My friend Amod Lele writes posts that engage me far more often than I comment. I want to record here a response to his criticism of this remark of C.S. Lewis':
Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.Unlike a lot of philosophers (and theologians!) I know, I am a fan of CSL, but (like Lele) I've never thought much of his "trilemma" (Jesus: either liar, lunatic, or Lord). And like that argument, this one clearly aims at pressing a mild sympathy into a decision. What Lewis means to do is to rule out the middle-of-the-road, noncommittal view that sees Jesus as "a good man, a great moral teacher," and nothing else. A "great moral teacher" would not say "the sorts of things Jesus says" in the Gospels, Lewis contends. The trilemma does not work very well partly because it leaves out of account a host of vexed questions about the reliability of the Gospels themselves, but mostly because it presumes we are in a position to know what Jesus meant, when even the Gospels go out of their way to insist that we don't know what he meant. It may still be that the trilemma is meaningful under some circumstances (for instance, once you identify as a Christian and are satisfied that the tradition does reliably communicate an identifiable meaning, you may find it so), but as a compelling argument for persuading the sympathetic (to say nothing of the unsympathetic), it fails badly.
The argument of Lewis that Lele has in his sights this time seems, however, a little bit (even if just a little) more defensible. Lele's critique is straightforward:
Christians ... can put you in jail for your choice of sexual partners. They can make it impossible for you to access abortion or even contraception. And [on the other hand] they can fight for – and achieve – the equality of people of all races amid a society that denies it. In the past century, Christians of various sorts have done all these things many times, and done them because they were Christians: because they believed in, identified with and/or practised Christian tradition.This leads to the obvious conclusion, for Lele: when it comes to Christianity (and I assume that it goes without saying that one could insert the name of any other religious or non-religious tradition here), its ultimate truth or falsity is one of many things that might be "important" about it, but its real this-world consequences show that, true or false, there are plenty of other important things about it as well.
Bearing in mind the caveat offered in the Lele's comments section by Michael Reidy (to wit, Lewis is writing a popular article and not a learned treatise or an academic paper), I'd venture to say that Lewis just means that if you are satisfied for yourself that Christianity's claim is false, you can simply leave it alone and go on your way. Yes, it matters in one sense -- often a far-reaching sense -- that people believe and act upon falsehoods or nonsense. But you don't need to concern yourself with Christianity -- just with people making "christian" arguments. You aren't engaging with it (not on an existential level) -- it is no longer, as William James would put it, a "living option" for you. If someone tells me the earth is flat, this claim content-wise makes no difference to me, even though the person claiming it may be in a position to impose the view on all the public schools, burn me at the stake for denying it, or build hospitals and orphanages in the name of flat-earthism.
I won't argue that there is a bright and obvious line in every case between such "existential" engagement and merely prudential negotiations with those who maintain something I don't. And if there isn't, perhaps Lewis' claim cannot be defended even on these grounds. But the distinction I take him to be making is not prima facie silly. For Lewis, there really is a bifurcation here, but not because of the claims of Christianity per se; rather, it's because of the arena in which the relevance is being assessed. This arena is existential. As Lessing said, and Kierkegaard riffed on, one can't generate a claim of eternal force from any historically contingent fact. Within that arena there are (per hypothesis) no "moderately important" claims. This argument may seem surprisingly Manichean, and I have some sympathy with such a counter-argument. (My usual default way of negotiating it is via Tillich's articulation of "ultimate concern," re. which see here.) But then, philosophy too (not just theology) has insisted that there are things of ultimate importance, in comparison with which everything else becomes trivial. Socrates chastened his fellow Athenians for precisely this, neglecting their souls. The fact that he likely didn't mean exactly what Lewis would have meant by "soul" shouldn't distract us overmuch here. Philosophy, also, requires decision.