Sunday Toons: The Trilemma’s New Clothes

For today’s trip to toonland, I want to finish up a few loose ends in Holding’s attempted defense of C. S. Lewis’ famous “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” trilemma. First, though, let’s take a quick look at a comment Holding made about this blog in the “July Screwballs” section of theologyweb. He introduces a comment of mine with this little gem:

And, Dumplin’ Dumbash on why he responds to me, and why he therefore has Dunning Syndrome:

The reference to “Dunning Syndrome” is apparently a reference to an Ig-Nobel-award-winning paper (available in PDF here) in which authors Kruger and Dunning discuss people with very low mental aptitude (e.g. 12th percentile) having impaired ability to assess their own intellectual performance. Wikipedia has an entry for this phenomenon under “Dunning-Kruger Effect” (not “Dunning Syndrome), and describes it as “the phenomenon wherein people who have little knowledge (or skill) tend to think they know more (or have more skill) than they do.” Holding wants to accuse me of suffering from this problem, but in his rush to accuse, he mistakenly calls it a “syndrome” and gets the name of the authors wrong, thus demonstrating that he really doesn’t know as much about this condition as he thinks he knows. The gypsy curse strikes again!

Back to Holding’s trilemma defense. One of the points I made in my original post is that the term “god” is one of those concepts for which there is no real-world standard of reference we can use to give it a concrete definition. Consequently, there are as many different definitions of “god” as there are people who didn’t like the definitions they were given. After all, with no real-world point of reference to refute you, why not define “god” however you feel like imagining Him/Her/It/Them?

Holding mistakes this for an epistemological problem, calling it “an epistemological train wreck.” Notice, however, that I am not making an epistemological argument here. I’m not raising any questions about how we know what we know. I’m merely pointing out that God’s failure to show up in real life has significant consequences. One of those consequences is the lack of any fixed, verifiable definition for God, which is a consequence that has some significant implications in questions like “Did Jesus claim to be God?”. Even leaving aside the question of metaphorical usage, you have to know what “be god” means before you can talk about whether Jesus did it and/or claimed to do it.

Holding tries to avoid this problem by arguing that “it seems unlikely that these folks have no idea what we mean by ‘God’ any more than they are confused when we say ‘George Bush’ or ‘Bill Clinton.'” But that’s a smoke screen, since the question isn’t “What did Holding mean by ‘be God’?” but rather “What did Jesus mean?”, and more importantly, “Is it true that Jesus was God?” If we don’t have a real-world standard for what a genuine God is, it’s going to be difficult for Jesus to live up to that standard. Fortunately, we do have another standard to rely on in such circumstances: the principle that truth is consistent with itself.

I applied that principle to the “Lord” part of the trilemma, and determined that Jesus was not God, on the grounds that the kind of involved, caring, intimate God that Jesus preached is not consistent with the lack of divine parental involvement we find in real life. Apparently, though, it’s against the rules to give an objective assessment of each of the three “horns” of the trilemma individually—we’re supposed to look only at the “Liar” and “Lunatic” alternatives, and surrender to the “Lord” alternative by default (i.e. without looking too closely). And this is where the Emperor’s New Clothes comes in.

Christians today enjoy a unique privilege: they have been proclaiming Jesus as the source of all goodness and virtue for so long that to criticize Jesus in any way is tantamount to criticizing goodness and virtue. “All good people can see that Jesus is above reproach,” and therefore seeing the virtues of Jesus is like seeing the Emperor’s latest regalia, while seeing Jesus’ flaws is like seeing the Emperor’s nudity. You call Jesus good because that shows that you yourself are good, just like calling the Emperor’s clothes “fine” shows that you are wise and intelligent. Hence the Liar, Lord or Lunatic argument: you have to call him Lord, because people will look down on you if you say “Liar” or “Lunatic.”

But for this approach to work, you can’t address the “Lord” possibility head-on, as I did. The trilemma only works if you limit yourself to looking at the “Liar” and “Lunatic” alternatives. Since I declined to play by those arbitrary rules, Holding accuses me of having “come to the debate on false premisses [sic].” In other words, he wants to accuse me of avoiding the trilemma debate by switching to a different debate about God’s existence. I was not switching to a general debate about God’s existence, however (though the same argument does apply to the more general question). I was talking about the specific question that is the whole point of the trilemma, i.e. “Is Jesus God?”. It is not a change of subject to address the main point of the argument! Holding is simply wrong.

Holding does clear up something I misunderstood.

