Monday, December 12, 2005

Infidel in Exile's Critique of the Lewis argument

There was an exchange on Fides Quaerens Intellectum on the MBG argument, but all the links to the opponent, Infidel in Exile's critique, could not be linked to. But I found the discussion on the IIE blog, which I reproduce here: (I will have to say that I am not thrilled with the tone of this discussion; if your case is a really good one you don't need to remind your opponent at every turn that if he/she disagrees with you he/she just don't know anything.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Fides Quaerens Intellectum and the Trilemma

The Trilemma is one of those arguments that takes two hours and five minutes to handle: two hours laughing, and five minutes to rip apart. A friend of mine pointed me to this example at Fides Quaerens Intellectum of a philosophy grad student whose thinking on this issue lacks both depth and knowledge. He writes:

The argument can be waged with success using probabilities, though. So, unless he can show that it is somehow likely that Jesus could mistakenly believe he is God without being cognitively dysfunctional, I think the L3 argument still works.It's hard for me to imagine that in this day and age anyone could take this argument seriously, but it remains a great favorite among believers, indicating that basically Lewis wrote it, like all apologetics, to re-assure believers rather than convince skeptics. I'll discuss this by adapting something I wrote earlier, with quotes from the website above.
Here is Lewis' original presentation:

"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 said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."Type this in Google you'll find thousands of Christian websites that apparently feel this is a high point of Christian apologetics. It's actually illogical and uninformed, and it does not reflect well on people who accept it as serious thinking.
The first problem is very basic. Lewis writes "A man who said the sort of things Jesus said...." However, accepting this premise first requires that we establish what Jesus said. But it is not easy to separate what Jesus said from what was added to his sayings later by Christians, who told and retold the many tales of Jesus. There is widespread disagreement among scholars on what goes back to Jesus -- and further, as Crossan pointed out in The Birth of Christianity, there is no widely accepted method for going back into the Jesus material and separating the wheat from the chaff. Many scholars believe, for example, that nothing in John goes back to Jesus. Others argue that anything about Gentiles or food laws is a later addition. Still others point out that Jesus' sayings closely resemble popular philosophical sayings of his time. What arguments or evidence does Lewis offer about what Jesus said? Well, I've read Mere Christianity, and I didn't see any. So unless Lewis can tell me how he knows what Jesus intended, I don't see that there is any support for his claim from that direction. In fact Lewis even writes that Jesus claimed to be God, but nowhere is there a clear statement of that in the Synoptic Gospels, which are usually seen as closer to the original sayings of Jesus (even a statement like "I and the Father are one"can be interpreted in many ways). Many, many scholars would dispute that historical Jesus ever made such a claim.
It is obvious that the writers mentioned in the post at Fides Quaerens Intellectum have erred by not exploring the issue of what Jesus said, and taking everything in the Gospel texts at face value, something no serious historian or New Testament scholar would ever do (Lewis, needless to say, was neither).
But it gets worse, because in addition to lacking textual support, Lewis' position is a string of logical fallacies, and that is something that any philosophy major worth his salt should spot right away. First, he offers you three choices. Either Jesus was really God, or he was a devil, or he was crazy. Any time someone gives you violently opposed choices you should start becoming suspicious about his arguments. Think about it. Could a liar be a great moral teacher? Of course! All the great moral teachers of history were human beings, and like all humans, must have been liars. Martin Luther King plagiarized his doctoral thesis and cheated on his wife. His "I have a dream"is taken unacknowledged from a speech written by a friend of his. Does that mean he wasn't a great moral teacher and leader? Of course not! Just imagine all the great moral leaders and teachers you know - didn't they all have human failings? So with Jesus. There is no reason to imagine that simply because he was a great moral teacher, he must be divine. The greatness lies in the message, not in who brings it.
But further, there is no reason to imagine that Jesus had to have been a liar to make the claims that he did. He might have sincerely believed in what he said. He might even have sincerely believed he was God. His followers might have believed it too. That sort of thing has happened before as well. But even if he were crazy, would that invalidate him as a great moral teacher? Crazy people are as likely to say intelligent and insightful things as anybody. After all, saying Jesus was a nut doesn't really say anything about what kind of nut he was. He might have been a nut like Kurt Godel, one of the great philosophers of all time, who in his later years insisted on communicating with everyone by phone even if they were in the same room. Yet his social strangenesses did not prevent him from being a truly great thinker and teacher.
Another problem with this point of view is that in fact there is nothing particularly divine about his teachings in any case; they can be found in the popular philosophy, Cynic and Stoic, of his day, and in the Old Testament. When Jesus cites the famous Shema in Mark 12:29-31, as Jim Perry points out, he is citing a bit of Jewish moral teaching. So should we then regard all the Jewish teachers who taught this as divine too? The Golden Rule, found in many cultures, is another example of this. Were all those teachers divine too? When Jesus says that physicians heal the sick he is citing a commonplace in Cynic philosophy. Do we then claim that the Cynic philosopher who first thought that up was divine? Probably most people would not.
And here's yet another thing to think about. In antiquity "Son of God"and "God"were royal titles. Consider the Prienne Inscription. Here's an excerpt:

