There is no surprise in the announcement that morality in the West is a fragmented, if not frenetic, topic of discussion. Alisdair MacIntyre famously announced this more than thirty-five years ago with the release of his magisterial work After Virtue, where he described Western Civilization’s moral discussion and the end of the twentieth century as “brittle.” Nothing has changed with the turning of the century it would seem; things have worsened in our world of political correctness and social justice warriors. Having lost any center of reference, the way that people think about moral norms is in a dizzying combination of quasi-Marxist identity politics and emotivism, with self-referentially inconsistent existentialist and individualistic relativisms. Ours is the age of terminally ill and life-denying personally and culturally relativistic postmodern perspectives. Even in Christian circles, theologians have debated especially with the rise of the influence of Stanley Hauerwas whether and how—or to what extent—Christian moral teaching has any universal application for culture generally. In this paper I want to argue for an old position in moral theory as a potential starting point for reflection by Christians about our tasks as moral agents in the world and witnesses for Christ. The argument I wish to defend is that Christian morality and the metaphysics of the natural world are inextricably bound together. Specifically, I want to make a philosophical argument, with some important theological considerations thrown in, that can provide a paradigm for evangelicals (and especially Wesleyans) to begin to embrace enthusiastically a theory of Natural Law as the starting point in our conversations with the wider culture about moral norms. This will be a daunting proposal, given that protestant theology has largely ignored the metaphysics of human existence. The only times any such issues are approached fall within discussions of harmartiology and soteriological questions.
Related to the lack of interest in metaphysics in Protestant theology, a commitment to the radical nature of sin (which evangelical theology still embraces) has colored the epistemological perspective of traditional Protestant thought. The doctrine of total depravity has established a strong reserve about human reason and our ability to recognize truths beyond the merely scientific, creating an epistemology of “revelation versus reason” or” grace versus nature.” Some believe this way of thinking is the implication inherent in the great Protestant affirmations sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura. However, the recovery of these important and central precepts for the Christian dialogue has led some theologians to a lamentable tendency to speak of the twin doctrines of Creation and Redemption in ways that treats them in ways that disconnect them from one another or presumes the first and concentrates solely on the later. In turn, this has led to two equally troublesome options. Depending upon which of the two horns of the dilemma one decides to hang an argument, we find: 1) a universalist liberalism (a la Scheilermacher) that tends to deny the scandal of particularity of the Christian dogma in the name if a cohesive rational religious epistemology which begins with human experience of God rather than God as revealed in Jesus Christ; 2) or a fundamentalist epistemological biblicism that either turns its back on the world for the sake of eternal salvation or posits an impermeable dividing wall between revelation and reason regarding how we come to know the truth about ourselves and God. I contend that either of these options represents a loss of the true implications of the Church’s central claim: Jesus is Lord!
The project set forth in this essay is motivated by the desire to articulate how evangelicals (especially Wesleyans) can and why they should to hold together the twin doctrines of Creation and Redemption, especially in the arena of Christian ethical thought. To that end, we look to three sources, who at first glance might seem to have little to do with one another: the thirteenth century theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, the eighteenth-century evangelist/“folk theologian,” and social reformer John Wesley, and the twentieth century philosopher Michael Polanyi. I do not suggest that there is some thread that links their thought, but instead attempt to develop in a preliminary fashion a philosophical moral theology that is a synthesis of some of their central insights. Drawing on the philosophical insights of Michael Polanyi and the theological foundation provided by Aquinas, I offer a constructive account of the meaning of — and therefore the nature of — human personhood in the world. Thus, I offer, a reading of Natural Law theory in Christian Ethics. This is, for my purposes, both critical and constructive, but it does not reflect the epistemological concerns of the Reformation or its soteriological commitments. To address those, I seize John Wesley’s understanding of God’s saving grace. As a Protestant (Anglican) he was as committed to Total Depravity and the centrality of grace as any theological voice of Protestantism. And yet, he argues that saving grace is a universal deposit in all people. Thus, I offer a way for Protestants – at least those in the Wesleyan, or more broadly Arminian traditions — to own a theory of Natural Law. This proposed way of casting the discussion will, I think, indicate that Natural Law theory as a foundation for ethics need not weaken our Christological commitments, as it formally holds together the Christian doctrines of Creation and Redemption. Such a task is crucial for believers who are citizens-in-waiting of the New Jerusalem, while acknowledging that they are now citizens of a liberal democracy such as the United States.
