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All good Catholics know that nominalism is a Bad Thing. Nominalism is the substitution of “names” for universal “natures” as a tool for explaining the world. We need to name or label natural objects, put them into mental filing systems, in order to organize our world into tidy universal categories and patterns—but we have no way of knowing, the nominalist says, what “real” natures underlie those patterns and categories. Maybe there is no universal nature, and the pattern is invented by us for the sake of convenience; or maybe there is a pattern, but it is obscure to human eyes.

It was as a solid Catholic anti-nominalist that I began teaching theology in 1988. I had my anti-nominalism in common with other Christian theologians, but also with most professors of what were then politely called “Other Faiths,” or “Non-Christian Religions”—or, at the most euphemistic, “World Religions” (where Anglicanism was somehow at a polite distance to the “World”). If anti-nominalism is a Catholic trait, then the study of World Religions had for decades been more Catholic than the Catholics. This discipline found universal patterns in the “Great Religions” (another euphemism, intended to keep Satanism and other local minority groups out of the big tent). For decades, World Religions had entailed the study of the timeless “essences” of the Big Four: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism.

But by the late 1980s, a rebellion was afoot. Anti-essentialism was in the air. The younger professors had read Edward Said’s Orientalism in graduate school, and they realized that much of what liberals had said about the Big Four was a projection of Western missionary attitudes and so, in effect, just a “name” Westerners had stuck onto alien cultures. The idea that all the religions are “faiths” was held in particular contempt, as a projection of Evangelical piety onto religions that in fact were innocent of Pauline or Abrahamic notions of religion as a return to faith. When we argued, one of my anti-essentialist colleagues would indignantly protest: “Islam is not a faith, it is a civilization!”

And argue we did, since I held it my duty as a Catholic anti-nominalist to uphold the existence of universal natures and essences in just about everything, from the organic world to human institutions. Call them “faiths” or call them “religions,” they still must have some unchangeable nature, because they are made of words, and the meanings of words have a constancy, such that they can be recovered and renewed. I was impressed by the permanency and recoverability of the meanings of words—including the words of sacred texts. I saw the members of religions as actors, enacting their sacred texts like the scripts of plays, and bound by the meaning of the words. If religions are living books, and religious folks are a cast of performers, then members of a religion are always performing variants of the same play. So I was an “essentialist” with respect to religions.

But I did not remain an essentialist. I watched the debate play out between an Evangelical colleague who had spent many years as a missionary in India and loved the “spirituality” she had found there, and Ian Harris, the late, fine scholar of Buddhism. Ian knew a vast deal about Buddhism and Hinduism, and knew them from within, in a way the bossy lady would never do. But she once cracked a joke that cracked my essentialism forever, when she stated that Ian belonged to the “Early English music society” school of interpreting Indian religion. Just as early music societies insist on playing mediaeval tunes on reconstructed antique musical instruments, not on modern instruments, so the essentialists unwittingly try to preserve the religions they study from the taint of history and the changes it brings. As Joseph Ratzinger pointed out in Truth and Tolerance, the “Great Religions,” such as Buddhism and Islam, do not exist in sealed compartments, which neatly preserve and “can” their essential natures. Rather, they are constantly changing, through historical interaction with other religions and civilizations. I could agree, then, with an observation of Hans Urs von Balthasar, that Christians have no theological reason, no reason within their faith, to insist that any religion other than Christianity has a permanent essence or nature.

The evil sprung on the world on September 11, 2001, made everyone a participant in the debate about “essentialism” in world religions. And it seems that most Catholics, liberal or conservative, are unwilling to abandon their ancestral anti-nominalism. It is easy to form an opinion as to whether Islam is essentially violent or not, on the basis of a quick reading of the Koran, Islam’s sacred text and “script.” Simply find the lines that prescribe jihad, war, or violence, and there it is: Islam’s essential, unchanging nature. In vain does one protest that it is not the sacred text as such that determines a religion, but how the sacred text is interpreted. People who know quite well that Christian doctrine cannot be proof-texted out of the Bible will still insist on determining the perennial core of Islam on the basis of some lines picked out of the Koran.

Which statements are of the essence, and which statements are peripheral? How far can we claim to define the core of a religion, especially of one that is not our own? Human beings will not readily bear agnosticism about anything. Perhaps unreflexive anti-nominalism is a constant, universal human trait with a sound Darwinian basis. It is true that what has longevity within religions is the text. Religions are not timeless—but neither are they are so fully immersed in the time from which they sprang as to be unable to transcend it. Some religions were “just of their time” and have died out. The religion of the Greeks is gone forever, as is that of the Egyptians, and Chesterton remarked on how difficult it is to make an act of disbelief in Thor, since the god of the Vikings is stone dead. The dead religions of the world have vivid mythologies but no shared textual center. However differently the Vedas, the Koran, the Sikh Adi Granth, the Pali Canon, and the Mahayana Sutras operate, they all create a measure of belief and a degree of permanency in the religions they express.

But if absolute anti-essentialism is an academic fad, the strict essentialism of the common-sense bystander is just as untenable. The sacred texts do not give life to their faiths—only structure and longevity. Religions are performed, and sacred texts enacted, in one single essential fact, the worship of God. It is the worshipping act that defines a religion, and allows it to transcend time and place. If the only permanent mark made by the “Other Faiths” is the mark it has made on human souls, then it has quite a record. The abiding nature of the “Religions of the World” is engraved on many souls, for better and sometimes for worse.

Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion. 

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