Trilemma

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis one of the most influential works of popular Christian apologetics in the English language. It was a very important book to me when I was a believer, but now many of his arguments seem weak. The Moral Argument is central to Lewis's defense of Christian faith and I've dealt with that in previous posts. One of the most famous passages from the book presents a supposed trilemma: Jesus must be a Lord, Liar or Lunatic.

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 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 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 (Lewis, 42).

The key phrase is "A man who said the sort of things Jesus said . . ." Lewis assumes that Jesus really said all the things attributed to him in the Bible. If we remove that assumption, then a fourth choice emerges. Jesus was Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Legend. It's possible that the stories we have about Jesus are so polluted by legendary changes and additions that we can say very little, if anything, for sure about who Jesus was and what he said.

In fairness to Lewis, he was trying to answer a very specific argument from anyone who accepts that Jesus said the words of the Bible but doesn't believe that he was God. He's right when he says that this position is nonsense. But I've never heard of anyone actually taking that stance. If you doubt that Jesus was God, then you almost inevitably don't trust that the Bible is a reliable account of historical events. So, Lewis is doing battle with a straw man and he's armed with a bad assumption.

Is anyone willing to try to make the case that Jesus did say everything the Bible claims he did? Lewis certainly makes no effort to prove that assumption and now that I think of it, I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone put forward good reasons for believing it. It's just one of those ideas that you get for free when you buy into the inerrancy of scripture.

Since it isn't relevant to the imagined argument that he's combatting, Lewis doesn't really address the Liar and Lunatic options or attempt to show why they're not true. It's certainly possible that Jesus was a liar and/or mentally ill. Most people who start religions fit one or both of those descriptions. Almost any Christian would place Joseph Smith, Muhammad, David Koresh and L. Ron Hubbard in one or both of those categories. Is it so hard to believe, then, that Jesus was more of the same? The fact that the Jesus story started so long ago means that there is less evidence to prove that Jesus lied (if Jesus was a science-fiction writer who told friends he wanted to get rich by starting a religion, then we have no record of it), and there has been more time for legends to grow up.

If we stop believing that the Bible is accurate history, can we gain anything from the words that are put in the mouth of Jesus? I think we can. The ideas can and should be judged on their own merit, whether Jesus said them or not and regardless of who Jesus really was. But personally, I think we can very easily arrive at a humanist ethic that is more useful, clear and consistent than what the Bible teaches.

A pattern

Greta Christina Says this so well:

When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands -- tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands or more -- of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one. Why the sun rises and sets; what thunder and lightning are; how and why illness happens and spreads; why people look like their parents; how people got to be here in the first place... all these things, and thousands more, were once explained by gods or spirits or mystical energies. And now all of them have natural, physical explanations.

Natural explanations, I should point out, with mountains of solid, carefully collected, replicable evidence to support them.

Now, how many times in the history of the world has a natural explanation of a phenomenon been supplanted by a supernatural one?

As far as I am aware, exactly zero.

...

Given this pattern -- thousands upon thousands upon thousands of natural explanations accurately supplanting supernatural ones, zero supernatural explanations accurately supplanting natural ones -- doesn't it seem that any given unexplained phenomenon is far more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one?

I guess that's why I'm not bothered by the things that science hasn't explained. How did life begin on Earth? What was the universe like before the Big Bang? We don't know. Some people look at those gaps in our knowledge and assume that God must be responsible. My 5-year-old daughter made that argument to me this week. First she tried peer pressure and told me that I was the only person who didn't believe in God, but when I listed some other people she changed tactics. She asked where people came from and where the Earth came from if God didn't make it.

I told her that she was asking good questions, then I asked her who made God, if he's responsible for making everything else. She said that there were people before God that made him. Who made them? And so on.

The pattern shows that the gaps are closing. This is an issue that any believer needs to think about and any apologist needs to account for. Why has religion been on the wrong side of issues of knowledge so consistently?

One way of dealing with this, and it has always failed miserably, is to attempt to deny and discredit new knowledge. The Church did it with Galileo and some are trying to do it now with evolution. The religious viewpoint just ends up looking stupid in the eyes of history.

Another way to deal with this is to say that the religion was never meant to answer scientific questions. The believer may claim that those parts of the holy book are not meant to be taken literally and the religion only answers metaphysical questions (e.g., What's the meaning of life? How should we treat each other? What actions are immoral?) There are four problems with this.

