Doubting Thomas (Yes, Still)

 [I was privileged to participate in a panel discussion with Francis Beckwith on the topic of Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law Theory. We were responding to a series of lectures by J. Budziszewski. My remarks as delivered are below. They are very similar to what I posted here a year ago, with some changes. Enjoy.]

I am so pleased to participate in this conversation today, and would like to thank [....] for so graciously inviting me and Professor Beckwith, whom I greatly admire, for his willingness to participate.

Our topic is Thomas Aquinas; more specifically, the viability of a revitalized Natural Law Theory for Christian public discourse. I should admit at the outset that I am one of those Christian critics of natural law theory about whom Dr. Budziszewski has called today, "embarrassingly misinformed." But I promise I've never let that deter me before.

Let me make clear at the outset that what is in question here is not that reality is ordered by transcendent norms; for me, the question is whether Thomistic Natural Law theory is truly capable of arriving at these norms by way of its characteristic method.

There's no better way to begin than by making the root of my concerns clear. Thomistic Natural Law draws a distinction (to varying degrees of sharpness) between natural knowledge and "supernatural" knowledge, between natural reason and faith, between general truths that may be known to "unaided" reason and special truths that may only be obtained by special revelation.

This is the general contour of Thomistic epistemology, and there has been great debate over just how sharply one should draw these lines. Why the concern? It is best illustrated by a philosopher who himself maximally exploited this dichotomy: Immanuel Kant. Kant famously made his distinction between faith and reason absolute: the "noumenal" realm (that which is outside our experience) is faith's domain; the phenomenal realm (the world of our experience) is reason's sole domain. It should be noted that Kant thought he was doing God a favor--"making room for him" was his phrase; but, as Stanley Fish wryly puts it, he essentially, "kicked God upstairs and out of sight."

The Enlightenment vision of Kant and his successors was to create a public space free of faith; Reason would be the sole arbiter of public truth. Insofar as Natural Law theory is an attempt to argue for transcendent moral norms solely on the basis of natural reason and free from faith claims, it seems content to live, move, and have its being in what I believe to be an artificial construct. I am less than inclined to accept secularism's terms of participation in the public square.

Some Thomists have felt the weight of this. Henri deLubac and the Nouvelle Theologie have produced a more "integrationist" account of Thomas, arguing essentially that "pure nature" is not really a condition that is "unaided" by God's revelation or grace after all. In fact, this more integrated interpretation is what you heard just now from Professor Beckwith, and from Dr. Budziszewski today when he insisted that, for example, without divine grace no one could reason about anything at all, or when he said that Natural Law takes into account the salvation history revealed in Scripture. But I have to say: Dr. Budziszewski's vigorous effort today to paint a singular, cohesive tradition of "classical natural law" genuinely surprised me. Because, with all due respect, that is embarrassingly misinformed. 

Nicholas Wolterstorff, whom nobody would accuse of ignorance, summarizes where things stand in the scholarly world: "To say that there is not a consensus view on Aquinas's understanding of natural law is to understate drastically the depth and scope of controversy on the matter." (Justice: Rights and Wrongs [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008], 39.)

I mention all this because I think it is important to note that there are varying accounts of Thomism, and that after these well-nigh thousand years Natural Law Theory (still) isn't a settled matter. The irony of my disagreement just now with Dr. Budziszewski is that my own sympathies are with him and deLubac; the more integrationist an approach (meaning the less sharp a dichotomy between faith and reason) the better. But I also believe we do even better to rethink the entire construct.

Allow me to briefly delve into some more specific concerns about the deployment of natural law theory.

1. I am skeptical of Natural Law’s alleged advantage.

Here is how it appears to the popular mind: “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. One recent scholar has declared that mathematics is a social construct designed by white patriarchy to oppress and marginalize others. Math. Forgive me for pointing this out: talking about an "instrinsic teleology” or "proper ends" that we can rationally discern is every bit as unpopular with our cultured despisers as quoting John 3:16. Teleology is precisely what our culture denies.

So if public discourse requires a priori agreement about fundamentals like God or Nature (an impression Natural Law Theory often gives, at least at the popular level), it strikes me that it is not in the advantageous position it imagines.

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

I find Augustine and Anselm better than Kant: knowledge—all knowledge—is “faith seeking understanding.” Scratch a truth claim deep enough, and you’ll uncover a faith commitment at the bottom. That's because we are dependent creatures who literally have no autonomous, independent place on which to epistemically stand.

General and special revelation should be viewed as an organic unity (not, as Thomas seemed to think, as parallel tracks) and so also the human knower must be viewed as an organic unity. People do not think in terms of two “sets” of propositions, each in a hermetically sealed silo, one called "faith" and the other "reason." 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 ostensibly "faith-free" references to the natural world is itself shaped by special revelation. In other words, I’m doubtful that “unaided” reason really is unaided. Try as we might to disguise it, I believe everyone's concepts of the True, Good, and Beautiful are underwritten by faith commitments.

And here's my real point: I don’t see why we should be shy or uncomfortable about this, or try to disguise it. 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.

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

I think 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.

Now, of course unbelievers know lots of things and deploy their mental resources very successfully. I readily and thankfully admit it! After all, I'm reading this on a near-miraculous device created by Steve Jobs, who, as far as I know, was not on particularly close terms with God. But I think it makes a difference whether we view this 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, as Natural Law Theory does, to construct a general, universal epistemology under which to do business with non-believers. But one does not presume upon grace. And grace is what I think it is.

4. I am skeptical of halfway-houses.

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 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 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.

5. This one is 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 given this very impression: reason and faith occupy two different spheres?

What if we are to blame? We have been dutifully playing by the Enlightenment's cardinal rule, “Leave God, the Bible, and your faith out of it!” Should it surprise us that we wake up to find Secularism dominating the field? I’m concerned that some versions of the Natural Law renewal--those that emphasize an artificial dichotomy between faith and reason--represent a doubling down on a failed strategy that got us here, rather than a real advance.

Brian Mattson