Immortality as a language game

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Or life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) held that the meanings of words could only be understood within ‘forms of life’. We don’t simply come to use language by a teacher pointing to an object, a chair for example, and saying, ‘chair.’ This misconception, that words had meanings that could be understood outside their wider context was, for Wittgenstein a mistake:

Naming appears as a queer connection of a word with an object.—And you really get such a queer connection when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word ‘this’ innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.



“Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” – Wittgenstein

We know someone is adept at communication when they use language correctly, hence Wittgenstein’s famous slogan: ‘meaning is use.’ There are rules for using a language within every domain, rules for what Wittgenstein called a ‘language game’, to draw attention to the fact that speaking a language is part of a rule-bound activity, or of a form of life. He gives a number of disparate examples of language games, including:


Forming and testing a hypothesis— Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams— Making up a story; and reading it— Play-acting— Singing catches— Guessing riddles— Making a joke; telling it— Solving a problem in practical arithmetic— Translating from one language into another— Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

For Wittgenstein then, to understand someone, we have to know which language game our interlocutor is playing, and be at least open to playing by and have a tacit understanding of the same rules. The same also goes for the rules or ‘grammar’ of religious belief.

Suppose someone were a believer and said: ‘I believe in the last Judgement’, and I said, ‘Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly.’ You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said ‘There is a German aeroplane overhead’, and I said ‘Possibly. I’m not so sure’, you’d say we were fairly near.

It may seem on the surface that the person who speaks the last Judgement is making a scientific claim, but this is a misconception. There is a particular (religious) language game in play here, and we only confuse matters by interpreting his remarks as if they were part of another language game, that of science. Asking if there will be a Last Judgement within the context of the scientific language game is absurd as asking if a violinist has scored more points than the conductor during a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

The Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion D.Z. Phillips (1934-2006) claims that it makes no sense to ask for proof of validity of religious beliefs once they are understood as language games: ‘philosophy is neither for nor against religious beliefs,’ he writes. ‘After it has sought to clarify the grammar of such beliefs its work is over.’ Phillips sums up his view by listing examples of religious rituals and suggests their possible significance or functions:

A boxer crosses himself before the fight; a mother places a garland on a statue of the Virgin Mary; parents pray for their child lost in a wreck. Are these blunders or religious activities? What decides the answer to this question is the surroundings, what the people involved say about their actions, what their expectation are, what if anything, would render the activity pointless, and so on. Does the boxer think that anyone who crosses himself before a fight will not come to serious harm in it? Does the mother think that the garland’s value is prudential? Do the parents believe that all true prayers for the recovery of children lead to that recovery? If these questions answered in the affirmative, the beliefs involved become testable hypotheses. They are, as a matter of fact, blunders, mistakes, regarding causal connections of a kind. […] But perhaps the activities have a different meaning. Perhaps the boxer is dedicating his performance in crossing himself, expressing the hope that it be worthy of what he believes in, and so on. The mother may be venerating the birth of her child as God’s gift, thanking for it, and contemplating the virtues of motherhood as found in the mother of Jesus. The parents may be making their desires known to God, wanting the situation which has occasioned them to be met in Him. The beliefs involved are not testable hypotheses, but ways of reacting to and meeting such situations.

In the same way, for Phillips, those who assess talk of immortality of the soul as if it rested on a claim about duration beyond death are really missing the point. Rather, the meaning of eternal life, for those who speak of it is not ‘something which happens after human life on earth is over’ but ‘the reality of goodness, that in terms of which human life is to be assessed.’ For Phillips then the question of the immortality of the soul is an ethical one, and not one of assessing a quasi-scientific or metaphysical belief.

The soul which is rooted in the mortal is the soul where the ego is dominant […] The immortality of the soul by contrast refers to a person’s relation to the self-effacement and love of others involved in dying to the self. Death is overcome in that dying to the self is the meaning of the believer’s life […]. I am suggesting then, that eternal life for the believer is participation in the life of God, and that this life has to do with dying to the self, seeing that all things are a gift from God, that nothing is ours by right or necessity.

