Friday, April 06, 2007

Lord, Liar, or Lunatic

Update below

C. S. Lewis’s formulation, as he notes in his essay, is based on the medieval Latin aut Deus aut homo malus: “Either God or a bad man.”

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." (Mere Christianity)

Brief Digression: I briefly mentioned in February getting into online arguments about this. People object to this trilemna, insisting that there are other alternatives that could apply. Perhaps Jesus was honestly mistaken. Perhaps some in-between is correct, in that he had later delusions of grandeur superimposed on an earlier depth of moral sanity. There is also the objection that Jesus never really, really claimed to be God. Fascinating objections all, and I mention them here only to note what I said previously, all other possibilities eventually resolve into one of the horns of the trilemna (must be a triceratops). Other explanations appear possible at first, but wind their way down like a grand logical pachinko game into those three piles.

Back To Topic: What has puzzled me more, however, is how quickly Christians zip through this to come to the prescribed Sunday School answer. No one would dare say Jesus is a bad person or a crazy person, so voila, he must be God. Wow. Great small group, let’s have pizza.

There is a failure to engage the real words of Jesus in this. Nearly everything he said was puzzling, unexpected, or outrageous. People in his time thought all three choices very real possibilities. Nicodemus recognises that Jesus is from God in some way and wishes to understand. He can make no sense of the idea of being born again – and rightfully so. Who would? We have such familiarity with the words and concept now that they do not alarm us. Yet hearing them for the first time, who would understand? If we cannot hear with those ears how strange and radical an idea this is, I wonder if we understand it.

The first place we are tempted to reject Jesus’s teachings is their extremity. Did he really tell the rich young ruler to sell all his goods? If we turn back from the plow even once are we actually unfit for the kingdom? Do even the thoughts of murder and lust ruin us? But these are at least understandable concepts, though they seem out of reach. The Beatitudes seem at first reading to be variations on the theme that those who suffer now are nonetheless loved by God and will be rewarded in the next life. That’s a little counterintuitive in a culture that regarded wealth as a gift and sign of favor from God, but most people can get their minds around that pretty quickly. Jews in 1st C Palestine were certainly familiar with the religious ideas that the poor were valuable, even if their culture didn’t lend much support for it (few cultures do).

But taking those comments from the Sermon on the Mount apart a little further, they take odd turns. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Do you mean now, Rabbi Jesus, or later? If it’s only in heaven, then what’s the earth got to do with it? Are we coming back here again? Does God give us this as a reward, or does giving something up make it come back? “Blessed are the peacemakers…” You mean peace with Rome? I have no control over that. Peace in my home, peace in my village? What if I give up my rights but there’s still no peace – is that my fault?

These are not merely extremes, or simple reversals. These are head-scratchers. What’s he mean by that? Maybe he’s crazy. Maybe we should stop following him around Galilee. We should go back to a simple faith: say our prayers, give to the poor, make the sacrifices – this Rabbi may be onto something, but he makes no sense.

The Pharisees certainly thought the “liar” possibility was there. The modern cliché that they wanted to kill Jesus because they didn’t understand him is almost entirely backwards. They understood his claims well, better than the Sadducees and the Romans, and found them blasphemous. There was dispute over whether he was claiming to be God, or the Son of God, or the Messiah, or the King of the Jews, but they were pretty clear that he was announcing an authority higher than theirs that God himself had granted. Their intent was to show that it wasn’t true, and thus the sign they wanted put on the cross “He said he was the king of the Jews.” Thus the guards at the tomb, because he had claimed he would rise again somehow, and they needed to show it was not true. They thought demon possession a possibility for one who did miracles, claimed to speak for God, and made such alarming statement.

We need to imagine these possibilities as well, because the world around us is tempted to those conclusions and we need to see them clearly. What if Jesus had stumbled upon some godly wisdom and decided the only way we would listen would be if he claimed deity? Would that fit with what else he said and did? Could someone who lied like that be trusted in other things? We have to play those thoughts out, following those pachinko balls down through many bounces and turns, to see what pile they end up in.

