Sunday, January 03, 2010

Thoughts on the Natural Law

Pope Benedict, when he was in America, encouraged the attempt to reconcile the biblical faith and the natural law. It will take time to do so since we are dealing with a wonderful mystery: what is the relationship between faith and reason? This, no doubt, deals with the relationship with nature and grace as well as the unity of the divine and the human in Jesus Christ. Everyone knows the Chalcedonian maxim: union without confusion. Philosophy and theology, faith and reason, and nature and grace, are in a unity without confusion. But such a maxim seems to be hardly informative. What does it actually mean? Is there such a thing as a Christian philosophy, an autonomous science apart from theology? Yes, there is but it is not separate from theology. And vice versa. Trying to draw the line is as hard as solving the Sorites paradox. Questions are endless.

How much can we know about man apart from divine revelation, apart from Christ? This seems to be the debate surrounding the natural law theory since the natural law theory is based on the account of human nature. Some Christians will say that Scripture itself speaks of man as being created in the image and likeness of God. Man has the capability to know certain things such as his desires and things of the world. Reason is what man has that differentiates him from others and what he has in similarity with God. Some, such as J. Romanides, reject a certain interpretation of this view. According to J. Romanides, to ground the natural law in the eternal law is absurd because nature is not static and in a continuous state of change. To ground unchangeable principles within human nature is unrealistic. At the same time, since he rejects analogy of being, it is difficult to ground human forms and laws in immutable laws and forms because forms are created by their nature. Another form of critique is from theologians who want to ground all things in Christ. The life of Christ is the center of history. He fully reveals man to himself. Reason is then submitted to this event of God’s claim. Better yet, the fact of being created is itself a form of being submitted to the love of God, a form that is also ordered to the Incarnation. Christ is the universal norm. How then are we going to construct a human nature apart from Christ? Can we construct a natural law that is neutral to the mercy of God?

We can distinguish between the metaphysical and the epistemic. Some say that the metaphysical ground of human nature is in God’s freedom to create and His Incarnation. We can know what a human being is thanks to the Christian metaphysical account of man. This is the metaphysical ground of the natural law. But there are some who say that the epistemic ground of the natural law not need be in the metaphysical. We can know the principles of the natural law without knowledge of Christian metaphysics. The question, “Can there be a natural law without God?” is different from, “Can we know the principles of the natural law without belief in God?” Some would say that the nature of the natural law itself is that it can be known apart from divine revelation. People can know that abortion is wrong apart from believing in Christ or God.

The question regarding the natural law, it seems, is the epistemic. For some, there are some goods that are self-evident such as the goodness of life. We should protect and love human life. All other laws and principles are based on these kinds of basic goods. But the question remains on how such principles can be known apart from having knowledge of human nature. Aquinas worked out the metaphysics and psychology of man before he worked out his natural law theory. Without a basic understanding of the human person, of understanding what and who he is, the principles attributed to the natural law become fragile. Take the abstract question, “If an alien that possesses superior reason came to earth and started murdering people, is it wrong?” To answer “no” seems that one has an intuitive account that human nature has dignity. But as long as one does not have a ground on what accounts for this dignity, this intuition can be easily lost.

The epistemic problem, then, rests on the metaphysics. The problem is how we can account for the metaphysical problem. The question is whether our knowledge of human nature is accessible to us in the same way that our knowledge of mathematics or scientific facts is accessible to us. We can know that 2+2=4, water is H20, etc. without knowing that the gracious God of Christ made the universe as it is. Can we then know that man is made for woman and vice versa, that human life is valuable, that religious freedom is a fundamental human right, without knowing the original purpose of Yahweh? This is a much more difficult question to answer since it seems that many different traditions apart from the Christian one can confidently declare the same answer as that of the Christian. On one hand, we acknowledge that people from different backgrounds agree with some Christian moral beliefs. On the other hand, we do not want to construct moral principles neutral to the economy of salvation. To justify a moral belief apart from the narrative structures that we find ourselves in seems to accept the Cartesian project. It is difficult to accept a theory of natural law that is a neutral standard of demonstration in which all rational persons can assent to. In the first place, there is the importance of one’s tradition and story. To look at reasons is to understand whether it conforms and make sense of one’s story, not simply that it makes sense logically. Another point is the notion of original sin. Sin makes man blind to reality. Not only is it difficult to do what is good, it may be difficult to know what is good. Hence, there is the need of speaking of the salvific presence of Christ, which includes taking part of his historical presence, the Church. The knowledge of the natural law is fragile without the Church.

