Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Religious Sense: Ludwig Wittgenstein

(This was an article titled, “Thought in Movement,” by Carlo Dignola, published in the December 2000 issue of Traces, the magazine of the Catholic Movement, Communion and Liberation.)

Thought In Movement
By Carlo Dignola

“Christianity is not a doctrine, it is not a theory of what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but rather the description of a real event in man’s life.” This explosive observation written among personal notes in 1937 by Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951], one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, is a patent example of how human intelligence, exercised in a way consonant with its nature, not only does not contradict faith, but even manages to glimpse a possibility of it.

Wittgenstein was certainly one of the most acute, powerful, and anti-conformist minds of the century; he is considered by every serious history of philosophy to be one of the great “destroyers of metaphysics.” During his lifetime he published only one book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In this work, in which his purpose was to say everything that can be said in philosophy, and only that, he deliberately was silent on everything that concerned religion, and more generally the world of values, tracing in an almost perfect logical system a razor’s edge, beyond which human thought is expressly forbidden to go. “Ethics,” wrote Wittgenstein, including in this also the entire sphere of religious experience, “cannot be formulated.” It belongs to silence. We knew this about Wittgenstein, the relentless critic of every kind of spiritualistic talk, the Logical Positivist who forbade the senseless chatter of religion. Piece-by-piece, however, in recent years, as the diaries and notebooks are published in which he jotted down, one after the other on the same pages, philosophical observations and details of his private life friendships, affections, opinions on concerts by Brahms and Beethoven, and solutions for highly complex mathematical problems–it emerges that Wittgenstein was not only the inventor of a philosophy that acted like a policeman guarding the boundary between reason and religion, but also that his elaborations of philosophical thoughts were constantly and almost obsessively stimulated and supported by explicit questions about human existence.

Every Problem

Michele Ranchetti, the editor of a fine edition of Wittgenstein’s diaries that appeared last year (Movimenti del pensiero, Movements of Thought [Italy]), rightly observes that Wittgenstein’s manner of studying philosophy is the “perennial examination of conscience of those who–as he himself says–cannot avoid seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”

It is well known that Wittgenstein chose his words very carefully. We realize only now that many of his less gifted followers have, in order to banish from philosophy every question of meaning, made use of a thinker who on the contrary penetrated into the “infernal” world of logic–as he called it–starting always from metaphysical questions. Or rather, to be more precise, he started from a “wrestling match” with Christianity and with the figure of Jesus Himself that lasted his entire life.

Naturally, this does not mean that Wittgenstein was a Christian; he was Jewish, even though–with great guilt–he tried for a long time to hide it, in the years when anti-Semitism was rampant all over Europe. Part of his family felt close to the German Protestant culture, its work ethic, and its moralistic and intimate conception of Christianity. And yet his intellectual and ethical touchstone seems to have been Catholic Christianity. Essentially, he never embraced faith (“everything,” he wrote in 1920 in a letter to his friend Paul Engelmann, “arises naturally from the fact that I have no faith”). Perhaps he never encountered it in an outstanding personality (even though his biographies reveal that for a period he thought of entering a monastery),–and yet he always felt Christ to be a stumbling block not only of his own, but of every system of thought. He had intuitions about the figure of Christ marked by a breathtaking profundity and clarity, which only a genius could have grasped so immediately and directly.

But these facts must not deceive: it is not a certainty he might have reached (although he would turn his investigations in the last years of his life); it is not faith that drew him toward Christianity.
Rather, it was a basic loyalty to the data of experience, which Wittgenstein understood mainly as “linguistic experience.” This splendid observation reveals precisely his way of seeking, explaining what religion is, beginning with language: “There is no one here, and yet I speak and thank and ask. Is this talking and thanking and asking therefore an error? Rather, I would say, this is a marvelous thing.” In this sense Wittgenstein appears to be a strange kind of realist philosopher: a realist “of signs,” we might perhaps say, and not “of things.”

He approaches Christianity, too, as a datum of linguistic experience that cannot easily be liquidated. “Just as the insect buzzes around the light,” he wrote, “so do I around the New Testament.” Some of his intuitions are astonishing in their exactness, which is often not found even in twentieth century catechisms. We could say that Wittgenstein does not have faith, but he intuits quite well what faith is: “I need certainty–not wisdom, dreams, speculation–and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart needs, my soul, not my speculative intellect. Because it is my soul, with its passions, almost with its flesh and its blood, which must be redeemed, not my abstract spirit.”

