Cross-cultural philosophers often wish to treat Jesus of Nazareth as a great philosopher, whose life and thought we can learn from – but one who is fully human, no more divine than the rest of us.
C.S. Lewis hated this move, thought it was intellectually sloppy. He famously told us:
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 a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.
Lewis’s argument here is frequently quoted, often summed up as “Lord, Liar or Lunatic.” But is Lewis right? He’s been refuted persuasively on the grounds of historical criticism, by the likes of Bart Ehrman. The argument here is, it’s really not clear that the historical Jesus claimed to be divine in the first place, especially since such claims appear only in the book of John, the last of the four gospels to be written. That’s the kind of criticism you see discussed in the Wikipedia entry on Lewis’s argument.
But let’s push things a bit further. Let’s assume, for a moment, that the historical Jesus really did claim to be the only begotten Son of God, in the way Lewis thinks he did. Does that really mean he couldn’t have been a great human teacher?
Consider, by way of comparison, the life of Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. At age 36 he swore a vow of chastity while still being married. Later in life he regularly naked beside naked young women in order to test his own chastity, including his own grandniece. Before that, while fighting for the right of Indians in apartheid South Africa, he did nothing for its blacks and even viewed their oppression as proper. And he starved himself almost to death in protest against government measures to boost the status of India’s untouchables.
This man comes across, it seems to me, as at least a little unhinged and arrogant – rather in the manner of one who proclaimed himself the only Son of God without actually being such. And yet, the same man gave us incredible new possibilities for being human and for changing the world, inspiring people from Martin Luther King to the Dalai Lama. If anyone counts as a “great moral teacher,” surely it is Gandhi – even though in many respects we could call him a madman. We might even come to think that, in ethics as in art, a little bit of insanity makes one a better teacher. Nietzsche, at least, would approve of such a claim – and if you know anything about Nietzsche’s life, you can see why.