Nominalism and the Possibility of a Modern Liturgy

Virgin and Child Adored by St Louis, King of France - Claudio Coello (17th Century)

Virgin and Child Adored by St Louis, King of France – Claudio Coello (17th Century)

In a recent article here on OnePeterFive, “Liturgy, Adaptation, and the Need for Context,” Adam Michael Wood attempts to draw a sort of liturgical middle way between rigorist traditionalism and laxist liberalism. I recommend reading the article yourself in order to understand his argument, much of which I would agree with. (For more context on this conversation, you can read an article of mine recently published as well, “The Flight to Eternal Rome and the Mass of the Revolution.”)

While insisting that one must not, in the name of inculturation, re-write the entire Mass, Mr. Wood does believe a “careful adaptation of the liturgy itself and the elements that surround it” to be necessary. While I want to respond to his argument, this article will likely go beyond a simple response, and I hope he will agree with much that I write here.

One of his arguments is that the liturgy itself needs adaptation to modern culture:

“We can recreate the Traditional Latin Mass, but we cannot recreate a traditional Catholic congregation. Yes, liturgy forms people. But the old rites grew up in the Old World, a world that also formed them. They had a different philosophical context, a different cosmological understanding, a different anthropology.”

We might turn this into a syllogism: liturgy is formed by culture; culture has changed; liturgy must change. The major premise is certainly true: liturgy is not only received, but those who receive it also, to some degree, form it. My contention will chiefly be with the minor premise. I will argue that culture has not changed. Culture has been destroyed. If culture had merely passed or developed into another culture, I would not contest some prudent, small inculturations. Indeed, this has happened throughout history. But culture, properly understood, has passed away; only its corpse remains. There is simply nothing modern for the liturgy to use.

C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend,

“What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed, it is even worse than you say. For they neglect not only the law of Christ but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery, perjury, theft and the other crimes which I will not say Christian Doctors, but the Pagans and the Barbarians have themselves denounced. They err who say ‘the world is turning pagan again.’ Would that it were! The truth is that we are falling into a much worse state. ‘Post-Christian man’ is not the same as ‘pre-Christian man.’ He is as far removed as virgin is from widow: there is nothing in common except want of a spouse; but there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse lost.”

The words of St. Peter might be aptly applied to Western civilization today:

“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first.  For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Peter 2:20-21)

Plato may have embraced or rejected Christ, but we do not know. Aristotle may have become an ascetic monk after hearing the Gospel, but we do not know. Homer may have become a bishop if he had lived at the time of Christ, but from this knowledge we are entirely cut off. We do know, however, about the founders of modernity. They stand in direct opposition to the Faith because they were born out of heresy and schism. We can sift through the ancients and find the silver and gold worth mining, since we know that in theory parts of the culture may have been open to the Faith. We cannot likewise sift through the moderns to find the silver and gold worth mining, since the origin of modernity was in terms of its opposition to the truth.

Now, of course there have been good and true things in the modern world, but there have been no good and true things flowing from modernity, that spirit that has motivated the movement of the modern world, since this spirit has always made itself the enemy of the Faith. Whether or not a particular philosopher explicitly rejected the Faith, he did at least share in a philosophical or theological lineage that rejected the Faith. Thus, inculturation was possible in a pre-Christian world in a way that it is not in the post-Christian world, because while the former was non-Christian, the latter is anti-Christian.

But the difference goes even deeper; while the ancients remained ignorant of the supernatural, they at least understood to some degree the natural. Their priests may have been false priests worshipping false gods, but they still had priests, and they still believed in gods. Their prophets may have been false prophets reading false signs, but they still had prophets, and they still believed in signs. Their kings may have been false kings, tyrants abusing their false authority, but they still had kings, and they still believed in authority.


Modernity, on the other hand, has neither true nor false priests, true nor false prophets, true nor false kings. The ancients might have lacked grace, but at least they had nature, and damaged though nature was, they believed in natural things. Modernity not only lacks grace, but it has lost natural things as well, for it takes its very roots from a denial of both the natural and the supernatural.

To understand this disaster, we must begin, at the latest, in the 14th century with William of Ockham, who taught that the metaphysical forms that underlie reality do not exist. For Ockham, when we speak of humanity, we mean only a name to describe many individuals who can be observed to be very similar. There is no common human nature that they share. This means there is nothing essential to the nature of any being; in fact, a thing’s nature is simply a linguistic fiction. There are no fixed definitions and no possibility of understanding the essence of things. From this denial of ontology came a denial of teleology. If a thing lacks a nature, it lacks an end, since the purpose of a thing flows from the essence of the thing. Man’s final end is the beatific vision because man is an intellectual being. This nominalism became the basis for nearly all Western thought since then. Only the Church has, for the most part, avoided the trap.

This denial of the natural soon bled into the supernatural, and a coherent theology of nominalism was born out of the 16th century in the persons of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Within a century, the seeds of theological revolution were deepening, and by the mid-17th century, the West has its first modern pantheist/atheist, Baruch Spinoza. Finally, the Enlightenment was the failed attempt to ground morality after the nominalist revolution had destroyed the possibility for both teleology and revelation.

A contemporary example of the effects of nominalism will be helpful to see my argument. In the present debate over gay marriage, the citation of Revelation is obviously unhelpful in the public sphere, which has largely rejected the possibility for Revelation. This is, of course, an effect of nominalism; it is no coincidence that skepticism of Revelation followed immediately upon the heels of the first coherent nominalist theology of Protestantism. Fair enough, however: marriage belongs not only to the supernatural order, but also to the natural order. We should be able to convince non-Christians based simply on the natural law. But, of course, secular culture does not believe in the natural law because it is rooted in teleology. The natural law is dependent on recognizing the nature of things. Nominalism has thus destroyed the possibility of making both a supernatural argument from Revelation and a natural argument from teleology. Thus, we see nominalism’s effects in the modern mind: a denial of natures and ends.

