The Whole C.S. Lewis Thing

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

As much as he enjoyed the Narnia books as a child, Andrew Stuttaford never got the whole C.S. Lewis thing and doesn’t intend to start trying now:

Mark Oppenheimer looks at the Lewis phenomenon and, reasonably enough, quotes one of Lewis’ more well-known arguments for the divinity of Christ:

In “Mere Christianity,” Lewis writes of Jesus: “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 was merely a man and 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.”

Mr. Oppenheimer notes this:

This famous passage does not, on a second read, make much sense. After all, could not a great moral teacher have messianic delusions? But on a first read, it is quite persuasive, and classic Lewis. It is clear, confident and a bit humorous, and it offers a stark choice as it firmly suggests the right answer.

Fair enough, but it has always struck me (and I’m sure I’m not the first to think so) that Lewis’ argument (at least the extract quoted here) also sidesteps the rather important question as to whether the writers of the Gospels offer an accurate account of what it was that Jesus may have actually said. Was the claim to divinity His or theirs?

No way of telling, I suppose.


  1. Bruce G Charlton says:

    You’re asking a lot of a paragraph-long argument!

    The argument was directed against modern people who said that Jesus was a ‘great moral teacher’ whose views ought to command assent (maybe form the focus of society and law) — but who also said that Jesus was not the Son of God.

    Lewis was pointing out that if Jesus was a great moral teacher and yet he kept claiming that he was the Son of God, then this would imply that he was insane (or a liar) — it is not a trivial claim. It did undercut the whole message.

    This is an argument which, like any other short piece of reasoning, depends on shared assumptions — the most important of which is that it is possible that Jesus was God.

    Which entails things like that it is possible there is a God, that God might communicate with humans — i.e. revelation — that God has a personal concern with humans (is not an impersonal force), that humans have immortal souls, that humans are sinners… and so on. All of this (and more) was univerally agreed at the time of Jesus, and did not need to be argued point by point.

    Everybody in the world until — what? — about 1700 believed the claims of Jesus were at least possible (perhaps in some nuanced sense), and even nowadays probably — what? — five billion think it was possible.

    If you believe it was possible, you can then move on to discuss the plausibility of the claim (as Pascal does in Pensées) — or like non-Christians the claim could be rejected, usually vehemently; but if you think the claim makes no sense at all, then obviously Lewis’s argument must seem fallacious and it is only a question of finding out how.

  2. Sconzey says:

    BC rather hits the nail on the head there.

  3. Isegoria says:

    When Lewis made his argument, polite society (in England) had begun to question the divinity of Jesus, but questioning the basic morality of Christianity and Western Civilization was still restricting to pointing out failures to meet (certain) Christian standards — or it was no longer polite. A few generations earlier, an Englishman would have had to downplay the fact that he was even questioning the divinity of Jesus, as the Deists in the colonies had to. So, I see Lewis’s argument as a product of its time — convincing to semi-lapsed Christians teetering between a scientific world view and a Sunday-school world view.

    But the argument doesn’t ring true to an audience that sees no contradiction in an ancient wise man also believing patently false things about Nature. Did ancient Greek philosophers and Roman priests believe crazy things? Certainly. Were some of them great moral teachers? Certainly. Same with the Buddha, etc.

    Then we add in the now-common beliefs that the Bible has lost quite a bit in translation and that it might have been edited by flawed mortals, and it’s not the least bit odd to a modern audience to think that Jesus had some great ideas, but Son of God wasn’t meant literally, just as the animals weren’t literally created in one 24-hour period, and so on.

  4. Bruce G Charlton says:

    When Lewis was writing, c. 1940, there had already been about three generations of progressive leftist intellectuals dominating English discourse.

    This was post Marx and Engles, William Morris, Shaw, Wells — there had already been a Labour government, pacifism had been almost universal for 20 years; post James Joyce, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set, the Auden set of dandies; post Logical Positivism and early Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell was a dominant philosopher — it was a very secular and cynical time in intellectual circles.

