Category: Blog Posts

Out of Step with the Times

Block’s commentary on Ezekiel raising an interesting question about tragic death. On Josiah:

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In the case of Josiah, it’s possible his failure to reform the kingdom would have led to his overthrown and death. Even if it hadn’t, he avoided the terrible judgment that would soon visit Jerusalem.

Some early deaths are merciful.

Are humankind’s best days ahead?

Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical. -C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Yesterday I watched a Munk debate on the resolution: humankind’s best days lie ahead. In favor of the proposition were Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley, while Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell took the negative.

Pinker and Ridley had the easier task and won the debate handily. (I say that as someone who would have gladly taken up the contrary position.) Pinker’s opening statement was merely a list of the many ways in which material life has improved over the last several centuries: greatly increased life expectancy, eradication of deadly diseases, massive decline in extreme poverty, fewer working hours and more leisure, fewer wars, less crime, more education, increased human rights, better gender equity, and a general increase in IQ. Pinker then added a critical qualification to preempt claims of perfectionism: that while there will always be some measure of poverty, disease, and oppression, there will be much less in the future. Ridley offered a similar line of reasoning, although he provided a different set of facts, such as increased innovation, and dealt with a potential counter on climate change, which most everyone seemed to think was the preeminent threat to human progress.

Botton tried to argue that material prosperity isn’t enough to bring about complete happiness. Yet he came across as ungrateful rather than insightful. He made several tactical errors, such as claiming a millionaire in Switzerland can still live in “poverty,” and asserting that material increase will not bring about a “perfect” world. While I appreciated his sober reminder that, despite significant medical progress, all of us must still face our inevitable demise, he often argued against propositions that the pro side did not offer (as Ridley rightly reminded Botton throughout the debate).

Gladwell’s approach was different and, perhaps, more sophisticated, although it still conceded that progress is an almost entirely material affair. Instead of suggesting the indicators of progress were incomplete, he claimed that while our ability to manage “ordinary” crises had improved, we have simply engaged in the “reconfiguration of risk.” We might be experiencing less warfare, but the wars we do fight are far more catastrophic than in the past. On so on. The key issue for Gladwell was whether the changes in the nature of our risks should concern us.


Human progress is a tricky subject. It is easy enough to make self-satisfied assertions about the direction of humanity–that, perhaps, one’s political enemies are on “the wrong side of history” on some transient political or cultural issue. It is far more difficult to make a claim that is supported by a thorough, disciplined inquiry into the many subjects that govern the seemingly unfathomable proposition that humanity’s best days are ahead. History, economics, politics, philosophy–is there any area that would not factor in at least some way? Master of one subject takes a lifetime. A suitable synthesis would require many. Not only must someone get the facts right, but they must cast a narrative (or create a model) that successfully orders and accounts for all the relevant facts.

Furthermore, analysis of the proposition is beset by intractable sociological bias. It is a curious feature of history that most societies, save the middle-to-late Roman period, have thought their best days were ahead. Yet each society has held to its own, mutually exclusive version of progress. For example, no conception of medieval progress could be sustained without including some measure of spiritual progress, yet in the Munk debate the only discussion of spirituality was thoroughly secularized and treated mostly as a symptom of material deficiency. How can it be that so many societies were so sure of their future, yet so decisively wrong? Perhaps it is because the sort of person who has the leisure, learning, and aptitude to ask whether humanity is progressing is also the sort of person who enjoys a fairly good life, and almost necessarily (if we are reading their writings) the sort of person who holds a great deal of power and influence. Is it really any surprise that those whose lives were defined by success and comfort would see the future as holding more of the same? Just as the child who was raised in abject poverty finds himself worrying about food and money as an adult, so too will the child of privilege believe that life is, and will always be, generally stable and prosperous. (In fact, there were a couple moments in the debate when participants offered personal anecdotes that clearly colored their broad understanding of the question.)

The contrary position was disadvantaged on other terms as well. Pollyannish as the opposition might have been, it is far easier to believe life is going to be splendid, or at least very comfortable, than to accept that life could get very hard, very fast, especially if life no longer has any transcendent meaning to give potential (or actual) suffering a purpose.

I would have modified Gladwell’s risk argument by appealing to the problem of induction. As Hume famously inquired, how do we know the the sun will rise tomorrow? How do we know the future will be like the past? We certainly feel justified in believing the sun will rise tomorrow. Yet as any skeptic will be quick to tell you, feeling is no reliable guide to what is real, logical, or certain.