Christianity, Wittgenstein thus says, is not a doctrine. It is not an idea or a written word that can save man. “The Bible is nothing more than a book in front of me… This document cannot, in itself, ‘bind me’ to any faith in the doctrines it contains–as little as any other document could that might fall into my hands. If I have to believe in these doctrines, it is not because this and not that is told to me. Rather, they must be clear and obvious to me: and by this I do not mean only teachings of ethics but historical teachings.” The adjective “historical” here indicates exactly the unfolding over time of that category of “event.” It is not the words one hears in church that give the true motivation for adhering to Christianity: “Preaching can be a preliminary condition of faith, but through what happens in it; it cannot set faith into motion. Faith begins with faith.”

Wittgenstein, by the force of logical reasoning, realizes that the event of belief is something original, a primum that goes beyond logic but that does not contradict it in the least, and he understands very well that this depends on a fact, and on the position that man takes in front of this fact as a consequence.


The precision of these judgments is impressive, and yet Wittgenstein is honest enough to realize–and write–that “all this is naturally not Christianity,” that his intelligence and even his great moral strength have not managed to convert him. “This tending toward the absolute… appears to me as something splendid, sublime, but I myself aim my gaze at earthly things–unless ‘God’ should ‘visit’ me.” “It is also clear,” he wrote, “that this faith is a grace.”
Philosophizing, on this plane, is worth very little; a treatise will not solve the problem of existence. Wittgenstein wrote this very clearly, as was his style: “If you are not ready to sacrifice your work for something higher, it will not be blessed in any way. Because it obtains its height from the fact that you place it at its true height in relationship with the ideal.”

Wittgenstein realized–differently from what was indicated by the mentality of the environment in which he grew up–that it is not an effort that saves man. He knew first of all that he was not capable of this (“Know yourself, and you will see that you are always and in any case a poor sinner”), and that anyway it would not be enough. Rather, he sought refuge–a little like Franz Kafka–in what he considered an ethic but what we could also call a “human position,” a proper disposition, which does not guarantee salvation but invokes it (“I am like a beggar”).

A line in the diaries may summarize, in an almost prophetic manner, the meaning of this reflection on Christianity, as an event of the spirit that is still indecipherable; a line that we could read, at the close of this century, as an anti-Nietzschean motto, the opposite of the “death of God” Nietzsche proclaimed. “In metropolitan civilization,” we read in Movimenti del pensiero, “the spirit can only withdraw into a corner. And yet, it is not at all worn out or superfluous, but, like an (eternal) witness, floats above the rubble of culture–almost like an avenger of God. As though it awaited a new incarnation."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Religious Sense: Science

"It is true that individuals who subscribe to an
allegedly unified and self-evident "scientific
world view" of the modern type are seen as
having failed to engage the larger intellectual
challenge of the age--thereby receiving the
same judgement in the post-modern era
that the ingenuous religious person received
from science in the modern era. In virtually
all contemporary disciplines, it is recognized
that the prodiguous complexity, subtlety, and
multivalence of reality far transcend the grasp
of any one intellectual approach, and that
only a committed openness to the interplay
of many perspectives can meet the
extraordinary challenges of the postmodern
era. But contemporary science has itself
become increasingly self-aware and
self-critical, less prone to a naive scientism,
more conscious of its epistemological and
existential limitations. Nor is contemporary
science singular, having given rise to a
number of radically divergent interpretations
of the world, many of which differ sharply from
what was previously the conventional
scientific wisdom.

Commmon to these new perspectives has
been the imperative to rethink and reformulate
the human relation to nature, an imperative
driven by the growing recognition that modern
science's mechanistic and objectivist conception
of nature was not only limited but fundamentally

-from The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas.

Tarnas then goes on in detail.

The Religious Sense: Kurt Vonnegut

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:


-Kurt Vonnebut

Vonnegut's Blues for America

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Religious Sense: Sean Penn

“Why are we close friends? I don’t ask. I don’t want to know. Love the mystery. Don’t want to know why I’m here, per se, in life. Feel it, follow the feeling. But don’t want the answer. Don’t believe I’ll get it. Don’t want the safety net of ‘Am I gonna have an afterlife or not?” He continued, “Somebody says there’s a God. I think it’s a kind of funny notion. Somebody says there’s not. I think it’s a funny notion. To know is a funny notion. And so you know, if I’ve got religion, it’s the mystery of the thing.”