The Wittgensteinian approach to religious statements is not without its critics. Stephen Law points out that it is disingenuous to claim that the believer has a different relation or approach to her creedal statements than her atheist opponent. And it certainly appears that many sincere Christians, Muslims and Jews do believe quite literally in a life after death. Even if we take the view that there views are simply naïve compared to a more sophisticated philosophical theology, would that not be, to say the least, a little patronising? Can we really accept that for example, a regular church goer does not believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead?

Over eight centuries ago, Maimonides could write in his Essay on the Resurrection about the common people who he describes as needing:

precept after precept, precept after precept, now here, now there [Isa. 28:13]. The sense of it is that they understand but little, the comprehend a bit, a little here, a little there. But the right thing to do is to address each group according to its capacity.

However, if written today, such statements might be considered unacceptably elitist. And yet, literalism seems to be a blunt tool for interpreting religious beliefs and texts, and perhaps an anachronistic one at that. Looking back to the way that generations of religious philosophers have interpreted and reinterpreted sacred texts  bearing in mind the Talmudic adage that the “Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” We see that at least as far back as Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE – c 40 CE), scriptural passages were read as allegories or parables. We might, therefore, be taking an unduly narrow approach if we dismiss texts and mythologies describing life after death as merely prevalent forms of pseudoscience.



On being unreasonable


There is a much-quoted polemic by the early theologian Tertullian (c. 160-220 CE) which encapsulates a seemingly eternal tension between philosophy and religion, faith and reason:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.

This antagonism between faith and reason was earlier played out in the death sentence passed on Socrates for refusing to recognize the state deities, and later in Spinoza’s expulsion from the Amsterdam Jewish community. As the pendulum swings in the opposite direction, we witness the continuing ascendancy of Western European secularism and, as it reaches its zenith, New Atheism. For myself, and in my conversations with friends, both atheist and theist, from deeply secular to doggedly religious, this dilemma is often experienced as the pull of the noetic against the tug of the affective: the voice that demands, “Why can’t you explain what you mean?” and the one that replies, “Why don’t you shut up and listen?” It’s worth remembering, however, that the division does not correspond neatly with the division between religious believer and secular atheist. Among people of faith and even within the minds of adherents, there is conflict and cognitive dissonance – which is at the same time a visceral unease –  between the God of the philosophers and scholars, and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I started the philosophy of religion course I am teaching at the London School of Philosophy by looking at three ways at looking at religion. Functional definitions concentrate on the role religions play in society, for example by binding individuals together in cooperative wholes. Traditional and especially analytic philosophy of religion tends to focus on the substantive aspects, viewing religions as if they were constituted by sets of beliefs which can be analysed, dissected and measured against a standard of evidential warrant and rational justification. This approach demands that statements such as ‘There is a God’ are supported by rational arguments – or at least by an account justifying the redundancy of such arguments.

However some writers claim that religions should not be viewed as if they were a system of doctrines at all. One example is the Wittgensteinian philosopher D.Z Phillips (1934 – 2006), who suggests that the substantive conception of religion  misses the point. Rather, he claims, religious language, expresses a heartfelt need, existential anxiety or deep wondering:

To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying; it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question ‘Does God exist?’ with either an affirmative or a negative reply […] ‘There is a God’, though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith.

~Religion without Explanation

Reading Phillips might point us towards such an expressive conception of religion, a third way of viewing religion as an affective response to our deepest questions and yearnings. This is what the theologian Paul Tillich called our “Ultimate Concern”.

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern. Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns — cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfilment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name.

