CS Lewis coined the memorable phrase ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ in his advocacy of the orthodox Christian dogma that Jesus of Nazareth was God, and his rejection of the view held by some less doctrinaire Christians that he may have been a man with some admirable teachings.
The argument appears compelling: Jesus said he was God, so either he was a liar, in which case we should reject everything he said, or he was deluded (a lunatic, in Lewis’s colourful, alliterative prose), in which case we should also reject his teachings, or he was actually God, in which case we should worship him. This analysis deliberately leaves no room for the ‘Jesus as sage’ interpretation. On the face of it, it implies that moderate Christians, who take a mostly metaphorical interpretation of Christian teaching, lack intellectual integrity, that they are guilty of wishful thinking at the expense of cold, hard rationalism – which is what Lewis thinks he practises.
Persuasive though this argument may sound, it is wrong. If Lewis had offered only two choices, we would call it a a false dichotomy. As he has offered three, let us call it a false trichotomy instead. The whole argument rests on the unstated assumption that Lord, Liar and Lunatic are the only choices available. But we can never be sure that the alternative explanations offered for any observation are exhaustive unless one of them is labelled something like ‘none of the above’, or can be proven equivalent to ‘none of the above’. Lewis never proved that Lord, Liar and Lunatic are the only possible explanations, and we can easily see they are not by considering two other possibilities.
Lack – Perhaps Jesus of Nazareth is fictional
The evidence that there was a single person called Jesus who lived in Nazareth around 0-30 CE and spent his last few years travelling around Palestine preaching and conducting healing ceremonies is fairly strong, but not overwhelming. There is little or no eye-witness mention of such a person from Roman historians, who chronicle many other less important events of that time and region.
The literature debating the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth existed is enormous, and there’s no need or space to review it here. But the very existence of significant debate on this topic amongst ancient historians, even if the ‘Jesus really did exist’ case is predominant, indicates that we cannot definitively exclude the possibility that there was no single Jesus of Nazareth that said all these things, in which case a lack of a Jesus character, implying that the New Testament stories are myths, needs to be added to the Lord, Liar and Lunatic options.
Libelled – Perhaps Jesus didn’t claim what they claim he did
Much more likely though, and not mentioned at all by Lewis, is that there was a single holy man called Jesus of Nazareth, who lived around that time, but he never claimed to be God.
It is undeniable that the Gospels contain some reporting errors, as the reports of the sequence of events on Easter Sunday contradict one another. So why shouldn’t the parts where Jesus implies that he is God be reporting errors? This could very easily happen, as there are very few passages that support such a claim, and most of what there is is vague and indirect. It is entirely plausible that the biblical reports of those implied claims were not based on eyewitness reports but on wishful thinking inserted later by a devoted disciple. After all, we know that the earliest written gospel – Mark – was written more than thirty years after the assumed date of Jesus’ death.
Further, Jesus is not reported in the Gospels as ever having directly claimed to be God. There are passages such as John 8:58 that are interpreted as implying such a claim, and others where he accepted worship (Matthew 2:2, 14:33, and 28:9; John 9:35-38). In some passages Jesus describes himself as the “Son of God”, but it requires some heavy-duty interpretation to accept these as claims of divinity. After all, the Bible also tells us that we are all sons of God, but most non-pantheists don’t interpret that to mean we are all God.
Now maybe these interpretations are correct and maybe they are not. Maybe they are all historically accurate and maybe they are not. But it is undeniable that there is a great deal of presumption required in order to conclude that Jesus was Lord, Liar or Lunatic. It is at least equally likely (and seems much more likely to me) that he was Libelled by the gospel writers.
After all, I could place an article on Wikipedia entitled “Obama Divinity Claim” and say in it that President Obama has claimed to be God, and that hence he must be either Lord, Liar or a Lunatic. Since he clearly isn’t a Lunatic and hasn’t shown evidence of being an egregious Liar (and that would be a most egregious lie), according to Lewis we must then conclude that He – President Obama – is indeed our Lord and God.
Of course that would be nonsense. The correct interpretation would simply be that I had libelled the president, by claiming he said something that He (sorry, ‘he’) didn’t.
Why does this matter?
The purpose of this essay is not to undermine anybody’s belief that Jesus was God. Right now I have no interest in disputing the divinity of Jesus, Krishna, Dionysus, Osiris, Mithra or any other purported incarnation of a deity. If someone wants to believe in any of those things, I am entirely supportive of their decision to do so, as long as they don’t use it as a basis for vilifying or otherwise tormenting others who don’t believe the same thing, or who don’t conform to a set of rules about victimless crimes, purportedly made up by the said deity.
What I wish to do here is to champion the intellectual honesty and integrity of moderate Christians such as John Shelby Spong, Richard Holloway or John Dominic Crossan, who regard the Gospels as a source of some wisdom, but deny that Jesus was Lord, Liar or Lunatic. I have a particular fondness for people of moderate religious belief, who accept the claims of their chosen religion that they find plausible, and reject the rest. By doing this they can avoid having to ‘disengage their brain’ in order to accept all the beliefs they find implausible. Although I believe no religion, and doubt there are any gods, I am convinced that religion will always be with us, as it is an easy way to address a number of deep psychological needs. Since some people must be religious, surely it will be more conducive to the peace and harmony of humanity as a whole, if those that are religious are mostly of the doubtful, open-minded Spong, Holloway or Crossan variety rather than the devout and utterly convinced bin Laden, Ahmedinajad, Westboro Baptist, George W Bush or Pat Robertson variety?
