C.S. Lewis quote…

“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 the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God,  or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut him up for a fool,  you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God,  but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.   He has not left that open to us.   He did not intend to.”

so have you made your choice?   what difference does it make…really?


11 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis quote…

  1. In my youth I was taught to hold Lewis in high esteem for his wisdom and intellect. In my adulthood and accompanying apostasy, I have far greater difficulty. Although there was a transitional period during which I found his remarks challenging to my burgeoning agnosticism, I must confess that now it all sounds like so much specious rhetoric.

    The above-quoted passage is among my favorite examples. Every faith asks potential adherents to consult their moral intuition before converting. After having converted we must (theoretically) defer to divine authority on close moral questions but, prior to converting, we must have, if only subconsciously, examined the moral teachings of the faith, compared them to the teachings of our own conscience, and found the two sufficiently in accord to (partially) warrant our adherence to the faith.

    Every faith also includes certain propositions that have little to do with moral intuition, propositions of ontology or eschatology, whose relationship to moral propositions is, as evidenced by the fact that moral propositions are far likelier to crosscut different faiths, apparently largely contingent. Whether a faith bids me do (or do not) lie, cheat, steal, or kill, is, it would seem, a question wholly separable from the question whether it warns of death, hell, Purgatory, or retributive Karmic return.

    This is not to say that an argument cannot be, or has not been made that the totality of Christ’s teachings have a certain coherence that would dissolve if the foundation of his moral authority–his divinity–were removed out from under his moral teachings. But if such (or something like it) is Lewis’s point, I’m afraid he entirely misses the point of his imagined interlocutor. For, remove Christ’s divinity, and you simply do not diminish by one iota the near-universal resonance of (at least some of) his moral teachings. This is so because (some of) Christ’s moral teachings satisfy common moral intuition far more easily than Christianity’s ontological propositions satisfy conventional intuition.

    I for one have no difficulty with the third posture for Christ–between God and lunatic–that Lewis is at such pains to exclude. I have no difficulty classifying him among the world’s great moral human teachers. The Buddha had (some) great moral teachings; I doubt the account of the Bodhi Tree. Muhammed had (some) great moral teachings; I doubt the divine provenance of the Koran. And Christ had (some) great moral teachings; I doubt he was God.

    I can only imagine that Lewis’s wish to yoke Christ’s morality to Christianity’s ontology arises from a conviction that the rhetorical buoyancy of the morality will keep the ontology afloat. A safe ploy, as a rhetorical device, since the reverse is impossible; the weight of the ontology can only sink itself–it cannot deprive Christ’s moral teachings of their force. But as a convincing argument, this falls short. Glittery on its surface, on closer scrutiny it proves to be fool’s gold.

  2. timothy, thanks for your comments. i’ll respond… though not nearly as eloquently!

    points of agreement:

    as far as i know of other faiths, it appears that there is an implied call to consider the presence of morality as some sort of “proof texting” for the existence of god. although i am guilty of being on the team that continues to do that, i still find it incredibly unfortunate…disingenuous…and intellectually arrogant. from my point of view, the presence of morality proves nothing…including the existence of god. all this argument does is confuse the issue for me.

    also, i am in total agreement that if we were to remove christ’s divinity from the equation entirely, his moral teachings could (and would) still be seen as good…and potentially helpful to mankind as a whole.

    i suppose where you and i might fall on different sides of this quote (and possibly on other things as well)is that, for me, anybody who calls himself “god” is still a lunatic. period. unless he actually is god.

    buddha and muhammed were great moral teachers. i have learned from them. everyone should. but they were not lunatics in my book. they were teachers or leaders or even prophets (by their own and other’s admission), but they didn’t claim to be god…didn’t claim universal authority over creation…didn’t claim to have risen from the dead (all highly debatable!) if they would have made those claims, i would call them lunatics. only a lunatic claims he god.

    can a lunatic say some things that make sense? sure. can a lunatic express good and morality and even, love? crazier things have happened. but just because a lunatic expresses something positive doesn’t change the fact that he/she is a lunatic, in my estimation. and certainly falls woefully short of “great moral teacher” status.

    was lewis connecting christ’s morality to christianity’s ontology? maybe. maybe not. but i don’t see him making that argument in this quote.

    do i, personally, see the connection between christ’s morality and christianity’s ontology? not really. i think that’s a slippery slope. on that, i’m sure we would agree.

