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There’s an old argument, popularised by C.S. Lewis, that Jesus had to be either mad, bad or God, and the choice is obvious.
All I think I’ve written on this topic is the brief aside in the middle paragraph1 of the “Alternative Explanations” section of “Problems with the Christian Worldview”. “I don’t subscribe to the “mad, bad or God” trichotomy that C.S. Lewis proposes. It’s not likely that Jesus directly claimed to be God (despite the suggestions in John), but it is likely that he acted out the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant. I would have to say that in this he was mistaken, but this doesn’t make him mad or bad.”
I ought to expand a bit on this, so here goes. The argument is that someone who said the extraordinary things that Jesus said would have to be either mad, bad or God. Since he clearly wasn’t mad or bad, he must have been God. There are lots of places this argument can break down. Some are:-
Maybe we should focus a bit on the “mad” and “bad” claims. Taking “mad” first, presumably the idea is that someone making such claims would have to be deluded, like the madman who claims to be Napoleon. If I remember correctly, Lewis says that inappropriate claims to deity are as mad as claiming you’re a fried egg. But is this so? Setting aside whether or not Jesus thought he was God in the sense of identity (rather than being chosen, adopted, made of equal honour, or some such), there’s an example of a Greek philosopher who thought he was (a) god. To quote the famous doggerel “Great Empedocles, that ardent soul; Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole". And he did. Apparently he left his sandals on the edge of the crater as though going for a dip (so said Anthony Grayling; knowing him, he may have made that bit up). Yet Empedocles wasn’t mad in the “fried egg” sense. He had all sorts of interesting and revolutionary philosophical and scientific ideas; some right, some wrong. He evidently had a high opinion of himself and believed deity was something that could be empirically demonstrated. He was proved wrong in a rather nasty way, of course, but many sane people are proved wrong, admittedly less dramatically, all the time.
As for “bad”, presumably this means that Jesus knew he was making false claim, yet persisted in the claim, deceiving his disciples and many others besides. This is clearly not on. However, it is not even necessary to be certain of one’s claims to avoid being a deceiver. Everyone has self-doubts and it is possible for someone to have doubts and yet not be bad. We’re not told anything about this aspect of Jesus’ psychology, though we gather that he had to work things out (the temptations in the wilderness). I don’t know whether the various so-called false prophets were what we’d call bad people. They were just wrong (we think). We imagine that THE false prophet is a bad person, because he intentionally deceives, but this isn’t so of those who think of themselves as prophets, but aren’t (at least not in the sense of being sent by God). Take Muhammad. Obviously he didn’t claim to be God, but he did claim to have spoken to the angel Gabriel. It used to be popular to say that Muhammad was mad or bad (before saying such things became illegal and dangerous to one’s health), but isn’t it just fair to say he was wrong (with respect to being a prophet), and maybe right and good in much else?
I think the Lewis trilemma is a fair sort of question to ask. It’s just a bit glib. We do need an explanation of how someone as obviously good and honest as Jesus could have said the sort of things he’s said to have said and been wrong (on the sceptical account, and assuming he did say them). In the dialectical context of my argument, I don’t need to say which of the sceptical alternatives is the correct one. There are too many unknowns for this. All I need do is provide a selection that might be true, and that undermines the argument that the trilemma is the only option.
Footnote 1: (Problems with the Christian Worldview)
As always, this note will start off as a brain-dump, which I’ll tidy up and segregate into hyper-linked topics in due course. Note that while this caveat persists, this note (which has been whacked out in a couple of hours, and shows it) is in DRAFT, and cannot be taken to represent my considered views. As it’s hidden down a long chain of hyperlinks, maybe no-one will notice it until I’ve had the opportunity to tweak it a bit.
I’ve admitted that I have “problems” with Christianity. So, what are my “problems”? I need to address this question from at least three angles.
I’ve always maintained that our most fundamental beliefs are held as an interconnecting matrix, though with some form of hierarchy of belief. That’s what I tried to describe in my Christian Tractatus (updated version in progress). So, this statement of issues (and of the alternatives) can’t really be viewed in isolation. However, if I try to expand on all this here, I’ll be repeating what I’ve said elsewhere. This summary will have to remain simplistic.
