Nature Illuminated, Part 6 of 8

Thursday, 01-22-2015

There will be no post tomorrow (Friday, January 23)

because I have been invited to speak at a conference

at Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Ft. Wayne,

Indiana.  The blog will resume on Saturday.

The next beam from supernature onto nature is the light of divine promise.  Two revealed promises are especially important.  The first is the promise of forgiveness -- divine assurance that God restores repentant sinners who accept the means of grace.  From this we learn not to despair of our sins against others.  The second is the promise of providence -- divine assurance that in the end, God will set everything to rights.  From this we learn not despair of the sins of others against us.  Only because of these two promises can conscience serve not as a rock to crush us, but as a dog to hound us home.

Here I can be brief, because I have discussed these matters in other writings.  Suffice it to say that without the former promise, the face of natural law would be only a face of accusation.  Few could bear to look at it at all; none could bear to look at it steadily.  Without the latter promise, the same accusing face would be turned outward.  Contemplation of the wrongs of the world would drive us to yet greater wrongs, on the principle “let us do evil that good may result.”  Whether by its own guilt or by rage at the guilt of all others, intellect would be undermined, and the counsels of natural law would be pulled in perverse directions.

Since every promise affirms something, the promissory sort of light might seem just a variation on the affirmative sort that we have considered already.  Such a conclusion would miss the point, because promises affi rm a different class of truths, illuminating the intellect in a distinctive manner.  How so?  Ordinary affirmations -- man is made in God’s image, spouses join as one flesh, divorce betrays posterity -- draw the attention of natural reason to creational realities right under its nose, which it might otherwise have slighted or overlooked.  Promises do something different, because they inform natural reason of something it never could have known: the place of natural law in the economy of salvation.

Although both kinds of light act upon the thinker’s mind, they do so in different ways.  One merely adds to his data, the other one purges his will.  Assured of God’s mercy, the thinker no longer needs the false comfort of thinking himself better than he is.  Assured of God’s providence, he is also freed from the equally false need to play God with others.  Cleansed of both kinds of despair, he can think about the natural law more honestly because he is no longer desperate or afraid.  Hope turns out to be not only a spiritual virtue but an intellectual virtue as well.

Continued on Saturday

 

Nature Illuminated, Part 5 of 8

Wednesday, 01-21-2015

Yet another wavelength in which supernature illuminates the natural realities is narrative: We learn more about natural law by thinking about the story.

God differs from human authors in that, by His infinite power and wisdom, He arranges and orchestrates not just words, but real things.  Consequently, although the literal sense of the revealed narrative is deeply important, it falls infi nitely short of exhausting its meaning.  Certain correspondences occur between earlier and later stages in salvation history; for example, Israel foreshadows the Church.  Others occur between lower and higher things; for example, the earthly sanctuary signifies the heavenly.  Still others occur between events outside us and events within us; for example, the wanderings of the Israelites describe the wanderings of the soul.

What does that have to do with natural law?  The answer is that if God is not only the Author of History but the Lord of Creation, then he can also orchestrate correspondences between events in the biblical story and truths about human nature.  Narrative illumination is this sort of correspondence.

More than one wavelength of light can shine out from the same passage.  Consider again the great passage in Genesis 1:27 that we have already discussed: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  Reading it in the light of affirmation, it says, “We are made like this.”  But reading it in the light of its place in the origins narrative, it says, “And then we were made like this.”  In other words, instead of viewing it as a statement about what is the case, we can view it as the report of an event that implies something about what is the case.  Does this chronological addition make a difference?  Certainly.  By viewing it as an event, we relate it to other events, such as the Fall: Yes, we were created in such and such a fashion, but then we fell.  The Fall does not deprive us of our nature -- a broken foot still has the nature of a foot -- but our nature is not in its intended condition.  For natural law, this is no insignificant consideration.  If we had never seen healthy feet, it might have taken us a long time to discover that broken feet were broken --  to reason backwards from their characteristics even in their present broken condition, to the principles of their purpose and design, to the fact that their condition deviates from that design.  In the meantime we might have taken their broken condition as normative.  Even if we grasped that something was wrong with our feet, we might have misunderstood what it was.  We might have thought that feet are bad by nature, or that they are good but corrupted by shoes.  Apart from revelation we make the same mistakes about human nature.