    1. Mike, thanks for your remarks.

      Fair enough. I think you pretty accurately identify the common ground and points of dispute. I think I can make a partial concession on the “lunacy” issue. Perhaps it is the remove of years that enables me to judge Christ so charitably; certainly if someone came on television today and claimed to be God (assuming I thought he wasn’t), no amount of moral wisdom from such a person would spare him my condemnation as a lunatic. Yea, his lunacy would likely be the only thing I noticed about him. Lewis deserves perhaps more credit than I’ve allowed for pointing up this nice fact.

      I speak of only a partial concession, however, because I continue to think the (outlandish-or-true) claims of Christ vary only by degree—not in kind—from the (outlandish-or-true) claims of, say, Buddha or Muhammad. The latter figure, for example, claimed to have been confronted by the Angel Gabriel in a cave, who proceeded to dictate the Holy Koran (or “Recitation”) verbatim while the Prophet—I forget—memorized it?; took it down longhand? In any case, someone who said *that* today (again, assuming I disbelieved him) would not seem much less a lunatic than someone falsely claiming to be God. While I don’t mean to allege an all-out double standard here, or propose perfect parity between the two claims. I must confess that I don’t yet see quite enough distinction between claims of false prophecy and claims of false divinity to justify sparing the former Lewis’s harsh either/or standard that you apply to the latter.

      Another partial concession on whether Lewis was truly connecting ontology and morality in this quote. I think that connection can fairly be imputed, but it can equally fairly *not* be imputed. I should therefore be careful not to read more into this quote than what is there. But I think there is a chain of reasoning in this quote—one I think you echo in your reply—proposing that it follows from the fact that Christ claimed divinity that he was a madman if the claim was false, and it would further follow from the conclusion that he was a madman that he could not possibly qualify for great moral teacher status. But you’re right; at no point is Lewis expressly invoking the soundness of the moral teaching as a ground for accepting the ontology, or even the claim of divinity. That was all editorial gloss on my part.

      Finally, a small point of clarification on the proof-texting issue. This is too large a point to admit of easy summarization, but I would like to be clear that I was not referring to the tendency of any faith to point to the existence of morality as evidence of God. Rather, I meant only to suggest (to expose an almost enthymematic premise in my larger chain of reasoning) that we are all almost powerless not to “test” a proffered faith, even a putative god, against our own sense of right and wrong. In practice we are seldom conscious of doing so, usually because we are raised in a particular faith tradition and have already accepted it by the time that challenging cases arise. But in a blank-slate world, where an adult had to choose between two faiths in which, ceteris paribus, one faith called upon him to do good (give alms, be honest, etc.) and the other faith required evil (willful harm, etc.) most of us would be likelier to recognize the former faith as authoritative (even if the latter offered more hedonistic satisfaction). Certainly this bears some empirical observation, but my rather firm sense is that we often judge moral statements less on the authority of the speaker than on whether they “ring true” (on which see my reply to Scott’s remarks below).

      1. it seems to me that this lunacy talk deserves some specific discussion. we both agree that someone claiming to be god would merit the title of lunatic. we’ll take that one off the table for a moment.

        although i hold to a determined belief in a personal god, i must admit that i don’t need to go back 1400 years to find someone who challenges my logic with claims of having had a conversation with a spiritual entity or “hearing the voice of god”! i can see it every day…on religious television…or in a conversation in my office. most of the time, the only difference between muhammad and some guy on TBN is simply the numbers of people they can get to follow them…even though the guy on TBN apparently claims allegiance to the same god i do…sheesh!

        in fact, we don’t even need to restrict the discussion to religion, for me to question the veracity of another person’s experience. when one claims experiences such as: intuition, perception, hunches, feelings, suspicions or senses…i find my eyebrows curiously rising. when a young couple comes into my office and proclaims their deeeep love for each other, who am i to dispute their subjectivity? but i often do. why? because i don’t see what they do.

