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Ye Shall be Like Gods: Natural Law and the Need for Grace
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
August 7th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says that man has only three alternatives before him in his quest for happiness, but only one of them right: (1) to be God; (2) To be like God and to participate in God's goodness in a way consistent with man's creaturehood; or (3) to be miserable. There is no fourth alternative. The second option--to be like God and to participate in a manner consistent with his created nature--is the central thought behind the natural law.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In his book entitled An Introduction to the Basic Problems of Moral Philosophy, Jacques Maritain makes an interesting comment regarding the philosopher Leibniz. Leibniz, Maritain says, wrongly believed that it was a metaphysical evil for a creature not to be God. Since God is perfection, and no part of creation enjoys the perfection of God, it seemed to follow to Leibniz that there was always some sort of evil resident in the created order.
Leibniz's error stemmed from the fact that he forgot the notion of nature and what is its due. He seems to have overlooked the difference between negation, the simple absence of a good, which is not necessarily an evil, and privation, which is the absence of a good that is an evil because it is the absence of a good which ought to be there. Negation deals with "is" and "is not." Privation deals with "ought" and "ought not."
As St. Thomas Aquinas put it in the Summa Theologiae (Ia, q. 48, art. 5, ad 1) "evil is the privation of good (privatio boni), and not a pure negation (negatio pura). . . therefore not every defect of good is an evil, but only the defect of the good which is naturally due."
Using examples to stress his point, St. Thomas notes that a stone is blind, but that the absence of sight in a stone is not an evil, since it is not the stone's nature to see. The absence of sight in a stone is simply a negation, not a privation. The lack of sight would, however, be evil in an animal such as a cat, because it is the nature of a cat to see. The absence of sight in a cat is a privation, an absence of something that ought to be there.
It is not man's nature to be God, since his nature is a created nature and being God is not due a created nature. As St. Thomas puts it, "it is against the nature of a creature to be preserved in being through itself, because being and conservation come from one and the same source," namely God. "Hence," St. Thomas concludes, "this kind of defect is not an evil for a creature."
Simply put--and against Leibniz's view--St. Thomas insists that it is not evil for man not to be God, but instead to have to rely on God for his being and for his continuing in being. Since being God is not due man as a creature, it follows that it cannot be a metaphysical evil if man is not God. Man's perfection consists in being man, not in being God.
Leibniz's error is analogous to thinking that it is evil for an earthworm to be an earthworm, because the earthworm would be better in being a cat. The fact is that an earthworm can be a good earthworm without being a cat. In fact, an earthworm that (per impossibile) tried to be a cat would be a bad earthworm. The point is that perfection--our good--is determined by reference to our nature, and not by reference to another's nature.
Leibniz really did get it wrong. It is not a metaphysical evil for man not to be God. In fact, it is a moral evil for man to want to be God.
There is a huge--indeed infinite--divide between God and man, between God and his creation, and this divide affects God and creation and their respective perfections. It belongs to God's perfection not to be creature, and to the creature's perfection not to be God.
In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says that man has only three alternatives before him in his quest for happiness,but only one of them right: (1) to be God; (2) To be like God and to participate in God's goodness in a way consistent with man's creaturehood; or (3) to be miserable. There is no fourth alternative; quartum non datur.
The second option--to be like God and to participate in a manner consistent with his created nature--is the central thought behind the natural law. The natural law--which is the creature's participation in the Eternal Law--is the path to follow if one chooses the second option of those C. S. Lewis identifies. In following the natural law we "learn to eat the only food the universe grows--the only food that any possible universe ever can grow," C. S. Lewis says. If we don't eat this food, we must "starve eternally."
To be miserable seems the opposite of happiness, so we need not spend a great deal of time talking about that option other than stressing the need to avoid it.
