Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Lord, Liar, or Lunatic"? Or, I dunno, something in between.

A famous apologetic, popularized by C.S. Lewis, the "lord, liar, or lunatic" argument may inevitably weasel itself into discussions about the veracity of Christianity (though it is more often used as leverage against those who claim that Jesus was a decent person while not necessarily believing that he was the "Son of God"). But, luckily, it is rarely brought up by those who are more familiar with the subject matter. Because, the thing is just sloppy, despite how popular it is (who knows...maybe because of it).

First, for Lewis' rendition of it:
"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."
Now, there are a few good objections to this already presented in the wikipedia article itself. Namely, that Jesus could be fictional, that the Gospel could be inaccurate, that Jesus did not necessarily refer to himself as the "Son of God" and he was only claimed to be after the fact by followers, and that the argument isn't logically sound (hence, the previous alternatives to the "trilemma").

But, really, the argument he makes, even barring that fact, is completely and purposefully ignorant of human behavior. A "lunatic" is hardly crazy about everything. People who have such a delusion can still have insight. Hell, if you have the right kind of delusions, you might not even be called "crazy". It is not as if someone can hold one bizarre, counterfactual idea and suddenly anything that comes out of their mouth is suspect. Think about it for a brief moment. Is it impossible for a Christian, even if they KNOW their worldview is true, to acknowledge Buddha as a good moral teacher, even though he believed in reincarnation? If David Berkowitz said that you shouldn't punch schoolchildren in the kidneys, can we not judge that idea on its own merits, or should we automatically dismiss it on the basis that it was said by a mad serial killer who thought that his neighbor's dog was talking to him? Even those with questionable beliefs, or who actually have severe psychological problems that would cause one to be called a "lunatic" can say things that make sense. And, considering that there are very few people who are completely insane, I feel that this particular line of thought was a bit of a shell game. I'll clarify in a bit.

As for saying that he was a fiend (or, I assume, a malicious liar), I can't offer anymore of a rebuttal than to say that he was perhaps just an innocuous liar whose believers took the bluff a little too far. I don't understand what about his potential lies would cause him to be seen as utterly depraved and demonic, especially if he was human enough to not see any negative implications.

Now, a brief look at the formalized version of the argument:
The premises are as follows.
(P): Jesus claimed to be God.
(Q): One of the following must be true.
  1. Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was.
  2. Liar: Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway.
  3. Lord: Jesus is God.

From these premises it follows logically that,

(C): If not God, Jesus is either not great or not moral

As mentioned above, Premise P is suspect, and Q should probably have other options. The typical method of getting to the Conclusion as by ruling out option 1 by claiming that an insane person would not have his kind of insight. Funny, though. Because the definition used simply says that "he mistakenly believed that he was [God]". That isn't so much "insane" as, I dunno, "mistaken". A guy with human fallibility, grasping for a big purpose by playing around with the tales his mother told him about his "virgin" birth in his head for a while.

He is typically proven to not be a liar because he would be evil otherwise, and he is not shown to be evil in the Bible. But, of course, humans are anything but consistent. And we all have our vices of choice. Might just be that Jesus had a taste for being a charlatan with a penchant for rhetoric, rather than being a sex maniac, petty thief, or axe murderer. Maybe different kinds of "evil" don't exactly translate over. Or, maybe it was all just a metaphor...

Bottom line: You can be good and still lie. You can lie, and still look good. You can look crazy to some, and seem profound to others. And even a nutcase when it comes to one subject can be right when it comes to another.
This argument ignores that entirely, changing a "bluff" into a "malevolent scheme" and "delusions" into "complete and utter madness seldom seen in actual human beings outside of fiction" in order to disprove the much stronger, much more pronounced distortion of the original idea, rather than the more accurate, less refutable possibilities. That, in addition to the other shortcomings that have been amply covered elsewhere, makes it very weak in terms of anything short of adding to the confidence to those who do not wish to see the argument's faults.


mac said...

A. Lord
B. Liar
C. Lunatic

I opt for Non of the above.
There should be a fouth choice


pboyfloyd said...

The man was arguing with a fig tree at one point!

I think the choice is obvious.

Sorry for the short response but I need to go and give the fir trees outside a morale boost, they must be f-f-f-freezing standing guard out there.

Asylum Seeker said...

You shouldn't talk to fir trees. They are prickly sons of bitches who absolutely REFUSE to grow soft, normal leaves. Stubborn. They should be left out in the cold alone, so that they can spend the winter to think about what they've done while the maples get a good rest.

Also: "myth" is an option that is often brought up when criticizing the "trilemma". I prefer "legend" though, because 1. it has an "l" and 2. it doesn't necessarily suggest that Jesus was made up (he was just exaggerated, built up to a legendary status).

The Maze Monster said...

D. Myth

Stacy S. said...

I tend to lean toward myth myself.
But you're right, you can't put absolute labels on people.

Asylum Seeker said...

I personally think that "liar", "lunatic", and "myth" are all possibilities. (Well..."mythicized" is probably the most accurate, considering that we only hear accounts of what he said, rather than hearing them from himself, so it is likely that he could have just be lied about or exaggerated...if he existed.)

Personally, though, I like the "lunatic" option (if you couldn't tell from the main post). Schizophrenia seems like a good diagnosis for most of the prophets in history (who, you know, didn't intentionally cause themselves to have "spiritual visions" by use of hallucinogens) and I am not sure if Jesus's behavior is inconsistent with that. That isn't to say that it is clear that Jesus WAS schizophrenic, or anything else. But, it isn't able to be ruled out as a possibility as easily as apologists pretend.

pboyfloyd said...