Being what we are
A Natural Law Theory runs into an immediate objection in current philosophical debate from the secular or naturalistic point of view, namely that we cannot talk about “human nature” in a philosophically interesting sense that has any true referent. Such talk cannot pick out any real essence, so the argument goes, because with the rise of the Darwinian theory of evolution and its successors we have provided accounts of trans-special development of various life-forms that make any talk about the ‘natures’ of things suspicious. Many theorists find such claims about natures to be quaintly reminiscent of what is described as the now-debunked Aristotelian biology, which saw creatures as being expressive of unchanging kinds of beings (species). Other naturalistic theorists abjure talk about natures because they reject traditional theism and its insistence upon a Creator who established and ordered the world, including boundaries that cannot be crossed, thereby, fixing “natures” in all things. In other words, for the person who embraces a naturalist, materialistic metaphysics (that all that exists is nature and the natural process of evolution) things are what they are, but they just as easily might not be, so the term “nature” has too much ontological baggage. Add to this the continuing influence of existentialism and some forms of phenomenology, which insist that existence is the ontological fundament of our experiential knowledge so that the notion of essence in human consciousness is a kind of second-tier fiction, and a Natural Law moral theory has several obstacles to negotiate in current philosophical debate. But these obstacles are not, in my estimation, decisive. In order to begin (and even defend) a contemporary discussion of human nature, one may make the rather straightforward observation that human beings, regardless of how we have developed or into what we might evolve, are identifiable in the world right now as a natural kind. And each of us finds our existence, which is immediate to us, determined by our status in the world as a specific kind. The insistence of existentialism notwithstanding about our radical freedom in the world as human selves, our experience of our existence qua human being is that we exist in the world with certain predetermined limitations, as well as unique abilities. These are physical, perceptual, and intellectual. These limitations and abilities are what define us as a natural kind, our existence and subsequent consciousness of it notwithstanding. As such, they also determine significantly our relation to other entities. Large falling rocks, viruses, and hydrochloric acid are, for instance, potentially harmful to our natural kind under certain circumstances. Other entities are food for us; and we stand in relation to them as beneficiaries. These are relational descriptions, but they are realities that are not constructed by our intellects. Rather, these are realities determined by our existence as a particular natural kind of thing in the actual world. It is this of which we are immediately conscious as we live our lives, because it is the way things are. What Oliver O’Donovan has observed about morality can be said of all our knowledge: “Any attempt to think about morality must make a decision early in its course, overt or covert, about these forms of order which we seem to discern in the world. Either they are there, or they are not.”
More important and unique to us as the natural kind – humans – we find ourselves curious about other non-human beings in the world (non-human, animate and inanimate, real and imaginary) and our relationship to them and even, in some cases, our responsibility for them. Yet, these other beings do not (at least so far as our intellectual limitations indicate to us) reciprocate in kind. As is the case with every natural kind, the reality that we are a natural kind in the world places each of us qua human beings in a particularly unique relationship with one another as beings who share something of the limits, abilities, interests, and possibilities of our way of existing. This particular relationship of shared existence and conscious awareness of our way of existing is instructive about, as well as singularly important to, our very existence in the world. In this regard Herbert McCabe has pointed out: To be told
“This belongs to the species [natural kind] of panther” is a remark different from, and more informative than ‘this is a panther’. To be told that it belongs to a species is to be told not that there are others like it but that part of what this panther is is to be a fragment of a larger whole. It is to be told that part of its behavior is to be explained by the requirements of the larger whole. Not to know that the panther belongs to a species would be not to know something about this individual panther; membership in the species is part of what it means for the panther to be itself.”
Unless we are willing to argue that human beings are so unique in the world that they have no particular determinant characteristics, we cannot avoid, it seems to me, acknowledging that human being is an essence of some sort and, therefore, being human is a concept which does provide a set of standards for assessment. Just what such standards are is yet to be demonstrated and discussed, but the existence of a set of determinant considerations regarding what it means to be human seems no more controversial than claiming that there exist nature-determined drives, activities, and purposive behaviors which define the natural kind panther. When I speak of a set of determinate considerations, I have in mind something similar to what other philosophers have described as ‘property-clusters’ or ‘criterial attributes’.
