Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sentiment vs. Sainthood

The aftermath of the recent jihad murders in Orlando, like the aftermath of every other mass shooting (and for that matter every celebrity death) has been marked by a vast tide of undirected emotion and sentiment. In addition to the inevitable debates (over gun control, for example), the world of social media is awash in calls to one another to pray for Orlando and expressions of emotion over the shooting.

There are worse things than soppy sentimentalism. Cruelty and hard-heartedness, for example. But I want to be one voice stating that sentiment for the sake of sentiment has its drawbacks and that American culture is in grave danger of thinking just the opposite--namely, that sentiment for the sake of sentiment is inherently virtuous.

It's possible that part of the confusion arises from the fact that sentimentalism can be a counterfeit of saintliness. Here's what I mean: We know that Jesus took upon himself all the sins and sorrows of the world. Catholics, in particular, have a theological idea of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. Protestants, too, often talk about bearing one another's burdens, which is fully biblical. One imagines the old monk or nun, or the prayer warrior, praying quietly and earnestly, for hours, for strangers, for the sins of the world, for evil-doers and victims, his prayers ranging over all the world, suffering with those people, offering up prayers for "all sorts and conditions of men." It is a legitimately attractive picture.

I think that people, Christians in particular, may have the false idea that, by calling upon their friends to "Pray for _____[fill in location of most recent tragedy]," and also by encouraging in themselves a lot of emotion about whatever tragedy is big in the news cycle right now, they are imitating that saint. The idea is to be selfless, to go beyond one's own concerns, to enter into the sufferings of others, yes, even others whom one doesn't know.

But in my opinion this is an illusion. Here are some thoughts on the distinction between sentimentalism and sainthood:

1) Sainthood is self-effacing. Sentimentalism is dramatic, public, and self-indulgent. The saint who prays in his cell doesn't tell the whole world that he's praying or what he's praying for. He doesn't advertise on his Facebook status that he broke down in tears while going about his daily task when the thought of _______ came to him. He doesn't pressure other people to join any prayer bandwagon. He just quietly gets on with it.

2) Sainthood is precise. Sentimentalism is vague. A saint knows exactly what he's praying for. He isn't "sending good thoughts." He doesn't send prayers (or thoughts) to a city. (Because we actually send prayers to God. Or, if you're a Catholic or high Anglican, to God via the saints. But not to places.) A saint prays for specific, holy things. Those things might include comfort or salvation for large numbers of people, even people whose names he doesn't know. But a saint's prayers cannot be captured by slogans. How many people out there saying, "Pray for Orlando" have little or no idea what, precisely, they are supposed to be asking for, and for whom? It's a catch-phrase, meant to express a feeling of solidarity.

3) Saints never willfully drum up emotion as an end in itself, in themselves or others. Sentimentalists make a habit of it.

4) Saints have their own priorities in prayer. Sentimentalists are at the beck and call of the news cycle. That's not to say a saint would never pray about something that is big in the news cycle. Maybe he would. If so, it would be as part of a disciplined prayer life with other priorities at least equal in importance. But maybe he wouldn't. Maybe instead that day he would be praying for a child dying of cancer, for Christians being tortured for their faith, for a man struggling with doubts, for children being raised in spiritual darkness, for women (or even a particular woman) being tempted to abortion, or for any of the infinite number of other matters of eternal importance.

A sentimentalist, in contrast, weeps when social media says, "Weep!" and prays when social media says, "Pray!" It's difficult to believe that, in so doing, he is obeying the Spirit of the Lord.

One might ask what harm is done by national sentimentalism. At least it draws people together. It springs from good intentions, from a natural desire to be kind and to care about others. To be sure, there are worse harms. But I think there is enough harm that it is worth speaking out about. Here are just a few of the harms:

--National sentimentalism is closely tied to virtue signaling, bandwagoning, and social bullying. I'm on a Facebook group consisting of professing Christians. One member posted to the group a day or two after the shooting complaining angrily that there had been no "statement" posted to that particular group about the shooting. Several people quickly assured him that they had expressed the proper sentiments on their personal pages. Nobody told him to go jump in the lake. Even I didn't, because I didn't need the drama in my life, and it wasn't worth my time. But the reason that kind of bullying gets off the ground is because of the sentimentalist assumption that everybody has to say somethingeverywhere. Everybody has to express a certain feeling. The whole nation is in mourning, don't you know, and we all have to make our gesture of joining in, and if you don't, you're a bad person. This is simply not a healthy state of affairs.

