Doubting Thomas (Aquinas)

[I was very recently privileged to participate in a panel discussion on the prospect of revitalizing Natural Law Theory for public engagement. My interlocutors were Francis J. Beckwith and James K.A. Smith. The event was non-public and will not be made widely available, but I am happy to post here my opening remarks. Without further adieu...]

It is an honor and privilege to be here with you, alongside these capable and gifted scholars. I have been invited to share with you my perspective on the project of revitalizing Natural Law Theory for purposes of public engagement. First, I should get this out of the way: I share wholeheartedly the desire to retrieve the concept of a transcendent moral order—a law “above the law”—in our cultural ethics and jurisprudence. None of us disagree that there is such an order and that it is critical for human society that we recover our apprehension of it. But I do have some doubts. I acknowledge that my doubts to not apply with equal force to all aspects of every version of Natural Law Theory. In his own work, for example, Dr. Budziszewski has sought to advance an understanding of natural law in a way that addresses a number of areas of my concern. And I look forward to this discussion to discover if there is more concord between us than may initially appear.

As for my doubts, they center on the validity and viability of establishing and/or arguing for a transcendent moral order in a self-consciously non-theological or pre-revelational way. That is, by “unaided” reason, without relying on God, the Bible, theology, or Christian tradition.

Without further fanfare, allow me to present five problematic areas as I see it.

Doubt #1: I am skeptical of Natural Law’s alleged intellectual and rhetorical advantage.

Here is conventional wisdom: “We cannot resort to theology in matters of public concern because our opponents do not believe in theology.” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but our opponents do not believe in nature, either. These are, after all, people who believe everything—even our very biology—is a psychological and socio-cultural construct. Talking about “teleology” and inherent “goods” is every bit as unpopular with our public audience as quoting John 3:16. Our culture’s dominant worldview is precisely that there is no teleology. There is no “purpose.” The Watchmaker is blind. As Justice Kennedy has been teaching us, “at its heart” meaning and purpose is an act of self-creation.

So if public discourse requires a priori agreement about fundamentals like God or Nature, it strikes me that Natural Law Theory is not in the advantageous position it imagines.

Doubt #2: I am skeptical of a neat separation between general and special revelation, between the truths of reason and the truths of faith.

Indeed, it seems to me that when the architects of modern secularism (e.g., Descartes, Kant) sought an intellectual foundation grounded in pure reason, a kind of nature/grace dualism of the Middle Ages had already paved the way. We were left fairly helpless when Immanuel Kant kicked God out of the realm of Reason because that is how many already conceived of him. I find Augustine much better: knowledge—all knowledge—is “faith seeking understanding.” Scratch a truth claim deep enough, and you’ll uncover a faith commitment.

General and special revelation should be viewed as an organic unity—not as parallel tracks—and so also the human person must be viewed as an organic unity. People do not think in terms of two “sets” of propositions, each in a hermetically sealed silo. Rather, they always come to topics shaped and influenced by everything they know. This is true even of Natural Law proponents: what they mean by their references to the natural world is itself shaped by special revelation. In other words I’m doubtful that “unaided” reason really is unaided. So, for example, when Ken Meyers writes that instead of talking about “sin,” we should talk about “living against the grain of the universe.” I ask: What “grain?” He certainly isn’t fooling me, and I very much doubt he’s fooling anybody else. His understanding of a “grain of the universe” is not the product of strict rational thought; it is clearly underwritten by his faith commitments.

And I don’t see why we should be shy or uncomfortable about this. In his book, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, Steven Smith compellingly shows that none of the bulwarks of our “secular” society (e.g., human dignity, equality, etc.) are arrived at by strict reason—rather, all parties smuggle their ideological faith commitments into the public square by reassuringly telling themselves and everybody else that the arguments are based on strictly “secular” reason, when they are in fact nothing of the sort.

Doubt #3: I’m skeptical of Natural Law Theory’s assessment of the human epistemic condition.

Brilliance is overrated. We know what true unaided reason is. It is “futile” and “darkened,” (Rom. 1) “depraved,” “enslaved to the flesh,” “death,” “hostile to God,” “unwilling” and “unable” to submit to him (Rom. 8), and “foolish” and “unspiritual” (1 Cor. 1). None of these characterizations are my own. Rather, they are how the Bible characterizes the fallen human mind. The problem is not so much that people don’t believe in God; it is that they won’t believe in God. It is a mistake to believe that human reasoning capacities are generally amenable to arguments that point in God’s direction. I do not believe that reason is ethically neutral, and that appears to me a prerequisite for Natural Law Theory.

Now, of course unbelievers know lots of things and deploy their mental resources very successfully. I readily and thankfully admit it! But I think it makes a difference whether we view that general “reasonableness” as simply the natural state of affairs (a “natural law,” perhaps?) or whether we view it as grace. If it is merely the natural order, we can presume upon it—indeed, so much so that we can use it to construct a general epistemology. But one does not presume upon grace. And grace is what I think it is.

