Wittgenstein in Middle-School: Homily

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Solute, by Julian Vadas

The prayer for homily last week was about being many and one—so, set up to motivate an appreciation of diversity in unity. Since Wittgenstein’s approach to this is one of my main philosophical interests , I figured that I’d try and give a homily that managed to communicate some of the more practically important conclusions that can be gleaned from his writing in a way that 60 middle schoolers might enjoy at 8:30 in the morning. I figured the attempt would be interesting, and at the least provide an answer to the question, ‘why should we care about conceptual analysis of theology?’ In any case, it’s basically an attempt to apply several aspects of my account of Wittgenstein’s religious philosophy. Enjoy! (The actual homily was obviously a bit different, but it stuck to the text for the main part.)

Many and one; multiplicity and Unity. One of my main philosophical interests—it was actually central to all of my papers for Divinity school this year. So, I’m going to use this gathering to run through three of the most important things about unity and diversity, and why they’re important.

How many things can be described as One? [Get answers from students.]

That’s quite a lot of different things. And the most important side of this is not just that lots of different things can be called ‘one’: it’s that each of these things is ‘one’ in a different way. A person is ‘one’ in a different way to a school. A country is ‘one’ in a different way to a school. A way of being ‘good’ is ‘one’ in a different way to one country. And so on.

So, the first thing to remember is that there are many different ways of being one. Which also means that there are many different ways of being diverse.

Now, some of you may have noticed that not only are there many different ways of being one, but that there isn’t necessarily anything in common between all these ways. Some things are closer together than others—but one trilogy of books, for example, doesn’t seem to have much in common compared to say, one banana. And this holds for other things too. Let’s take ‘good.’ Now, I hope we all know that there’s more one way of being good, or being good at something. It’s important to remember, however, that there might not be anything much in common between these ways of being good. And even where we appear to have one way of being good at something—being smart, for example—there can be different ways of being good in this one way, and they don’t have to have anything in common.

This is a really, really important thing to remember. I think we all get stressed about whether or not we’re good enough, or whether we’re good at all. And I think we all sometimes look at other people and think, ‘they’re good, and I’m not like them—this must mean that I’m not good.’ Well, however much a way of being good might be one, there are always different ways of following that one way. And they don’t have to be similar. If you start doubting yourself, then, don’t start comparing yourself to others and judging yourself according to them. Your path need not be theirs; and it might be incredibly important that your goodness is different to theirs. To take basketball, for example, there’s almost nothing in common between Zaza Pechulia and Steph curry. But they both contribute to making the Warriors look more or less unbeatable. God has made each of us different, meanwhile—but precisely in that difference, we are all of equal value to our Creator. The essential thing to remember is that the fact of difference does not mean that there is a difference in value.

So, we’ve had two things. First, there are lots of different ways of being ‘one.’ Second, these ways don’t all necessarily have to have one thing in common. I’m going to keep to third thing short, but it’s really important. When you’re a part of something, it can and should change you. We’re all a part of this school, for example, and this has changed us all in some way. And this is a part of what it means to be part of one thing—to be changed by that belonging.

But for most things, this has to work both ways. Your belonging to something shouldn’t just change you; it should also change that thing. The fact that you are a member of this school, a member of your family, a member of your community is what makes each of these things what they are. This is a key part of community—that the membership of each individual changes the whole, and so each individual also has a transformative effect on each other. If someone says, for example, that you must be a certain way in order to be American, then you can let them know that ‘American’ should mean something different to what they think, because you are who you are. And in the knowledge of this difference, you can both see each other as connected individuals, a real diversity within unity.

Anyway, I think that’s probably enough on that. Here are three things to remember: there are lots of different ways of being one and lots of different ways of being many. There doesn’t have to be anything in common between different individuals for them to still be one. And being a part of something that is ‘one’ doesn’t just have to change you—it can, and often should, change that thing as well. That’s all quite a lot of information, but the longer I’m alive, the more I’m convinced that these three things are really, really important.

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