The Metaphysics of Witnessing

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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) linguistic philosophy is both convoluted and profoundly elegant once the basic ideas are unpacked into digestible pieces. One such idea is his theory of language games. Wittgenstein posited (among many other things) that within every subculture, there are specific ways language is used relative to that particular culture. Moreover, how that particular subculture chooses to use its form of language ultimately determines its meaning (but only within that subculture).

This is a very important aspect to consider; for it is quite possible (and I think very probable), that a significant reason the Church is unable to properly engage culture is because it is not communicating its message properly. The language it chooses to use is so embedded within the metaphorical symbols of its culture, that oftentimes misunderstood by those who are not a part of that culture.
The unfortunate assumption the church has made for a number of years now is that the secular (by secular I mean those outside of its subculture) have the metaphorical vocabulary necessary to properly understand and discern its message.

There seems to be two reasons for this: first, the church has failed to understand the biblical/historical worldview in light of its “language game” and as a result has failed to properly understand itself and its relationship to the secular. Second, (and from this first misstep) the Church has created axioms that are foreign to many outside of its subculture.

An example of this within our current culture surrounds the debate regarding homosexuality. One aspect within this debate is the idea of sin. Assuming that Christians in general even understand what this means (I think a large majority probably don’t), their use of the term comes with prodigious amounts context that makes it nearly impossible for those outside of the church’s subculture to properly apprehend.

Assuming the more prevalent use of the term, sin within the biblical worldview is understood as any action which separates an individual from God. There exists a large spectrum of actions which can fall into this category, from the most heinous to those actions, which seem fairly mundane. Despite our human spectrum for sin, God seems to view all “sins” as “sin”. The biblical worldview seems to care more about the intent the individual has toward the will of God. In other words, sin is the way in which humanity chooses a selfish autonomy rather than a submissive obedience.

Regardless if you agree or disagree with the aforementioned definition of sin, the reason the idea of sin is a great example to use is because it’s the most widely used term Christians use when speaking to others about Christ. It’s also a term that is almost completely confined to the Christian subculture for which the secular are not privy.

This is why we see such an emphasis on the actions of the Christian versus the language they use. I am a proponent of speech-act theory which suggests that truth/meaning can only result when speech and action are inseparable. I also think this is the message of the Gospel as we shall soon see.

Equally important in apprehending how language is used within disparate subcultures, is understanding why we chose to emphasize some ideas as representing our subculture in place of others when communicating to the secular.

There are three reasons for this. The first is based upon the assumption that we are emphasizing what we seem to think scripture is emphasizing. This is a result of propositionalism. Propositionalism comes with too much historical context to explore here. However, we might summarize it this way.

Propositionalism (within the Christian subculture) is the extrapolation of biblical propositions in order to organize them into various theological loci. Because we buy into the idea that scientific methodology is the only appeal to truth we have as humans we are bound to construct systematic theologies, which by nature, are propositional. To be fair, propositionalists are still attempting to extrapolate propositions within their rightful context. However, it’s a poor assumption to think that a propositions can capture in any significant way the context that they were taken out of.

The second reason we choose to use certain types of language to communicate to the secular is because we are under this false impression that scripture is for the secular. Scripture defines for the Church what it means to be “Christian”. It is a standard of living for the Christian, not the individual in the secular world. However, it seems to be used more as a metaphysical treatise on truth, and is thus universally applied – albeit wrongly.
Not only does the later perspective promote anti-culture from the start, but also fails to appreciate how other subcultures might be able to contribute to their understanding of what it means to be Christian.

This indictment is not just for the Christian subculture, but for ANY subculture that tries to superimpose its beliefs upon another. Probably the most obvious are the scientific and political subcultures that exists. To describe these two cultures is beyond the scope of this article, but may be forthcoming in the future.

The Christian should not view the secular as one to whom they have something to give. Instead, they should view their role as one who has something to show.

I would love to imagine a world where Christians looked to other subcultures to help themselves be better Christians, instead of starting with the assumption that their right and the secular is wrong? Can you imagine a world where science appreciates how scripture provides a beautiful poetic expression of the creation? Perhaps this is simply a utopian idea. Nonetheless a biblical one I suspect.

What do you think?

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The Metaphysics of Witnessing