A Wittgensteinian Critique of Metaphysics Made Through an Anthropological Lens With Visions of the Postmetaphysical

When we hear about ‘modern theology’ we often hear attendant with that the language of ‘postmetaphysical.’ In this we might think about the Hegelinization or immanentization of all of reality; or the maybe even the Cartesinization of it. Whatever mental cues come to mind when we hear ‘modern theology’ I think we would be right indeed to think that it is a theology that would like to move away from speculative modes of thinking, and instead focus on the concrete material world as we experience it. This is why modern theology is so often associated with existentialism and its focus on the subject; and in particular, the subject’s experience of God under such conditions (as the modern presents us with). Here is a quote from Fergus Kerr, in description of Wittgenstein’s project to engage in postmetaphysical thinking. Here he offers an anthropological critique with anti-metaphysical implications.

The longing for unrestricted incorporeal freedom lies deep, if not in human nature, then certainly in the culture to which we belong. The craving to burst out of the bonds of body and of time may well be exactly what it takes to free animals of our kind into the space of culture and history; but it is an ambivalent gift. If we never learn to own our finitude we remain tormented by a powerful inability ever to be satisfied by anything. The desire to transcend the present, whatever it may be, comes out in the whole variety of ways in which human beings have made the world inhabitable. But the thought of the transcendent spirit inevitably bring with it a certain notion of the body as weighing down and trammeling it. From this it has been easy to conceive the body as little more than a corpse that requires to be animated: the face becomes a veil, a mask that needs to be manipulated from behind, while the production of meaning retreats from the materiality of signs into the recesses of the invisible mind. In effect, a metaphysically generated concept of the human body, derived from the thought of the immateriality and invisibility of the soul, displaces our experience of the whole living man or woman. This picture of the body gets in the way of our conversation with one another. The body become [sic] a site for occult spiritual going-on-which turn out in the end to be how the individual enjoys a private view wither of the divine or, perhaps more commonly, of himself.

There is no sense in regretting the history of the metaphysically generated body, but the time has long since come to try to deconstruct it. The latest form of this metaphysical reduction of the human being is no doubt, as Charles Taylor suggests, the drive in many of the social sciences to extend the objectifying way of conceiving things to our own case. Behaviour as such is supposed to lack significance, in such a way that when it does appear significant it has to be because it is the outwardly observable effect of certain internal mental goings-on. The mind retreats from the face, just as the immaterial soul once disappeared behind the body. The idea of the mind as radically private and inaccessible to outsiders then becomes inescapable.

What this amounts to, in the end, is the devaluation of intrinsically expressive behaviour. The rumor spreads that we are an assembly of zombies. The difficulties that are certainly present in everyday conversation are exploited to strengthen the belief that people’s minds and selves are essentially – as hidden as the mind and nature of God. An ‘objectifying’ scientific conception of human behaviour turns into a highly ‘subjectivist’ religious or theological one. Either way, the soul withdraws, leaving nothing but a quantity of matter for others to measure. The mind retreats inwards, out of the public world, and this undermines the confidence in direct openness to the world itself. Before we know where we are, then, we find ourselves with problems about how we could ever have knowledge of anything outside our own self-certain solitary minds. The metaphysically generated body turns out to hide a paranoid-schizoid soul.[1]

Ironically, on this reading, what we have in Wittgenstein, per Kerr’s reading, is what I might call a proto-Post Modern deconstruction of things. In other words, Wittgenstein’s project could be understood to be just as critical of the so called Father of Modern Theological Liberalism, or Schleiermacher, as it is of the precritical Augustine. But here we have an illustration, a description even, if Kerr is correct, of a project undertaken by Wittgenstein, that genuinely attempts to immanentize all of reality, and remove the strictures that so called ‘metaphysics’ supplies thinkers worldwide with.

More to be said, but out of time for now.

[1] Fergus Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstien (London: SPCK, 1997), 45-6.


