C.S. Lewis' trilemma

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C.S. Lewis famously presents a Lord-Liar-Lunatic trilemma in Mere Christianity. I've long been familiar with some of the responses to that argument, and I've given my own version of it that deals with at least some of those problems (among the other things I deal with in that piece). What I didn't know is that Lewis himself had a more sophisticated development of the argument that includes some responses to the most common reasons I've heard from people who think his argument is fallacious. It's even in God in the Dock, which I have on my shelf but never got around to looking at very carefully due to being thoroughly unimpressed with his arguments in Mere Christianity and one view he made clear at the end of The Last Battle.

Well, a friend of mine was looking for his essay "What Are We to Make of Jesus?", and I found it for her, figuring it might be worth reading. I was actually fairly impressed. Check it out.

By tying the argument that Jesus claimed divinity to a wider range of sayings and actions in the gospels (though not wide enough, given what he could do), he makes a stronger argument that Jesus really did claim to be God, which some people have tried to undermine to get out of the argument. He also makes clearer what issue is at stake -- if Jesus really said these things and meant them, and it wasn't true, he was nuts, but that doesn't seem very likely given how insightful his moral teachings were about the human condition. That means either he made it up, which is also unlikely for someone with such great moral sensitivity, or he had good reasons for thinking it's true, which is hard to fathom unless it is true. I don't think all those steps were filled in in the Mere Christianity version of the argument.

2 Comments

What led you to be "thoroughly unimpressed" with Lewis' arguments in Mere Christianity? I'd be interested in hearing them. I consider Mere Christianity an excellent primer when it is used as it was intended - not as an in-depth theological examination but as a stepping stone to understanding certain areas. Many of the essays contained in God in the Dock are among my favorite Lewis writings.

I read Mere Christianity in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I had only taken one philosophy class at the time, so my underappreciation for the book had nothing to do with looking for arguments that would hold more philsophical weight with the kind of people I now regularly interact with in a Ph.D. program in philosophy.

The impression I get from Lewis' apologetics work is that when he gives an argument for the faith it's not the kind of thing that would convince people who don't already agree with a large part of what Christianity assumes. It's the king of thing that will tend to make Christians more sure of their beliefs from showing how different their basic intuitions would have to be when it comes to morality, science, other religions, how to respond to the fascinating person of God, and many other issues. It turns out most Americans do have very different intuitions on many of these issues.

Also, Lewis simply doesn't deal with what I see as the basic issues even of the generation after him, never mind ours. You can't blame him for that, but it makes the book far less useful.

I have to say that Lewis is far more careful than people like Josh McDowell (but still not careful enough for the kind of case some Christians portray him as having made), though McDowell is far more comprehensive (but again not enough for the kind of case he himself thinks he's made). Still, I'm not sure I'd give a book by Lewis to most people I know who aren't Christians. It seems better suited to a high school apologetics course in a Christian school or Sunday School.

Lewis' book is a basic introduction that can open someone's mind to the fact that people actually write about these things.

Probably some of my negative reaction comes from the fact that Lewis influenced enough people on these issues that things I thought were obvious or second nature are things he convinced people of. Maybe in his time the book would have been worth more for its intended purpose. I'm concerned with how good it is now, and I just didn't see a lot in it that was memorable (and I found at least a few things that were questionable).

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