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The Silence of Easter

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." — Ludwig Wittgenstein

[1] During the Easter season, I wander the halls of church and mutter on the bike trail, "He is risen!" I'm perennially hoping someone will overhear and respond. Often someone does. Even if I speak into silence, in the absence of others, I can still hear the echo of the Easter Sunday litany resounding in my auditory memory banks — "He is risen indeed! Alleluia!"

The Silence of Easter by Clint Schnekloth

[2] The rest of the year, outside of Easter, other aphorisms crowd in, some of them frequently. One of those always takes on fresh importance during the Lenten season and lead-up to Holy Week, especially in year B when we dwell so deeply in the gospel of Mark. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously concluded his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus with this single, enigmatic, unsupplemented proposition, "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen," most often translated, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

[3] This sentence has, together with the first proposition in the Tractatus ("The world is everything that is the case") taken on a kind of proverbial quality in contemporary German. They are the kind of sentence that can rumble around in the brain for days. Whenever I quote either one to myself, my immediate internal response is, "That is so true!" Then, that first response is always juxtaposed with a subsequent thought, "I have no idea what that means?!"1

[4] There you have it: an admission of the construction of my own personal neo-crypto-Wittgensteinian liturgy.

[5] So why does this matter for Easter?
Well, it's fairly clear that the gospel of Mark (though a very different kind of literature than Wittgenstein's Tractatus) concludes in a way quite similar to Tractatus. Whereas the six earlier main propositions in Wittgenstein's work all include supporting supplementary propositions, the seventh does not. It is simply the last proposition, and silence follows. Just so in Mark, although all the other events in the life of Christ include supporting propositions, after the announcement that Jesus has been raised, nothing more is actually described or said. There are, as it were, no showings, but simply silence. (I am aware that this assertion glosses over the alternate endings of the gospel of Mark, but for this essay, the assumption really is that verse eight is the original and best conclusion of the gospel.)

[6] Look at the "real," attested most thoroughly in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, conclusion of the gospel of Mark (verse 8): "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Although a young man has testified that Jesus is raised and is no longer in the tomb, the three women (Mary, Mary and Salome) follow the Wittgensteinian dictum, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." An empty tomb; life after death; these things are unspeakable. Better to pass over them in fearful silence.

[7] At this point, I ask you to bear with me as I try to illustrate why this silence (and the Wittgensteinian interpretation of it) matters a great deal for our Easter proclamation.

[8] Many interpreters of Wittgenstein have adopted a "picture theory" to best interpret the Tractatus. According to this theory, when a proposition is expressed, its constituent parts correspond (if the proposition is true) to something in the world. The correspondence itself is something Wittgenstein believed we could not say anything about. We can say that there is correspondence, but the correspondence itself can only be shown.2

[9] Think about the gospel of Mark. Although the gospel does not conclude with resurrection appearances, it includes Christ's repeated promise that he will rise or be raised (8:31; 9:31; 10:34). It even includes a narrative of the Transfiguration (chapter 9) which many scholars notice as a kind of resurrection "riff" peppering the gospel. So the promise of resurrection is spoken without actually "saying" the resurrection itself. However, in a way I will discuss more in a little bit, it could be argued that Mark consistently shows the resurrection by testifying to it, but without saying anything about it once it has already happened. To play with the language a bit, it is shown in hope but not said in proof.

[10] My favorite New Testament scholar and gospel of Mark specialist, the late Donald Juel, understands Mark primarily as a narrative, and so interprets the conclusion of Mark as intrinsically structured as an "unsatisfying ending." How a story ends matters. He writes, "The Markan ending in manuscript and commentary betrays an unwillingness or inability to take the disappointment [of ending at verse 8] seriously. It is as if there is an emotional barrier that must be broken through if the Gospel is to be heard ... one of [Frank] Kermode's great contributions is a willingness to entertain the possibility that there are no satisfying endings — in Mark or in life."3

