Friday, December 9, 2011

Fidelity, Faith and Natural Law

I'm honored today to welcome John Wijngaards to my blog today. He's the author of Amrutha: What the Pope's Man found out about the Law of Nature. (Click here for my review of Amrutha)

Founder of the website, Dr John Wijngaards draws on his background as a spiritual writer, professional journalist and international college lecturer in this novel, a beautiful tale of spirituality, sensuality and ethics, spanning multiple cultures. I found the whole concept of Natural Law truly fascinating as I read Amrutha and asked the author if he'd be willing to tell us more. So, over to you Dr Wijngaards, with my thanks.

Misapplying ‘Natural Law’ . . .

John Wijngaards

            Natural Law? Why bother about it you may think. And why make it the principal target of my novel AMRUTHA: What the Pope’s man found out about the Law of Nature, as people keep asking me.  Is ‘Natural Law’ not just a piece of moldy philosophy we can safely leave rotting in the attic? Unfortunately, no. We can’t. Misunderstood, socalled ‘Natural Law’ turns into a hazard to our spiritual wellbeing.
Philosophy is not an arcane past-time indulged in by spectacled men who  squabble over obscure questions in the closets of dusty old libraries.  Philosophy underlies education, commerce, politics and religion. Get your philosophy wrong and you will pay a heavy price.
I have always been distrustful of ‘Natural Law’ as applied by Church authorities. I remember how it was disastrously applied to issues such as the castrati and slavery. But it was Pope Benedict XVI’s address at Regensburg in 2006 that alerted me to its continuing danger. This in spite of the fact that I agree with what Benedict XVI said about the need of coupling faith and reason.
Assent to faith should be guided by reason, and its contents probed and plumbed with the help of reason. No one may claim a monopoly on reason, in particular the modern sciences who tend to reduce all reality to what is perceived by the senses. The Pope was right to decry ‘a reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion to the realm of sub-cultures’. But does the ideology of the Pope himself stand up to scrutiny? We need to examine more fully what Anthony Carroll calls ‘the unfinished project of correlating or aligning faith and reason in our post-secular age’.
            For, in spite of claiming not to wish to return to a time before the Enlightenment, and in spite of concessions he promised in his discussion with J├╝rgen Habermas, our Pope defends a philosophy that has its roots in Aristotle (384-322 BC) and that culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The main thrust of the Pope’s Regensburg speech was to affirm that Europe, and the Christian faith, should hold on to Greek thinking. We should resist ‘de-hellenisation’ which, he affirmed, has assaulted the Church in three waves. The Pope, in fact, proposed Aristotelian and Thomist metaphysics as a mode of ‘universal thinking’ that has been sanctioned in Christian tradition and that could convert today’s secular sceptics. I believe he is mistaken.

An Imprimatur on Greek philosophy?

            The Pope believes that the inspired Scriptures somehow have stamped divine approval on Greek philosophy. This is clear from his Regensburg speech, but also from the Encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) which he wrote for John Paul II as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
            It is true that the Book of Wisdom, which was written in hellenist Alexandria, draws on Greek thinking when stating that the Creator can be known from power and beauty in nature (Wisdom 13,1-9). Paul knows this argument (Rom 1,29) and quotes some Sophist texts when addressing philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17,23-31). But does this prove an endorsement of Greek philosophy? Are such arguments not rather an adaptation to the hellenistic audience? The Pope himself cites the Qur’an in his address. Are we to understand by this that he commends the Qur’an as an inspired writing?
            The Old Testament expression ‘I am who am’ or simply ‘I am’ (Exodus and Isaiah) do not constitute, as the Pope claims, an almost Socratic attempt to overcome and transcend mythical thinking about God. The expression means that God is the one who is there, who is powerfully present, who shows his presence in deeds, mainly by liberating his people.
            The New Testament was written in Greek and we do find allusions to Greek philosophical thinking. But may we really maintain that Greek thought and revealed faith have been inextricably linked? The first lines in John’s Gospel read: “In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word (logos) was God, etc.” The Pope points out that ‘logos’ could also mean ‘reason’. Yes, but rarely so, for instance in Plato and Aristotle. In ordinary Greek speech it simply meant ‘word’.  It does so here as its reference to the creation story implies. “God said: ‘Let there be  .  .  .   and it happened’.” The Logos is God’s plan (Hebrew dabar, ‘word’) to create us and communicate with us, a plan that unfolded with creation and became flesh in Jesus Christ.
            The point of this sketchy analysis is to show that while Scripture no doubt affirms rationality, it does not endorse Aristotelian metaphysics as a necessary ingredient of Christian faith, which brings me to Thomas Aquinas.