I want to emphasize that I think this sort of interpersonal pressure to say something is a bad thing regardless of how sympathetic the victims are. I think this about the Sandy Hook massacre, too, or the Paris massacre. I'm making no statement just here about homosexuality. What I am saying is that sentimentalism makes people ripe to be manipulated into talking in a certain way because that's what everybody else is doing, and that is bad in and of itself.

--Nationwide sentimentalism makes it difficult to be cool-headed in judging proposed policies. Note that I'm not talking, here, about which proposed policies. I mean this generalization to apply to any proposed policies. Policy should be discussed and enacted with cool heads, not in a rush of national emotion.

--Nationwide sentimentalism encourages people to force themselves to feel certain emotions. This is always bad. I cannot think of a single exception to the rule: Never try to force yourself to feel an emotion. Emotion is not inherently virtuous and should not be forced. By treating emotion as equivalent to virtue, sentimentalism tells people in the imperative mood to feel an emotion. This is not good for either the mind or the heart.

--National sentimentalism can make it harder to see the pain and suffering of those immediately around us whose sufferings aren't national news. We each only have so much time and emotional energy, and so much time spent in prayer. We need to spend it deliberately and wisely.

I won't go so far as to say, "Don't pray for Orlando!" Of course not. But if you do pray, pray for people, not for an abstract city. Pray for definite, holy things. Pray as part of a well-rounded prayer life and relationship with God. Don't gin up emotions. Don't tell everybody on Facebook about your feelings or about how intensely you are praying. Don't tell other people that they have to pray for Orlando. Maybe they have something else at least as urgent that they are called upon to pray for instead. And don't, for goodness' sake, pray just because someone says, "Pray for Orlando!"


Monday, June 13, 2016

Being a blogger, being a scholar

Another jihad mass murder has happened recently, this time targeting a homosexual bar. What is one to say? It's all been said before. This is Muslim violence in the midst of blatant decadence. I'm not at all sure my further thoughts, politically incorrect though they be (in more than one direction), would be of much edifying value to anyone.

I sort of like being a pundit. Blogging gives one the opportunity for punditry without cost. One doesn't (usually) get paid, but one also doesn't have a boss to please, especially at a personal blog like this. That's all fine and dandy until and unless the desire for the status of Pundit becomes the master. Then one is at the beck and call of the news cycle. Latest atrocity demands comment.

Well, I'm actually resolving not to do that anymore. Though I might be a little more likely to do so on Facebook, where the audience is more restricted.

As it turns out, I'm a scholar with lots of other conservative opinions and an occasional yen to make pundit-like comments on news and culture. But that's pretty much it. The years when I had lengthy thoughts, thoughts that had to be expressed, on political and cultural topics seem to be tapering off. Call it fatigue, cynicism, or just laziness, the upshot is the same.

Our country certainly needs God's blessings, because we're in a bad place any way you slice it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Straining to find a "genre"

I have raised a number of doubts about the facile use of "genre" as a response to allegations of discrepancies in the gospels. I am really almost a little shocked at the example of this represented in the long quotation below, which I read for the first time this morning. Notice that Dr. Licona expressly says that in his research he was unable to come up with any "literary conventions" from the Greco-Roman authors that would cover what he regards as problematic differences in the infancy stories about Jesus in Matthew and Luke. (I certainly do not regard these as troubling, though I think probably Luke just didn't know about the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. Big deal.) Faced with this situation, Licona strains and reaches for "midrash" (which has now become an all-purpose word among some writers about the New Testament meaning "they made it up but I don't just want to say they made it up") to say that perhaps Luke and Matthew made stuff up about Jesus' birth. But that's okay because he has a word naming a "genre" (that is, "midrash"), so it's not a problem for reliability. Somehow. And they both affirm that Mary was a virgin, so we're not going to count that as part of the "midrash."