As a Christian, I am happy to dismiss the problem given certain properties about the character of God. But for the secular humanist or other materialist, it turns out there really is no good reason to believe the future will be like the past. If this holds true for generally reliable facts like the rising of the sun, how much more cautious should we be about projecting the future given the tumultuous history of human affairs, with the rise and fall of empires, cultures, and religions? It is a great irony that the same Enlightenment tradition of skepticism and scientific inquiry that provided such great material prosperity is unwittingly its own undoing.

I am under no illusion this line of reasoning would be cogent when dealing with the privileged attendees of a Munk debate, but perhaps it would at least make some people think.

Botton’s argument had the greatest potential for undermining the pro side. If it could be shown that spiritual indicators should factor into an assessment of progress, any argument that relies solely on increasing material indicators would be inherently flawed. This approach would still be subject to our problems of predicting the future, and it would have likely been laughed out of the debate (at least I am imagining Ridley eviscerating such a proposition with the all polite scorn of a Brit who thinks you are treading dangerous ground, but doesn’t quite wish to grant legitimacy to your position with a real counter-argument). But it would turn Pinker and Ridley’s certainty on its head. Material progress at the expense of spiritual progress is no progress at all.

Alas, Botton’s argument languished under the sort of impotence I have come to expect from someone who tries to pit the secular humanities against the secular sciences. He was right to say that there is more to the human condition than material prosperity, but his self-identification as a secular Jew and his appeal to fictional literature, rather than a truly authoritative text, rendered his questions inert. Botton may be haunted by the transcendent, but lacks the conceptual tools necessary to share that conviction with others.

Unless we are willing to claim something wildly transcendent–perhaps that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead and, as such, the world is beholden to his standards of spiritual fitness–spiritual concerns will ever only be evaluated through the lens of material progress.

The immanent frame was on full display during the Munk debate. Gladwell could only argue within its confines, and Botton was hopeless to challenge it.

Anger as a Window into Your Soul

I recently read about a fascinating exchange between some liberal seminary students and a religiously conservative Imam:

My first “welcome to America” moment occurred when I invited an imam to my Introduction to Islam class at Columbia Theological Seminary. The imam talked about the basic tenets of Islam for an hour and asserted, among other things, that Jesus is not the Son of God, denied that he was crucified, and maintained that the Bible has been falsified. My students listened respectfully throughout the lecture. When he paused and invited discussion, the students replied with rather timid and politically correct queries, at which point the imam said: “Why are you not asking me about jihad, about terrorism, women? I know you have all these questions. Why are you not asking me the hard questions?” So one student queried him about Islamic teaching on homosexuality. The imam answered by defining the practice as un-Islamic, not of God, unnatural. Suddenly, the faces of a good number of the students went red with shock and rage. I stepped in and gently steered the discussion away from the topic.

I recall a similar situation during an NYU All University Gospel Choir concert, perhaps ten years ago now. As was tradition for such concerts, songs were interspersed with various testimonies, often given by the emcee. All of these were politely received by the theologically mixed audience, except one: a young African American gave a testimony where he mentioned, almost off-hand, how he had been saved out of the gay lifestyle.

I don’t recall all the details, but you could tell the mood in the room had shifted to something between discomfort and outrage. One guest my roommate had invited, who I think was a seminary student at the time, was particularly offended.

Everyone has some sense of justice, and when it is sufficiently violated, it causes us to become angry. We become upset that the world is not the way it is supposed to be, or at least the way we want it to be. In this case of the gospel choir concert, people were offended that something they deeply value was not cherished as they thought it should be. Moments like these can tell us a lot about others–and ourselves.

Our defensiveness is a window into the soul. It is rather telling that the professed Christians at Columbia Theological Seminary cared more about sexual autonomy than whether someone honored the revealed character of God. That suggests a near total capitulation to secular moral values.

But using the anger diagnostic on others is easy enough. It is rather convicting when used on yourself.

I was recently quite defensive about an insult I received on social media. It wasn’t really all that different from any of the other condescending and smug responses that all too often characterize interaction between groups with differing ideology. Yet for some reason it cut deeply. Was it because of external circumstances (say, a lack of sleep from raising young children)? Or perhaps the accusation was particularly unjust? Whatever the reasons, my defensiveness signaled to me that I cared a great deal–and probably far too much–what some stranger on the internet thought of me.

Compare that to Jesus’ sense of justice. He had a finely tuned sense of anger; he was defensive about all the right things. He often absorbed slights to his honor (and even commanded us not to trade insult for insult), yet was incensed when the religious elite put spiritual stumbling blocks between regular Israelites and God.