"...surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him..."
Here Augustus is referred to as "God"and "Savior" (benefactor). His birthday is the "beginning of the good tidings". The Greek word for "good tidings" is euangelion, which readers might recognize as the word "gospel." Similarly Livy notes that Romulus was taken up to heaven as "Son of God."(Incidentally, when Romulus ascended to heaven, those around him fled. Does any of this sound familiar?) In other words, Jesus might well have claimed himself to be "God" or "Son of God"and done so with full knowledge that it was a Royal title. He may have been making a claim to the throne - in many fictional reconstructions of the Jesus story, such as Robert Graves' beautiful King Jesus, Jesus is made a descendent of Herod and claimant to the throne of Judea. There are possible meanings here that Lewis has not considered (not surprising as he made very little attempt to inquire into history, like our philosopher friend at Fides Quaerens Intellectum). And further, since some Roman emperors after Augustus claimed to be a God and a Son of a God, can we apply the Trilemma to them?
In fact, Lewis' argument only becomes coherent if you simply suspend all knowledge of history and historical methodology, as our philosopher friend at Fides Quaerens Intellectum actually did, and operate in a vaccuum. Consider this remark:

I would dare to say that anyone who is aware of the kind of cultural assumptions behind first century Palestinian Judaism would not be so quick to endorse the "just-so" story Howard-Snyder gives to explain how Jesus could make grandiose leaps to believe (falsely) that he was the Messiah, to the belief that the Messiah is divine, to the belief that the Hebrew God is plural in persons, and finally to the (false) belief that he was a person of God.
There are, of course, massive historical problems here. First, there is no such thing as "first century Palestinian Judaism" because Judaism was not a cultural monolith in the first century. There might well have been several routes by which a Jew might have come to believe himself the actual Son of God. First, and by far the most likely, is that it is a later addition in the Jesus tradition. Theissen and Merz' The Historical Jesus, a fabulous encyclopedia of scholarly arguments and evidence from two German Christian scholars, explains why this must be so beginning on page 553. The second route is that Jesus did what other historical individuals who have seen themselves as Sons of the Christian God (and the Brother of the Lord) did -- he had a vision. It is extremely improbable that a Chinese Hakka with no background in Christianity save for half-read missionary tracts in Chinese would title himself Brother of Jesus -- and therefore Son of God. But that is exactly what happened, and the rest was the history of the Taiping Rebellion (though in the end Hong finally went insane). The Zulu Nxele did pretty much the same thing. Culture is not destiny. Further, first century Palestinian Judaism was heavily Hellenized, and split into many sects. It is not difficult to imagine that any of the numerous variations on Judaism could have produced a maverick thinker -- such thinking is inherent in the tradition of Two Powers in Heaven and Divine Mediators that grew up in Judaism. And finally, according to Gospel legend, Jesus was from the least Judaized part of Palestine, Galilee. He must have been explosed to a swirl of cultural and intellectual influences. There's simply no telling what he might have said or done.
Speaking of the Gospels, it is also important to point out that the first Gospel was Mark, and in Mark, Jesus is portrayed as a human being possessed by God. This Christology is called Adoptionism, and was considered heretical in the later Church, which may explain why Mark was rewritten and incorporated into Luke and Matthew. In Mark no human recognizes Jesus as Son of God during his own lifetime. And there are at least two ways the Centurion's Declaration in 15:39 can be read. It is clear from Mark that there are several ways to think about what "Son of God" might mean in early Christianity, a clue that the title was added later and was part of a developing tradition. But I digress
Trivial point: Jesus may well have started out sane, and gradually gone insane. Seeing himself as God may have been the endpoint of a long process. It's not as if there are only two possible states, sanity and not-sanity. One grades into the other, and further, they can come intermittently. Indeed, it is easy to see someone given to intermittent insanity as being seen by others as a Divine Personage -- such was common in antiquity.
In fact, there are many more than the three dramatic choices - God, Devil, or Nutcase - that Lewis offers us. Maybe Jesus was just a human like you and me. Maybe he was misunderstood. Maybe the things he said were made up, or spoken by others and then attributed to Jesus. So next time someone says "Lord, liar, or lunatic?"You can respond by thoughtfully saying, "No, more like man, myth, or misunderstood."
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I responded to a response from another poster:
It is sad to imagine that anyone could buy the kind of argument Infidel presents. Merely note the multiple vague and mere appeals to 'many scholars' and diversity of opinion:
If you want citations, I am happy to provide them. But anyone familiar with the scholarship -- and it is clear that neither the OP nor Lewis was -- knows that disagreement on any of the major issues is widespread. Did Jesus cause a ruckus in the Temple? Fredriksen says no, it's all fiction, Sanders yes but it is fictionalized, Gundry yes and word for word reporting is true. Crossan says no but he did speak against the Temple. Brown says yes but fictionalized. Etc. Would you like more names?
"There is widespread disagreement among scholars on what goes back to Jesus" - the critical questions aren't being asked here, WHAT is the reasoning of these scholars? I'm content to believe that Infidel's not wanting to cite since he's probably done so many times, and his entry isn't intended to be an overarching survey--but at least point to more than one scholar.
I'm very sorry. In the future I'll will try to recall that my audience does not know much about the issues that it believes in passionately and writes on regularly. Wait -- how's that again?
As for scholarly reasoning, I have already cited THE major figure in the historical Jesus studies, John D. Crossan, in _The Birth of Christianity_, on that very issue. There is no accepted methodology, and no criteria has withstood criticism. Another good view is in Porter's book on Criteria in Historical Jesus research. Theissen and Merz also have a good overview. But I recommend _The Birth of Christianity_ as a fabulous introduction to the problems.
"Many scholars believe, for example, that nothing in John goes back to Jesus." "Still others point out that Jesus' sayings closely resemble popular philosophical sayings of his time."
I'm hearing Jesus Seminar, but...

