Posted on January 4th, by Doug Ponder in Culture, God, Life. No Comments


Written by on January 4, 2015

Girl Scout Cookies by Any Word or Name

The start of each year brings many new things, but one of the most significant is surely the sale of Girl Scout cookies. In particular, it’s the sale of Samoas that really matters. Who doesn’t love combination of shortbread cookie, coated in gooey caramel, sprinkled with toasted coconut and striped with rich chocolate drizzle?! (Thin Mint lovers have been duped.)

I discovered a few years ago, however, that Samoas are not called “Samoas” in every part of the country. In some parts of the country they are called “Carmel deLites.” Aside from the awkward spelling, nothing else is different. Same ingredients. Same recipe. Same  cookie. Just a different name.

This naming anomaly serves as a simple illustration of a very important concept. The relationship between reality (the nature of what exists) and the words we use to describe reality (names or labels) is this: reality is not dependent upon the words we use to describe it. If something exists, then it exists exactly as it is no matter what name we give it, or even whether we give it a name or not.

It Is What It Is

At one level, this is so basic that we don’t even think about it. For example, when you order a water at Chipotle (so that you can spend the money on chips and guac instead of a soda), your cup reads, “H20, Agua, Water.” Three names. Three different labels. But they all refer to the same thing. The nature of the liquid’s existence does not depend upon the label or name that we give it. Water is agua is H20.

This idea is an old concept that’s been around for a long time. As Shakespeare famously had Juliet say, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It’s true, of course. You could call a rose a “lily” and it would still be a rose. That’s because the letters r-o-s-e are not what works a rose a rose. The flower gets its ‘rosiness’ from its plant DNA.

So, once again, reality does not depend upon the label or name that we give it. This is even true when we get a name or a label wrong. For example, I have some friends who named their cat “Amber,” only later to discover that “she” was actually a he. I suppose they could’ve continued to call their male cat Amber, but they decided to rename him. The point is this: the female name they gave the cat at first didn’t make the cat female, nor did the fact that the family thought of the cat as female and treated it as female. The cat was always male, a fact of reality not dependent upon the name given to it.

All this matters because many people are very confused about the relationship between words and reality, between what we name or label something and the way something actually is. (And that matters because when we are confused about the way things really are, we can’t live rightly in the world around us.)

Confusion, Darkness, and Evil

The confusion about words and reality is actually a very old error called “nominalism” (from the Latin word for “name”). The erroneous teaching of nominalism says that there is no real form or substance or nature in the world “out there.” Instead, there only perspectives, opinions, labels, and names that we give to things as we encounter them.

Consider what nominalism would mean, if it were true. A little girl is kidnapped, raped, and left for dead. All that is in us cries, “That’s wrong! That’s evil!” And I believe it certainly is. But the question is Why? Why is this act evil, but not another act? Nominalists must say that this act is evil because a group of people believe it is evil. The kidnapping, the rape, and the murder are not actually evil in themselves. They are only called evil by you and me. But if we were to change our minds… Well, those actions would not be “evil” anymore!

Consider another example. A young boy is born with an X and a Y chromosome. He is male because he possesses a fixed and definite DNA that drives his gender and sexuality. But not if nominalism is true. In the system of nominalism, this boy could be whatever he wanted to be. If he wanted to be a girl, he could call himself a girl, dress like a girl, even have a sex-change operation to make himself appear like a girl. Because of these actions, nominalists believe that he now really is a girl (even though his DNA still says otherwise).

Consider yet another example. Marriage is either something invented by God, or else marriage is just a label or a name given by humans to a particular social construct that we happen to call “marriage.” If marriage was created by God, then it is unchangeable. It has a definite form and shape and meaning, and we can’t change it even if we wanted to. But if marriage is just a name or a label that a group of people apply to certain relationships, then we could redefine marriage to be whatever we wanted it to be. Marriage could be a relationship of  three men and one woman, or an entire apartment complex who agree to get married together, or even a man who wants to marry his dog. In nominalism, nothing stops us from endless redefinitions, because names and labels are all there is.

Nominalism Isn’t Even Nominally True

Simply put, nominalism is not true. There truly is a “way things really are” because we live in a world that has been created and ordered by God. He makes water H20, and no other chemical formula can be water. He makes males with X and Y chromosomes, and people born with these chromosomes cannot become female even through sex changes and name changes. Similarly, God created marriage as an institution for a man and a woman. It can’t be changed by redefining it to include same-sex couples, polygamous relationships, and so forth. Such people may call their relationship “marriage,” and human governments might even go along with it, but changing the label doesn’t make it true. You can’t call a ham-and-ham sandwich and ham-and-cheese sandwich if there is no cheese.

Once again, all of this matters because in God’s world—the world we all live in—everything that is contrary to God’s character and his purposes is evil. Such things are not just called evil; they actually are evil. They spoil the peace in God’s world. They turn things upside down. They invert the order of God’s design, bringing brokenness, emptiness, and futility into our lives and the lives of people around us.

This is why God said through the prophet Isaiah,

How terrible it will be for those who call evil “good”
and good “evil,”
who substitute darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who substitute what is bitter for what is sweet
and what is sweet for what is bitter!
(Isaiah 5:20)

God’s words always matter, but these are especially relevant for these confused days in which we live.

When people speak the truth (according to what God says), and others label it “hate speech,” we must remember that their labels don’t make it true. God tells us what is truly hateful and what is loving.

When someone says, “The ‘thing’ inside me is not a person,” their belief doesn’t make it true. That aborted baby was a person because God says it’s a person, no matter what mom or the government said or thought.

When someone says they are trying to do the “loving thing,” but their actions are contrary to what God says is loving, then it doesn’t matter how good their intentions were. The actions were still not loving, no matter how much they want them to be.

Our Only Hope

Jesus defines reality because he made reality. “All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). This means that Jesus knows what he is talking about. The source of our confusion, frustration, and error-compounding ways stems from our refusal to trust him.

That is why Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And Jesus is not just one source of hope among many. He is our only hope. As he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

That is why the call of Jesus is fundamentally a call to faith. He asks us to trust him in every way: trust that he knows what he is talking about; trust that he will forgive us for all that we’ve messed up; trust that he will make everything right again in the end. In fact, he’s already begun this work (Rev. 21:5). He is even now making all things new in and through the lives of those who trust him.

Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

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