April 22, 2006 § 21 Comments
Someone has been taking a lot of heat lately for some comments he made about the Da Vinci Code, gnosticism, and what he judges to be the non-connection between them. I haven’t read enough of the stuff he is criticizing to have a dog in the particular fight. But in the fight between essentialism and nominalism I have a very big, slobbery pit bull on the side of essentialism.
Many Catholics fall into a form of anti-essentialism when it comes to the Church. Islam, for example, these Catholics will say, is whatever Moslems happen to say it is. What makes the Church fundamentally different from Islam, Gnosticism, liberalism, conservatism, etc. is that the Church has a magisterium. The magisterium has the authority to say what is and is not Catholic, so Catholicism, unlike these other isms, has a true essence. These other isms are treated as though they lack an essence because they do not have a magisterium. They are whatever their adherents happen to believe that they are.
This anti-essentialism is not without consequence. It leads people to believe that, for example, Islam can be made peaceful simply by convincing enough Moslems that Islam should be peaceful. It leads people to believe that open borders will not harm the common good if enough people believe that open borders should not harm the common good. It leads people to believe that women can be made priests if enough Catholics believe that women should be made priests. It leads people to believe that reality is constructed by what we happen to believe, rather than what we believe being (ideally) a reflection of reality. It leads people to believe that reality should conform to our beliefs, rather than that our beliefs should conform to reality.
In other words, anti-essentialism leads people to believe that we are God. And I think that may explain its widespread appeal.
Liberalism (for example, as this analysis applies to other isms as well) has an essence that is independent of what any particular liberal thinks. To be a liberal is not to own the essence of liberalism, to define it for onesself: it is to have an alliegance to liberalism, a loyalty to liberalism, a faith in liberalism, a liberalism which has an essence that is independent of the self, a self which may well be deceived about the essence of that liberalism. There are “good” (which is to say highly loyal) liberals and “bad” (which is to say apostate or dissenting) liberals, just as there are good and bad Catholics. And what anyone in particular thinks or asserts about the matter has no necessary connection to what is objectively true.
As I said, I haven’t done the diligence required to take a side in The Fifth Column’s particular fight over the essence of gnosticism and the DVC. But very few things indeed are what they are just because we say so. Anti-essentialism is a lie, with all that that implies.