Sunday 29 July 2018

CS Lewis's 'trilemma' is true: so why isn't it more effective?

This is CS Lewis's so-called trilemma, from Mere Christianity (1952):

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...

Insofar as anything brief is true, then I regard Lewis's argument as true.

Yet I read this when I was an atheist, it didn't have any significant impact on me - it didn't make me a Christian; and this presumably applies to most people who read it.

Why? Since the argument is short and easy to follow; why doesn't it convince?

The reason, I'm pretty sure, is that for the the trilemma to work requires several assumptions to be in place; and these assumptions are nowadays pretty generally denied.

The first is that, for Jesus to be God, God must be assumed to exist; which most people deny. Indeed, most people cannot regard God as a coherent or even meaningful concept. So, the trilemma fails.

Another assumption of the trilemma that is commonly denied is that the Bible is valid. Most people nowadays assume the Bible to be completely made-up fantasy, or maybe so garbled as to have become utterly unreliable - so anything in the Bible can and should be completely ignored.

This last denial is particularly devastating for Christianity. Two centuries of regarding the Bible as an historical document has led people to regard it as just that: and historical understanding is in a constant state of dispute and revision, participation is restricted to professionals, and therefore the Bible cannot be a basis for answering ultimate questions.

As I so often return to emphasising, these days; at root all our convictions rest upon intuition; and until people can attain and accept intuitive validation of God, the Bible, and Jesus; they are self-doomed to incoherence, nihilism and misery.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

It doesn't work because it's laughably simplistic. Everyone knows at an intuitive level that liars, loonies, and great teachers are very very far from being disjoint sets. Which was, say, Gurdjieff? The insistence on Lewis's trio of pigeonholes makes people stupider.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that you're shaving at the side of the issue.

The fact is, logically, the proposed trilemma is still true, but it consolidates into an unproblematic dilemma if you already disbelieve all claims about the existence of God. To be an atheist is to take it as a matter of course that all religious people are crazy "on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg". Of course atheists may have the intensity of feeling about especially crazy religious fanatics corresponding to regarding them as devils from hell...except that the atheist formally disbelieves in both (one of the most essential comforts of atheism). That is, there are religious people that are pretty reasonable except for their religion, there are religious people who are seriously nuts, and there are religious people who are so dangerously insane that they need to be locked up or killed for the common good.

To be an atheist is already to assign the vast bulk of the human race to "on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg". A man who claims to be a poached egg may be quite harmless, or more obnoxious, or very dangerous. But when you take it for granted that most people in history have been in the same general category, it doesn't seem that surprising that you'd also believe it about Jesus, towards whom atheists hold no especial reverence.

What is more important is that being an atheist involves disbelieving most truth claims.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Mere Christianity did more than any other work, including the Bible itself, to bring me back to the Christianity of my childhood, converting a growing awareness of a vast absence in my then-agnostic soul into a yearning for the Divine, for a true purpose and goal, a hope for this life and beyond.
As I had been raised Anglican, I started my quest by returning home, as it were, to Anglicanism (I have since been converted to Catholicism, but for me that was further movement along the same trajectory). I knew Lewis’s Narnia stories and his trilogy – especially That Hideous Strength – well, but had not read his apologetics. After Eucharist one Sunday morning, I stopped in to the church bookshop, hoping to find guidance for my road. I spotted Mere Christianity, read the blurbs and was impressed. Already strongly biassed in favour of Lewis, I bought the book.
At home I started to read, and soon devoured it. Many things in Mere Christianity helped confirm me in my decision to return to Christianity, but the very passage Bruce quotes is the one that convinced me. Its clarity, its expression – in a way I had never heard before – that there is no half-way manner of belief in Jesus Christ that is other than an illusion, and probably a demonic one at that, hit me as hard as anything I have read. (Fourth Gospel excepted; once I grew enough to read it with some slight understanding.)
As for the stumbling blocks Bruce mentions, lack of belief in God and difficulty taking the Bible seriously, perhaps I suffered from those less than many others. I was willing to believe in God, indeed I wanted to, but wasn’t at all sure the quite specific claims and stories of Christianity were true. As for the Bible, I didn’t dismiss it as a source of spiritual and historical knowledge, despite its great age and the many Modernist disputes about its authors; I knew I didn’t know enough to know, but wasn’t inclined to dismiss scripture out of hand.
In the end, this very passage from Mere Christianity is what led me through the trilemma (although I didn’t know to call it that until this morning). Lewis hit me right between the eyes with the first question about Jesus Christ: Is He God or is He madman, with no third choice. From the Gospels, I already believed Jesus was not mad. Thus res ipsa loquitur, as lawyers like to say.
I’ll always be grateful to Lewis for this ultimate insight, and for many other things as well.
And to Dr. Charlton for re-publishing this greatest single passage of Lewis’s many great writings!

Bruce Charlton said...

Lewis's trilemma is a superb piece of reasoning - with its brevity, and pugnacity.

But like any great achievement, only some people will appreciate it. But for those who do - such as HRS - it is about as powerful as a few words can be.

Fartanium said...

The atheism of most people is not in their intellect but in their will. It is not that they do not believe in God because their intellect does not grasp the evidence, they are atheists because they do not want God to exist regarless of what their intellect tells them. This explains why if you present them the most compelling evidence they will grow angrier instead of becoming happier.

Dexter said...

"This last denial is particularly devastating for Christianity. Two centuries of regarding the Bible as an historical document has led people to regard it as just that: and historical understanding is in a constant state of dispute and revision"

Worse than this, "history" today is largely written by evil Leftists who regard their task as condemning the past for failing to live up to the PC rules of the present, and also lying about the past in order to advance the PC agenda of the present. These thoroughly dishonest approaches to historical understanding are also applied to the Bible, e.g. when they represent Jesus as an open borders socialist.