Jesus’ anger showed his love for others–for his people. What about yours?

Miracles and the Ad Hoc Fallacy

According to one atheist, the ad hoc fallacy:

is normally used more narrowly to refer to some explanation which is exists for no other reason but to save a favored hypothesis.

Typically, you will see statements referred to as “ad hoc rationalizations” or “ad hoc explanations” when someone’s attempt to explain an event is effectively disputed or undermined and so the speaker reaches for some way to salvage what he can. The result is an “explanation” which is not very coherent, does not really “explain” anything at all, and which has no testable consequences – even though to someone already inclined to believe it, it certainly looks valid.

Here is a commonly cited example:

I was healed from cancer by God!
Really? Does that mean that God will heal all others with cancer?
Well… God works in mysterious ways.

The author uses this examples to identify three key characteristics of an ad hoc fallacy. I will respond to each below:

A key characteristic of ad hoc rationalizations is that the “explanation” offered is only expected to apply to the one instance in question. For whatever reason, it is not applied any other time or place and is not offered as a general principle. Note in the above that God’s “miraculous powers of healing” are not applied to all cancer sufferers, but only this one at this time and for reasons which are completely unknown.

This is confused. Even if we accept the tedious formulation of this argument (why assume one is healed requires all are healed), I don’t see a reason to suggest this explanation must apply only to this one instance. The idea that divine providence is mysterious could apply to a great many miraculous healings.

This reply also seems to treat God’s healing activities as a uniform power or principle, rather than as an act of agency. But why expect that these miraculous powers should apply to all cancer sufferers?

Another key characteristic of an ad hoc rationalization is that it contradicts some other basic assumption – and often an assumption which is was either explicit or implicit in the original explanation itself. That is why, usually, an ad hoc statement is only applied in one instance and then quickly forgotten. Because of this, ad hoc explanations are often cited as an example of the fallacy of Special Pleading. In the above, the idea that not everyone will be healed by God contradicts the common belief that God loves everyone equally.

1) The term equally is hopelessly ambiguous. Is this supposed to imply that everyone should be treated in exactly the same way by God? I am going to assume otherwise, since this dissolves into absurdity almost immediately: does God love unequally when he creates one person taller than another?

2) Does it mean that if one good thing happens to one person, it should happen to everyone? For example, if one person gets a certain amount of money, everyone should get that amount of money too? That would be a set of miracles that treat everyone to the same good, yet clearly the cumulative effect would be merely to and devalue currency. And people value or use money differently than others. So I don’t imagine it’s that.

3) Or is equally only to do with the reduction of suffering (of certain kinds?) when someone asks for relief? For example, if a notorious, unrepentant serial killer–who is likely to kill again–is dying of cancer, should God heal him because a virtuous, selfless relief worker was healed of cancer last week?

4) While I am having trouble even salvaging this argument, at this point it’s trivial to note that no standard conception of Christian doctrine asserts any of these ideas. And Scripture is filled with examples of God treating various members of his people, whom he loves, differently. For example, compare Jesus’ fascinating treatment of Mary and Martha in John 11 (which the text identifies as an expression of Jesus’ “love”) as they dealt with the death of Lazarus.

5) I am also unclear what is meant by loves. Is the idea of love here that everyone should be happy, that serious suffering is contradictory the idea of a God who loves equally? That may work for definitions of Christianity languishing in Moral Therapeutic Deism, but it does not have any currency with theological frameworks that: (a) allow for suffering to produce more good (including personal joy and pleasure) than would have existed without it; and, (b) define love (agape) according to its New Testament use.

Continuing:

A third characteristic is the fact that the “explanation” has no testable consequences. What could possibly be done to test to see if God is working in “mysterious ways” or not? How could we tell when it is happening and when it is not? How could we differentiate between a system where God has acted in a “mysterious way” and one where the results are due to chance or some other cause?

These are questions in lieu of an argument. What does the author mean by testable? Does he mean replication in a lab? Eyewitness testimony from doctors? Divine revelation via dream or vision?

Let’s consider a recent miraculous healing account:

Over a year ago, a freak accident left me with 40% hearing loss in my left ear. After a wrong diagnosis, I was referred to Dr. David Haynes at@vanderbiltu, who correctly diagnosed me. I was the 2nd patient he had ever seen with this condition (the malleus bone broke, and surgery was too risky to attempt in this case). The bottom line is, there was no solution medically. It was a permanent issue I just had to learn to live with. He even consulted a colleague at the Mayo clinic bc it was such a crazy case. They agreed-nothing could be done.

