Recent reading

More #content partly repurposed from my Goodreads page…

The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, Rowan Williams

The former archbishop of Canterbury explores the theological underpinnings of Lewis’s beloved fantasy series with his customary erudition and pastoral heart. Williams also does a nice job responding to some recent critics of the series (e.g., Philip Pullman). The purpose of the Narnia books, Williams contends, is to be an intellectual and imaginative “mouthwash” that allows us to encounter the Christian message anew. Probably the best indicator of the book’s success is that it immediately made me want to re-read the Narnia books.

On Niebuhr: A Theological Study, Langdon Gilkey

A clear and engaging exposition of Niebuhr’s theology from a former student (and accomplished theologian in his own right). Gilkey argues that Niebuhr is a more coherent and compelling theologian than he’s often given credit for (as opposed to being a social critic who festooned a largely secular ethical system with pious language). The final chapter helpfully delves into some of Niebuhr’s presuppositions and shows that he remained very much a modernist, despite his strident criticisms of the liberal Protestantism of his day. I came away from this with a renewed appreciation of Niebuhr as a religious thinker.

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt

A comprehensive argument for the right to choose an abortion as essential for women’s full equality. It seems increasingly common for people to call for a “third way” on abortion beyond the extremes of “pro-life” and “pro-choice”; Pollitt, however, compels us to look closely at the concrete effects of various efforts to limit abortion and whether they are driven more by a desire to stigmatize or shame women who have abortions for the “wrong” reasons. She also notes repeatedly that many of the people who oppose legal abortion also oppose policies (e.g., widespread access to birth control, comprehensive sex education, and government support for families) that would do the most to reduce its prevalence. I probably still fall somewhat into the “mushy middle” this book is aimed at, but it definitely nudged me in a more steadfastly pro-choice direction.


Lewis’s trilemma in context

Since we’ve been debating in the comments to this post just what Lewis was trying to accomplish with his trilemma argument, I thought it might be worth walking through the relevant passages in Mere Christianity step-by-step.

It’s worth recalling that for all the attention it’s received, the argument only takes up somewhere in the neighborhood of five paragraphs. So we should be able to lay it out relatively succinctly.

The argument (or most of it, anyway) appears in book II, chapter 3 of MC, which is titled “The Shocking Alternative.” Earlier in the chapter Lewis has been discussing the Christian view that the world is occupied territory–that, in Lewis’s words, “an evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this World” (p. 52).* Lewis then considers (1) how this state of affairs can be in accordance with God’s will and (2) what, if anything, God had done about it.

With regard to the first point, Lewis invokes human free will as the explanation for why God’s good creation was able to come under the sway of the devil. Human beings have collectively tried to “set up on their own as if they had created themselves–be their own masters–invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God” (p. 54).

This can never succeed, Lewis says, because we were made to be in communion with God–“He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on” (p. 54). Because of how we’re made, pursuing happiness apart from God is bound to fail.

So what, in the Christian view, has God done to remedy this sorry situation? Apart from sending Jesus (which we’ll get to in a minute), Lewis said that God has given us conscience, so we can tell that we’ve gotten off the right track; sent us “good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men”; and selected the people of Israel to teach them, and the rest of the world, what kind of God, God is (see pp. 54-5).

Only now after all this set up does Lewis turn to Jesus:

Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips. (p. 55)

Lewis’s claim here seems pretty straightforward: Jesus appeared among the Jews acting like and effectively claiming to be God in the flesh. Now Lewis does not try to establish this point: he seems to be taking, at least for his purposes here, the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did at face value. Lewis was certainly aware of modern, skeptical biblical scholarship (though he didn’t have a very high opinion of much of it); but for his purposes here he seems to be ignoring the possibility that the gospels don’t accurately record Jesus’s words.

In the following paragraph, Lewis considers the implications of Jesus claiming the authority to forgive sins in particular. He argues that no human being can forgive wrongs done to someone other than himself:

We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. . . . But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. (p. 55)

This seems to be largely an amplification of the point in the previous paragraph: Jesus, at least as he is portrayed in the gospels, claimed, by both word and deed, to act with the authority of God. As Lewis puts is, “[i]n the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history” (p. 55).

In the short paragraph that follows Lewis observes that readers of the gospels–even those hostile to the claims of Christianity–don’t come away with the impression that Jesus is a silly and conceited person. “Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him” (p. 55-6).