While many theorists might be willing to allow me freedom to this point and travel so far down the trail I am attempting to mark-out, once we move from considerations of the “natural” part of the terrain to the “law” portion many will, no doubt, decide they have seen enough. Perhaps such talk will strike them as a violation of the fact-value distinction. So, we come to another hurdle that Natural Law theory must jump. They might say that discussing the details of our existence not merely as individuals but as a natural kind is unobjectionable, perhaps close to trite, but to infer that there are real “values” that are naturally linked to the kind of beings we are is to make an indefensible leap. These modern Humeans will insist that the ‘is’ of our existence does not imply the ‘ought’ of action. Inherent to this sort of contemporary philosophical objection to Natural Law is the belief that what really exists is a world of things composed of particles and the energy which organizes matter — the bare and neutral world. This is the object of science, and therefore of objective existence, if there is such a thing. Such an objection to a theory of moral Natural Law is correct if and only if the values that produce our sense of oughtness are mere projections of our minds upon the world. If there are no values in the world that are inherent to human beings as a natural kind, then perhaps an argument can be made for moral anti-realism in the fundamental assumption of its various forms. Thus, the phenomenology of moral values in human lived-experience is ultimately a-rational, i.e. there is no reason based upon observation and analysis and intellectual insight that can demonstrate their objective truthfulness or reality.
But the very thing that I am attempting to show is that being human has written into the actual essence of the act of being a human – and our experience of it – a set of values that are really in the world. Note: they are values not simply objective facts. As values, they provide us with the rational basis for any moral implications that they might imply. So, the fact-value dichotomy objection is premature, I believe, at this point. Asserting it now does not so much refute the claims I am making as it avoids considering the question from the perspective that I am developing. If there are good reasons for believing that values unique to human beings, which are determinative of our existence in the world in relationship to all other kinds and to each other, really do inhere in the world, then the insistence that there is on the one hand the “real” world of fact and on the other a “constructed” world of value proves to be no more than a bald assertion. It presents no obstacle for the kind of Natural Law realism I want to consider, because the world will be “big enough” to contain both.
It is well known, of course, that many objections to all forms of moral realism in general are based on the rejection of moral claims as “factual.” But the notion of factuality itself is a very limited one and can only account for a very restricted amount of human knowledge. Furthermore, if the only way we might speak of morality in realist terms is as mere “facts,” then moral values end up not being very interesting things. Indeed, the phenomenology of morality suggest that whatever else these values might be they cannot be merely facts about the world, because we do not experience moral impulses or the feeling of ought in that way. When we see an act of brutal evil, be it the holocaust or child abuse, we do not deal with it as a fact. Something more grips us. And it is this something more that is the essence of our moral intuitions and occasional angst. Similarly, just as the experience of moral evil out there in the world presents itself to us as more than just so much data, the experience of a moral dilemma in our personal experience is encountered as a personal involvement, not just so much information to be entered into the algorithm of our decision making. This aspect of our moral phenomenology is not lost on Bernard Williams where he recognizes: “a moral observer cannot regard another agent as free to restructure his moral outlook so as to withdraw moral involvement from the situations that produce conflict; and the agent himself cannot try such a policy either, so long as he regards the conflicts he has experienced as conflicts with a genuine moral basis.” Here Williams, ironically an anti-realist, perceives that morality cannot be about anything so uninteresting as facts about states of affairs, for facts make no claim upon ones moral selfhood. However, it raises an interesting question, which a doctrine of Natural Law can address. The question: On what basis might one legitimately assert his moral outlook and still (in some non-solipsistic fashion) remain in the realm of the shared moral reality? This is the question that all forms of anti-realism (even those as eloquent and elegant as William’s) struggle to address adequately.
But it is a curious state of affairs that so many people opt for an anti-realist and constructivist or prescriptivist approach to moral questions, once they decide that morality has no “factual” status. As Michael Polanyi has pointed out, the world of fact is not the whole world that really exists. It is, therefore, not what really exists, because a “real” world of mindless dead facts would contain neither scientists nor philosophers, nor would it contain science and philosophy. The world of facts could not be known were it all that is really the world. There are knowers of facts, and the fact that there are knowers of facts is not the same thing as the reality that the knower that is a fact about the world. The philosophical question of whether or not the ontological foundation of reality is minds and ideas, as a Platonist might argue, or the material world of physical properties, as a modern materialist might argue, is not the issue. Rather, the reality is that the world as we know it has both knowers and ideas (considered to be facts) that the knowers know. Knowers are, therefore, something more than facts about the world. But, because the knowers know that knowers exist, the existence of knowers can certainly be posited as a fact about the reality of the universe.
Polanyi further argues, contra materialist reductionism, that a “real world” construed according to the fact-value dualism, thereby considered to be “valueless” contain life itself. The very existence of living beings carries with it the fact that in the real world there are values and meanings which we recognize. The category ‘life’ requires that such be the case. Living beings project into the world values and meanings. Note that I say they project them into the world and not on to the world, for these values are themselves in the real world and determine the nature of the real living entities of our world.
