I see your trilemma, and raise you a tetralemma!

I see your trilemma, and raise you a tetralemma! November 28, 2012

Over at Cross Examined, Bob Seidensticker has an objection to C.S. Lewis’s Trilemma, and John E_o raised the same question over here.  Bob says, why stay stuck in Lewis’s framework that Jesus Christ must be either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord of all Creation?  Can’t we just pick ‘legend?’

We have no problem with wisdom taken from the Koran or the story of Gilgamesh or the Upanishads or any other book of religion or mythology despite its being wrong about the supernatural stuff. Assuming that the Bible’s supernatural claims are false, why must that invalidate its wisdom, too?

Lewis’s Trilemma is a very narrowly targeted apologetic argument, and it’s often truncated when quoted, so it’s easy to make Bob’s mistake. Lewis is framing his argument for an interlocutor that concedes that Jesus existed, said the things in the Gospels, but thinks that Jesus is basically a Martin Luther King Jr figure.  He taught a lot of wonderful things, but he wasn’t God, so why not just ignore all the theological bits?

And that would work for a fictional character.  A work might be thought-provoking and instructive, but you still wouldn’t want its protagonist to walk out of the pages and demand your fealty.  You take up the teachings as you judge them appropriate, but the character has no authority over you.

But the “Jesus was an amazing, real person, and a great moral teacher” crowd doesn’t have a very coherent place to stand.  Claiming to be God and to have the power to personally forgive sins on behalf of others is more than just a charming eccentricity like handing out lemon drops at odd moments.  If you would defer to this person’s moral judgement (and isn’t that what we’re saying, when we say we want to put on Christ or pattern our lives after his), then you must trust them.

Now, since I raised the MLK parallel, I’d like to use it to head off one other objection.  Martin Luther King Jr was a prophetic voice in the civil rights movement.  And he cheated on his wife.  When we say King is a great moral luminary, we’re not obligated to endorse every action he took or say we want to imitate every aspect of his character.  Why can’t we similarly quarantine Christ’s claims to divinity?

Well, if you asked King about his infidelity, he would probably tell you not to follow him in that.  He would own it as a weakness and he certainly wouldn’t argue it was part of a seamless garment with his activism.  But Christ does claim that all of his teaching flows from his Sonship.  So then, you’re basically trying to follow a teacher who looks a lot like a Chinese room; he keeps outputting true statements even though he contradicts them and can’t explain where his insight comes from.  At that point, you ought to be less interested in this strange epistemological wind-up toy and start getting interested in how it was programmed.

Finally, if you make the case that you believe everything that Jesus said about ethics, but you think everything related to metaethics and theology was an interpolation, you might be getting closer to the legend out that Bob proposes, but I hope you’re awfully adept in Biblical scholarship to be able to sift the text so finely.  If you just have a strong intuition that No one so wise would claim something so foolish! Lewis has you dead to rights.


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