After two and a half years of college buried in biochemistry textbooks, it was time to explore a broader portion of what my university’s “College of Liberal Arts and Sciences” had to offer. So I decided to take a course in ancient philosophy. One hundred level. Nothing fancy.
I was attending a gigantic state school, so I had no illusions of my Catholic faith being endorsed from the lectern, but I thought at least the classics had a chance of getting a fair shake. Like any college course, one could get out of it what one was willing to put into it. We read Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Categories, and surveyed most of the notable pre-Socratics. Aside from occasional and random digs at Christianity (once, when discussing some ancient form of torture, the professor said “it made crucifixion look like a day at the beach”, or something to that effect), the lectures were pretty fair surveys of the material.
But there is one lecture that, even to this day, still sticks in my craw.
One afternoon the topic of “natural law” came up, and as if to dismiss the notion as absurd from the outset, the professor paused to point out all the bearded men in the room. A scruffy man himself, he then said, “We are the only men in the room who are following the so-called ‘natural law’.” And, in order to answer the question we were no doubt dying to ask, he quickly pointed to the now famous bonobo chimps, who have been observed in the wild engaging in homosexual sex. You see, even if the natural law weren’t such a ridiculous way of adjudicating moral questions, it would still endorse the liberal academic weltanschauung. Chimps are liberal progressives. Heads I win, tails you lose.
Looking back now, I think the reason I bristled so much at what most of my classmates doubtless thought was another harmless condescension to the quaint ancients – what with their togas (and hearty, natural-law-abiding beards!) – was that it was at best a misunderstanding of the topic, and at worst a ham-handed attack on the idea of human nature. You see, it doesn’t much matter to me how monkeys copulate. I’m not a monkey. I’m a human being, and I have a human nature. Maybe one day scientists will discover lizards that bed down with their first cousins, and I have it on good authority that some spiders eat their husbands, but all I say to that is, “Thank God I’m human!”
And the beard grooming rebuttal is a straw man so lazily assembled that it’s hardly worth taking apart. But humor me.
The notion of “natural law”, at least in the classical tradition, is best understood not by saying that there is a law in nature qua nature, but that there are laws in natures. It is predicated on the idea that particular things have particular natures, not just that there are certain fundamental laws at work in the more ethereal and abstracted idea of “nature” as a whole (we suburbanites who occasionally like to “go out in nature” are more accustomed to this latter definition of the word).
But Aristotle, for example, said that a tree has a nature, and so does a rock, and so do frogs and people and giraffes. With certain honorable exceptions, it is not in a squirrel’s nature to fly, for example. And I’d wager that if you went out into the woods (on a “nature walk”, perhaps) and saw a squirrel shaving his face in a wash basin at the end of a limb, even if it were a flying squirrel, you might have to throw up your hands and say, “That’s positively unnatural!”
Strictly speaking, that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. At least in the Christian appropriation of this notion of nature and natural law, the shaving squirrel would not be acting unnaturally, but supernaturally. Shaving cannot be unnatural; it happens in nature all the time (in bathrooms all across the land). It’s just that it happens in a nature higher than squirrel nature, namely human nature. Even if my esteemed professor doesn’t think so, and acknowledging variations in cultural and religious conventions in the matter, it is well within the purview of human nature to bathe and groom oneself with soap and water.
This distinction between the natural, the unnatural, and the supernatural can help us see why the beard bugaboo is so off the mark. Proponents of natural law do not pretend that we should imitate the lower natures (by letting our hair grow out or by cultivating a harem of mates like deer or elk, for example), but rather that we should act in accord with our higher, human nature.
But now we can see what’s really at stake in the argument. There is a not-so-hidden agenda behind the dividing of the universe into two distinct realms – the forest versus the city, the prairie versus the living room. The agenda is this: there is what’s objective and unchanging (so-called “nature” and its laws), and there is what’s not (the strange and mostly arbitrary things we human animals choose to do in nature, like shaving). Nature is biology, but morality is convention. What bonobos do is natural, but marriage is something else.
Our instinct to separate ourselves from mere abstract “nature” is somewhat understandable, though. We are the only thing in nature that has any idea what nature is. It is precisely because of our human nature that we seem to somehow hover above nature. As long as we talk of nature in the general sense, we must include ourselves as part of it. But when we take stock of our unique position in nature, we must say our nature among other natures is quite exalted and unique. There is no mistaking the fact that we are in this world, but experience and common sense insists that we are most certainly not of this world.