More importantly for our purposes here, however, is the consequence of this mental denial. What exists in the mind of man comes to exist, through his actions, in reality. If the modern mind is like “mud,” according to Hilaire Belloc, unable to make proper distinctions between beings, identify the nature of beings, or perceive the proper ends of beings, then it will produce this in reality. Thus, since the essence of marriage does not exist in the mind of modern man, neither does it exist in reality. “Gay marriage” is not bad marriage; it is simply not marriage. Fiction in the mind becomes fiction in reality.

Moreover, if the entire worldview of modern man has become fictionalized by nominalism and its consequences, so the entire culture of modern man will have become fictionalized for the same reasons. Now, the proper objects of the intellect are universals, i.e., essences, natures, forms, etc. Thus, if nominalism denies the existence of these things, then a nominalist mind does not have bad knowledge; it simply does not have knowledge. Likewise, a culture built by the mind of modern man is not a bad culture; it is simply not a culture.

Thus, we cannot merely say that where religion, the supernatural, or the theological are concerned, we can ignore modernity, while where ethics, the natural, and the philosophical are concerned, we can listen to modernity. Ockham destroyed nature, and by destroying nature, he destroyed culture. And this great destroyer birthed a philosophical Leviathan that fulfilled itself in the intellectual suicide of the 20th century.

Thus, there is no culture with which to inculturate the Church. The old liturgical signs were signs rooted in nature. Any new liturgical signs would be contrived and artificial. They would be the product of the nominalist revolution. We cannot find forms that speak to modern man, because the forms in the mind of modern man are not true forms. They are confusions. Kant is in his mind, but we cannot speak to him in the language of Kant, because the language of Kant is false. Evangelical worship is in his mind, but we cannot speak to him in the language of protestant worship, since the language of protestant worship is false. The old forms, on the other hand, are truly eternal forms, because they exist as the divine ideas in the intellect of God.

So we have rejected the folding of hands as a sign of submission to God because it arose out of a feudal society that no longer exists. But with what do we replace it? We have nothing. I do not deny that other forms of worship could be used than are used in the old Mass. Indeed, the East uses different forms in its worship than the West. But I do deny that modern forms exist that could possibly convey the same meaning. Modernity does not believe in submission, worship, hierarchy, order, duty, and discipline, and therefore, to seek after modern symbols of these things is a false game, for modernity has none to supply. By rejecting both the natural and the supernatural, it has rejected anything even naturally useful that could be taken up into the service of the liturgy.

When a Catholic enters a Church and finds his pew, he briefly bends his right knee to the King. Once, the logic for this action was obvious. If we would bow or kneel before an earthly king, how much more so should we bow or kneel before the Heavenly King? Today, Ockham, Luther, Locke, and the rest of the revolution have done us the grave disservice of taking away our kings. The natural has been snatched out from under our feet, and we are expected to cling to the supernatural without the help of analogy, which was available to all men before our age.

Yet, we do not tell modern man, instead of genuflecting, to grab his left foot with his right hand and hop in a circle twice before entering his pew. We don’t tell him to do this because we are not nominalists; there was something real about kneeling before a king and something unreal about hopping in a circle before a king. The symbolism of these acts is not indifferent, dependent only upon the cultural associations of various men. Rather, symbols are rooted in nature; if an age rejects nature, it gives up its ability to create true symbols that are based on more than mere social contract.

So, what to do? There is only one option. We must learn to kneel before the divine King, without ever having knelt before a human king. The liturgy was always strange, since it always involved that leap of analogy from the human to the divine. Yet, today it is doubly strange. Today, the post-Christian world has stolen our natural analogs for divine things. Therefore, we don’t know why we kneel, why we chant, why we light candles, or why we burn incense.


This is the challenge of being a 21st century Catholic, but I think it is also a great joy. When we discover the Faith today, we discover it like a newborn discovers the world. We believe in dogma, after never having heard of dogmas. We celebrate liturgies, after never having seen a liturgy. We obey after never having truly obeyed. Never before has the Church existed in a time when it appeared so different from the world, and therefore, never before has it been in a better position to sense the transcendent than it is now.

Beauty might not save all men, but awe will.

To return to where we began, could we have changed the liturgy to suit the needs of medieval man? Yes, and we did. But can we now change the liturgy to suit the needs of modern man? No, instead, we must change modern man to suit the liturgy. We must all learn how to make an act of fealty to kings, so that we can renew our covenant worthily at the altar rail. We must learn how light candles in honor of Our Lady in our own home, so that we will understand them when we see them on the altar. We must pray the psalms at sunrise in our bedroom, so that we understand them when the priest prays them at the altar. We must pray and work for the return of Christendom, so that we can regain our natural analogs for divine things.

Sanctification in the modern world means, in part, tearing off the layers of modernity with which we have unconsciously clothed ourselves. We must learn to think once again like ancient Jews or medieval peasants. That we do not think like pre-modern people certainly makes participation in the liturgy difficult, but if accepted in grace, it can be our peculiar modern share in the cross.

Amid the distractions of smart phones, blogs, cars, skyscrapers, mass industry, and constant marketing, we must get back in touch with The Real. This is what the traditional Mass affords us to do. This Mass tells us that electric light bulbs are not the same thing as candles, guitar is not the same as chant, and business casual is not the same thing as vestments.

The modern world has rejected both the natural and the supernatural; the traditional Mass helps us rediscover both.

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