Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Natural Law and Original Sin

These two are at odds, are in theological tension, as it were. Whenever you come up against the latest survey regarding the healthiness of this or that - say homosexuality or prayer or whatever - the first question that should, properly speaking, be asked is,

"How much can we know the good in the concrete?"

  • Did you know that people with religious faith recovery from major surgeries much more quickly than people without?
  • Did you know that religious people are better citizens, as measured by donations to charities?
  • Did you know that the homosexual lifestyle is more unhealthy statistically than smoking, as measured by average lifespan?
  • Did you know that there is a correlation between heretical theological views and child sexual abuse amongst clergy?
  • Did you know that countries in Africa with a higher Catholic population have a lower incidence of AIDS?
  • Did you know that depression and suicide rates climbed in direct relation to the West's de-Christianization?
These sound like ringing endorsements of the Church's moral teachings.

But what about the opposite sorts of observations? Such as:

  • The fact that men rank as their greatest fear dying alone (which seems to argue against the Church's teaching re. the superiority of the celibate vocation).
  • The fact that Protestant countries industrialized faster than Catholic countries (thank you, Mr.Max Weber)
  • The fact that Islam is spreading faster than Catholicism.
  • The fact that Catholicism does not ordain women.
  • The fact that the stronger the Christian conviction the less likely one is to use vaccinations.
Those were the best statistical arguments I could think of against the Faith. Let's just say they are strong ones.

The question I am asking is, what does intelligibility mean? Should the moral value of the Church's teaching always be evident to natural reason and to empirical measure? Is the truth, for instance, of the Ten Commandments obvious to all? And how so? - that those who obey them live longer and happier lives than those who do not? What about the Beatitudes? Does following them pay-off this way as well? You see how easily one can slip into the old Jewish (/Protestant) notion of the prosperity Gospel when one thinks this way. Anyone who ends up believing that the truth will always vindicate you (in the here and now) does not know anything about the teachings of Christ, to put it quite frankly. No one knows the soul of a man but God. If you look and see an ostensibly happy man - and you have really closely scrutinized him to see if he is actually and truly happy - by that distortion of religious reasoning you are forced to conclude that he must be good and that he has been blessed by God. Let us offer as a counter-argument the whole Book of Job, and, more poignantly, Luke 13:1-4 (my emphasis),

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

 In fact, Kant insisted that the just (and justifying) outcome of the moral life required than there be an afterlife - because outcomes in this life did not in itself recommend it.

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.
(Job 19:25-27)

It is the word 'redeemer' which is key here. Yes, it is essentially Christological, but do not think of it in the narrowly soteriological sense. A redeemer is also a defender and an advocate. Like a lawyer (advocate), he vouches for the integrity of one's character. Job seems to be aware that the proof is not in the pudding, at least insofar as his friends are able to see.

If all of this is so, then, why even point to statistics? You see, this is all an epistemological problem. It's that part of original sin that impacts our ability to know the truth. I will argue that in this life the good always pays off; we just don't know how it does. Because of lack of understanding, we don't see the real products of good and evil actions, and even if we did see them we would not see how the good outweighs the bad in all good actions, and the evil outweighs the good in all evil actions. We don't even know how to think about the consequences so as to be able to identify them - that's how far off track our understanding is. Ethics gives an unduly simplistic read on these things. In light of this umbra perennis, this unending darkness of the mind's eye, statistics are useful for apologetics, not for proof. They involve an act of faith, not because it is impossible for us to know the proper objects and actual consequences of moral acts, but just because we probably will not know them.

I am not arguing for an absolute fact/value distinction, that is, that one cannot reason from the world of facts to the world of morality. I think that because smoking is so physically harmful that it is thus immoral to smoke. I think that because it leads to the objectification of women, contraception is immoral. But I do not think that we can know everything, nor even every important thing about the good from observation alone. If it looks like having two mothers is just as good or even better than a dad and a mom, I don't suddenly abandon everything I've previously known and believed about the moral life. This is where revelation comes in, and faith in the authority of God who gives us His word that what He says is right and true.

1 comment:

  1. I found this article interesting and important. If I have come to any mature conclusion it is that we know much less than we think we know and than what we are accustomed to assert, and that this epistemological over-confidence characterises a lot of religious discourse.

    I’m not sure I understood, though, why you began by saying that Natural Law and Original Sin were in tension. I see both terms as standing for a couple of ideas, conclusions about (1) the way things apparently seem to work, and (2) why human beings can be so destructive and bad as well as sometimes good or noble. But what theologians call ‘original sin’ may simply reflect the limitations and randomness or unpredictability inherent in the will and actions of our species (like occur in any other species), in other words, part of nature, part of the natural ‘law’.

    As an aside, but in a way related to the question of the limitations of our knowledge, I’m not convinced ‘Natural Law’ provides the sole or accurate ethical criterion. I have myself long pondered the meta-ethical problem, what is good and evil? What makes something right or wrong? I am not a scholar but in the course of my university and religious studies I’ve had the opportunity of reading various ethical theorists, and these include Augustine (his Confessions), Thomas Aquinas, Kant, and Singer. The conclusion I have come to is that each theory (natural law, teleology, deontology or consequentialism etc) tries to arrive at a workable and consistent rule for finding the absolute. The difference between them lies in identifying and categorising acts and their constituent elements.

    I think that, axiomatically, we always have limited knowledge, and that consequently we have to be cautious about how we categorise actions by others, especially since I suspect (I have not yet mastered the argument) that actions cannot be so readily boxed generically but admit of far greater species diversity than might appear on the surface. Some people may find moral analysis very simple and easy; others, and I am one of them, do not.

    Unfortunately, I think we humans appear to have the tendency to reduce things to digestible but simplistic expressions and though this may be sometimes understandable and necessary, often this does the cause of sharing religious faith considerable harm, if the widespread disenchantment with religious zeal has any connection with it. Just a few thoughts prompted by your article. I’ve read some others of yours as well this morning and found them insightful and refreshing. Thank you.