Monday, November 30, 2009

Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or just a Colorful Teacher of World Religions

Per Jason Pratt's request, I have redated this post on the trilemma.

I've been reading John Beversluis's analysis of the trilemma, and his treatment of the issue led me to advance this little thought experiment.

Suppose I were to come to my class in, oh, say, world religion, and I were to say. "This course is about religion, and we will be talking about God a lot. And you guys are all in luck. I, your teacher, Dr. Reppert, am God Himself, come to earth in incarnate form." Now my students would probably think this was a big practical joke. But now suppose after a week or two I catch a student cheating and say, "Not only do you flunk this class, but unless you repent you are going to hear from me when I return for the day of judgment." Suppose some people were to go to the dean and ask about what is up with Reppert's class. The teacher were then to say "Yes, I realize this guy thinks he's God, so of course he's delusional about that. But many students have told me that this just makes the class more interesting. He's a good teacher, and a fair grader. There's no reason to drop the course, or ask for a refund for your tuition, still less to contact the men in the white coats. Just stay in there, and you should be happy." Could this reply possibly be taken seriously by the distressed and confused students?

P. S. (4/8) The point here, it seems to me, is that this just sounds like a psychologically implauisble scenario, doesn't it?

11 comments:

One Brow said...

Sorry, but I don't see what the big deal is here. The student cheated and flunked. If the professor's class has the content and materials you would expect from a World Religion course, and he does not ask you to personally endorse his Deity, what difference does it make?

Jason Pratt said...

Maybe Victor should tweak the example so that he's expecting students to endorse his Deity, then.

Better yet, let's say Victor tweaks the example so that he isn't only expecting students to endorse his Deity and to accept his authority as such, but he also goes out of his way to expect the same from his otherwise apparently nominal peers, including (beyond people who trained along with him such as Keith Parsons) people one might suppose (from age and activity, living or dead) to be more experienced and/or his authoritative/ranking superiors, such as his dean, Alvin Plantinga, C. S. Lewis, John Calvin, Moses, Elijah, Antony Flew, Pope Benedict and John Beversluis.

Now is Victor still just a colorful teacher? Would the dean be acting responsibly to answer complaints from a student (failing grade or otherwise) in the fashion given here? Is there some fashion the dean could answer the student leaving Victor still respected as a major cultural contributor to society who ought to be attended to and whose teachings ought to be applied (even if not broadband)?


I take it Victor's thought experiment is being prompted by some attempt from JBev to take Jesus seriously as a good teacher, fair grader, etc.--except, y'know, also deluded about being God Almighty and expecting other people including those who might be considered higher on the authority chain to get in line on this too or face serious penalties to be inflicted by Victor himself as judge over them.

You should try running that by John, Vic. {g}

JRP

One Brow said...

Sorry, but unless your tweak is that he changes the srudents' grade based his expectations, or engages in harassing behavior, or any similar claim, it's still not relevant. If he does change grades arbitrarily (with respect to the classwork) or harrass people, even then the issues is the behavior, not the expectations. Sure, the professor is in for a lot of dissappointment, but that would be his problem.

I understand while a monotheist would look at such a professor in horror, but its not an issue for skeptics.

Jason Pratt said...

So... the threat about inflicting serious penalties (apparently up to and including an indefinite amount of torment) if students and peers and apparently authoritative or more experienced superiors, if they don't get in line accepting Victor's authority over their lives as the ultimate Deity, doesn't count enough as harassment to warrant a dean removing Victor as a teaching authority, responsible for properly training students (at least)? You'd be prepared to seriously pay attention to Victor yourself in that situation, as a moral examplar (at the least) worth being followed by yourself and other people?

I find that claim to be utterly remarkable. You mean a sceptic would still have no problem with Victor being accepted as a legitimately respectable teacher who ought to be paid attention to, even in this situation. (Because this is the situation we're talking about, analogically--you do understand that, right?) It would have to go as far as actual violence done by Victor then, before you decided he wasn't someone who should be teaching students?

JRP

One Brow said...

So... the threat about inflicting serious penalties ... doesn't count enough as harassment to warrant a dean removing Victor as a teaching authority, responsible for properly training students (at least)?
Assuming you mean "the threat about inflicting serious penalties to your non-coporeal soul after your death", so what? Why should I take that more seriously from a professor than from some preacher's questionable interpretation of an old myth?

You'd be prepared to seriously pay attention to Victor yourself in that situation, as a moral examplar (at the least) worth being followed by yourself and other people?
I thought we were discussing Jesus as teacher, not examplar. In any case, don't you hold up as a moral examplar a man you think threatened eternal conscious torment to anyone who did not follow him? Who are you to judge the professor for following the example of a person you worship?

