Way back in my undergraduate days, I recall a course with the title Images of Man in Literature. It was team taught, with one professor from the Philosophy Department and the other professor from the English Department. It was the kind of course that fit in well in a liberal arts curriculum, not having to prove its value back then according to metrics which drive the constantly escalating cost of higher education today, things like the development of skills for the marketplace and acquiring employment readiness.
What really though is the likelihood that such a course could be offered today? It probably would be shot down early on by the Gender Studies Department as misogynist. The Ethnic and Cultural Studies Department would attack it as classicist for giving insufficient attention to the perspectives of the marginalized and the oppressed. The devaluation of the liberal arts has created a situation wherein there is an extreme bias against received wisdom as it pertains to how we understand ourselves. If it isn’t new, we should be suspicious of it. What is new should be automatically accepted even if it contravenes an inherited anthropology.
Examples of what I mean abound. Indeed, hardly a day passes without the news media reporting on some incident or other of linguistic nonsense. There was, for example, the refusal of a Supreme Court nominee to answer the question: “What is a woman?” The nominee—now a sworn Justice of the Supreme Court—feared that the gender-benders on the Left would be all over her if she took note of how a woman is different from a man. She claimed that a biologist was needed to answer the question. Since she was not a biologist, the question went unanswered. Seeing and accepting anthropological difference is akin to career suicide on the noisy Left.
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Or, what about the senior United States senator from Massachusetts explaining that “pregnant people” are being denied constitutional protection by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs? She and everyone else knows that only women can conceive and bear children. Nevertheless, she refused to distinguish men from women because of the demand on the Left that equality be understood only as sameness. Anything you can do, I can do. How juvenile and immature, anthropologically speaking.
Decades ago, gender inclusive language had gained a foothold in many parishes and other places where the Catholic liturgy was celebrated. Attempts were always being made to change texts from their supposed “gender exclusivity” to a more agreeable “gender inclusivity.” Sad to say, this silliness still abides in some places. Behind this foolish preoccupation is a desire to whittle away at any linguistic difference so as to suggest that any difference factually, and especially anatomically, is arbitrary and meaningless.
The liturgy itself suffered as an artistic expression, but that was not all; indeed, it was just the beginning of the loss we endured. Doubt was introduced regarding the very structure of reality. Perhaps the created world is not what our eyes tell us it is. Perhaps we are deceived as to what things really are in themselves. The strange new world we now find ourselves in has been made possible by an enervating and pervasive epistemological pessimism.
And yet it was not that way at the beginning. In the beginning was the Word, the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel avers. The Word was God, the evangelist says further. And then, most decisively, we are told that the Word became flesh. In just a few verses, the central event of Christianity is announced. The Synoptics, St. Matthew and St. Luke, provide us with the details of how the Incarnation unfolds in space and time.
However, the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel is in a category all its own as the revelation par excellence of the Logos. God can be known by rational and intelligent creatures like ourselves because rationality and intelligibility belong by nature to God Himself, and we participate in that divine design by grace and truth. In other words, the Son gives us access to Wisdom.
Our words then have meaning because of the Incarnate Word. But while the Lord gave Adam the power to name in the Book of Genesis (cf. Genesis 2:19), this was before the Fall. In his fallen condition and rejecting the help of Divine Wisdom, man seeks to name things in this age according to his own machinations. These machinations have dislodged the original clarity of language and installed in its place the aforementioned regime of epistemological pessimism.
The Incarnation is the beginning of our redemption. For God makes clear in Genesis that naming things accurately is an integral part of His creative act. We cannot have a beautiful and breathtaking creation if it is divinely misnamed. Misnaming creation is to introduce deception into what is inherently good. And God never does that; indeed, it would be ungodly for Him to do that.
When Jesus is put on trial by Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator inquires with Him about being a king. Jesus, at this point in the interrogation, directs Pilate to His mission, to why He came into the world: “To testify to the truth,” Jesus says (John 18:37). He then adds: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). After hearing Jesus’ self-defense, Pilate confusedly asks, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
The reign of terror set off by Jesus’ birth (cf. Matthew 2:16) is joined to the reign of untruth when Jesus suffers for us. Killing and lying always offend God according to the divine precepts we have received through Moses. But Moses and his tablets do not rule in the same way that the Supreme Court does as the law of the land. The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs will likely mean fewer abortions in our country, but it will not end them altogether. Pre- or post-Dobbs, abortions are similarly referred to as “choice” or “reproductive health care.”
Lying, moreover, is the modus vivendi for some public officials to keep their careers going until retirement. Their veiled prevarications and blatant falsehoods are forged all the time, expecting that citizens will not hold it against them because of the widespread notion that living truthfully only invites unwanted troubles. The cost is simply too high for any one person to bear, goes the rationalization, and therefore the public servants in question are “off the hook.”
What our culture needs now more than ever is a recovery of a sure-footed and metaphysically certain anthropology. Such an anthropology cannot hide that a man and a woman are veritably different from each other all the while they are equal in dignity. Monism, moreover, cannot be the goal of cultural expression any more than it can be the goal of true divine worship. We flourish not under a forlorn sameness but under a zestful complementarity.
The French have a well-known expression: Viva la difference. It is rendered usually as “long live the difference.” The difference we long to live is in not validating the euphemisms in vogue for denying what the natural law and revelation tell us are good for the just ordering of society. Ultimately then, it comes down to not ripping words apart from their meanings, lest we rip language apart from reality. When language and reality are untethered, all we are left with are illusions.
God is real. We are real. Language is real. We rejoice in these affirmations; otherwise, we wind up not living but brooding in despair. The only release from that brooding despair is death. Definitely not a cheery prospect. Not a way to live and not a way to die.
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