Godlessness: Opiate of the Tenured
That's the good thing about blogging. You can just come right out and say it, without all the scholarly apparatus. This is not to criticize Gillespie. This is to explain why I couldn't last five minutes in academia.
The amazon product description says that Gillespie exposes "the religious roots of our ostensibly godless age," and reveals "that modernity is much less secular than conventional wisdom suggests. Taking as his starting point the collapse of the medieval world, Gillespie argues that from the very beginning moderns sought not to eliminate religion but to support a new view of religion and its place in human life. He goes on to explore the ideas of such figures as William of Ockham, Petrarch, Erasmus, Luther, Descartes, and Hobbes, showing that modernity is best understood as a series of attempts to formulate a new and coherent metaphysics or theology."
I suppose that, for self-evident reasons, this would be considered a controversial assertion in academia -- that so-called secular intellectuals are implicitly religious (or, to be more precise, steeped in myth), but just in denial about it. It would be analogous to attending a Catholic seminary and writing a dissertation arguing that Christianity is actually the collective displacement of a massive Freudian father complex. Probably wouldn't go down too well with the faculty.
Gilliespie writes that "modernity in the broadest sense was a series of attempts to answer the fundamental questions that arose out of the nominalist revolution." This metaphysical revolution -- which we will describe forthwith -- is really what cracked the cosmic egg half a millennium ago and overturned the order of the world, sinny side up. As a matter of fact, this is precisely the argument Richard Weaver made in his classic Ideas Have Consequences, first published over fifty years ago.
If Gillespie is correct, we are still dealing with the reverberations of this metaphysical revolution today. Again, nothing has been resolved since Humpty Dumpty fell from the medieval wall. Rather, it's as if every thinker picks up a small piece of the shell and tries to reconstruct a whole egg out of it.
But it cannot be accomplished with any secular philosophy. For reasons that will be obvious once we get into them, such a project is foredoomed. Some thinkers responded to the crisis by assembling a new overarching metaphysic that did not exclude Spirit -- most notably, Hegel -- but which crumbled as a result of their own in-built contractions.
Marx, of course, tried to resurrect Hegel by turning him upside down and banishing Spirit. This gave birth to the illiberal psychospiritual left that persists to this day. Crockroaches that they are, they are nearly impossible to eradicate, since they have learned to live in darkness and can survive by eating virtually anything, even such toxic food as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, or Paul Krugman -- things that would kill an otherwise healthy person who hadn't built up the antibodies over the decades.
Perhaps I should say up front that I think the process is a bit more complicated and multidimensional than how Gillespie (or Weaver) describes it. This is one of the problems with being a mere intellectual; that is, one is susceptible to giving far more weight to ideas than they warrant. But the psychoanalyst in me tends to see ideas as mere "cover stories" for much deeper processes. These processes are largely irrational.
However, I must immediately emphasize that they are irrational in both a positive and negative sense. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that they can be "irrational" or "a-rational," meaning that they can fail to ascend to reason, or that they can transcend it from above. The realm of spirit, for example, is arational, in that it obviously descends from a transrational plane. To try to capture it with mere reason is to severely maim it, and to have no earthly idea of the legitimate bounds of reason. For example, the idea of "homosexual marriage" is not only irrational, which would be bad enough; more importantly, it is anti-transrational.
So, exactly what was this "nominalist revolution"? To make a very long story short, it simply has to do with the question of the reality of transcendentals, or universals. (BTW, there is an excellent overview of the controversy -- and how to resolve it -- in Letter IX of MOTT, The Hermit.) For the medieval scholastics, culminating in Aquinas, universals were ultimately real, while for the nominalist insurgency, they were considered mere names (immediately you see the seeds of deconstruction, which attacks universals -- and therefore Truth -- with a neo-barbaric vengeance).
Seems like a mundane enough academic squabble, doesn't it? Well, no. This is the wedge that plunges right down the center of Christendom, and cleaves Western man to this day (of note, Eastern Christendom bypassed -- or rather, transcended -- this problem, as they never developed a rational theology, only a mystical theology).
Now, the God of the scholastics could be approached with reason. That being the case, the divine realm was ordered, hierarchical, and subject to man's comprehension (up to a point). But the nominalists swept this entire order aside, which had the perhaps unintended consequence of radically changing the character of God.
For one of the implications of nominalism is that God cannot be constrained by reason, which is to compromise his divine omnipotence. God can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, to such an extent that he actually becomes far more distant and fearsome -- an object of pure awe instead of understanding (here we see an ironic similarity between the Protestant and Islamic God, more on which tomorrow). Indeed, to pretend to understand God becomes a kind of blasphemy in the nominalist view. (Here again, notice how this anti-intellectual stance persists to this day, hence, the deep distrust of the Way of the Raccoon, from both left and right.)
I need to wrap it up here, as I have to get ready for work. But let me just lay out a preluminary schematic that I think summarizes the problem. Medieval man lived in a purely vertical world, or a "sacred space," so to speak, in which the most mundane activities resonated with eternity. Among other things, the nominalist revolution exiled man from this space, and plunged him into horizontal time.
Now, time can be progressive and evolutionary, or it can be regressive and decadent. For awhile, it seemed as if the nominalists had the upper hand, as modernity appeared to be "progressing" in a virtually limitless way in the 19th century. It truly appeared as if science and reason had liberated man from his own pathologies.
But then came the calamities of World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, and all the other modern nightmares of the 20th century, so that the very assumptions of modernity came into question. This then split the stream in two ways, one way leading back to tradition, the other way "forward" into postmodernism. Again, one of the things we will be discussing is the possibility of a third way to heal the wounds of history -- the Raccoon way of improvisational orthoparadoxical bohemian classical liberal neo-traditionalism.