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The Protestant Roots of the Pronoun Wars

We now live in the age of the weaponized pronoun. Who brought us here? Believe it or not, one of the key players is none other than Martin Luther.

Remember the old saying “sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never harm me”? Today, society is more forgiving of people who throw sticks and stones than those who dare to refer to a person using the proper pronoun. Today, names have become weaponized in the ongoing revolt against reality.

How is it that calling someone by his given name or referring to him in accord with his biology suddenly became such an egregious offense? The truth is that we are living at the illogical conclusion of an error that started a long time ago. All that was needed was for our Catholic cultural momentum to fade enough to let these old errors come to the fore.

One of these errors dates back to the Middle Ages, with an English Franciscan named William of Ockham (1285-1347), better known simply as Ockham, famous for the principle of Ockham’s razor. Ockham was asked by his superior to defend the case of the “poor Franciscans” before the papal court in Avignon, France. These Franciscans were called “poor” because they believed that Christ renounced all worldly goods—even his kingdom and worldly dominion—and that those who truly follow his gospel must do likewise. Pope John XXII countered that such was impossible because God saw material possessions as a good. Indeed, in the Old Testament, God legislated the proper use of property and possessions.

Ockham’s solution was that God could change his mind. He could have established material possessions as a good in the Old Testament and then later decreed that the same things are evil. What matters isn’t whether a thing is intrinsically good or evil. What truly matter is God’s will, which isn’t bound by anything—even God’s nature.

Ockham’s idea was later refined and transformed into a philosophical system known as nominalism. Nominalism gets its name from the Latin word for “name,” nomen. Ockham argued that only individuals exist and that we tend to group these individuals together under a name. For example, humanity doesn’t exist outside the mind. There are only similar individuals that our minds group together, and we put the label of “humanity” on them. In the Poverty Dispute, a nominalist would argue that God didn’t call material possessions good because they are by nature good; rather, “good” was just a name that God temporarily called certain things. Then, later on, he would call them the opposite. The nature or essence of a thing—its constitution and properties—doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what God calls it.

According to Ockham’s thinking, the Incarnation becomes a kind of fiction. God taking to himself our human nature is arbitrary because “human nature” doesn’t exist outside our mind. It is only a name. He could have become “incarnate” in stone, or wood, or even as a different species. If God calls it sufficient to atone for the sins of whole world, it is.

Nominalism comes to us today through the mediation of Protestantism, whose most famous founder, Martin Luther, was a self-admitted nominalist. Although he didn’t sign on to everything proposed by this philosophy, his theology in the main reflects nominalistic thought.

For example, according to Luther, God makes us right with himself through a purely external means—namely, God legally calls us righteous even though we remain sinners. We’re not really made holy from the inside by God’s grace, but merely declared saved from the outside. Since faith is a driver of culture, the nominalism that permeated Luther’s theology spread through the lands where Protestantism dominated, seeping into everyday culture and cleaving people’s conception of reality into the world of faith, the soul, and the interior versus that of works, the body, and the exterior.

This habit of viewing reality took root, and centuries later served as a foundation for the modern feminist movement and the Sexual Revolution to bring nominalism’s will over nature to bear on the question of man, woman, and sexual identity. In her 1949 work The Second Sex, feminist Simone de Beauvoir previewed what would unfold. De Beauvoir sought to liberate women from male servitude by separating women from womanhood. Put bluntly, women are free only to the extent that they become like a man. Since female biology is so intimately tied to nature, feminine liberation must come by breaking (sometimes violently) those things that tie women to pregnancy and childrearing through abortion and state-run childcare.

But can a woman really become like a man? Are the words “man” and “woman” just labels, as nominalism holds? Interestingly, de Beauvoir rejected this type of nominalist solution because “it is easy for antifeminists to show that women are not men” (The Second Sex, p. 24).

That was 1949. The birth control pill, introduced in 1960, began to blur those differences by effectively disconnecting—indeed, virtually erasing—the connection between the marital act and procreation. By the time of the Sexual Revolution, the nominalist solution began to appear more plausible.

In the popular mind, once one of the most obvious distinctive differences between men and women (procreation) was erased, the only differences that seemed to remain were a few physiological features and stereotypes. What, then, is a man or a woman? They are labels that societies places on individuals with similar stereotypical traits. Get rid of the stereotypes, and what’s left?

It is the individual’s will. The interior feeling and thoughts of a person’s soul tells him whether he is male, female, or some other species. The body or biology is arbitrary, since abstractions like male and female don’t exist outside the mind. It is something we apply to similar things.

In other words, society has become like the god of nominalism, where the will is not bound by nature.

The nominalist move comes at a cost, because the definition of a word is itself an abstraction. That’s how, when experts in the field of gender studies, sexual fluidity, and other related fields are asked to give a definition as simple as “what is a man?” or “what is a woman?” . . . they are reduced to silence.

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