Saturday 12 January 2013

Liar, Lunatic, and Lord?

by Kwame Weekes

C. S. Lewis
Considered by many to be one in the long line of heavyweights in Christian apologetics is Clive Staples Lewis. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, he told a story of growing up sceptical of religion and becoming atheist at the age of 15. At the age of 32, after years of personal study and quiet nudging by friends like J. R. R Tolkien, he found reason to believe in the Christian God. Since then, he has become a poster child for atheist-to-Christian conversion, giving hope to Christian families with wayward sons. A young Christian looking for ammunition to fight against the onslaught of atheist friends may come across his famous Trilemma argument in favour of the godhood of Jesus Christ.

The argument (which can be found in Mere Christianity) is that we must either accept Jesus Christ as a liar, lunatic, or Lord. He argues that there is no room for us to consider Jesus to be a great moral teacher while simultaneously stripping him of his divinity because anyone who makes the kind of claims that Jesus made is either a mad man or a liar, neither of which, according to Lewis, could be considered great moral teachers. Therefore, if we are to accept Jesus as a “great moral teacher,” we must also be willing to accept him wholesale, “fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.”

The argument is made against persons who claim Jesus as a great moral teacher but not Lord. I, for one, do not consider Jesus to be a “great” moral teacher. He said some wonderful things, yes, but he also said some things in ways that make me second guess his sanity. However, for the sake of argument I will grant that Jesus Christ was indeed a great moral teacher. The question now is, why can’t he be both a great moral teacher and a lunatic or a liar or an unfortunate combination of all three?

If I understand the phrase correctly, a great moral teacher gains his greatness by what he teaches. The term does not say he is a great moral person. We’ve all heard the saying “do as I say and not as I do.” It is conceivable that a person can teach and preach the most beautiful morality and still be the devil himself. There is also room in there for madness. There are different types of madness and psychology is a science that does not yet stand on very solid ground with regard to its use of definitions. Regardless of this limitation, history has been coloured with many mad men who lived normal public lives and were considered sane by the rest of the world.

One such person is Jeffery Dahmer, serial killer extraordinaire. Anyone who watches a video of him may find it hard to believe that this man killed people, cut off their heads, stripped the skin off their faces, stored their skulls in refrigerators and had sex with their corpses. If this darkness was not enough to stop him from charming young men back to his room, most certainly with lies, what was to stop Jeffery from spouting a few words of moral wisdom if he wanted to?

I tried pointing this out to a friend of mine who had cited Lewis’ Trilemma argument and he agreed with my general argument. Still, he said that we would never call someone like Jeffery a “great moral teacher” no matter how many good things he may have said. That may be true, but that does not refute the argument that a person can be both at the same time and that the Trilemma is no real trilemma at all. I thought about what my friend said, however, and wondered why that was so.

Historian Jad Adams did extensive primary research on the voluminous writings of Mahatma Gandhi, a man second only to Jesus in popular perception of holiness. Adams revealed in Gandhi: Naked Ambition a Gandhi who believed sex tarnished the soul and so practiced celibacy. The shocking information, however, is that the saint tested his fortitude by surrounding himself with women – sleeping naked with them and bathing with them. To add madness to the peculiar, he refused to give his wife suffering with pneumonia medication, a decision that resulted in her death. When he was struck by malaria, though, he reversed his aversion to modern medicine and accepted it. This type of inconsistency was known to him, it seems, because he wrote of himself elsewhere:
I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things…What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject. (
Was Gandhi a liar, lunatic, or great moral teacher (unlike Jesus, he never claimed divinity)? I’d argue that he was a mixture of all because there is nothing that says he cannot be. The real problem of the Trilemma is not a problem inherent in the persons in question but in the persons looking on. Some persons find it difficult to see people complexly. It is either you are a sinner or a saint, a hero or a villain, a Madonna or a whore. When it comes to public figures like Gandhi and Jesus, Aristotle can give insight to this propensity. Ethos, he says, is one of the three components of persuasive arguing. Your case is greatly improved if you are seen as an ethical person. This is why politicians go through great lengths to cover up their dirty pasts.

