Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Liar, Lunatic, Lord.

I'm sure we're all familiar with the Trilemma argument. Aside from some of the problems with it, like the fact that it assumes Jesus literally did/said everything attributed to him, and leaving out the possibility of legend, I'm wondering if it also suffers from another problem.

Does this argument drift into the ad hominem arena in order to to make it's point?

If person A were to make a statement about universal health care being a good thing, and I say person A is wrong about that because person A is an idiot, I have not addressed the claim. Rather, I've sideswiped the claim by focusing on Person A. But person A's supposed idiotic nature doesn't belong to the claim itself.

Part of the Trilemma argument is that we're told we can't simply call Jesus a great moral teacher because good moral teachers don't say what he said. But even if Jesus were crazy, how does that change the command to not judge? Or the Samaritan parable? Or even the golden rule? How does Jesus' mental status have any bearing on the morality of those statements? Crazy people can utter moral statements. So can liars.

No, we wouldn't use crazy people or liars in order to completely orchestrate a moral code (Well ... it might depend on the level of craziness, and how one defines crazy. Crazy could be walking into a war zone in order to teach people about love, yet we could draft a moral code around that).

But my problem is that if the Trilemma is used in order to address the claim "Jesus was just a great moral teacher," then I see the argument itself attacking Jesus, rather than addressing any of his moral statements. Saying that Jesus could be crazy or a liar doesn't show me why he also didn't teach people about morals.

I also realize the argument is meant to address statements such as Jesus saying he was the bread of life, or the resurrection and the life. But again -- these claims don't negate the moral statements themselves.

I mean, there's evidence pointing to Martin Luther King, Jr. having affairs, or plagerizing. But if those claims are true, does that negate that he spoke for peace and non-violence and the end of segretation? No, because the claims themselves are seperate from his character.

So does the Trilemma argument seperate the moral statements of Jesus from the character of Jesus, or lump the two together? If it lumps the two together, isn't that somewhat forcing the listener to reach a specific conclusion? If this claim is that strong, why should any force be necessary at all?

15 comments:

Kay said...

I have an exceedingly hard time separating the things people say from the things people do or believe.

I think I agree with you that it doesn't matter, but it still gnaws at me nonetheless.

Mystical Seeker said...

You raise a very good point. Great moral teachings are great regardless of the character of the person doing the teaching.

But another way in which the argument falls down is simply that it assumes that all the statements attributed to Jesus in the Bible were actually said by him. But since the veracity of the Bible in all its details is precisely what is in doubt, this argument basically begs the question.

SocietyVs said...

"So does the Trilemma argument seperate the moral statements of Jesus from the character of Jesus, or lump the two together?" (Heather)

I think they are lumped together - but at the same time - Jesus gives no signs of lunacy...just a side note.

"If it lumps the two together, isn't that somewhat forcing the listener to reach a specific conclusion? If this claim is that strong, why should any force be necessary at all?" (Heather)

I agree, whoever made it (CS Lewis) sets that Jesus can only be 1 of the 3 (lord, liar, or lunatic) and nothing else. And it doesn't even mention the obvious - Christos/Messiah - how about that.

Heather said...

Kay,

**I have an exceedingly hard time separating the things people say from the things people do or believe.**

Which is understandable, because usually when we call someone a great moral teacher, we also expect that person to live by the teachings they proclaim. If we use the MLK, Jr. example I gave, if he did plagerize, that would be more of a let down than if some regular person did so, simply because of what MLK accomplished and taught and lived.

I, too, have a hard time doing that, because if someone does say we must all live this certain way and then the person saying this consistently fails -- that bothers me.

And what my post here is doing is just taking Jesus' statements alone, and not any of the "backstory," if you will. As Mystical says, great moral teachings are great regardless of who says them.

Mystical,

**in which the argument falls down is simply that it assumes that all the statements attributed to Jesus in the Bible were actually said by him.**

Exactly. I've always had a hard time with that, because if you read the gospel of John right after finishing the Synoptics, it's like two different people.