"In fact Lewis even writes that Jesus claimed to be God, but nowhere is there a clear statement of that in the Synoptic Gospels, which are usually seen as closer to the original sayings of Jesus (even a statement like "I and the Father are one" can be interpreted in many ways). Many, many scholars would dispute that historical Jesus ever made such a claim." -
Likewise, "many scholars" such as?, and upon stricter investigation saying that "there is no clear statement" is actually ignorant and lacking ground. Start with this-- http://www.tektonics.org/jesusclaims/jesusclaimshub.html

Actually, none of this is Jesus Seminar. The links between the sayings of Jesus and Cynicism are laid out by F. Gerald Downing, a British cleric and scholar, in a series of works. They are well known to scholars. Here are the refs:
Downing, F. Gerald. 2001. The Jewish Cynic Jesus. In Labahn, Michael, and Schmidt, Andreas, eds. 2001. Jesus, Mark, and Q. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 214. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. pp184-215.
Downing, Gerald F. 1998. Cynics, Paul, and the Pauline Churches. London: Routledge.
Downing, F. Gerald. 1988. Christ and the Cynics: Jesus and other Radical Preachers in First-Century Tradition. Sheffield UK: JSOT Press
As for Tektonics, Holding reads only conservatives, doesn't stay with the scholarship, hasn't a clue about scholarly methodology, and in any case, has decided a priori what the case is (thinks Paul really wrote the Pastorals and Deutero-Paulines, for example). Plus, I have had the joy of interacting with him on many forums...when beaten, as is usual, he retreats into unseemly abuse and insults.
In any case, as Holding admits, nowhere in the Synoptics does Jesus say "I am God" so the whole red herring you've dragged in here is moot and my point stands.
If you want a good review of the issues, I have already pointed you to Theissen and Merz, whom no one would ever mistake for liberals. _The Historical Jesus_ should be on everyone's shelf. There are numerous discussions in T&M, but a major overview begins on p553.
It is true, however, that Lewis was not a NT scholar. But such cheap discussion about his writings is, I would find, quite odd, for someone who attacks as deep as this:
Why is it cheap to point out that sad fact that Lewis' knowledge of the New Testament was incompetent even for his own day, let alone ours? Many people who read Lewis think he actually knows what he is talking about. He doesn't.
"
Lewis' position is a string of logical fallacies, and that is something that any philosophy major worth his salt should spot right away. ."
In other words, if DePoe does not agree with Infidel's observations, he is not 'worth his salt', irregardless of his grounds for disagreement. Sound like rhetoric to you?

That's what we call an introductory remark, to tell the reader exactly what I am going to show -- that Lewis logical fallacies and poor argumentation is the kind that should be instantly spotted by any thoughtful reader. Like a philosophy grad student, for example.
--"There are possible meanings here that Lewis has not considered (not surprising as he made very little attempt to inquire into history, like our philosopher friend at Fides Quaerens Intellectum)."

