Natural Law: Part 1
“The forces of nature pay no respect to what we call good and evil.”
J. A. Froude, “Times of Erasmus and Luther”
" We speak of the Volume of Nature: and truly a Volume it is, -- whose author and writer is God. To read it! Dost thou, does man, so much as well know the Alphabet thereof? . . . It is a Volume written in celestial hieroglyphs, in the true Sacred writing; of which even the prophets are happy that they can read here a line and there a line. As for your Institutes and Academies of Science, they strive bravely; and from the thick-crowded, inextricably intertwisted hieroglyphic writing, pick out by dextrous combination in the vulgar Character, and therefrom put together this and the other . . . recipe."
Ewald Flugel, Thomas Carlyle's Moral and religious Development (p. 31)
In his excellent little volume The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis makes much of what he calls the “Tao” and its virtually universal acceptance as evidence of objective morality and of our knowledge of natural law.
By disagreeing, I do not deny objective morality or its origin in God. I endorse it heartily. But I do deny that Lewis’s so-called Tao indicates authentic moral insight on our part. What he identifies as authentic moral insight on a global scale I see as the burdensome vicissitudes and existential necessities of life in a cursed world imposing themselves upon us, and of our yielding to those gruesome and arduous conditions, however willingly or reluctantly. I see it as our pragmatic adjustment to reality, not as moral insight.
The so-called Tao is not the result of the human soul rightly grasping righteousness on the basis of nature. Rather, the Tao is a now cursed world order having its way with us. The Tao is what arises when we are forced to fit in with the realities of a now cursed and fallen order, groaning as it is, in great travail. What some call natural law is simply what we deem works most efficiently within that accursed system (at least what works best at this point in its long history of change), rather than us differentiating real moral right from real moral wrong without the aid of Scripture. Utilitarian efficiency and pragmatic preference are not morality. They are not moral oughtness. You cannot move from cursed-world pragmatics to authentic righteousness. On our part, the Tao is pragmatic preference and utility in the face of hard, cursed, reality. Moving from what is pragmatically preferable to what is morally obligatory is an unjustifiable move, indeed an enormous leap. Pragmatic preference and our preferences for social utility are not the same as Divine righteousness or Divine command, especially in a Divinely cursed world as ascertained by fallen persons. We prefer the principles and actions we do because they yield results that, within this cursed order, seem to work best to some of us. Morality is a different issue altogether.
To identify either as “law” or as “moral” what might be little more and little else than our pragmatic adjustment to a cursed world order is to say too much because those preferences often look very different from the life of Christ and from His Sermon on the Mount, where authentic righteousness is more accurately articulated and more clearly manifest than it is in cursed nature. If, as the natural lawyers tell us, natural law and Divine law both come from God, then we might expect them to teach the same thing. But it looks like they do not, not if Christ and His sermon are the moral measure, and not if His Beatitudes are the Divinely authorized description of righteousness and the path to blessing. At many points, Christ and nature appear to teach quite different things. Therefore, to label as “natural law” the pragmatic preferences we derive from our experiences in a cursed world system is too exalted and too self-congratulatory a rubric. We do not know to what extent the conclusions we draw as we struggle to find convenience, practicality, safety, pleasure, utility, self-justification, and financial profit within this cursed order actually reflect the unsullied and righteous character of God. Judging from the Sermon on the Mount, the resemblance seems radically imprecise. What Christ teaches there and what we practice and preach on the basis of nature are sometimes wildly different, both in action and in motive.
Further, even to label this a “law” is to employ loaded language: “Law” seems to me a term too high, too lofty, and too ideologically freighted for what it actually embodies or represents. It’s not a law; it’s our pragmatically assessment of how to cope with currently prevailing conditions under the world curse. It’s how we deal most pragmatically with reality as it is at the moment. To call it a law seems to me tendentious and unwarranted, especially given the wildly contestable content of this supposed law. To call the pragmatic adjustments we make to life in a cursed world “the moral law,” or “the natural law,” is to overstate and to misstate the case. By calling it a “law,” we imply a lawgiver. Natural lawyers assert that the lawgiver in this case is God even though it might be nothing more than our own adjustments to a cursed universe, adjustments generated by us, not by Him. We, not He, might be the lawgivers in question. I say we are.