1. History proves this assertion wrong. Religion has always tried to explain the way the physical world works and how things began. As much as the more reasonable Christians may hate to admit it, the Creationists are part of a long chain of religious groups who try to promote supernatural explanations for the world, even in the face of overwhelming evidence for the natural explanations.

2. After such a long record of being wrong about the world, why would religion be considered authoritative on any subject? Not to mention the parts of the Bible that condone genocide. Do you really want to take ethical advice from a book like that?

3. If Genesis and Revelation don't have to be taken literally, then why does any book between need to be taken literally? If the creation story was just a human author's attempt to explain where the world came from, then aren't the 10 Commandments another human's attempt to prescribe how people should behave?

4. Why shouldn't we see these questions as one more area for natural explanations? Some scientific disciplines, like geology and biology, are limited to the way the physical world works. Others address the mind, society and even meaning. Psychology, ethics and philosophy, though not as exact, do take an essentially scientific approach to the deep questions that humans ask. They gather evidence, propose theories and test them, like the harder sciences. They're self-correcting and they've also replaced some supernatural explanations. I would much rather take advice on issues of morals and meaning from someone using this approach than from an ancient, pre-scientific religious book.

Warren and Harris

This article is from April, but I only just read it. It's Rick Warren of the Purpose Driven franchise and Sam Harris, outspoken infidel, in a joint interview with Newsweek. Here's an excerpt:

WARREN: If you're asking me do I believe in evolution, the answer is no, I don't. I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man's nose? If you believe in God, you don't have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it's fine with me.

HARRIS: I'm doing my Ph.D. in neuroscience; I'm very close to the literature on evolutionary biology. And the basic point is that evolution by natural selection is random genetic mutation over millions of years in the context of environmental pressure that selects for fitness.

WARREN: Who's doing the selecting?

HARRIS: The environment. You don't have to invoke an intelligent designer to explain the complexity we see.

Harmony of the gospels

The BibleI've been reading through the gospels and comparing the different versions of stories. It's interesting, not just for the fact that all four of these books can't be literally and totally inerrant since they contradict each other in many details. That's certainly true, but I don't know when I last believed that the Bible was inerrant. I'm pretty sure that while I was at Truman and ACC I thought it was inspired, but not word for word flawless. But even taking that moderate approach, the differences in stories are fascinating. Mark is almost always briefer, more apocalyptic and he paints Jesus as a secretive person. Either more information came to light over time, or the later writers felt free to embellish. Matthew and Luke add to and change the stores in different ways. Matthew seems to spiritualize things more. Compare his version of the beatitudes to Luke's. Is it the poor or the poor in spirit that are blessed? The hungry or those who hunger after righteousness? The evangelists certainly share a single focus and purpose, inspiring belief in Jesus. And most of their details line up, but it's interesting to think about why they don't agree in some places.

Then there's John. I never realized before that almost none of the stories in John are in the other gospels, and vice versa. John's Jesus boldly proclaims who he is, which really stands out against Mark's secretive Jesus. John adds in so many details and lengthy transcriptions of the words of Jesus. I read the Garden of Gesthemane story in John, then the other gospels. John makes the prayer go on for much longer than the others. The other gospels tell about one of Jesus' followers cutting off a soldier's ear. John goes two steps further. He names the follower (Simon Peter) and the soldier. If that was known when the earlier gospels were written, then why did they leave it out? If not, how did the author of John know about it? It seems like the kind of change that would happen as the story becomes legendary.

Mark is generally considered the earliest gospel to be written. You would think that the writing that is closest to the time of the actual events would be the most reliable account. The author of Mark was more likely to have spoken to eyewitnesses and there had been less time for the story to grow with the telling (30 years is still plenty of time for that, but much less time than John's 60 years). When Mark comes to that central event in the Christian story, the resurrection of Jesus, there is almost nothing said. Bibles today have Mark 16:9-20, an ending that was not in the earliest copies of the book. Most Bibles include a note to this effect. It's likely that this ending was tacked on by a later scribe to make up for the disappointing ending in the original writing.

So, what does the original ending of the earliest gospel have to say about the resurrection?

