The Law Of Nature and the Law Of God

Editorial FAITH Magazine July-August 2002


The Foundations of Law and Order

The English word 'law' first and foremost evokes the idea of restraint, prohibition and sanction imposed by authority. A law is thought of in terms of a decree which shapes people's behaviour with an external force of threat or encouragement. Ideally, of course, the laws of decency and honesty etc. are internalised so as to become the habit of mind of a well functioning member of society. This is presumably the thinking behind the current proposal for school lessons in 'citizenship' in the UK. But a problem arises when we ask what is the ultimate source of authority of these human laws. Are they merely conventions we agree to follow to ensure a peaceful co-existence, or do justice and right have a more objective foundation?

It is possible for a law that has been democratically debated and promulgated nevertheless to be unjust or immoral. Right from the days of the school playground we have a sense that something can be unfair or just plain wrong, no matter what authority has decreed it or however big the majority that has agreed to it. This inbuilt sense of right and wrong seems to make a prior and higher claim on our moral consciousness than any written system of laws. But where does it come from? Traditionally it has been attributed to the 'natural law', which is conceived of as a universal framework of values which arise from human nature and which can be worked out by rational reflection.

Social implications of the natural law

The natural law was famously invoked at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after the Second World War. There were then no laws in individual countries to cover such cases of international criminality, but it was held that genocidal actions were atrocities against humanity itself, and that this is a more fundamental law than the written codes of local jurisdictions. This perception really arose from the outraged conscience of a still nominally Christian European culture and the heritage of Catholic philosophical tradition. It was barely noticed at the time that the Catholic conception of natural law had long been under critical attack in intellectual circles and was already in decline as the basis of lawmaking in the secular arena.

In fact Nazism was not just a brutal regime of political power, it was a social experiment based on a philosophy that interprets the laws of nature in a particular way. Hitler's Mein Kampf is not the raving of a madman, but the chilling projection of a world built on a crude application of the Darwinian theory of natural selection as 'winner takes all', and on Freud's vision of human nature as a seething drive of lusts for pleasure and power. The Nazis attempt to put this philosophy into action across the world was eventually resisted and defeated militarily at terrible human cost. But without any systematic defence of the Christian world view and a renewed understanding of the natural law, it would only be a matter of time before such a culture of death would rear its head again, onlythis time with a much greater veneer of intellectual respectability and social acceptance. The need today to rediscover and re-vindicate the meaning of the natural law is even more urgent and necessary than ever. The idea of natural law has a long pedigree in ancient Greek philosophy and in Christian thought, but like so much else it has been radically called into question by modernist thinking - the denial of objective truth, moral absolutes and any fixed 'nature' to being human at all. As one panelist on a recent radio discussion programme about medical ethics succinctly put it: "Is it what you do that makes something right or wrong, or isn't it simply the results of what you do?" The notion that an action can be right or wrong in itself because of the nature of the action isincreasingly portrayed as absurdly intransigent as well as being intellectually incoherent. The whole Christian outlook is routinely caricatured as appealing to the arbitrary commandments of an authoritarian God, who forbids things even when they are the 'obvious' solution to pressing problems. There is little or no sense in popular culture and debate that some actions must inevitably produce evil results because they are intrinsically disordered. In fact there is almost no understanding any more of what 'intrinsic disorder' means. Naturally this implies that there is no notion of any intrinsic order to human life either. This situation is not helped, it must be said, by some Catholic schools of moral theology which have equally called into question the objectivity of the concept ofnatural law and denied that there is inherent moral meaning in the structure of an action, only in the perceived outcome. This reduces Christian morality to one form or another of the consequentialism which dominates secular ethical thinking, as Pope John Paul pointed out in Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae.

