By Nature

If the creaturely realm has its source in the Creator God, is there sufficient stability in human nature to develop a political ethics? If the doctrine of creation indicates what is the case universally, does the consideration of human nature yield ethical principles for the "universal" organization of bodies in time and space? Enter natural law (strictly, natural moral law), a tradition of moral inquiry that is especially important within Roman Catholicism. For some of its proponents, this style of moral inquiry is the way in which Christianity engages the secular sphere. Although there are attempts to recover the Christological source of natural law in a trinitarian doctrine of creation (see chapter 4 by Bauerschmidt in this volume) and to stress its scriptural provenance (Porter 1999), one influential tendency seeks instead to stress the independence of natural law thinking from the central soteriological themes in Christianity. The so-called "new natural law," associated with the work of John Finnis and Germain Grisez, eschews a theological metaphysic and prefers to speak of basic human "goods" (for a good introduction, see George 1992) which the human cannot oppose (at least, not without considerable harm).

Natural law speaks of universal human nature in two senses: in terms of reason, and in terms of the "essence" of the human, partly established by certain commonalities that humans share with animals. On the first view, the distinguishing mark of natural law is the use of reason in moral discernment. On such a view, liberation theology's turn to Marxism and feminist theology's turn to gender theory can be seen as operating in the natural law tradition. On the second view, the consideration of what is by nature human goes beyond the use of rationality. It is the nature that human beings share that requires consideration, and that shared nature is not restricted to reason. In other words, humans share certain "natural traits" with animals: self-preservation and securing the basic needs of food and shelter. Furthermore, in its classical formulation in Aquinas (see chapter 4 by Bauerschmidt in this volume), specific human traits are also considered as part of natural law. These include the goods of political community, friendship, and knowing the truth of God. Behind this conviction is a theological point: that natural law is "linked to the image of God, that is, the capacity for moral judgment found in all men and women" (Porter 1999: 17).

For some, to be sure, the use of a particular deductive and physicalist reading of natural law by the magisterium in debates in the ethics of procreation has undermined its appeal. (For a discussion of natural law in the debates on homo/sexuality, see Rogers 1999.) However, its attraction is not far to seek: "the distinction between the natural and the conventional [is used] as a warrant for interpreting human action in the light of the diverse forces that ground and limit it" (Porter 1999: 51). In a period which is focusing on the genetic manipulation of the biological and is concerned to understand and practice ecological relations truly, the concern with biological givens is a helpful emphasis. Indeed, natural law theory has been pressed in ecological directions (Northcott 1996). What is problematic, however, is the discernment and selection required to determine what is by nature human. What is "given," and on whose say-so? The political terrors of the doctrine of creation emerge again: should the order of creation with reference to human nature be interpreted as straightforward, obvious, and static? In other words, the conservatism of natural law is deeply worrisome. Moreover, it is not only its conservatism that is problematic: the general level of application at which it operates has tended to deny natural law a critical edge (Hughes 1998: 56) which in turn serves to compound its conservatism.

The problem of natural law's conservatism has been picked up by non-Catholics: for example, Hauerwas (1984: 59) has argued that "too often natural law assumptions function as an ideology for sustaining some Christians' presuppositions that their societies - particularly societies of Western democracies - are intrinsic to God's purposes." Furthermore, Hauerwas argues that natural law thinking falsely poses as universal in ways that encourage violence and obscure the narrative shape and particular source of Christian ethics. Once "the particularity of Jesus, his historicity as God's decisive eschatological actor, has been lost," Hauerwas argues (1984: 56, 61), "violence and coercion become conceptually intelligible from a natural law standpoint." In fairness to natural law, it should be insisted that to articulate a universal standpoint is not to claim, as Hauerwas contends, a position "free from history" but instead to think with the grain of human nature: to ask after the creaturely basis of the unity of humankind and normative principles of right order from a particular epistemo-logical position. Moreover, there have been sustained attempts - especially by feminist theologians (Cahill 1996; Parsons 1996) - to articulate a more historical and critical notion of natural law. However, part of Hauerwas' critique abides: whether the notion of nature operative here should not be engaged more fully by the particular identity of the deus Christianorum is a matter to which I shall return in the final section.

An analogue of such "natural society" may be found in Protestant theology, in the discussion of orders of creation.2 Of Lutheran provenance (although not exclusively so: see Brunner 193 7), the concept of orders of creation specifies those realms of human life in which the Christian and the non-Christian by their common nature as human creatures are placed. Human beings are to be found in specific structures or orders of social existence, established by the Creator God, which are common to all. Although the term itself dates only from the mid-nineteenth century, a Reformation tendency is here properly continued: Luther mentions a range of ordinances or estates, including marriage, politics, and the church. Although there is no settled agreement, the orders are generally thought to include marriage and the family, work, government, and culture (sometimes called community).3 In some lists, the church is also included, as also the state. Some (Brunner 193 7: 212) insist that the state is not a natural form but rather has its source in creation's fallenness, while others (Bonhoeffer 1955: 182) maintain that government is anyway dependent on the prior realities of work and marriage and the family. The orders of creation are profoundly contested, largely on account of their misuse by theologians of the Deutsche Christen party during the Nazi period, in which it was argued that "God's order could be discovered in the natural conditions of nation and race, and that his will could be seen in the event of Hitler's seizure of power" (Moltmann 1985: xi).

At issue here is not whether these orders enjoy biblical warrant. Bonhoeffer (1955: 179-84) makes a strong case for their biblical basis, and Prenter (1967: 203) argues that the actualization of the commandment of love to God and neighbor, as presented in Old and New Testaments, takes place "within these definite orders and situations: family, nation, state, vocation, work." Rather, the core issue is the independence of these universal structures of human society: are these to be understood theologically as autonomous spheres or as related to the purposes of God in creation and redemption? Are particular structures to be confounded with the will of God and thereby rendered autonomous, or to be construed as open to God's agency? Famously, Bonhoeffer struggled with this issue, finally substituting the term "mandates" for "orders of creation" so as forcefully to indicate that we have to do here with "a divinely imposed task rather than a determination of being" (1955: 179). Earlier, Bonhoeffer argued that from the perspective of the orders almost every circumstance can be defended: "One need only hold out something to be God-willed and God-created for it to be vindicated for ever, the division of man into nations, national struggles, war, class struggle, the exploitation of the weak by the strong, the cut-throat competition of economics" (1970: 161). To overcome such confounding of the will of God with creaturely structures, Bonhoeffer proposed to speak of "orders of preservation": that is, the orders are to be placed within a Christological-eschatological horizon.

Such orders of preservation "exist only as long as they are open for the revelation in Christ"; indeed, any order can be dissolved "for the sake of the one who builds up." Interestingly, in the terms established by this essay, what Bonhoeffer seeks to do - although these two moves are not clearly distinguished - is to insist on the universality of these structures and also to develop a Christological norm of goodness for discerning true and false orderings. Explicitly arguing against the self-sufficiency of any political order, Bonhoeffer implicitly queries the status of the modern nation-state. An alternative theological move - different, that is, from Bonhoeffer's Christological perspective - will be explored in the final section: a trinitarian doctrine of creation indicates both universal scope and a norm of goodness.

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