I find that claim to be utterly remarkable. You mean a sceptic would still have no problem with Victor being accepted as a legitimately respectable teacher who ought to be paid attention to, even in this situation.
Ideally, skeptics judge by output, not character. If the professor's class material is in line with that of any other professor, if in class he meets or exceeds the standards of his profession, I don't see why some exterior delusion should result in him losing priviledge.

(Because this is the situation we're talking about, analogically--you do understand that, right?) It would have to go as far as actual violence done by Victor then, before you decided he wasn't someone who should be teaching students?
I'm fairly sure their are all sorts of levels of behavior that do not amount to actual violence yet are still in violation of the standards of conduct of a typical professor, and I would want the administration to treat this professor with the respect (and dicipline, where warranted) that any other professor would be subject to. I don't see where his delusion is so much worse than any other religious delusion.

Jason Pratt said...

{{Why should I take that more seriously from a professor than from some preacher's questionable interpretation of an old myth?}}

I think you're missing the point. Victor's crit of Beversluis is that JBev wants to take Jesus seriously as an honorable contributor to World Religion while totally not taking seriously the high authority claims. And the threats in the Gospels, though parabolically veiled, were not limited to non-corporeal souls after death. Aside from corporeal souls being raised to be judged after death, there are threats of cities being destroyed (primarily Jerusalem) by armies, and ruling officials being slain in his presence at his command for their rebellion against him.

In any case, the rabbinic establishment (in the canonical texts) was torn about allowing Jesus to go around lecturing as a respected guest speaker in synagogues; and to say the least they eventually rejected his permission to do so. {s} You and JBev, on the other hand, apparently would let Victor teach world religions and grade students based on faithfulness to himself, if he was making similar authority-identity claims; and if students had a problem with it, well, that's their problem and they'll have to just gut up and take it. Victor won't be expelled from teaching until he actually burns down a student's house for not accepting his ultimate authority (instead of only threatening to do so parabolically).

What Victor is critiquing JBev on (apparently), isn't so much not accepting the Lord horn of the trilemma, but trying to have the Lunatic angle without really accepting the corollaries of the Lunatic angle.

{{I thought we were discussing Jesus as teacher, not examplar.}}

Well, he wasn't exactly teaching world religion as a subject. What did you think Victor was topically paralleling by example??

{{In any case, don't you hold up as a moral examplar a man you think threatened eternal conscious torment to anyone who did not follow him?}}

Actually, no I don't. {g} I'm an orthodox universalist Christian. But obviously punishment for not cooperating with God (where Jesus somehow == God) is part of the threat. That can't be daffed aside.

{{Who are you to judge the professor for following the example of a person you worship?}}

A person who doesn't worship that professor; that's who. God has the authority of God, not not-God. If Victor started making those claims, he'd be competing against Jesus (or maybe claiming to be Jesus in the Second Coming).

Moreover, if I didn't believe God existed, or believed God didn't have any interest and/or ability to judge and punish people, then obviously I wouldn't accept either Jesus' or Victor's claims to have that authority-identity.

In either case, I think I'd have to "put Victor out of the synagogue", so to speak, at least as a teacher. Meir Soloveichik contributed a sterling article to this effect in First Things last month (over against Rabbi Neusner who decided he could be a friend of Jesus even though rejecting Jesus' authority-identity claims.) It'll be available online for free by March, or I'd point a reference to it now.

{{If the professor's class material is in line with that of any other professor, if in class he meets or exceeds the standards of his profession, I don't see why some exterior delusion should result in him losing priviledge.}}

Until he actually burns down the university or has a dean slain in his presence, I guess, instead of only seriously threatening to do so (per his "external delusion").

JRP

One Brow said...

I think you're missing the point. Victor's crit of Beversluis is that JBev wants to take Jesus seriously as an honorable contributor to World Religion while totally not taking seriously the high authority claims.
Why shouldn't the contribution be judged on its own merit?

And the threats in the Gospels, though parabolically veiled, were not limited to non-corporeal souls after death. Aside from corporeal souls being raised to be judged after death, there are threats of cities being destroyed (primarily Jerusalem) by armies, and ruling officials being slain in his presence at his command for their rebellion against him.
At some nebulous future time after he has already died, according to the mainstream understanding.

Besides, as world religions go, limiting the killing and destruction to some nebulous future is downright benign. I don't think you'll have many religions left if you rule out all the ones that encourage or pronounce that sort of thing at some point in their history.

Well, he wasn't exactly teaching world religion as a subject. What did you think Victor was topically paralleling by example??
Whether a person's ability to contribute valuable moral teaching was dependent on them being moral and/or sane, presumably. Dr. Repparts claim would seem to be that the two are linked.

