Heschel’s trilemma

Reading 20th-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s important work God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism recently, I was struck by this passage:

There are only three ways of judging the prophets: they told the truth, deliberately invented a tale, or were victims of an illusion. In other words, revelation is either a fact, or the product of insanity, self-delusion, or a pedagogical invention, the product of a mental confusion, of wishful thinking, or a subconscious activity. (p. 223)

This reminded me immediately of C. S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma” from Mere Christianity. Speaking of the claims the Jesus of the gospels makes for his own authority, Lewis writes that a man who did such things

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. 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 patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. (p. 56)

What Lewis was criticizing was the view that Jesus of Nazareth was simply a “great moral teacher,” rather than God Incarnate. The claims Jesus makes for himself, Lewis argues, simply don’t allow us to place him in that category. His claims (e.g., the right to forgive sins) are much more radical than that.

Somewhat similarly, Heschel argues that we aren’t really in a position to evaluate the prophets’ putative revelation by our own canons of rationality. He writes that “[i]n calling upon the prophets to stand before the bar of our critical judgment, we are like dwarfs undertaking to measure the height of giants” (p. 222). Prophets like Moses, Amos, or Isaiah weren’t offering moral wisdom for our dispassionate consideration; they were propounding a radical demand for holiness and justice that, they claimed, came from God himself.

In both cases, we’re faced with a potentially life-changing challenge. Lewis and Heschel both want to bring us face-to-face with the unvarnished claim of God’s revelation. Categorizing Jesus or the prophets are purveyors of a vague and genial moral wisdom that we might choose to incorporate into our existing mental framework allows us to keep them at arm’s length. By denying this alternative and posing the remaining ones so starkly, both Lewis and Heschel are prodding us to decide whether we will accept their claims on us.

(Oh, and yes, it looks like I’m blogging again, at least for the moment.)

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