November 22, 2009

unnatural law

I was surprised when, of all places, First Things was offering a piece headlined on the cover as "Why Natural Law Falls Short", seemingly disrupting one of their typical refrains.

Rather, the piece is about the unnatural nature of fallen desire (a them familiar to anyone who has encountered our forefather Adam as the fully natural man) , and it says that the unnatural state of human desire (or should we say passions?) propose a problem for natural law theory, but what that problem is is not clearly stated. There is a brief mention of the fact that natural law often speaks of "natural" and "unnatural" desire; maybe it is because I was never confident that such use among modern proponents of natural law was anything but rhetorical, but I do not see that such issues of desire, in themselves, pose a dire threat to natural law.

It is actually in the last two paragraphs that there is presented a philosophical case that would undermine natural law, but it does not naturally follow from the earlier depiction of desire (though the vice versa is likely true). Griffiths gives an image of the human person that has no particular essence, rather, we are "hovering over the void from which we were made" and that only by viewing and being seen by God do we have any form (knowing God and being remembered by God would be more familiar terminology). Now, if only that were the essay!

Oddly, I have found little treatment in natural law circles of the obvious, unnatural origin of law in the Biblical and patristic traditions. Law comes to the Israelites in the height of drama at Mt. Sinai, the law itself is a revelation of the strangeness of a God who does not belong to the natural order in the fashion of pagan deities. The very same Law is both fulfilled and made small in the wake of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Some would object to my use of the term "natural", but I do not think it is ever a very term, anyhow: Adam is "natural" in that he held human nature as it really should be, Christ is natural in that sense, but unnatural in that we see our God who creates ex nihilo as being beyond the natural world. This is because "natural" is burdened with having to discuss things relative to the created order ("nature", in the biological sense) and the realm of the human soul ("nature", in the anthropological). When discussing the latter, we even infer that Christ has a "natural" and "unnatural" nature, when we use those words to talk about the "natural" order! (For while creation belongs to God and is to be oriented to his glory, God does not belong to the created order.)

Natural law theorists typically speak of a law that is either A) inherently part of the natural order or B) known to "natural man" by reason. I think it fails on both accounts, but I do concede some ground. Scripture does speak of a Law communicated by Grace to all men: Within this we can understand such things as the traditions surrounding the seven laws of Noah, or the claim by St. Paul that men are defenseless if they claim not to know God by Creation. The latter example bears some discussion, because that text is one of the chief sources of claims that natural reason can know a natural law (and many other things besides, as evidence in the "rational theistic" claims of some in the Intelligent Design movement). Perhaps a fully natural (that is, without sin) reason does only see the work of God made clear through the workings of the cosmos, but that is only speculation. It is evident enough that the reason which we mass of un-chastened men do possess does not necessarily see the work of God. And as it is grace which restores us to our "natural" state, it is grace, that gift from the Creator beyond creation, that makes any sort of "natural law" possible. Which, of course, would seem to remove it of much of its philosophical (and more importantly, for most of its proponents) political weight.

It is sad that the second commenter would worry that, in questioning natural law, that Griffiths was discarding of all reason and logic, and even more, discarding the Catholic position. For if the Catholic position is undermined by Catholic anthropology (as Griffiths holds), well…

This talk of a God who is beyond Creation brings me to another topic I have been considering lately, that of the fashion of panentheism, which I have encountered twice in recent weeks being taught as "the Orthodox position" by folks on the internet. More on that later this week (I hope).

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