Monday, May 3, 2010

A defense of two trilemmas.

Disclaimer: this one is (somewhat absurdly) long.


Yesterday, a bunch of Mormon Facebookers were asked to log onto Youtube to uprate a video called "Testimony of the Book of Mormon," featuring excerpts from a recent inspiring sermon by LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland. Meanwhile, readers of a website called "science blogs" were told about the Facebook group and instructed to do precisely the opposite: namely, downrate the video with a "thumbs down" on Youtube, in protest to the video's "appallingly illogical" message, as atheist blogger PZ Meyers puts it. PZ compares the video to C. S. Lewis' Trilemma, which he and his readers seem to hold in automatic low regard as far as logical soundness goes.

Granted, Lewis was a Christian apologetic, not a theologian - and Holland is a preacher, not a philosopher. But let's go ahead and examine their respective "trilemmas" with the scrutiny they deserve. I don't think they're nearly as illogical as their attackers make them out to be.


C. S. Lewis, to break his argument down in premise-and-conclusion form, says something like this:

I. Jesus claimed to be God.
II. One of the following must be true:
---Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but believed that he was.
---Liar: Jesus did not believe he was God, but spoke as if he did.
---Lord: Jesus is God.
III. If not God, Jesus must be a fraud, or worse.
IV. A further conclusion, according to C. S. Lewis: Jesus' greatness and morality were "obvious" so he could not have been delusional or a deceiver, and thus he must have been God.

I'll take the liberty of breaking Jeffrey R. Holland's argument, and others like it, into similar terms:

I. Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon by the power of God.
II. One of the following must be true:
---Sham: Joseph's claims about the Book were imaginative fabrications.
---Satanic: The Book comes from deranged or demonic influences.
---Sacred: The Book of Mormon was truly of divine origin and Joseph Smith was a prophet.
III. If the Book of Mormon is not of God, its creation is fraudulent, or worse.
IV. A further conclusion, as illustrated by George Cannon (Elder Holland's great-grandfather): "No wicked man could write [i.e. fabricate] such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so."

In other words, Holland has examined the Book of Mormon (much like Lewis has examined the words and works of Christ), and concluded that the probability of its being fraudulent (given its complexity) or hellish (given its virtue) are minimal at best, and therefore the Book must be of God.

Holland further argues that Joseph and Hyrum Smith would not have died with testimonies of the Book of Mormon on their lips if the Book were false. Our opponents on scienceblogs point out that this is a fallacy: martyrdom does not necessarily imply truth. This is a valid counterargument. I think that Elder Holland's aim was to create moving religious rhetoric rather than some kind of solid Pythagorean proof. It works for what it is, so let us not attack it for failing to be what it never purported to be. Instead, I'd like to focus on the similarities between (and the validity of) C. S. Lewis' Trilemma and Mormon apologetics on Joseph Smith.


The naysayers claim: the problem with the trilemmas is that there are more options available than the three offered. For example, with C. S. Lewis' Lunatic, Liar, or Lord, we could easily add a fourth alternative, "Legend," if the historical records are inaccurate and Jesus never really claimed to be God as we think he did. Some even argue for a "pentalemma," adding the fifth option that perhaps Jesus was a sort of guru, who believed himself to be God only in the sense that everything is divine.

To adapt these arguments so they oppose Mormon apologetic writing, however, we would have to alter them somewhat. For example, the historical records of early LDS history are reliable enough for us to know that the Book of Mormon's status cannot be considered mere "legend" - it is well documented that Joseph clearly and explicitly defined the Book's origins as divine. So, are there any other options other than 1) he was lying, 2) he was deceived, or 3) he was right? Perhaps. Could an alternate option could be that 4) he was exaggerating?


Let us first examine the five proposed explanations of Jesus' divinity.

1. Jesus as Lunatic: is this likely? Are typical lunatics as consistently wise as he? He explained prophecies to Jewish teachers when he was twelve years old. A couple decades later, he delivered what is probably the most important moral discourse of human history. I do not think it plausible that a man like Jesus could have been insane.

2. Jesus as Liar: this is doubtful. He was not afraid to die for what he taught, which (as mentioned above) doesn't prove his teachings, but it certainly proves that if they were not true, he at least thought they were. Con artists have no reason to sacrifice as much as he did. And it's not like he was ever rich; he never even owned a home.

3. Jesus as Lord: the reality of this claim, of course, requires the existence of a God. I'd have to devote an entirely new post to build an argument for God's existence (maybe next time). Given that God exists, though, the theology of salvation through Christ (called "soteriology"), and what that implies, still poses a lot of problems and questions. Incidentally, LDS teachings provide some possible answers to those questions, as I've discussed in part of an earlier blog post (the only one longer than this one, probably).

4. Jesus as Legend: with good reason, this is the atheists' favorite weapon of choice against Lewis' trilemma. They argue that Biblical accounts are not historically reliable and therefore cannot be treated as infallible accounts of what Jesus, if he ever lived, actually said. Now, is this plausible? Certainly. The events described in the Bible happened so long ago that, despite evidences for and against them that have sprung up since, there is still no definitive "proof" either way. The Bible was never intended to be a comprehensive historical record. Read Josephus if that's what you want. The Bible is a work of subjective religious history, focusing on doctrinal discourses, faith-promoting accounts of selected incidents, and genealogical records (and it certainly isn't infallible - message me if you'd like me to send you the term paper I wrote about Biblical mistranslations). My defense against the Legend claim is that in the context of Lewis' original argument, it's not really relevant. C. S. Lewis was arguing against those who believe the Bible to be a fairly true account and yet deny Christ's divinity while admitting his moral usefulness. This opponent of Lewis' is not a "straw man," as many atheists say it is. It is a real argument that I have heard dozens of people say to me, and have read even more times. So to be fair to C. S. Lewis we must remember that his trilemma was intended as a rebuttal against someone who did not doubt the historicity of Biblical accounts.

