Thursday, January 10, 2013

Loose Ends (5)

C.S Lewis's "trilemma" was never intended to be a proof of the existence of God. Again.

The radio broadcasts were never aimed at atheists. There weren't any atheists in England in 1940, and if there were they didn't listen  to religious talks on the wireless. They were specifically commissioned to appeal to those who "on whom church membership sits lightly."  Lewis's target audience are people who may think that "cardinal sins" are the kinds of sins committed by Roman Catholic cardinals and that the "begotten, not created" bit in the creed has something to do with the virgin birth. People who don't know but want to know, or who are prepared to listen. Translating big ideas for the benefit of the Common Man who is certainly not stupid but is almost completely uneducated. His attitude can certainly seem incredibly patronising, as indeed can everything else that the BBC did between 1922 and 1984; but they were wildly, wildly popular, turning Lewis into an instant celebrity and cult figure. 

I therefore become exasperated in a not at all mean spirited way when people just repeat the old saw that Lewis was a bad or dishonest polemicist because the "aut deus aut malus homo" argument is merely a "dodgy rhetorical flourish". He is directing the argument at people who think of themselves as Christians, but who honestly don't know what kinds of claims are put into Jesus' mouth in the New Testament; who honestly believe (because generations of dishonest clergymen and schoolteachers have told them so) that the Jesus of the Bible was a moral teacher and nothing more; that to be a Christian means "to be good"; that the expression "Son of God" means "person whose moral teaching we agree with". Lewis is showing why this doesn't work. It obviously doesn't work. 


The aforementioned Francis Spufford gives the trilemma very short shrift, as I mentioned in the review. He argues, very interestingly, I think, that the mystical transcendent sense of being in contact with God can be very emphatic even for very ordinary believers; so it would have to be utterly overwhelming for a remarkable and holy man such as we must suppose "Yeshua" to have been. Believing that you are God is a perfectly imaginable response to such an extreme experience. If human experience is such that perfectly sane people can come to believe that there is a God, it's possible to see how a perfectly sane person could come to believe that he is  God.

Of course, Dawkins has sufficiently poisoned the discourse that most people probably don't think that it is possible for a sane person to believe in God: me and Jesus and Rowan Williams and the Vicar of Dibley are mad and bad by definition, so the whole argument is rather moot.  

While Spufford is, in my opinion, a bit harsh on Lewis, he is very good about the whole scholarly debate about the New Testament documents and the "historical" Jesus. The Gospels are clearly stories, not news reports, and have to read as such, something which Lewis, curiously, never really came to grips with. On the other hand the, the populist notion that the stories depict a sweet Lennonist moral sage and nastybadjewish St Paul perverted them into a religion about a deified saviour is completely false. The earliest Christian writings we have are about a divine, resurrected saviour who is coming back Real Soon Now. The narratives are written decades later. 

Granted, those narratives must have had antecedents and sources - St Luke says explicitly that he's editing previous accounts - and all scholars agree that our best link to the really really original totally historical utterly authentic Jesus of history is a lost fifth Gospel that collected a lot of parables and teaching. [*]

Spufford cleverly makes the point that, even if this is correct, that still doesn't get us back to a sweetly human Jesus of simple morality as preached by Douglas Adams, Charles Dickens, Queen Elizabeth II, Woody Guthrie, Geraldine Granger, Miss Govey who taught R.E at my infant school, John Lennon and David Icke. 

He (Spufford) writes:

"Moreover, even if you try to discard everything in the biographies which is explicitly devoted to storytelling Jesus's divinity, and just concentrate on the bits which must have come most uncontentiously from the lost sayings-collection, you still don't get back to a layer in which he's just a wise person dispensing wisdom....'If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too' is not 'great moral teaching' in this sense. It is either foolishness, or something else."

Not great moral teaching. Either foolishness, or something else.

Now, what does that remind me of?  

[*] Except the ones who don't.

My previous seventeen essays on the Trilemma, can be found in "Do Balrogs Have Wings?"  along with that essay on Planet Narnia everyone wanted so badly. The unsigned copies are the valuable ones.


Andrew Stevens said...

