Monday, December 19, 2005

Insanity, deception, and moral greatness

Some have argued, in response to the LLL argument, that Jesus may have been a "lunatic" in some benign sense that is compatible with his being a great moral teacher and, just as important, a great moral leader while at the same time thinking himself to be God. I don't think this has a ghost of a chance of being correct, and here's why. To have the sorts of false beliefs that are necessary to make the relevant claims involves a degree of narcissism which is completely absent in the portraits of Jesus found in any of the Gospels. So we can concede that, for example, Kurt Godel had some severe eccentricities which nonetheless did not prevent him from being a great mathematician and scientist.

Again this goes for deceivers. The kind of deception Jesus would have to have been guilty of if he was a deceiver was that of persuading followers that they could receive eternal life through him, when in fact he could guarantee them no such thing. Is Jesus's moral presence in the New Testament compatible with deception on this level. And then he was stupid enough to get crucified when all he had to do was say he was just a Jewish carpenter and teacher and that people had made up stories about him that weren't true, and he could have walked away? When you start trying to tell the story of Jesus whie rejecting the claims of Christianity, you end up replacing a supernaturalist account with some documentary support with a naturalistic story with no documentary support whatsoever.

I once was overheard a conversation with
someone who thought he was God, or Christ, or
something like that. The person kept talking with a
pastor I was working with about his interpretation of
such things as the Septuagint and kept interrupting
and refusing to listen to the pastor's responses to
what he had to say. Finally the pastor hung up on him,
and he kept calling back to talk about his view. The
pastor told me he thought that the person was probably
on his way to identifying himself as the true Christ,
if he had been given a chance.

What is interesting here is narcissism of those who
have the sorts of delusions Jesus would have had to
have in order to falsely claim to be God, or the son
of God, etc. My claim is that the kind of
lunacy Jesus would have to have to falsely claim deity
involves just the kind of narcissism that is
conspicuous by its absence in Jesus, as he is portrayed in the Gospels.


Anonymous said...

Why would an atheist care whether Jesus was a liar or a lunatic?

I can only imagine that this trilemna has hung around for so long is conservative xtians can use it to thump on liberal xtians.

Jason Pratt said...

Actually, that's precisely (and just about exclusively) the only way Lewis used it, too.

And based on his introductory rationale for writing M:aPS (a _preliminary_ study), he would have been pretty sympathetic to Anon's question, too.

Still, there's also something to be said for curiosity about the details of a situation. Victor's a philosopher, so he pokes at the question. (And, not being a sophist, he really does care about what kind of answers can and cannot be reached.)

But yeah, on a naturalistic view, the answer could just as easily be: 'Jesus was a unique personality--the humble egotist'.

There _are_ some theologians (and historical analysts treading into theology--NT Wright comes to mind) who present Jesus as being, in practice, the sort of benign lunatic Victor describes in the first paragraph--the difference being that Jesus happens to be correct in his claims. But he doesn't really _know_ it; he's "only" acting "in faith".

Notably, Wright has to largely omit reference to GosJohn, on no clear grounds, in order to reach this conclusion near the end of _Jesus and the Victory of God_. And even then he's kind of waffly on it. It's by far the weakest part of his work, in my judgment.

I certainly don't sanction that kind of conclusion--I think it's sloppy theology, and doesn't do the fullest justice to the textual witness--but I can respect the technical possibility (outside a rigorous theological context). It is, at least, the sort of conclusion I would be prepared to accept as a naturalist. (The resurrection would be a far more difficult problem for me, once I started looking into it more closely; but I could still imagine myself arriving at a conclusion more like Wright's as a convert from naturalism. Perhaps not coincidentally, Anne Rice is a proponent of Wright's work.)