- the actor Sean Penn (1960-), from an article titled Citizen Penn. The Many Missions of Sean Penn, by John Larh, in the April 3rd, 2006 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Monday, April 17, 2006

DVD: Be Still And Know That I Am God (2006)

Life is not only full of more distractions and noise than ever, but if you are like me, then it is almost a compulsion that whenever you get into the car, or the house is silent, the first thing you do is turn on the radio, stereo, or TV. I know many people are never without their I-Pod or cell phone—on the train, at the beach, shopping, or anywhere. If you’re like me, it has gotten to the point where you don’t know what to do with yourself unless you’re stuffing information into your brain, whether it’s words, sounds or images. When I’m not talking or writing, I’m reading a book, a magazine, a screen, a newspaper or a cereal box. I seem to be making it very difficult for any thoughts and feelings to surface freely of their own accord. I seem bent on drowning them all. Have I had any inner peace lately? Can I put two and two together?

This DVD is an introduction to contemplative prayer, also known as listening prayer, or Christian meditation. This is the kind of prayer where, instead of talking to God, you give God a chance to talk to you. It is reflective prayer. Different aspects of the topic are presented by about a dozen different Christian educators, authors and ministers.

The topics include the issue of distraction and noise in contemporary society, the importance of silence as a spiritual discipline, discernment of thoughts, and usage of the Bible in contemplative prayer including the method known as Lectio Divino. The presenters stress that contemplative prayer is for everyone---we ordinary people in our everyday lives.

Several of the presenters talk of their own experience with listening prayer, but also many of the great Christian spiritual masters of history are discussed and quoted: St. Benedict, France de Sales, Francis of Assisi, Brother Lawrence, Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Evelyn Underhill.

If nothing else, this DVD will open your mind about opening your mind. It should also give you greater respect for, and an understanding of the importance of silence.

The most insightful thing I heard was when a woman said (a paraphrase) that many people say they do not like being alone and silent because then they have face themselves and their own thoughts. Her rejoinder was that it was those very thoughts are God trying to talk to you.

The names of the people on the DVD are: Dr. Henry Cloud, Richard Foster, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, Dr. Lon Allison, Dr. Mark Brewer, Jan Johnson, Dr. Peter Kreeft, Michelle McKinney Hammond, Dr. Calvin Miller, Ginny Owens, Dr. Jerry Root, Priscilla Shirer, Dallas Willard.

As a Catholic, I found it refreshing, and a great leap forward, that the DVD was done entirely by Protestants.

I found this DVD in my local Hollywood Video store. I was only able to find one link to it on the Internet:

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Barabbas is one of my favorite Biblical characters. I recall knowing about Barabbas when I was a young boy. Today is Palm Sunday, and in the Catholic Mass, the Passion narrative from the Bible is always read. The priest, lecture, congregation, and another voice take different roles from the narrative, like actors rehearsing their roles. The congregation plays the role of the crowd in the square before Pilate, and, among other lines, we get to shout, “Barabbas! Give us Barrabas!” When you’re a little kid, this is fun.

Also as a boy, on TV, I had seen the film, Barabbas, starring Anthony Quinn. Between the Passion narrative and the film, I had a very romantic image of Barrabas. I thought of him the way little boys think about cowboys, outlaws, and frontiersmen. Barabbas was a self-reliant leader, a courageous man, an outlaw, and an underdog—all the things that American culture traditionally idolizes. He was a man of action, a man’s man who stood on his own two feet.

In the film, The Passion of the Christ, we see a seething brute, who, though bound in chains, continues to taunt and resist the Roman soldiers. He looks filthy, ragged, and violent, and we assume he is guilty as charged.

But what actual facts do we know about Barabbas? Scripture says he was a notorious criminal, had taken part in a rebellion and was charged by the Romans with insurrection and murder. That is all we know about his actual background.

Like any other leader, Pilate had to balance conflicting demands. Pilate did not like to use the death penalty unnecessarily. Pilate understood that Jesus had been brought to him out of clerical envy and did not want to kill Him. Pilate’s wife had even told him that she had a dream about Jesus, and that he should not harm Him. Moreover, Pilate seems taken aback by Jesus’ answers to his questions--such answers from a man faced with immanent crucifixion made him wonder.

