The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Last week I attended an event at the classical Christian school my son attends where I had the opportunity to watch two girls debate the source of morality. They both did a remarkable job, with one student arguing that God’s commands are the ultimate source of moral values, while the other student took the position that God’s nature is the ultimate source of moral values.

The debate harked back to the famous question that Plato recorded Socrates’ asking his interlocutor Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” This is a question we have also visited a number of times in this ongoing series on realism and nominalism. Throughout this present series I have been suggesting that neither the goodness of an action nor the goodness of God’s commands can be related to each other as efficient cause and effect, but that both are themselves effects of a prior cause: God’s absolutely perfect nature. I have attempted to show that this seemingly detached academic question actually has enormous practical significance in how we view the world around us and our obligations to each other and to God.

In this post I intend to wrap up many of the themes we have explored so far in our series, and conclude with making some observations about the ramifications these questions have for our involvement in the, so called, ‘culture wars.’

Is the World Good?

Many Christians—Protestant evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike—have imbibed various forms of nominalism, theological voluntarism and divine command theory which have oriented them to perceive the world as essentially a collection of disconnected particulars but with no intrinsic teleology integral to, and discoverable within, the created order. Instead, order is seen to be imposed extrinsically through mere fiat by the raw injunctions of God. But moral order that is imposed on creation is not order at all, but isolated commands that might just have easily been otherwise. According to this more nominalist understanding of the world (which again, is often more implicit than explicit), while creation may not be evil, it is without inherent meaning and therefore not fully ‘good’ in the most complete sense. I have suggested that this nominalist turn often emerges when teleology is defined externally by God’s will, with no reference to the internal nature of things.

The Given-ness of Creational Order

In Reformed circles especially, the notion of God’s will flowing out of, and conforming to, a teleology intrinsic to the world’s design, is often treated as an imposition to God’s total freedom or as undermining the importance of special revelation. Moral order is thus seen to be imposed on creation externally without having an organic relationship to how creation is by virtue of its design. Resistance to what Oliver O’Donovan has termed “the linking of moral obligation to the natural generic-teleological order” leaves order eclipsed by law, so that the moral order we are bound to affirm is seen as arising externally through the imposition of “the Christian perspective” onto the otherwise formless raw material of the universe.

The Fittingness of Biblical Ethics

In talking about sexual morality, it is typical to find pastors, Christian spokespersons and lay people alike, operating as if there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that precedes and animates God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

Under such a scheme, all the ordering of our world is deliberate ordering and creation becomes radically contingent. It thus becomes difficult to speak of certain sexual patterns as being “rightly ordered” or “fitting” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Indeed, it is easy to slip into assuming that for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be wholly the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His commands, such as the fixities of His nature that find expression in the inherent patterns embedded in creation’s design.

The Playground Mentality

Among evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds, this functional nominalism often finds expression in the notion that the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice. There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent to moral questions about right and wrong.

This type of abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is. (The recent flare-up in Moscow Idaho’s food debates hinge on this very problem, as do some of the modern music myths that have taken the church captive in recent years.)

Creation and Common Grace

Creation expresses God’s nature; as such, the ordering of reality creates the context in which God’s commands can be seen as normative. Precisely because of this, we shouldn’t think that individuals or cultures without access to God’s explicit commands are completely bereft of ethical consciousness.

Though this may seem like a small point, this has profound ramifications for how we approach apologetics. For example, we should be filled with horror at the way Karl Barth (and many advocates of, so called “presuppositional apologetics” as well) taught that until an unbeliever explicitly presupposes the truth of scripture that there is no point at which we can, or ought, to try to connect with them philosophically. Barth expressed this erroneous view in The Doctrine of the Word of God, when he declared that

“Man’s capacity for God, however it may be with his humanity and personality, has really been lost. We cannot, therefore, see that at this point there comes into view a common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, the opportunity for a common exhibition at least of the possibility of raising the question about God.”

In later 20th century thought we saw a similar error in the attack against evidentialist apologetics that became trendy for reformed theologians following Cornelius Van Til. In its worst forms, the rejection of evidentialism was often proffered on the spurious ground that one must first buy into the whole Christian package in order to make sense of anything. What is missed, or at least not given sufficient attention in this paradigm, is the fact that there are verities which believers and unbelievers share in common by virtue of our shared creation; verities that form a basis for discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology. (I have argued this point in more detail in my article ‘Gay Marriage and Creational Realism.’)

Creation and Literature

Overemphasizing the noetic effects of sin and underestimating the reality of common grace has enormous ramifications in how we approach pagan literature. When we come to a text like Homer’s Iliad, or the plays of Sophocles, is our knee-jerk instinct to assume these texts have nothing valuable to teach us regarding human nature and God’s world? If so, we will conceive our task primarily to unearth worldview deficiencies in these writers: to attack, criticize and condemn.

But if, on the other hand, we recognize that the ordering of reality has left the imprint of a divine grammar that even pagans cannot help but recognize, then we will come at these texts expecting to find additional confirmation of the inherent logic of creation – a logic which not even human sin can fully eradicate. Once again, there is a structural order to creation that is larger than, and prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Christian Order and Public Dialogue

While the realist understanding articulated by Alister McGrath when he declared that “God’s nature is somehow expressed and embodied in the ordering of the world,” may be recognized as a theological truth, in practice we often fail to see this as providing a coherent basis for talking objectively about moral order with unbelieving communities. A practical result of this is that communication between Christians and non-Christians is brought into atrophy, since the Christian is neither able to make appeals to creation nor to contextualize the moral law in terms of natural teleology.

