Friday, August 15, 2008

Lewis's Trilemma

More than once I've been beseeched by Christians with what they take to be a forceful argument, one famously offered by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity (quoted from here):

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. ... 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.
Um, to put it as the kids on the internets are putting it these days: EPIC FAIL.

Granting, for the moment, that Jesus was a great moral teacher, it follows that he was a great moral teacher who claimed to be divine. I'm just not seeing the problem with stepping from here to the conclusion that Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic, or what I consider a more sober and realistic way of assessing him, some combination of dishonest and sincere. It's not as though members of our species are incapable of overselling their own capacities or immune to convincing themselves of the validity of their own promotional campaigns. To put it mildly, I think we've seen this a few times.

Julius Caesar pronounced himself divine and was, by all accounts (certainly his own), a very shrewd and capable military leader. Today, we rightly discard his claims of divinity as delusional, or perhaps as a winking fraud used by Caesar and his supporters for political purposes. Even if we assume that Julius Caesar was batshit-crazy in his pretensions to divinity, it detracts nothing from his substantial abilities as a soldier, chronicler, self-promoter, politician, or ruler. Again, it is far from extraordinary for people to have a touch of madness and yet achieve great things. I see no dilemma (or trilemma) in reasoning that Jesus was such a person.

My more basic objection is the denial of the premise that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Radical yes, but not great. I find the notion of loving one's enemies bizarre if not outright suicidal: no, I do not and will not abuse the word love to apply it to people who would willingly destroy me and the people I do love. I want them to change their minds about the willingness to kill me, and after that we can undertake to find the right spot on the indifference-fondness-love continuum. Nor am I fond of Jesus's priorities -- he preached that people should drop their current pursuits ("give no thought to the morrow"), including family if necessary, and follow him. I think we have to give thought to the morrow, and it is the very portrait of recklessness and negligence to do otherwise. His stands on divorce and infidelity are extreme to the point of being impossible to take seriously. And as for the centerpiece of Jesus's morality, vicarious atonement, I frankly can't make any moral sense out of it. His cruel death makes up for what, exactly? How so? If I or someone else does wrong in the world, I expect more than pointing at a crucifix hanging on a wall and saying "it's OK because of the terrible way Jesus is said to have died."


Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

A friend of mine, who enjoys arguing with religionists a whole lot more than I do (I am not necessarily decided on the subject, but find that 'debates' for committed Christianists are mostly just opportunities for them to walk away from a discussiion acting like they've won it ... but aah, I digress) had the opportunity to read Mere Christianity, as part of series of books he and another co-worker, who's a big Jeebus addict, had agreed to read and discuss.

The review of Mere Christianity? He said it was hard to see why anyone would take it as a credible apologia, in as much as the argument seems to boil down to the self-referential Christianity is real because I say it is He found it, in contrast to Lewis's reputation as being an intellect, shallow and irritatingly arrogant

Needless to say, the book and discussion series never went beyond that. I think that my Christianist friend thought that Lewis's work would win him over and then no need for any additional reading of, pretty much, anything else.

So I'm not surprised you would have a comment on Lewis's argument. It starts from a flawed presence to begin with:

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.

So Lewis here isn't really proceeding from good faith here. It seems to me that this objection is not only shared by secularists and atheists but also by other major world religions. His disdainful dismissal of the dissent is ignoring what many people take to tthe the elephant in the room, the big deal-breaker.

It is precisely this sort of arrogance which demands that, to bolster his apologia, he constructs all these false choices: Jesus as a madman or the Devil, and you have to make your choice, because I said you had to!

Why can't Jesus be a great moral teacher if he were merely a man? Who says? A fellow who had a mid-life rapproachement with the Christianity that failed him as a youth?

I keep hearing of Lewis's popular claim and I know that, for a lot of people, Mere Christianity hits it out of the park. I find it, despite the intelligent behind it, arrogant.

Dale said...

SJKP, good insights. CS Lewis comes across to me as someone who didn't really dig deep in presenting his arguments. He made a big deal about his former atheism, but the arguments he puts forward don't seem to be strong enough to win over any but the most lackadaisical atheist.

So he went from half-assed nonbelief to half-assed belief, but put it all in sterling Oxford prose. I'm just not impressed.

Allen Hughes said...

C.S. Lewis was certainly no Descartes, but he presents a valid deductive argument in classic modus ponens format:
1) If a man claims to be God; he is mad, lying or is God.
2) Jesus claimed to be God;
therefore, 3) Jesus was mad, lying or is God.
The problem with this argument, as any good ol' tenured philosophy teacher will tell you, is that it is not sound because it begs the question: the first premise assumes the conclusion. It seems to depend on the conclusion’s truth. Furthermore, the argument is highly subjective. It seems inherently styled to operate within a given context, such that a man necessarily exudes these features provided he meets certain descriptive criteria. I will never discredit C.S. Lewis' genius as a master of contextual logic and moral epigrams; but I will venture to posit this is his exclusive strong suite. He lacked the capacity for objectivity; which he begrudgingly realized after infamously losing his debate with Elizabeth Anscombe, then turning to children's literature. He went so far as to analogize this theistic apology in the "Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe," when the children sought the professor's advice on Lucy's behavior (allegations of a hidden realm in the closet). The Pevensie children's realization that Lucy was not insane, nor notorious for fibbing, led them to give her the "benefit of the doubt." But how liberating would this epiphany truly be outside of the Narnia universe? A little girl of Lucy's age, despite making good grades in school and approaching life in a logical fashion, usually does have some alternative and private reality! One could go so far as to say that Lewis, through this deduction, endangered children by setting up such an expectation, if a parent or psychologist were to form an extremist interpretation of his argument. Every child who had their own little world behind closed doors would be committed, once it was established there was no wardrobe that led to it! "Madness" may also be limited to specific aspects of one's life. I've known people who behaved in an imminently rational manner, but held on to that one little fantasy: karma, magical thinking, destiny, spiritualism, etc. In the objective world, we have to allow for the unexplained aspects of the human mind. How simple it is to fall into the trap of rationalizing a situation or jumping to conclusions because we so desperately want them to be true, or are simply weary from seeking! This is the way most people deal with questions they can't answer so they can move on to more productive & realistic pursuits. Most people can't accept their accomplishments as fruitful if they're not backed up by some sort of deistic approval. This leads back to the old argument that God amounts to a convenient box into which unexplained phenomena are collectively tossed. Most people need an explanation, but to truly take time to pursue it would hamper their industry. They simply don't have time to deal with these questions. While I personally believe this method is ultimately destructive and life- deprecating- and that evangelicals and aristocrats selfishly take advantage of this fact to further their own pursuits because this self- imposed ignorance of the general populace allows them this liberty- my opinion would be tangential.. Lewis' logic can only be sound if the first premise of his logic can be objectively established. Pyrrho, in his argument for skepticism, will tell you that the beginning point of any argument is inevitably arbitrary. Since that time, philosophers realize that the key to an argument's soundness is making that beginning point as empirical as possible (as established as possible by virtue of recognized experience) or as based in prior sound argument as possible. Lewis' premises harbor neither of these virtues.

Dale said...

AH, thanks for the insights. Maybe the short version of your criticism of CS Lewis's argument is from computer science: "garbage in, garbage out," or GIGO. From shaky premises flow shaky conclusions.