It follows from this that value-laded notions such as harmfulness or helpfulness, flourishing and languishing, good for and bad for are not simply human constructs that our minds projected onto a world that is gray and neutral in itself.
These are, of course, descriptive notions, in one sense, that we as human language users employ as we describe our experience of the world in which we live, but that does not mean that we have projected this meaning onto the world. For instance, water that is super-saturated with salt and other minerals is harmful (or bad for) roses. This is a language constructed description, but it is not merely an imposition of human description in the form of values into the barren world of facts. Whether or not I know about this relationship between roses and salt water or care about it, that kind of water is harmful to roses. Another way of stating this would be to say that, so far as the interests of roses are considered (obviously, we are not talking about conscious interests, but the necessary conditions for remaining living entities) salt water is truly bad. Of course, for the interests of sharks, a certain kind of salty water (ocean water) is really good. Apart from the living natural kinds that exist in relation to salt water there is no meaning, and hence no ‘value’ attached to the existence of salt water. A world of chemistry that only had salt water or other chemical solutions which operated only upon the laws of physics would have no meanings, because only a relational world of containing living things in which things are not only distinct for each other but also exist in various kinds of relationships with the other things could items actually have meanings. The world of “facts” necessitates a world of values, because the meaning of any particular kind of thing can only be understood in relation to other things. Only because entities do exist in relationship to salt water can salt water have a meaning, which is established by the values it has in relationship to other things.
Noting this, Polanyi rightly observes, “Living and conscious beings project, not the particular values of things, but a field of values and disvalues around them, so that things which otherwise have no meaning, value or disvalue, may acquire meaning and value or disvalue.” In this regard, one of the real meanings of salt water is “bad for roses and good for sharks.” Apart from the existence of living natural kinds, other natural kinds can acquire no meaning. The evaluative statements of our human language are not projected onto the world, because there are particular natural kinds that exist in unique relationships to other natural kinds. The existence of other things to things like them and things unlike them creates in the relationships a “field of being” which is the essence of these entities, introducing into the world a field of values and disvalues.
This is not question begging. What Polanyi labels “values-projected-into-the-world” regarding the interests of living entities are not simple changes occurring in creatures in isolation nor are they simply bare facts that occur on the level of chemical reaction. That we know they occur makes them facts, but what we know are the values involved. They are changes relative to a particular entity in relationship to some other entity or aspect of the world. In the world which we know, and about which we posit facts, all things are truly relative. Nothing happens to something in isolation. That is just the way of the world. When, for instance, water super-saturated with minerals and salt is absorbed by the roots of roses, changes take place on the cellular, chemical, and atomic levels, but what occurs cannot be reduced to the law of physics and chemistry alone. Changes on the chemical and atomic level underlie what is occurring within and between living organism, but it is the particular organization essence of a living thingthat causes the actions or changes that occur to have meaning because there is a value—positive or negative–involved. Comparing living organisms to machines, Polanyi right observes that both exhibit functions and processes that “are determined by structural and operational principles which control the boundary conditions left open by physics and chemistry.” It is this operational structure that makes an organism, be it a rose, a shark, an amoeba, or a human being, what it is, namely the essence of the kind of thing that it is. And this essence projects its “field of meaning and value” into the world. This field of being is so significant that our epistemological capacities depend, in part, on it for our understanding of what an organism is. If we do not know what the function of an organism is as a living entity, true knowledge of the meaning of any biological change produced by chemical and physical modifications is impossible. Were we to deny the reality of the values and meanings that each living organism projects into the world, we would effectively destroy the possibility of knowledge of living organisms. Biology would be a futile effort. So whether we like it or not, teleology underlies our adequate knowledge of entities.
Since human beings constitute a particular natural kind, we project into the world our own unique field of values and meanings that are real. Part of the meaning of our existence is the capacity for conscious thought, self-conscious awareness, and consciousness of “the other”. Closely associated with these capacities is the power of rational insight, i.e. the ability to recognize, analyze, conceptualize and theorize about the things we become aware of. All of these powers (and others) are what Thomas Aquinas described ad components of the Natural Law of our human existence. Such powers and the values they establish in the world that we share with other entities and species are what establish the meaning of humanness. Human consciousness and rationality are part of the real world, every bit as much as quarks, and fields and atoms, etc.