A final preliminary point is that not all Christians (the more zealous may accuse these of being Christians “falsely so-called”) will find all of my objections to be real issues. However, the versions of Christianity I have “problems” with are those that posit an active God and a supernaturalist worldview. Weaker versions, it seems to me, make no practical difference to our lives, and confuse issues by using supernaturalist terminology with a naturalist meaning.
So, what are the issues? I’ll list them with elaborating footnotes to be provided in due course.
It may be that it is possible to make an accommodation for all these objections, as liberal Christianity has done, but in general the supporters of the “strong” versions of Christianity won’t have any of it – probably for good reason: such a version of Christianity is hardly worth believing in, and is nothing but muddle and equivocation.
It is worth pointing out that there are some aspects of Christianity that often feature in popular objections that I don’t take issue with, either because I reject the objections, or because the tenets objected to are not properly part of Christianity. A brief summary:
Firstly, those popular objections I don’t think cogent:
Secondly, those items that are part of orthodox Christianity, but which may not me properly Bible-based, and so their rejection isn’t relevant to the rejection of Biblical Christianity:
And what alternative explanation can be given? This is highly complex, as there are so many plots and sub-plots. Also, it cannot be incumbent on the unbeliever to give a precise alternative account of the origin of what he sees as myth. Who knows precisely how the Greek myths arose, but does this ignorance mean that it’s incumbent on us to believe in them. The reason I may have for feeling an obligation to provide an alternative account of Christianity is that it is (even to the contemporary western mind) not quite so ridiculous as the Greek myths. Also, it is a worldview I myself have espoused and a good many intelligent contemporaries also espouse. I excuse myself from having to give an alternative account of the other religions that satisfy the second point on account of the failure of the first: I am profoundly ignorant of them, and even if I wasn’t, think that experience “from the inside” is necessary before pouring on the scorn.
I suppose my alternative account would be along the lines of “religious progress”. An initial propitiatory, tribal account of the relation of the individual / society to God was improved upon, firstly within the propitiatory framework of animal sacrifice, ultimately seeing that such actions can’t work, and by refining the concept of God. I think it’s a suggestion of genius to see these sacrifices as “types and shadows”, leading up to the one true sacrifice of Jesus. But this doesn’t make this suggestion correct. Just why does God need propitiation in the first place? As for Jesus’ own views, I don’t subscribe to the “mad, bad or God” trichotomy that C.S. Lewis proposes. It’s not likely that Jesus directly claimed to be God (despite the suggestions in John), but it is likely that he acted out the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant. I would have to say that in this he was mistaken, but this doesn’t make him mad or bad.
I need to add a footnote on probabilities, maybe using the game of Cluedo (Wikipedia: Cluedo (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cluedo)) as a springboard. The basic idea is that if we deny that Colonel Mustard did it, we don’t have to believe that Professor Plumb did it. There are many alternatives. The most likely suspect isn’t thereby guilty. We can be assured that p(it is not the case that Colonel Mustard did it) = 1 – p(Colonel Mustard did it). If Colonel Mustard didn’t do it, then even though each of the alternatives has low initial probability, yet one of them must be true. Say I bought 1,000,000 tickets for yesterday’s lottery. Then, presumably, the odds on my winning the lottery were greater than the odds on any other entrant. Yet I still didn’t win it, and was unlikely to have done so. I mention this because I’ve recently read a somewhat silly paper asking whether it’s rational for Christians to believe in the Resurrection (of Jesus). The “pro” author thinks there are four sensible alternatives, and picks them off one by one. So Jesus must have risen from the dead. This reasoning is fallacious.
My personal worldview
… to be supplied: not because I’ve not got one … it can probably be deduced from my Christian Tractatus … but because I haven’t got round to writing up a quick summary yet. We don’t live in a vacuum, and it’s all very well being negative. However, ab initio, this is a very complex and creative task, which is why the alternative “package deal” approach is so much more popular (though maybe the “don’t know, care less” approach wins the day in the popularity stakes).
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Timestamp: 01/12/2019 15:55:42. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.