Dumpy is mistaken when he says, Holding concedes that “honestly mistaken” is also a valid alternative that Lewis somehow failed to consider. No, I do not. I say that it is an invalid alternative that Lewis either wisely ignored or should have if he thought of it.

You have to wonder what kind of “wisdom” recommends simply ignoring possibilities that might upset your conclusions. It is entirely possible that Jesus said what he said out of a mistaken conviction that he had achieved some kind of mystical unity with God that made him merely a vessel through whom God worked His will. His references to deity could have been referring to the God Who was working in and through him, rather than being references to himself. By failing to consider this possibility, Lewis only reinforces the point that his trilemma is a mere contrivance built on artificial and arbitrary stipulations, and not at all a real-world dilemma.

Meanwhile, I did go on to consider the “Liar” and “Lunatic” alternatives as well, pointing out that Jesus’ behavior gives us a certain amount of evidence that is consistent with the possibility that his drive to build up a grassroots power base might have made use of deception and/or self-deception. Holding dismisses this as “comical for its ignorance of the political realities of the day,” by which I suppose me means it would be silly to think a first century Jew could gain a following by giving out the impression that he was the Son of God. Or something.

Holding also disagrees with my speculation that Jesus enjoyed having power over people, and having them submit and obey. The gospels, however, tell us that Jesus’ behavior was indeed consistent with that of a man enjoying his influence over people, and seeking to expand it. For example, he praised people who abased themselves and exalted him, like the centurion in Matthew 8. When a Gentile woman came to him for help, he at first did not want to help her, because she was the wrong race (incidentally referring to Gentiles as “dogs”). When the woman grovelled and begged and agreed that she was a dog, however, he gave in and said he would help her, (Matthew 15). And let’s not forget his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, when (mindful of an OT prophecy about a king entering on a donkey) he “borrowed” a donkey and, for once in his life, rode in to town while the crowds shouted hosannas. Did he mind the adulation? Did he try to stop it? No, on the contrary, he actually refused to stop it, even when asked point-blank by the authorities to do so. (Luke 19).

So I stand by my assessment, speculative though it is. After all, what god doesn’t like to be worshiped? Whether his god was intentionally manufactured or innocently embraced, I rather think Jesus enjoyed all the attention and obedience, either as God’s representative or as God Himself. The “Liar/Lunatic” alternative isn’t really all that different from the behavior we see in believers (and televangelists) today, so it’s not all that implausible that Jesus was just one more of the same, whether or not he sincerely saw himself as God (or as God’s vessel).

Holding doesn’t seem to grasp this point.

It’s hard to know what the point is here, since the issue is not “distinguishing between your own value judgments and God’s Eternal Truth” but a specific claim of personal identity. That is not a question that lies upon a spectrum of complexity. If you claim to be person X, there’s no issue of “trying to be the best at being X as you can.” You either are or you aren’t. And that’s a question concerning Jesus that Dumpy has not answered, but dodged.

Boy is that a loaded gun. Jesus was talking about his own personal identity when he said “I and the Father are one?” If he’s claiming not just unity of purpose and values with the Father, but that he, personally, is the Father, then 17-plus centuries of Trinitarian theology have been way off! That’s about as toonish a defense as you can offer.

The bottom line is that the trilemma is an overwhelmingly flawed argument. It’s flawed in its premises, it’s flawed in its selection of premises, it’s flawed in its evaluation of the evidence and in its selection of which evidence to examine, and above all it’s flawed in its contrived conclusion. Jesus said a number of things that, like so many of his other teachings, are ambiguous and/or metaphorical/spiritual in intent, but which might be interpreted as a possible reference to his own alleged deity. Certainly his subsequent followers interpreted them that way (though not all of them, of course).

But regardless of what Jesus might have meant, if his claim to deity had been true, the clearest way to say so would be to come back from the dead and stay back. It’s also the way that would have been most consistent with what Jesus taught about God’s nature, character, and desires. It’s just not what happened in real life. Could it be coincidence that his behavior since the first century has been more consistent with the behavior of a dead man than with a living God of the motives and character that Jesus taught? Maybe, but I doubt it.

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Posted in Sunday Toons, The Gypsy Curse, Unapologetics. 1 Comment »

One Response to “Sunday Toons: The Trilemma’s New Clothes”

  1. yoyo Says:

    I admire greatly your ability to analyse what seems the rank height of stupidity so thoroughly. The liar lunatic lord argument seems as full of holes as the trinity itself. Unfortunately no matter how elegantly you demolish the poor sods arguments they will just tie themselves in little word knots trying to find a way around it.

    Thank you anyway, I often refer to your pieces when trying to put my own arguments with theists in stronger terms.