Talk of ‘being’ and ‘nature’

            When the Church in the Middle Ages was in dire need of a consistent system of thought to express its beliefs, Aquinas was the genius who did the job. He discovered Aristotelian thought in the translated works of Muslim scholars and he successfully adapted it for use in Christian theology. Aquinas was indeed a master mind. Not only could he hold vast quantities of data in his memory, he managed to mould these into a logical whole not less impressive than the majestic Gothic cathedrals that began to adorn Europe.
            Central to Aristotelian/Thomist thought is that each object has a ‘nature’ that expresses the substance or essence of that kind of object. A horse has the nature of being a horse. Accidentals of colour, size, height, etc. do not change a being’s nature. That is why a grey,  an Arab, a palomino and a Shetland pony all share the same nature. They are all horses. In more general terms, there is a pyramid of natures, from inanimate beings to plants, then to animals, to human beings, to angels and finally to God. Each has its kind of nature.
            A being’s nature is universal and fixed. The natures of original beings have been fixed by the Creator. Birds have wings by nature, so they fly. Pigs cannot fly. Flying goes against their nature, or to put it differently: goes against the natural law for pigs. Once you accept this premise, the main task of theologians is to define everything’s nature: the nature of a sacrament, the nature of the Church, etc. and by analogy the nature of God.
            Pope Benedict recommends this ‘philosophy of being’ as the ideal bridge between faith and reason:
“Set within the Christian metaphysical tradition, the philosophy of being is a dynamic philosophy which views reality in its ontological, causal and communicative structures. It is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very act of being itself, which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole, surpassing every limit in order to reach the One who brings all things to fulfilment.” (Fides et Ratio § 97).
            The problem is that Thomist philosophy no longer matches the real world as we have come to know it. Pigs do fly. The Pope’s failure to recognise the misfit damages Christian life.

Natural law and sexual ethics

            Take the question of marriage. Thomists define openness to conception as belonging to the nature of the marriage act. When Cardinal Ratzinger joined the Congregation for Doctrine, Pope Paul VI decreed that ‘each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life’. The Pope declared the use of contraceptives which render procreation impossible ‘intrinsically evil’ (Humanae Vitae, 1968, §14), that is: they go against the nature of marriage as established by God. In this view, contraceptives may not be used as a means to space the planning of children. They are not even allowed to women who need to protect themselves against drunken husbands infected with AIDS.
            But what is this assessment of the nature of marriage based on? Originally men and women had intercourse without even being aware of its link to the procreation of children, as anthropology has documented. In the course of thousands of years marriage arose as a social institution with a multiplicity of forms. Its main purpose was to give stability to families and to protect common property. Marriages were polygamous or polyandrous. Trial sex before marriage was common. What was natural or unnatural in all such marriages?
            Rather than ascribing a fixed, unchangeable nature to marriage, why not accept marriage as a dynamic, complex, interconnected reality, always somehow original between specific partners, with unique biological, social, cultural and psychological aspects?
            Again and again the Pope’s philosophy betrays reality. Sex is forbidden to gays and lesbians by ‘natural law’ (Persona Humana 1975;  reaffirmed in 1986, 1992 and 2003). A woman’s nature bars her from ordination (Mulieris Dignitatem 1988). The Pope says violence ‘goes against God’s nature for God is reason’. What reason? The burning of heretics under the Inquisition was justified with refined Thomist sophistry. The ‘common good’ (bonum commune) of scaring the public away from heresy was said to overrule mercy for the individual. The same ‘common good’ argument has been invoked in our own day to refuse communion to Catholics who are divorced and remarried even though they are reconciled with the Church, to refuse priests who have left the priestly ministry permission to marry in church, and to deny victims of clerical child abuse their full rights.
            We are responsible for our sexual behaviour, like for everything else we do in life. But the rules of what is right or wrong may not be based on an arbitrary interpretation of an imaginary ‘Natural Law’. They must be based on the informed judgment of our reason, that is: of our conscience. And this is the whole thrust of my book AMRUTHA. Read and enjoy!

John Wijngaards

I would add that I did indeed read and enjoy, both this article and the novel Amrutha. Thank you so much for visiting my blog today. And here's a link for Amrutha on Amazon. Enjoy.


Cozy in Texas said...

I stopped by your blog today.

Ruthi aka abitosunshine said...

WoW! What an interesting and thought-provoking look into faith and reality.