~Dynamics of Faith

Martin Buber makes perhaps the the most radical, almost ascetic, demand of our understanding of religion, that it can only be attained, not in examining the doctrinal belief but in the act of encounter:

Philosophy errs in thinking of religion as founded in a noetic act, even if an inadequate one, and in therefore regarding the essence of religion as the knowledge of an object which is indifferent to being known. As a result, philosophy understands faith as an affirmation of truth lying somewhere between clear knowledge and confused opinion. Religion, on the other hand, insofar as it speaks of knowledge at all, does not understand it as a noetic relation of a thinking subject to a neutral object of thought, but rather as mutual contact, as the genuinely reciprocal meeting in the fullness of life between one active existence and another. Similarly, it understands faith as the entrance into this reciprocity, as binding oneself in relationship with an undemonstrable and unprovable, yet even so, in relationship, knowable Being, from whom all meaning comes. [Italics mine]

~Eclipse of God: Studies in the relation between religion and philosophy

It is important to note that Buber is not suggesting that this encounter is purely subjective and that with which it takes place is ‘mind-dependent’ or a mere idea or social construct. Rather, what he elsewhere refers to as the Eternal Thou is real even if undefinable. Buber insists, “Many true believers know how to talk to God but not about Him. If one dares to turn toward the unknown God, to go to meet Him, to call to Him, Reality is present.”

So do we have to choose between the two: set aside our Aristotelian rational souls in order to apprehend an ultimate reality promised by religion, or alternatively pull back from the abyss, refusing the Leap of Faith to sacrifice our deepest yearnings on the unstable altar of the Enlightenment?

Yesterday I serendipitously encountered a possible solution, or at least a rephrasing of the problem,  in my reading of two books:  one was Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb, the other the Book of Genesis. Towards the end of the narrative of the Flood, we read that Noah blessed two of his sons (though rather unfairly it seems not Ham, whose son Canaan is cruelly cursed), namely Shem and Japheth.

And he said,

  “Blessed be the LORD

  The God of Shem;

  Let Canaan be a slave to them.

  May God enlarge Japheth

  And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;

  And let Canaan be a slave to them.” (Genesis 9:26-27)

Now tradition has it that Japheth was the ancestor of the Greeks. The early rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel interpreted this as sanctioning the Bible being translated into Greek, while no translation into any other language was permitted. And the nineteenth-century Hassidic rabbi Tzaddok HaCohen quoted ‘Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem’, as being fulfilled when, after the Hasmoneon victory over the Greeks, the Jews were able to integrate Greek philosophy into their own culture. But HaCohen also believed that the Jewish exile had a Divine purpose, to absorb ‘points of essence’ from the host cultures, this being a reading of the mystical idea of Tikkun, the reclamation of the hidden, divine sparks in order to restore the world to harmony.

So rather than faith/reason we have a different duality, that of host/guest, where the same person or the same tradition alternates between the two different roles, or can even perform both simultaneously – in relation to the stranger within its midst as well as to the greater nation within which it is a stranger. Some would say that we are ultimately guests of the Infinitely Great on whose land each one of us is merely a resident alien.

Richard Kearney in his provocative book Anatheism: Returning to God After God takes as an exemplar the first patriarch Abraham. Despite being, in the words of Psalm 119, “a stranger on this earth”, Abraham offers hospitality to the three divine ‘men’, angels perhaps, at the Terebinths of Mamre (Genesis 18). In the face of theophany, he humbly offers them water and bread. And perhaps as his reward, the angels announce the future arrival of another stranger, the child Isaac that his elderly and barren wife Sarah will bear.

For the atheist, openness to the unknown other does not mean embracing ‘the delirious delusions of theism’. Nor for the agnostic or the reflective theist, does it enthrone a new belief or religion. ‘It simply invites us to see what has always been there a second time around.’

Can we take the risk, gambling all that we have, yet knowing we can never possess the prize, even if we knew what it was?

Kearney suggests:

For in surrendering our own God to a stranger God, no God may come back again. Or the God who comes back may come back in ways that surprise us.