuter.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

Conversational Latin for Today. Really!

Latin is an entirely suitable means for discussing all contemporary subjects, for bantering, arguing, playing games, and singing.

Perfecting the Social Order

The foundations of Catholic social teaching are not in economic morality but in Catholic doctrine about the state and the nature of the human person.

The Common Cup & the Common Bug

By the seventh communicant, the chalice is circumplastered with lip prints and dotted with crumblets and sundry foreign minutiae.