But not all passages radiate in more than one wavelength; some illuminate the natural law only when read in their narrative context.  “God created man in His own image” -- we don’t need to know what happened next in order to understand at least part of what this passage tells us about man.  By contrast take the next line: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”  Presumably this, too, tells us something about ourselves, but what?  To know what the narrative implies, we have to take it seriously as narrative.

In our times, the most spectacular attempt to discern what the narrative as narrative tells us about human nature is the series of general audiences of Pope John Paul II published as Theology of the Body.  This remarkable work is both exegesis of Scripture and philosophy of natural law, but it respects the fact that these are different things -- neither dividing the reality that they are talking about nor confounding their ways of knowing it.  John Paul takes his departure from Christ’s reply to the question of why Moses permitted divorce: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”  Christ’s answer forcefully redirects attention to the account of our origins in Genesis.  Taking the cue, John Paul draws insights into our nature from three crucial aspects of the narrative: original unity, original solitude, and original nakedness.

Consider only what he says about original nakedness.  These days carnality is underrated.  Our obsession with sex doesn’t show that we take embodiment seriously; actually, it shows that we don’t.  Like gnostics, we regard our bodies as separate from our true selves.  We use them merely to get pleasure, attention, and other things for self -- and nothing taken seriously is merely used.  But the gnostics were wrong.  As John Paul emphasizes, body is not separate from self; it is the emblem and vesture of self.  The body is the visible sign by which the invisible self is actually made present, the medium of the language that it speaks.  We mean things to each other by what our bodies do, and when the speech of the mouth contradicts the speech of the body, the latter abolishes the former.  To crush your windpipe with my thumbs is to say to you, “Now die,” even if I tell you with my mouth, “Be alive.”  To join in one flesh is to say, “I give myself,” even if my mouth shapes the words, “This doesn’t mean a thing.”

In some ways bodily speech is just as complex as vocal speech.  In particular, just as we can say inconsistent things with the spoken word, so we can say inconsistent things with the embodied word.  The important thing to remember is that even so, certain meanings are creationally embedded in the language of the body.  When you kiss to betray, you are certainly contradicting the primordial meaning of affectionate greeting, but you have not thereby abolished it.  You have only parasitized it; you are using the meaning to betray.  When you employ what is called a “barrier” during sexual intercourse, you are certainly fuddling the meaning of sex, but you have not erased it.  You have only overlaid it; overtop the engraved inscription, “I join without reservation,” you have scribbled, “but I hold back.”  Self-giving, moreover, is decisive.  When I give a thing external to myself, I can set a term for it, after which I will take it back.  When I give my very person, I give away the power of taking back; there is no authority left by which the gift can be revoked.  Totality and indissolubility turn out to be inherent in the meaning of the mutual act by which marriage is physically consummated.

We now have (among other things) two complementary demonstrations of the indissolubility of marriage.  One develops the unitive implications of the procreative realities, the other delves into the unitive realities per se.  Both kinds of demonstration lie within the reach of natural reason.  Yet even though both of them build on facts experienced at some level to every mature human being, it took centuries to work them both out.  Not until Thomas Aquinas, perhaps, did we have an adequate presentation of the former argument; not until John Paul, perhaps, did we have an adequate development of the latter.  Even now we quibble.  As to the procreative realities, I may claim that nannies, daycare workers, or bureaucrats can care for children better than parents can, or that it is better to have no parents than quarreling ones, or that a mom can be a mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa all rolled up into one.  As to the unitive realities, I may claim that only “free love” is real love, or that the language of the body is merely conventional, or that there is no such thing as a gift of self.  The argument is never really over.

Why isn’t it?  It isn’t as though claims like the ones I have mentioned are hard to refute.  The problem is that our ability to grasp the refutations --  even more, our willingness -- is all too easily undermined by the demons of greed, weakness of will, evil habit, vicious custom, and depraved ideology.  And so we see once again that even though the natural realities of marriage are fully knowable by unaided reason, they may not be fully known by it.  There seems no reason in the world why Aristotle, who knew a thing or two about marriage, could not have penetrated the procreative and unitive realities as deeply as two celibates, Saint Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II.  Nevertheless, he didn’t -- and this was no accident.  Through revelation, they had a leg up on the natural facts.  He did not.