To these liberal Christian theologians, we can also add many Muslims and Jews as people who reject the Lord, Liar or Lunatic hypothesis, choosing instead to regard Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet or holy man, whose sayings are worthy of contemplation, but denying his divinity. I have as low an opinion of Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists as I do of Christian ones, but many members of those religions are not fundamentalist, do not regard their scriptures as inerrant, and are comfortable accepting some of the sayings attributable to Jesus as another source of wisdom upon which they can draw.
Lewis’s false trichotomy would paint Spong, Holloway, Crossan, and anybody else that likes some of what Jesus is alleged to have said but is not convinced that he was God, as wishy-washy and self-delusional, holding contradictory beliefs for irrational, emotional reasons. I want to suggest the contrary. A moderate, partly metaphorical, ‘cafeteria’ approach to Christianity, or any other dogmatic religion, is the only one that is logically defensible, as the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, like any other long religious texts, contain many internal contradictions, as well as claims that are contradicted by science. What matters is not so much which bits they choose (although I’d rather they rejected the homophobic, misogynist, pro-slavery, pro-genocide bits and the threats of eternal hellfire) as that they accept that it is reasonable for somebody else to accept different bits, bits of a completely different religious text, or none at all.
I went to the dentist today. It was just a routine check-up. I’m a recalcitrant patient though, stubbornly resisting the six-monthly reminders they send me. This time I was especially tardy, leaving it for fifteen months, maybe longer.
My dentist is an excellent fellow, but he managed to punish me for my negligence by finding that a filling had gone missing, and proposing to replace it today, rather than making an appointment to replace it later.
How could I refuse? When any backward step would be interpreted, quite correctly, as cowardice.
But that’s not all. My worthy dentist informed me that I could choose not to have the local anaesthetic injection if I wanted, so that I didn’t have a numb jaw for the next few hours. He said I might ‘experience some sensitivity’ during the drilling, but that it would probably be OK.
I suppose if I really was the Renaissance Man I pretend to be, I would have said ‘No, give me the anaesthetic’, because I’m so in touch with my feelings and I am not ashamed to admit that I don’t enjoy having my teeth drilled.
But I was brought up in the seventies, when boys were expected to display the characteristics of men as quickly as possible, and men were supposed to grit their teeth stoically in the face of pain (although that wouldn’t work very well at the dentist’s would it?). So of course I said, doing my best Clint Eastwood impersonation, ‘Forget the injection. Let’s just do it!’ (actually the exact words I used, which I can’t remember, were probably much less impressive and manly than that, but the information content was the same).
It wasn’t just about pretending to be macho though. I have been dipping my toe in the water with Buddhist Mindfulness techniques recently, trying to learn some basic meditation skills. I’m too busy at present to take classes and learn it all properly, so I’ve just read something about it and listened to a podcast. It seems to be mostly about focusing attention on physical sensations, and gently but firmly sending away the other thoughts that try to crowd into one’s mind. Breathing is the classic sensation to focus on, but apparently it doesn’t have to be that. I sometimes practice focusing on my breathing when in bed at night, and I think I’d be much better at it by now if it weren’t that I always fall asleep within a minute or two of starting.
Before the drilling, the dentist did some cleaning and scraping, which was really most uncomfortable and provided an excellent opportunity to practice before the Big Event. I tried to focus on the feel of the electrical scraper against and in between my teeth, a feeling of pressure and vibration, and every now and then a minor surge of pain when a tender spot was probed too inquisitively. I found that, for as long as I could focus my attention entirely on those sensations, batting away thoughts such as ‘I wonder what the drilling will feel like’, the experience was not altogether unpleasant. The sensations were objects of interest or wonder. It’s a little like when you realise what a peculiar word ‘kettle’ is and you say it slowly over and over to yourself to contemplate its sudden unfamiliarity, its strangeness.
Sensations are strange things. They are impossible to describe because the only thing they can be like is themselves, or other sensations that are so similar that expressing the likeness gives no further information. It’s like replying to the question ‘Where does Betty live’ with ‘Oh, she lives next door to her neighbour Bob’. My natural tendency is to try to describe sensations visually, such as saying that cool breeze feels ‘white’. For me this is not synaesthesia but rather just an indication of the impossibility of expressing a sensual experience in words. I think the reason I reach for a visual simile is that for most sighted people, vision is the dominant sense, and we tend to primarily think of things in visual terms. I imagine it is very different for someone born blind.
This peculiarity and strangeness of sensation is useful at the dentist because it makes the object on which we are trying to focus attention peculiar enough to be worthy of that attention. It is easier for me to focus attention on a physical sensation than it is to focus on a mental image of sheep vaulting a hurdle in the old, but mostly useless, ‘counting sheep’ technique for getting to sleep. Sorry sheep, but I just don’t find you interesting enough!
Maybe I was a wimp. I don’t know. I can’t objectively evaluate my internal bravery level because I’ve never been anyone else. I did my best to show no outward signs of wimpiness, and the shambolic, amateurish attempt at mindfulness helped with that.
But I really don’t like having my teeth scraped, descaled and whatever other things he was doing to them.
The funny thing was, when he finally got around to drilling for my filling, it didn’t hurt a bit! It would be nice to think that’s because my attempt at mindfulness was working. But realistically, it’s much more likely to be that he was simply telling the truth when he said it would probably be OK.
I think I have a lot of work ahead of me if I ever want to be able to tolerate unanaesthetised wedge resection, passing kidney stones, or maybe even chest-waxing, with equanimity.
Bondi Junction, March 2013