Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience

Dylan Pahman,a research associate at the Acton Institute, has an interesting contribution to the contemporary understanding and application of natural law over at Ethika Politika where he is a contributing editor. What makes the essay (Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience: An Orthodox Response to David Bentley Hart) even more interesting is that Pahman, like Hart, is an Orthodox Christian and so it is from within that tradition that he engages the debate.

Please take a moment to go over to Ethika Politika and read the essay and maybe even join the discussion. For those who might be interested, here’s my response to Dylan’s essay.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

First of all, well said Dylan! As do you, I admire Hart’s writing, the elegance of his language and the intricacy of his thought are breath taking. Above all, however, is his command of the sources, Christian and non-Christian, ancient, medieval, modern and post-modern. This makes the absence of any treatment of conscience in his critique of natural law all the more glaring. That individuals, and even whole communities, are often wrong about the Good, the True, the Just  and the Beautiful (see Philippians 4:8) doesn’t mean these aren’t “really real” as my intro to philosophy professor would often remind us. In its own way, error testifies to the existence of the truth, even as evil does to good, injustice to justice and the ugly to the beautiful.

A careful attention to my own experience reveals that I am often mistaken about what is morally good through simple, and even innocent, ignorance. But on only slightly closer inspection I also realize that there are times when I am not so much mistaken about the good as I am indifferent and even hostile to it. While divine grace makes clear to me that I am forgiven, I need only minimal self-knowledge to know that I fall short of what it means to be fully and distinctively human. While Freud and the other advocates of a hermeneutic of suspicion have helped us fill in the details of our myriad moral failures, they didn’t discover that the human heart can be stone hard or that we often fail to be our best selves.

This brings me to Fr. David’s observation. Like him, I worry we have “reached that point where conscience has become so coarsened that rational discourse in the public square is becoming more and more difficult.” This is certainly the case in the larger culture—of greater concern to me, however, is that this seems also to be the case within the Christian community. For all his eloquence and command of the sources, Hart is arguing not simply against natural law but (as you imply) against human reason’s ability to know, however incompletely, moral truth.

In my own ministry as an Orthodox priest I have found that this denigration of reason’s ability to know what is, and isn’t, morally good common not only among the laity but even among the clergy. For this reason I find myself in fundamental agreement with Fr David when he says that the “very understanding of conscience has been so distorted that I think it perhaps has gone beyond a nearsightedness or color-blindedness.” Like their Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, many Orthodox Christians hold views on matters such as abortion or same-sex marriage that are at odds with the Tradition.

Given the rather thin cultural understanding of reason, I think an re-evangelization of Christians—to say nothing of the culture—will likely not “take place as people imagine … primarily through realm of ideas and arguments or education programs,” though these will have their place, “but rather through witnessing to the cross through word and deed – the ascetical life and self sacrifice.” To Father’s observation I would add the witness of liturgy and the philanthropic ministry of the Church (which I think is probably implied by “self-sacrifice”).

Again, well done!

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Part III: To Believe & to Know: Intellectual Formation & Joy

HighPriest21The Presence of Joy. Other projects have distracted me and kept me from continuing with my earlier series of posts on formation (you can read them here, here and here). I want now to pick up where I left off in July and look briefly with you at the intellectual formation of clergy (and by implication, of the laity).

Recently there has been a series of essays on natural law. What makes these essays especially interesting to me is that the series was inspired by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart‘s rejection of natural law in an article in First Things (here, with follow-up pieces here and here). While I admire the beauty and elegance of Hart’s language, I find myself agreeing with his critics. There are to be sure various theories of natural law but the Christian (and after reading Levinas’s (1969, 1987) work, I would say the biblical) understanding of natural law is rooted in a careful attention to human experience. Hart, like the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras (1984), rejects natural law as such but a natural law rooted in ontological abstraction. Natural law in the biblical sense does not seek to draw ethical conclusions from abstract ontology speculation but from human experience.

Attending to my experience I realize that I only want to be happy. Looking a bit more closely at myself I realize that some things make me happier than other but that sometimes even the best things can leave me feeling empty. I also realize some things bring me only a temporary feeling of happiness—they make me happy for the  moment—while other things have the ability to bring me a lasting happiness. The Christian tradition calls this latter, lasting happiness, joy. So my experience tells me that not only can I be happy I can be joyful. There are thoughts and actions that bring me a kind of happiness that is not dependent on circumstances event. The paradox of joy is that it transcends the very circumstances that revealed it  to me. My thoughts and actions embody what Paul Ricoeur calls a “surplus of meaning” (1976). Sensitivity to this surplus of meaning, to the transcendent dimension of human experience, is essential to a wholesome human life and especially to the Christian life.

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