Bruce Charlton said...

@F - I agree, from my own experience, that this is often the case, often denied.

@D - Indeed. Although I think the problem was there from the very early days - eg of David Strauss (1808-1874). The field is based on the implicit assumption that scripture is Not different from other kinds of writing - i.e. that scripture is not scripture.

@TM - Not sure what you mean by 'go all the way' - all the way to what?

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that there is a confusion here between the idea that really committed Christians do tend to form the central pillars of their respective faith communities and the idea that any particular faith community has to be the "only path" to God.

Mormonism, one of the peculiar subjects of this blog, formally promotes the doctrine of baptism for the dead (along with other saving ordinances) predicated on the notion that anyone might live their life without access to the proper form and priesthood authority of those ordinances but still qualify for salvation and thus require them after death.

It is not unique in having a doctrine that extends salvation to people who have never belonged to that denomination, though the exact form of the doctrine might be peculiar. Nor does Lewis fail to note that the really committed Christians at the center of each faith community are the ones most ready to recognize the virtue of their counterparts in other communities.

Of course, this blog mostly runs on the assumption that there can also be committed Christians who hold aloof from all churches in times when the vast majority of organizations are corrupted by satanic influences. Let us not forget one who has a strong claim to being the very first Christian (in the most common definition of the term), John the Baptist. "He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias."

Bruce Charlton said...

I suppose I should clarify, for any readers who don't already know, that I am a 'Theoretical Mormon' - which means that I believe the truth of Mormon theology and the claims of the LDS church (e.g. I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon is valid and happened as Joseph Smith described). I am also allowed to post at a conservative Mormon blog called Junior Ganymede (which is linked in the sidebar). But I am not myself a Mormon, and have never attended a Mormon church; I don't live by the Word of Wisdom; and I don't necessarily believe all the doctrines of the church - such as the need for baptism of the dead.

Unknown said...

Tychonievich is correct. The idea that all reasonable possibilities are included in the trilemma is ridiculous. It’s one of CS Lewis’ worst moments. What about the Islamic perspective? That Jesus was a prophet of God, in fact THE prophet, closer to the bosom of the creator than Muhammad and Moses (a fact of Islam not known by many in the West). And that everything in the Bible elevating Jesus above the status of top tier prophet into godhood is due to later additions, or people putting words in Jesus’ mouth. Remember all of the New Testament comes from decades minimum after Jesus death. That fact alone introduces many possibilities for a misunderstanding of who and what Jesus was. The fact that Lewis misses this obvious fact, taking everything at face value is ridiculous. And none of this is necessarily affirming the dismissive atheist view.

Bruce Charlton said...

@U - No, you're simply making an over-inclusive generic criticism which would apply to all statements of any kind; but particulalry short statements (and such statements as Lewis is making have to be short or they will not be read).

It's shooting fish in a barrel to do this, but doesn't advance knowledge. I've seen the same in science, frequently - somebody wants to reject a paper, so they apply a standard of critique to that paper which they do not apply to the papers they choose to believe.

All statements, all proofs, require an implicit background - and for someone who does not or will not make those assumptions, then it is seen to be inadequate.

Sadly - much of what passes for academic debate is like this, esepcially in philosophy - and its been going on for hundreds of years. .

Unknown said...


Not sure I really buy that. The “implicit background” of the trilemma smuggles in quite a lot, more than most truth claims type statements. I mean the Islamic view easily expands it into a fourth option. And Tychonievich’s comment shows how it could be expanded further.

You say I’m applying a standard of critique which I would not apply elsewhere— but frankly I would assume you implicitly apply that same standard of critique by the fact that you are not an adherent of Islam. Was Muhammad a madman, a charlatan, or did Gabriel really appear to him and open a channel to heaven from which the Quran came?

And you could create similar trilemmas for other religious figures, not just Muhammad and Jesus. Buddha, the founder of Sikhism, etc— either they were madmen, charlatans, or they really did receive a revelation or insight into the deeper nature of reality. And yet at least some of their claims are mutually exclusive with Christianity. So we have mutually exclusive trilemmas. Which means they’re not true trilemmas.

You say this way of reasoning doesn’t advance knowledge. But it certainly prevents the advancement of assumed knowledge down unwarranted potentially false paths. Perhaps Lewis is trying to advance knowledge past its domain.. But that’s where the leap of faith ought to come in instead.

Bruce Charlton said...

@U - I think you've lost sight of the context here. I sense the small-minded spirit of 'sceptical' debunking at work!

In a specific sense, one must recognise the significance of Jesus, a Jew, stating repeatedly he was the I Am. When he said - Before Abraham was, I Am (John 8: 48) - this was probably, in context - and Jesus's full knowledge of what he said, meant, and its consequences - the most viscerally shocking act of Jesus's life.

Lewis was asked, many years later, in an interview, whether he stood by the trilemma, or would modify it; and he said he stood by it. That was an unusual thing for Lewis - he realised he had said something important and powerful - and that is how many people have seen it.

The fact that there are people who *don't* see this (such as yourself and William) is of no greater significance than that there are people who don't regard Mozart's Magic Flute as the greatest piece of music ever written, or people who find Lord of the Rings trivial, or people who don't appreciate the lyric beauty of SHakespear'es 'Fear no more the heat of the sun'.

- All these are very obvious to me, smack in the face obvious; but it doesn't surprise me in the least that not everybody gets them in the way I do; not everybody is on that wavelength. I greatly value that lucid simplicity, I think it is the highest kind of genius; but simplicity always strikes some people as deficient or banal.