Universals or Particulars?

In week 2 of the Truth Project, Tackett notes that many pagan philosophies attempt to begin with particulars and proceed thence to universals. Others, notably Plato, try to begin with universals and make their way to the particulars. Tackett contends that “Plato was right; he just didn’t know where to get” his universals. He goes on to say that God gives us the universals by which all the particulars make sense.

There is an element of truth there, but it’s too simple by half, and flies directly in the face of some of the Scripture he cited earlier. When we look at a sunset and see the heavens declaring the glory of God, we are learning a universal from the particulars. When Paul tells us that everyone in the world is without excuse because “since the creation of the world, His invisible things are clearly seen, being understood by means of the things that are made,” Paul is telling us that man knows the universals — particularly God’s eternal power and God-ness — because he sees them in the particulars.

On the other hand, in Genesis 1-2, we note that God speaks to man, and by that revelation gives the principles by which man and his place in the creation make sense. Genesis 3 provides us with a graphic lesson in what happens when man tries to start from the particulars without taking account of what God has already told him. (Even this is oversimplified — we’re equating verbal revelation with universals, which is a bit too facile, but let it pass for now.)

So which is it? Do we start with the universals, or the particulars? The Christian answer to this is “both,” and a brief reflection on the Trinity should be enough to teach us this point.

God is ultimate reality.  Where do we start in the Trinity: unity, or diversity?  Which is more important, more fundamental to the nature of God? Both are equally vital, you say? Exactly. For more on this, see The One and the Many (more demanding, but a great review or the relevant history) or Trinity and Reality (more accessible) and its companion piece, Paradox and Truth.

Does all this seem a little arcane to you?

That’s because it is. But pushed out into the corners, the thing has serious consequences. Rushdoony likes to talk politics, and goes to some trouble in The One and the Many to show how societies that take plurality as ultimate disintegrate into chaos, and how societies that take unity as ultimate trend toward totalitarianism. Since the trinitarian idea isn’t available outside Christianity, pagans find themselves oscillating forever between one pole and the other, unable to reconcile them.

At a simpler level, I’d leave it with this: Christians ought not to forge an alliance with Plato when Scripture has given us a much, much better answer.

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