The more I read Dinesh D’Souza, the more it seems to me that he has one basic trick which he pulls on everybody: he takes their words, twists them around so they sound like they’re actually agreeing with him (even though they don’t know it), and then puts them back in the mouths of his opponents. I call it The D’Souza Shuffle.
It’s a neat trick, in its own way, because it allows him to declare victory without directly addressing the points raised by the other side. His most recent column at townhall.com gives us a good example. He takes the book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus by noted Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner and re-frames its denial of the divinity of Jesus into a declaration that Jesus really is God. Along the way, he sneaks in a little jab at Richard Dawkins.
[R]ecall atheist Richard Dawkins’ famous claim that we are all atheists when it comes to other people’s gods. For instance, I am an atheist when it comes to the gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans. By the same token Neusner is an atheist when it comes to the Christian notion of the divinity.
Even so, Neusner’s treatment of Christ could not be more different than that of Dawkins. One of the main differences is that Dawkins is a biologist and Neusner is a scholar of ancient texts and history. Consequently Dawkins’ historical and literary understanding is at the eighth grade level, while Neusner brings to his work a depth and sophistication worthy of a man regarded as perhaps the greatest living scholar of Judaism.
Ordinarily, I’d give D’Souza points for a slick application of The Courtier’s Reply, except that Dawkins and Neusner agree that Jesus was not divine. It’s all well and good to claim that Dawkins lacks expertise in the field of ancient texts and history, but that’s irrelevant if his conclusions are the same as those of a noted expert in the field. It is D’Souza, another “eighth grade level” scholar of history, who is disagreeing with Neusner. But thanks to the D’Souza Shuffle, it doesn’t seem like Neusner is really disagreeing.
Let’s watch how it works. First, you take the words of your opponent.
Neusner discusses Christ as a great and pure man whose teachings, especially at the Sermon on the Mount, embody unforgettable insight and wisdom. Taking up the oldest of Jewish prescriptions, they interpret and transform them in a powerful and surprising way. And yet Neusner notes that Christ violates the old law, as when he says that actions are permitted on the Sabbath that were regarded as forbidden on the Sabbath. This is the basis of Neusner’s rejection of Christ as a fulfillment of the old covenant.
Then you twist them around until they fit into the framework of the script you are going to use.
What gives Christ the right to change the old law? Neusner notes that Christ is not another liberal rabbi, seeking to bend the rules of the orthodox to make life easier for people. Rather, “Jesus’ claim to authority is at issue.” In effect, Christ claims to be “Lord of the Sabbath” and this provokes Neusner to ask, as if conversing with one of Christ’s disciples, “Is your master God?”
…In other words, Jesus claims to speak with a divine authority. If Jesus is God, then obviously he has the right to say what the old law really means. So ultimately Jesus confronts us with the choice of accepting or rejecting his claim to divinity.
Then you apply the script you’ve selected—in this case, the Lewis “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” ploy. Bonus points if you can find some other opponent to do the actual leg work for you.
In the January issue of First Things, a Jewish writer Meir Soloveichik takes Rabbi Neusner to task for his admiring words about Jesus. Soloveichik charges that Neusner, despite his denials, seems to accept the divinity of Christ. Why? Here Soloveichik borrows a famous argument from C.S. Lewis. Lewis argued that since Christ claimed to be God, either he was speaking the truth or he was an astounding liar. Lewis insisted that Christ does not give us the option of considering him a great and wise human teacher. Rather, Christ compels us to take him at his word that he is the son of God, or rather reject him as an impostor and a fraud.
Voilà! Neusner’s denial of the divinity is magically transformed into an admission that D’Souza is right, only Neusner doesn’t know it. By the time D’Souza finishes shuffling around what Neusner said, it turns out that Neusner has just been setting up the punch line for the “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” show. D’Souza wins again, yay!
Or at least, he would have won if “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” were a valid apologetic. We’ve already seen (and more than once in fact) that the so-called “trilemma” is a fallacious argument. But let’s give another demonstration of the problems with the trilemma. There’s just so many to choose from!
For example, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has recently called for an investigation into the financial affairs of megamillionaire televangelists, to see whether these ministers of the Gospel are defrauding their flock. Televangelists like Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggert, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Jim Bakker, and so on, all claim to have been called by God to do what they do and preach what they preach. Let’s apply the trilemma to them: are they Called, Crazy, or Con-men?
Well, they’re getting rich off it, so they’re certainly not crazy. And they preach the same moral values as Jesus did, so we can excuse them from the charge of lying for the same reason as we excuse Jesus. Gosh, they must really be called by God then!
Or let’s try Joseph Smith. Millions of Mormons today revere him as the greatest of the prophets, the one sent by God to restore the True Christian Church in the latter days. And he certainly taught an exemplary set of moral standards, as shown by the squeaky-clean lifestyles of modern Mormons. Again, Called, Crazy or Con-man? By trilemma standards, he was clearly not crazy, and the moral excellence of his teachings excuse him from being called a liar, and therefore he must indeed be what he claimed to be.
The Buddha is left as an exercise for the reader.
I think you see the problem. Sad, but true: people can say things that are false even when some of their other statements are not only true but admirable. Teaching good morals is no guarantee that everything you say is true or honest. Nor were all of Jesus’ actions above reproach—more than once he gave us examples that, if anyone else followed them, would be called sinful. But he’s always excused on the grounds that he’s God and that means he can do whatever he wants. In other words, he’s God because he never sinned, but the things he did were never sin because he’s God, a perfect round of circular reasoning.
That’s the flaw Neusner saw, and the one the D’Souza Shuffle is intended to obscure.