I prayed for a miracle with Audrey, and I didn’t get it. I haven’t prayed for one since bc my heart was so wounded. A few months ago, the Lord prompted me to do exactly that, and today I cried in a hospital room as he stared at me, dumbfounded by the fact that my hearing has miraculously returned to a normal level. He looked in my left ear and said, “Wait-which side was the bad one?” I will never forget his face when he asked “What have you done in the last few months so I can explain this to my colleagues?” I replied, “I prayed.” Maybe you needed to be reminded (as I did) that we serve a God who is still in the miracle business…

What is ad hoc about attributing this healing to God? I’m not a doctor, but from what I understand, this is a highly unlikely natural coincidence.

I would assume the objection in this case is that it could still possibly be due to chance. But what makes that ad hoc under the definitions above? Does what counts as ad hoc have more to do with assumed metaphysical presuppositions than strict rules of logic?

It is incorrect to pit the natural against the supernatural. While the cause (or causes) of a healing can be ambiguous, even if we can identify a (proximate) physical cause, that doesn’t mean there is no (ultimate) nonmaterial cause. That just assumes metaphysical naturalism from the get go. Miracles are not simply a subtraction story, existing in shadows yet to be dispersed by scientific explanation. Miracles can be acts of what we might otherwise call extremely improbable coincidence.

So I am suspicious that testable here means anything other than replication in a lab. But why limit explanations to laboratory results? This omits a range of possible explanations.

Continuing with the ad hoc explanation:

The fact of the matter is, we can’t – the “explanation” offered above provides us with nothing to test, something which is a direct consequence of having failed to provide a better understanding of the circumstances at hand. That, of course, is what an explanation is supposed to do, and why an ad hoc explanation is a defective explanation.

Thus, most ad hoc rationalizations do not really “explain” anything at all. The claim that “God works in mysterious ways” does not tell us how or why this person was healed, much less how or why others will not be healed. A genuine explanation makes events more understandable, but if anything the above rationalization makes the situation less understandable and less coherent.

In high school I had a friend who received an anonymous check each year that covered her tuition. Without the money, she would not have been able to attend. Why did this benefactor choose my friend over another? There were plenty of other needy students, including students who wanted to attend but couldn’t because their parents were too poor.

The motives of the person were mysterious. In fact, they remain mysterious to this day. Yet the check was there, every year, without fail. Does the fact that we can’t explain this behavior mean any explanation involving agency is ad hoc? Or doesn’t count as a “genuine” explanation? I don’t see how that follows.

Sanders at Liberty

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders, a far-left candidate for the Democratic nomination, gave a speech at the conservative Liberty University. (For a transcript, see here.) I don’t usually care what a politician says in a speech, since most political speeches are devoid of reasoning and consist of emoting and appealing to ambiguous terminology (like “justice,” “hope,” “freedom,” and, “opportunity”) without any meaningful policy proposals.

But Sanders’ speech was interesting from both a political and religious perspective. Like Rand Paul’s speeches at Howard and Berkeley, you can sometimes learn a great deal about a speaker when he has to argue in front of an ideologically alien (or hostile) audience. In this case, it was interesting to see how Sanders sought to reason with a religiously and politically conservative audience.

(Not surprisingly, the students were cordial, if not enthusiastic. While I have read Liberty students are required to attend such speeches, there was none of the usual protesting, demonstrations, sit-ins or “safe spaces” that appear on liberal campuses when conservatives are invited to speak. For example, I can’t really imagine my alma mater inviting Rick Santorum or Ryan Anderson to speak about the politics of marriage without some sort of major protest.)

As for Sanders’ speech, let me quote several paragraphs:

Let me take a moment, or a few moments, to tell you what motivates me in the work that I do as a public servant, as a senator from the state of Vermont. And let me tell you that it goes without saying, I am far, far from being a perfect human being, but I am motivated by a vision, which exists in all of the great religions, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam and Buddhism, and other religions.

And that vision is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12, and it states, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the war and the prophets.” That is the golden rule. Do unto others, what you would have them do to you. That is the golden rule, and it is not very complicated.

Let me be frank, as I said a moment ago. I understand that the issues of abortion and gay marriage are issues that you feel very strongly about. We disagree on those issues. I get that, but let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and in fact to the entire world, that maybe, just maybe, we do not disagree on and maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve them.

Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Justice treating others the way we want to be treated, treating all people, no matter their race, their color, their stature in life, with respect and with dignity.