Under these erroneous ways of thinking, the Christian perspective on culture comes to amount to little more than colonizing isolated “issues”, which are assessed in terms of a divine will that has already been abstracted from any larger sense of teleological and ontological order. Failure to recognize an inner-logic within the world (including human nature) leaves evangelical spokespersons unable to point to the normativity of Christian moral order, or the fittingness of God’s commands within any scheme larger than, and antecedent to, mere will. A result of this functional nominalism is that Christian contributions to the public discourse can become largely unintelligible to those in different ideological communities. Worse still, such unintelligibility is seen to be inevitable and unavoidable, thus disincentivizing Christians from exploring new and creative ways to communicate.

We saw this repeatedly in the 2013 debates about gay marriage, as Christian pastors, lay people and public figures alike tended to shrink from appeals to the intrinsic telos and purposive direction in creation, as if the traditional understanding of marriage arose merely from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise. Any sense of teleology becomes posterior to the particularities of the revealed moral law rather than prior. What is lost is the notion, articulated so well by Oliver O’Donovan, that “The way the universe is determines how man ought to behave himself in it…”

Voluntarism and the Spiritually Neutral Universe

Once the world is bereft of intrinsic ordering, the category of divine will becomes a mechanism for reinvesting the world with moral order. Under such a scheme, the will of God comes to have an extrinsic relationship to the world, which is rendered passive, neutral and dead (read: mechanical) in itself. It is through pious choices that meaning is brought to bear on the raw material of the world. But this means that order is ultimately derived voluntaristically rather than being inherent to creation by virtue of its original design.

In the mid to late twentieth-century there was a significant rejection of a spiritually neutral conception of creation through the recapitulation of a Kuyperian understanding of ‘worldview.’ Yet without a fully sacramental understanding of integration, this emphasis on worldview often amounts to little more than the imposition of ‘the Christian perspective’ on what is still conceived as the neutral and formless raw material of the world. Under such a scheme, in order for a topic of study or an area of life to fall under ‘the Christian perspective’, we must place something alien onto it rather than uncover the divine order already present.

In education this mentality often manifests itself in an instrumentalizing of the liberal arts, so that subjects of study are implicitly conceived to be ‘neutral’ in themselves and only become Christian to the degree that they foster pious choices or can be rendered useful in the attainment of pragmatic ends outside themselves. (See my article ‘More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts.’)

Neutrality and the Problem of the Culture Wars

The spiritually neutral conception of the universe bequeathed to us by theological voluntarism is at the heart of the confusion Christians face when engaging in the, so called “culture wars.”

In 2002, David Schindler published an essay in Pro Ecclesia titled “Religion and Secularity in a Culture of Abstraction: On the Integrity of Space, Time, Matter and Motion.” In this outstanding essay Schindler pointed out that much of America’s “culture wars” hinge on precisely this view of nature as spiritually neutral in its primary condition. Both the Christian right and liberal secularism see the relation between God and the saeculum, or between the world and the cosmos, as an extrinsic relation, an addition to what nature already is in its first condition. The disagreement that constitutes the, so called, “culture wars” is simply whether such a relation is good or bad. What is almost entirely overlooked is the way both polarities hinge on what Schindler identified as “a secularity that has been given its original meaning in abstraction from God already [which] in principle conceives any relation to God as an arbitrary addition to itself.”

Schindler observed that the partitioning of the Creator from the world created the conceptual space for secularism to arise within the bosom of the church. Within Christian thought there emerged an implicitly nominalist orientation which shared in common with secularism “an abstraction from God in one’s original understanding of the cosmos.” Such an abstraction creates erroneous dichotomies “between will and intelligence and between God and the world—or between the monotheistic God of ‘natural’ reason and the Trinitarian God of faith—in our original understanding of the world.” There is thus “an intrinsic connection between a religion originally reduced by its dualistic reading of the relation between God and the secular and a secularity that is thereby itself originally reduced by virtue of the same dualism.” In this regard “religion and secularism in American, in their original ‘logic,’ grow from the same soil.” Schindler continued:

“This original secularizing’…remains hidden and appears harmless so long as a relation to God continues to be—arbitrarily—added to the secular, an addition which has been readily forthcoming throughout most of America’s history….

“However significant their differences in assessing our current cultural situation—and these differences are significant—religionists and secularists alike begin by accepting, albeit from different directions and however tacitly and unwittingly, the separation, or extrinsic relation, between God and the saeculum—the world or cosmos—that is a hallmark of American religion’s (Protestant and Catholic) original, and dominant, self-understanding. …what is most peculiar about America is the way in which its religion—and its liberal tradition—have from the beginning dissociated questions of will and morality from questions of intelligence and cosmic-ontological order; the way in which, accordingly, America’s moralized-voluntarized religion has persisted coincident with a secularized cosmic-intelligent order….

“Thus, regarding Americans’ proclivity for relating their secular or ‘worldly’ lives to God: the giving away of the orders of space and time and matter and motion to which I refer does not mean that Christians do not still see these realities as subject to a proper use: see them, that is, as instruments in and through which the will of God is to be faithfully executed. The relevant point, rather, is that his appeal to a (putative) moral or faithful use of things, in its conventional understanding, typically begs the set of questions we mean to be raising. It presupposes and reinforces just the voluntaristic piety we are insisting is the nub of the issue. A cosmos originally understood as “neutral” or “dead” stuff, hence as essentially blind and dumb until appropriated as an instrument of moral or pious choices, is a cosmos that is originally indifferent to God. And such a cosmos itself already and as a matter of principle manoeuvres piety—the pious use of the cosmos—into what now becomes mostly a moralistic—because precisely arbitrary—imposition on the cosmos. The point, in short, is that an appeal to the moral or pious use of the world, as conventionally understood in America, expresses just the defective conception of both holiness and secularity that… lies at the root of current difficulties….

Further Reading