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.

Brian Mattson