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The Anti-Naturalism of Western Culture

Western culture has increasingly followed an anti-natural trajectory.  If Modernity ruthlessly sought answers in science—or what it thought was ‘scientific’ (as in its imaginative constructions in the humanities)—an alternative anti-naturalism has come into ascendency in postmodern times.  This is not an ivory tower debate.  It plays out in children’s classrooms, adoption agencies, public policies, university campuses, denominations, views on immigration, hiring policies, and on and on the list goes.  The rejection of nature is the definitive characteristic of our age—despite all the contradictory worries about climate change and the environment.

The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, argued for an authentic existence that did not fall entirely to the side of facticity or, alternatively, to the side of transcendence.  One should acknowledge the facts while not being bound by them (Being and Nothingness).  As an existentialist, his primary concern was to deny that we, as humans, have an ‘essence.’  Rather, we are thrown into existence and have to create our identity out of the choices and actions that we make.  Yet, even Sartre believed that there were certain facts.

Perhaps the illogicality of his position has evolved existentialism into postmodernity.  If, indeed, existence precedes essence, then why should we acknowledge facts as though they are unchangeable?  Why should we not live in transcendence, in nothingness?  Admittedly, Sartre’s own examples of ‘being’ or facts were not in nature but in the realities of one’s existence: the waiter who does not accept that he is a waiter but imagines himself to be something else; the woman who denies that she is being touched; and so forth.   Remarkably, Sartre could not acknowledge the reality of evil; all that matters is that one chooses to act (and so create being), not what one chooses.

This denial of nature and the emphasis on personal choice stands as the antithesis of Stoic philosophy.  Stoicism rejected imaginary constructs and called on people to content themselves with who they were and what they were.  Are you a slave?  Then be a slave, and a good one at that.  They spoke of what was ‘natural’ and opposed those who lived ‘against nature’ (para physin) a phrase that was often used for homosexuals in antiquity because they lived against their biologically defined sex (so, e.g., Romans 1.26).  In the postmodern West in our day, the Stoics have been trounced.  Two hundred and fifty years of promoting ‘freedom’ as a cardinal virtue has finally come to define our worldview: we lean into nothingness and away from being.

This plays out in various ways in the halls of academia and in everyday life.  Already in the 19th century, David Friedrich Strauss could argue that myth was the true kernel of belief wrapped in discardable, historical garb—i.e., imagined, made-up history (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, 1846).  Thus, according to Strauss, one should read the Gospels not for what they state about the historical Jesus but for what they claim for the Christ of faith.  In the same vein, the existentialist New Testament scholar in the following century, Rudolf Bultmann, insisted that history did not support theology.  One did not need to believe in the physical, historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead in order to preach a message about transcendent existence to a congregation.  On his view, Jesus’ resurrection was a faith claim apart from any reference to a physical resurrection.  In our day, it is a given that mainline denominational ministers will reject the claim that Jesus rose from the dead physically on the third day.  The elephant in the room for this constructed Christianity is the simple fact that the early Church was founded on the claim that Jesus had been raised physically from the dead: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15.14).

Our culture’s experiment with transcendence over facticity finds any number of peculiar denials.  The common language for this in postmodern thought is ‘deconstruction.’  If some reality has been constructed, it is arbitrary.  Its value is purely in terms of whether it is functional, not in, as the Stoics would have said, because we find contentment in living according to nature.  If existence is constructed, then it can also be deconstructed.  A good example might be the denial of borders and immigrants entering the country.  Borders are, after all, human lines in the sand, and people should not be categorized in terms of ‘immigrant’ or ‘citizen’ status, the argument goes.

The denial of reality is not always a question of nature.  It plays out in the refusal to have a serious conversation about Islam in the west.  Islamic terrorism is not simply terrorism by people who happen to be Muslims; there is such a thing as an Islam (there are varieties!) that, by definition, leads to terrorism—as any Islamic terrorist would agree (although the word would be jihad and it would be considered just and holy, not what we think of when we use the word ‘terrorism’).  It is a legitimate interpretation of Islam.  Western public discourse has, however, typically preferred to remain ignorant of the theological discussion in Islam and the teaching of parts of the Koran that advocate killing or subjugating non-Muslims.  What is the basis for this?  The answer, inevitably, is a culture that desires to discuss things in terms of what one wants to believe—a politically correct view of Islam—rather than to discuss the facts—what the Koran actually says and how it has actually been interpreted and lived by certain groups throughout many centuries.

The current interest in euthanasia, led by the Netherlands, offers an example of anti-naturalism.  Why should one, to use language introduced above, treat existence as a facticity, as a fact that defines a person?  Why should people not be able to choose to terminate their own existence?  Indeed, it would be the ultimate act of transcendency to deny the facticity of life.  Instead of addressing the facts of one’s life, such as a difficult illness, pain, or depression, why not resist all external definitiveness by choosing to act against the facts?  The most creative self-definition, on such a view, is the act that denies the fact of existence itself.

Not surprisingly, another of the much debated issues of recent decades fits this philosophical debate as well: abortion.  Different cultures have put forward different arguments to defend the morality of killing the unborn.  China has put forward a social argument: abortion as a way to control population growth for the supposed good of society.  Some have advocated abortion on eugenic grounds—killing those with Downs Syndrome or some terminal illness or defect, for example, or those wanting a boy and not a girl.  Yet the West’s fundamental argument in favour of abortion has been based on the ideology of freedom: women (not men or the unborn) should have the freedom to choose whether they want to bring a pregnancy to term or not.  On such an ethic, what makes abortion moral is the denial of the facts of what a foetus is—a growing human being—in favour of a value: freedom of choice.  This, too, is an example of the West’s anti-naturalism.