Again, I am not saying there is no moral law. I am saying that the alleged law in view here might just as truly come from earth as from heaven, from us as from Him. If it comes from us, then to call it a binding moral law is unjustifiable. To me, it looks more like a pragmatic adjustment to cursed terrestrial life than it does the righteousness of God as manifested historically in Christ both in the things He said and the things He did, of which nature is a distant and pathetic imitation, occasionally even a contradiction.
To call this human pursuit of terrestrial utility “natural law,” therefore, begs the question. Simply because we prefer it, or simply because we think it works, does not mean we actually have understood nature or arrived by nature’s tutelage at a proper understanding of righteousness. Furthermore, insofar as our actions display our real beliefs and our real nature, and insofar as our actions are the opposite of what we profess (and certainly of what Christ embodies and professes), then our assertions cannot be trusted. Our actions make our moral assertions blush. On that count, newspaper headlines, not the alleged Tao, tell us the real laws of nature, of which human nature is so significant a part. Despite the tendentious and honorific name we sometimes give it, we might be dealing with unnatural and contra-natural law, namely the law of fallen humanity and its wicked desires trying to live more efficiently and with less trouble.
In short, the laws of revelation, not the alleged laws of a now-cursed universe, are the laws of God and of morality. They are found best by reading the Bible and by looking to Christ, not by compiling moral approximations and commonalities from among the nations, as Lewis did. It seems to me that Lewis has overplayed those commonalities and underplayed the differences -- (1) the differences between the various versions of alleged natural law found around the world, and (2) the difference between how nature itself (including human nature) actually works and what we say it teaches.
What is called “natural law” often seems to be nothing more than subjectivism and preference let loose upon the world, a fact evidenced by the enormous variety of things called by the name “natural law.” What we have before us looks more like a natural law ideology than a natural law. What we have is often simply a subjective projection imposed onto the natural world, a projection by which we become a law unto ourselves. That the natural law theorist must keep trying to convince his or her fellows about the truth and specific content of this or that version of natural law might indicate the opposite point: Maybe what they call natural law is not what they think it is. At times, what’s called “natural law” seems both counter-natural and tendentiously selective. It seems to reflect, at best, only a small part of nature, only a part of what this cursed world is really like and actually teaches (if it teaches anything). Natural law theorists seem to ignore that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” They do not advise us to be likewise red, and yet they claim nature is the source of their teaching. They ignore that the real way of the natural world is to feed on others, devouring them for our own ends, a practice natural law theorists strongly abhor among human beings while at the same time telling those human beings to follow the natural law.
(1) Because nature is cursed and is not now what it once was, (2) because cursed nature does not function in the way it was designed to function, and (3) because fallen humans themselves are part of nature, and subject to the curse, any supposed moral law drawn from nature and from human beings ought to be advanced with the greatest possible humility and reluctance, if at all, especially because those who advance it suffer under the same burdens of curse and of sin as do all things, only in the case of human beings that sin and curse are delusion inducing. As Kant astutely observed, out of timber so crooked as that from which we are made, nothing straight can be carved.