        there’s a fine line between the voice of an angel and the “voice” of a feeling. would muhammad be “less” a lunatic if all he said was, “…i just have a feeling this is what i should do with my life” or “here are some of my thoughts that i am going to write down”? i realize these are apples and oranges. sort of. one person’s subjective experience has started a world religion. the other simply ended in a marriage. but for me, both stand in stark contrast to the lunacy of jesus claiming to be god.

        and whether we choose to follow muhammad, or choose to follow jesus, or choose to believe only in our own subjective objectivity (our personal experiences of love or intuition or reason or logic)…it still comes down to a matter of faith. and we are all on a similar journey.

        maybe some other thoughts on the morality discussion later! my brain is tired. hah! thanks for the dialogue, timothy.

  3. TJS – I missed most of what you said because I don’t have time to break out my thesaurus. I’m just curious how you can still view Jesus as just a great teacher when he made so many obvious claims of divinity. Since most of what he said or taught hinged on these claims, how could he have any credibility at all if it weren’t true? On what authority could he make such bold statements? I have read several arguments against Lewis’ trilemma, and I can understand those viewpoints, but in my opinion, someone claiming to be the God of the universe better fill some big shoes if I’m going to consider anything they say as truth.

    1. Scott, thanks for your remarks. I am insufficiently conversant in this sort of thing to know where battle lines are drawn (I did not, for example, know that this was called the “trilemma”) but I think you and I differ on a fairly central premise, viz., whether a person whose (in my opinion, incredible) claim to divinity nevertheless can merit credibility with respect to others claims he might make.

      I think a moment’s reflection makes clear that certain trivial claims can obviously merit credibility. Suppose I say to you (1) I am God; (2) the sun ordinarily rises in the East; and (3) 2 + 2 = 4. Certainly, notwithstanding the incredibility of the first of my claims, an impartial observer must acknowledge that the second and third of my claims are available to experience and a priori deduction, respectively. I could be known for saying true things, alongside my bursts of–what must be admitted to be–pure madness.

      Now suppose instead of (3)’s simple “2 + 2” statement hypothesized above, I offered some complicated mathematical discovery that only a few people truly could understand. Suppose I was the next Newton, the next Einstein, revealing some inferential truth that mathematicians could verify, while continuing to proclaim (falsely) my divinity. My claim to divinity would make me mad (madder, say, than Nash) while I would continue to enjoy a credibility with respect to my math-related claims that actually rose to the level of genius.

      Now imagine a third variation. Suppose, instead of my math claim I make a claim of a moral variety. Suppose (and here I leave the hypothetical, obviously) I observe that we live under a directive not to commit adultery, but I point out that even indulging in lustful reflection relevantly resembles actually consummating adultery in some respect. (Matt. 5: 27-28) While the statement would be subject to some interpretation, you can easily imagine how people who were justifiably dubious of my claim to divinity would nonetheless recognize some wisdom or benefit in the mental “fencing off” of the lustful thoughts in their hearts, instead of merely toeing the abstemious line they had observed previously. In this way I could be said to have offered a real moral insight (not unlike the real mathematical insight proposed in the above example) even while my claim of authority to do so–my divinity–would be rejected. I could even be a moral “genius,” showing people a new way of thinking about moral questions (just as in the above example I showed people a new way of thinking about a mathematical problem), even while many agreed that I was a madman for claiming to be God.

      To put things more simply, people could believe my moral insights for reasons other than the reasons I myself offer in favor of their credibility. I could say: “Believe me because I’m God,” whereas my audience could say, “No, we believe you not because you’re God but because your moral statements ring true….”

      Forgive my pretension but I rather think this a whole and perfect answer to Lewis on this score. For this is exactly the relationship in which I find myself vis-a-vis Christ. Please advise me in what respect I have erred.

      1. I think there are many great things about living so far in hindsight to Jesus’ time, but also there are many downsides. I think a huge downside for people these days is the ability to pick and choose which parts of Jesus they like and which they don’t and can therefore discard.

