What an 18th Century Austrian Philosopher can teach us about the modern American Church.

The man pictured above is one of my closet heroes. He was a man whose students attended his classes unsure on the daily if they were to see a moment of brilliance or a raging fit from an unsatisfied soul. What drove this man to be so tumultuous: language. Early in his career, Ludwig Wittgenstein realized that something about how we speak did not exactly quench his thirst for clear communication. As a burgeoning philosopher, he was stopped dead in his tracks over this revelation finding the whole enterprise of study futile until he could uncover the secrets of human communication. After publicly demonstrating this perspective to the world through a series of writings–I must admit most of them difficult to even gain a superficial understanding of–in one of his classic unsatisfied fits he fled to the mountains of his home country to teach kindergarten for years. The philosophical community forgot about the crazed Austrian and he resigned himself to a solace lifestyle wrestling with deep unanswered questions.

Decades later he would re-emerge into the great conversation now confident that everything he once thought about language was absolutely wrong and in fact he can prove it. He had developed a new theory for language and could express its trustworthiness. This was a pattern that would typify Wittgenstein’s work. Rarely would he care about other philosophers (aside from insisting in his rage that their confidence was stupid and people should not follow their blind, arrogant assertions)  because [my conjecture] his own work, his own mind, his own soul was enemy enough.

While this pattern continued throughout his life and has left the world with volumes of thoughts on the philosophy of language through which we must now sift, the example of his struggle is one that I believe the contemporary bride of Christ could greatly benefit from. While the spirit of anguish, hopelessness, and fear might have hindered a very attainable peace of mind and I would not recommend his mental state upon anyone, he embodied another spirit that I believe would greatly encourage the Church today. And this is a spirit of humility about our life and learning. Wittgenstein did not take for granted that you understand me and I understand you; he spent much of his life broken trying to capture this reality. Regardless of how we are to change this or even if it is possible (the largest of his work on language), the root of his motivation was the understanding that communication–real communication in which we are genuinely meaning what we actually mean to one another–is taxing, expensive, and often overlooked.

In my short time on earth, I have seen a pattern among many Christians that concerns me. First, it is a tendency to elevate a worldview that is not necessarily Biblical, historical, or rooted in real life, but is simply the pervading cultural application of a certain type of idea that has strong spiritual, denominational, or religious principles often proven by certain lenses to certain scriptures. This phenomena is multi-layered, some of it occurring in individuals who have been deeply wounded by certain people who must shift their doctrine to accommodate their pain, some of it communal in which denominations emerge and revolutions sputter as a single step away from something that is in fact wrong but are often simply a sidestep into even greater confusion. Some of it is historical: early leaders attempting to understand and codify knowledge so that everyone can be “on the same page” as it were. In all of these examples, however, what we see is an attempt to categorize, organize, control, and assert eternal wisdom. If you’re anything like me, many aspects of your worldview are littered such debris.

Here might I offer a counter perspective. I want [operative word being want] to lean toward a bit of a different perspective on Christianity. (And please know that this is very much a conversation, a topic on which I myself understand grave limitations, to which I am very much a chief offender of many things I am chewing through.) A few of these concepts I shall list here:

  1. The Scriptures are difficult [by Scriptures here I mean the Pentateuch, the words and sermons of the ancient Jewish prophets, and the Psalms and Proverbs captured in what Christians call the Old Testament, as well as the accounts and a words of Jesus.]
    Not that they are impossible or we can never know their true meaning. But simply that they are hard, and often require both intellectual study and real spiritual growth, victory, and suffering before they begin to make real sense in our small soda-straw vision of the world.
  2. Discussing the Scriptures, understanding the Kingdom of God, and wading through the practical life accompanied with a heavenly calling is not easy. Getting two people to agree on factual, objective truth [like what a presidential candidate actually said or didn’t say for example] can be difficult. Wading through concepts that become deeply personal, emotional, and spiritual takes limitless grace, patience, understanding, and relational commitment. And this is OK!
  3. This commitment to one another is often the very picture of community and love within the people of God that defines, separates, and consecrates them for relationship with Him. (Try reading the sermon on the mount as a picture of this type of community.)

I so wish that the community of believers would be comfortable placing themselves under that spirit of humility which owns the fact that the Scriptures can be difficult and faith in Jesus requires all of our investment–not a cheap side deal that we have bartered to better our station in life or get more peace. This also means taking yourself out from under that leader who isn’t spiritual authority but claims to be or you have forced that title onto. The person or people in your life whose opinion you currently depend on as your sole source of interpretation. This is like trying to read with prescription sunglasses on–and the wrong prescription at that. If you stop to think for a moment, chances are the modern western church sort of depends on this practice, giving one man’s lens on parts of the scriptures and his ability to categorize it for you as what we mean when we say Church.

We must remember that being a disciple of Jesus is not impossible, it is just very expensive, very difficult. It requires a connection with other people that is scary, difficult, and taxing but often the very point of being a disciple in the first place. A disciple studies the difficult teachings and then obeys them the best way that he or she can. And this cannot be chewed up and digested for you by someone else. Just like no one can eat a meal for you, so too can no one digest the teachings of Jesus for you.

According to a study conducted by an organization called The State of Theology, more professing Christians than not know very little of the Scriptures, the words of Jesus, or what faith in Jesus is actually about. Not that they are stupid, but that, as it appears from the study, they do not know what is and what is not in the scriptures. Instead, they are informed, again it seems, by cultural cues, denominational bents, and extra biblical concepts that have emerged in different pockets of the Christian community.

Therefore I offer a possible antidote: communities which encourage genuine, personal wrestling with the words of Jesus and the prophets who came before him to whom they point. What does this look practically? I have witnessed such a movement among Christians who place prayer, communal worship and adoration, and well, eating at the center of their community. Not that these practices are magical, but that this type of lifestyle is the natural compost and fertile soil in which organic discipleship, natural wrestling with the Word, and real life change become norm. Not scripted, programmed, or planned, but loved, laughed, and cried out.

I believe our starting point must be a spirit of humility that asks the Holy Spirit to teach, confirm, and guide us and then to lovingly work out for each of us our own salvation as the epistle writer says. The modern practice of divisive fighting against one another about what is exactly right spiritually, is a phenomena that has occurred (I believe) out of spiritual illiteracy coupled with arrogance of heart. At this point, one must ask, is my definition of following Jesus what Jesus meant when he asked his followers to deny themselves, pick up their burdens, and follow him, loving their lives not even unto death?


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