Back To The Foundations: A Novel Application Of C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma

My sense of timing occasionally borders on the tragic. For example, this morning’s Bible reading in the chronological Bible Reading Program I take part in included the last few chapters of Deuteronomy, which was this to say about the prophet Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy 34:10-12: “But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, before Pharaoh, before all his servants, and in all his land, and by all that mighty power and all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Unrelated to this, I had chosen to read today a book [1] that sought to answer Jihad with truth and encourage those leaving Islam when faced with the horrors of what it truly preaches and practices when taken consistently with its original foundations with love and openness, a book I started reading when I woke up this morning. Shortly after reading the beginnings of this book on Jihad and the closing chapters of Deuteronomy, my roommate’s television turned on as a kind of alarm with alarming news about the terror attacks in Brussels, bringing both the Bible reading and the book reading into horrible relief with the reality of terror in our times.

Towards the beginning of his book on Answering Jihad, Nabeel Qureshi describes his encounter as a young adult with the reality of Islam and those of other people who share his sort of Western upbringing in the form of a trilemma [2]: either one can become an apostate and leave Islam, grow apathetic and ignore the prophet, or become “radicalized” and obey him. Given the immense violence within Islam’s founding and early decades, those who take the history of Islam seriously and are not engaging in dishonest apologetics [3] and who do not desire to renounce the barbarism of original Islam and who are too passionate to remain apathetic mere professed Muslims who claim to believe in Allah and in his prophet Mohammed but ignore his teachings and example are pushed towards radicalization. Although, to an openly Christian person like myself, albeit one who has at least some interest in engaging with Muslim culture and tradition [4], at some potential risk to myself, I might add, in making myself an easy target for those who wish to silence obnoxious voices like my own, a good Muslim is a peaceful one, this is admittedly a biased view, in that a “good” Muslim by such a definition would be acting directly contrary to the beliefs they claim to profess, and would be better off not professing those beliefs at all. It should be noted that this trilemma is very similar to that explored by C.S. Lewis in his class Mere Christianity, where he examines the potential ways that one can view Jesus Christ logically consistently based on His claims.

It is striking to note that this trilemma of being challenged either to become apostate, lukewarm and apathetic, or passionately devoted to foundational beliefs is not limited to Islam alone but may be considered to be a general approach when dealing with any inherited religious tradition, whether it is the secular humanism of Western elites, various forms of Christianity, such as that practiced by my own family in an openly avowed denomination that expresses its desire to restore Christianity back to its original foundation within the Hebrew scriptures, or in any other number of religious beliefs. Much of the radical fervor we see in our contemporary situation can be traced to the fact that we are ever closer in these days to the foundational beliefs and behavior of any particular tradition we happen to inherit. Even Hinduism, a complicated religious tradition where the grossest superstition and debased polytheism sat side-by-side with the most elevated philosophy, has in a sense gone back to its roots as the religious beliefs of a conquering horde of Aryan invaders in its own brand of fundamentalism in our times.

Yet although we can find a marked similarity in the way that people who grow up in a religious (or irreligious) system interact with that tradition when confronted with what it truly and originally embodied, free of the accretions of centuries of tradition and bad innovation, we find a striking difference in what that original body of beliefs originally embodied. A genuine restorationist Christian desires to obey God as the lawgiver, to follow the Sabbath and Holy Days, to be generous in forgiving others and in encouraging others and in providing generous aid to those in dire need, and hospitality and friendliness to others, treating others with honor and respect regardless of such matters as gender and class and ethnic origin while remaining vigilant against moral depravity. I am admittedly biased, but I would consider all of these to be good things, things I aspire to, however imperfectly I achieve them, in my own life. On the other hand, a restorationist Hindu would have to take the caste system seriously, with all its restrictions and injustices. Likewise, a restorationist Muslim would want to return Islam back to its ‘original’ purity, and the result would express sympathy with, if not active support, of the methods of ISIS, Boko Haram, and others of that ilk.

This points to something striking within such a trilemma itself, in that the same process can lead to very difficult results depending on original conditions. Those of us who are particularly keen on matters of process ought to be sensitive to these conditions, as they are directly contrary to the sort of syncretism in contemporary multiculturalism, which seeks to create a sometimes bland similarity among distinct and often hostile traditions [5] by pointing to applications of the Golden rule or of principles of honor and decency in widely ranging traditions. It matters a great deal, though, who is showed honor and respect, and whose life and liberty are to be respected, and whose dignity is respected. Do these rights belong to all, or only to some? Even within nations, these create problems, as those who follow the original universal formulation of American rights consistently would be opposed to slavery, abortion, or any other number of evils that seek to deprive those created in the image and likeness of God of their inalienable rights to life and liberty, while those who are restorationist with regards to the founding of the Confederacy would find racial equality abhorrent in opposition to both Christianity and genuine American republicanism. The question of importance becomes: what order does one wish to restore? Upon that answer hangs the difference between a restored golden age and the horrors of an evil past brought once again to life. Even so, the process that one goes about to lead one to restore what has been lost may be exactly the same, for all the difference in the end that results from following that process through. It all depends on where you begin.

[1] See, for example:

[2] Nabeel Qureshi, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 16.

[3] See, for example:

[4] See, for example:

[5] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Back To The Foundations: A Novel Application Of C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma

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