VI The next beam from supernature onto nature is the light of divine promise.  Two revealed promises are especially important.  The first is the promise of forgiveness -- divine assurance that God restores repentant sinners who accept the means of grace.  From this we learn not to despair of our sins against others.  The second is the promise of providence -- divine assurance that in the end, God will set everything to rights.  From this we learn not despair of the sins of others against us.  Only because of these two promises can conscience serve not as a rock to crush us, but as a dog to hound us home.

Here I can be brief, because these matters have been broached in the previous chapter.  Suffice it to say that without the former promise, the face of natural law would be only a face of accusation.  Few could bear to look at it at all; none could bear to look at it steadily.  Without the latter promise, the same accusing face would be turned outward.  Contemplation of the wrongs of the world would drive us to yet greater wrongs, on the principle “let us do evil that good may result.”  Whether by its own guilt or by rage at the guilt of all others, intellect would be undermined, and the counsels of natural law would be pulled in perverse directions.

Since every promise affirms something, the promissory sort of light might seem just a variation on the affirmative sort that we have considered already.  Such a conclusion would miss the point, because promises affi rm a different class of truths, illuminating the intellect in a distinctive manner.  How so?  Ordinary affirmations -- man is made in God’s image, spouses join as one flesh, divorce betrays posterity -- draw the attention of natural reason to creational realities right under its nose, which it might otherwise have slighted or overlooked.  Promises do something different, because they inform natural reason of something it never could have known: the place of natural law in the economy of salvation.

Although both kinds of light act upon the thinker’s mind, they do so in different ways.  One merely adds to his data, the other one purges his will.  Assured of God’s mercy, the thinker no longer needs the false comfort of thinking himself better than he is.  Assured of God’s providence, he is also freed from the equally false need to play God with others.  Cleansed of both kinds of despair, he can think about the natural law more honestly because he is no longer desperate or afraid.  Hope turns out to be not only a spiritual virtue but an intellectual virtue as well.

Continued tomorrow

 

Nature Illuminated, Part 4 of 8

Tuesday, 01-20-2015

Picking up the thread from Saturday’s post:

The next supernatural light upon nature is the light of affirmation.  Affirmation is not a command to do or not do something, but a declaration that something is or is not the case.  Whereas a command presupposes that something is so, provoking the mind to discover what it is, affirmation declares that something is so, provoking the mind to see it for itself and work out the implications.  The faculty of reason responds to preceptive illumination like this: “I see now that I am to live in such and such a way; can I find out by my own proper methods what it is in the design of creation that makes this right?”  But it responds to affirmative illumination like this: “I see now that such and such is true; can I find out by my own proper methods what might follow from this fact?”

Conjugal sexuality is richly illuminated by the light of affirmation, as in the following passage from the prophet Malachi:

Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life?  And what does he desire?  Godly offspring.  So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth.  For I hate divorce, says the LORD the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts.  So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.

If the intellect concedes Malachi’s claim that the sexual powers have a procreative purpose, then the logic of the rest of his argument is not hard to work out.  After all, marriage is the only form of association in which the family-building aim of the sexual powers can be adequately realized.  If a couple should say, “But we never meant to have children,” we should not think that they have a different, dissoluble kind of marriage, but that they do not have a marriage.  What they have is an affective liaison characterized by sexual intercourse outside of the conditions which allow the purpose of such intercourse to be fulfilled.  These conditions are stringent, because procreation is more than making children.  It also means raising them.  We can make them outside marriage, but raising them that way is like trying to churn butter in a furnace.  For at least two reasons, the bond must also be permanent.  One is that the knowledge that it will endure into the future radically affects its quality in the present.  The other is that the children of the union will go on to have their own children.  Not only will they need parental help to establish their new families, but the grandchildren will have need of their grandparents.

I began the previous paragraph with an “if.”  Should reason concede that sex has a procreative purpose?  Moderns object that the purposes of things aren’t natural, that they are merely in the eye of the beholder.  Supposing that nature is purposeful is derided as “metaphysical biology.”  But do we say this about the other natural powers?  On the contrary, sex is the only natural power about which we do say it.  The purpose of respiration is to oxygenate the blood; apart from it there would be no reason to have lungs.  The purpose of circulation is to deliver nutrients and other substances to the places they are needed; apart from it there would be no reason to have a heart and vascular system.  If we are consistent, we will reason this way about sex.  We will say that its purpose is to generate posterity; apart from this purpose there would be no reason for sexual organs.  Instead of saying this, we interrupt the argument to say that the purpose of sex is pleasure.