Part of what separates us from the lower natures, according to the natural law tradition, is that we human beings feel ourselves obliged by nature to act in certain ways, not by force of instinct like the animals, but by freely choosing good and avoiding evil (what the medievals called synderesis). But it is also our unique human nature, with its faculties of intellect and free will, that allows us to defy nature. Hence the need for a natural law. Everything in nature is governed by natural laws, but only human beings can decide whether or not they will obey it.
But at the risk of beating a dead horse, it is not things like shaving, or flying in airplanes, or performing heart transplants that defy our nature as human beings. Disobedience to the natural law is not an upward movement, but a downward one. It is in imitating the lower natures, governed completely as they are by base desires for food, sex, and self-preservation, that we humans defy the natural law. What is unnatural is acting less than human, not more than the animals. We don’t discern the natural law by examining the behavior of primates, in other words, but by listening to the dictates of our conscience.
In fairness, the materialists of the modern era would deny any such essential difference between human and animal natures. Most would hold with Hobbes, for example, that man, in his “state of nature”, was little more than a clever ape. He had a unique way of making his way in the world, but all of his cleverness – making tools, forming commonwealths, or even doing philosophy – was just man’s complex way of ensuring self-preservation. This radical “naturalism”, devoid of any trace of the metaphysical, sees man as nothing more than a monkey who happens to write poetry.
This reductive view of the human person is not without its fringe benefits. If the only natural law is biological, and we just so happen to be the beneficiaries of a biology that allows us to manipulate nature to our advantage, we are unquestionably nature’s highest authority. We are free to make of ourselves whatever we like. “Right” and “wrong” are words we have invented to limit the strong in their dominance over the weak, a particular evolutionary trait of humanity, but there is no reason why our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong shouldn’t evolve right along with us.
This view of the human person as the pinnacle of Darwinian evolution is simultaneously an act of intellectual humility, placing us squarely in the animal kingdom, and an act of self-aggrandizement. We are the animal kingdom’s übermensch. We share all the primal instincts of nature – sex, aggression, predation, self-preservation – but we have big enough brains to know how to harness these instincts more productively. What’s primal always abides – we cannot change our biological instincts – but higher-level notions of “morality”, “knowledge”, or “truth” are largely arbitrary and subject to cultural differences and the ever-changing zeitgeist.
There are two obvious difficulties, though, with this account of human nature. The first is the startling claim that the only really essential law at work in our nature is Darwinian. It is difficult to see how, apart from any coherent and universal foundation of right and wrong, one member of the human species may demand that a fellow member respect his inherent “human rights” if the only law of nature is “survival of the fittest”. Say what you will about Nietzsche and others of his ilk, at least the atheists of the so-called “post-modern” turn were honest about this. But when confronted with this difficulty, contemporary atheists (who still, after the horrors of the 20th century, somehow trust in the power of scientific materialism to save us all) will often claim that injunctions against murder, rape, genocide, and the rest are simply “common sense” and need no divine legislator to demand they be understood or obeyed. What is ignored is that, from an historical perspective, the common praxis is to ignore these injunctions whenever convenient. We may admire the libertinism of the chimpanzees from the comfort of the classroom, but I doubt we’d really like to live in a society of them. Werner Herzog says it concisely in his film Grizzly Man, while staring into the eyes of the brute bear: “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I can see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
But the second difficulty is subtler. When claims to universal moral truth are made, references to variations in cultural norms or taboos abound, making it seem like a lack of consensus on what constitutes right and wrong means the words have no objective meaning. All morality is relative. But what is lost in this argument is the higher order assumption that is staring us in the face. While it is true that moral norms do vary across cultures, what does not vary is that wherever there are human beings, there is always culture, and culture is always intensely interested in questions of right and wrong. Whether the cause is biological or metaphysical, from the time we are toddlers we have a keen sense of justice and an understanding that people are obliged to obey a moral law extrinsic to them whether it suits them or not.
But neither of these reactions to modern materialism and moral relativism give a satisfactory answer to the main difficulty at hand: if we are subject to a higher natural law than the rest of nature, and if that law is universal, why is there so much disagreement across cultures and epochs on what constitutes right and wrong, and why is this so-called “law” so routinely ignored? The law of gravity is the same no matter where you are, and you will be forced to obey it whether you like it or not. But why, if there is a similarly universal moral law, is there not a similar equality across the ages on questions of polygamy, slavery, the treatment of the poor, and the rest?
