Thursday, February 23, 2017


CS Lewis wrote a version of an older argument in Mere Christianity.
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 patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
I have always found it powerful, but many find it unpersuasive. There is a significant amount of back-and-forth discussion about it by people with more intelligence, learning, and focus than I have. This can be found online in many places if any of you feel compelled to pursue it with more rigor.  However, my experience is that in the end they do come to the same place. The usual objections are 1) Jesus did not actually claim to be God and 2) The possibility that he was neither deceptive nor mad but simply wrong is still in play.

Over at Neoneocon, I used the analogy of a Pachinko game, in which the balls do eventually have to fall down into one of the holes, but upgraded that to a pinball machine, where there is one ball, and effort by the player can prevent it from falling into one of the holes for some time. I still like that image. Ultimately, the ball does go into one of the slots. Yet this is only learned by experience, and it is not foolish for person new on the scene to believe that a ball can be kept aloft, bouncing between alternatives skillfully for an indefinite period, or even forever.

The first objection looks as if it could be solid if one could artfully show that some texts may be unreliable, or others misinterpreted for a dozen reasons, including translation or cultural misunderstanding. Yet like the pinball, I think that even the strongest version of this becomes a quibble.  It is all well and good to say "Jesus never exactly came out and said..." but by any account he directly said many things that come awfully darn close to whatever one might put out as a description of deity - Whoever has seen me has seen the father, before Abraham was I am, claiming to be able to forgive sin.  Others rent their clothes as one does in the presence of blasphemy "calling himself equal to God," or claiming to be the Son of Man, so the people on the scene certainly thought so as well.  Whatever verses textual critics may uncover that are suspect or better translations found for, it is not merely a verse or an episode here or there which must be discarded, but huge swaths of the Gospels. Yet those closest to him, though far separated in distance after his death, continue to be martyred for the claims we are asked to question.  We begin to get into the territory of what Woody Allen said about another set of texts: "Shakespeare never wrote all those plays.  It was somebody else named Shakespeare."

Most claims that Jesus didn't exactly say He was God derive - no, first, most claims derive from people who don't really know what Jesus said, but have picked up some vague knowledge about legends and folk-tales and hero-worship and assume that something of this nature must be what happened with Jesus, which I find no need to answer but note in passing - from verses about the difference in roles among the persons of the Trinity, that the Father does this and the Son does that.  I don't pretend to sort that out for anyone, because I haven't sorted it out form myself.  But puzzling* is not the same as false.  It is as if some definition of being God is thought to include wearing a blue cap, but we have no record of Jesus wearing a blue cap, so he can't be God.  It is up far enough into deity range that I can't tell whether it's one star or a galaxy with the naked eye. The flippers finally miss.  down the hole it goes.

The second objection can similarly be held aloft for extended periods. History is full of religious figures making claims about themselves that we consider overblown and excessive.  Yet we still regard some of them as being generally sane, even wise persons, worth listening to on many other topics. We are unwilling to declare them lunatics, or demonic, and don't see any compelling reason to believe they were trying to deceive others in any way. Those who object to the Trilemma think that Jesus falls into this category.  I can see why they might think so.  Yet this requires not only a superficial reading of Jesus, but a superficial reading of all the other nice guys and gals as well. Charles Taze Russell put in a lot of effort, but he was a man with questions who didn't ask them of anyone else, just decided that he could do fine on his own and would not listen to criticism. He ultimately had to tell people he was a Hebrew scholar even though he was unable to identify all the letters in its alphabet. Joseph Smith seems to have intentionally set out to create a story.  (His immediate followers were considerably more honest and honorable, though perhaps not so demanding of evidence as they should be.)

Down through the long, sordid list, back through Sabbatai Zevi relying on a forgery, even to Simon bar Kochba, who had Jews who refused to join him executed, many of these innocents were not so.  I must be fair and note than many seem to have been simply killed before they showed anything liar or lunatic about themselves that I could find.

Jesus, on the other hand, made larger claims but doesn't seem to have done much from an objective viewpoint that would disqualify him.  He beat the moneylenders out of the Temple.  He withered a tree.  He spoke harshly to many people. Yet he provoked people to dramatic hatred wherever he went. The other possibilities of the trilemma occurred to them quickly.  They thought demon or possessed by demons was a possibility.  His own family thought he was crazy and came to bring him home where he wouldn't any trouble anymore. We don't have much in the way of examples of people sitting down with Jesus and saying "See here, son.  A lot of this doesn't add up and you seem to be going too far. Here's what God is like, agreed? Are you following me here?" Nicodemus, a teacher of the law and among the very few best equipped to do that, asks questions instead.  Perhaps only Pontius Pilate comes near that sort of reasoning, concluding "I don't see what all the fuss is about here.  Nice young man, perhaps misguided.  Why don't we just punish him a bit and be done with it?" Though of course, he'd received inside information from his wife that something more was up with this one, but he didn't want to pursue it. He drew no conclusion, hitting the flippers for a bit before walking away and saying "Wherever the ball goes, it goes.  Nothing to do with me anymore."

We could keep the flippers going with other messiahs and seers as well.  The ones we think saner, like the Buddha, made no claim of divinity, nor anything like it.  The ones who did make those claims fall into the other Trilemma bins, quickly or slowly. Looking more closely at the data, we find that the others drop off or move aside (such as Baha'u'llah, a nice-enough fellow who claimed to be a Manifestation of God, which is pretty high up there - but even he claimed was not the same thing as Deity), Jesus moves up into another category. Perhaps if went about in history more, we would find one...

Have a go at it, if you like. I'm taking the trend as enough to go on at this point.

*Or more exactly, mysterious.


Brad said...

I get disappointed seeing so few comments on your musings. I find them entertaining, informative and thoughtful. I think because you usually lay out a full argument, including aspects of the other side, it makes it hard for folks to gin up strong enough feelings to post either in agreement or disagreement. "Well, I don't agree, but he was fair about it", or "I agree and is there much more to say?" So, I think the dearth of comments is a compliment.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

HAHAHAHA! I never thought my tendency to anticipate and answer potential counterarguments worked against me by shutting off debate. It does give people who might have a good answer enough of a higher ante to even play that it's not worth it. Were I a more manipulative sort, I would leave a few good arguments out at first.

Here is the overview of what actually is the criticism of the reasoning, including comments by people who like Lewis, such at NT Wright. Modern scholarship has modified our understanding of how 1st C Jews in Palestine understood the relationship of God and His communication with Israel, and humans in general. In this newer context, Jesus's claims are not as dramatic as we have been taught to believe. Therefore "legend" is back on the table.

I was about to start this paragraph "My answer to that would be..." but perhaps that would discourage debate.

Texan99 said...

Every week when I hear the Gospel, this is the kind of thing I'm sorting through. Do I really believe these events happened as they ended up getting set down in this version in writing? How far does faith take me away from the skepticism I'd usually apply to a folktale or a legend about someone from that era? One thing Lewis says that I find persuasive is that the story of Jesus is nothing like a real old-fashioned myth in style or structure. It is, however, very like stories of great men that have been subject to some embroidery. Nevertheless, in the end I always conclude it's different: there's a hard kernel there that I can't dismiss.

Thomas Doubting said...

Even if we add "wrong" to the liar, lunatic, or lord options, the end result would be similar. If he's wrong, then he's not a great teacher -- he's wrong.