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

(Mark 1:1-8)

This brings up lots of questions. First, where is Jesus? The other stories have him appearing to various people. Why wouldn't the author of Mark mention that? Compare how the news of the resurrection is discovered in each of the gospels. Mark says that the women who found the empty tomb left and "said nothing to anyone" (Mark 16:8), but Luke says that they came back from the tomb and "told all these things to the Eleven" (Luke 24:9). Matthew agrees with Luke (Matthew 28:8). And John characteristically expands and dramatizes the event. The women tell the men and the men have a foot race then go into the empty tomb and look around.

Second, and more significantly, if verse 8 were true and the women never told anyone what happened, then how did the others find out and how did it come to be generally known that Jesus was raised? It seems to me that when Mark was written, the author assumed that it wasn't generally believed that Jesus was risen. He's revealing a secret that has been hidden for many years. This fits in with the theme of secrecy which runs throughout Mark.

If Mark was written to introduce ideas about Jesus that were unheard of at the time, then he would need a device to explain the fact that he was teaching something new. If no one had heard of Jesus or at least no one had heard of him claiming to be the Son of Man and rising from the dead, then how could Mark start teaching this 30 years after the fact? So, Mark says that when Jesus healed someone or someone proclaimed who he really was, then Jesus told them to keep quiet about it. And when Jesus rose from the dead, only 3 women knew about it and they never spoke of it.

Claiming to reveal some secret knowledge of past events is a very common device. Dan Brown used it in The Da Vinci Code. Masons, Scientologists, Mormons, Gnostics and many Greco-Roman mystery cults have all claimed to give secret knowledge to their initiates. It's easy to defend because of course there's no evidence for it, it was a secret! And if you find contradictory evidence, well, then that's just part of the coverup.

If Christian faith is based on the historical event of the resurrection, then the New Testament is the only possible historical record of that event. As I'm reading it now, it seems less like reliable historical accounts and more like legend or propaganda that was expanded and embellished over time to suit the needs of it's writers, who, after all, were compiling these stories to create and strengthen belief.

It seems clear to me that the idea of verbal inerrancy is impossible. Contradicting accounts cannot both be true. Either the women told no one or they told the disciples. But if you dismiss that idea and still believe that the gospels give the real story of the historical Jesus, then you have to deal with the changes that were introduced to the story over time. The changes between Mark and Matthew are noticeable, but mostly minor. The changes to the story in the 30 year period between Mark and John are extensive. By the time John was written, there were already at least three books about Jesus in circulation. Yet even with the possibility of being compared to he existing written accounts, John was composed with a vastly different set of stories, sayings, emphasis and even theology. How different, then, could Mark's version of the story be from what really happened? He wasn't even restricted by other written accounts. No one could check his story against the other extant versions and the with the secrecy device he preemptively answered questions like, "If Jesus was so great, why haven't we heard of him?" His changes may have been much more dramatic than John's.

If Mark was the closest to the real Jesus, then we can follow the trajectory of the changes back in time and estimate what Jesus was really like. My guess is that he was a traveling apocalyptic preacher like John the Baptist. I doubt that he ever performed a genuine miracle or claimed to be the Son of Man. He may have predicted the end of the world and the coming of a new kingdom. He probably didn't say a lot of the things attributed to him. He may have offended some powerful people and and he probably was executed. But, like every other human in history, he stayed dead. His execution happened to occur during the Passover holiday, so his followers began to associate him with the Passover lamb that dies to save the people. From there, it's not hard to imagine how the stories about him would grow as the movement grew until someone had the idea of writing the first biography.

Further reading:
The endings of Mark 16
Messianic Secret
184 NewTestamentcontradictions
More New Testament contradictions
An Easter Challenge for Christians
How is John different?

"Unnecessary" quotation marks

Hillary and Blackwater

In an earlier post I mentioned that Romney has a connection to Blackwater. Well, so does Hillary. It's more indirect, but I thought it was only fair to mention it.

Spooky

Want a good scare? Watch this Bill Moyers report on Christians United for Israel. Famous pastors, congregants, congressmen and presidential hopefuls recently descended on DC to conduct a fiendish mixture of Christian revival and war-drum beating. John Hagee is on stage quoting scripture and calling for the US to preemptively invade Iran. Hagee is fairly certain that Iran is going to play a key role in the looming apocalypse This would be funny if there weren't so many people taking it seriously, including John McCain.