This is where the lens of Christianity can help put the matter into focus. The Scriptures tell us of a primordial fall. Our first parents chose to disobey God, the author of human nature and of the natural law. Instead of acknowledging the authority of God by obeying the laws presented to them in their consciences, our first parents decided to rewrite the moral law according to their own independent definitions of right and wrong. This was an abuse of our status as something like angels among brutes – a failure to recognize that, although we were higher than the animals by nature, we were not higher than the author of all nature. The tragic irony of this overreach is that it did not actually elevate us to the level of the gods like we thought it might, but rather corrupted what was higher in us and put it at the service of what was lower.
But to say that we have a “fallen nature” is a bit of a misnomer. What “original sin” really means is that we have an inevitable (though not irresistible) tendency not to live up to our nature. Although sin may feel natural to us, it is exactly the opposite. It should not surprise us, then, that cultures and communities made of these fallen creatures, habitually conditioned to choose wrongly, should miss the mark so consistently and disagree so stridently in their apprehension and application of the natural law.
It is also worth noting that it is the very reasoning of the modern materialist (“right and wrong are whatever we fancy animals decide that suits us!”) that lies at the root of our alienation from our unique human nature. In an ironic turn of events, the Copernican revolution that took mankind out of the center of the universe did not chasten man, but emboldened him. Now that we are mere flukes of dumb evolution and not images of a divine Creator, we are the only intelligence that exists, and what we say goes. From a Christian natural law perspective, this is all just a recapitulation of the fall.
The only way out of this predicament is down. If we are ever going to lift ourselves out of the mud, we are going to have to come down off of our paper throne. Unless we who have this uniquely exalted nature recognize the existence and primacy of a still more exalted – let’s call it a supernature –we are doomed to the inhuman, Darwinian life of predator and prey – in the schoolyard, in the boardroom, in the streets of our inner cities, etc.
But this is exactly the problem: the reason we need to be humbled is because we have over-exalted ourselves, and the reason we over-exalt ourselves is that we, by overreaching, lack the humility to be humbled. We are like the fly trapped between the screen and the window pane – we are bouncing around hopelessly in our glass coffin because we cannot (or will not) see that the way out is to sink to the level we were at when we flew in there. Or to use a biblical image, all of humanity is the cripple waiting at the pool of Siloam – in need of healing because he is crippled, but by being crippled unable to put himself in the healing waters.
But there is good news. Someone has come along who can put us in the water. We would not kneel to accept the crown of human nature, so God has knelt down to accept it for us. The remedy for human pride is divine humility. The upending of Babel is Pentecost.
And this is why a proper understanding of what we mean by “nature” is so critical to understanding the Christian worldview. It is no linguistic accident that the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon used the formulation “one person in two natures” to describe the mystery of Christ’s incarnation as man.
But how God becoming man helps us out of our predicament is not immediately obvious. In fact, it almost seems like cheating. Of course a man gifted with an all-knowing intellect and an all-powerful will can perceive clearly the natural law (which He wrote, by the way) and muster the will-power to obey it. Is it any wonder, then, that Christ’s commands in the Sermon on the Mount seem so beyond us? As a sinner I find it hard enough to fulfill my natural duty to love my family, so what hope can I possibly have of fulfilling the supernatural command to love my enemies? (Never mind that we fallen humans can even make enemies of our family).
Christ comes to make supernatural demands of us who cannot even comply with natural ones. It would be hard enough for a just person to become a saint, but he insists on making saints out of us poor sinners. But how can I, who covet my neighbor’s wife, renounce even a wife of my own? Or how can I, who am reluctant to give away my extra coat to the neighbor who has none, be persuaded to give away my most prized possession, my life? The post-enlightenment naturalist sees things like celibacy and martyrdom as the result of neurosis or religious extremism, but that would be to make the same mistake our nature-lover made when he saw the shaving squirrel. They are not unnatural aberrations. They are supernatural gifts.
I say “gifts”, because that is what they must be. For the reasons just described, they can be nothing else. According to Christians, God wants us to be like Him. But not in the way that Adam and Eve tried to be like Him – grasping at his power to define right and wrong. He wants us to be perfectly ourselves, made as we are in His image and likeness. But even beyond that, He wants us to share in a fullness that to us is wholly supernatural and otherworldly. As high as we are above the plants and animals, so much higher does God want us to be above ourselves. But how can we answer this call to supernatural love unless it is given to us from above?