Update: Gagdad Bob over at One Cosmos, who I am sure will be honored to share the spot with C. S. Lewis, comments today (right on cue):
If you take certain statements of Jesus out of context, you will end up with a deranged and evil morality that is no better than the King of all Spiritual Hucksters, Deepak Chopra. Of our "primitive" Western morality, he has written, for example, that "America leads the world in executing criminals and is among the few Western countries that still retain the death penalty." Obviously the operative word is criminals, although to be accurate he should have said murderers. In the countries we are fighting, the criminals are in charge and murder the innocent, so he has hardly drawn a legitimate comparison.

The title of that whole post, BTW, is "An Eye For a Wedgie." How can you not click through to that, though it be long and challenging?


Jerub-Baal said...

There is so much here, that I could go on for a long time.

Instead of monopolizing the thread (from the beginning, which is even more rude! --ed.) I'll just comment on one part.

The thought that often comes to me when I read "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." is that no one is fit for service in the kingdom of God.

We all like to think of redemption as something we deserve, and that our redemption somehow makes us better than others, somehow perfected in this world. Everyone who puts their hand to the plow looks back at some point. We all doubt God at some point. Everyone eventually asks "Why is this happening to me?"

We don't like to be reminded that our salvation has never been contingent upon our goodness, only upon God's.

But it’s that reminder that we may need the most.

copithorne said...

I don't recall many instances in which Jesus referred to himself as the Messiah or the Son of God.

It is more like, "Who do you say I am, Peter?"

"You are the Messiah, the Christ."

What are you or C.S. Lewis thinking of when you identify Jesus as claiming to be the Son of God?

(I speak as one who believes that Jesus was the Son of God and also believes that Lewis' apologetics will be useless vis-a-vis faith.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Others have answered this better than I, which is why I included it only as a digression. Off the top of my head, I would say the the claims of others in Scripture - most notably John - are unambiguous as to what their view was. They are supported by Jesus's "I Am" comments, his testimony before Pilate, and "The Father and I are One," "Those who have seen me have seen the Father," and his time reference while looking over Jerusalem at Gethsemane.

As to the distinction between being God and being the Only Begotten Son of God, it is one I cannot clearly picture in my head, and I take the standard Trinitarian view out of respect for the explanations given by those wiser than I over the last 20 centuries. That Alpha & Omega, or the formula for baptism point to a trinitarian belief seems simple good sense to me. But I have not the skill to make the proof myself.

As to Lewis, I have some agreement with your conclusion. I find that his essays are more useful to new believers or the half-convinced than to nonbelievers. His fiction may work on unbelievers in a different way, as people refer in retrospect to his influence in their conversion. But I have no way of measuring that, and would take any explanation of how that is with a grain of salt.

copithorne said...

The Gospel of John is attributed to around 180 A.D. It assumes a substantial leap of faith to believe it reports the accurate speech of Jesus.

I'll also take up Gagdad's quote: "In the countries we are fighting, the criminals are in charge and murder the innocent, so he has hardly drawn a legitimate comparison."

Starting a war in Iraq has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people -- thousands of children. Can you give any account of why those children don't count to you or Gagdad?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The Gospel of John may be attributed to 180 AD, but it is accurately attributed to 90 AD. I would be cautious about de-emphasising books of the canon, as it brings us instantly into questions of whether the Holy Spirit can be trusted.

As to starting a war in Iraq, the lives of other innocents, not as easily identifiable but to my mind greater in number, come into the equation as well. When oppression is allowed to continue, the innocent suffer. Part of my perspective on this is my friends the Romanian Baptists, who lived under oppression unrescued by the West. We did not abstain from rescue for religious, but for tactical and policy reasons. People died as a result, and I wonder how much of that is on our hands. Where and how we might intervene on behalf of the oppressed is certainly a matter for discussion and wisdom. But the general principle that force, even deadly force, might be used has been consistent throughout the Scriptures (though there are enormous caveats to that). I might accept another Christian's wisdom that a particular instance is unwise, or even evil , but not a rejection of the general principle.

