Perpetua, Felicity, Ludwig

The great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once said, “Jesus teaches us two things. First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition. Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”* Strong words those, and words that often come to my mind on martyrs’ feast days. I’m remembering McCabe’s words today, as we celebrate the feast day of Perpetua and Felicity. I’m also thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose works McCabe’s friend Elizabeth Anscombe did so much to bring to the world’s attention and whom McCabe and his fellow Dominicans studied so closely.

When I’ve taught my introduction to theology class, I’ve paired the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity with Jon Sobrino’s “Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean” (the account of the four American women missionaries martyred in El Salvador in 1977). The reading comes near the end of the semester, just after we’ve finished our discussion of the Scriptures and just before we read Irenaeus’s Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. I offer these readings to the students as witnesses of witnesses. And I think the students are genuinely conflicted about Perpetua and Felicity’s story. What kind of mother, they wonder, chooses death instead of nursing her son? And what kind of mother decides when she’s eight months pregnant to choose Christ instead of her unborn child? (Indeed, what kind of god would want that?) How could these women possibly have sung psalms as they came to their death? Perpetua even wants to fix her hair before she dies, “for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”

These are difficult questions, and I don’t presume to give any answers to them. I do think, however, that the way of life and death that these women faced ought to be taken very seriously indeed. Martyrdom, of course, has nothing to do with death in the first place. It has to do with witness. We, all of us, witness and witness to all sorts of things in our daily actions. We witness to a particular economic system, to a particular political system, to a particular faith tradition, to particular families and friends. The list, as they say, goes on. And this witness can only make sense in the forms of life that we inhabit, but it can also show us the problems with those forms of life.

Which brings me to Wittgenstein.

I’ve been playing around with an idea for a paper that would compare Wittgenstein’s dictum that following a rule is fundamental to a language game with Irenaeus of Lyon’s conception of the rule of faith as the measure of a proper interpretation of Scripture. I haven’t gotten as far as I’d like with the paper, but in my reading (and in many cases re-reading), I’ve been reminded about how seriously Wittgenstein took questions of witness. For him, doing philosophical work was part of living life as a fundamentally decent human being. Wittgenstein did not consider himself a Christian, but he famously said to a friend, “I am not a religious man, but I can’t help seeing every problem for a religious point of view.” I dislike the words “religion” and “religious” for reasons that need not detain me here. But Wittgenstein seems to mean that a religious person understands himself as ethically serious and he sees the world as a source of wonder. (For two earlier posts in which I think about these issues with regard to other thinkers see here and here.)

In order to witness properly, we must dismantle our pride. Doing this, Wittgenstein told a friend, is “terribly hard work. ... If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself, because this is too painful, he will remain superficial in his writing.” Few of us will write things as important as Wittgenstein did, but all of us, especially in this Lenten season, recognize how “terribly hard” dismantling our pride is.

Needless to say, I’m not doing Wittgenstein justice here. If you’re interested in him, you should read Ray Monk’s magisterial biography Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius. And if you’re interested in Wittgenstein and theology, you should read my teacher Fergus Kerr’s book Theology after Wittgenstein. But let me end with this. The point of dismantling our pride is that pride gets in the way of love. As Wittgenstein writes (with strange echoes of Irenaeus, I would argue),

And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were, with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or it is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection.

Forty days to recommit ourselves to the love that is stronger than death.

*I have to admit that I haven’t been able to track down where McCabe said this. He might well have told it to me personally, but I’m certain he said it many times. My friend and former teacher Denys Turner has also quoted the line.

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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