“God,” states the opening chapter of Genesis, “created man in his image … male and female he created them” (1:27).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, remarking on this foundational fact, says that everyone, “man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life” (No. 2333). Needless to say, this is unpopular for many, today. Not only are the Church’s perennial teachings on marriage and family under attack, the long-standing acceptance that men are men and women are women (and both are “Man”) has rapidly eroded in recent years. The so-called bathroom wars are indicative of this development regarding “gender” — a remarkably elusive and fluid term. But the conflicts are not merely “out there” in the secular public square. Sadly, this is becoming normal, despite being abjectly abnormal.
How did we get here? There are, of course, numerous factors. But I reflect here on a foundational — yet oft-neglected — theological and philosophical factor: the rejection of realism and the embrace of nominalism.
Realism, stated simply, is the belief that reality can be known and described as it really is. Further, realism — especially as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas — emphasizes that “universals” exist and can be known. So, not only is my golden retriever a dog, the reality of “dog” is a universal reality; there truly is an objective “dog-ness” that can be recognized, named and studied. He also taught we can know reality because it is the creation of a rational, divine Intellect — all that is came into being through the Logos, the Eternal Word, and we are able to use words to rightly name and describe what we observe, know and think.
Then along came nominalism. Much has been written about this fateful school of thought, but one of the most accessible is Richard Weaver’s 1948 book “Ideas Have Consequences.” Denouncing the growing assault on language and objective truth, Weaver placed much blame on William of Ockham (c. 1285–1347), who, he said, “propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience.”
Weaver then zeroed in on this key point: “The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind.” Nominalism (from the Latin nomen, or “name”) marked a radical shift in how to view and understood both God and reality. Rather than reality being understand and perceived by one’s intellect — that is, by looking outside of oneself — reality became increasingly a matter of sensation and subjective perceptive — that is, by looking inside of oneself for ultimate meaning. “With this change in the affirmation of what is real,” Weaver noted, “the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.” Once objective, transcendent reality was questioned and then denied, truth was the next logical victim in the confusing drama called modernity.
As Michael Allen Gillespie demonstrates in “The Theological Origins of Modernity” (2008), a central figure in this upheaval of nominalism was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). “There are no facts,” claimed Nietzsche, “only interpretations.” Thus — fast-forwarding to today — there is no “man” or “woman,” only a smorgasbord of genders and identities.
One result of all this, Gillespie shows, is the belief that human beings “had no supernatural end or telos.” In short, man now has to create his own meaning; he, she or “it” must summon up their own reality and “truth.” But man is made to know God and be known by God, to find ultimate meaning. The creation of countless “genders” is just one way God’s creatures seek to be their own creator, grasping at the tantalizing fruit offered by the serpent who whispers, “You will be like gods” (Gn 3:5).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.