        I think that in the time of Jesus, this option was not available or at the very least was the minority of three choices there were when faced with seeing or hearing of Jesus. I think most people either 1. were amazed and accepted him or, 2. denied him outright (a la the religious and moral teachers).

        I am not a history scholar of that time other than what I’ve read from the Bible along with my own personal research about Israel, so my theory of having those two options are based purely on drawing conclusions from that evidence. I think that very few people would have chosen option 3, which I would call the “pick and choose” method, and I think that eventually those people would end up falling into either option 1 or 2 after a period of consideration of Jesus’ words and actions.

        What I’m getting at is that, like your first two examples, I would have no problem accepting a mathematical insight from a person also claiming to be God (I think some of my college professors fit that example just fine!) because I can see that there is no connection between his moral claims of divinity and the mathematical principle. If he starts rattling off mathematical genius, then the authority of his claims can be backed by the working of his formula to check that it is right and true. However if he begins to speak to me making moral claims, his message is already suspect since he has made the greatest moral claim of all, which is to be God, who is the author of morality. In a case such as this, his morality has no foundation and I should be a fool to believe anything he says.

        In response you might say “but the crazy man claiming to be God also said to love one another as yourself, so clearly some of his moral teachings can be followed.” This is false because the crazy man introduces no new morality for us. He would simply be regurgitating something he’d already heard, and something which we had already known. We already know based on our God-given morality that we must love one another. We already know that we are not to kill one another. Jesus himself claimed that he did not come to abolish the law, or introduce a new law, but to fulfill the law. Jesus didn’t introduce a new morality for us. We are still not to covet our neighbor’s wife, and we are still not to steal. So the fact that a crazy man making some true claims gives us no purpose to follow him and study him because his teachings or morality are not even his own.

        Another point which I think needs to be addressed when denying the divinity of Jesus is his proof of authority. Jesus’ authority was challenged numerable times throughout scripture, and most of the stories end with him saying “…but so you know that I have the authority to say such things” and then he would make the blind see, or the dead rise. I think if Jesus did not perform miracles along with his teachings, the weight of who he was and what he said would be much lighter and easier to shrug off. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this.

  4. Mike,

    First, sorry if this reply appears non-sequentially on the blog page. For some reason I don’t know enough about blogs to understand, there is no “reply” link under your most recent response so I’m typing in the page-wide “leave a reply” field below.

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Very interesting.
    I suspect we may be nearing one of those “agree-to-disagree” moments here with respect to the distinction between Christ’s and certain prophets’ respective brands of (alleged) madness. It seems to me there may be a continuum on which the type of inspiration you see every day on television, and the type of inspiration claimed by the founders of some religions coexist at distant reference points. If so, we have a line-drawing problem. I’m not certain that a continuum is the best model in the first place; I am rather inclined to believe these to be two different species of things. But if it be a continuum, I would nevertheless argue that there is an important distinction between “hearing the voice of God” in the sense of arriving at what one believes a divinely inspired idea or conclusion, and “hearing the voice of God” in the more literal sense in which one hears the voice of Tim or Mike or whomever. Of course, we cannot now read the mind of Muhammad to know the exact nature of his experience, but I am not as convinced as you seem to be (if I read you right) that he claimed to have “heard” something like the voice of a feeling (to borrow your phrase). Rather, I think a good case can be made that he was either visited by one of God’s angels, or he was suffering a severe waking visual and auditory hallucination consistent with a diagnosis of schizophrenic personality disorder. Or he was a liar. (I don’t watch TBN but perhaps I would find some of the speakers there eligible for the same classificatory scheme.)

    Now, I may well be wrong about Muhammad. No matter. Let’s just use a hypothetical case. Let’s imagine some hypothetical person (I’ll continue to call him “Muhammad” for convenience) believed that he literally saw and literally heard a physical manifestation of what he genuinely believed to be an angel. Let’s say the angel told him what to write down verbatim, explaining that this was the revealed word of God, every bit as much as the Bible. Now, further suppose (just for sake of argument, following the Lewis quote) that Christ was not God, not divine. Given these conditions, are you still able to maintain that [1] the hypothetical Muhammad’s experience resembles [2] hearing the voice of a feeling, and that those two experience are distinct from [3] the hypothetical Christ’s experience? Or, given all these conditions, would you join me in saying the hypothetical Muhammad and the hypothetical Christ have something in common (perhaps lunacy) that distinguishes them from the third type of experience?