And once again, another "if you disagree you are ignoring all history" type assertion:
Beg your pardon. Perhaps you can show me where the OP showed even the slightest hint of a whiff of the issues I have raised? Where is the knowledge of the historical methodology and the problems with the claims Lewis raises? None. Zip. Nada.
"In fact, Lewis' argument only becomes coherent if you simply suspend all knowledge of history and historical methodology, as our philosopher friend at Fides Quaerens Intellectum actually did, and operate in a vaccuum."
Well, DePoe, if you want some insights from an educated layman, email J. P. Holding of www.tektonics.org -- you might merely ask for specific links.
ROFL. Again, please show where DePoe displays any knowledge of the issues of history and methodology he is raising.
Of course, I note that your own response consists of asking for information, such as the widespread disagreement among scholars on what goes back to Jesus, and what methodologies should be used in determining that, that is known to anyone who has made a study of the issues. I pointed you to at least two important works in the piece. If you would like more references, I'd be happy to oblige.
Give me a few years until I get a MA in Classics (and on to doctorate); then we'll see what I can say after a long, long day.
Hopefully it will show more sensitivity to the problems of historical methodology than Lewis does. And actually deal with the points raised.....
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The owner of the blog chimed in, so I responded
As for the dispute raised by the exiled infidel (what a lonely sounding name!), he is questioning the historical grounds of the premises that make up the LLL argument. I, of course, don't engage in that matter in this post.
So, the mention of "first century Judaism" was just for fun? And you didn't really mean this comment...
I think the strength of the L3 argument can be seen at its full strength, and many people with non-Christian presuppositions may weigh the evidence and see that it is rational to believe Jesus is who he claimed to be: the Son of God.
...then. And when you say Jesus claimed to be the Son of God" you mean he claimed to be what your particular doctrine intreprets him to be saying, although you weren't "making a historical argument." Somehow you are able to affirm and interpret the words of Jesus without making an historical argument! Right.
The reality is that anyone with sound scholarly methodology can see why the Trilemma is joke, while anyone operating on conservative Christian assumptions doesn't need it. Lewis' argument was never meant for skeptics, but for believers, generally in the formative phases of their belief, who need reassurance that they haven't gone 'round the bend. That is why it is so popular with adolescents.
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More comments:
What would be interesting would be any attempt by this crowd to make a purely textual argument for the inauthenticity of specific passages, an argument that does not rest explicitly or implicitly on anti-supernaturalistic assumptions derived from folks like Spinoza or Hume.

You do not seem very familiar with "this crowd". Few, if any of the major Gospel scholars rely explicitly or implicitly on methodological naturalism to investigate the major Gospel claims; the vast majority of bible scholars are Christians who believe in the supernatural, after all. Most such critiques rely on the basic understandings of historical scholarship -- for example, that Jesus could not have left any such sweeping proclamations on food laws or else it would not have been an issue for his later followers, meaning that the Gospel stories are in a probability anachronistic and accretions to the tradition. Or else they use forms of literary analysis, noting the paralleling of the Old Testament, Josephus, and Greek and Roman literature, literary conventions, and mythology in the Gospel tales. Or they use various forms of sociological/comparative analysis. Except for Gerd Ludemann, I cannot offhand think of any historical Jesus scholar who uses an explicit criteria of methodological naturalism in assessing the historicity of sayings and events in the Gospel stories, as virtually all of them are believers of one flavor or another. But I would welcome some examples of scholars who have explicitly defined criteria and incorporated that particular one (I do know of one other, but he hasn't published yet).
John is quite right that the only serious considerations relevant to the success of the argument are those relevant to any dilemma or trilemma: the probabilities of the horns of the argument and the probabilities of the ways to jump through the horns.
Then my discussion was quite relevant, for how can you assess the probability of anything without an evaluation of real-world possibilities? On that score all horns of the dilemma are colossal failures, for Jesus need not have been a lord, liar, or lunatic to call himself "Son of God" (even assuming that he actually did so). The L3 doesn't begin to address the possibilities, hence those of us who are not Christians cannot weigh the evidence and consider it rational to believe that Jesus was implanted in the womb by the intervention of a Canaanite Sky Deity, as John asserts.
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Infidel
Atheism, Christianity

3 comments:

Jason said...

Oy. And I thought _I_ wrote long posts...

Seeing as how I would have to write two or three books worth of material to address all of this, I think I'll limit myself to the irony in his initial claim:

"The Trilemma is one of those arguments that takes two hours and five minutes to handle: two hours laughing, and five minutes to rip apart."

Really? Looks to me like he had to spend a lot more time than five minutes. (Or maybe 96% of this is supposed to be 'laughing' and so not to be considered serious analysis?)

Tom Gilson said...

I was rather amused by his reliance on Crossan. Now, there's a reliable scholar for you.

Tim said...

Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice; his reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff; you shall seek all day ere you find them; and, when you have them, they are not worth the search.

The Merchant of Venice