Do things in our world have an inherent purpose according to their nature, or is purpose purely the function of external will?
Do universals have a real existence independent of human perception, or is the world simply a jumble of particulars that achieve significance only as human beings arbitrarily define the raw materials of the world?
|William of Ockham (1288-1347)|
Did God create the world with built-in patterns that are consonant with His character, or is God’s ordering of the world purely nominal, deliberate and arbitrary?
These are some of the questions I have been exploring in my ongoing series of articles on nominalism. In these articles I have tried to show that an extreme nominalist approach to the world expels inherent teleology and purpose from the universe, relocating these categories in consciousness.
Throughout my articles I have tried to draw attention to some ways that nominalism has adversely influenced Christian thinking throughout the ages, including how we conceive God’s omnipotence, how we think about sex, and Christian approaches to food.
For the nominalist, in order for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His will (i.e., the fixities of God’s nature or the inherent patterns of creation). The nominalist will thus find it difficult to speak of things being “fitting” or “rightly ordered” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.
By contrast, within the realist model that I have been defending, God’s commands flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself.
My latest article about nominalism, published by the Colson Center earlier this month, looks at how these same questions come to a head in different approaches taken by Christians to the gay marriage debate.
I argue that if the Christian understanding of marriage arises from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise, then there is little we can say about the moral constitution of the world to those who do not share our theocentric worldview. (Which is exactly what Peter Leithart seems to have concluded, revealing a latent nominalism.) On the other hand, if we are realists then we believe that God’s commands about sexual ethics flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself (a point I have developed in more detail in my article ‘Sex and the Ockhamist Revolution.’) Under the realist scheme of things, it becomes possible to appeal to unbelievers on the basis of that ordering without needing to invoke explicitly Biblical arguments.