On its face, the interruption is absurd.  Of course sex is pleasurable, but in various kinds and degrees, pleasure accompanies the exercise of every voluntary power: eating, breathing, even stretching the muscles of the leg.  The problem is that eating is pleasurable even if I am eating too much, breathing is pleasurable even if I am sniffing glue, stretching the muscles of the leg is pleasurable even if I am kicking the dog.  For a criterion of when it is good to enjoy each pleasure, one must look beyond the fact that it is pleasurable.

We have been considering the unitive implications of the procreative realities, but the unitive realities can also be considered in themselvesHere, the prime example of affirmative illumination is the declaration, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  A great deal is happening in this brief passage.  What it has to do with natural law might at first seem obscure, because God is not part of nature; He is not something created, but the Creator.  Although unaided intellect can draw inferences about Him from the evidence of what He has made, it can neither see Him as He is nor take the measure of His relation with us.  Here is the astonishing thing: Although the fact that we are His image exceeds unaided reason’s power of discovery, the things that are true about us because we are His image do not exceed it.  To mention but two of these things: If God is personal, and we are His image, then it pertains to our essence that we are personal too.  And if two kinds of personal reality are required to image Him, male and female, then male and female must complement each other not just in gross anatomy but in the very root of their personhood.

The antecedent parts of these statements, the ifs, go beyond what unaided reason could confirm.  We need revelation to know that God is personal, that we are made in His image, and that it takes two kinds of personal reality to image Him.  But the consequent parts of the statements, the thens, lie entirely within reason’s range.  Revelation interrogates reason.  It asks, “Now that I point it out to you, can’t you see for yourself that your fundamental reality is personal?”  “Yes,” replies reason, “I do.”  This stirs us to penetrate still more deeply into personhood, and through even longer reflection, we finally come to see that an individual person is a complete individual reality, existing in itself, different from all other somethings, made for rationality, the ultimate possessor under God of all it is and does.  A person is not just a piece or part of something, it is not just an instance or process of something, it is not just a clump of different somethings.  Nor is it merely a thing to be owned, a thing to be used, or a thing of any sort at all.  It is not just a what, but a who.  This insight has transformed the Western world.

But there is more.  Revelation goes on to ask, “And can you not see for yourself that your two kinds of personal reality, male and female, depend on and co-illuminate each other -- that neither can be understood in isolation?”  It would be impossible to understate the depth of this affirmation, or the abyss of the error from which it saves us.  How does it do this?  In the language of philosophers, personhood is incommunicable.  I cannot transfer the mystery of who I am to another person.  Unfortunately, it is all too easy to leap from this true statement to a mistaken conclusion.  I may falsely imagine that because I am complete in a certain sense, therefore I am complete in every sense; that because I cannot transfer myself, therefore I cannot give myself; that the incommunicability of persons precludes the communion of persons.  That would be bad enough, but in a fallen world, the difference of sex deepens the error and gives it sharper teeth.  To the mutual alienation of man and man is added the further disaffection of men and women.  They come to seem adverse to one another, natural enemies like fox and bird, perhaps drawn together by their senses, but sundered by difference in kind.  As the truth of personhood transformed the Western world, so the distortion of personhood bids fair to destroy it.

Revelation stays the error, showing that reality is the other way around.  If it takes both kinds of us to image our Creator, then our two kinds of personhood presuppose each other, and everything about us is made for communion.  Notice that just as before, the antecedent part of the statement, the if, goes beyond what unaided reason could confirm.  Just as we need revelation to see that we image God, so we need revelation to know in what mode we image Him.  But just as before, the consequent part of the statement, the then, lies entirely within reason’s powers.  Once it is called to the intellect’s attention, the intellect can say, “Yes, thank you -- now I see it for myself.”  I am complete in the sense that I am a whole person, not part of a person, yet when provoked to think more deeply, I perceive that I am not complete in the further sense that I could know myself if estranged from the opposite sex.  Wonderful to relate, the gap between the sexes turns out to be the very condition of the crossing of it.  To speak even more generally, the incommunicability of personhood does not preclude the communion of persons.  On the contrary, it is exactly what makes it possible.  Because I exist in myself, therefore I can give myself; if I were not a person, I would be incapable of such a gift.

Continued tomorrow

 

Professor Pagan

Monday, 01-19-2015

Mondays are reserved for letters from students.