Doubt #4: I am skeptical of halfway-house conversions.

Don’t misunderstand me: if a natural law argument persuades someone to, say, change their mind on the morality of abortion, I will rejoice. But I have nagging doubts about an overall approach that appears satisfied with that. It seems to me one thing to not explicitly ground our foundational convictions in the Bible for a particular existential and/or situational reason (e.g., maybe quoting Scripture right now isn’t the best tactic). But it seems an altogether different thing to never talk about God or his Word in public affairs as a matter of principle.

I struggle to find warrant for a principle that bids me not to press the claims of Christ’s Lordship in the public square, whether with respect to morality or the intellect. We are to take “every thought captive” to the obedience “of Christ.” Peter tells us the prerequisite for our apologetics is to “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” We are called to “Love the LORD your God” with our minds. Does our reticence to appeal to God’s revealed Word betray insecurity or half-heartedness?

And to be clear: I am not talking about the caricature of the guy who just quotes Bible verses as “conversation stoppers.” I am talking about a willingness to boldly give deep and “thick” biblical and theological descriptions of reality, to allow what we really believe to organically, openly, and unashamedly shape our entire view of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I am quite confident that can be done in conversation-enriching ways. In fact, I think it is when we actually get to the heart of the matter, the antithesis between two deep convictions on the nature of reality and ethics and knowledge, that conversations actually get interesting.

Doubt #5: My final doubt I will put in the form of a question:

Isn’t it possible that our reluctance to engage in this kind of “thick-description” biblical and theological discourse in public affairs is one of the culprits of our cultural decline?

Why is it so easy for someone—even highly educated, lettered academics—to describe the run-of-the-mill Christian believer as a mindless “bigot”? To instinctively assume there can be no intellectual reasons for convictions brought by faith? Have not we ourselves perpetuated this very idea: intellect and faith occupy two different spheres?

What if we are to blame? I don’t think we should be at all surprised that after centuries of playing by Secularism’s cardinal rule, “Leave God, the Bible, and your faith out of it!” we wake up to find that Secularism dominates the field. And I’m concerned that some versions of the Natural Law renewal represent a doubling down on the failed strategy that got us here, rather than a real advance.

Father as Defender

[From time to time I am struck by memories of my youth. I try to write them down for posterity.]

I had no idea I was growing up in an idyllic slice of America that would shortly disappear. We lived on a “court,” a neighborhood in which a single street forms a large rectangle, with three cul-de-sacs at the corners and only one entrance and exit. We called it “The Block.” At the south end was a large, well-appointed city park, and a sidewalk cut through the middle of the interior section which made it easy for kids on the north side to cut through to the park without walking all the way around.

“Idyllic,” I say, because even though these were the days of putting “missing children” on milk cartons, very few people were concerned about child abduction. Yes, Mrs. Harper always kept close watch on her kids—they were notoriously not allowed to “leave the block.” Not even a toe could touch outside the confines of our haven. But mostly, parents just let their kids run free, especially in the summertime. We’d have late-night games of “war” with all the neighborhood kids, and the entire neighborhood was the field of play. Sporting full combat gear (purchased from the Army/Navy store), you could jump any fence or cut through any backyard without incident. Even the dogs knew every kid on the block.

In the cul-de-sac to the west of our house lived a family that was different from the rest of the block’s upwardly mobile lower-middle class. I always avoided going near their house. Not because Boo Radley lived there, but something much more terrifying. Mr. Simon was a hulk of a man. He sported a thick black beard, had long hair covered by bandanas, and was never seen without his signature biker gang leathers. I have no idea what he did for a living, but whenever he was home he seemed to have only one occupation: tinkering in his garage with some kind of classic car that no matter how long he worked on it never seemed any more “restored.” He chain smoked, which, while I do not recall my parents ever saying anything about it, gave a whiff of scandal for a budding Pharisee like me. If my friend Todd and I were hanging out in my front yard, we’d scurry to hide every time we heard that Harley Davidson fire up down the street. We were petrified of the man.

The Simon children (I recall two boys, and later, a younger sister) were of the annoying sort. They did not fit in with the rest of the neighborhood gang. I do not recall for certain their names, but the the younger son—let’s call him Jake—is the relevant subject. One fine summer day the gang (Which we called the “A-Team,” after the television show dominating the airwaves at the time) was hanging out on the Harper’s driveway. My two older brothers, Jeff and Dan, the Harper boys Troy and Todd, Jay Whittington, and me. I could not have been more than seven or eight years old. Also among our group was a cranky, cocky, arrogant kid of very lower-class, mysterious parentage named—I kid you not—Rogue. We were doing the typical “What should we do today?” mulling about when we heard the squeaky wheel of Jake Simon riding down the street on his tricycle. Squeaksqueaksqueaksqueaksqueak! When he got to the front of the driveway, he made a left turn and rode right up to the group. 