    If the foregoing has the ring of a rhetorical question, it is not so intended. I’m really curious to hear your response. If in your opinion there is just something categorically distinct about Christ’s claims then we have probably reached the end of common ground (hence the “agree to disagree” bit above). But I cannot ascertain from your previous reply whether you have contemplated the scenario I lay out in the previous paragraph.

  5. Scott,

    First, I want to repeat something that I said in my last reply to Mike. Perhaps I’m not very blog-savvy but I could not figure out how to reply specifically to your last reply.

    I’ll open with a couple of concessions. I completely agree that the pick-and-choose method is available to us at 2,000 years’ distance in a way it simply would not be to Christ’s contemporaries. I agree, in other words, that I am guilty of picking and choosing, and further agree that it is the accident of the age in which I live that I am able to do so. I must add, however, that I don’t find it as problematic as you do. With regard to almost any person’s claims, it seems reasonable that I might agree with some and disagree with others—to “pick and choose.” I suspect the only difference with Christ would be that, to his contemporaries, his claims to divinity would have frightening and consequential enough to make those who doubted him ignore the other things he had to say.

    But we are not his contemporaries and I’m not sure it’s a bad thing that we can more soberly evaluate his claims claim-by-claim. Part of it, I suspect, is just a matter of the stakes. Notice that when a President of the United States retires he tends to drift ever so gradually into “elder statesman” status so that, no matter how maligned in life, he will be (almost) universally mourned at death. There are Americans who will tell you with a straight face that they revere both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, though the election of 1800 remains one of the bitterest in our history. But that’s normal; I simply cannot be “partisan” with respect to Christ himself because (according to my beliefs) he is not here and poses no threat.

    Nevertheless, if I hear you correctly I believe two of our main points of disagreement concern (1) whether the credibility of Christ’s moral proclamations depends on the veracity of his claim to divinity (I say no; I believe you say yes); and (2) whether he introduced anything new to the moral conversation (I say yes; I believe you say no). Both of these points challenge the validity of the mathematician analogy. I do not expect to persuade you here because we’re getting down to bedrock intuition, as to which disagreement can be pretty difficult to reconcile. But I’ll give it a shot.

    Let me take the second point first. If you think about what a great mathematician does, there is a very real sense in which he introduces nothing new. He takes existing, even a prior rules of inference already available to all the world and uses them in the way the world simply hasn’t thought to use them before. But in an equally valid sense he *has* done something new precisely because the world hasn’t done it yet. Taking familiar rules of inference and applying them in novel ways is precisely why the world, hitherto unaware of this particular use of those rules, can immediately check the mathematician’s work and verify his claim.

    Ethics and morality obviously admit of considerably more disagreement than mathematics, but I think we should be able to stipulate for sake of discussion to certain generalizations about common ethical propositions given the widespread convergence of human conscience so many basic issues. So, for example, let’s say for sake of argument that among most peoples’ moral beliefs is the prohibition against murder. Now, suppose someone comes along and equates “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause” with a murderer. True, unlike a mathematical proof, intuitions can certainly vary on this point but, whatever one thinks of this statement, I find it hard to see how this is other than a novel moral proposition. Just as when Einstein says E=mc2 you can get out your calculator and start checking the claim, when Christ equates the relative culpability of thought and deed you can look into your heart, consult your conscience, and essentially “check” his statements to decide whether you think they make moral sense.

    (As an aside, I realize that my example is a pretty flagrant instance of picking and choosing; in the referenced verse Christ isn’t just giving hortatory objectives but warning of “judgment.” I have already pled guilty to picking and choosing and so will not launch a tangent here, but I believe my core point still stands even if we disentangle the moral advice from the embedded eschatological claim. One could say, in essence, “Well, I don’t believe in all this judgment stuff, but what an important insight that I should cleans my heart of hatred! Hatred really is the taproot of murder—I never thought of that!” Or something to that effect.)

