Liar, Lunatic, Lord

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Gilipollas Caraculo
    February 11, 2008

    Pay him no mind. D’Souza’s understanding of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is at the second-semester kindergarten level. F’tang! F’tang!

    Zing!

    P.S. I don’t accept the salinity of Crikey.

  2. #2 L. Zoel
    February 11, 2008

    The liar, lunatic or lord argument is only supposed to be directed at those people who think that Jesus as presented in the gospels was a real person and that in addition “he was a good person”.

    It’s not an argument to convince non-believers as it is a call-to-arms for marginal believers (those who believe that the Jesus of the gospels was a “good person” but not God). Essentially, if one believes the Jesus of the gospels was a real person, you must either accept his lordship or reject him entirely.

    Obviously the argument has no force when used against atheist (who would probably dismiss the Jesus of the gospels as a lunatic for far less dramatic claims than that of godhood) or for that matter to people such as Muslims, who dispute the correctness of the gospel record concerning Jesus’s life.

  3. #3 SLC
    February 11, 2008

    Re L. Zoel

    Apparently, Thomas Jefferson, who rejected the divinity of Joshua of Nazareth, but considered him a good man was unconvinced by the argument posed by Mr. Zoel.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    February 11, 2008

    “Essentially, if one believes the Jesus of the gospels was a real person, you must either accept his lordship or reject him entirely.”

    It seems as though you’re playing Devil’s Advocate here, but I’m curious: do you personally find this a compelling argument?

    I really how don’t see how the antecedent connects to the consequent here. But I’m really still in the dark as to how this game of Calvin Ball (theology) works.

  5. #5 simea mirans
    February 11, 2008

    It’s always struck me as a mean-spirited “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” argument, seeking to bully people into a more extreme position that they really hold. But I wonder if it could usefully be redeployed against marginal creationists: “all those biologists: either they’re liars, or they’re lunatics, or they’ve got real evidence to support evolution. There is no other option.” Ben Stein won’t mind calling them all liars, but maybe some others will…

  6. #6 john
    February 11, 2008

    another possibility (similar to yours) is that he was a legend, which is a little more poetic way of saying that the story was embellished for effect.

  7. #7 G.Shelley
    February 11, 2008

    “Essentially, if one believes the Jesus of the gospels was a real person, you must either accept his lordship or reject him entirely.”
    One can believe him a real person but believe the gospels contain errors. The LLL argument, is more aimed at those who believe the gospels contain an accurate description of Jesus Life and ministry, but do not believe he was god. It is still not a good argument though

  8. #8 Brian X
    February 12, 2008

    I’ve often heard people attack the trilemma based on its logic, and I just never understood that. The logic is sound; the problem is option 4 — the premises seem to be faulty.

    It does make me marvel how theology is often just so much wankery, though. And the more radical, the wankier.

  9. #9 JohnnieCanuck, FCD
    February 12, 2008

    Simea Mirans, you touch on something I have often wondered about. Just what do anti-evolution creationists think all those biologists, geologists, geneticists, etc. are doing with their time?

    Some of the creationists might be so far gone bas to claim there is a conspiracy of generations of thousands of lying scientists. But really, it would mean that scientists are synthesising a massive interlocking and self supporting network of lies.

    That is impossible, if only because of what we know of human nature. The Bible is a good example of the self contradictory patchwork that results when there is nothing but wishful thinking contending for ascendency over that of someone else.

    What would be the motivation in disproving creation, though? Money? Fame? Spite? The downfall of all conspiracy theories is that nothing known to many can ever be a secret, not even for a little while.

  10. #10 MartinM
    February 12, 2008

    What would be the motivation in disproving creation, though?

    Denying God allows us to live lives of pure hedonism, apparently.

    Seriously. That’s the standard line. All those scientists who are Christian are just quietly ignored.

  11. #11 Dunc
    February 12, 2008

    Essentially, if one believes the Jesus of the gospels was a real person, you must either accept his lordship or reject him entirely.

    Falso in uno, falsus in omnibus is actually not a valid line of reasoning.