The real question is, "Was C.S.Lewis a liar or a lunatic?"

I think one has to be a tad bonquers to imagine that he is the one to tell us that 'myth' or 'legend' is out of the question.


I went out and told the trees what you said.


Later, I told the trees how lucky they were that they didn't produce edible fruit at the time and place of the Jesus legend.

You know, who wants to take shit from the legendary son of God!?

There was a slight breeze at the time and the trees seemed to be saying, "Shhh!", very softly.

Don't think that they cared really.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

It would be really fascinating to really know in detail what people really thought of Jesus prior to the First Council of Nicaea (325?). That process essentially established a lot of the consensus as to who or what he was and began a process of purging of any accounts that didn't support what became the orthodoxy.

Asylum Seeker said...

The trees...they are indifferent. The bastards.

And, on the subject of Jesus outside of heterodoxy, I've heard that some of the apocryphal works about Jesus portray him as, well, kinda nutty. His childhood in some of those books makes him look less like a "Son of God", and more like Damien from The Omen movies. Of course, I am more or less just talking out of my ass here, since I can't remember any specifics. Just regurgitating what I think I might have heard, once, from some guy. Nothing new there.

GearHedEd said...

I guess the link from the last post didn't work.

OK, folks. Nothing to see there. Time to move on...

Stacy said...

"His childhood in some of those books makes him look less like a "Son of God", and more like Damien from The Omen movies."

I believe, as an adolescent, he pushed another child off a roof and killed him.
(That's the story anyway. I think it's in one of the gospels that the council rejected.)

Gospel of Thomas? I think?

I have the History Channel videos here:

GearHedEd said...

I know it doesn't start with an "L", but I think "unwitting hero" is probably closest to the truth, a la Monty Python's character Brian. The zealots and fanatical early xians boosted him up onto their shoulders after he was gone and couldn't protest, and the legends sprang from there.

Richelle said...

i'm with pliny on the council of nicaea thing.

it would have been nice to know what all the other stories of jesus were before they all got destroyed by the church once they decided jesus was going down in history as a superhuman.

i'd probably go with legend (myth).

or dissimulation...

GearHedEd said...

So I guess I'm voting for "legend".

Thanks, Richelle!


Anonymous said...

Well done. I never liked Lewis' argument because it seemed (ironically enough) to take Jesus' humanity away from him.

That argument and Anselm's always bugged me even before I knew why they were faulty.

Asylum Seeker said...

""unwitting hero" is probably closest to the truth, a la Monty Python's character Brian."

I've always thought that too. But, considering the quotes that they associate with him, and the fact that he was always leading around a gaggle of followers, I do wonder about that because, assuming that the Gospels give at least a mildly accurate account, it seems at least somewhat likely that he had an idea how much he was being idolized.

"That argument and Anselm's always bugged me even before I knew why they were faulty."

It's intuitive somehow, I swear! I can see an argument, and know that they fudged the results somewhere in my gut, even if I can't determine exactly where and how for a few minutes/hours/days/years. Anyone else the same way? It sounds like you might be from what you are saying.

Richelle said...

Anyone else the same way?


yes, absolutely.

even before i took philosophy classes and learned about argumentation and fallacious thinking i would hear some xtian arguments and just know somehow that it was bogus.

i couldn't explain why it didn't make sense, i just knew it didn't.

then i was taught the magical douche-baggery of circular arguments and it all made sense.

i fuckin' loved my philosophy classes :)

Asylum Seeker said...

I didn't care for philosophy classes, because everything I learned in it I already learned from religious debates online! But, it's good to hear that I am not the only one with the gut instinct thing going on.

Anonymous said...

Yes, as already stated by others, I have to go with myth/non-existent/an amalgamation of many different people and ideas.

If I turn out to be wrong on that, I'll go with lunatic, followed by liar... :)

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Anonymous said...

The irony of the Apocalypse::::
People told not to follow the Second Coming, who fail to recognize the urgency of the moment and die in the Apocalypse because of it.

Today's slaughterhouses have perfected the "quick kill":::The hammer slides across and it is "lights out".
In bygone eras whereas the skilled rancher knew where to place the knife for the quickest kill, it is a different story for fisherman. Fish are the one meat supply which suffers most before death, and it is noted by the Gods.
And why people like the Japanese base their food supply on the sea. Money is a terrible corruptor, and confuses people into thinking the Japanese could be favored, but this clue shoudl help people see that in fact these war mongers are among God's most disfavored.

Christianity is responsible for African slavery. The Italian men who ran the church set out to gain revenge for the invasion of Italy and, still the largest landowner in Europe, used their considerable clout with the thrones of England to achieve this.

Being "schitzo", the internal battle between good and evil, is a deteriorating gernerational issue that is dying off, much like I illustrated for punishment below:::
This new generation, people like Peter's kids, who were the grandparents of their parents, are an early evil generation and one whom became corrupted and fell for societal temptation readily available for them and every generation of the masses thereafter.
The Peters of the world came before that generation, the agrarian masses, God-fearing, absent for the temptation offerings of early modern society (Roaring 20s vs. 60s/70s). As a result whereas Peter has great internal conflict I refer to as schitzo because of his connection to his past his children will be less so, perhaps far less so depending on grade of sins in their prior life, decreasing generationally until they have all become Godless, immoral monsters.

Just as the Gulf oil spill was a clue from the Gods to conservatives about "Drill, drill, drill.", so was the PG&E/San Bruno fire a clue against doing what you are told.
Understand the message behind the act and learn from other people's loss.
If people begin to do the right thing the Gods will punish them for the evil they've done before then.

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