I don't know which is worse, saying that the world is going to end in a massive battle between the US and Iran, or saying that we should start another preemptive war.

It was only a few years ago that I saw some nut on TV saying that the war with Iraq would be the opening round of Armageddon. And only a few years before that, it was the Soviet Union. Even when I believed in God I thought this type of thinking was bullshit. Normally the apocalyptic worldview produces a mildly harmful fatalism ("We don't need to fix that problem, Jesus will come back soon"), but this talk of invading Iran is dangerous. CUFI says that God promised the land to Israel and there can't be a peace plan that involves Israel giving up land.

Anyone who thinks we should invade Iran has clearly not been watching the news in the last 5 years. Even if things in Iraq were going great, we don't have the people, money or political will to start another war. Not to mention the fact that preemptive war is immoral.

State blog

If you were a staff member in the US Department of State and you were tasked with naming the brand new department blog (welcome to 2001, by the way), what is the stupidest name you could get away with?

blogs.state.gov/

If you can think of a dumber name, I'd like to hear it.

(via Wonkette)

The evils of Socialism

Today George Bush exercised his veto power for the fourth time in his presidency to stop a bill that would provide heath care to around 6 million children. He said the bill was too expensive and it could be the beginning of a shift to Socialized Medicine [cue the spooky music].

Good for him. It's about time someone stood up against the evils of Big Government Socialism. I look forward to seeing what he can do to deal with this problem in other areas as well:

Education

America's children have been on the dole too long when it comes to education. It's time to cut the red tape. Bush should propose an initiative to cut all federal, state and local funding for schools. Private corporations can buy the school buildings and turn them into private schools. Rich people can send their kids to great schools, middle class students can have mediocre schools, and children whose parents can't afford private school tuition can find gainful employment at their local mine or factory.

Fire protection

Ever noticed how most fire engines are Red? Coincidence? Bush still has a year to privatize the nation's fire departments. There's no need to waste government money putting out every little fire that starts. Let people pay private firms and when a fire starts, the private FD can put out the blaze without going through any red tape (provided the homeowner has paid their fees). The poorest citizens won't have to worry about this change because they don't have homes to worry about.

Law enforcement

Right now we have socialized law enforcement. Police, judges and prison guards are all paid from the government treasury. This is a slippery slope toward Communism. What people need is choice. People should be free to maintain their own militia or bodyguards if they want protection from burglars and murderers. Once your bodyguard captures a bad guy, you can simply pay to have him placed in a nearby private prison. This could be a way for Walmart to produce more goods stateside. Those that can't afford their own protection or legal representation still have options. They can arm themselves, hide in a cave or move to a country with socialized police.

Road construction

Why do people feel entitled to roads? If Bush really wants to fight the dangers of Socialism, he'll move to privatize roads and highways. Every road will be a toll road and/or lined with billboards. But it's a small price to pay to know that we're doing it the capitalist way.

Military

Bush has already made great strides toward privatizing the military, but there's more work to be done. Sure, we have 20,000 to 100,000 armed contractors in Iraq now, but why not disband the entire Department of Defense and contract the whole thing out to Blackwater? A private company can do the job cheaper and won't be bound by international treaties and quaint conventions. Perhaps one of the possible successors to George Bush will be able to see this plan through. Mitt Romney has already brought a Blackwater vice chairman on board as his national security advisor.

Mr. President, there will be many more socialist bills crossing your desk between now and that sad day when someone else becomes the decider. I look forward to seeing you fight for our capitalist way of life.

36 Nations?

When I watched President Bush's Thursday night address, I expected to see him paint a rosy picture of the Iraq war. I expected to see him gloss over the difficulties and bend the truth as far as possible to avoid admitting that the war was a mistake. He did all of that, of course, but this time he went a step further and told a lie that is easy to debunk.

To the international community: The success of a free Iraq matters to every civilized nation. We thank the 36 nations who have troops on the ground in Iraq and the many others who are helping that young democracy.
(Whitehouse.gov)

Thirty-six nations!? Several sites have fact-checked this:

Talking Points Memo
FactCheck.org
The Washington Post
Wonkette
TPMmuckraker.com

The State Department puts the number at 25. The total number of non-US troops is around 11,000 and falling steadily.

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