Dear Professor Theophilus,

During the break I'm taking a cultural anthropology class at the local community college so that I can transfer the credit to my own school later.  The problem is that although the professor is kind toward other religions, he is harsh and vulgar towards Christianity, and I'm not sure how to respond.  He says things like “There are no true religions”, “Did God create us or did we create God?”, and “Missionaries force their religious beliefs down the throats of others at all costs.”

To defend his hostility to missionaries, he offers the relativistic proposition that “Every culture has value and should be judged by its own standards.”  Of course I don't think that missionaries should go into other lands to undermine their cultures!  If my cross-cultural classes in my missions studies have taught me anything, it's that the gospel must be contextualized so that each cultural group can clearly understand Christ's sacrifice.

As you can see, I’m frustrated and confused about how to answer.

Reply:

Your professor is all too typical, and I'm glad you've written.  I think you should “play back the tape” to him.  In other words, turn his own claims back on him, but in the form of questions.

For example, when he says “There are no true religions,” you might speak something like this (I’m not suggesting a script, but trying to give you the idea):  “I'm interested in your statement that no one possesses religious truth -- I guess you mean that no one can justify any theological claim.  But isn’t that a theological claim?  The statement that no beliefs about religion are true is itself a belief about religion – so by your argument, it must not be true.”

The same strategy will be helpful when he says that “Every culture has value and should be judged by its own standards.”  You might ask something like this:  “Professor, I'm having a little trouble with the idea that every culture has value and should be judged by its own standards.  Do you think that the Nazi culture had value and should be judged by its own standards -- so that the better it was at genocide, the more we should approve it?”

You might even ask, “Professor, whose culture says that we ought to judge every culture by its own standards?  Isn't it just your culture -- the culture of university anthropology teachers?  The reason I'm asking is that if that's true, then it seems inconsistent for you to teach that we students should accept your standard.  Doing that seems like judging the surrounding culture, not by its own standards, but by the standards of your culture.”

You mention that your professor also asks, “Did God create us or did we create God?”  Considering the variety of completely incompatible religions in the world, I think it's a pretty good question.  The only problem is that he left out one of the possible answers!

You might offer a reply something like this:  “Professor, my faith tradition recognizes the fact of religious diversity just like your anti-faith tradition does.  But St. Paul gives a different explanation for it.  His is that God created us and we “created” gods -- false gods -- because we don't want to acknowledge the true one.  In fact, the Christian idea is that the manufacture of false gods is still going on today. The only difference is that instead of having names like Zeus and Athena, today they have names like Sex, Getting Rich, My Inner Self, and Having My Way.”

The way this answer works is that it affirms the element of truth in what your professor says, but uses that as a springboard for another truth he hasn't yet recognized.  St. Paul, by the way, was a master of that particular move.

You see what I’m suggesting, don’t you?  Think of your missionary training again. You’re “contextualizing” the Christian message with courtesy and persistance so that this pagan can understand it -- a pagan who happens to be your teacher.

 

On Not Being Too Quick to Smirk

Sunday, 01-18-2015

“Sophisticates may smirk at the great expectations of the Victorians -- and there was no shortage of smirking sophisticates at the time -- but the Victorians understood, as most in our culture do not, that there is a necessary connection between being good and pretending to be good.  One can, without endorsing hypocrisy, observe that we could do with a lot more tribute to virtue.  And, of course, the happy fact is that virtue, too, can pay tribute to virtue, and, in the course of doing so, invite others to act upon their capacity to be virtuous.”

-- Richard John Neuhaus, First Things

 

Nature Illuminated, Part 3 of 8

Saturday, 01-17-2015

The first supernatural light upon nature is the light of precept: God commands or forbids something that the mind itself can recognize as right or wrong.  Telling us what we already know or could have known may seem superfluous.  Yet, as equatorial sunlight prickles the skin, so revelation prickles the mind and wakes it up, and it does this in several different ways.

Precept confronts us because certain matters of right and wrong are so obvious that at some level everyone already knows them.  According to Thomas Aquinas, these include all of the things covered by the Decalogue, such as the wrong of adultery and the wrong of theft.  If we already know them, then why is confrontation necessary?  Because the matter is more subtle than it appears.  In one sense, it is impossible to be mistaken about the moral fundamentals; they are right before the eye of the mind.  Thus Saint Thomas declares in one place that “the natural reason of every man, of its own accord and at once, judges [these things] to be done or not to be done.”  In another sense, however, it is quite possible to be mistaken about the moral fundamentals, for the eye can be averted.  Thus he remarks a few pages later, “and yet they need to be promulgated, because human judgment, in a few instances, happens to be led astray concerning them.”

