I agree with the late Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar that the rise of nominalism in especially Western cultures has been a “catastrophe.”
As Balthasar explained in his manifesto, “The God Question and Modern Man,” nominalism led to secularism, which led to “forgetfulness of beauty” and ultimately the dehumanizing of “man.”
So what is nominalism and what’s so “catastrophic” about it?
Defining it is one of philosophers’ favorite pastimes. At its most basic, nominalism asserts that everything is subjective; there are no universals.
As Meyrick H. CarrÃ© defined it: “General ideas, universals, are merely names … The common nature which they assert is wholly subjective. … Unity resides only in the common term.”
A certain, perhaps philosophically unsophisticated idea of universals that can be labeled “nominalism” lies at the beginning and center of the decline of Western civilization and even robust Christianity.
What’s at stake? What are the issues?
Balthasar claims throughout his writings that lying at the heart of Western culture – from the most influential Greek and Roman philosophers through the church fathers and the leading medieval Christian thinkers – is a kind of “perennial philosophy” (my term borrowed from Aldous Huxley) that believes in what Balthasar labeled “transcendental ideals,” especially truth, beauty and goodness.
That perennial philosophy, and I would say also the implicit foundation of the biblical worldview, sees these transcendental ideals as in some sense real and not just names or concepts created by human beings.
Of course, Balthasar was not the only critic of nominalism. C. S. Lewis opposed it, especially in his classic “The Abolition of Man.”
Some Catholics, for whom nominalism is heresy, accuse all Protestants of being nominalists because Luther was and they detect nominalism at the core of Protestantism.
But many Protestants, like Lewis, have rejected nominalism just as vehemently as Catholics have.
Let me sum up Balthasar’s and Lewis’ claim about “the catastrophe of nominalism.”
One way of putting it is that because of nominalism and its influence (“trickled down” into the fabric of Western culture) there is widespread belief that “beauty is only in the eye of the beholder,” “truth is what works (to solve problems)” and “goodness is culture-dependent.”
In other words, there are no real transcendental ideals; truth, beauty and goodness are only cultural creations and ultimately labels for individual perceptions.
To someone who has learned to think according to these concepts, almost everything in culture and philosophy (broadly defined to include informal ways of thinking about reality) comes back to them.
As someone who has taught American university students for 36 years in four universities, I can testify that most of them have been conditioned, I’m tempted to say brainwashed, by culture, especially public education, to think about reality nominalistically.
For them, by and large, the world (universe) is not “charged with the grandeur of God,” beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, truth is, at most, what God says, and goodness is, at most, whatever God commands – even if there is no particular reason for it.
I have always been interested in detecting, figuring out, what pattern of thought, what world perspective, what vision of reality, deeply underlies culture.
Having lived in Germany and America, I have concluded that, for example, a basic cultural difference has to do with the unity or lack of unity between thought and being.
German intellectuals, especially, perhaps due to German idealism’s “trickle down” effect, tend to think of thought and being as united.
Americans, including intellectuals, rarely think of them that way. We tend to insist, for example, on the difference between the order of knowing and the order of being.
That’s a big “subterranean” difference that impacts many more “surface” level ways of living, thinking and acting.
Once I really “saw” (not only intellectually “learned about”) nominalism and its effects in culture, including on my students, including even on me, I began to realize how deleterious its consequences can be and are – on culture, society and the churches.
I agree with Balthasar and Lewis that we can trace secularity, relativism, individualism, ultimately the loss of human dignity, back to the influences of nominalism on culture and Christianity.
In other words, from where I sit and think, observing culture, nominalism is the ultimate poison of Western civilization that corrodes and erodes it.
It lies at the top of the slippery slope down which we have slid into modern and now, increasingly, postmodern oblivion.
Because of its built in, inbred, resistance to nominalism, I can understand why some Protestants join the Catholic Church. On the other hand, I find too many problems with that to be lured in that direction.
Nevertheless, I applaud the Catholic Church for standing strong against nominalism. Increasingly, I find Hans Urs von Balthasar a friend, mentor and ally.
My proposed solution is that Protestants wake up to the poison of nominalism and begin to purge it from ourselves, our churches, our families and our schools.
This, I find, is one of the great contributions of C.S. Lewis and why I advocate reading him. He wasn’t a great theologian, but he was a perceptive opponent and critic of nominalism.
If I could, I would make several of his books required reading for all Christian students at appropriate age levels – including “The Abolition of Man.”
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”