  12. #12 One Brow
    February 12, 2008

    Not to mention Lewis’ argument overlooks the possibilities of “angel” and “prophet”, intent to ram strict monotheism into a culture that was largely henotheistic.

  13. #13 Iain Walker
    February 13, 2008

    I’ve often heard people attack the trilemma based on its logic, and I just never understood that. The logic is sound; the problem is option 4 — the premises seem to be faulty.

    Pretty much – the Fallacy of the False Dilemma (or False Trilemma in this case) isn’t a formal logical fallacy, since

    A or B
    Not A
    Therefore B

    is a valid argument (although not necessarily a sound one – sound arguments are those which are valid and are based on true premises).

    However, it’s still a form of faulty reasoning worthy of the term fallacy.

  14. #14 jo5ef
    February 16, 2008

    Calvinball – thats perfect, thanks for that!

    Heres one where C + H skewer the relativistic argument:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/99706190@N00/1869299/

  15. #15 David D.G.
    February 17, 2008

    Brian X and Iain Walker,

    Besides the premises themselves, there is at least one aspect of the trilemma that is NOT logical, and that is the assumption of the followers’ behavior with respect to the “lunatic” aspect — the assertion that if Jesus were crazy, then there’s no way his followers would have followed him so abjectly, even unto gory death in (if I remember correctly) 11 out of 12 cases.

    The fact is that this just isn’t so. Crazy people DO sometimes develop fanatical followings of people who are willing to do all sorts of things for their follower — including dying for him (or over their belief in him). Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite all prove this portion of the argument to be fallacious, and I’m sure there must have been earlier historical examples that Lewis should have known about, at least if he cared to look.

    ~David D.G.

  16. #16 David D.G.
    February 17, 2008

    Gah! That should have read, “Crazy people DO sometimes develop fanatical followings of people who are willing to do all sorts of things for the one they follow. Sorry.

    ~David D.G.

  17. #17 Calli Arcale
    February 25, 2008

    “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.”

    As I understand it, this is the position taken by Muslims. Muslims do consider Jesus to have been a real person, and accord him the same respect they give to other prophets. I’m not sure what writings they have pertaining to Jesus, but I would guess they’re a bit shorter than the Gospels and don’t have all the stuff about being the son of God.

    Incidentally, I note that D’Souza uses one of my pet peeves — referring to Jesus as “Christ” even when discussing the viewpoints of non-believers. It’s sloppy terminology. His name was not “Christ” — that’s a title, and it’s an English corruption of the Greek equivalent of “Messiah”. So to ask whether Christ was God means that one is already applying quite a lot of bias since only Christians believe that he was the Christ. Unfortunately, not enough non-Christians are aware of that, and wind up giving answers which trap them into essentially admitting that Jesus was the Messiah.

    Of course, is a question an intellectual trap if the person who asks it doesn’t realize it? And being Christ doesn’t necessarily equate to being God, or the son of God, or the word of God, or whatever — another thing that a lot of folks in these sorts of discussions tend not to realize as they lazily use the word “Christ” without really paying attention to what it means.

  18. #18 kai
    February 26, 2008

    I think the most important point missed by C S Lewis when he posed the original trilemma is that the alternatives are not mutually exclusive. It may well be that Jesus is God, but in addition is raving insane as well as lying through his teeth. Christians seem to constantly disregard the fact that, should there be a God, he is in a very deep sense inhuman, we cannot expect that any of our expectations of sanity, morality or empathy will apply.

    In addition to the trilemma I propose my own quadrilemma: Mythical, Misguided, Misquoted or Misunderstood. Note that these are also not mutually exclusive–Jesus may be non-historical and the sayings attributed to him may be distorted from their original versions. A historical Jesus may well have thought himself to be the son of God based on whatever experience, but people’s understanding of what he meant by what he said may be completely off the mark, etc.

    The trilemma and quadrilemma can also overlap: Jesus may be God, but has completely misunderstood what he is supposed to be doing. (Hey, that’s actually a quite interesting idea. Somebody want to write a book on that theme? :-)

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