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Natural Law in Our Lives, in Our Courts (Part 1)

J. Budziszewski on the 4 Ways of Knowing It

AUSTIN, Texas, APRIL 1, 2004 (Zenit) - Legal scholars and theologians debate over the details of natural law, but an expert in the field believes that the fundamentals are something that we can't not know.

J. Budziszewski is professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas and author of several books, including most recently, "What We Can't Not Know: A Guide" (Spence Publishing).

Budziszewski shared the four God-given witnesses of natural law: deep conscience, the designedness of things in general, the particulars of our own design, and natural consequences.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

Q: Your many books and articles in publications such as First Things have expressed the importance of recovering the moral truths of natural law. Briefly, how have you developed this thought over your academic career?

Budziszewski: At the beginning of my academic career I would have agreed with George Gaylord Simpson that man is the result of a meaningless and purposeless process that did not have us in mind.

When I acknowledged God, I was forced to acknowledge that the process has been neither meaningless nor purposeless; natural law expresses both "nature," the human design, and "law," the Designer's command.

In order to think clearly about these things one must unlearn a variety of errors and intellectual vices, and sometimes it seems this is all I do. On the other hand, the culture as a whole has to do the same thing, so perhaps it is not such a bad thing for some of its intellectuals to carry on their unlearning in public.

Q: What is it about natural law that attracts you to the topic? How have your studies of natural law been affected by your own pilgrimage of faith? What conclusions have you come to?

Budziszewski: In the first chapter of the epistle to the Romans, St. Paul makes an interesting remark about the pagans. Their problem isn't that they ought to know about the Creator but don't; it's that they do know about the Creator but pretend that they don't, worshipping created things instead.

In modern language, they aren't ignorant, but in denial. It seems to me that this is our problem not only with God but also with his basic moral requirements, and that the natural law tradition needs to wrestle with this problem more seriously. That is what most of my work is about.

Do these matters have anything to do with my own pilgrimage of faith? Yes, certainly. In the old days, when I said there was no God, was no good, and was no evil, it was my way of putting my thumb in his eye, because, like all of us, I really knew better.

Having been redeemed despite myself, I think I've gained some insight into these processes of denial, and in gratitude, the least I can do is write about them.

Q: Why do you say that natural law is written on the heart? Isn't the law of grace what is written on the heart? Or are they really the same?

Budziszewski: The phrase comes from St. Paul's remark in the second chapter of the book of Romans that when gentiles who do not have the law of Moses do what the law requires, they show that the "works" of the law -- its requirements -- are written on their hearts.

Traditionally, this has been considered a reference to the natural law, but it refers to grace, too. As the Catechism explains, "the preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace," and as my friend Russell Hittinger has written, the natural law is the first of these preparations -- the "first grace."

The metaphor of writing on the heart is deeply embedded in Scripture.

Jeremiah 17:1 declares that the sin of the people is written on their hearts. Proverbs 3:3 and Proverbs 7:3 exhort the people to write the law on their hearts.

In Jeremiah 31:33, quoted in Hebrews 8:10 and Hebrews 10:16, God promises to write the law on their hearts more perfectly. And Romans 2:14-15 declares that the "works" of the law, meaning the commands without this promise of further grace, are written on the hearts of everyone already.

Q: How is the natural moral law different from the physical laws of nature, like gravity?

Budziszewski: Strictly speaking, law is an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by the one who has care of the community.

It is addressed to a mind that can understand what is demanded and act accordingly. Principles like gravitation are "laws" only in an analogical sense. They certainly result from God's governance, but the falling apple is not freely and rationally aligning its behavior with a rule that it knows to be right.

Q: How is it even possible to know the natural law, considering how disputed its contents are?

Budziszewski: I hear much about this supposed dispute, but I don't believe in it.

People who talk about the natural law pretty much agree about its basic contents -- don't murder, don't commit adultery, honor your parents, and so on. They are the same things you find in the Decalogue. Moreover, these precepts are recognized -- even if only in their breach -- by societies in every time and place.