Attempts to revive the tradition

There have been some notable attempts to revive the Catholic conception of natural law in recent years, such as the monumental works of Grisez, May, Rollo and others. These are undoubtedly efforts of great scholarship and sincere orthodoxy. However, they do tend to consider human nature in isolation from the rest of Nature and so they attempt to work out the content of the natural law in the abstract. Grisez proposes a list of basic human 'goods' - like nutrition, health, security, companionship etc. - as the foundation of morality. Whilst these things are obviously good, such a notional list is open to varying analysis. In fact Grisez himself has revised it recently. There is little to tell us why these particular values, rather than others we could choose, are truly'basic' and which are more basic than others. And crucially it still leaves open the question of what law regulates and mediates between these needs in practice, and what is the overall good or end which they are all meant to serve. This whole approach to discussing the natural law can consequently become very dry and somewhat forced.

A better starting point

However, there is another, frequently overlooked starting point which promises to be much more fruitful and appealing. Science too uses the language of 'law' but in a rather different sense. In scientific discourse a law describes how things relate to each other according to principles of proportionality. The laws of nature reveal how things are defined towards each other in mutual integration and limitation. It is the very stuff of science to work out such laws, which are not edicts imposed from the outside, but an expression of the actual nature of things as they manifest both meaning and purpose in their action and interaction. Science would not normally then go on to speak of these laws of matter in terms of 'goodness', however the connection can validly be made on the philosophicallevel. 

In biology, for example, it is recognised that there is an inseparable link between form and function. The heart, lungs or kidneys are as they are because they are geared towards a specific purpose. And together all the organs of the body must be co-ordinated according to an overall design plan for the total well being of the organism. The whole organism, in turn, is designed by the laws of nature to fit a specific function within the environment. Purposeful orientation to 'the good' seems to be a basic function of life on earth. Where you find control there must be purpose, just as where you find purpose there must be control.

Finding the good in Nature

Secular thinkers are often reluctant to admit this idea of design and purpose in Nature, because they sense that it begins to point in a religious direction, but the organic facts are undeniable. There is even an organic (and therefore automatic) power of 'judgment' about basic good and evil with regard to survival and individual well being built into material organisms. We call it the pleasure/pain response, which is an impulse to avoid and flee from what is disordered, and to seek what is healthy.

We can go on extrapolating the point outwards across the cosmos and back down the history of evolution until we find that the entire evolving universe works according to this same principle: a law which is characterised by control and direction. Once again the term 'law' is not being used in a legalistic sense. What we refer to as the Law of Control and Direction is not a divine decree somehow running parallel to the cosmos, it simply refers to the whole equation of the universe itself which evolves as a balanced unity in immediate relationship to the creative Mind of God. This insight forms one of the most compelling contemporary arguments for the existence of God, as we frequently point out in Faith, but it also means that moral order and moral purpose are at the very heart of allcreated existence. As the universe evolves from simple energies to produce more and more complex beings within it, the same principle of intrinsic order which actively seeks out what is good is at work at all times and in all entities. The point is perhaps more obvious at the physical and chemical levels, because the partial laws of physics and chemistry can be expressed mathematically with relative ease. But we can also see it on the biological level. Where there are inherent mechanisms which dictate what is appropriate and when, there is 'law' at work. Indeed it is more accurate to speak of a law in Nature not just a law of Nature.

The dynamic order of Life

It is important to notice how this conception of natural law is primarily an active and positive orientation towards the good, not a passive and negative limitation. The law in Nature is the dynamic order of living things themselves in action. It is "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower" (Dylan Thomas); and it is what makes the infant mammal seek milk and protection from its mother from the moment it is born. This is not law as a forbidding command. Neither is a list of abstract 'goods'. It is the drive of instinct which 'speaks' in every fibre of the creature’s being, commanding it to seek what is fulfilling in an ordered way.