Men like Jesus and Gandhi preached philosophies and had devoted followers. After their deaths, in order for these philosophies to grow and remain influential, followers needed to ensure that the saintly images of their leaders were preserved. The unpopularity of the dark sides of Gandhi is better understood when put in the context of India’s independence and the role he played there. If everyone knew about his secret practices it may have adversely affected his influence while alive and also after death. For human beings, you cease being a hero the moment your sin becomes public and this must be avoided at all costs. Seeing that the earliest gospel written about Jesus was done 40 years after his death, I suspect that similar things were done with Jesus as were done with Gandhi.

What I think is necessary as we move forward is less hagiography and more objective historical inquiry. Jesus Christ should not be exempt from this scrutiny. Christians should ask themselves why they believe the things they believe about Jesus. What evidence do we have that he was free from sin? Why should we believe that Jesus Christ was the perfect human being apart from books written about him by devoted followers? Jesus Christ never told a white lie? Really, now. There is evidence of him being a bit rude to his mother when they couldn’t find him because he was “about his father’s business,” but that is always interpreted in Jesus’ favour. More is needed for us to uncover the true face of Jesus and we may all be surprised by what we find. We should want to know the truth no matter how unbearably beautiful or terrifying because reality equips us for real life better than any fantasy ever can. 


  1. You made some great points here Kwame. The main one being that Christians like to paint everything in black and white. You are flawlessly good or perfectly evil. Even if you have never found a flaw in someone it is a complete logical fallacy to suggest that it is an impossibility that they could ever make or have made an error. It's like going to a wait for a bus every morning and finding it was on time every day in a year and then concluding that it is impossible that the bus will ever be late anytime in the future or was late at anytime in the past.

    By the way, this is the first time I have seen C.S Lewis's full name written out. 'Clive Staples.' Wow! Never knew. Thanks for that bit of education. :)

  2. Great points and true, people like to whitewash their held up heroes' sketchy pasts or behaviour. Seems like we humans are desperate to find a character that transcends what seems to be our flawed nature. It never really turns out that way, may I add 2 more to the growing list of enigmatic protagonists - MLK & Lance Armstrong. And there is even doubt that Jesus even existed, I for one don't think he did and can find better teachings about life with the very real Marcus Aurelius or Aristotle, at least they didn't pretend to be uber perfect, and I'll take that anytime of day!!! Great writing!

  3. Interesting article indeed. Great points and arguments.

    Just one or two things I'll like to consider. Speaking about morality and moral 'teachers', I fail to see what is the basis you're using to determine whether someone is a good 'moral' teacher or not.

    For instance, speaking about Jesus you wrote "He said some wonderful things, yes, but he also said some things in ways that make me second guess his sanity". Does this mean then that you are qualifying his teaching based on your 'own' morality or 'moral code'?
    If so, then whether someone is a moral teacher is subjective and thereby someone being a 'universally great' moral teacher, is a non-entity and indeed independent of their person as the odds favor that they'll find someone subscribing to their moral standards. It would then suffice to say "I consider X to be a moral teacher", no discussion needed.

    If we are not judging their teachings by our own personal 'moral code' then is there a moral standard or does the human race have a common 'moral code' embedded into us that we all adhere to? If this is true then whatever they teach would conform to our ideologies of morality and this question is again a non-entity. However you only have to visit another village, country or society to realize that isn't the case. The human race doesn't have a universal, common moral standard. So I'll stick with the former.

    Keeping this 'moral confusion' in mind as a background, if someone is therefore a 'Liar' (someone who lies repeatedly), how then are we going to accept them as a 'moral teacher'. Do we then pick through everything they say and determine what is 'lie' and what it 'truth'. What basis are we using to decide that. IF we have another basis or standard to 'TEST and QUALIFY' the liar's teaching then he isn't infact a teacher, the source of our 'standard' is greater than him. We haven't truly Learnt anything, we test the student not the teacher.

    If he IS infact 'LORD' then by the definition of 'LORD', then he has be a moral teacher or even the moral standard. If he is not LORD then we are back to picking and choosing what of this teachings agree with 'our moral code'.

    A lunatic is a person whose actions and manner are marked by extreme eccentricity or recklessness and is of an unsound mind. Not quite sure why we're discussing whether the products of their unsound minds and brains are ethically and morally upright and should be followed and adhered to by us having sound minds. Foolish discussion.

    I hope you realize that this dilemma is wayyy more complex that we think it is.We can't fool ourselves. Can't be universally all at the same time.