Wednesday, 11 September 2013

C.S Lewis's Trilemma as THE Christian moment


In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis made a famous, perhaps notorious - and I believe profoundly true statement: 

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.


This is saying that Jesus intended to present Himself as someone who was either The Christ and Son of God; or else must be regarded as either insane or evil. A trilemma - a three way choice.


For me, the shocking nature of Jesus's behaviour is very well brought out in this four minute dramatization of John 8: 12-58 - the 'I am the light of the world' section - especially the contrast between Jesus's calm and emphatic manner of speaking, and the response of the priests and of the crowd 


Indeed, I think this is something of a key to Christianity, and to becoming a Christian.

We need to come to that point where we see that the claims of Christianity are - on the one hand - coherent, and that there is evidence to support them; but on the other hand that the evidence is not conclusive, nor compelling of assent - but rather that the claims are vast, shocking, extraordinary...

And that having come to this point, a point of balance - our free will has been brought to a moment of decision, of choice between two divergent paths, two contrasted world views.


So it is not un-reasonable nor utterly counter-evidential to reject Christ, in the sense that the whole thing can be regarded as a tissue of falsehoods and misunderstandings and coincidences; a horrible scheme of exploitation.

In this sense, militant atheists are perfectly correct to regard Christianity as evil or insane - if it is not true, Christianity in an individual is either evil or stupid-insane; and long-term strategic organized Christianity (The Church), which cannot be regarded as insane, is therefore and necessarily evil: some kind of elaborate trick, disguise and conspiracy.


Since we really are free agents, this point and no further is how far God can bring us: to the point of recognizing the necessity of a choice for which there is no safe default decision and for which we bear individual responsibility.

God can bring us to the Trilemma, and after that we are responsible for what happens. 


This point of balance, of treble choice - Lewis's Trilemma - is something we feel if the strategy is has worked, if - that is - the circumstances or argument has succeeded in bringing us up to this point... but of course the attempt to bring people to this point may not work on any particular instance.

In which case the apologist must try again. 

But this is the proper goal of evangelism: not to bludgeon the potential convert into submission by pretending that Christianity is the one and only necessary sane consequence of irrefutable arguments and evidence; but to bring the potential convert to that point at which he sees Christianity as reasonable but extraordinary: and perceives the road branching ahead - and acknowledges that in this exact here-and-now, it is up to him and to nobody and nothing else.



JP said...

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.

Insane, yes, but I'm not clear on the latter conclusion. What would be devilish and evil about his overall message of being righteous, humble, merciful, and peaceful?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - Being "righteous, humble, merciful, and peaceful" is fine, but only part of the story (as the video brings out) If He said what He said (follow me, I am the only path to salvation, sacrifice your life for this cause etc) knowing it was untrue, then this would be a huge lie with many terrible consequences.

The other evil aspect was that, since He exhibited convincing miraculous and prophetic powers, if these were not from God, then they 'must' have been from Satan - and the Bible describes those who hated Christ for this reason, based on this inference.

ajb said...

A problem I have with Lewis' argument for a trilemma is that we don't know which parts of the Gospel are accurate reflections of what Jesus of Nazareth said. So it seems fine to me for someone to say "There are important moral teachings here, which are modeled on or come from a preacher's life" (for example, the Our Father, say) and not say "although the same preacher was deeply misled on other aspects." Yes, one then has to do some work to make sense of this, but one has to do some work whatever way one interprets things.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - This post is meant to address your point:

Christianity is something which you can 'get' all at once and in a moment - you can be brought to this state.

First you 'get it', then you must choose.

You might *then* spend a lifetime understanding Christianity, and coming to 'own' or believe it, a bit at a time.

And much of this process will involve the same Trilemma type of situation with respect to specific denominations, and specific doctrines.

Gabriel Kummant said...

I've always loved Chesterton's way of putting it:
"There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter's apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: 'Before Abraham was, I am.'"

One of the things that makes evangelism difficult in our time is that two of the three options in the trilemma are not considered realistic, let alone offensive and requiring judgement.

Also, the "great human teacher" position is ably rebuked by Nietzsche and those that followed him. Why should we listen to such teachings, and deny ourselves for the teaching of a man dead thousands of years, whether the moral teachings are true or not?

Bruce Charlton said...

@GK - I've just been re-reading GKC - specifically his early volume Heretics - which is full of good things.

I am also reading Joseph Pearce's very interesting Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief. London: HarperCollins. 1999. This is from a Roman Catholic perspective, but not exclusively so (quite a few Anglo Catholics, too); and describes an interlinked network of converts, stretching across the twentieth century, the key text for which is Chesterton's Orthodoxy.

Of course, the Roman Catholic approach, and that of Chesterton, is based on reason. This still works on teenagers, but older adults generally become immune to reason - especially if they have been trained in political correctness.

Another (effective) approach is the one of Mormon missionaries who generally focus on asking people (typically who are already nominal Christians) to pray to discover whether the Book of Mormon is true.