Stick around for my discussions of the Emerging Church. There will be need of people who care not a fig whether they disagree with me. I am unable to come to a stable assessment of that movement, and alternative views will be encouraged. Indeed, I have thought of most of them already, but sometimes people can put things in a particularly clarifying way.

copithorne said...

You were citing a logical argument of C.S. Lewis that either Jesus is liar or lord.

A way out of this dilemma is that "John" cannot be relied on to reflect the accurate speech of Jesus Christ. That resolution is quite simple and consistent with objective reasoning.

I still value and treasure the Gospel of John as an expression of the faith of the early Church.

Also Gagdad distinguished his understanding of American behavior as not involving killing innocent people. However, that understanding is false. I can show you pictures if need be.

I understand that you believe you and Gagdad are entitled to participate in killing innocent people because you believe that in doing so you are helping to create a better world. Perhaps it could be said that because you believe your intentions are good, therefore anything is permitted to you.

Though you may believe this, I will witness that this has nothing whatsoever to do with any Christian ethics. You and Gagdad are not within a million miles of Christian ethics with this point of view.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"A way out of this dilemna..." And another way out would be to disregard any book or verses we found troublesome.

Actually, that still doesn't get us out. Jesus's claims rose to a level of being Something the Sanhedrin considered blasphemous. If you wish to call that Son of God or Christ instead of the Trinitarian picture, the trilemna remains, with or without the Gospel of John.

I did not claim that the innocent could be killed "to create a better world" nor that good intentions permit anything. That is your twist of my statements. By some extension of your own, you think that my statements must be equivalent to something you'd rather refute.

I really don't know how to discuss Christian ethics with someone who doesn't care whether they understand what I'm saying or not. As it creates a situation in which however clearly I say something it will be called something else, there seems no point in trying to be clearer. First, reflect back to me that you at least understand my position, even if you disagree.

copithorne said...

I see. Your "dilemma" presumes the faith that it is purported to support. It is always going to be this way with apologetics.

You tell me why you feel entitled to participate in killing innocent people. I've asked you and you answer indirectly.

I'm just struggling to understand what you are telling me. You've used an analogy with Romania in which you wonder whether it would have been appropriate to start a war in order to "rescue [other] people." You suggest that this is consistent with Christian morality.

It is not. Under Christian morality people have an intrinsic worth and cannot ethically be destroyed as a means to another end. This is Christianity, this is Judaism, this is Kant, this is Aristotle.

You and Gagdad have entered into a realm of abstraction in which you it makes sense for you to believe that Jesus Christ, a victim of capital punishment, would support your desires to engage in capital punishment.

You and Gagdad express disdain for the leadership of Christian churches, so that may be a clue that a lot may be unclear to you about what constitutes Christian moral reasoning.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

My request was that you reflect back to me a summary understanding of my position. I don't think you need go back to other posts, but you certainly may if it helps. Thus far, you have not understood what others have. The discussion cannot proceed.

copithorne said...

I think your writing involves widespread denial of the consequences of your choices. I try to include those consequences as part of the discussion and I understand that that is not something you are willing to do. People get killed, but no one is responsible for killing them. Money gets stolen, but no one is responsible for stealing it. People get tortured, but no one is responsible for torturing.

Regarding the "dilemma:" What if I were I were to say, "I am willing to stake my entire life on the the proposition that my wife is the best woman in the world. Accordingly, either my wife is the best woman in the world or I am a liar or a lunatic."

It would take a long time to unpack the confusion inherent in that approach. I would be confusing subjective categories with objective ones.

Faith in Jesus Christ comes from a heart-full relationship with Jesus Christ. If you have that, you have it. If you don't, trying to talk yourself into it will just be confusing.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Identify for me what it is that I wrote, and then we will explore what consequences are most likely from that.