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The Trouble With Nominalism

I meant to post this on Good Friday. It came that day from Ken Myers, the creator and host of the indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal. I post it with his permission:

Your post (prepared yesterday) about nominalism being the worst cultural “decision” ever has a resonant timeliness with the darkness of the Triduum. The sorrow of the apostles and of Mary after the death of Jesus must surely have invited a nihilistic despair. The inevitability of cosmic chaos — with its attendant violence — must have seemed much more plausible than a loving divine order.

In his book, Resurrection and Moral Order, Oliver O’Donovan observed: “It might have been possible, we could say, before Christ rose from the dead, for someone to wonder whether creation was a lost cause. If the creature consistently acted to uncreate itself, and with itself to uncreate the rest of creation, did this not mean that God’s handiwork was flawed beyond hope of repair? It might have been possible before Christ rose from the dead to answer in good faith, Yes. Before God raised Jesus from the dead, the hope that we call ‘gnostic’, the hope for redemption from creation rather than for the redemption of creation, might have appeared to be the only possible hope.”

The nominalistic turn in Western thought made every day Holy Saturday. The universe lost the intelligibility that Christians had long attributed to it. The voluntarist thinking that accompanied nominalist assumptions reimagined God as irrational Will, not loving Logos. As Michael Gillespie puts it (in The Theological Origins of Modernity), “The God that Aquinas and Dante described was infinite, but the glory of his works and the certainty of his goodness were manifest everywhere. The nominalist God, by contrast, was frighteningly omnipotent, utterly beyond human ken, and a continual threat to human well-being. Moreover, this God could never be captured in words and consequently could be experienced only as a titanic question that evoked awe and dread.”

“Nominalism sought to tear the rationalistic veil from the face of God in order to found a true Christianity, but in doing so it revealed a capricious God, fearsome in his power, unknowable, unpredictable, unconstrained by nature and reason, and indifferent to good and evil. This vision of God turned the order of nature into a chaos of individual beings.”

Likewise, Louis Dupré has written that: “The nominalist theologies which came to dominate the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries destroyed the intelligible continuity between Creator and creature. The idea of an absolute divine power unrelated to any known laws or principles definitively severed the order of nature from that of grace. A nature created by an unpredictable God loses its intrinsic intelligibility in favor of the mere observation of actual fact. Nor does creation itself teach us anything of God beyond what this divine omnipotence has revealed in Scripture. Grace itself became a matter of divine decree unmeasurable by human standards and randomly dispensed. Detached from its transcendent moorings, nature was left to chart its own course.”

And culture thus becomes a human project pursued with no order in Creation to guide it. One of the saddest threads in this story is that so many Christians have continued to embrace this theological error, despite the obvious evidence that it leads to nihilism and cultural chaos. Observing how Christians have acted in the wake of the nominalist revolution, Dupré writes: “As their world has grown more and more ‘secular,’ their faith has come to depend with increasing exclusivity on revelation separated from, if not opposed to, ‘nature.’” Hence the desperate proof-texting of American evangelicals, who believe in truths but not Truth, and hence can never connect Truth with Goodness and Beauty.

Sorry to foist my meditations on you, but the timing of your post really struck me. Driving home from our Maundy Thursday service last night, I was reflecting on my own vocation, which — since I read Ideas Have Consequences in 1984 — has pretty much been about trying to understand the systemic confusion of modernity in light of Weaver’s claim about the fatal error of nominalism. After 30 years of obsessing about this, I’m more and more sure that he was more right than he knew; the witness of theologians, philosophers, and cultural historians who have come to the same conclusion is remarkable. And the recovery of pre-modern theology — East and West — that confidently affirmed the unity of Love and Truth at the heart of the world is also remarkable.

Contrary to the nominalist folly, Holy Saturday ended. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. . . .” As Oliver O’Donovan insists, the resurrection proclaims that “Man’s life on earth is important to God; he has given it its order; it matters that it should conform to the order he has given it. . . . The sign that God has stood by his created order implies that this order, with mankind in its proper place in it, is to be totally restored at the last.”

If this is the kind of thing you like to think about, then I cannot urge you strongly enough to subscribe to Mars Hill Audio Journal.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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