These powers of our human life mean that human existence projects its own field of being — value and disvalue – into the world. And being human—just like being a panther (as McCabe, quoted above, notes)—means being a part of a species or a natural kind which shares among all its constituent (or participant) members particular powers and relations. As a member of a natural kind, however, no particular human being can project into the world just any value or meaning that he or she desires. If we take seriously that living natural kinds share powers and those powers project values into the world, then we can see that if a person attempts to establish values or a meaning for her or his life arbitrarily, as a human being he or she is, indeed, merely projecting values onto the world. Such projection would be a mere mental assertion not rooted in any metaphysical or physical foundation. However, if the meaning that one embraces as a human being is consistent with the values and disvalues that the natural reality of human existence, including consciousness but not limited to human consciousness and rationality, projects into the world, the moral requirements that one recognizes cannot be dismissed as a mere illegitimate intrusion of oughtness onto an otherwise value-barren world of physical forces and facts.
Merely stating that human beings as a natural kind project values into the world that are real is, however, inadequate to the task of developing an adequate theory of natural law. The preceding discussion was an attempt to overcome the so-called fact value dichotomy in favor of the position I advocate. However, related to the claim that our existence in the world projects a field of values into the world is the question how these values establish a moral obligation upon us. The question of whether or not or how we ought to care for the dying, for example, is not a question of value comparable to the value of salt-water in relationship to roses. And the difference between these two questions is related to the even more fundamental questions: 1) What kind of thing am I that can recognize the difference? and 2) why do I feel the tug of the ought in my lived experience?
This question is the core of Natural Law theory: What is it that defines us as humans? Of course, there is, for the Christian, the ultimate answer to that question: Creatures made in the image of God. For Thomas Aquinas this reality meant that our existence is singularly unique in the world, but like everything else in creation we participate in the eternal law of God by means of the law of our nature. God has made us to be a certain kind of being, in Aquinas view, and we can never not be the kind of being that we are created to be. By our wills we can will the wrong end and through desire seek the wrong fulfillment, but we cannot avoid our nature. We can be alienated from it, because part . We can assume that claim as a kind of first principle for Christian discourse, but how shall we talk to those in our culture who do not share this first principle about the great moral questions of our day? Sooner or later Christians will, of course, have to talk about God or the discourse is unchristian, but need it begin there? I think not, if we take seriously our belief that we are created in the image of God and, thereby, have a nature that is given us by our Creator. If that is true, then there must be, as Aquinas believed, some signs of this reality which are the meaning and value of our lives (in the sense I have described above) as human beings.
Two elements of our lived experience particularly define us as human beings. Thomas Aquinas seizes both of these in his discussion of Natural Law, although under slightly different terms. The first of these values inherent to our human existence is sociality. While there are other animals that live in groups with social structures — sometimes highly complex social structures — no other animals live in society the way that we do. Even the occurrence of incidences of violence and brutality do not undermine the claim that human beings are essentially social creatures. The essential social nature of all our actions is scene in the acts of the followers of Hitler. These persons did not carry out their actions as were not rogues on their own. Rather, the Nazis constituted a society of rogues and butchers, highly organized and mutually interdependent. Such things do not negate the basic sociality of our species, since all but the most psychologically troubled maintain relationships with others that are important for their lives emotionally and physically. Furthermore, in some sense, even the phenomenon of a “lone-wolf” acting in anti-social behavior is predicated upon a society against whom the anti-social can act in order to define themselves. The murderers at Columbine are a tragic and not to distant case in point. Another all too evident illustration from the past century is the Nazi regime.
If one considers that sociality is a part of the field of being that we project into the world, it cannot be thought of adequately as merely incidental to our humanness. We do not have to learn to be social. Instead, we are born with an absolute and total need for social arrangements and our need on purely physical terms lasts much longer than other animals. Our dependence upon other human beings and upon families and communities is inherent to our humanity. This reliance upon other human beings is more than merely biological. Even the very essence of the self is dependent upon others to create it. No one who is born and lives to reach an age of self-awareness does so apart from the existence of a society into which he or she is born. As Alisdair MacIntyre has correctly pointed out in After Virtue the self is the product of a person who inhabits a character, which is in turn dependent upon a history that has been lived and narrated prior to the awareness of the self. Were we left on our own, not only would we die, but should we manage by some miracle to survive, we could not become a self, so integrally enmeshed in the lives of others is our very self-existence. Rather than sociality being a learned condition, it would seem that we must learn, instead, the kind of anti-social posture which Hobbes thought innate to our human condition in a state of nature. Thus, on a Natural Law reading, “to claim humanity is not just to assume a membership in the biological class, Homo Sapiens, but rather it is an attempt [on our parts when we claim it] to see ourselves as having a social role in the universe as a member of a species.”