Only in the final paragraph of the chapter do we get the trilemma argument properly speaking:

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. 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 feed and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (p. 56)

Given what has gone before, I think we can set out Lewis’s argument so far like this.

1. Jesus, through his words and actions, effectively claimed to be God.**

2. Jesus was either (just) a man, or he was God.

3. If he was just a man, then he was either insane or evil.

Therefore, Jesus was either an insane man, an evil man, or God incarnate.

The argument doesn’t exactly end in this chapter, but continues in the following chapter, “The Perfect Penitent”:

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form. (p. 57)

Lewis doesn’t offer further explanation of why it’s obvious that Jesus was neither evil nor insane, though we can imagine that many of his readers (then and since) would be inclined to agree. So, if they take his earlier conclusion as established, then they would probably readily assent to Jesus’ divinity.

After going through this, I think part of the disagreement in the previous comment thread may have been due to different understandings of the scope of the trilemma argument. If we restrict it to just the final paragraph in chapter 3, then its intent does seem limited to the relatively narrow point that, whatever else Jesus was, he wasn’t (just) a great moral teacher. But if you read that as part of a broader argument encompassing the entire back half of the chapter and the first paragraph in the following one, then I think Lewis’s goals are more ambitious. That is, he’s trying to convince the reader that Jesus really was who he claimed to be (or who the gospels claimed he was): God incarnate.

If that’s right, then I stand by my claim that the broader argument has some serious weaknesses–or at least some major undefended premises. But I do think the narrower argument has merit in rebutting a popular image of Jesus as a “great moral teacher.”


*Page references are from the 1996 Touchstone edition published by Simon & Schuster.

**This originally said “claimed to be God,” but as Brandon pointed out, Lewis doesn’t say that Jesus explicitly claimed to be God. Thanks to him for the correction.

Lewis’s “trilemma” revisited

Alan Jacobs takes issue with Anthony Kenny’s discussion of C. S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma” argument in Mere Christianity for the divinity of Jesus. Here’s Kenny:

One line of argument he made popular went like this. Jesus said that he was God. Jesus was neither a deceiver nor deceived. Therefore Jesus was indeed God. Mocking the idea that Christ was simply a great moral teacher, Lewis wrote that a man that said the sort of things Jesus said “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”. Yet even most conservative biblical scholars today think it unlikely that Jesus in his lifetime made any explicit claim to divinity, so that the argument fails to get started.

Jacobs responds:

Lewis’s trilemma argument does indeed have a serious weakness, and Kenny gropes towards it: Lewis’s argument depends on the assumption that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s words, but if you doubt the reliability of the Gospel accounts, then you can easily believe that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” who had certain words put in his mouth by later disciples. This is the assumption that underlies most skeptical redactions of the Gospels, from the Jefferson Bible to the work of the Jesus Seminar. But the great majority of biblical scholars today, as throughout the history of the Church, do indeed believe that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s teachings, which puts the trilemma into play.

While I agree with Jacobs that many (if far from all) biblical scholars hold that the gospels (or at least the synoptic gospels) faithfully record the spirit (if not the letter) of Jesus’ teachings, Lewis’s argument still faces some serious obstacles. The biggest problem, in my view, is that Lewis and those who follow him tend to read a full-blown doctrine of the Incarnation back into the gospel texts, and sometimes put questionable interpretations on ambiguous passages. Many of the proof-texts sometimes used to show that Jesus claimed to be divine are susceptible of much less exalted readings.

That said, I do think many contemporary scholars would accept that the historical Jesus claimed a special or unique role for himself in God’s unfolding plan. Many statements of Jesus in the gospels, while falling short of straightforward claims to divinity, do express the sense that one’s response to Jesus is determinative for one’s standing in God’s kingdom. This makes some on the liberal end of the spectrum uncomfortable, in part, I suspect, because it conflicts with the portrait of Jesus as a benevolent sage preaching a message of inclusive tolerance. (See the final chapter of Michael McClymond’s Familiar Stranger for a good discussion of this issue.) So if Jesus viewed himself as the agent of God’s inbreaking reign, even if he didn’t claim to be divine in Nicea-compliant terms, a modified version of Lewis’s trilemma argument could perhaps get off the ground.

Some extremely belated observations on Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

With my unerring penchant for striking while the iron is stone cold, I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins over the weekend. I liked it–Bell has a knack for getting theological concepts across in friendly conversational prose without dumbing them down. He homes in on the heart of the Christian gospel–God’s abundant, overflowing love–and conveys it in a way that, I suspect, non-Christians might find quite appealing. It is, in short, “good news.”

