The following is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, The Crucifer.
It happened again this week, just like it does every week.
Once again this week a dear friend in Christ and parishioner at Christ Church asked me about the academic side of my life. Often the form this question takes is “So, when do you finish up?”
What a joy it is to be engaged in real relationships within the body of Christ, and yet it is slightly awkward to explain to folks “Well, basically, it’s going to be a long time til I finish, especially since I just started the program a year ago.” Words cannot express the deep gratitude I have to the good people of Christ Church for enduring with me this long journey.
The form the question often takes, however, is, “So, what’s your dissertation about?” That’s how it happened this last week. So, I thought I’d take a few of paragraphs in the current issue of the Crucifer to articulate some thoughts about, and plans for, my doctoral dissertation.
I want to write about late medieval nominalism, which I regard – I’m just gonna come out and say it – as a bad thing.
You see, the medieval period is fascinating because, on the one hand, it is an extension of the classical world (think Plato & Aristotle), but with the radical infusion of biblical revelation and the ongoing response to that revelation which is called theology (think the Church Fathers & St. Augustine). At same time, it is an anticipation, in seedling form, of the modern era, the age of secularism. (For example in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose various of the Franciscan monks are rightly portrayed as men of modern, scientific knowledge and critical thinking … men who deplore baseless superstition.) Hence my bourgeoning interest in things medieval: this period is the joint or nexus which, infused with biblical revelation, connects the classical world of antiquity to the secular world of modernity.
Now, what about “nominalism?” What in the world is that? As the name implies, it has something to do with “names” (which for premoderns basically means “words”) and hence with language. In the development of late medieval nominalism a suspicion began to emerge that the words (and categories) we use to talk about the things in the world have no real connection to those things. Rather, they are sort of “made up” or “constructed.”
Now, that might seem hopelessly abstract to you, but consider a very pressing contemporary issue. Just this week Illinois (by no means a “blue state”) became the 19th state to opt for full recognition of “same-sex marriage.” Now, there are layers upon layer to the complicated and taxing issue of gay marriage, but one of them has to do with language. Is the word “marriage” simply a human construct? What about the words “male” and “female”, which appear in Genesis 2?
If we “made up” those terms and their meanings, then surely we can revise them. If they are merely humanly invented, then surely they can be humanly re-invented.
A late medieval nominalist, if he were consistent, would heartily affirm our culture’s current willingness to re-invent the meaning of terms which historically have been regarded as crucial to the underpinnings of the political well-being of society.
If we can trace the development of late medieval nominalism, however, then perhaps we can expose its false assumptions and its arbitrary moves. This, then, could go a long way to restoring the connection between our words and the things they refer to out there in world God made, his good creation which, while fallen, is redeemed in Christ.