“Whatchya doin?”

Rogue stepped forward, puffed out his chest and replied, “Nothing. And if you run over my foot I’ll punch you.”

Jake immediately put the pedal to the metal and ran over Rogue’s foot. (Did I mention annoying?)

Smack!

I remember the sound like it was yesterday because it was the first time I’d ever heard that sound outside of the volume-enhanced versions of the movies. It was even louder than the movies. Rogue right-hooked Jake squarely in the eye. Jake fled, bawling and squeaking his way back down the street. We were all appalled, and in pathetically meek, weak, and mumbling fashion said things like, “Rogue, you really shouldn’t have done that!”

Now, I don’t know what got into Jake, but an hour or so later we heard that same familiar Squeaksqueaksqueaksqueaksqueak! He was getting back on the horse after getting bucked, I guess. Or bravely facing down his bully. Or he had just gone insane. Because, after riding back up the driveway, this time with one very puffy black eye, the conversation went exactly like this.

“Whatchya doin?”

“If you run over my foot I’ll punch you.”

Smack!

Directly in the other eye.

Bellowing wails and lamentations once again echoed and resounded over the entire block as he squeaked his way back home. The A-Team was on edge the rest of the day. Our Commander, my oldest brother Jeff, instructed everyone to lay low. We all knew trouble was brewing. It was all particularly humiliating because the A-Team, despite how it sounds just now, was a pretty welcoming gang. We were not mean. We were not bullies. We fostered esprit de corps and brotherhood and discipline. (Seriously, we did military drills in our backyard, in preparation for the inevitable Russian invasion.) We just happened to have a really bad seed at that moment in time, a character with a very appropriate name: there is no doubt in our minds he was “rogue.” 

The afternoon drifted late. We decided to cut through the block and head for the park. As we made our way up the grassy hill to the playground, I heard another thing I had never heard outside of movies: squealing tires. I jerked my head around and saw a car rounding the corner sideways. The engine roared and the blacktop was indelibly marred with hot rubber. 

Mr. Simon was gunning for us.

We all watched in awe as his car careened into the parking area to an abrupt halt. He leaped out of the car, screaming at the top of his lungs. He loped to the top of the hill, towered over us, and gave us a piece of his mind. It was all such a blur I cannot remember the soliloquy. I’m pretty sure it was profanity-laced. There were dark threats. Not the “I’m going to tell your parents” kind, either. The “I’ll bury you alive if you ever touch my children again” kind. He openly shamed my older brothers. That I recall. For Mr. Simon, they bore responsibility: the more powerful must protect the weak.

It was literally the first (and last) time I ever heard Mr. Simon speak. And the impression—if not the actual words—was unforgettable.

Nobody ever dared harass the Simon children again. Ever.

I faintly recall now something odd. Mr. Simon was a very scary guy we reasonably thought was in a biker gang. He was by definition something of a misfit, especially for our neighborhood. But I now remember one of the things that made his children so annoying: they rarely uttered a sentence without the words, “My Dad.” Nobody could ever top them in the childish game of “My Dad is better than your Dad.” I was terrified of him, but they worshiped the ground he walked on. They admired him. And they loved him.

And, as everyone (the A-Team and his own children alike) discovered that day, he loved them, too. Whatever his social deficiencies, he was their lodestar, their hero, and their defender. Tire marks were laid down as testament for years.

My brother Jeff flourished into an exceptional leader. He had a highly unusual interest in the weak. He was popular in high school, part of the cool crowd, but it was his befriending and mentoring of shy, nervous freshmen that made him Captain of the Cross Country team. This, when he couldn’t even run fast enough to obtain a Varsity letter. He always had an eye for misfits and wallflowers, always bending over backward to make people welcome. It was this kind of leadership—servant leadership—that awarded him an eventual appointment to West Point and his subsequent service in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Dan, too, became a man of service to others, earning a full-ride ROTC scholarship to pursue a nursing degree. As a nurse anesthetist, he served two tours in Baghdad during the most gruesome and violent period of the war. He, too, had an eye for serving the weak and wounded in unusual ways. Once, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stood muttering under his breath near the bed of a terribly wounded soldier. Dan intervened, saying, “Sir, he can hear you. Please talk to him.” The Secretary and that soldier shared a quiet moment of powerful intimacy they will likely never forget.

Fatherhood is not an abstraction. That day the A-Team saw it in its raw, untamed, flesh-and-blood reality. As unlikely as it seemed to us, that “unlovable” man’s children had something utterly irreplaceable: the love of a Father, protector, and defender.

It made us all better men.