The trenchant discussion by N.T. Wright (no fundamentalist!) of the promiscuous invocation of midrash is relevant here. (Who Was Jesus, pp. 71ff.) "Midrash" just isn't the kind of thing that those who invoke it in this way imply. For example, says Wright,

Fourth, midrash never included the invention of stories which were clearly seen as non-literal in intent, and merely designed to evoke awe and wonder. It was no part of Jewish midrash, or any other Jewish writing-genre in the first century, to invent all kinds of new episodes about recent history in order to advance the claim that the Scriptures had been fulfilled. (p. 73)

Wright quotes P.S. Alexander as follows:

[L]abelling a piece of Bible exegesis 'midrash' appears to set it in a definite historical and cultural context, to hint at well-known, technical parallels. But all this may be entirely bogus. (Quoted in Wright, p. 73) 

Wright also points out that midrash was a technique for commenting on ancient scripture and states that it is "fantastically unlikely" that this is what Luke and Matthew were doing in the birth narratives. (p. 73) (HT to Esteemed Husband for the information on midrash from Wright.)
Now, this midrash idea is just a conjecture Licona brings forward as possible, but he seems quite open to it and seems to think it solves some kind of problem.

I'm still in a bit of shock at how widely Licona is willing to cast his "literary devices" net while still claiming that the gospels are historically reliable. (In some sense or other.) What he writes here about the birth narratives bespeaks a positive determination to name something one calls a "genre" in order to shake off concerns about alleged discrepancies.

Here is the full quote.

Bart provides the example of the differences between the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. In my opinion, those narratives include the most difficult and profound differences in the Gospels. As my friend Jonathan Pennington writes,[5]
"Despite our conflation of all these events at the annual church Christmas pageant, these stories do not in fact overlap at all. If Jesus did not appear as the named figure in both of these accounts, one would never suspect they were stories about the same person." [LM: You can say the same thing about different facts in the life of Abraham Lincoln.]
Here I must acknowledge that I don’t know what’s going on and have no detailed explanations for these differences. [LM: The only actual difference between Luke and Matthew cited by Ehrman is the implication in Luke that they returned immediately to Nazareth after the purification of Mary. The rest of Ehrman's discussion consists of beating the dead horse of the census in Luke, which does not concern any apparent discrepancy with Matthew in any event. I don't know why Licona speaks as though there are extremely difficult, problematic discrepancies between Luke and Matthew. In fact, they simply record different details about Jesus' infancy. There is no reason to think there is something heavy "going on."] I think one can provide some plausible solutions. But I admit they are speculative. In my research pertaining to the most basic compositional devices in ancient historical/biographical literature, I did not observe any devices that readily shed light on the differences between the infancy narratives.
However — even though, as I say, I don’t know what’s going on here to cause the differences — let’s just speculate for a moment and consider the following scenario. Matthew and Luke both agree that a Jewish virgin named Mary who was engaged to a Jewish man named Joseph gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. The early Christians all knew this much. However, little else was remembered about this event. So, Matthew and Luke added details to their account to create a more interesting narrative of Jesus’s birth, a type of midrash. I’m not saying this is what Matthew and Luke did. I don’t know what’s going on with the infancy narratives. However, if this occurred, we would have to take the matter of genre — midrash — into consideration and recognize that the historicity of the details outside of the story’s core would be questionable, while the core itself could stand. After all, with such differences between the accounts in Matthew and Luke, one could reasonably argue that the core is attested by multiple independent sources. [LM: So we refer to what Luke and Matthew both affirm as the "core," triumphantly state that this is multiply attested (!), and then attribute what we are saying they made up out of whole cloth as belonging to a "genre," to which we give a name, even though there is no evidence that they were using any well-established genre that would have these properties. This is highly unconvincing as any sort of defense of Matthew's and Luke's reliability!]

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Why do bad doubts happen to good people?

I've been thinking lately about deconversion stories. If one hangs around on the Internet long enough, one certainly runs across them. A theme that sometimes crops up is that the person did not want to deconvert. Looking over the deconvert's shoulder at the flimsiness of the arguments that led him away from Christianity, one is permitted to wonder about that, but it is what a deconvert will sometimes say, and presumably he believes it when he says it: "I didn't want to deconvert. I struggled. I asked God to help me keep my faith, to speak to me, to reach out to me. God didn't help, or didn't help enough, and now here I am--I'm not a Christian anymore."

That's rather convenient, because it blames God for the deconversion. It's an insurance policy. You can see the wheels turning: "If I turn out to be wrong, and God exists after all, or Christianity is true after all, I will be able to say to God's face, in the immortal words of Bertrand Russell, 'Not enough evidence, God.'"