The denial of facticity even reached the halls of government this past year as people tried to deny that Donald Trump was actually president.  Others have tried to destroy his presidency by creating false ‘facts’.  Lying, denials, and fake news define much of Washington D.C., as well as other institutions of power in our culture, such as news agencies.  No wonder that young, university students oppose free speech, prefer safe spaces to reality, need trigger warnings to alert them that something uncomfortable might be in their assigned reading, and, in one way or another, can be helped to create their own bubble of reality.

Most destructively, biological sex and gender identity have been subjected to the philosophy of transcendency.  Ryan Anderson, author of When Harry Became Sally,[1] cites an example in the constructed reality of Dr. Deanna Anderson, director of the Duke Center for Child and Adolescent Gender Care.  She says [trigger warning!] that gender identity is

the only medically supported determinant of sex…. It is counter to medical science to use chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia, or secondary sex characteristics to override gender identity for purposes of classifying someone as male or female.

One of the recent attempts by transgender activists to define gender includes the categories of identity, expression, physical attraction, and emotional attraction (the Gender Unicorn)—not biology.[2]  Yet transgender activists cannot let go the idea of facticity.  Having rid themselves of biology as determinative, some, such as Adkins, nonetheless want to insist that gender is either innate or fixed at an early age.  (‘Insist’ appears to be the appropriate word: we live in a world that deconstructs nature and insists on the validity of its own construction of reality.)  Anderson asks, in response, if the proper dosage of medicine will be based on a person’s biological sex or on one’s gender identity—indeed.

Anderson further avers that transgender activists “promote a highly subjective and incoherent worldview.”  He accuses them of promoting their agenda without care for logical consistency and outlines their contradictions on several matters:

On the one hand, they claim that the real self is something other than the physical body, in a new form of Gnostic dualism, yet at the same time they embrace a materialist philosophy in which only the material world exists. They say that gender is purely a social construct, while asserting that a person can be “trapped” in the wrong gender. They say that there are no meaningful differences between man and woman, yet they rely on rigid sex stereotypes to argue that “gender identity” is real, while human embodiment is not. They claim that truth is whatever a person says it is, yet they believe there’s a real self to be discovered inside that person. They promote a radical expressive individualism in which people are free to do whatever they want and define the truth however they wish, yet they try ruthlessly to enforce acceptance of transgender ideology.[3]

The underlying, philosophical failure of these transgender activists is their concern to affirm the reality of a particular thing—transgenderism—and their postmodern belief that reality is constructed.  Incredulously, even biological sex is not arrant naturally but assigned, as the phrase, ‘assigned sex’ is now to be understood.  It is not, allegedly, assigned by God or nature but by a doctor or parents.  The logic of this position ought to press transgender advocates not to add ‘other’ to the binary ‘male’ and ‘female’ but to question whether there is any such thing as ‘male’ and ‘female’ aside from social constructs.  The category, ‘other,’ still has ‘male’ and ‘female’ as references.

In all this nonsense, the fundamental question keeps arising: ‘Can we say that there is anything ‘natural,’ or is everything simply a matter of perception, construction, and choice of identity?’  The Stoics simply called on people to be content with living according to nature; they did not have to try to explain to their culture, confused as it was, that there was such a thing as nature.  Their counterparts, the Cynics, took living according to nature to an extreme, casting off all authority and living anti-socially and naturally (in some cases, at least, nude, unwashed, and uncouth behaviour).  Even the Epicureans, who denied the existence or at least the relevance of, and therefore the authority of, the gods and believed in the mutability of reality (as periods in time offered different constructions of reality), acknowledged being part of a natural reality. 

Some, searching for some connection between today’s imaginations with ancient philosophy, have suggested Gnosticism.  Gnosticism was a second century hodge-podge of various views, including some Christian language that consequently confused some of the churches.  It had more in common with certain eastern religious views.  At its heart was a conviction that the material world was a wrongful creation of a demigod, and that reality was really found in non-material spirituality.  The more fully explored version of this type of worldview will, however, be found in Hinduism.  What is different, however, is that any contemporary, Western versions of this type of anti-naturalism will not reject materialism.  Therein lies the logical contradiction that fills the daily news: the conviction that reality is constructed, not natural, and that this constructed reality is essential.

To all this, the Church rightly and necessarily affirms:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible (Nicene Creed).

We believe that God created the world, that the world is good, and that human sin is a rejection of God’s good creation and Law.  The good life is the life lived in conformity with God’s good creation.  Eve’s and Adam’s sin, definitive of all human sin against God, was their choice to construct their own existence, to deny the Law of God and act like God by determining good and evil for themselves.  Our culture’s version of this, anti-naturalism, is not too different.  As we say, ‘the apple has not fallen far from the tree.’



[1] Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books, 2018).
[2] See the ‘Gender Unicorn’ graphic at www.transstudent.org/gender.
[3] Ryan T. Anderson, ‘The Philosophical Contradictions of the Transgender Worldview,’ Public Discourse (February 1, 2018); online at http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2018/02/20971/.  Accessed 2 February, 2018.