    Now, having addressed the second point, I think the first point pretty much takes care of itself. For, if the consultation of one’s moral intuition relevantly resembles checking the mathematician’s proof in the way I’ve just suggested, then it is perfectly possible for someone to make a persuasive moral claim even while claiming that what *ought* to persuade us is not the compatibility of his claim with our conscience, but rather the fact that he is God and morality is what he says it is.

    You asked me to address the matter of miracles. I’ll confess I haven’t given this issue much thought. If he were really performing miracles it would certainly help to explain his credibility in the ancient world. As I’ve already admitted, I would have a hard time listening to moral advice, no matter how insightful, from a (contemporary) person constantly claiming to be God. (Again, if I sound like I undermine my whole argument with this confession, I think this goes to the hindsight-vs.-contemporaneous issue already touched on above. ) I think it might be a bit easier if he was doing godlike things, performing miracles and whatnot. But, as you may have suspected, I am highly dubious of the miracles attributed to Christ. (Regarding my thoughts on the subject of miracles I cannot improve upon the work of David Hume in his ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” Section 10, Part 1.)

    But more to your point: If I understand you correctly you are curious to hear what effect it has on my argument that Christ himself offered proof of his divinity as proof of his authority. To my way of thinking this is merely another instance of the divergence between you and me regarding the picking and choosing. That is, I have no difficulty agreeing with some of Christ’s moral positions, while disagreeing with Christ’s own claim that his authority rested on his divinity. The proof-of-authority issue may make Christ’s position a bit clearer, but I don’t think it presents any unique challenge to my position.

  6. no problem on submitting the comments. i’m not sure why this template that i am using has such a confusing comment thread feature. i’m looking into changing it.

    i think there are two things in play here…one with common ground…the other with more of a dividing line, but still open for dialogue.

    the hypothetical muhammad and the hypothetical christ (along with their corresponding “real life” characters) are different and distinguishable from my third experience scenario. i am certainly guilty of an exaggeration for the sake of argument. no matter what conclusions one has made about the claims of jesus, it cannot be denied that the whole of history has been shaped by what people have believed about him. the same can be said of muhammad, though to a lesser degree. the same cannot be said about some television preacher or the young couple in my office.

    but here’s the dividing line, i suppose. i, like you, do not believe there is a continuum that all three belong on together. as disrespectful to muhammad as this sounds, i believe that he and the television preacher are on the same continuum. or maybe it would make more sense if i included some others on the continuum: all those whose religious or metaphysical teachings (whether they included angel visitations or not) that have given rise to movements.

    granted, muhammad, zoroaster and confucius have claimed larger followings than say, joseph smith (mormons), mary baker eddy (christian science) or charles taze russell (jehovah’s witnesses)…but i would submit that they each started the same way…with some sort of vision and a claim of “new” truth. and given enough time, any current television preacher could probably do the same thing. history has proven that people can, and will, believe just about anything if it’s packaged well enough.

    in my estimation, jesus does not belong on the same continuum with any of the aforementioned religion founders. he is the only one who claimed to be god. no one else has ever claimed that and given enough convincing evidence to warrant a change in the course of history. whether one chooses to believe his claims 2000 years after the fact is another story. but i simply cannot reduce him, or his claims, to the level of the others.

    as for TBN, i must confess that i do watch periodically. but i will only do it with the sound off. it helps me remember that i don’t ever want to look like that when i preach…

    1. Just a final note to say thanks for your thoughts on this and your patience with me–as a first time poster to this site I didn’t intend to hijack your time with this lengthy thread.

      I think you have definitely identified the fundamental point of departure for us. Were I to agree for some purposes that Christ’s claims to divinity were categorically distinct from those of other religious leaders I would continue to have difficulty seeing the difference such distinction would make for the validity of the “trilemma.” Insofar as this would seem to be an axiomatic disagreement, this post concludes my thoughts on the subject.

      Thanks again,

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