A May Notebook

"Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself."
--Ludwig Wittgenstein

Paul tells the Corinthians, "I show you a more excellent way" -- not "I show you a more excellent way to talk about the things you were going to do anyway." But isn't this exactly what Christianity sometimes appears to consist of -- another language in which to rationalize our old desires? New wineskins don'timprove theold wine.

* * *

In a crisis of faith, I have beentempted to say: "I no longer believe in God, but I still want to believe -- and hardly know how to go about life as if I don't." But then I think, Maybe the opposite is truer: I still believe in God (no matter what I tell myself), but I don't want to believe, because I don't want to believe that God has let certain things happen -- as if, by denying his existence, I would rescue him from some guilt. Of course, it is not a question of guilt...or not his anyway.

* * *

Our choices are always underdetermined by our reasons beforehand (no mere calculation forces us to do this rather than that) and overdetermined by our explanations afterward (a true justification would stop at sufficiency; but, sensing the artificiality of our justifications, we always overshoot the mark, adding two or three spare rationales: "It wasn't just one thing"). We are afraid of our freedom because it makes us, and not our arguments, responsible.

* * *

"Discoveries" about ourselves are not like the discoveries of science. What is new is not the phenomena but the language with which we describe them: describing my situation in this way makes it easier for me to proceed -- springs me from some mental trap I was caught in -- but the situation itself does not change, even if I am now better able to change it.

* * *

Meaning to be severe, one says, "Aha! NowI see what you were about all along," when the truth may be much harder. Maybe you were about something else until that moment. But the idea of radical change frightens us even more than an unexpected revelation.

* * *

We say time heals all wounds. We should say it could.There are sometimes too many wounds, and not enough time.

* * *

At difficult moments of revelation, we let some slack into our language. One person says, "Is this the real reason you came?" And the other answers, "In a way, yes." Or as someone pivots from small talk to some bad news, "That's kind of why I wanted to talk to you." One could say this kind of wiggling is intended to help the person addressed, like the button at the end of a fencer's sword. Or one could say, more plausibly, that it's self-protective, a mostly unconscious way to avoid saying exactly what has to be said. One ofthe hardest and shortest of the gospels' hard sayings is "Let your speech be, "Yes, yes"; "No, no."

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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