But what struck me most was the orthodoxy of Bell’s views. Given all the hubbub surrounding the book, I was expecting something a little more envelope-pushing. But Bell, notably, does not deny the existence of hell, doesn’t say that everyone will be saved, and doesn’t deny the unique, salvific importance of Jesus.

I’d call Bell’s view “hopeful universalism.” He thinks that God leaves us free to reject God’s love but hopes that ultimately the persistence of that love will reconcile everyone. His understanding of heaven and hell and the cosmic scope of redemption is drawn from such radical theological sources as C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. His understanding of the work of Christ seems fully orthodox, even though he (rightly, in my view) sees different theories of Atonement as mutually complementary metaphors for that work.

As I suspected, in fact, the controversy over Bell’s book says a lot more about the self-appointed heresy-hunters and boundary-enforcers in contemporary evangelicalism than it does about him. There is a vocal minority that wants to define a simplistic version of Reformed evangelicalism as constitutive of the gospel–complete with insisting on “conscious eternal torment” for unbelievers and the monstrous doctrine of double predestination. And they have, unfortunately, had some success. But the Christian tradition is far wider than that. And while I don’t agree with everything he says, Bell’s book fits comfortably within the mainstream of that tradition.

Tidbits from C.S. Lewis

As my earlier post may have suggested, I’ve been dipping into C.S. Lewis’s letters. Here are a few quotes that struck me:

“I quite agree with what you say about buying books, and love the planning and scheming beforehand, and if they come by post, finding the neat little parcel waiting for you on the hall table and rushing upstairs to open it in the privacy of your own room… (to Arthur Greeves, Mar. 7, 1916)

“I have come to think that if I had the mind, I have not the brain and nerves for a life of pure philosophy. A continued search among the abstract roots of things, a perpetual questioning of all that plain men take for granted, a chewing the cud for fifty years over inevitable ignorance and a constant frontier watch on the little tidy lighted conventional world of science and daily life–is this the best life for temperaments such as ours? Is it the way of health or even of sanity?” (to his father, Aug. 14, 1925)

“What I couldn’t see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now–except in so far as his example helped us. And the example business, tho’ true and important, is not Christianity: right in the centre of Christianity, in the Gospels and St Paul, you keep on getting something quite different and very mysterious expressed in those phrases I have so often ridiculed (‘propitiation’ — ‘sacrifice’ — ‘the blood of the Lamb’)–expressions wh. I cd only interpret in senses that seemed to me either silly or shocking.” (to Arthur Greeves, Oct. 18, 1931)

“I have played with the idea that Christianity was never intended for Asia–even that Buddha is the form in which Christ appears to the Eastern mind. But I don’t think this will really work.” (to his brother, Apr. 8, 1932)

“My own secret is–let rude ears be absent–that to tell you the truth, brother, I don’t like genius. I like enourmously some things that only genius can do: such as Paradise Lost and the Divine Comedy. But it is the results I like. What I don’t care twopence about is the sense (apparently dear to so many) of being in the hands of “a great man”–you know: his dazzling personality, his lightening energy, the strange force of his mind–and all that.” (to his brother, June 14, 1932)

“The Tableland [in The Pilgrim’s Regress] represents all high and dry states of mind, of which High Anglicanism then seemed to me to be one–most of the representatives of it whom I had then met being v. harsh people who called themselves scholastics and appeared to be inspired more by hatred of their fathers’ religion than anything else. I wd modify that view now: but I’m still not what you’d call high. To me the real distinction is not between high and low but between religion with real supernaturalism & salvationism on one hand and all watered-down and modernist versions on the other.” (to Sister Penelope, C.S.M.V., Nov. 8, 1939)

“Fascism and Communism, like all other evils, are potent because of the good they contain or imitate.” (to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., Jan. 17, 1940)

“The best Dickens always seems to be the one I have read last! But in a cool hour I put Bleak House top for its sheer prodigality of invention.” (to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., Nov. 5, 1954)

“One often wonders how different the content of our faith will look when we see it in the total context. Might it be as if one were living on an infinite earth? Further knowledge wd leave our map of, say, the Atlantic quite correct, but if it turned out to be the estuary of a great river–and the continent thro’ wh. that river flowed turned out to be itself an island–off the shores of a still greater continent–and so on! You see what I mean? Not one jot of Revelation will be proved false: but so many new truths might be added.” (to Dom Bede Griffiths, Feb. 8, 1956)