Now here is my point. Some of you may agree with me, and some of you may not, but in my view, it would be hard for anyone in this room today to make the case that the United States of America, our great country, a country which all of us love, it would be hard to make the case that we are a just society, or anything resembling a just society today.

In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. Injustice is rampant. We live, and I hope all of you know this, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

You know, that is the truth. We are living in a time — and I warn all of you if you would, put this in the context of the Bible, not me, in the context of the Bible — we are living in a time where a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension. And I’m talking about tens of billions of dollars, enough to support their families for thousands of years. With huge yachts, and jet planes and tens of billions. More money than they would ever know what to do with.

But at that very same moment, there are millions of people in our country, let alone the rest of the world, who are struggling to feed their families. They are struggling to put a roof over their heads, and some of them are sleeping out on the streets. They are struggling to find money in order to go to a doctor when they are sick.

Now, when we talk about morality, and when we talk about justice, we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.

There is no justice, and I want you to hear this clearly, when the top one-tenth of 1 percent — not 1 percent, the top one-tenth of 1 percent — today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And in your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.

In my view, there is no justice, when here, in Virginia and Vermont and all over this country, millions of people are working long hours for abysmally low wages of $7.25 an hour, of $8 an hour, of $9 an hour, working hard, but unable to bring in enough money to adequately feed their kids.

Unsurprisingly, Sanders is concerned about material prosperity. After all, that is what the left is about these days. There is no room in the progressive agenda for any of the transcendent concerns that have traditionally occupied the human race–virtue, character, and religion.

That said, there are places in this country–some I have seen first-hand–where there is a great deal of poverty. I do not mean the kind of poverty where someone is upset they cannot afford a larger television or a luxury car, but the sort that grinds at dignity and hope with a thousand afflictions both systemic and personal. Travelling farther to reach a decent grocery store, spending more on security, the aesthetic degradation of streets and shops, the constant sense of fear from inadequately policed streets, the reeking of trash and sewage, the roaches and rodents, the squealing of poorly maintained vehicles–real poverty assaults both the soul and the senses.

The statistical evidence bears this out. While sometimes these figures are exaggerated, there is no question that the broader picture is one of the rich becoming richer and everyone else staying mostly the same, including millions who struggle every day to make ends meet.

Sanders and the Justice of God

So Sanders is correct to identify a set of significant injustices. But that is only part of the issue. It is one matter to state that some problem exists. It is another entirely to say it is a problem greater than all others (as Sanders’ broader platform would suggest) and that proposed (in this case, progressive) solutions are the best available.

But I couldn’t find anything in Sanders’ speech that comes close to an attempt to reason in favor of his policy proposals. Like many politicians, Sanders seems to state a set of facts and lets underlying, unspoken assumptions do the rest of the work:

Now you have got to think about it. You have to think about it and you have to feel it in your guts. Are you content? Do you think it’s moral when 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, are living in poverty? Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African American children are living in poverty?

These rhetorical questions are designed to evoke certain answers. Of course it is unacceptable that there are children living in poverty.

But what then? I may agree with a progressive that something is really evil, but if we have different ideas as to what counts as just, we will likely go about solving that problem in different ways. This is because, to turn a well-known phrase, no policy solution is an island. Every policy proposal will use our limited resources in ways that restrict and constrain how we can deal with other political difficulties. Since progressives tend to have a myopic view of justice, their policy proposals have unintended (usually negative) effects on many areas that are of concern to conservatives, especially religious ones.

As for Sanders’ textual appeals:

It is careless to assume the American concept of justice just so happens to align with the Biblical one. (The concept of justice is a rather thick one, and historically very diverse. See Tamler Sommers’ overview in Relative Justice [Princeton University Press, 2012]. Many concepts of justice are mutually exclusive.) As it turns out, Sanders may cite Matthew and Amos in making his (Rawlsian?) case for economic justice, but his appeal elides the substantive differences between the Scriptural description of justice and Sanders’ decidedly secular vision of a rightly ordered political universe. Just what are those differences?

(A) In the Old Testament, the concept of justice has a specifically delineated meaning given in the Pentateuch that is further refined in subsequent historical practice. As Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright describes it:

For Israel, then, justice was no abstract concept or philosophical definition. Justice was essentially theological. It was rooted in the character of the LORD, their God; it flowed from his actions in history; it was demanded by his covenant relationship with Israel; it would ultimately be established on the earth only by his sovereign power (Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 256).