How natural is the natural law? In the first place, we are reminded of E. Anscombe’s thesis that we should abandon the notion of a law-conception of ethics. Aristotle has an ethical theory without it. We should also abandon using thin concepts and use thick concepts instead such as “selfish,” “just,” “benevolent,” etc. But even when we speak of virtues, we can know virtues only by looking at the virtuous man. In fact, as MacIntyre pointed out, according to Aquinas, only a learned man, a person who is trained by a master, can understand Prima Secundae. Otherwise, it won’t make sense. Thomistic epistemology is based on the teacher-student paradigm. On this point, we can definitely rule out any theory that proposes that the knowledge of the natural law can be understood simply by demonstrations. What is necessary is a relationship between the teacher and the student, a proper education in which the teacher explains and builds the student of having a proper posture towards reality. Such teacher is the Church. Another point is whether we can really understand thick concepts such as “just,” “benevolent,” etc. apart from Christ. The normative norm is Christ and it is he who should be followed. Human nature apart from grace becomes inhuman and impersonal; as Barth said, the devil is an impersonal person. Human beings become fully human only when it is united to the divine will. Here, the person of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane is appropriate. The conformity of the human will to the divine will is truly human. It is no wonder, then, that Aquinas followed his treatise on ethics with his treatise on grace.

Even when we take the ethics of D. von Hildebrand, fundamental proper attitudes towards values is required for the knowledge of values, attitudes such as reverence. Although according to von Hildebrand, the moral excellence of virtues is evident to those without faith, it is difficult to imagine how a person can have reverence apart from the experience of a holy man, a witness. How can we be reverent unless our hearts are awakened by beauty? We can also take the notion of religious sense by L. Guissani in which he, following Christian tradition, speaks of man’s openness to all of reality, of the desire to know the reason for all of life. But even Guissani does not start from the religious sense but the event of Christ. Apart from Christ, can we know what we desire? Usually, our hearts are inactive and we are not engaged with life. Unless something beautiful takes us out from our nothingness, we are left unengaged with life. It is very difficult, then, to construct a human nature apart from grace. They are so united that we cannot conceive one without the other. This is not because grace is not free, but because God has unconditionally gave Himself for the world that we cannot separate ourselves from His gaze upon us.

But there is something that strikes us as something evident. We can take the example of poets. Why is it that poetry need not be helped by divine revelation in order to be beautiful? Poets express great truths without believing in Christ. Great non-Christian literature reveals truths about the human person. Are they not about human nature? And do we not know human nature through literature? Probably even more than reading psychologists. Why then do we need the Church to know some moral truths? Does a person really need the Church to see that the violence in the Middle East is unjust? What the Christian can propose about the natural law is that certain precepts, even secondary ones, can be known. Certainly we can follow Aquinas in saying that the natural law is in the heart of every person in the sense that general precepts are known by all but the secondary precepts are not known by all. Yet, to say that secondary precepts are possible to be known is not to say that they are probable.

We can make the analogy to natural theology. Vatican I teaches that through reason alone, we can be certain of God’s existence. But this does not teach that there needs to be a natural theology. Nor does this teach that the knowledge of God’s existence through reason alone requires a demonstration. It seems that A. Plantinga’s notion of proper basic belief can be reconciled with Vatican 1, for example. But if we take the conversion of A. Flew, for example, we are left wondering what kind of God he believes in. Believing in the evidence of intelligent design, he has posited a deistic god. Better than nothing at all, you might say. However, apart from the community of believers, can we truly speak of the God of the philosophers as the Christian God? Even E. Gilson’s treatment of the God of the Christian seems to reduce him to merely a Creator who created the world out of nothing. But what about Christ? Here we can see certain deficiencies of natural theology. Which God are you speaking of? Certainly natural theology is possible and we need to understand what value it has in our lives. Yet, apart from faith, it can be destructive.

What about the personalist ethics of John Paul II? His book on sexual ethics, Love and Responsibility, does not have anything theological about it, although it seems to presuppose some kind of Creator’s plan. It is very attractive and yet he does not speak of Christ. Although we cannot understand his overall philosophical work apart from his theological, we can definitely speak of philosophy’s autonomy from theology. It is not that it is neutral or that it is not ordered to serve theology, but that it has its own principles apart from theology.

What makes the notion of a natural law attractive apart from the help of divine revelation is that it can influence the state. By this, I mean that it is not simply a political reason but that it seems that it can persuade the others of certain moral truths apart from using scriptural grounds. A student in a secular university trying to persuade his colleagues of the immorality of contraception is better off if he does not use scripture to support his beliefs. Why use the Bible is the other epistemic peer does not believe in it? Should we not look for a common ground? The common ground, some say, is the natural law which all has in their hearts. Or one can even say: the human heart. Is this not the common ground? Do not all men desire happiness? What is the difference of having an exposition on Beethoven’s 5th symphony on a secular university to awaken men’s heart and a person trying to use the personalist ethic of John Paul against contraception? Are they not simply trusting that human nature will realize what is beautiful and good? It is at this point where I am left wondering what kind of response anti-liberals have to the modern world, especially in America. One can grant MacIntyre’s argument that all debates in America is under the flag of liberalism. Yet, in what way a Christian can respond to such a circumstance, I do not know. It is true that the response of the Christian is simply to witness. But in what way, I do not know. On the one hand, I believe in the importance of the narrative structure of the human person. On the other hand, in what way we can dialogue with others with different epistemic systems is another question. One can certainly understand the importance of Christ on our account of human nature. But when a person is in the midst of an audience that comes from different backgrounds, trusting in the notion of a natural law is very attractive.