    In general, I think you are confusing our modern impatience and nihilism — which is not surprised at any juxtaposition of ideas — since we are incapable of two-step logic and cannot be bothered to concentrate for more than five minutes — with how the ancients thought.

    C.S. Lewis was exceptionally sensitive (and well informed) about how people thought in ancient times and up through the Middle Ages into the ‘Renaissance’ — it was his special thing — he was probably the top man in this field in England, which is why Cambridge created a Professorship especially for him and lured him from Oxford (very unusual in those days).

    I therefore think we have to take him seriously on this — it was an argument he used on several occassions over many years, and he certainly believed it himself; it wasn’t just a cheap debating trick.

    Put it this way: Lewis is of course wrong about some things (being human) — but most people who dismiss Lewis do so from a position of ignorance. Lewis was simply vastly more learned, intelligent and rational than almost anybody is at this (degenerate and decadent) point in history.

  5. Isegoria says:

    Are we modern folks impatient and nihilistic for recognizing that many great men have been at least slightly mad? When we note that Newton more-or-less invented physics and searched through the Bible for numerological clues to understanding alchemy, are we being impatient and nihilistic? Or are we wisely and maturely recognizing that people aren’t all good or all bad, all right or all wrong?

    Anyway, I wouldn’t want to imply that Lewis was ignorant or unlettered, or that he was insincere, just that his argument likely works much better in a largely Christian society, where even the few atheists are really lapsed Christians. If you don’t feel a little bit bad for thinking of Jesus as a lunatic or a liar, the argument lacks punch, right?

  6. Even Newton’s alchemy was respectable science at the end of the seventeenth century. That’s especially interesting as science didn’t exist. The well-defined lines between hard science (such as it is) and mushy philosophy (such as it is) and theology (such as it is) didn’t exist. He hid his experiments not because he was afraid of being laughed at by the Royal Society but because he was afraid of being burned as a heretic.

    Ptolemaic theory was cutting-edge science for 2,000 years. Inasmuch as men could measure nature, the geocentric model fit the observable better than the heliocentric model. Copernicus’ book was considered to be a work of passable mathematical aesthetics until Galileo observed the Medician planets circling Jupiter through the telescope. Only then was there something which threw a final wrench in Ptolemy’s epicycles.

    Taleb observed that many people who believe that evolution produced their dog refuse to believe that it produced their car. There are areas of human knowledge which the means of quantification have incrementally improved over the last 300 years. However, the falsifiable state of knowledge in other areas such as theology or religion is no more advanced than it was in Newton’s time or in Imhotep’s time for that matter. The advance of knowledge is not a well-lit path going ever upwards into sunny uplands. It’s a landfill that builds over years and there’s gold or poop at the bottom and there’s gold and poop on top.

  7. Bruce G Charlton says:

    From having been a strong advocate of Popper, I have been forced to conclude that falsifiability has nothing to do with science. It is a retrospective description of science (that happens to be wrong) rather than a prescription of how science ought to be done.

    Theology is, from my perspective as someone who regards Eastern Orthodoxy as correct, an example of a science that has been declining for more than 1,000 years in the West (since scholasticism). Even for a Roman Catholic, theology has been declining for nearly as long (since Aquinas).

    The decline is such that local increase in complexity and precision is achieved only at the expense of overall incoherence — until we reach the present state of futile professionalisation of meaningless micro-specialisms.

    Of course, exactly the same happened to science, albeit much accelerated, especially throughout the twentieth century.

  8. Isegoria says:

    My understanding is that some fraction of Newton’s alchemy was, like early geocentric models, scientific but wrong. A much larger fraction was not scientific, but rather the pseudo-scientific equivalent of conspiracy theory. Secret messages are hidden in these texts — if I can just decode them! Perhaps that world view is not insane in Newton’s time, but Newton did suffer a nervous breakdown while in one of his alchemy phases, and the Royal Society did decide that his alchemical work was not worth publishing.

    Whether or not we declare the Newton the genius to also be Newton the madman, I think we can agree that geniuses are sometimes madmen, and it is not shocking that a charismatic philosopher might combine influential thinking with a touch of insanity.

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