[11] Juel makes an argument for an "unsatisfying ending" to Mark's gospel on a variety of grounds, but the one most pertinent to our ethical reflections here resides in the typical violence many readers exercise on the text by seeking to force a satisfying ending when there isn't one, and wasn't one originally. "Interpreters with institutional allegiances and an investment in coherence and meaning are forced to employ cunning and violence to extract what they need from the text. The experience of disappointment must at all costs be overcome."4

[12] What does this mean for our Easter proclamation?
It alerts us to a grave danger, that on Easter, and during the weeks to follow, we might be co-opted, as a result of our institutional allegiances and desire for coherence, to force a violent interpretation on the text, and so attempt a proclamation of the resurrection we are not actually free to proclaim, given "everything that is the case." In doing so, we would miss the deepest insight available in reading Mark while not seeking coherence, that Mark relies not on narrating resurrection appearances (saying) but rather on the promises of Jesus. "[Mark's] story cannot contain the promises. Its massive investment in the reliability of Jesus' words becomes a down payment on a genuine future."5 In other words, in Mark, resurrection is already and always promised only in the day-to-day ministry of Christ together with his disciples, and never reliant on special hard-and-fast sightings of the resurrected Christ.

[13] This may sound precisely the opposite of the Wittgenstein quote, as if in Mark we cannot show, we can only say — but actually just the opposite, paradoxically, is the case. Resurrection is shown precisely in those moments in the gospel itself where it stands simply as promise, as the testimony of Christ, or the testimony of the man in the empty tomb. The part that cannot be spoken, the freedom of Christ to be resurrected wherever and whenever Christ's resurrection takes hold, is passed over in silence.

[14] This offers an important moment for us. As we preach the text, we are invited not to speak of "the resurrection" in the abstract, as a done deal, a metaphysical event that locks Jesus into specific places and moments in his resurrected form. As in, "I/we did this, and this is what practicing resurrection looks like." Instead, Jesus is on the loose, implicit wherever the promise of his resurrection is narrated in the context of his ministry. "He is risen" is spoken most appropriately wherever we cannot see Jesus, where he needs to be spoken. When we have actually seen him — when we think we have confidently locked in on a correspondence between our words and his visible presence — then we are called to the silence Wittgenstein encourages. "He is risen ... but is not here."

[15] Wittgenstein actually also argued that ethics itself is something of which we cannot sensibly speak.6 However, if we keep in mind that what cannot be spoken can only be shown (in point of fact, that the most important things in this life can only be shown), then this enigmatic assertion makes more sense.7 "There are ethics ... but not here. We are just living life together the best we can. And have we mentioned that Jesus is risen?"

[16] All of which is to say, we are invited to remain in that unresolved tension, where we proclaim "He is risen" while remaining steadfast in our commitment to not be overly confident that we have hold of the risen Christ while he, fast as ever, flits away to somewhere else, free as always, leaving behind only stunned and fearful, silent ones. Us.

Clint Schnekloth is Lead Pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and a doctor of ministry candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. Clint maintains "Lutheran Confessions," the longest running Lutheran blog in North America.




1. Wittgenstein spent much of the rest of his career critiquing his own earlier work. This also parallels, at least in part, what is happening in the differences between the earliest gospel, Mark, and those gospels written after Mark but with Mark in mind.

2. For more on this, I commend the Wikipedia article on the Tractatus,

3. Donald Juel, Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), 54.

4. ibid, 59.

5. ibid, 61.

6. Of course my reading of Wittgenstein here departs from the "mainstream interpretation" of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The logical postivists and the Vienna school took Wittgenstein to be saying that not only are ethics and religion meaningless but also worthless and ruled out as viable human activities available for speech. I do not personally believe this was Wittgenstein's "intent."

7. It has intrigued Wittgenstein scholars now for generations that although Wittgenstein considered ethics part of the ineffable, metaphysical stuff that remains unspeakable, he himself strove to live a morally upright, even some might say ethically perfect life.



© March 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 2