It seems to me, then, that the purpose of the Christian is at stake here. It is true that faith creates a culture, but it is not simply trying to create political structures. Granted that abortion should be fought against, but one cannot reduce culture to fighting for health care or abortion. What is at stake is our value: in what way do we reduce it? Who really values it? At this point, the Person of Christ is relevant: his mercy is everlasting. Christians can forgive because he has been forgiven. Christians can be the hope in the Middle East because through them, all men can learn forgiveness. Here, then, I would like to offer thoughts on the natural law:

First, the general precepts of the natural law can be known. But the meaning of the general precepts can be informed by revelation. General precepts can be known confusedly, but divine revelation helps us understand it. The dynamic of the Church and the human conscience seems to support this view.

Second, we need once more to understand the relationship between metaphysics and salvation history, a topic that attracted Ratzinger. Aquinas noted that practical reason is a matter of contingent affairs. We can also hear Romanides’ objection here. Because we are in a state of change, because we are historical, finding what is immutable is difficult. It is a necessary one study but we must look for a way in which the immutable and the mutable meet.

This leads to the third which is that time is required for a demonstration. Not only this, but a fidelity to the truth of things and a continuous engagement with others. Logos is experiential and communal. Only in engaging in others and their stories can we understand them and therefore ourselves. As MacIntyre noted, rational traditions are fallible and epistemological crises can occur. The solutions to these crises may not be a deductive demonstration but a demonstration that comes from continually seeking the truth in others.

More on the natural law in the future….

Question on the Manhattan Declaration

MD builds not only on reason but also Christian tradition. Not only this, it can be a common ground for Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. In what way is this not simply a tradition rivaling other traditions in America? Is it simply falling into the liberal flagship of America?

Notes on St. Paul


One of the remarkable traits of St. Paul was that in spite of the fact that he had suffered much in his life, he lived a life of hope. He once practiced Judaism (which is different than being Jewish), that is, he tried to purify the religion of his day by getting rid of any outside influence that might destroy the people of God; the stoning of Stephen is a great example of this. Like most Jews of that day, he longed for the day when Yahweh will come as king and they can live and worship freely. With sweetness, then, did he say these words, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now life in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me”(Gal. 2:20). The word “Christ” should really be understood as Messiah. “I no longer live, but the Messiah lives in me.” This term signifies that it is the continuation of the Jewish narrative story of Yahweh keeping His fidelity to His people. The God who chose Abraham, who saved the Israelites from Egypt, who forgave David, has come again to win the hearts of His people. He has come definitively so that His people’s cry for help becomes a cry of assurance and joy to Someone who knows what it is like to suffer. Through the Messiah, the Spirit of God has rested His heart in His people: “The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness” (Rom. 8:6). St. Paul knew that his hope cannot be placed on his own efforts. He was certain that the world does not understand the logic of God’s love. He knew the sufferings caused by natural disasters. Persecution from the world and even the Church he had suffered. Yet, guided by the Holy Spirit, and therefore united to the Church, he asks, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:35). Certain of Christ’s love, he expects his second coming at any moment. Not only is he certain of God’s infinite closeness and that He will come again to raise the dead, he has the expectation that God will act soon. God’s arrival is so soon that St. Paul advised some Christians to take the vow of virginity. Granted, we can look back and declare that he was wrong to think that the final things was going to happen in his generation. Yet, the essential aspect of his thought remains: God is dwelling in the cosmos and it requires a proper response, a proper attitude towards all things.

We can look at the political aspect first. As pointed out by many scholars, words such as “gospel,” “son of God, “Lord,” etc have political implications. The cult of Caesar was steadfastly growing and to declare that every name on earth and the heavens will declare that Jesus the Messiah is Lord was a political statement. But it is not a political movement in the sense of that which is endorsed by liberation theologians. Although we can say that the peace and love of Christ controls all Christians to the point of creating a culture, making even an impact in the political structures, St. Paul’s fundamental political aim is to cultivate a spirit of simplicity within the circumstances the Christians find themselves in. That is to say, to proclamation of the lordship to Christ is an affirmation of the ontological value of a human person to such an extent that he cannot be reduced to a structure, circumstance, or even his own actions. Here we understand why it is that St. Paul can declare that there is neither Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, or free-persons in Christ while at the same time not making a political party against slavery. The love of Christ is such that even in the crippling situation of slavery, a Christian can find joy. It is a joy that comes from being possessed by Christ and allowing the Spirit to guide his cry to his God. The Christian is political in as much as the Crucified One is political: a failure in the eyes of the world, yet justice has come to the world in the form of mercy. It is this justice which the State cannot provide, no emperor or high priest of the second temple can give away. The response to God’s claim upon the world is not political action but poverty. The martyrs are a witness to this evangelical counsel as they showed their lives as that which belongs to their Redeemer. They possess all things because they are in Christ and Christ is in God. In a word, the martyrs have life. It is then reasonable to see that the age of the martyrs was followed by the monasteries. The monks were concerned with one thing necessary: glory. The human glory of God is precisely the logic of the cross, that which allows oneself to be led by the embrace of God: Into your hands, I commend my spirit.
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