Our relationship with other human beings is part of the field of values and meaning of our lives that our existence in the world as a natural kind projects into the world for us and through us. This is not to say that social existence is the totality of our natural inclinations as humans. There are other inclinations that we have that are common to us and all living beings on a Natural Law account. We seek to conserve our lives, for instance. We also have sexual drives that are linked to, but not limited to, biological reproduction and rearing children. That is not to say that every person who engages in sex is motivated at that moment by one of these drives. It is to say that the reproduction of human beings and rearing of children is part of what gives meaning to human sexuality. In this regard Oliver O’Donovan’s observations are to the point. O’Donovan sees that discerning the reality that the meaning of human sexuality is naturally ordered to procreation does not require us to conclude that this “natural order” forms an impregnable barrier “which man can never choose to breach.” Even if we were able to dispense technologically with the present reality of pregnancy among human females, it would nonetheless remain the case that human sexual love is ordered also to procreation.”
To see sociality as central to human existence is not to say that sociality trumps other inclinations. Rather, it is to say that sociality as constitutive of our very being as a natural kind provides a standard for the fulfillment of all other drives. We are social before we are sexual, and long after the interest in our sexual drives grows weaker in our experience. Also, we are socially dependent before we can exercise the survival instinct. So conceived, sociality becomes a defining criteria or determinate consideration of our lives. And living in society is, thereby, understood as not only one of the goods of our lives but one of the higher temporal goods. In some sense, it is what we are. Such a teleological view is not fashionable in philosophical circles, but given the above presentation, I think teleology is once again not only a defensible claim, but an absolutely necessary one, if we are going to speak at all of human knowledge of ourselves.
Giving Accounts: The Essentiality of Language
The second uniquely human inclination that I wish to consider is related to our sociality, and strengthens my claim that sociality while not a trump card is a fundamental value of our existence. We are the kinds of beings who not only live in society but seek to be able to give an account of the world in which we live, as well as our actions in that world. Rationality is the word that is traditionally preferred to describe this element of our human experience. The accounts we seek to give of our world and our actions is fundamentally about reasons for things. And any philosopher knows that the exercise of giving accounts — i. e., reasoning — is not something that is done merely intra-mentally. Indeed, account giving that is solipsistic and isolated is ultimately not a fulfilling exercise. Certainly reason has the personal, intra-mental quality to it, but that is a small part of it. Account giving, whether philosophical or personal is a remarkably social phenomenon. The very capacity to reason is dependent upon our ability to conceptualize and our ability to conceptualize is dependent upon the language we speak. Our language is the product of a commitment to discourse between persons in producing an account.
Hence, reason itself, as a part of the field of meaning and value of our existence as a natural kind, reveals a commitment to live in concert with others. As Lon Fuller has noted, “If we were forced to select the principle that supports and infuses all human aspirations, we should find it in the objective of maintaining communication with our fellows. Communication is something more than staying alive. It is a way of being alive.” The very use of language requires a commitment to and a trust of others. It implies “a commitment to communicate.” As Lisa Perkins has argued, to be the user of a language obligates one to use the language properly. The obligation is built into the reality of language. So, language in the use of account giving, as the expression of our human capacity for rationality, not only reveals the fundamental social nature of our existence, it also points us toward the inherent obligatory requirements of our sociality. The very “fact” that we are creators and users of language implies, it seems to me, that a meaning of our lives is that we are obliged to one another; and have bound ourselves by our efforts to communicate to other human beings. Activities that further the human good of living in society and which enhance our ability to give accounts to one another are, therefore, requirements of our humanity, because responsibility for one another and accountability to one another are inextricable to our nature.
Any practice or inclination that we have is only truly human if it is linked, or can be linked, to our capacity for giving accounts to others of our actions and the primacy of our inherent sociality. We do not communicate as a side line. In fact, persons must learn not to communicate. Given that we are by nature given to communication, we can begin to make a case for the essentiality of real communication, i.e. communication that is based on reality – the reality of our shared experience and of our true motives and thoughts. But this means, I think, that we can posit that others comprise a part of the good that is part of our human existence, not by chance or choice, but by the very nature of things.