Understanding righteousness is a branch of theology. That means it is a matter of supernatural revelation, not something deduced unaided from a cursed world by unabashedly sinful rebels. Righteousness, therefore, must be understood and pursued on a distinctly Biblical basis, not on some other. Just as revelation is an event, a sovereign Divine disclosure of God to us, so also is righteousness a matter of Divine Self-disclosure. It rests not upon the musings and deductions of fallen human nature or on the workings of a cursed world, but upon Divine revelation and Divine act, most specifically and fully in Christ. Righteousness is a Christological, not philosophical, category. Righteousness is an unnatural category. By Christ, not by our own contemplation of humanity in the abstract, or humanity in nature, or nature without humanity, do we know what righteousness is, what righteousness does, and what righteousness looks like. We learn it from Christ, not from cursed nature as decoded by sinful and rebellious minds. When we do learn righteousness from Christ, we learn that righteousness means apparently counter-natural things like loving your enemies, which means dying for them, just as you would do for your friends. Righteousness looks like Christ on the cross, the just dying for the unjust, the innocent pleading for the forgiveness and benefit of the guilty. It does not look like the survival of the fittest. It looks like the self-chosen and self-sacrificial death of the highest and the best on behalf of the most unworthy at the moment of their greatest unworthiness. This revelation of righteousness comes to us not in nature but in Christ and is suffused with grace and redemption. Righteousness is not a humanly-deduced system drawn by sinners from a selective and tendentious reading of cursed nature.
In other words, just as righteousness is a part of Biblical theology, natural law is a part of natural theology. The same problems that obtain in natural theology obtain in natural law, namely, fallen human creatures themselves. What the natural theologian is to natural theology the natural lawyer is to natural law -- its deformer. Cursed nature does not now teach the righteousness taught by the kenotic Christ and, even if it did, the natural lawyers would foul it up. Nature does not teach what Christ teaches, and what it does teach they get wrong. They follow their self-induced delusions into greater and denser obscurity, not light. To do natural law well, they’d have to free themselves from themselves. But unless God frees them, that freedom remains impossible. It is impossible because, like us all, natural lawyers wallow in superbia, the region of spiritual pride and, therefore, of delusion. It might be, after all, that nature does not teach morality at all. Do not confuse what nature does or does no teach with what the natural lawyers teach. They want to speak for nature, but they seem to do a bad job of it.
Closely related to natural law is conscience, a thing now as fallen and immersed in sin as everything else about us. Conscience requires grace and redemption, without which it can never be fully trusted because it is not now what it once was and will be again. Given its currently defective condition, given its radical fallenness, it cannot be trusted. More often than we know, it lies. I am willing to admit that the presence of conscience is universal if others are willing to admit that its universality is characterized by moral ignorance and shameless rebellion.
To purge the mind of its debilitating sin is not as easy as the natural law theorists seem to imagine. They underplay the fact that humanists, modernists, postmodernists, and others sometimes also believe in natural law but read it and apply it quite differently. If the are Catholics, then they do not realize that the interpretive pluralism they descry in Protestantism they welcome and endorse in natural law. The competing and alternately prevailing views of nature and of human nature are sometimes profoundly varied, whether we mean those of Nietzsche, Freud, Rousseau, Marx, Sartre, Jaspers, Sade, or Aristotle. In their uniquely bent ways, all are doing natural theology and natural law, the resultant content and moral requirements of which seem impenetrably murky, even chaotic.
That chaos raises one final and related point, this one from a long-standing hermeneutical debate within jurisprudence: In order to adjudicate cases well, judges need a hermeneutic by which to interpret and to apply positive law. Jurisprudential thinkers debate over what hermeneutic that ought to be. Natural lawyers and natural judges face the same challenge. They too require a hermeneutic by which to discern the content and moral demands of the alleged natural law. They need to tell us precisely what that hermeneutic is and how (and from where) it is gotten. Without that, there seems little safeguard, if any, against the self-seeking, morally-demented, natural lawyers and natural judges who impose themselves upon the “text” of natural law, being themselves in this field of thought exactly what they abhor elsewhere, namely judicial activists who make the law a vehicle for their own agenda. Without a clearly articulated hermeneutic for reading and applying natural law, ambiguity reigns. This elusive and shape-shifting natural law cannot be the basis for state action, something for which natural law advocates frequently advance it. Following nature more closely will not cure the state of its evils. Justice is Christological at the root, not anthropological or political. Justice is rooted in Christ, not in us or in our cursed world. Anthropocentric law and government are no better than anthropocentric theology. Both are upside down. Until we are told explicitly how the self-appointed natural law judges move from (1) an observation of nature to (2) a determination of what nature teaches, and then to (3) a determination of how it ought to be most prudently applied in the political arena, I remain implacably skeptical. Nothing I’ve seen to date convinces me to be anything else.
