08.08.11

Am I a lunatic, liar, or lord?

Posted in Reviews, Society at 15:56 by RjZ

My nascent critical thinking skills were given wings by my Psych 101 professor, and, perhaps, ever since then, my readiness to question every claim has probably annoyed so many people into encouraging me to read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. It’s about time I got around to it.

The collection of invited essays were delivered originally over BBC radio at the close of World War II. They were intended, according to the forward by Lewis, as “the best service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors…to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” In other words, Lewis hopes to educate unbelievers not only as to what Christians in general, not a particular sect, but nearly all all Christians, believe and to defend that belief.

That Lewis, author of the famous Chronicles of Narnia is a great writer is well displayed here. What is more surprising, is that such a wise man, who certainly defends a deeply traditional, highly challenging, and yet dearly sympathetic view of what Christians believe (and how they ought to act as a result), can also be such a muddy thinker when it comes to logic.

I find it hard to believe that his real goal could be to defend what Christians believe. He spends less than a fifth of the book establishing a case for God, and the remainder proceeds without the slightest notion that his case is the least bit controversial. I can see many an agnostic screaming: wait just a second here! His primary claim is that God must exist since we humans seem to innately know the difference between right and wrong. It is difficult to explain the innateness of morals without some a priori notion of their origin, but the absence of an explanation is harldy evidence for a separate claim. Does that fact that we do not completely understand the function of the deadly AIDS virus also amount to a proof of the existence of God? (Some might say so, but such arguments are doomed to confine God as a “God of the gaps,” existing only as long as science has failed to explain our gaps in understanding. Surely that is not their desire.)

Lewis’ summation of his argument that Jesus is the Son of God goes like this:

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.

I am making no claims about Jesus being the Son of God, or Buddha showing us the one true path to enlightenment. Instead, I humbly ask: to whom is this a compelling argument? Put another way, Lewis claims that anyone who both gave us so much valuable and useful moral advice, but also claimed to be the Son of God, must, in fact, be the Son of God, or else he is crazy.

Really? That’s it? Perhaps Jesus was crazy! (There’s some blasphemy for you.) Perhaps, he was misguided; he sincerely thought he was the Son of God. Maybe he never said such things; bible historians are still trying to work that out as different translations can be read with different understandings of this ancient book. If he’s not crazy, what about others with similarly compelling stories like Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha)? The problem here, in addition to the obvious idea that most of us wouldn’t be equally swayed by such divine claims from another mere human (Kim Jong-Il makes divine claims as do many of the leaders of personality cults) is that we are offered what philosophy calls, the fallacy of false choice. We are not obligated to choose only from the answers presented. There may be other alternatives which require a great deal less explanation (and might yet yield a loving, peaceful worldview).

Lewis employs this tool frequently throughout the book. Later in the chapter “The Great Sin” he tells us a “proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” “The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.”

Now, if you believe in an infinite all powerful God, then I can certainly understand a feeling of insignificance when compared to Him. However, is it also impossible for a person to be both proud of accomplishments, quite apart from competing with the accomplishments of others? Even a dutifully religious man could, it seems to me, acknowledge his feeble success using the great gifts he has received from God, without either giving up on his journey towards God or looking down on the achievements of others. Those who have reached less may, for all one knows (and is willing to judge!), have been given a different set of gifts from God. Those who have been more successful might well be seen as inspiration and worthy of aspirations. If my only possible choice is to forget myself altogether, or worse, agree “I am small, dirty object,” then perhaps I don’t even want to live in world created by Lewis’ God. Fortunately, this too is a false choice. Those with pride must not necessarily look down upon others or dare to compare themselves with God. Even a religious man might be able to manage being proud of his accomplishments while still rendering all to the Lord.

Mere Christianity is straightforward and beautifully written. His arguments are seductive, which goes a long way to explain why those who are already inclined to believe would be so enamored with them, but they are hardly compelling. While I can certainly hope that many who have read this work will endeavor to lead a life for which he has powerfully championed (his Mere Christianity seems to me, for the most part, an admirable lifestyle, or as Bill Maher says: “Most Christians don’t act very Christ-like“). But you’d have to be either a liar or a lunatic to expect that his thinly supported arguments should do anything to change the views of those “outside the house” of God.

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