(But what of Sanders’ appeal to Jesus? I start with the Old Testament because that is what informs the New. Jesus’ concept of justice was based in the Old Testament. Biblical justice is not a word into which we can import our modern sensibilities about what is right or wrong, no matter how popular or appealing the sentiment might be.)

(B) While justice was intimately tied to material outcomes–God expected that there were to be no poor in Israel (Deuteronomy 15:4) and provided laws and mechanisms to reduce and eliminate poverty–it was never divorced from spiritual concerns. And there was a third aspect that is often completely ignored in our political dialogue–what we might call a social one. Right government action, which serves as the primary vehicle of progressive justice, does little to cultivate community virtue, let alone a righteous standing with God. If anything, some (but not all) government programs absent these two other factors can create structures of dependency and polarized, resentful constituencies that contribute to the moral decay of the political and social order.

(C) Furthermore, the Biblical vision of governmental justice is alien to the left’s. Sanders might cite Amos, but there is no question Amos would be against the very idea of government sanctioned gay marriage; it would have been anathema to his sense of justice, to what constituted a rightly ordered (extended) family structure as based on the precepts of the Pentateuch, which promoted monogamous marriage and frowned upon (to put it mildly) homosexual relationships. In fact, rightly ordered families would have been integral to the promotion of civic, community, and personal justice, the absence of which would have (and eventually did, in the judgment and exile) prevented economic flourishing. Amos’ vision of justice has more in common with Kim Davis than Bernie Sanders.

(D) Sanders’ view of justice also neglects the Old Testament’s complex view of poverty, which seems to always be downstream of a failure of justice. Whereas Sanders seems to think the cure for most poverty is redistribution, the Bible identifies at least four causes of poverty: (1) poor personal choices, due either to character flaws or naïvety (a major theme in Proverbs); (2) systemic evil (especially by cruel, corrupt or unlawful monarchs, pagan or Jewish); (3) natural disasters (famine, pestilence, or even raiding bands or tribes); and, (4) spiritual (demonic) affliction (as occurs in Job). Even discounting #3, which has been largely mitigated by modern technology, and #4, which is scoffed at by moderns, Sanders doesn’t seem to acknowledge the personal side of poverty. It is simply a fact that some people are impoverished because of habitually awful personal choices. The Biblical vision of justice addresses all of these aspects, whereas, so far as I can tell, Sanders’ addresses only one half of one. And if one’s sense of justice is warped, so will his solutions to perceived injustices, let alone the full range of actual ones.

(E) As for abortion, Sanders does not understand that the Biblical sense of justice was grounded in the Abrahamic promises of a fruitful people out of whom would come the promised savior. To have children was not a choice grounded in personal fulfillment–people today treat child-rearing only a little better than pet selection–but an act that was helping forward the very salvation of the world. Every devout Jewish woman would have longed to be the mother of the savior of the world. The idea of potentially aborting that child would have been morally abhorrent.

It is not enough to ensure that our neighbors have a certain material standard. The good civic life depends on the character of those enforcing bureaucracies and laws and the virtuous behavior of our neighbors. This idea of virtuous behavior is further defined and shaped by the moral expectations of God’s law as delivered in the Pentateuch, none of which has any place in the progressive sense of justice.

While I applaud Sanders’ willingness to dialogue with ideological opposites, I did not find his case all that appealing.

Deception and Creation

I’ve never really found the anti-creationist objection that mature creation, if true, signals a sort of divine deception, therefore (because God is honest, etc.), it must be false. I mean, so much of the universe is deceptive by that measure. Just look up at the night sky: you think you’re looking at individual stars, but most stars you see are actually made up of a binary (or trinary, etc.) system:

mwayearth

Is God deceiving us by hiding (as it were) this fact from us, by making each star appear to be a single object, but in reality two (or more)?

Or consider another example: how this desk in front of me looks quite solid, but is really made up of mostly “empty” space. Most of the many billions of people who have ever lived have had no grasp of particle physics, and nothing about any solid object suggests it might be made up of countless trillions of particles. This sort of deception is common throughout the universe and seems to hold on any of the common views of creation.

If mature creation is deceptive because it is designed to appear one way but is in reality really another way, so too is the evolutionary account of the world. It’s not an objection that selects for one view or the other.

The Trouble with Trump

The Trump phenomenon reminds me of my 8th grade run for class president. My opponent (who went on to become the high school salutatorian) had intelligence and ideas. For my part, I handed out pencils with my name on them.

I still feel bad that I won.