Natural Law: Part 2
Before natural lawyers start pontificating about natural law and its alleged lessons, they’d better consider all the ways that nature is now unnatural. They’d better know the difference between nature as created and nature as cursed. They must understand the difference between what nature is now and what nature ought to be, once was, and will be again.
All any natural law advocate has ever seen is unnatural, or sub-natural, nature. Further, the natural lawyers need to understand that they themselves are unnatural, that they universally are fallen, wicked, sinful, and rebellious. They are unnatural and wicked creatures reasoning on the basis of unnatural nature in order to tell us about real natural law, as if, despite all their incapacities and habitual immoralities, natural lawyers were objective, disinterested, and reliable on the point.
I’m not convinced.
The natural law crowd does not know and therefore cannot articulate the difference between natural nature and unnatural nature, whether in themselves or in the world at large. Those differences are perhaps unimaginable. Those differences are something akin to the difference between ancient Eden and the Arabian desert. Such differences are depicted in the eschatological image of the lion lying down with the lamb. Shockingly, and to us quite unnaturally, the lamb will not be inside the lion when it happens. That eschatological nature of peace and ours seem to operate on a quite different basis. The details of that difference we do not know. Natural lawyers have never seen nature not under a curse, nature unburdened, nature natural. They have never seen themselves not under that debilitating and burdensome curse or without the noetic effects of sin. Apart from God telling them, they cannot know and do not know what real lessons real nature might teach, if any, and how those lessons differ from those supposedly taught now by a cursed nature and interpreted by the unnatural lawyers who fancy themselves able to speak for it.
When unnatural lawyers explain the “laws” of unnatural nature, they do so in a tendentious and highly selective manner. They do not tell you for your instruction and imitation that nature is vicious, that it is “red in tooth and claw,” that its law is normally to kill in order to live. They do not tell you that nature is doomed, that it is winding down to a cold, motionless, amorphous mass at a low temperature, that in the end all natural stories reduce to precisely nothing. That is, they do not tell you that natural law is murderous and nihilistic. Rather, they want to use nature to teach the things that they want it to teach, not what it actually does teach, if it teaches anything all.
In nature as it is, the law is either to kill or be killed, even though the natural lawyers will not teach you to live in that brutal fashion, and would be appalled if you seriously undertook to do so. But the nature they trumpet functions that way.
Indeed, even if living things in nature escape being killed, they still die. In other words, selfish predation and both individual and cosmic nihilism are the order of the day in nature, even if the unnatural lawyers don’t recommend that you live accordingly while they crow about natural law. Unnatural lawyers publically trumpet natural law while ignoring much of it, maybe most of it. They often alter it to fit their own agenda. With regard to the real laws of contemporary nature they are what they despise others being with regard to positive law: They are legal and judicial activists. They push their own truncated agenda onto the law and subjugate the agenda of nature’s current constitution. The so-called natural law advocates are unnatural, indeed anti-natural.
If you want to know real right and real wrong -- and you should -- then you need to go to God’s Word, not to the current workings of a cursed and therefore unnatural natural order or to the self-aggrandizing and twisted mental gymnastics of unnatural lawyers.
Natural Law: Part 3
I adduce here two stanzas from Charles Kingsley. The first depicts natural law; the second supernatural law.
This is the natural law:
“The heath eats up the green grass and delicate herbs;
The pines eat up the heath. The grub the pine;
The finch the grub; the hawk the silly finch;
And man, the mightiest of all beasts of prey,
Eats what he lists. The strong eat up the weak”
This is the supernatural law:
“Looks patient down the great magnanimous God,
Who, Master of all worlds, did sacrifice
All to Himself? Nay, but Himself to all;
Who taught mankind, on that first Christmas Day,
What ‘tis to be a man – to give, not take;
To serve, not rule; to nourish, not devour;
To lift, not crush; if need, to die, not live.”