Even the so called law of 'the survival of the fittest' is really a positive mechanism of seeking perfection of design and balance of life by constant adaptation to the changing environment. This is the very wellspring of the upward progress of evolution. Of course its logical counterbalance must also be the suppression of what has become redundant or diseased. But at heart the natural law in matter is a purposive sense of seeking life and life to the full. These basic drives of material organisms are not, actually, the selfish greeds and lusts envisaged by Freud's psychology. Obedience to the due limits of each function within the body and within the social group is the necessary condition of maintaining health and finding fulfilment. All pleasures are linked to specific meaningsand functions, and so they are limited according to the relative value of the good they serve. They can be triggered or turned off according to signals and promptings from the environment, or according to the internal harmony of the bodily organs among themselves. Sometimes we see the negative effects of imposing an alien order on the balance of animal instincts in the neurotic behaviour of caged beasts or family pets, but this very exception tells us that in their natural state material things obey patterns and cycles which relate actions to meanings and drives to purposes. This is almost the very definition of Nature and of the natural law.

The moral constitution of humanity

So when we come to consider how the natural law applies to human nature, we do not have to start from scratch. We inherit the law of control and direction in our bodies as the legacy of evolution. Every creature seeks out those things which are good and true to its own nature and finds them, together with the means to regulate them in balance and moderation, in the living environment which is proper to its nature. Therefore we must expect the same principles to be true of our own moral constitution, although shaped by our particular nature and our own unique environment.

In us the physical body is integrated into the spiritual soul to form a single nature in two dimensions. Whereas for the animal, obedience to the law of its nature is inbred in its genetic patterning, in man it is the soul or spiritual mind that administers the natural law. This means that the human perception and response to what is good is not automatic, it is discerned by reason and put into action by free will.

The dignity of man, body and soul

All the 'goods' of man - by which we really mean the dimensions of being fully human and fully alive - arise from this dual nature of man. The physical dimension comes pre-packaged, as it were, with its own built in principle of law. The body will naturally expect to be ruled by a regime of control and direction. The union of flesh and spirit in human nature does not wipe out or pass over the natural meanings and ends inherent in the body, but lifts them onto a new and transcendent level of dignity.

Take food for example: the obvious link between eating and nutrition is not abrogated, but feeding is also now an act of community and a token of God's generous love; so our meals are seasoned with fellowship and sanctified with prayer and thanksgiving. Sex too does not lose the necessary link between intercourse and reproduction, but it acquires the added dimension of creating a human person for time and eternity. This is why sex for human beings is not just a mating ritual but an act of loving communion between married partners and a profound co-operation with the creative love of God. The spirit too instinctively judges the goodness and truth of an action within the self, which is what we call conscience. As with the organic judgement of pain and pleasure, the judgement of the spiritis not made according to an abstract set of rules and ideals. It is simply a function of that inherent seeking of good order which is at the heart of all life. And similarly the flip side of this must be pain, which in the case of man will be both spiritual and physical, if moral disorder is acted upon. It was this destructive experience that God wished to protect us from when he warned our first parents not to 'taste the fruit of good and evil'. But again, we notice that the primary characteristic of the moral law at work in our nature is the positive joy of living the good life for which we were designed. This must include the specifically spiritual dimensions of being human which orientate us towards relationship with one another and to God. This is why the natural law of human natureis not simply identical to the rest of Nature. It informs us of the dignity and rights of other people and of the demands of justice and charity which describe and prescribe these relationships as good, true and fulfilling.

God, the highest good

The spirit also elevates the whole personality of man into the highest possible order of 'good', that is God himself. It is the natural law, which is the divine wisdom immanent within creation, that prompts us to seek God. But only God's transcendent gift of himself can grant the fuller revelation of truth and the more perfect communion in goodness for which we yearn. In man, therefore, the natural law integrates immediately into the revealed law of God and the dispensation of grace which is essential us to our living and growing in holiness.

