Meanwhile, over at Town Hall Dinesh D’Souza serves up yet another steaming pile of religious idiocy. His subject is an exchange between Rabbi Jacob Neusner and Pope Benedict. He opens with a gratuitous slap at Richard Dawkins:
Even so, Neusner’s treatment of Christ could not be more different than that of Dawkins. One of the main differences is that Dawkins is a biologist and Neusner is a scholar of ancient texts and history. Consequently Dawkins’ historical and literary understanding is at the eighth grade level, while Neusner brings to his work a depth and sophistication worthy of a man regarded as perhaps the greatest living scholar of Judaism.
Okay. Let’s have a look at what D’Souza regards as depth and sohpistication:
What gives Christ the right to change the old law? Neusner notes that Christ is not another liberal rabbi, seeking to bend the rules of the orthodox to make life easier for people. Rather, “Jesus’ claim to authority is at issue.” In effect, Christ claims to be “Lord of the Sabbath” and this provokes Neusner to ask, as if conversing with one of Christ’s disciples, “Is your master God?”
Pope Benedict finds this a penetrating question. “The issue that is really at the heart of the debate,” he writes, “is thus finally laid bare. Jesus understands himself as the Torah–as the word of God in person.” In other words, Jesus claims to speak with a divine authority. If Jesus is God, then obviously he has the right to say what the old law really means. So ultimately Jesus confronts us with the choice of accepting or rejecting his claim to divinity.
Penetrating indeed. All that hard work, the years of study and scholarship, the attention to nuance and appreciation for subtlety that distinguishes the scholar of ancient texts from the dumbass biologist, and for his trouble he has just managed to determine that the central question is whether or not Jesus really was God. I can’t speak for Dawkins, but I sure feel like I’ve had my eyes opened. I don’t know how I overlooked that point!
Of course, that’s the central question. As it happens, however, it’s not the main point I wish to discuss here.
It was the following paragraph that caught my eye:
In the January issue of First Things, a Jewish writer Meir Soloveichik takes Rabbi Neusner to task for his admiring words about Jesus. Soloveichik charges that Neusner, despite his denials, seems to accept the divinity of Christ. Why? Here Soloveichik borrows a famous argument from C.S. Lewis. Lewis argued that since Christ claimed to be God, either he was speaking the truth or he was an astounding liar. Lewis insisted that Christ does not give us the option of considering him a great and wise human teacher. Rather, Christ compels us to take him at his word that he is the son of God, or rather reject him as an impostor and a fraud.
I know a lot of thoughtful, serious people who have put forth the liar, lunatic or Lord argument as if it were decisive in favor of Jesus. That religion can drive otherwise intelligent people to think in so sloppy a fashion is one of the reasons I find the subject so mystifying. Let us begin with the observation that lunatic and liar are both more likely than lord in that trichotomy. We have ample instances of both sorts of people attracting large followings in the present. Virtually any notable televangelist fits into the liar category, while there is no shortage of sincerely deluded cult leaders to qualify for “lunatic.”
But that, also, is not the main point. It looks to me like liar, lunatic and Lord do not exhaust our explanatory options. A fourth possibility is that the gospel accounts are not an accurate presentation of what Jesus said and did. They were, after all, written long after the events they describe, for the purpose of winning converts. Is it really so absurd to think that certian things got exaggerated or distorted over time? You don’t even have to buy into anything sinister or conspiratorial. Just the ordinary inaccuracies that creep into any such account, especially when written by passionately committed to their viewpoint. Take away the goofy supernatural bits and you have the story of a great teacher who in certain ways was ahead of his time in terms of moral thinking. That’s something I find easy to believe.