There’s nothing to recommend Trump to voters beyond empty rhetoric into which voters can image their own preferences. Like Obama, he is style over substance. This may win over the sort of voter who evaluates arguments by the glamour of the person making it (the kind that believes Ellen Page owned Ted Cruz), but the trouble with alpha male chest-beating is that it ignores the sensitive realities of international diplomacy and the (admittedly unfair) nature of modern media. Expect many campaign ads to run clips of Trumpish machismo on sensitive base and wedge issues, driving Democratic turnout and splitting Republican voters. Trump may drive a certain kind of GOP turnout, but he can also drive Democratic turn out too.

It is (or should be) transparently obvious that his shift to the right is opportunistic. Why think he will govern as a conservative? The past is not always a predictor of the future, but it is often a very reliable guide, especially for someone as old as Trump (Proverbs 22:6).

Furthermore, there’s no tactical reason to select him. The evidence does not support the idea that he will beat Hillary (who is already a weak candidate). What do Trump supporters imagine the 2016 electoral map will look like? Does the path to victory go through PA? MI? WI? How does the Trump campaign intend to be competitive in swing states with the current shifts in electoral demographics?

On the other hand, one can imagine President Trump and Putin riding shirtless across the Great Plains, trading jokes about their latest sexual conquests and measuring the lengths of tank barrels. At least then Putin would finally be dealing with a leader who understands his opponent.

A Counterproductive Alliance

Conservatives should be cautious welcoming a leaderless movement into their ranks.

I became acquainted with GamerGate sometime in the last several months, and only after I discovered myself blocked on Twitter by a couple people I had never interacted with or mentioned. (I admit coming to this party late: GamerGate was one of the many cultural developments I missed as I squirreled myself away to finish my Masters thesis last fall and spring. There are few better ways to increase productivity than cutting off all social media and most news.) I don’t object to people pre-blocking others (I now do the same), but being relatively new to Twitter at the time, I wanted to know if I had committed some sort of major faux pas and if there was some way to make amends.

I did a little research and soon discovered myself on one or two semi-popular block lists dedicated to identifying and blocking Men’s Rights Activists, racists, and GamerGaters, among other unsavory groups. Seeing as how I do not identify with any of those descriptors (or the groups that associate with them), let alone had commented on any of those issues, I assume somewhere along the line I had followed, favorited or retweeted the wrong person or tweet. I’ve been keeping one eye on GamerGate since then, as people do not often create and promote block lists with false positives; there was clearly some larger conflict driving this sort of activity.

I find GamerGate to be a complex movement. I still don’t know quite what to make of it, although clearly it exists as a debate within the political Left, mostly in the liberal-dominated tech world. (It is not, for example, an issue that features heavily in the far more racially and economically diverse faith and family Left.) Though it has some prominent voices, GamerGate appears leaderless (which, I admit, automatically disposes me to dislike it). As far as I can tell, it started as a consumer revolt against perceived unethical journalistic practices, rather than a misogynistic abuse movement. While there’s no question video game journalism has had some notoriously unethical moments, much of what I’ve seen on Twitter from GamerGate is directionless, inchoate anger and the routine dogpiling of those who disagree with its members stances (justifying, at least in part, the block lists designed to ignore it).

The Limits of a Consumer Revolt

So it was with some interest I read Mytheos Holt’s piece in The Federalist today welcoming members of GamerGate into the conservative fold. Holt’s sentiment is refreshing. The conservative tent is naturally large, and there is nothing in principle wrong with inviting more members into its fold. However, given the ideological commitments of those who tend to play computer games, such a welcome may be premature. In fact, it may even be at cross purposes with both the goals of GamerGate (inasmuch as the objectives of a leaderless movement can be defined) and the conservative movement as a whole.

In his piece, Holt compares the GamerGate revolt to the American university conflicts of the 1960’s and 1970’s:

The very same exclusionary politics dominated during the campus protests of the 60’s and 70’s, when the liberal lions in numerous faculty lounges suddenly found themselves besieged by illiberal Leftist students. The radicals argued that their professors were mere mouthpieces for a racist, sexist, warmongering capitalist “system.” That these professors were open supporters of civil rights or socialism appeared to make absolutely no difference. “We will destroy your world, your corporation, your University,” boasted the triumphalist Leftist hordes. In response, the old-fashioned liberals “suddenly discovered that [they] had been cultural conservatives all along,” in the words of Irving Kristol.

From this battle between old school Roosevelt-era liberalism and radical sixties Leftism, emerged a reluctant new breed of intellectual: the neoconservative. Kristol himself defined this breed this way: “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

Given that they’ve lasted a year and show no signs of slowing down, I think it’s high time we start reckoning with the fact that the new neoconservatives might be about to ascend. Since “neoconservative” is  taken, perhaps we could say “videoconservatives,” or “videocons” may soon arise.