Society,

**I think they are lumped together - but at the same time - Jesus gives no signs of lunacy...just a side note. **

Feel free to side note away. But I see them as lumped together as well, and if so, then the argument falls apart before it even begins. I believe CS Lewis specifically set it up to offset the claims of Jesus being a great moral teacher, and if it's that narrow, then Lewis is adding to the argument with the use of liar/lunatic. So to me, whether Jesus was crazy or even if there's support for that isn't the issue: the issue is the framework of the question, because morals themselves aren't defined by a person's character. I'm not even really concerned if Jesus was a lunatic or not.

**I agree, whoever made it (CS Lewis) sets that Jesus can only be 1 of the 3 (lord, liar, or lunatic) and nothing else. **

Yup. It's like the dreaded God-box. Although I think the question used Lord interchangably with "Messiah."

Mystical Seeker said...

Exactly. I've always had a hard time with that, because if you read the gospel of John right after finishing the Synoptics, it's like two different people.


Yes, completely different. The funny thing is that some evangelicals and conservative Christians try to wish away the fact that the Jesus as portrayed in John is so radically different from the Jesus in the synoptics. The power of some people to reason away the obvious is truly amazing some times.

In any case, it is clear that the statements that Jesus makes about himself in John cannot be taken seriously.

I would say, by the way, that I don't consider Jesus to have been just a moral teacher. I think that CS Lewis's argument was directed more at 19th Century liberal Protestantism than at, say, 21st century followers of Marcus Borg. I also think that Jesus was a prophetic voice who preached a gospel of radical inclusion, who identified with the least in society, who opposed the collusion of powerful religious and political interests, and who believed in living as if God's immanent presence were here among us now. So to me, his moral teachings are just part of the package, and it is incomplete to just describe him as a moral teacher.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I would agree with those who make the point that Lewis's analogy, which is probably misused by Conservative apologists, makes an assumption that can't be sustained by critical scholarship -- that he made the claims that are either put in his mouth or are readings into statements ideas that aren't concurrent with the writers times.

One of our major problems - since the Enlightenment -- is thinking that people in every age and place think alike. Modern ideas of "truthfulness" sometimes don't allow for mythological language.

While I do believe that what one says is related to what one does, the trilemma simply falls flat as an apologetic device.

jim said...

Mystical says..."The power of some people to reason away the obvious is truly amazing some times."

Yes, truly amazing! Especially so as I was there myself for nearly 25 years. yeeech!

Mike L. said...

I'm definately in the camp that says Jesus didn't say he was God or the messiah, etc. I "vote black" on the entire book of John (to use the Jesus seminar method of voting of red lettering). It would be silly for him to say those things and use that type of language. It also contradicts other things he said. Lewis is really off base and Evangelicals don't help their cause by using this flawed logic..

Heather said...

Mystical,

**The power of some people to reason away the obvious is truly amazing some times. **

It truly is. It also makes me try and make sure that I don't reason away the obvious. I'm sure I do at times, but hopefully not as frequently as some manage.

**that I don't consider Jesus to have been just a moral teacher.**

I don't, either. Regardless of how one pictures him or sees him, the events surrounding his life sparked something huge and have dictated the historical development for the last 2,000 years. I see him as this person who had a radical connection with God. The word of God put in a package that we'd find easy to relate to.

Pastor Bob,

**While I do believe that what one says is related to what one does,**

I believe this as well, when analyzing a person's character. If just taking the statements themselves, it's not as relevant. However, the person's actions determine how important the person takes what s/he preaches.

Mike,

**It would be silly for him to say those things and use that type of language.**

In a lot of ways I agree with this, because it just makes more sense, to me, that those are statements his followers developed after everything was completed, and how they understood him. I think Marcus Borg calls it the post-Easter Jesus?

laura said...