5. Jesus as Guru: I find this argument doesn't quite fit with what our source material tells us. Jesus spoke of himself as being separate from God the Father, yes - but he also spoke of himself as Son of God distinctly, and in a different way than he spoke of all of us being children of God. I'll spare you a scriptural rundown, but maybe in a later post I will go into more detail on how the Guru theory can only be true if the Legend theory is also true (namely, if the Bible does not say what Jesus said). It really does not stand on its own.

Now let us examine the possibilities for Joseph Smith.

1. The Book of Mormon as Sham: is it really likely that the Book was simply made up on the spot? Renowned scholar Hugh Nibley often challenged his university students to write something that fits the criteria the Book of Mormon fits. To his death, he never received one of those term papers back. And why not? Perhaps because of the sheer complexity and intricacy of the Book of Mormon's narrative. Remember, this is a book:
---containing a 2600-year history.
---with 300,000 words.
---that was completely dictated (and without having the stenographer read back the last paragraph or sentences, after a lunch break, etc).
---containing multiple distinct writing styles, as it contains contributions from multiple authors. These writing styles were later linguistically analyzed and did not match each other, nor did they match Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries.
---containing (correctly used) figures of speech, similes, metaphors, narration, exposition, description, oratory, epic lyric, and parables.
---including authentic descriptions of travel, clothing, mourning customs, and types of government.
Another strong criticism I have for the "fraud" theory is that while most believe Oliver Cowdery was probably involved in the "con," the truth of the matter is that Oliver never denied his witness of the Book's authenticity and of his having seen an angel proclaim the same. And why not? By the time Cowdery died, he had become enemies with Joseph Smith, and if the Book (and consequently, the LDS Church) was indeed fraudulent, Cowdery had a golden opportunity to expose and defame Smith. But he never did. If he knew it to be fake, this is extraordinarily puzzling.

2. The Book of Mormon as Satanic: our atheist friends would of course never use this argument, because if there is no God why would there be a Satan? However, the argument exists and I have heard it countless times by people who believe Mormonism was forged in the fires of Hell. This is, to put it mildly, theologically unlikely. If a book is neither manmade nor Godmade, it might be infernal, but if one examines the Book of Mormon closely they can clearly see that it does not lead away from God. I have heard people say that "it might bring people to do good but they come away with an incorrect understanding of Jesus," but even if that were true in principle, then the Book at worst would be a corrupted mixture of light and darkness (see possibility #4). If it has some light in it, however, then that light must have come from God. Satan by definition produces only evil and lies. And as a side note: yes, if you were wondering, I would certainly argue that the Qur'an, Torah, etc, are at least partially of God. They have light and truth in them and aim to bring people from vice to virtue.

3. The Book of Mormon as Sacred: the argument for the Book of Mormon's divinity is usually only made to an audience who assumes that God exists in the first place, for if there is no God then certainly a Book cannot come "from God." The assumption of a divine reality is, in most cases, a necessary starting point. So, given that there is a God, is the Book's authenticity logical? Of course it is. If there is a God, why would he not speak to all people? And if the Bible is true, why would God limit his communication to just those people described therein? If the Middle-Eastern Jews had prophets, why wouldn't the American Indians? And why would there not be more records? Further, if God once revealed his will to prophets, then why would he not do so today? It has been suggested (although perhaps this is another trilemma that deserves some scrutiny) that the only reasons God would cease speaking to us would be neglect, powerlessness, or a lack of need. Certainly God is neither neglectful nor impotent, and certainly we need him now more than ever.

4. The Book of Mormon as Exaggeration: a final possibility we could consider is that the Book of Mormon has hints of divine inspiration therein, but the details of its origin are perhaps exaggerated. This would mean that the Book's virtue really is from a God who really does exist, but the historical particulars surrounding both its translator's power and its characters' exodus from Jerusalem to Mesoamerica are not necessarily veridical (though they may be "true" in some metaphorical or symbolic sense). This puts the Book's alleged contents and its alleged origin in the category of Myth. So, is the exaggeration theory plausible? Kind of. Of course, the theological problem with this theory is that it presents a sort of inconsistent view of Deity. What I mean is, if there is a God who is involved enough in human affairs to inspire Joseph to write the sort of moral ideas he wrote in the Book of Mormon, then why wouldn't that same God intervene and forbid Joseph from embellishing his story? Or, if God always intended for the stories in and about the Book to be symbolic, why would he not have said so?


I'll be the first to admit that this blog post doesn't do its subject matter justice and there is much more that ought to be said for all points of view involved. However, I do hope I have sufficiently shown that the criticisms against Lewis and Holland are at least somewhat unfair. The trilemmas we see in Christian apologetics, and specifically in Mormon apologetics, are not as unsound as many assume. Of course these trilemmas are not without flaw, but we must remember that religious/historical proofs can hardly be expected to be as perfectly precise as mathematical proofs.

I do believe that Jesus was and is Lord, and that Joseph Smith was and is a true prophet. I also believe the Book of Mormon to be both authentic and spiritually priceless. I do not believe thoughtlessly or dogmatically or blindly, and I do not advise anyone to. However, my belief (while being significantly strengthened by rationalism and empiricism) has its epistemological foundations mostly in the relationship that I have with my God.

I thank God for men like Jeffrey Holland who aren't afraid to share their convictions despite constant torrents of criticism, and I aspire to do likewise: for I do know that God is real, and no one can take that knowledge away from me.