However, Pilate had to answer to Rome for keeping the peace, and he had an enraged mob in front of him. There had been unrest and insurrections before. If Pilate didn’t placate the populace, would he soon have another rebellion on his hands?

Pilate’s offer to trade the notorious, murderous Barabbas was a bluff. He thought the mob would have enough sense to call for the release of Jesus, but the fired-up, unthinking mob accepted. Pilate had painted himself into a corner. When Pilate washed his hands in front of the crowd, he was not merely trying to disclaim his own responsibility and guilt but was trying to cast the blame on the crowd.

The drama of Barabbas is multi-layered and symbolic. It’s a microcosm of almost the whole gospel. In Aramaic, “Bar-Abba” means, “Son of the father.” To say, “Son of the father,” would be redundant in ordinary discourse. In my opinion, the author of the gospel stated the name this way to remind us of the guilty Barabbas’ humanity—that he was a child of God, just as we are. He is our brother just as Jesus was. Furthermore, the innocent one, the Son of God, is put to death, of His own accord, while the guilty one is set free. One must ask one’s self, what kind of God is this? And make no mistake about it: You and I are no different than Barabbas.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Testimony from the Actor who Played Barrabas in The Passion of the Christ

The Look of Barabbas

(From Traces magazine, February 2006)

by Pedro Sarubbi

I have always been an unusual guy, full of great emotions and great contradictions. I preferred adventure stories to toys, and rather than football games in the yard, I preferred the company of my grandfather (a war hero) or the tales of the old fishermen in the port. Reality was oppressive for me and I took refuge in fantasy. This led me with natural ease to become an actor from my earliest years.

Unfortunately, as I gradually became used to the routine of my profession, I lost contact with the research and the quality of life, and became more and more cynical and superficial. Mel Gibson saw me in the film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and offered me the part of Barabbas in the film The Passion. I was concerned about how big a part I would have, how much they would pay me, and how much publicity it would bring me. I was unhappy to find that Barabbas had nothing to say, something really humiliating for actors of a certain standing. At the end of the screen tests, I went to Mel Gibson and told him I was enthusiastic to work with him, but couldn’t accept a non-speaking part. He took me to one side in a fatherly way and explained that this will be a beautiful and very important film and that my dumb Barabbas will be more important for me and for the film than any other speaking role in an ordinary film.
“You will use the power of your look, like all the actors in this film!” he told me. We did the filming and I went on complaining. During the third week of filming, when I came down the first stairway of the Sanhedrin, my eyes met the eyes of the actor Jim Caviezel, and it was like an electric shock, a great emotion came over me, and I carried that wonder with me and my life began to change.

I have the feeling that something really happened and that look was there, but it was really between Pedro and Christ. It was something enormous and it sent me into complete confusion. Why did it happen? This question keeps coming back to me. I produced the Passion on the stage, trying to analyze it and understand, but I am unable to do it alone. All my interviews are full of these doubts; what happened in that look? One day, a priest, Fr. Gabriele Mangiarotti, called me on the phone and asked me to dinner in the parish of Brugherio to speak about this look. I went and there were three hundred people there, and we began to talk. Everyone wanted to know, to understand–I want to ask myself, but they are all asking me.

After the talk we began to eat. At the table are Fr. Gianni Calchi Novati and a group of nice people in their forties. I got talking with one of them about my doubts. His name was Ermes, and he said, “If you like, come to School of Community with us; maybe it will help you understand.” We agreed on the first date. That was the beginning of my journey of encounter with Fr. Giussani, not meeting him but enjoying his writings, his answers to my questions in his books and in the companionship of his people. Ermes spoke of Fr. Giussani’s passion for a person’s look and how he searched for it in every sacred image. Fr. Gabriele taught me the buoyancy of being in peace; Fr. Gianni with his scolding showed me the way. They were all close to me.

Then, with them I saw the huge pain of Fr. Giussani’s death. I realized I was suffering more by sharing their loss than for the actual departure of someone whom I had known only through his writings, but at the funeral, in the cold and freezing weather, in the Cathedral Square, I became aware of my new condition. I was serene: finally after years, I was surrounded by so many people who I loved and who loved others and they were all there, united by the sorrow, firm in love. To feel myself part of those people made me understand how I, too, was touched by Fr. Giussani and how great a part he had in my spiritual rebirth.