So you're covered. You asked God to help you not to deconvert, you tried hard not to, and after that it was up to God to come through. He had his chance.

All snark aside, I have to admit, as a person who tends to feel responsible for others who are struggling with doubts or on the cusp of deconverting, I find this sort of thing bothersome. I feel like tugging on God's sleeve to get his attention: "Uh, Lord, if you could spare a minute, there's someone over here who is doubting your existence or doubting that you sent Jesus to die for us, but it's not too late, because right now he still believes in you and loves you and is crying out to you, so, could you please do something about this? Just send him a sign or nudge him in the right direction or something. I would if I were you. Right about now would be a good time, Lord."

And sometimes, or so it seems to the person going through the crisis, God doesn't. The potential deconvert doesn't feel anything and doesn't even have any moment of great, shining, intellectual enlightenment. The things that bothered him about Christianity continue to bother him. Perhaps he finds answers that should be intellectually satisfying, but he doesn't find them emotionally satisfying, and those two things are very easy to conflate.

Why does God let this happen? It's one thing to acknowledge that God lets people who are indifferent to him go to hell, people who don't care, don't try, don't seek. But we're talking about someone who at least seems to himself to be seeking. This person is, at least to begin with, one of the good guys.

Well, I don't have all the answers. I believe that the evidence shows that God exists and is all-loving and all-just, but the precise how of the divine justice is something I don't claim to be able to follow through its infinite windings.

But I do have a thought to offer, and it is this: All of us who have been Christians for a while have major gaps in our understanding of God. That's inevitable, even for the most advanced saint, since God is beyond our comprehension. But it is especially true, I think, of two classes: First, those who have grown up Christians, and second, recent converts. For differing reasons, members of both of these groups are in danger of having a radically simplistic and insufficient view of the nature and character of God. This may take many forms. Perhaps the person thinks of God as harsh and vindictive, and it just takes a while for that to start to bother him. Or perhaps he demands that God must do things exactly as he would do them. One of the most common over-simplifications that I have run into is a misguided view of heaven. Heaven is seen as a kind of Happy Hunting Ground to which God (more or less arbitrarily) lets some people go while (more or less arbitrarily) blocking other people from going there, plopping them down in hell instead. Heaven is not intimately connected with the presence of God and with our own highest good through union with God. While they may mouth the idea that hell is separation from God, too many Christians don't really believe the corollary that heaven is union with God. Thus they will say things like, "I don't want to be in heaven with a God who would send my best friend to hell." As if they can have any good without God. As if they can casually pick and choose, shrugging off heaven and God while still holding onto truth, beauty, friendship, and human love. Or, "Why would we have a sense of perfect union with God in heaven, when we don't need it, rather than in the trials on earth, when we need it more?" Because "needing it" is entirely beside the point. Heaven is perfect union with God. You can't "be in heaven" without that perfect union with God.

Again and again, the angry things that deconverts say show just how shallow their concepts of God's character, of eternal life, and of Christianity really were and still are, because they never grew past them.

It's all very well to start out with sketchy ideas. But when you become a man, it is time to put away childish things. If you started out thinking that God owes you something, including a special revelation of himself in your time of doubt, you need to get over that. If you started out thinking that you can have any good thing without God, you need to learn what the beatific vision is.

God lets bad doubts happen to good people to give them a chance to move up, to deepen their understanding. C.S. Lewis portrays Tor and Tinidril, the characters in Perelandra who are like Adam and Eve, in much the same way. God allows a representative of Satan to come to their planet and tempt them in order for them to mature. One of the angelic characters says as much. "Today for the first time two creatures of the low worlds, two images of [God] that breathe and breed like the beasts, step up that step at which your parents fell, and sit in the throne of what they were meant to be."

In Perelandra, when the lady is being tempted, Maleldil (God) is silent. Previously she has always sensed him guiding her, but now she does not. If you know the book you may protest that God sends Ransom to (eventually) fight the un-Man after Tinidril has resisted temptation for a long time. That is true. But if I may say so, I never knew a former Christian deconvert yet who had no resources. Those resources may have been web sites, wise friends, or other people to whom he could take his questions. The resources might even have included very good answers, answers that were rejected. These "sendings," however, are rather mundane. We would prefer to have God zap people out of their doubts, not just send along some friend, perhaps some awkward or tactless friend, and then to leave the doubter to accept or reject the response given.