Some opt for the first option that C. S. Lewis gives, namely those that live a Nietzschean fantasy and really believe we can kill God, then take the place of God and live autonomously without regard to our nature. Witness, for example, the words of the song "To Be Or Not To Be (God)" by the progressive/power Italian metal band Eldritch:
I lie, still and kill, then I'll be ready to be the King
Maybe it is too easy, but I don't need anybody to save me
Maybe I'm busy, but everyone obeys me
To be or not to be
It's not the time to make my choice:
To be or not to be God.
To the members of Eldritch all I can do is to paraphrase the famous riposte of Senator Bentsen to Senator Quayle, "I serve God, I know God, God is a friend of mine, and you're not God." The evident hubris in Eldritch's song is risible. The fool says in his heart there is no God, the Scriptures say. (Ps. 53:1) A person who says not only that there is no God, but also suggests that he has the choice to be God is twice the fool. Self-divinization is always folly, and always leads to disappointment. So it would appear that choosing Lewis's first option (to be God) lands one in a roundabout way into the last option (to be miserable).
St. Augustine's admonition to Eldritch would be the paradox of the Gospel: "It's one thing, after all, to raise oneself up to God (ad Deum); another thing to raise up against God (contra Deum). Those who throw themselves down before him are raised up by him; those who raise themselves up against him are thrown down by him."
The only real way to happiness is Lewis's second option: to be like God and to participate in God's goodness in a way consistent with our creaturehood. In doing so, however, we ultimately will have to confront our need for Jesus Christ. Here's why.
"Why the law was given," St. Augustine says in one of his sermons (351.1), "was to show up the wounds inflicted by sins, which the blessing of grace would heal. Why the law was given was to make known to the proud their weakness, and to persuade the weak to repent. Why the law was given was so that we might say in the value of weeping, 'I can see another law in my members, fighting against the laws of my mind, and taking me captive under the law of sin, which is in my members.'"
As St. Augustine explains, knowledge of the natural law is a precursor to the Gospel, since, when we confront the natural law and compare our behavior with it we realize we have sinned against it; indeed, we have no natural ability (because of the Fall) but to sin against it.
The natural law, moreover, says nothing about a redeemer, and nothing about grace, but it witnesses to our need for a redeemer and grace. The natural man confronting the natural moral law which he has violated and which he cannot help but violate says with St. Paul: "Unhappy man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom. 7:24)
The wonderful news--the Good News--is that God hears this cry of the person who cannot save himself and cannot obey the law to which he is bound if he is to find happiness. "When we are heard by the one who raises up the shattered, sets free the fettered, gives light to the blind," St. Augustine says, "we may be succored by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord."
This forgiveness, this sanctifying grace is not due man. It is a gift, a supernatural gift which is added to our nature, and is gained by the three-fold repentance St. Augustine describes in his sermon: the initial repentance reflected in baptism, the day-to-day life of conformity to God's law, and repentance of confession when we have seriously violated that law. This life of grace must be persevered in until our death.
What is truly remarkable is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth of this gift that we call sanctifying grace. (Cf. Eph. 3:18) Though we are not God by nature, we become gods by this sanctifying grace, by adoption, as it were. As St. Athanasius famously put it in his treatise On the Incarnation, "God became man so that man might become a god."
This Athanasian concept of theosis or divinization is elaborated on by St. Augustine in his Exposition on Psalm 50: "But He that justifies does Himself deify, in that by justifying He does make sons of God. 'For He has given them power to become the sons of God.' (John 1:12) If we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods: but this is the effect of grace adopting, not of nature generating."
This is the wonder of God's grace. Not only does it allow to be like God and to participate in God's goodness in a way consistent with man's creaturehood, it allows us to participate in God's goodness in a way consistent with God's uncreated nature. That is why the Catechism (section 1999) calls this grace sanctifying or deifying (deificans) grace.
In short, it is wrong to want to become God without God, by our own power--that is the heart of the temptation of Satan: "ye shall be like gods." But it is at the heart of the Gospel that we become godlike--that we shall be like gods--by being with God and under God, and by opening ourselves up to the plenitude of His mercy and the infinity of His sanctifying or deifying grace.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at email@example.com.
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