Although provocative, this analogy is ultimately confusing and gives the wrong impression. The power dynamic in the GamerGate revolt is between the anonymous, consumer masses, and those professionals who create and review video games (and their allies in the mainstream press). GamerGate isn’t the university professors in the analogy, but the rabble of students with hardly any cultural power. In the GamerGate dynamic, the media gatekeepers are the ones who hold the positions of influence; it is not held by a group of Twitter hashtag users.

It is a perhaps sign of just how culturally weak conservatives have become that they think an alliance with a relatively powerless movement will be both prudent and productive. Consumer revolts may suppress the political and cultural views of creators, but they do little to change them. In fact, the wrong sort of revolt–especially the directionless, scorched-earth kind–may cause creators to ossify their positions and resent those who challenge them. Instead of shifts in attitudes or philosophy, game makers and reviewers will only pander as necessary to placate the unruly mob. (We certainly see the same dynamic in the GOP with the growing tension between the establishment and the base.)

Cultural change tends to occur at the periphery of clusters of institutions or organizations and usually by the movement of elites within these. Whatever we are to think of GamerGate, it is clearly an outsider movement, which means it has little chance of affecting lasting change on a grand scale. The media and game creators are overwhelmingly against the movement or indifferent to its concerns. The pressure GamerGate has exerted on games journalism has been effective only because it has forced concessions by targeting revenue sources rather than persuading creators to change their views. Even its natural allies, such as the mostly invincible game critic Total Biscuit, are hesitant to publicly associate with the movement.

How do You Ally with a Leaderless Movement? And Why Would You Want to?

These factors make a public invitation of dissatisfied gamers into the conservative fold counterproductive on at least two levels. First, it is the aim of many conservatives to stop the progressive takeover of culture. Yet anything identified as conservative is already outside the circles that make, shape, and disseminate popular cultural products. As a long term strategy, we should encourage dissatisfied gamers to do the hard work of creating and shaping video game media rather than simply identifying with a different political movement, especially if our label (fairly or unfairly) will automatically disqualify its adopters from having a meaningful voice in popular culture.

Second, any invitation to GamerGate carries with it the assumption that its ideals are compatible with the broad coalition of the Right. Yet what in the GamerGate movement is particularly conservative? It is perhaps libertarian in some respects, most crucially on matters of free speech, but there doesn’t seem to be much else the movement holds in agreement with conservatives. As far as I can tell, it would be an alliance of convenience on certain issues, rather than a natural fit: I can’t see hardcore fans of the Dark Souls series, Guild Wars 2 or Terraria showing up at CPAC and feeling all that welcome. The cultural differences seem immense–I can hardly imagine the sort of person who enjoys cosplay at E3 or Dragon Con feeling at home with the old fogeys at CPAC–and these sorts of social signifiers matter just as much as policy alignment when it comes to the exercise of tribal politics.

Furthermore, Holt’s invocation of Kristol and neoconservatives is tone-deaf. Neoconservatives are reviled in progressive circles and, as far as I can tell, the left-libertarian (?) GamerGate views the neoconservative movement with the sort of disdain they have for any other moral authoritarianism.

I don’t see any reason why those in GamerGate would find conservatism appealing, especially since it makes common cause with social conservatives, who are the ideological opposites of left-libertarians. The ghost of Jack Thompson still haunts every serious gamer.

As Carl Benjamin noted in a recent interview, games journalism has already been forced to reform. If Benjamin’s assertion holds up–and it seems to be based in a good deal of evidence–I have to wonder just what GamerGate stands for now. Is it a watchdog group? A games development movement? A troll haven? Or is it just a swarm of locust, driven mindlessly across the plains of the Internet in search of “ethics” violations? The answer to this is unclear to me, and so it seems unwise to welcome a leaderless movement without better understanding its motivations and commitments. Mobs have a tendency to devour friend and foe alike.

Holt ends his piece with this advice: “Keep on fighting, GamerGate. Hope to see you at CPAC in a couple years.” I would suggest an alternative course of action, one with more long term benefit for both free-speech loving conservatives and lefty gamers: those who associate with GamerGate should drop the hashtag and consider getting into games journalism (traditional or otherwise) and video game production. It may not be as immediately satisfying as posting to Twitter or threatening to boycott a poorly designed product, but it is the only way to effect lasting change in the video game industry.