If they reach a conviction that it is true, then all the other main elements of Mormonism follow from this (that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, that he Restored the Christian faith, the priesthood etc.) This is a fascinating alternative to reason as a first step or way-in - and also puts a trilemma at the centre of things - either the BoM is true, a conscious fraud, or the product of a delusion.

I am not sure whether there are many evangelicals who have adopted an analogous approach to try and convert modern secular Leftist hedonists to Mere Christianity - but I think this would be 'the way to go'.

ie. Try to get people to the point where they understand Christ's basic teaching and its implications; that there is reasonable evidence to back up these claims - but that alternative interpretations are also possible and the decision must be sought and the choice made by honest prayer sensitive to the warm conviction of 'the heart' - as the right and proper way that such fundamental choices can be made.

In a sense, this is an adaptation of Pascal's hidden God idea - but less intellectual, and more robust.

The Continental Op said...

"If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." --John 8:31-32

Here is a challenge to potential converts: holding to Jesus' teachings is how to evaluate their truth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@COp - Well that is true - but I don't suppose a prospective convert would find that convincing. It sounds rather like: if you first believe, you will then find your beliefs to be true.

JP said...

"If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Don't you just love the way they always quote only the second half (8:32) and not the first half (8:31)? And how "free" is taken to mean the Leftist idea of "freedom" (unrestricted license)?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - This business of incomplete quotation is really terrible, and has been going on for a good while.

Yesterday I was reading Orwell complaining that this was being done to Kipling many decades ago by what he termed the 'pansy left':

Matthew C. said...


I'm deathly curious. What is your decision about becoming a member of the LDS church? Is this still something you are investigating, but haven't made up your mind about?

What are the roadblocks for you, if any?

Bruce Charlton said...

@MathC - I'm sorry, but I won't answer personal questions about my spiritual life - I write what I want to write in the postings. My current situation is as it has been for a while - I do not rule-out becoming a member of the CJCLDS at some point but have no specific plans at present.

On the other hand, I probably do regard myself as NOT really 'in' the Church of England anymore, but only prepared to/ able to worship in a few specific individual churches within that denomination.

I attend and am a supporting but semi-detached member of a conservative evangelical CoE church (this one, if you are curious I no longer attend Mass at any Anglo Catholic churches - or at least only very sporadically.

Vader said...

Thanks for linking the Orwell essay.

I find it difficult to really dislike Orwell even when I am not in full agreement with him and am aware of the thick layers of snark in his writing.

Well, we all have our guilty pleasures.

Bruce Charlton said...

Orwell's essays are superb. He was one of extremely few writers who would self-correct. He died so young that he might well have become a libertarian or conservative, perhaps a Christian, had he had a normal lifespan and observed the way things were trending from the mid-1960s. Amazing to think that Orwell was almost exactly contemporary with my Granny, who lived until 2006...

Gabriel Kummant said...

Thank you indeed. Reminds me of Chesterton on Carlisle.

You're quite right about Orwell's mistakes being forgivable, even understandable, because of the times he lived in. We have no such excuses now. And that insight about the economics of empire is one that many people I love have great difficulty accepting.

The Crow said...

It's clear to me, that Jesus was saying the only thing a man could say, having attained spiritual enlightenment.
He - literally - was God.
He had joined with God, and God and he were one.
This is what enlightenment is.
Merging with the Divine. Becoming as one with the object of Divinity.

Besides, he lived in an age where saying something like that probably wasn't met with the sort of reactions it would be met with today. Ideas of narcissism, or egomania probably didn't exist back then.

Really, I don't know what the fuss is about.

Thursday said...

The strongest and most unambiguous claims that Dr. Charlton made are all in the Gospel of John. There are statements that could be interpreted as making similarly outrageous claims in the synoptic gospels, but they are much more ambiguous, perhaps only indicating a somewhat special relationship with God. If you leave out the Gospel of John, which BTW does have a very different style than the others, even in how Jesus speaks, you could end up with a much more sane Jesus. Similarly, as others here have said, you could simply posit that the more outrageous theological claims are a later accretion.

I'm not saying I accept these, but if you start from secular premises it is actually very easy to get to a non-divine, non-insane Jesus. I actually know of a few non-Christians who like the synoptic Jesus and simultaneously find the Jesus of John to be insane, though likely fictional. The post you link to doesn't address any of these points.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - What you are describing is not what Jesus said, nor what Christianity is about.

To a Christian, what you describe is death - death of the soul, its destruction - and there would be ne self left to understand what had happened.

What Christianity is about is not merging, not about becoming one with God; but attaining everlasting life in harmony/ communion with God and retaining personal identity.

Christian immortality is more like an idealized family relationship - hence the frequent use of language of Fathership, Sonship etc.

Families do not merge to become one but revel in difference - there cannot be love without difference.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thu - "The post you link to doesn't address any of these points. "

No, it doesn't. It is - after all - a short blog post!

Tucker said...

All this Orwell talk is a funny coincidence - I've been reading a first-rate Orwell biography. I find it very hard to do anything other than find the man quite likeable.