And so we see what all the fuss was about at Chalcedon in 451 A.D., when the Church said definitively that Christ, although divine in nature, took on an additional human nature. If God wanted us to live His life, he had first to live ours. If we were going to love the way He loves, He was going to have to love us first. We were groping in the darkness of our fallen state, and if we were ever going to find our way again it would be by a light coming down to us from above.
In Christ, God did what was not natural to Him. He slept. He ate. He even died. These things are below God’s nature. But mysteriously, he did not cease to be God while He did them. In fact, being supernatural to us, He was able to live the most perfectly natural human life, precisely because he could overcome the unnatural corruption of sin and death. But He did much more than that. Like the water turned to wine in Galilee, once the divine nature had made contact, human nature would never be the same again.
The early Church fathers put it this way: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus. God became man so that man could become God. In coming to us, He opened the way for us to come to Him. We who had fallen below our nature have now been lifted above it.
Now that all sounds nice, and it even makes good sense. But, at least for me, it still doesn’t prevent the Gospel from sounding really hard. The command to obey a supernatural law while still struggling to obey the natural one is a pretty hard sell.
This feeling came to me the other day while I was reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus’s family is trying to get his attention, and Jesus blithely responds, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” and pointing to the disciples he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)
I thought to myself, “I can’t do the will of your heavenly Father. I can’t even obey the dictates of my own conscience. Does that mean I can’t be your brother? You made me free to do what I want, but for some reason I’m not free to want what I’m supposed to want. How can you ask me to do the impossible?”
Then I remembered that I was actually reading it backwards. Not literally, of course. Jesus does in fact make it sound like perfection is the condition for having a relationship with him. But it’s actually the reverse. To be His brother one does not have first to be obedient. To be obedient one has first to be His brother. And, if we read the passage in context, we will see that just twelve chapters before, in taking on human nature, Jesus became the brother of us all.
This is why all this talk of nature really matters, whether it be in ancient Greece, at the Council of Chalcedon, or in the halls of the modern university. In being born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus did not just become one woman’s son. He did not just become one, isolated, and strangely-behaved primate among many. In taking on human nature, the Son of God became a son of Adam. Our uniquely exalted and tragically fallen human nature may give us a sense of isolation amidst the rest of nature, but it is also the thing that binds us as family to one another. In sin, we are all sons and daughters of Adam, but in Christ, we are all brothers and sisters of God.
Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23-24)
I dare say any honest human being could echo these words. There is something wrong with us. We know we should eat right, stop smoking, go to church, hold our tongues from gossip and idle talk, but we simply can’t help ourselves. Our lower self takes charge of our higher self. The stomach rules over the counsels of the mind, and it even makes the mind a pathetic servant of its tyranny (“My grandpa smoked until he was 90!”).
The conclusion of Christianity and natural law is simple but startling: if we are ever going to be really human, I mean really human, we have no choice but to accept help from the divine. And as for making it to heaven, we will have to do much better than the knee-jerk “I’m a pretty good person” (read: “I’m better than a lot of other people.”). To become saints (the only people in heaven, by the way), we have to submit to be transformed from the inside out. We have to let the incarnation run its full course – to let Christ take flesh in me.
And so the first step, and every step after that one, is to surrender – not to wave the white flag to your lower nature, but to accept the help of a greater warrior. If you attempt to fight the war alone, you are doomed to fail. The enemy is too strong, and your equipment is profoundly undermined.
But it is not irreparably so. You do not have to be a natural outlaw forever. There is a rehabilitation plan, and it is called Christianity. The Sacraments, which unite us to the divine nature by way of God’s own solidarity with the flesh and blood of human nature, can make us into who we are and who we’re meant to be. That is if we let them.
But we can choose not to let them. Our nature will beg us to be good whether we like it or not, but we can always opt to ignore it. As human beings we are free by nature, and true freedom allows even for the freedom to choose slavery. But the idea that there is no essential difference between man and beast – that there is no unique thing we call “human nature” – is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are certain that we are merely animals, we will certainly act on that belief. If all morality is convention, then the only law of nature is “eat or be eaten”. If we refuse to recognize the dignity we are granted in our nature, we will certainly refuse to accept the glory for which we are destined.
But if we recognize what we really are, we will see start to see shadows of what one day we will be.
Rev. Connor Danstrom is one of the hosts of the Three Dogs North podcast