This all may sound rather harsh, but I think it is true nonetheless. God's intolerable love wants to make saints out of us while we would much prefer to be left alone to be happy, ordinary people. Happy, ordinary people are likely to have happy, ordinary ideas about God. Which is all very well and good for starters but isn't where God wants us to be in the long run. Any lover of detective fiction knows that the very fact that doesn't seem to fit in, the fact that gives you the most trouble, is a clue to the whole mystery. So it is in theology, and so it is inevitable that anyone given the opportunity to know God better will start to notice inconvenient facts that do not fit with his preconceived ideas.

So if you are that doubter, consider the possibility that God is deliberately not making this easy for you because there is something he wants you to understand, and you will learn it only by passing through this time without visible sign from him. Then ask what that something might be.

I would be remiss if I did not mention evidence again in closing out this post. I am not recommending fideism or even mysticism. On the contrary, I am always asking the doubter to examine the positive evidence for Christianity and take his stand on it. Indeed, one of the most curious things I find about recent deconverts is how difficult it is to get them to come back to the subject of the evidence for Christianity. A recent deconvert is like a man whose mind is always wandering from the point.

So my point is not to recommend that anyone believe against evidence or without evidence. Rather my point here is just this: If you are watching someone struggling, or you are struggling yourself, with questions and doubts about Christianity, and if you wonder why God lets this go on, take a hard look at the doubter's theological concepts (especially if the doubter is you) and ask where they need to be deepened and how such a deepening might serve to allay the doubts. If Christianity is true, then it is entirely possible that there is a step up that God wants you to take. You cannot stay comfortably where you were before. Whether or not you take that step is a matter of more than passing interest to us all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Undesigned Coincidence in John 1

Up at W4: A post on a new undesigned coincidence in John 1.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

New post on Licona, genre, reliability, and apologetics

I have a new post up at What's Wrong with the World on the theories of New Testament scholar Michael Licona. One of the things that surprised me as I went back through his older book on the resurrection was that there was so much controversy when that book came out about some things but not others. For example, though I don't claim to have read all of the back-and-forth about the book, I never saw anyone emphasize the fact that Licona states that it is unknown how much liberty the gospel authors took with the resurrection accounts and that this is part of why they are of "uncertain" historical value concerning the resurrection. Or the fact that he rates as merely "possible" the claim that the speeches in Acts represent apostolic teaching. I actually do understand why the claim that Matthew may have added the raising of the saints as a "poetical device" raised alarm bells, but that is of a piece with these other claims, which are much broader and fully bear out the concerns I have raised about the implications of these "poetical" theories for apologetics. In fact, in some ways the potential harm of the claim about Matthew was more limited, since it was said to be added "apocalyptic material," which perhaps we could recognize when we see it. But Licona admits forthrightly that, due to his ideas about the genre of the gospels, it is literally unknown how much liberty the gospel authors took with the details of their accounts! This means, just as I said before, that there are not supposed to be some sort of tip-offs or clues in the text in general when the authors are using these so-called literary devices. They might be making stuff up and changing things without leaving a trace. This is a very big deal, and I'm actually rather surprised that it wasn't noted about the book at the time, including by those who were very concerned about where Licona's approach was headed. But as I say, I wasn't reading such articles religiously, and perhaps it was noted and I just didn't hear about it.

Another matter that I consider very important to discuss is that of genre. It seems that Licona is making a big deal about the genre of the gospels as "being" that of "Greco-Roman bioi" and using this to defend his idea that the gospel authors would have thought they had freedom to invent speeches and dialogue, to make events happen when they didn't really happen, and the like. He is piggy-backing off of the fact that something of a bandwagon has gotten rolling in the last several years for saying that the gospels "are Greco-Roman bioi" and implying that every statement in scholarship to that effect supports his thesis about the gospel authors as using "literary devices." Now, this is particularly ironic, because originally it was thought that classicist Richard Burridge's work arguing that the gospels are Greco-Roman bioi actually supported the historicity of the gospels by showing that they aren't myth or some very tenuously historical, sui generis genre. This probably explains the haste with which evangelical scholars have accepted Burridge's thesis.

