Tuesday, March 20, 2007


C S Lewis, speaking of patronising nonsense

Are there any powerful arguments on offer to show that religious belief in general, and Christian belief in particular, is true belief, or even a reasonable sort of belief? Obviously many believers and Christians think there are.

I'm not going to analyse the various classical arguments for the existence of God, or gods, here. They've all been refuted, by better thinkers than myself, several times over.

Instead, I'm going to do something much easier.

Recently I posted a review of the Narnia film, in two parts. This elicited a response from a Paul Martin, aka Luminous Specter, a young man who runs a Narnia fan club in America. He assured me that C S Lewis, author of the Narnia tales, was a very logical man, who used logic to prove religion. I responded very skeptically, naturally enough, and he replied again. Here is a copy of his second response:

Actually, history is quite simple. G.K. Chesterton wrote plenty on the subject. Check out his work "The Everlasting Man." God creates, man complicates. If it were propaganda, what was their goal, as all but one of the apostles was martyred. Anyway, I highly recommend "The Everlasting Man" and Lewis' "Mere Christianity." Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity has the logic that I was talking about. I fear I would butcher it if I attempted. So I will just quote it here:

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 be either 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. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

The passage from C S Lewis, quoted above, is what I want to focus on in this post. I will leave aside Paul Martin's opening sentence, which is plainly false, and as to the G K Chesterton writings, which I'm not familiar with, if they can be summarized as 'God creates, man complicates', the obvious rejoinder is that humans simply are complicated, as the slightest acquaintance with neurophysiology will reveal, and from the outset they created gods to try to simplify and control their world, but this has been revealed as a false move.

The Lewis passage was chosen by the Lewis enthusiast as a piece of logic, one that has so impressed him that he must quote it verbatim, for fear of doing damage to the clarity and depth of Lewis's ideas. For this reason, and because C S Lewis is so often spoken of as a leading light of Christian thought, I've decided to take this passage as quintessential Lewis, and to analyse it accordingly. If there are better or more profound examples of his thought, I would welcome hearing about them, but until I hear otherwise, I'll assume there aren't.

In his opening sentence, Lewis writes quite bluntly that he's trying to prevent people from saying certain things. It's not a good start. Specifically, he wants people not to say the 'very foolish thing' that Jesus might be a great moral teacher but he isn't the son of God. I believe that this is precisely what Moslems say, or want to say, about Jesus, so Lewis therefore makes it clear that he wants to torpedo any possibility of interfaith dialogue. It also should be noted that, in the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church also tried, rather successfully, to prevent people from saying that Jesus wasn't a god. In 1619, to take just one example, Giulio Cesare Vanini was burned at the stake for asserting that men had no souls and that Mary the mother of Jesus was a woman like any other, a woman who could only give birth through sexual intercourse. This was tantamount to saying, of course, that Jesus was a human like any other. Of course the C S Lewises of the twentieth century didn't have the power of the Catholics of the seventeenth, otherwise, be assured, they wouldn't simply be shaking their heads in their armchairs, they'd be out there lighting the fires for the burning of heretics and apostates.

Let's, once again, make clear what Lewis is saying in this passage. He's saying that we must not say that Jesus wasn't a god. Whether he was a great moral teacher, or an indifferent one, is really not to the point.

Lewis, though, tries to make a point of it. According to him, if we judge Jesus as a man, and read the sayings attributed to him, we cannot find him a great moral teacher – we must find him either a lunatic or the devil of hell.

Must we? Why won't Lewis allow people to make their own assessment, why is he trying to force people to see Jesus as either a lunatic, a devil or a god? And why should any rational person feel at all constrained by Lewis's bizarre strictures? I contend that the only reason why people would feel constrained is that they know something of the horrific history of real oppression attached to such rhetoric. Without such niggling worries hanging over us, we can judge Jesus according to our own lights, as pure invention, slightly deluded sage, composite character drawn from various messianic figures of the time, inspired genius, revolutionary teacher, or indeed the son of a god. And as with all judgments, it will improve with the amount of information available to us, and will be better for our ability to sift through and analyse evidence.

Lewis is of course right in saying that we can choose either to accept Jesus as a god, or denounce him as a charlatan, a monster, an imposter or whatever, but this observation is trivial. We can also choose to accept L Ron Hubbard as a dynamic religious figure and one of the great gifts to mankind, or as a charlatan only interested in money, sex, booze and drugs [his own son's judgment]. I myself find it no more difficult to make a choice in the case of Jesus than in the case of old Master Hubbard.

So, what then are we to make of Lewis's logic, as exhibited in this passage? I see little evidence of it. This isn't argument; it's mere assertion. The modern secular reader wouldn't find the Jesus of the gospels a lunatic, let alone a devil. If she's sufficiently educated, she'll read the work in its historical context, and recognize that he inhabits a more credulous, superstitious, and if you like, supernatural age than our own, an age in which people are much more easily deluded about their own powers as well as the powers of others. Lewis's reflections on the matter could only convince those already convinced – only they would see anything logical in his remarks. Christianity is in need of far better advocates than he.



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