“Birth control I won’t give a view on: I’m certainly not prepared to say that it is always wrong.” (to “Mrs. Ashton,” Mar. 13, 1956)

“That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God’s Word to the reader (he also needs his inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don’t.” (to Clyde Kilby, May 7, 1959)

“No one ever influenced Tolkien–you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” (to Charles Moorman, May 15, 1959)

“We must have a talk–I wish you’d write an essay on it–about Punishment. The modern view, by excluding the retributive element and concentrating solely on deterrence and cure, is hideously immoral. It is vile tyranny to submit a man to compulsory “cure” or sacrifice him to the deterrence of others, unless he deserves it.” (to T.S. Eliot, May 25, 1962)

C.S. Lewis on Jesus’ fear of death

In 1932, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to his good friend Owen Barfield on the topic of Jesus’ fear of death, particularly as presented in the Garden of Gethsemane scenes in the gospels. Barfield was apparently troubled by the idea that the Son of God should’ve experienced such terror in the face of death when many lesser men had apparently overcome their fear of death.

In response, Lewis distinguishes three classes of people with respect to the fear of death: the “very bad” who fear death because it represents the defeat of their “false freedom” of egoistic self-determination; the “virtuous,” who are only able to overcome their fear of death with the aid of some other sentiment that depends on a “defect” of some kind (such as pride or weariness); and, finally the “Perfect.”

Lewis suggest that Jesus–as the Perfect One–in some ways more closely resembles the first class than the second. This is because for him, death also represents a defeat of freedom, but it is “Real Freedom”:

What is it to an ordinary man to die, if once he can set his teeth to bear the merely animal fear? To give in–he has been doing that nine times out of ten all his life. To see the lower in him conquer the higher, his animal body turning into lower animals and these finally into the mineral–he has been letting this happen since he was born. To relinquish control–easy for him as slipping on a well worn shoe. But in Gethsemane it is essential Freedom that is asked to be bound, unwearied control to throw up the sponge, Life itself to die. Ordinary men have not been so much in love with life as is usually supposed: small as their share of it is they have found it too much to bear without reducing a large portion of it as nearly to non-life as they can: we have drugs, sleep, irresponsibility, amusement, are more than half in love with easeful death–if only we could be sure it wouldn’t hurt! Only He who really lived a human life (and I presume that only one did) can fully taste the horror of death. (Letters of C.S. Lewis, W.H. Lewis, ed., p. 305)

Note that Lewis is saying that Jesus’ experienced the fear of death more intensely because he “really lived a human life.” Lewis disdains the idea (which he attributes to Barfield) that Christ suffered simply “from the mere fact of being in the body” as “mythological in the bad sense.” Jesus feared death more because he loved life more.

Biblical inerrancy, the goodness of God, and our capacity for truth

I came across this letter of C.S. Lewis’s on the blog Undeception:

Dear Mr. Beversluis,

Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

But of course having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences by trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to. For perhaps sometimes God’s answer might be ‘What is that to thee?’ The passage may not be ‘addressed to our (your or my) condition’ at all.

I think we are v. much in agreement, aren’t we?

Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

I’ve noted before that while Lewis was very much a man of traditional and conservative disposition and views, he would be out of step with a lot of what passes for “conservative” Christianity today. A significant strain of contemporary evangelicalism–particularly Calvinist-influenced, has embraced precisely the doctrine of inerrancy and ethical voluntarism that Lewis is criticizing here.

Closer to home, however, a lot of mainline theology has absorbed the “postmodern” critique of reason, which denies that we can transcend our particular social and cultural situation enough to apprehend any “universal” truths. Lewis, though he recognizes our penchant for partiality and self-deception, would also disagree with this, at least in its extreme form. God has endowed us with the capacity to apprehend the Good and the True. It’s true that in our fallen state, we only apprehend it in a partial and fragmentary way, but we are capable of genuine knowledge. It’s also worth noting that “postmodern” anti-rationnalism doesn’t necessarily have more progressive implications than conservative biblicism. In fact, it may lead to a very similar form of authoritarianism: if “truth” is defined by my tribe, my social group, my church, my political fellow-travelers, etc., how is criticism of the group possible?

My personal view is that there is merit in the various critiques of “Enlightenment reason,” but at the same time, Christians should be wary of embracing a thorough-going anti-rationalism.