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.