Trying to Understand evangelical Moral Reasoning and Trump: What Role Does Theological Anthropology Play?

This whole Donald Trump immigration policy thing has me reeling; particularly because of how I have seen many (not all!) my evangelical brothers and sisters responding affirmatively to it (or cautiously optimistic in some cases). This only adds to my disillusionment with evangelicalism as of late, at least its adameveoriginalsinNorth American instantiation within which I have been ensconced my whole life. I am trying to figure out how evangelicals, who ostensibly love Jesus, can look at what Trump is doing in this regard and cheer him on; particularly when what he is doing is at diabolical odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My conclusion thus far is that well meaning Christians have become co-opted by the culture wars, a nationalist bent, and a desire to once again be the moral majority.

Theologian, John Webster, helps us get at what is going on in the type of Christian psyche we see on display in many North American evangelicals in our current political atmosphere; he does this as he explicates Karl Barth’s own analysis of the Christians inhabiting Nazi Germany as they ended up colluding with Hitler in very naïve ways.[1] Webster writes this of Barth’s analysis:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

As if often the case, as Webster underscores through engagement with Barth, what this boils down to is an anthropological question. You might have noticed how ‘liberal Protestantism’ is in the cross hairs of Barth, but when it comes to anthropological considerations, North American evangelicalism, ironically, mimics ‘liberal Protestantism’ in some surprising ways[3]. What I want to key in on is what Webster concludes with in his last clause about the certainty that people operate with when it comes to morality, and what is Gospel faithful thinking; this: “…This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.”[4] I would submit that evangelicals supporting Trump (even if cautiously) have placed too much confidence in themselves, and their ability to objectively discern what is ethically expedient and right relative to their place in the world.

Fergus Kerr, like Webster, also offers some valuable insight on Barth’s critique of humanity’s propensity, even ‘Christian’ humanity, to have too much certainty relative to their own machinations in regard to engaging with reality.[5] Here Kerr describes Barth’s critique of Rene Descartes’ methodological skepticism in his quest to find rational certainty about God, and all subsequent reality; what we end up with in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’). As you read this, as with Webster’s analysis of Barth, you will note how theological anthropology is at play in a central way. Kerr writes:

Karl Barth, as one would expect, has provided the most substantial modern critique of theological anthropology. But he had already come to grips in an interesting way with the Cartesian picture of the self.

There are two points to note. First, according to Barth, the Cartesian proof of the existence of God spirals back into the Cartesian metaphysics of the self:

This idea of divinity as innate in man. Man can produce it at will from the treasury or deficiency of his mind. It is made up of a series of pre-eminent attributes which are relatively and primarily attributes of the human mind, and in which the latter sees its own characteristics – temporality, finitude, limited knowledge and ability and creative power – transcended in the absolute, contemplating itself in the mirror of its possible infinitude, and yet remaining all the time within itself even though allowing its prospect of itself to be infinitely expanded by this speculative extension and deepening. By transcending myself, I never come upon an absolute being confronting and transcendent to me, but only again and again upon my own being. And by proving the existence of a being whom I have conjured up only by means of my own self-transcendence, I shall again and again succeed only in proving my own existence. (CD III/2, 46)

… In the Cartesian proof of God’s existence, it is a certain conception of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence that Barth finds endlessly reflected.

Secondly, and even more instructively, Barth finds it necessary to attack the Cartesian emphasis on the thinking self when he discusses the right use of imagination in learning from Scripture. The biblical account of the creation is a saga that has a great deal to teach us:

We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a ‘non-historical’ depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. (CD III/1, 81)

As the original practitioner of ‘narrative theology’, Barth denounces the rationalist epistemological bias that has affected so much biblical exegesis since the Enlightenment:

But the human possibility of knowing is not exhausted by the ability to perceive and comprehend. Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. (CD III/1, 91)

Theologians are thus well aware of the difficulties that the modern philosophy of the self has created. My suspicion, however, is that version of the mental ego of Cartesianism are ensconced in a great deal of Christian thinking, and that many theologians regard this as inevitable and even desirable. The appeal of some theological writing also seems inexplicable unless it touches crypto-Cartesian assumptions which many readers share.[6]

Remember what I am trying to do in this post; I am attempting to understand how it is that my evangelical brothers and sisters can affirm, even tacitly, Donald Trump’s morality, with particular focus, in this instance on his recent policy move in regard to immigration. So you might be asking by now: what in the world do these insights from Webster and Kerr on Barth’s theology have to do with that?

