Beyond Lewis’ trilemma

In my continuing meditations on the awfulness which is Lewis’ trilemma, some more thoughts have come to me. To remind you, C.S. Lewis wrote:-

“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 either be a lunatic — on the 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.”

I’m with other people criticising the trilemma for failing to consider other options; the obvious ones are listed at the end of the Wikipedia article as Legend and Guru. “Legend” is, I think, dealt with by the consideration that much of what we see in the New Testament is not actually people reporting what happened, it’s them reporting how they saw Jesus, how they related to Jesus, and by the time they wrote Jesus had become something much greater than just a man. I prefer not to use “Guru”, but “Mystic” will do nicely; none of the wording ascribed to Jesus by the Fourth Gospel (which is what Lewis is concentrating on) is at odds with what could be said by a panentheistic God-mystic.

However, Lewis is also being obstructive in saying, in effect, “You cannot regard Jesus as a great moral teacher”. I know stacks of people who are quite convinced that Jesus WAS a great moral teacher, but who listen to something like that and say “Well, if you’re saying that, clearly for you he wasn’t, so I’m out of here”. Twenty five years ago, I doubt I’d have stayed around to listen to anything more on exactly that basis. Those who use Lewis’ trilemma are, to be honest, inclined to sideline Jesus’ moral teachings anyhow – yes, they acknowledge that they’re there, but they’re not THE BIG THING about Jesus. They’re not what GETS YOU SAVED.

But actually Jesus WAS a great moral teacher, whatever else you think he may have been. That has a wider spread of agreement than anything else about what Jesus was – not only Christians but also their offshoots Latter Day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is and a whole load of people in entirely separate religions agree this. And Lewis wanted to tell them they couldn’t think that way? What a bozo!

Moving on, though, I see a set of historical-critical scholars trying to extract a picture of what the real, lifetime Jesus was. There are two big camps of these; those who think Jesus was a social and religious subversive revolutionary spreading a message of resistance to Rome, the breaking down of political and religious power structures, radical redistribution of wealth, non-violent action, reform of the basis of Judaism (away from the Temple-sacrifice based structure to something radically rabbinic, away from focus on details of purity related praxis towards inclusionary praxis), reform of the individual’s own world-view and the institution of radical communitarian values. And as far as I can see, they’re right.

Then there are those who see Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher prophesying the end of power structures as they then were and the coming of the Kingdom of God, the restoration of Israel and the dawn of a new age of personal enlightenment and communal concern with a restored Israel leading the way. And I think they’re right too…

But though there is some overlap, each of them wants to say “Jesus was THIS” impliedly to the exclusion of the other.

None of them I have yet read seem to give adequate weight to Jesus as God-mystic, Jesus who knew intimately a new relationship with God on a personal basis, a completely different conception of how he and we stood in relationship to a God who was immanent – no, that’s not enough stress, a God who was IMMANENT! God around us, beside us, above us, behind us, within us, in our history and in our future, all pervading, (according to Psalm 139:7-10), he who in whom we lived and breathed and had our being (according to Paul via Luke in Acts 17:28). This is, incidentally, where I think the great deficiency of the “apocalyptic preacher” school of thought lies; he was not proclaiming something in the future, he was proclaiming an apocalyptic event which had already happened, was happening and would continue to happen.

I don’t want “Either…or” I want “Both…and”

And then you get Paul and “John”, who were Christ-mystics, and the synoptic evangelists who were talking of another Jesus, a Jesus who was still present with them and in them, who had not died because they were experiencing him day by day (OK, I think they were experiencing God-in-them and mislabelling it, but let’s not be too picky here!).  Paul’s and John’s experience will have made them concentrate on sin and forgiveness from personal transformation through ecstatic experience, because that’s what they will have experienced themselves (I know, I had such a transformative experience without having any of their theological or symbolic structure to hang it on, and that’s still how I experienced it).

And I don’t want “Either…or” I want “Both…and”

Jesus WAS a great moral teacher AND a rabbi wanting to reform Judaism and call people to repentance AND a social and political subversive revolutionary AND a teacher of personal transformation through ecstatic experience AND a panentheist God-mystic  AND… well, as a panentheist God-mystic myself I have no problem at all with son of God or God incarnate. AND he was an example of self-sacrifice for others AND his death and post-mortem appearance and presence reconciled his people to God AND he shows us that sacrifice to God is no longer necessary in the ritualistic sense AND following him can lift our burden of guilt, shame and, yes, sin AND by following him we can come to God and be transformed ourselves AND in following him society will be transformed AND all this can happen, is happening, here and now and we do not need to wait until we’re dead.

AND we don’t need to try to harmonise all these into a single coherent narrative, because he overspills the bounds of anything narrow you can construct, and that doesn’t do him justice.

Lewis said we could not follow the small picture because there was a larger one, completely missing the fact that there was a larger one still.

So I probably missed some things. I suggest you go and find them – I’m still looking myself.

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