Attention to this subtlety clears up one of his examples.  As Saint Thomas famously remarks in another passage, “[T]heft, although it is expressly contrary to the natural law, was not considered wrong among the Germans.”  Many readers think he meant that human reason can be totally ignorant even of precepts so basic as “Thou shalt not steal.”  On the contrary, not only was theft a punishable offense among the Germans, but, considering the source that Saint Thomas cites (the sixth book of Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic War), he would have been well aware of the fact.  Caesar does not mention the routine Germanic penalties for theft, such as compensation.  On the other hand, he says that the Germans considered such offenses so detestable that to propitiate their gods they sought out thieves and robbers to be burned alive.  Has Saint Thomas overlooked the passage?  There is no need to think so.  When he says that theft “was not considered wrong among the Germans,” what he doubtless has in mind is a later passage where Caesar explains that the Germans approved stealing from tribes other than their own.

The manner in which the judgment of these barbarians was “led astray,” then, is not that they were ignorant of the wrong of taking what properly belongs to one’s neighbor, but that they refused to recognize the members of the other tribes as neighbors.  They didn’t justify theft as such -- just some theft.  They told themselves that they weren’t really thieves.  This is very much like the way a philandering man invents excuses for his affairs.  Perhaps he tells himself that he isn’t really unfaithful to his wife, because he’ll lie to make sure she isn’t hurt.  Or perhaps (especially if he has studied ethics) he tells himself that the “question” of faithfulness is “complicated,” because the other woman is more truly his “wife” than his actual wife is.  This is why confrontation is so important; the divine reminder of what we already know has a tendency to cleanse the mind.  Such cleansing can operate not only at the level of an individual but at the level of an entire culture; with our favorite evasions burned away, we think more clearly.  About what?  Geometry?  No, but certainly about things like theft and adultery.

Precept also corrects us.  Here I am not speaking of the foundational matters, of the principles of right and wrong that we “can’t not know,” but of their more or less remote implications.  A great many points of morality that lie within the mind’s capacity of discovery, and that, after reflection, wise people consider obligatory, nevertheless have to be explained to persons who lack wisdom.  In fact, even the knowledgeable may make mistakes.  “In order, therefore, that man may know without any doubt what he ought to do and what he ought to avoid,” Saint Thomas remarks, “it was necessary for man to be directed in his proper acts by a law given by God, for it is certain that such a law cannot err.”  Consider adultery again.  As we saw above, though we may need confrontation about it, strictly speaking we don’t need correction about it; the good of marriage is just too obvious for us to pretend that we don’t get it about adultery.  Granted, it is not so obvious to the adulterer; habitual duplicity dims the powers of judgment.  The good of chastity in all of its dimensions, on the other hand, is not so obvious even in the first place.  To most people it seems rather a stretch.  They may consider it admirable -- a remote, ideal beauty -- but it is unlikely to strike them as obligatory.  Consequently, concerning lines of conduct like divorce, fornication, perversion, “polyamory,” and even prostitution, they do need correction.

The difference between these two spheres of moral knowledge should not be overstated.  Are people completely ignorant of the moral character of unchastity?  Probably not.  Even today, most people involved in sexual sin recognize its impurity more clearly than they let on.  But do they see the depth of the problem?  That is most unlikely.  We need only listen to the way that they speak: “I’m not a tramp.  I only sleep with men I like.”  Even so, an element of honest ignorance mingles with the element of denial, and so we are right to say that revealed precept does more than admonish us, “You know better.”  Concerning the remote implications of the natural law it actually corrects the error, stays the wandering judgment, and imparts certainty where confusion reigned before.