My response is two-fold: First, though I spend little time on this in the post, Burridge doesn't really argue convincingly in my view that the gospels are anything so specific as a Greco-Roman genre of "lives." He argues from a broad family resemblance, and the family resemblance can, I believe, be easily explained and more simply explained without invoking any specifically Greco-Roman influences on the gospels. It simply is a stronger thesis than required. But second, and perhaps more importantly (especially since as a sociological matter everybody seems to think "the scholarship is settled" on the former point), Burridge never (that I can see) supports Licona's idea that anyone who wrote "in" this genre would have automatically thought himself "licensed" to take liberties with the details of what he was writing. Rather, Burridge argues that the genre was very broad and could include books that took liberties. But that is not the same thing at all! Licona argues as though the genre wouldn't include books that took no liberties, whose authors would have been totally opposed to such liberties, and whose audiences would not have expected them. That is to turn Burridge's argument on its head: Instead of supporting the historicity of the gospels, this genre designation is then used to put a limit on the extent of their historical accuracy! That's just incorrect. It's a misuse of the scholarship surrounding genre, even if one accepts the conclusions of that scholarship.

This is extremely important, because at this point I see people starting to just follow Licona by implying that it's anachronistic to expect that the gospel authors didn't make stuff up! No, no, they will say, all the ancients thought it was fine to make these kinds of alterations. And these "are Greco-Roman bioi," so that "offered" license to do so, and you have to "take genre into account" in interpretation, etc. It needs to be said: That sort of conclusion is not supported by the claim that the gospels were "in" this genre. The genre as described could include both works that would never take liberties and those that included fictional elements. That's kinda the point of a broad and flexible genre!

There's an important confusion here, and people need to stop thinking that Licona or anybody else has supported the idea that we should just expect the so-called "literary devices" that Licona has claimed in the gospels to be there because genre. It isn't true. This is a confusion and a misuse of this whole genre concept. I challenge anybody to find in Burridge or anybody else good support for a claim such as, "Because the gospels were in the genre of Greco-Roman bioi, they would have been expected to transfer events to times when they didn't really happen, to make up speeches, or to change dialogue deliberately." And no, it doesn't count as good support for that thesis (which is simultaneously rigid and sweeping) if you believe that you've found some Greco-Roman author changing stuff. It doesn't follow that in general this was some kind of expectation or "standard" or even that these were recognized "devices." (Moreover, from what I've seen, sometimes when Licona thinks he's found Plutarch "using these devices" it could just be that Plutarch changed his mind about what happened--again, a much simpler hypothesis than the literary one.)

I also discuss the ways in which the so-called "literary devices" are over-interpretations of the passages in question--far more complex hypotheses than anything required.

So I want to stand athwart the course of evangelical history shouting, "Stop!" here, because people are just running after these ideas like they've been proven and are so wonderful because they enable us to sleep easy at night, knowing that we've been defended by "literary devices" from the Big Bad Wolf of alleged contradictions in the gospels. A) If true, these theories wouldn't be wonderful but rather fairly disastrous and B) They haven't been proved, nor even supported well.

See the post for more detail.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The one gleam of silver lining

The news last night that not only had D.T. won the Republican primary in Indiana but also that Ted Cruz had suspended his campaign came as a shock. That is to say, the latter part of that came as a shock. I can only assume that Cruz's backers told him they would no longer fund his campaign.

The whole thing is incredibly sad. This year's field of Republican primary runners, of course with the exception of the now-presumptive nominee, were so promising. There were so many for whom I could have happily voted in good conscience. Not all, but quite a few. Including, especially, Cruz the outsider who represented both the opposition to "business as usual" in the Republican party and principled, constitutional, knowledgeable conservatism. That this charlatan should have come along and poisoned and co-opted the process is sickening. That voters let him get away with it and even supported him enthusiastically is worse. That many of these voters think of themselves as conservative is the worst of all.

There is no way to make this out good. This is the death throes of the Republic, which I believed in and, in a real sense, still believe in. The destruction of a good thing is not a judgement on that good thing. Unlike some silly fools who think they are making a profound point against democracy by pointing out that democracy has been destroyed, I am (I trust) able to tell the difference between something that self-destructs because it is inherently wrong-headed and something that is destroyed by the malice and sin of man attacking it outright.

Yes, there are still good and beautiful things in the world, and we must now cling to those. But in the political world, the prospects are very bleak indeed.