Disagreements concern not the basics but the details; as C.S. Lewis put it, the peoples of the earth may disagree about whether you may have one wife or four, but they all know about marriage.

Even the cannibal knows that it is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life; what he claims is that the people in the other tribe aren't human. I strongly suspect that deep down, even the cannibal knows better. Why else does he perform elaborate expiatory rituals before taking their lives?

Q: How then do we know the natural law?

Budziszewski: There seem to be at least four different ways that "what we can't not know" is known. In the spirit of St. Paul's remark that God has not left himself without witness among the nations, these might be called the Four Witnesses.

First, and in one sense the most fundamental, is the witness of deep conscience -- the awareness of the moral basics that has traditionally been called synderesis. Although it can be suppressed and denied, and must be distinguished from conscious moral belief, it continues to operate even underground.

Second is the witness of the designedness of things in general, and consequently of the Designer, which some people have called the "sensus divinitatis."

In another sense this is even more fundamental than deep conscience, because unless deep conscience has been designed to tell us truth, there is no reason to take deep conscience seriously. That, by the way, is the cardinal problem of so-called evolutionary ethics.

Third is the witness of the particulars of our own design. An example is the complementarity of the sexes: There is something missing in the makeup of the man which can be completed only by the woman, and something missing in the makeup of the woman which can be completed only by the man. Don't we all really know that?

I cannot be completed by my mirror image; I am made for the Other. A Christian, of course, suspects that this prepares us for intimacy with God, for whom we were also made, but who is even more Other.

Last is the witness of natural consequences. Those who cut themselves bleed; those who abandon their children have none to stroke their brows when they are old; those who suppress their moral knowledge become even stupider than they had intended. And so it goes.

We may think of this witness as the teacher of last resort, the one we are forced to confront when we have ignored the other three.

Q: I understand that you and your wife are to be received into the Catholic Church at Easter. Did your study of natural law lead to your decision to become Catholic?

Budziszewski: No, but it had something to do with it. I will always be grateful for what I learned in evangelical Protestantism, among other things its fierce loyalty to the truth and authority of the Bible.

If you do believe that the Bible comes from God, however, then you have to believe that the natural law comes from him, too, because the Bible so plainly presupposes and points to it.

In particular, it confirms all Four Witnesses: Consider for example its confirmation of the witness of deep conscience in Romans 2:14-15, which I have mentioned already, and its confirmation of the witness of natural consequences in Galatians 6:7. For this reason, I was deeply perplexed that Protestantism did not teach the natural law, and that some influential Protestant writers even condemned belief in natural law as unbiblical and pagan.

Of course I couldn't help wondering why the only place where this deeply biblical doctrine was preserved in its purity was the Catholic Church. This was especially unsettling because, according to Protestant prejudice, the Catholic Church does not take holy Scripture seriously.

Q: It seems that after a long period of skepticism, Protestants have begun to embrace the natural law tradition in recent years. What accounts for this change?

Budziszewski: This welcome change is more a return than a reversal, because the earliest Reformers believed strongly in natural law.

John Calvin remarked: "Now, as it is evident that the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this equity of which we now speak is prescribed in it. Hence it alone ought to be the aim, the rule, and the end of all law."

Martin Luther made similar remarks. This is one of a number of Catholic beliefs that Protestants used to accept but have over the years given up.

What happened in recent years to bring conservative Protestants back to natural law is that the culture became biblically illiterate. In former generations, Protestants could speak with their neighbors about shared concerns in the language of holy Scripture, because their neighbors knew the Bible and respected it.

Today that is impossible. The new situation requires quoting the Bible less, but following its apologetical example more closely.

Consider the example of St. Paul. When he broached Christian topics with pagans, he didn't pull Scripture verses from his pocket. Instead he appealed to things they knew at some level already.

More and more, Protestants are finding that they must now do as Paul did. In the broadest sense, however, what Paul was following was the method of natural law.

[Friday: When natural law is ignored]


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