Correction about one vice has consequences for other vices, and ultimately for our grasp of natural law.  We have been speaking about the good of chastity, but in order to be deceived about that good, a man must also be deceived about a whole range of other goods.  The truest friendship is partnership in a good life; in that respect his friendship is impaired.  Justice requires acute perception of what is really due to the other person; in that sense his justice is impaired.  Courage requires not mere fearlessness but a right estimate of what things are worth fighting for; in that sense his courage is impaired.  Unfaithfulness requires constant deception; in that sense his frankness is impaired.  Deceived in so many ways, his wisdom is askew.  Insofar as wisdom regulates all of the moral virtues, the pattern of his life is askew.  Lacking the stability and discipline necessary for clear and honest thought, constantly tempted to rationalize, his thinking about natural law is askew.  If sexual purity were a recognized prerequisite for those who pursue such studies, matters would be different, but as it is, philosophers need corrective precepts about purity just as much as everyone else.

Finally, revealed precepts illuminate the natural realities by invitation.  Pondering the structures of creation, we can discern reasons why the revealed precepts are so fitting; this is part of what the Scriptures call Wisdom, who speaks personified in Proverbs:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.  Ages ago I was set up, at the fi rst, before the beginning of the earth ....  [T]hen I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men.  And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.  Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it .... For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death.

Reflection on the reasons for God’s commandments was one of the great projects of rabbinical Judaism.  Rabbi Saadia Gaon declares that if all relied on theft instead of work for livelihood, “even stealing would become impossible, because, with the disappearance of all property, there would be absolutely nothing in existence that might be stolen.”  In similar fashion, Maimonides says that the eating of flesh torn from living animals -- a violation of the Noahide commandments -- “would make one acquire the habit of cruelty,” and Rabbi Hanina explains about the commandment to administer justice that “were it not for the fear of it a man would swallow his neighbor alive.”  Such arguments might seem to presuppose what they are trying to prove, but the circle is not vicious, because the longer we reflect, the deeper we are able to go.  Consider, for example, Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s remark.  Why would the disappearance of property leave nothing that might be stolen?  Merely in the formal sense that stealing is taking what another person owns?  No, in another sense too.  No one takes care of what might be gone tomorrow; without personal care and responsibility the common good suffers.  If property is rightly conceived as a form of stewardship -- for “every beast of the forest is [God’s], the cattle on a thousand hills” -- then property is far better training even in charity than those alternative institutional arrangements in which no one owns anything, in which “everyone” owns everything, or in which each one owns something but tells the others to go to hell.

The same is true of the precepts of chastity that we were considering before.  Without revelation, just through reflection on the created realities, we may or may not have arrived at them.  But once they are revealed and the revelation is accepted, they are known, and once they are known, the mind goes on to ask what makes them true.  In other words, we ask what it is about our constitution that makes sexual purity so crucial and impurity so catastrophic.  Why ask at all?  Does God require consent in order to command us?  No, but He made us in His image and delights to see it reflected back to Him.  He might have ruled us as He rules the animals, but instead He makes us finite participants in His wisdom.  Not only does He provide for us, but He has endowed us with the ability to understand in some measure the principles of His providence, and to care for each other in imitation of His loving care for us.

By the way, it is for this reason alone that human enacted law is possible.  God could have arranged matters so that we never had to deliberate about what is to be done, never had to labor in order to grasp how the general principles of the natural law should be applied to the particular circumstances of our earthly communities.  Such is not His way with us.  We may ask, “Why didn’t you make it easier?”  That is really like asking, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou dost care for him?” -- but in the mode of a complaint.  The psalmist replies that He has made us little lower than the angels, and has crowned us with glory and honor.

Sundays are reserved for lighter fare and Mondays for student letters, but this string continues on Tuesday

 

Nature Illuminated, Part 2 of 8

Friday, 01-16-2015

Something is destroyed by the council’s teaching, but not philosophy.  What is actually abolished is a too-simple idea of how revelation and so-called unaided reason are related.  In fact, revelation and reason are in intimate converse, each one entangled with the other.  In the first place, revealed truth about man’s nature presupposes the natural law.  In the second place, it underwrites reflection upon it.  More to the present point, supernature illuminates the natural realities with which human reason is concerned.  This is true in an immediate and direct way for those who acknowledge that this revelation is true.  What I hope to show is that in an indirect way it is even true for those “men of goodwill” who do not.

Now there are two ways in which one might inquire about these matters, two ways to investigate how the mystery of man is illuminated by the mystery of the Word.  One way is to focus solely on the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ.  Now this Man was God.  Because we are not God, it might seem that this fact tells us nothing about ourselves, but the sheer fact that the human and divine could commune in a single person brings out with shocking clarity the depth of the older teaching that the one is the image of the other.  The sharpest, clearest definition of human nature is simply imago Dei.  In surrender to God, then, we lose nothing; only in Him can we discover ourselves.