The good for an individual person, if sociality and the attendant necessity for true communication is understood, is found in the ordering of our desires and our personal projects based on the uniquely human capacity for taking others into account. This is the beginning point of a Natural Law account of language and rationality. I am not suggesting that human beings are always motivated by a concern for others, for such a claim would be sheer folly, empirically as well as theologically. What I am saying is that in regard to our thinking about our moral lives in society, the precepts I have outlined can serve, and should serve, as rational first principles. Natural Law is a way of talking about how we come to understand reasons for action that we should value because they arise out of the very reality of our existence. These reasons have both a deontological character and a teleological character. Because they arise out of our nature, if we are to be what we really are, then personal morality ought to be consistent with these realities. The precepts of the Natural Law — sociality and rationality — on this account become for those Christians who wish to engage the public moral debate about ethical norms, rational directives to which we can point as century marks as we assist our fellow citizens on the moral journey. We might help persons or even our culture discover moral reasons and existential motivations that they could not discern, either through infirmity or recalcitrance. The reasons they discover will, as well, be discovered to be not heteronomous intrusions, but obligations of our human personhood.
The Grace to Be:
This obligation is part of what it means, in Christian terms, to a creature made in the image of God, called upon to live in a certain way. Aquinas had this in mind where he describes the Natural Law as the way in which we participate in the eternal law of God. Much of Protestantism has rejected the notion of the Natural Law, however, because of the important of the deep suspicion of human nature in light of the rediscovery of the Biblical and Augustinian teaching that sin has radically altered our nature. This led, in turn, to the formulation of sola gratia and sola fide by Luther and Calvin as the central ontological and epistemological commitments of the Reformation. There are, however, some very good reasons that arise from a doctrine of radical grace for Protestants to embrace the doctrine of Natural Law as the way to begin to make the Christian case for universal normative morality.
The Christian gospel is an announcement that God has united to himself the contingent creation through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Conciliar creeds such as Nicea and Chalcedon were the result of believers’ need to grapple with this unsettling claim. As one of the central Christian claims, the doctrine of the Incarnation is central to every area of Christian thought, including moral philosophy. Yet, very little of Protestant thought has focused on this doctrine, apart from soteriological considerations. What we need is a metaphysics of human personhood rooted in this doctrine, for this would give us the best of all possible reasons for embracing a doctrine of natural law as the basis for human morality generally. If it is true that in Jesus Christ our human nature has been united with God, then what is called for as we develop a Protestant notion of Natural Law is not a weaker Christology, but a more profound one. And the results of such a Christology are a deeper understanding of the work of grace in human experience. To explicate what I mean, consider the theology of grace that one finds developed in the writings of John Wesley, as a Protestant foundation for the doctrine of Natural Law.
As an orthodox Christian, Wesley believed that one must take our inheritance of Adamic infirmity as an anthropological maxim. However, in Wesley’s view (and here he is following the Fathers of the Church) God’s grace was at work in all people, not merely to restrain them from being otherwise intolerable sinners, but to make them better and bring them to salvation. Prevenient grace is, in Wesley’s terminology, God’s gracious response in Christ to human sinfulness. He writes, “God did not despise the work of His own hands, but being reconciled to man through the Son of His love, he in some measure, reinscribed the law on the heart of his dark sinful creature.” Jesus Christ serves as “the Second Adam” who mediates a partial restoration of the imago dei in human beings, therefore making possible knowledge of self, sin, and God. The centrality of the incarnation in Wesley’s theology of grace reveals itself further in another passage: “The incarnation, preaching, and death of Jesus Christ were designed to represent, proclaim, and purchase for us the gift of the Spirit.” The structure of the sentence indicates that, for Wesley, the incarnation provided for human beings the representation of the Holy Spirit into human nature. Again Wesley drives home the point: “When he was incarnate and became man, he recapitulated in himself all generations of mankind, making himself the centre of our salvation, that what we lost in Adam, even the image and likeness of God, we might receive in Christ Jesus.”