Until he actually burns down the university or has a dean slain in his presence, I guess, instead of only seriously threatening to do so (per his "external delusion").
Repetition of this dichotomy will not convince me of its truth.

Hans said...

The disciples were faced with the same choice as Beverluis.

Jesus told his disciples that he was God, and they rejected him.

Beversluis is making the same mistake as the disciples who failed Jesus when they began to see his divinely inspired prophecies start to come true before their very eyes.

Hans said...

What is the simplest disproof of Beversluis?

Jesus said on the cross 'My God, my God whay have you forsaken me?'

A lunatic who thought he was God would never claim that God had forsaken him.

Somebody who lied that he thought he was God would never make a claim that God had forsaken him.

So Jesus must have been Lord.

Jason Pratt said...

OB,

{{Why shouldn't the contribution be judged on its own merit?}}

I wasn’t saying it shouldn’t. But the lunacy (if it’s lunacy) has to be judged on its own merits, too.

{{At some nebulous future time after he has already died, according to the mainstream understanding.}}

But we’re talking about a mentally unhinged person (if the high authority claims are not to be accepted). When mentally unhinged people start making punishment threats based on their own authority over against the nominal authorities, then I don’t think it’s responsible for people among the nominal authorities to tell the people they’re charged with protecting, “Just humor him, he’s a good teacher of X; if he starts killing people we’ll act against him then.”

It’s one thing for scholars to allow that a lunatic with a God-complex managed to get some ethical teaching correct; that’s just part of a fair analysis. It’s another thing to take the lunatic seriously as an honorable contributor to World Religion.

{{Besides, as world religions go, limiting the killing and destruction to some nebulous future is downright benign.}}

True; but a lunatic who thinks he is God Almighty who limits the killing and destruction to some nebulous future is not downright benign--even if he happens to die before altering the gameplan according to some whim of his own self-aggrandized authority-perception.

{[JRP:] {{What did you think Victor was topically paralleling by example??}}

[OB:] {{Whether a person's ability to contribute valuable moral teaching was dependent on them being moral and/or sane, presumably. Dr. Repparts claim would seem to be that the two are linked.}}

Victor is certainly welcome to correct me, but the end of his paragraph doesn’t seem to me to be about whether a person’s ability to contribute valuable moral teaching (in some rarefied abstract fashion) is dependent on him being moral and/or sane. Here it is again:

“The teacher were then to say ‘Yes, I realize this guy thinks he's God, so of course he's delusional about that. But many students have told me that this just makes the class more interesting. He's a good teacher, and a fair grader. There's no reason to drop the course, or ask for a refund for your tuition, still less to contact the men in the white coats. Just stay in there, and you should be happy.’ Could this reply possibly be taken seriously by the distressed and confused students?”

This is about accepting authority. It’s one thing to analyze a lunatic and recognize that he has some good ethical qualities. It’s another thing to accept his authority as a moral teacher.

Now (assuming I’m correct in locating Victor’s meaning here), perhaps this is a category error criticism of JBev--maybe he wasn’t meaning to suggest that Jesus can still be accepted as an honorable teacher worth following if he’s also a God-complex lunatic, but was only pointing out that even God-complex lunatics can sometimes get ethical things correct. I’m not in a position to have an opinion on that (yet). But as far as authoritative teaching is concerned, I think Victor is correct that authorities nominally over himself would be wrong to tolerate eccentricities of a Jesus-sort in Victor, insofar as they’re the ones sanctioning his activities as an authoritative teacher over the students. (Especially if we upgrade Victor’s analogy to more closely match what Jesus was claiming.)


Put another way, if Jesus wasn’t in fact Who he claimed to be, then the rabbis who supported him and helped give him a venue for authoritative teaching were being highly irresponsible, and the rabbis who opposed his activities as a teacher of the people were correct to do so (at least in principle, even if their practice of rejection wasn’t up to par sometimes.)


JRP

Clayton said...

"Yes, I realize this guy thinks he's God, so of course he's delusional about that. But many students have told me that this just makes the class more interesting. He's a good teacher, and a fair grader. There's no reason to drop the course, or ask for a refund for your tuition, still less to contact the men in the white coats. Just stay in there, and you should be happy."

You ask, "Could this reply possibly be taken seriously by the distressed and confused students?"

No. But, the hindsight/foresight difference is important. A barking loon like the teacher in the example is still alive and kicking and anyone that delusional isn't safe to have as a teacher. However, I can imagine that after this loon of a teacher passes people saying that he was a wonderful man, albeit a tad eccentric. Like Jesus.