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.