The talks actually were meant to convert unbelievers. I might grant your point that the trilemma specifically wasn't, but I don't think there's any real question that the radio talks as a whole (particularly the first third) were.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, Justin Phillips very good book about the C.S Lewis and the BBC says differently: the BBC religious department was looking for talks that would be directed at "those who wear their church membership too lightly." Of course, the form of the arguments is to start from scratch and say "Why believe in God to start with" etc etc, but that's an old tactic. "You probably think of yourself as a Christian, but you probably don't do much about it. So let's start off by reminding ourselves that our club has all the best people and the best arguments, and the other club is full of silly people." I once read a book that used a similar technique to try and galvinize people who vaguely thought there probably wasn't a God into aggressive atheists. Written by some science chap, forget his name. Church attendance in the 1930s was widespread, socially expected, normal. Why on earth, when there was a war on (a real war, with conscription and bombs being dropped on the mainland) would the BBC commission a series of lectures, in a popular format and time slot, to appeal to the minuscule number of intellectual atheists? (I grant that on C.S Lewis view, a vast number of those "Christians" who had been baptised an attended service each week were not "believers" in the sense that they didn't hold to, or even think about particularly, the historical doctrines of the Christian church.)

Andrew Stevens said...

The number of atheists in England in 1940 wasn't minuscule as Lewis himself well understood. He frequently wrote about how he was living in the "post-Christian era" with Christians an embattled minority. For what it's worth, I don't believe this was merely a persecution complex speaking; I think his perception was largely correct and England was already a majority non-Christian country by 1940.

Anyway, here's my evidence contra Justin Phillips:

1) When Lewis was pitching the idea to James Welch, he wrote: "It seems to me that the New Testament, by preaching repentance and forgiveness, always assumes an audience who already believe in the law of nature and know they have disobeyed it. In modern England we cannot at present assume this, and therefore most apologetic begins a stage too far on. The first step is to create, or recover, the sense of guilt. Hence if I gave a series of talks, I shd [sic] mention Christianity only at the end, and would prefer not to unmask my battery till then." Why hide your Christianity until you've completed the argument if you're speaking to uneducated Christians?

2) In the preface to Mere Christianity, he wrote: "Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times. I had more than one reason for
thinking this. In the first place, the questions which divide Christians from one another often involve points of high Theology or even of ecclesiastical history which ought never to be treated except by real experts.

"I should have been out of my depth in such waters: more in need of help myself than able to help others. And secondly, I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them we are much more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed except in
the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son."

Andrew Stevens said...

3) Also in the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote that many people in reaction to his talks said things like, "May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?" There were at least some people, then, who were still calling themselves Christians (meaning, roughly, "good people"), even though they had ceased to believe in Christ.

4) In 1946, Chad Walsh, who introduced C.S. Lewis's works to the United States, called Lewis the "Apostle to the Skeptics." What he could have been thinking of, other than the radio addresses and Mere Christianity, I honestly have no idea.

I will grant, however, that Lewis did not take the trilemma to be proof for the existence of God. His proof for the existence of God is the argument from morality which occupies fully the first third of all the talks. In the talks, he segues directly from his argument for the existence of God to an explanation of Christianity, rather than an argument for the truth of Christianity. The trilemma is embedded within that and, as near as I can tell, is virtually the only argument which actually tries to argue for Christianity as a specific answer to the "Who is this God Person anyway?" question. It is highly probable that Lewis didn't think he had to argue too hard for the truth of Christianity in particular, assuming that, if he could convince unbelievers and skeptics in England in 1940 of the existence of God that they would naturally fall into Christianity anyway. Which is a perfectly safe assumption, actually.

But it's just not the case that the talks were not intended to convert unbelievers; they were. In fact, they were precisely meant to convert unbelievers such as he used to be (though of varying intellectual abilities).

Andrew Stevens said...

For what it's worth, I think Phillips might have delved into his research with an a priori assumption that atheism was rare in England in 1940. I think this is simply a misunderstanding about the past. The Great Depression had spread atheism (usually through the medium of Communism or Fascism) all over Europe. Why should England have been immune? (Lewis's wife was an American and still an atheist.) Bertrand Russell wrote Why I Am Not a Christian in 1927 and avoided being stoned to death. Winston Churchill mentioned God often enough in speeches, but was pretty clearly not any sort of faithful Christian.

Also, we should distinguish between what Lewis intended the broadcasts for and what the BBC intended the broadcasts for. It's quite possible the BBC just wanted a popular exposition of Christianity and not an attempt to convert unbelievers. What I am reasonably certain of is that Lewis was using the broadcasts as an opportunity to try to convert unbelievers.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Now, this is playing dirty; trying to counter my argument with actual facts and background information.

Er...I may have possibly overstated my case, a little.