One of my early childhood memories is of an afternoon spent fishing with my father at a small lake in a park. Actually, I do not remember much about the fishing trip (and whether we caught any fish isn’t the point!), but what I do recall, most vividly, is the thought that occurred to me while I cast my fishing line into the water.
“What if this is a mere dream? What if my dreams are reality and what I take to be my reality is only my dreams?”
At my young age of six or seven years, I was not able to cope with my own thought, nor was any adult I confronted interested in pondering the concept of reality. However, some years later I now have many more books than fishing poles, and I want to revisit these questions.
Questions about reality, and our existence (or even non-existence) within reality are parts of a much larger theological story. That is the story of “Modernity” and the “Secular.” You may be suspicious that I would label these concepts as theological. Or, perhaps, you are now thinking, “Only a theologian would claim the history of the last seven hundred years is theological.” Yet, that is exactly my claim (and the claim of many others). The terms “Modernity” and the “Secular” have a genealogy that originates in the theology of the late middle ages. Now, before I explain, I need to first define a few concepts and terms.
Before the advent of Modernity, there was a Medieval Renaissance, which is now often referred to as part of the “lost world,” also known as the “classical world.” Thomas Aquinas lived during the twilight of the lost world, and provides what is arguably the best example of the classical synthesis. For Aquinas, the world was an ordered whole created by God that was permeated with God’s truth. In other words, being, beauty, and truth were real universal concepts present in humanity and the world, and these concepts had meaning because of God. God was not merely the cause of creation, but, for Aquinas, God was intimately and actively involved in the existence and creativity of creation itself. God gave order to His creation continuously. Aquinas presented reality as paradoxical harmony of God as present in every aspect of life, and humanity as truly free beings when they participate in God and, thereby, the reality of creation of which they themselves are part of the ordered whole.
When Thomas Aquinas died in 1274, the reality that he described as an ordered whole created by God was displaced by wars, plagues, and schisms. The combination of the Hundred Years War between the rulers of England and France, the Black Death, and the Great Schism between the Avignon and Roman Papacies shook the conceptual foundations of the classical world. In the midst of this chaos arose the concepts of nominalism and voluntarism as well as the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.
Nominalism is a philosophical and theological framework that has dominated Northern Europe and, later, the whole of Western Civilization even until today. William of Ockham is generally regarded as the founder of nominalism and has had a lasting impact on western philosophy and theology. Nominalism, simply put, is the idea that universals cannot be found in the particulars of existence. According to nominalism, universals are merely names that we give things out of convenience and nothing more. Thus, there is no universal concept of being, beauty, or truth.
Voluntarism is closely related to nominalism, and is the result of a nominalist philosophy and theology. Voluntarism describes an emphasis on God’s sovereignty and power concerning efficient causality. Whereas, in the time leading up to and including Aquinas, God was understood in terms of the attributes of his wisdom and love, voluntarism conceptualized God as the primary efficient cause. An efficient cause is the cause of an effect distinguished from material, formal, or final causes. Aquinas had described God as a primary cause with reference to these four kinds of causality in the context of a genuinely humble and apophatic theology, yet with the advent of nominalist and voluntarist modes of thinking, causality was reduced to efficient causality. Thus, God was reduced to the first and primary all powerful (via voluntarism) cause of a universe that need not cohere into an ordered reality (via nominalism).
Nominalism took hold of Northern Europe, and by the time of Martin Luther was the dominant thought paradigm. Luther was, himself, trained at the University of Erfurt, which was thoroughly of the nominalist persuasion. So, it is no surprise that the theology of the Reformation is also nominalist and voluntarist in nature. For instance, imputed righteousness has no reality in the particular individual, and is only theoretically real in the mind of God (nominalism). And, the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty and predestination (voluntarism).
I contend that the turn away from the classical synthesis, and the advent of nominalism and voluntarism set the conditions for Modernity and the Modern Secular Age. The Reformation provided the occasion for the emerging nation state to create public space that either controlled the voice of the church or silenced it. Thus, a nominalist-voluntarist-reformed theology directly contributes to the both Modernity and the Modern Secular Age.
So, what does this theological narrative have to do with dreams and reality? Imagine you are in the midst of a cold winter, the only instance of relief from a long war spanning about thirty years. Imagine your entire world is turned on its head; you are Roman Catholic, but the Church’s authority is subject to criticism and speculation. You find yourself sitting in a warm room, an escape from the blistering cold outside. Then, warm and cozy, you begin to think about the nature of reality. Who can you trust? What can you trust? Because you are a nominalist you know that the real does not exist in the particulars of this world. Thus, you feel free to doubt the actual real existence of the room in which you sit. Perhaps it is all a dream. In other words, imagine you are Rene Descartes. The cogito ergo sum is often thought to be a summary description of the philosophical and theological revolution taking place in the 17th century, but it did not originate with Descartes. Instead, it had a long theological genealogy dating back to the 14th century. If Descartes is the Father of Modernity, then he is the heir of a nominalist and voluntarist theology.
If you have read my theological narrative of the origins of Modernity and the Modern Secular Age, then you have read what I hope will serve as an introduction to a planned conversation between Paul Axton and myself. In a series of podcasts, we will explore the origins of Modernity and the Modern Secular Age by discussion of the work of Charles Taylor and John Milbank. And, we will discuss theological responses to modernity in Catholic theology and Radical Orthodoxy. I hope I have piqued your interest, and that you will enter this engaging theological conversation with us.
Simpson, Christopher Ben. Modern Christian Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Milbank, John. Beyond the Secular Order. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.