There is one, and only one, gleam of silver lining in the dark, dark clouds that hover over us, and that is the NeverTrump movement itself. Matt Walsh has been a wonderfully articulate spokesman of it and remains defiant after last night, speaking for all of us. Last night on his public Facebook wall Walsh posted:

I will have more tomorrow, but let me assure you that when I said never Trump, I meant never Trump. That has not changed and never will. The disaster ahead will not be on my conscience. I wash my hands of it. I will not acquiesce to a tyrant. I do not care what letter he has beside his name. A lot of "Never Trump" people will surrender in the coming days, but I promise you I won't. I've chosen this path and I will stick to it.
Our country is headed to a dark place. Pray tonight, everyone.
Exactly. The idea that one would say "never" and then, like D.T. himself, blandly turn around and say the opposite, is deeply insulting. Never always meant never and was always set up in explicit anticipation of the possibility that he might be the Republican nominee.

Why do I call the NeverTrump movement the one gleam of a silver lining? Because for all of my adult politics-watching life two errors of thought have dominated conservative thinking: Error 1: It is an a priori truth that there is always a "lesser evil" in American politics. Error 2: It is an a priori truth that it is morally required that one vote for the lesser evil once one figures out what it is to the best of one's ability.

In the last two presidential elections I didn't vote for the candidate of either major political party. I had reasons for this. I thought that both McCain and (though to a lesser extent) Romney were too compromised on pro-life issues, and I also sensed strongly that Romney was no culture warrior and that his commitment to social conservatism was weak. I was able to articulate these reasons and discuss them, but Error 1 and Error 2 made it impossible to reason with most people. I would say again and again, "Look, maybe this candidate hasn't crossed your line, and I get that, but surely you realize that there must be a line, right? You wouldn't vote for just anybody just because he happened to have the Republican label and you think that that is always less bad than the person with the Democrat label, right?"

And again and again, they answered, in essence, "Wrong. There shouldn't be a line. There is no line. There is always a lesser evil. You always have to find out what it is and vote for that. Voting for the President of the United States for one of the candidates of the two major parties is a moral imperative."

I couldn't understand it. I would try reductios, but they were impervious. And some still are.

Well, what I'm realizing in 2016 is that people talking politics don't do very well with abstract reductios. It works better when you have an actual, blatant, moral cretin, right in front of our eyes, who is the presumptive Republican nominee for the august office of the President of the United States of America. Then, thank God, at least some good people start to realize that Error 1 and Error 2 are errors. And thus the nevertrump movement was born.

To my mind, this is an important development. I have never considered the stranglehold of the two-party system in the United States to be a politically healthy thing. We need to mix it up a little. We need more options. And conscience can help a lot in that mixing up process. But not if conscience is misdirected by Error 1 and Error 2. Those errors co-opt conscience. They draft the power of conscience into perpetuating the two-party system and the Imperative To Vote as some kind of holy relics.

Now, I have no crystal ball about what is going to happen. It's not that I expect some viable third party to rise from the ashes of the Republican Party. I suspect we're not that lucky, and to be frank, third parties tend to be the breeding ground of precisely the kinds of kooks and conspiracy theorists who are now enthusiastically following D.T. over the edge of the abyss.

But for decades now I have realized that the final battle in this country is going to be the guerilla warfare for individual human minds, hearts, and ultimately, souls. And in that battle, the NeverTrump movement is an extremely positive and important development. Americans, conservatives, at least some of them, have at last found the place where they will stand, where they will say, "No, never, not gonna go there.That's a bridge too far."

If you don't have a "never" place, a place to stand, a place where you draw the line and will not move, you are constantly giving away pieces of yourself, and that's a dangerous thing to do. To quote Robert Bolt's Thomas More:

And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You'd hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it--I do--not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do--I....Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolk's but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord...Because as you stand, you'll go before your Maker in a very ill condition! And he'll have to conclude that somewhere back along your pedigree--a bitch got over the wall!
And now, with NeverTrump, maybe some people are discovering that they have something within themselves that is not just a voter, not just an agonized political pawn, but a man, a person, with real moral limits, and they are ready to say, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." Now there will be, we may hope, some who will bow neither to the image of Baal nor to the Golden Calf.

For that, we may always hope. There are always these individual victories to be won, whatever happens to the nation. For the probing and testing of God does not cease until the end of time, when history is truly ended and the books are opened.

May He find us faithful.