You wrote: If person A were to make a statement about universal health care being a good thing, and I say person A is wrong about that because person A is an idiot, I have not addressed the claim. Rather, I've sideswiped the claim by focusing on Person A. But person A's supposed idiotic nature doesn't belong to the claim itself.

What if Person A says universal health care is wrong but you find out that Person A is covered under universal health care himself. That is likewise an ad hominem attack but it is reasonable. Claiming he is an idiot is a personal attack which is not based upon reason.

I have never heard of the Trilemma argument. From what you have written, it sounds completely unreasonable to me. The better argument would be that Jesus was attacking the ethics of his day so it is reasonable to assume that Jesus' main message was not about morality even if that is based on an ad hominem attack. To claim that Jesus was crazy is an unreasonable ad hominem attack.

I think the reason Jesus wasn't preaching about morality is because he realized society was ready to transcend it. If he was preaching morality, why did he hang out with the sinners and attack the ethics of his day? Paul most definitely taught morality and we've been left with his legacy. But is there any evidence that what Jesus was preaching was morality? The Jews of his time would have emphatically disagreed with that claim. Every parable in the New Testament is an example of how he went totally counter to the morality of his day.

Heather said...

Laura,

**I have never heard of the Trilemma argument.**

It's sometimes a common tool. I think you can type it in Wikipedia and get a better idea of how it works, if you want.

**Paul most definitely taught morality and we've been left with his legacy.**

It's amazing, really. When I look at most statements of belief in churches, they pull so much of their material from Paul, and it seems like very little from the Synoptic Gospels.

**is there any evidence that what Jesus was preaching was morality? **

Now this is an interesting question, because it then depends on how one defines morality. From one perspective, he is teaching against morality, because he was going against what was seen as moral for that time. From our perspective, he'd be seen as teaching morality, because our concept of morality has (hopefully) changed.

J said...

Hi there, this is my first time visiting your site, but prob. not my last.

I think with respect to Lewis' argument, it's helpful to put it back into the context in which he said it. Many evangelicals have taken it out of Lewis' own context, to much detriment. But Lewis, if memory serves me correctly from his book Mere Christianity, was refuting those who simply would say, "Jesus was a good teacher."

Hope that helps.

Heather said...

Hi, J.

**But Lewis, if memory serves me correctly from his book Mere Christianity, was refuting those who simply would say, "Jesus was a good teacher." **

I think what Lewis was refuting was that people cannot simply say Jesus was a great moral teacher, which is in line with what you're saying. The problem is, it's still using Jesus' character to determine the worth of certain things he was teaching, such as don't judge, turn the other cheek and so forth. For me, Lewis' argument would work a lot better if he focuses on the words themselves. He does that with statements such as Jesus saying he's the bread of life and so forth. But someone can go around saying that, and still teach good things, such as "you'll be judged based on the same standards you use to judge others."

Plus, it also has the assumption of Jesus literally said everything attributed to him in the four gospels.

Anonymous said...

Whether you "vote black" or not, a strong case for Jesus believing Himself to be the messiah can be made.

Read The Meaning of Jesus - a dialogue between Marcus Borg and NT Wright. It fills this argument out quite a bit more, and I think derails the tempting relativism...

Heather said...

Anon,

I presume the "vote black" is in reference to the Jesus Seminar?

I have read that book, actually. I also own it. But I'm not sure if you grasped the meaning of my post. It had nothing to do with relativism. It was taking the structure of the Trilemma, and seeing if it functioned as an ad hominem fallacy or not: the merit of someone's teachings should not be dependent on the identity of the person. The teachings themselves should be able to be evaluated objectively, regardless of who says them. It has nothing to do with what Jesus believed about himself.

As it is, the Trilemma doesn't focus on Jesus as the Messiah. It focuses on the concept of Jesus as God. The Messiah in Judaism was to be mortal -- not God made flesh.