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Archive for June 13th, 2003

In the middle ages, occurred a development in philosophy that is with us, though in a more crude form, to this day. Among the Schoolmen there arose significant debate about the relationship between Universals (the class, say, of human beings) and Particulars (Joe, that specific member of the class of human beings). Proponents of one perspective of the debate declared that only Particulars are real. Universals are only invented names we give to those classes we create by way of rational inquiry. That is to say, there is no such thing, really, they said, as a human being. There are only Joe’s and Nancy’s, and so forth. Proponents of this view were called “nominalists.”

Nominalism in today’s world, particularly in today’s Christian world, is alive and well, though it has changed a bit. Reality is still this particular existence with which each of us are familiar (he says, in universal terms). But nominalism today, rather than eschewing any commitment to the reality of things like classes, posits that we do indeed make real those things we name. Or, to say it much more crudely: Things are what we say they are. And yet, there are a whole bunch of contradictions that arise here. Not the least of which is that, unlike “classical” nominalism, modern-day nominalism demolishes the particular for the sake of the universal. Well, actually, not for the sake of the universal but for the sake of other paticulars.

The most obvious beginning point for what I mean can be seen in the fairly typical liberal Protestant and secular notions of God. Muslims and Jews teach–each by authority of their scriptures–that God is a radically monotheistic God. There is only one God, and he (and God is most emphatically a non-sexed “he” in these scriptures) contains no plurality. God is radically one. Furthermore, in Judaism, God is the God of the Covenant, utterly faithful and requiring the same unwavering faithfulness of his people. For Judaism, God enters history and changes destinies. God is personal. In Islam, God is utterly transcendant. God does not enter into human history, per se, but rather remains uncontaminated from human affairs, due to his greatness and glory. God has left a moral code, which Muslims are enjoined to follow, and at the end of life, one’s deeds are weighed in the balance. If there is a covenant, it is only to a rigid code of behavior. Christianity, on the other differs from both of these faiths in its insistence that God is both one and three, unity and plurality at once without contradiction. God is personal, as in Judaism, but in contradistinction to Judaism, God has also joined to his divinity in hypostatic union, humankind–in the person of Jesus, the second figure of the Godhead. Christianity, too, has a moral code, and involves covenant faithfulness, struggle. But in differentiation with Judaism and Islam, Christianity preaches participation in the divine energies of God (not quite “union”, but nonetheless a real joining of God and man as revealed and accomplish in Jesus Christ).

Clearly we have three different, indeed, contradictory Gods, right? Not for the modern-day nominalists. No, Allah equals Elohim equals Pater Noster. We’re all talking about the same thing. This is more than manifest nonsense, it is fairly typical western liberal hubris. That is to say, “We enlighted purveyors of western civiliation and illumination know much better than you what you’re talking about. When you say, “Pater Noster” or “Allah” what you really mean is . . . .” Muslims respond, “Uh . . .No! I mean Allah. Allah is not the Christian God.” Jews say, “I’ll second that. El Berith is most definitely not the Christian God, and sure doesn’t look like Allah, either.” Western illuminati, however, say, “Oh, come now. This is just like the three man and the elephant. One of you has the trunk, another the leg, and the other the tail. But it’s all one elephant.” This baffles these three adherents, however. How can the the Christian Three-in-One God be the same thing as the Only-One God, a personal God the same as an impersonal transcendant God? We are not talking about the same thing, these adherents claim. This is elephants and camels, say. Or it’s at least three different elephants. We are not just talking about one elephant!

But Western elites, with the typical chauvinism granted them by their affluence and technical superiority, shake their heads knowing that in time everyone else will come around. But of course, that would take a conversion. And conversion is a break with one’s previous convictions.

This sort of nominalism is played out in other contentious venues: abortion and human sexuality, to name two. All the vocabulary on the various sides of these debates “creates” the “realities” their proponents desire. A human baby can be killed. A fetus, however, is merely a vestigial “organ” one can “excise.” Sex is biological, and clearly evident. Gender is a state of mind. You get the point.

But ultimately, when it comes to naming, it rests on the question of authority. Despite modern American notions of libertarianism and person autonomy, authority is a fact of human existence. It has been since the dawn of time and will be into eternity. Like it or not, authority is pervasive of the human experience. The only differences among humans is to what authority we subscribe, either consciously or unconsciously. Westerners have to quite consciously reject scientism as their authority, so pervasive is its influence in our society. We take polls. We do studies. We derive formulas. And we have authority, an authority more powerfully influential than the divine tablets brought down from the mountain top. That is, untill another poll, study or formula comes down the pike and discounts the previous poll, study or formula.

Christians, of course, are just as much influenced by scientism as their secular neighbors. We take it in with our mother’s milk–er, excuse me, I mean formula. The difference for Christians, of course, is that we are called to reject this scientistic mindset. (Please note: Scientism does not equal science.) We are called to transformed minds, not conformed worldliness. We cannot bring the Gospel to the world, unless we stand apart from within it. We are to hate the world. Because hating the world is the only way to truly love it.

But once again, it boils down to authority. This calling is explicit in Scripture. Too many Christians, however, do not accept the authority of Scripture. For two reasons, it seems. First, it would require daily taking up one’s cross. To put it more bluntly, it would demand of us the giving up of our favorite consumerist sins (such as lust, gluttony, pride). Secondly, it would require admitting we don’t know as much as Scripture. Or, to put it a bit more plainly, it would demand rejecting the modern heresy that the youngest in time is the most wise and intelligent; it would mean admitting we don’t know better than Paul.

We could multiply the issues, not the least in importance of which is: What is the Church? But since the Roman Catholics will come with papal infalliblity, the Protestants with their tens of thousands of authorities (convention resolutions, confessions of faith, scientific studies, commentaries, private interpretations, etc.), and the Orthodox with the infallibility of the Church, it does not seem to me that this disparate bunch will be able to, together, answer that question. We’ll be talking camels and elephants. While the Western elites will be saying, “Ah, it’s all the same anyway!”

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