What theologians call 'The Divine Law' is really the Divine Being which is the absolute measure of all truth and goodness whatsoever. In this sense the Law of Creation is never independent of the Divine Law at any stage, because it always exists in relation to the mind and will of God. This is the reason for the urge to truth and goodness in all created beings. But for man, God is the Way, the Truth and the Life in a direct and personal manner. Communion with God through grace is the means of human integrity as well as its ultimate end. For God himself is both our true environment and our true fulfilment. The moral content of what God reveals is not an arbitrary addition to the natural law. Revelation sheds a fuller light on the meaning and destiny of our own nature. The revealed Law ofGod, therefore, completes the natural law in man, to give us a seamless vision of natural human goodness which rises by degrees to supernatural perfection. Here again, by 'law' we do not mean first and foremost a list of instructions, but the total provision of life and parental guidance from God. This is, after all, the richer and more spiritual sense of 'The Law' as it is used in Scripture to speak of the Old and New Covenants. But this spiritual and moral provision must logically include specific teachings and commandments. A child's conscience is formed by an environment of trust and the example of love, it is true, but they also need positive instructions and detailed teaching as new situations and responsibilities emerge. So we would expect God to reveal clear commandments about theway of life we should lead. And we must expect the Church to develop and apply the moral law in detailed ways, especially as man grows in power and control over himself and the planet.

Taking account of the Fall

And, of course, we must also take serious account of original sin. This is not just the loss of divine gifts and privileges by our first parents. It is a real wound in our nature which profoundly handicaps our ability to live according to the natural law. So the revelation of moral absolutes from God becomes an urgent necessity of his redemptive love. He must reaffirm, clarify and underscore the basic framework of the natural law - which is what the ten commandments are all about - before he can invite us into the counsels of perfection.

In the stress of temptation in a fallen and wicked world it is almost inevitable that the moral law comes across at times as negative and restrictive: "Thou shallt not …" But that is not its primary meaning or purpose. It is not actually the primary emphasis of divine revelation in Scripture in general, despite popular misconceptions. The Law of God, like the natural law which it illuminates, is based first and foremost on the vision love as communion in goodness. This is why Jesus summed up the whole Law and the prophets in the command to love - God first and each other for his sake. And St. Augustine famously remarked that if you are truly living in the Spirit then you can simply 'love and do as you will'.

Jesus Christ: the summit of the Law

Jesus not only summarises the Law, he is in himself the fullness of both natural and Divine Law, for he is both God and man. Thus he dared even to correct the compromises and misconceptions of preceding authorities. With his coming the pedagogy of the Old Law passes into the New Law of the Spirit, that is the law of divine charity. The minimum conditions of moral integrity which are contained in the ten commandments are not abolished but perfected. Jesus restores our ability to live by these and also inaugurates the final way of perfection summed up in the beatitudes: “Blessed are you ...”

He does more than give an example of goodness, he is in his own life and personality the very summit of human goodness, because he is perfect in his human as well as his Divine nature. His moral authority is therefore perfect. And the moral order he proclaims is nothing alien to our nature. It is the natural realignment and supernatural fulfilment of all that is truly human. Quite simply, his Word is Law because his Word is Life. This was true in the beginning when he created the universe according to a law of control and direction. It is true now as his saving economy is the key to the harmony and happiness of our own bodies and souls. And it will be true for ever in the perfect goodness of his saints in heaven, where his love rules and their joy is boundless.

A new perspective

The notion of a moral law inherent in Nature is implied by the repeated affirmation on the very first page of the Bible that all creation is ‘good’, which means ontologically good, not just beautifully designed. The perspective we have outlined recovers this scriptural vision and makes it much easier to understand the origin, meaning and purpose of the natural law. We can also more easily justify the authority of the magisterium to interpret the natural law; even - contrary to a popular theological opinion - the power of the keys to define infallibly matters of moral principle should it become necessary. Jesus did not make academic distinctions between issues of 'doctrine' and 'morals' when teaching the disciples. He just taught them the Word of Life, which consists inknowing and loving him in humble obedience. This is the way to the fulfilment of our being; the only the way to harmony within our own nature and across our troubled world. And the Church must continue to speak with the voice of her Master, proclaiming the Law of God which is also the law of our nature, in season and out of season.


Faith Magazine

July - August 2002