My Contention

I see American evangelicals, in general, living unexamined intellectual and moral lives. As such I believe they have inherited, from the history of ideas, a kind of Kantian moral imperative shrouded by a Cartesian certainty about who they are and what they know, morally. When Kerr quotes Barth and Barth’s critique of Christians who end up creating God in their own image by way of speculation and projection, and the loss of real ‘transcendence’ and ‘outside of us’ (ecstatic) grounding that this entails, I think this helps explain, at a moral level, how it is that Trump can be affirmed by evangelicals. The center of morality in this schema becomes the all determining self, guised as it were in a sense of false-transcendence that looks all too much like a RealPolitik, and nothing like the morality engendered by what is given by the real deal transcendence revealed in the Gospel of God’s triune life in Jesus Christ. Political pragmatism and the absolute self go hand in hand in this schema, all the while framed ostensibly by a notion of the divine and sense of other. Unfortunately, if Barth is right, what these Christians are actually engaging in is idolatry. They have conflated their conception of God, and the values he gives us in Christ, with what they perceive as morally expedient embedded within a “conservative” framework of right and wrong which is determined to be by the ‘absolute self.’ In other words, evangelicals, in the main, at least the ones supporting Trump (at various levels), have been appealing to a conception of God, and the values engendered by who He is, that in the end is really just a projection of the self and not One who is encountered in the face of Jesus Christ.

When Kerr moves to Barth’s thinking on imagination and biblical narrative theology, he is attempting to highlight how Christians, of all people, ought to move away from rationalist certitude, generated from the absolute self, and instead submit to the God encountered in the pages of Holy Scripture. We will have to say more about this aspect later. But it is pertinent to how evangelicals approach Scripture through their ‘lack’ of an ontology of Scripture vis-à-vis God’s taxis.


My conclusion, at this point, in regard to answering my question about evangelicals and Trump, is that evangelicals, in the main, have uncritically conflated their perception of God, which is based on projection, resulting in skewed moral reasoning. If evangelicalism, in the main, is funded by an anthropology that is circular, one that starts with their mind and ends with their mind, then the mind of Christ has no space to contradict how they think about all things real. This helps explain, for me, how well intentioned evangelical Christians in North America can support someone like Donald Trump in the main, and now in particular, and at the forefront currently, his denigration of human life (immigrants) simply based upon personal fears and expediency that is determined to be expedient by a moral self that is only accountable to an absolute self. As far as I am concerned what we are witnessing, because of this kind of idolatry, is anti-Christ, of the sort that we have unfortunately witnessed over and again through the annuls of history. May Christians repent of this kind of idolatry and genuinely allow the mind of Christ to contradict their minds to the point that repentance is realized and genuine Christian witness and prophetic positioning can once again be the reality for the church of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that our role; to point the world to Christ?


[1] To be clear I am not intimating that there is a one-to-one correspondence between WW2 Nazi Germany, and the conditions inherent in 21st century North America, and evangelicalism. What is similar, I would contend, is the innate ‘human’ desire to feel a sense of security and control, and its propensity to do that by looking to human governmental structure and policies in order to bring that about; this propensity implicates both so called “conservatives” and “liberals” alike.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (UK: T&T Clark, 1998), 35-6.

[3] An assertion that will have to be established later.

[4] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 36.

[5] Ironically, as I write this I am listening to Depeche Mode’s song, World In My Eyes.

[6] Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997), 9-10.