Such a view of the import of the Incarnation is in many ways a return to early Christian theology’s embrace (a la Irenaeus) of a radical view of grace. As such, it provides us with a firm Christological reason to embrace a doctrine of Natural Law, for there is an important implication that such a doctrine has for our understanding of the divine/human relationship. All of human life is under the covenant of grace. Standing solidly on the central doctrine of the Reformation sola gratia, Wesley is able to envision the radical implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation. Even human nature participates in God’s saving presence. Admittedly this is a different soteriological stance than that which one finds in Luther or Calvin, but it is not one that denies, on the basis of naive optimism about human nature’s potential, the primacy of God’s grace. Instead, this is an ontological vision of human existence that insists that our nature is, by grace, already reclaimed from the devastation that sin has wrought. The epistemological implications of this are obvious. The first principles of Natural Law that we discover in our own nature are not simply “natural”; they are, instead a gracious gift to humankind. To build one’s moral convictions around the primacy of these first principles is to obey God in some way. Of course, it is not obedience in the fullest Christian sense, but if the principles are re-established in our nature through the grace of God through Jesus Christ, then adhering to them is to begin to do God’s will, even unknowingly. Much like the character in C. S. Lewis’s final book of the Chronicles of Narnia — who thought he was a follower of Tash and was embarrassed to find himself in Aslan’s country after the Last Battle because he sought the good — persons who look the meaning which human existence projects into the world and seek to build their moral lives accordingly will unknowingly be on the road of obedience to God. At least this is a potential Protestant reading of the matter.
Protestants can, should, and must embrace, it seems to me, a doctrine of Natural Law similar to that offered in the first section of this paper, not as a stand alone basis for morality, but as a philosophical and public defense of a theological reality about human beings. In a constitutional democracy such as that of the United States, the challenge is how to ground the public morality of our culture in something more than the words of the Constitution alone. In fact, our public morality in America is grounded in more than the wording of the Constitution; its built on the interpretations that have been given and sometimes imposed upon our created out of the Constitution. Thus, we must ask ourselves, is there some foundation which we, as Christians, might humbly offer in the rowdy fray of the public square of moral discourse. Given the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, we should press for a new understanding of our moral and political lives in America that is rooted in a notion of human nature as the inherently defined thing it is. Theological we know that what we are is rooted in who God is and what God has done for human beings in Jesus Christ. But philosophically and politically we need not begin there in our endeavors to live the earthly-bound side of our ‘dual citizenship’.
Far from implying a jarring collision with a Protestant understanding of the devastation of sin in human nature, a doctrine of Natural Law can be an ally to us in our endeavors to dialogue with the culture about its moral chaos. On what other basis might we discuss the interpretation of constitutional questions with non-Christians or the personal morality they espouse. The Natural Law offers us a beginning point, but it also offers us an opportunity for a distinctive Christian witness, it seems to me. When we begin to engage the question seriously about what we really are as human beings, Natural Law theory not only does not imply a collision with the Protestant theology of sin, it might even reveal to our dialogue partners the reality of the human alienation from our true natures that produces our moral failings. That such alienation is the result of human sin is central to the Christian dogma; recognition of it is the first step toward not only a moral recovery but something much more.
1 . John J. Mitchell, “The Many Possibilities for Human Nature,” Human Nature: Theories, Conjectures, and Descriptions, (Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1972), pp. 74 – 76.
2. The notion of harmfulness is, of course, a normative term, and therefore controversial. In what follows I hope to defend utilizing this ‘value’ term as a point of discussion about natural kinds.
3. Oliver Odonovan, Resurrection and Moral Order
4. What Is Ethics All About, (Washington: Corpus Press, 1969) p. 57.
5. Boyd, John, “How to be a Moral Realist,” Essays on Moral Realism, Geofrrey Sayer- McCord, ed., [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988], pp.181 – 225.
6. In this regard Oliver O’Donovan’s observations are too the point. “It is indeed quite striking how insistent were the eighteenth century champions of a voluntarist morality that moral judgement, though independent of any teleological order in nature, must nevertheless respect generic relations. Hume’s moral sentiment, with the aid of which he hoped to dispense with “incomprehensible relations or qualities which never did exist in nature”, could be evoked only “when a character is considered in general, without reference to our particular interest” (Treatise of Human Nature III.1.2) p. 46.
7. Essays on Moral Realism, Sayer-McCord, Geoffrey, ed. [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988], p. 52.
8. “On the Modern Mind,” Scientific Thought and Social Reality, [New York: International Universities Press, 1974] p. 135.
9. Truthfulness and Tragedy, Stanley Hauerwas, [South Bend: Notre Dame Press, 1978], p. 30.
10. Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 36.
11. The Morality of Law, [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964], pp. 185-186.
12. “Natural Law in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence, 17 919720, p. 118.
13. John Wesley’s Fifty-three Sermons, Edward H. Sugden, ed. [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983], p. 429.
Content © 2019 G Stephen Blakemore and The John and Charles Wesley Center. All rights reserved. To utilize all of this document in a written publication, you may gain permission by written request to firstname.lastname@example.org. Permission to quote from this work in a written publication or post it in an online forum is granted, so long as proper citation is observed.
Cover photo by Chad Greiter on Unsplash