Or consider the hope of redemption, grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection.  The fact that this directly concerns our destiny rather than our nature does not make it irrelevant to our nature.  What it tells us is that it was no mockery for the Creator to set eternity in the hearts of men, that the thirst for Himself with which He endowed us can be satisfied after all, that we can drink from Him forever.  Perhaps there is no logical contradiction in the idea of an image of God who is destined to futility, but there is certainly a performative incoherency in it.  As Benedict XVI points out, hope that life will not end in emptiness is a requirement of our nature: “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.”

The approach that I have just described -- considering only what Christ shows us about ourselves -- may seem to be the high road.  But although the mystery of the Word made flesh is the highest arch of the structure of revelation, the Word was not imparted to us only in the flesh.  All expressions of the Word are connected; we do not throw away scripture, sacrament, and apostolic teaching because we have Christ.  In reality, everything in revelation illuminates the mystery of man.  This more general matter is what I wish to explore.

I mentioned three ways in which revelation is related to natural law.  It presupposes natural law in that it makes no sense without it.  Time after time God commends His commandments to our admiration.  “What great nation is there,” He asks the children of Israel, “that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?”  Plainly the question expects the Israelites to compare the relative righteousness of the verbally revealed ordinances of God and the humanly enacted ordinances of other nations.  But how can they compare, unless they have the power of comparison?  How can they have such a power, unless they already know something about righteousness?  And how can they already know something about it, unless God has already revealed that something by other means?  We find the same pattern throughout the word of God: Even when His disclosures exceed what natural reason could have figured out for itself, we can distinguish them from nonsense.  They depend on natural reason for their intelligibility.

Revelation underwrites rational reflection on the natural law by acknowledging the ways in which created reality itself is a kind of revelation; nature itself bears a kind of testimony to the truths of its Creator.  A law is written on the heart, even in the person who “has not the Law.”  We bear a certain order and design, which gives the way we are put together a significance it could not have if it were merely the unintended result of an accidental sequence of events.  The principles of this design can be recognized -- for example, the complementarity of the sexes.  Finally, our actions have natural consequences; the law of the harvest, that we reap as we sow, is not a mere product of the myth-maddened mind.  This fourfold testimony teaches us, in a manner not unlike the way in which the properties of soil and seeds instruct the farmer.  Experience assists human wisdom because Eternal Wisdom has seen to it that it shall; the universe has been designed to make this possible.

More to the point of this series, supernature illuminates the natural realities that are the business of natural law philosophy by inviting the intellect to reason more fully and adequately about matters that it may in principle be capable of finding out on its own, but rarely does.  Philosophy has rightly been called a preamble to theology; but theology is also a preamble to better philosophy.  An everyday parallel may make this clear.  Persons of my own sex often fail to notice things that ought to be perfectly obvious, and are in fact obvious to most women.  “Have you seen my glasses?”  “Yes, you’re holding them.”  “Are we out of milk?”  “Turn around; it’s on the table.”  “Why did Sheila speak so unkindly to that young man?”  “Because she likes him.”  Philosophy is like that too.  The facts of created reality may be right under our noses without our noticing.  We may be nearly blind to them until their Creator says, “Look here,” as the pagan thinkers were nearly blind to the sacrificial quality of love.  Does this “look here” allow natural law thinkers to dispense with arguments accessible to nonbelievers?  Obviously not, but it allows them to peer into the phenomena of our common life with greater confidence and penetration than they otherwise could.  It provides hints and insights about all sorts of matters which natural reason can later confirm by its own proper methods.  So reason grasps the things within its ken more quickly, deeply, and surely when revelation calls attention to them.

Astonishingly, it also grasps these natural realities more readily when supernatural realities not within its ken are revealed to it -- as we will see.  But to see this we need more equipment -- say, a prism.

Through the prism of revelation, at least five different colors of light shine on the natural realities.  We may call these preceptive, affirmative, narrative, promissory, and sacramental.  Although these lights clarify every facet of our nature, for simplicity I deal mostly with the facet of conjugal sexuality.  One cannot talk about everything, and the Word made flesh did after all perform His first supernatural miracle at a wedding.  I make no claim to break new ground concerning sexuality per se.  The purpose is merely to show how the natural and supernatural realities are related.

Continued tomorrow