April 28, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Great Natural Law Debate


I’ve read with much enjoyment the latest debate about the efficacy of natural law arguments in the public square. Or, to put the question up for debate another way: are arguments from an understanding of human nature (assuming such a thing exists) without any appeal to divine revelation able to effect public policy in regards to issues such same sex marriage or abortion? David Bentley Hart fired the first shot, claiming that natural law arguments were without teeth in an era abounding in material and determinist ideologies. Some agreed, like Rod Dreher, while Edward Feser disagreed robustly, charging Hart with numerous logical fallacies. Hart then responded and Feser returned in kind.

While I’ve enjoyed the lively debate, I can’t help but feel the interlocutors are speaking past each other. Both sides, while quibbling with the way they’ve stated their position, are ignoring precisely what is at stake. The question of the efficacy of natural law in regards to legislation and public dialogue is only part of a deeper question: What role does rational argument play in persuasion, especially in regards to theological issues and knowledge of God.  More pointedly: how can the most souls be saved and by what “methods?” Is rational argument the most effective?

As Christians, this ought to be our driving concern over any particular policy. The end of legitimate government may very well be what the Declaration of Independence says it is: the protection of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, this must always be accidental to the pursuit of a higher goal: salvation. If people are pursuing God with all their hearts, minds, and souls a creative and vibrant society will necessarily arise.  The rhetoric of some, the new natural lawyers of whom Hart is critical are for religion in so far as it is allows civil society to flourish. For them, civil society is the good, and religion has been deemed the necessary means. However, even a nihilist could say that religion offers some good for society by engendering respect for the law or encouraging families. Whether religion is good or necessary for civil society to flourish is a separate claim from whether that religion is true or not.

So what place do rational arguments have in convincing men of the truth of Christianity so that their souls may be saved? On one hand, to say that reasoned arguments have no place in conversion seems at odd with the whole tradition of Christendom. Even in Holy Scripture in the Acts of the Apostles, we see Paul debating some of the pagans in Athens in chapter 17. It doesn’t say that he is giving logical proofs or anything like natural law, but he is at least giving reasons that he thought would compel someone to believe in God. He also is not described as performing any miracles.

On the other hand, we have Paul’s own conversion in Acts 9, which is decidedly supra-rational. He is converted after a mystical experience, a real encounter with Christ. Paul, an avid persecutor of Christians, is not persuaded by an argument about Christ, but through meeting Christ himself.

It is safe to say no argument, no matter how well written, is ever going to a magic bullet. That also means that just because an argument fails to persuade people, even most people, it is not necessarily false. When Paul preached in Athens, there were some people who walked away and were not convinced by him even though what Paul was saying was true.

And further, even if someone did acknowledge that a particular argument for the existence of God or the immorality of sodomy and infanticide was sound based in an understanding of human nature, there is still a question whether his acknowledgement leads to him changing his life and converting.  And this is precisely the business of Christianity, to change someone’s life completely. Intellectual assent and actively choosing to be renewed in Christ are not synonymous.

I know this mainly from my own experience. I read C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel when I was 18 and I didn’t decide that it was necessary to start going to church until I was 22. I even acknowledged a lot of their arguments, but I still didn’t feel like going to church or calling myself a Christian for years. The exact moment when I felt that I must start going or that I was a Christian is ineffable. What happens when a man decides that he is a Christian? There are people who understand all the arguments, yet feel no compulsion to change their life. They may even believe in God, yet they simply shrug and say the lack faith to believe everything the Church teaches. I’ve also given the exact same arguments that convinced me yet I’ve persuaded hardly anyone to convert. And to add to the confusion, there are people who’ve never even heard a natural law argument yet believe more fervently, authentically, and piously than perhaps I ever will.

So I ask, what makes a man believe in Christ? Is rational argument the best means to convert a man? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

5 Responses to Some Thoughts on the Great Natural Law Debate

  1. Is rational argument the best means to convert a man? Well, that depends on the man. I think it’s safe to say that rational argument has had a role in most conversions–few people are going to believe something that is obviously, demonstrably untrue–but it is probably secondary to other things, including the moving of the Holy Spirit, the relational aspect of Christianity (both between God and man and among men), the need for a savior based on the helplessness of the human condition (stripped of materialism and hubris), etc.

    Postmodernism, a secular philosophy, argues for the comeback of irrationality. Against that backdrop Christianity is intensely reasonable. Even so, Christianity, at some point (which is different for different people), requires a leap of faith, but it allows you to take your brain with you (yet another gift from God that He expects us to use).

    Scripture says that we are without excuse because God’s existence and power are manifest in nature. Natural law dovetails with Christianity which dovetails with rationality. Because we don’t always comprehend it does not make Christian faith irrational.

  2. gregpaley says:

    Cleareyed, the longer I live, the more I’m convinced that reason plays a very minor role in faith – an important one, but minor. As Luther put it, “reason is a whore” – you can use it to defend the faith, you can also use it to defend atheism, secularism, whatever -ism you like. John Wesley’s father chided him for wanting every aspect of faith to be “reasonable.” The truth is, human beings are emotional by nature, and there is no deep faith without deep love, which is why the Politically Correct terms for God like “creator” and “ground of being” leave most people cold. It’s hard to improve on “Father.”

    Also, don’t overlook the role of social pressure. People tend to choose a church based on their desire to identify with the type of people who go there – hence the Episcopalians, who are largely upscale and well-educated, draw people who are either upscale or want to be seen that way. Thus the choice isn’t based on the question “Is this church a gathering of faithful Christians?” but “Are these cool people to hang out with on Sunday?” If the only people attending church were those who truly “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we’d see a lot of empty churches.

    • Good points, Greg. It is interesting, however, how selective the politically correct crowd is in using emotion. If it can be used to bring about their political dreams then they will use it.

      I firmly believe that, as Christians, we should engage in and encourage rational discourse. We have nothing to fear from this. While we need to be aware of humanity’s limitations, we should stand firm in the belief that if anything is true it is of God (see Paul at the Areopagus).

      We should, however, be wise to and not participate in the obfuscation and disingenuity as practiced by the PC police. This is little more than intellectual paper-tigerism.

  3. Nathaniel, I just wanted to thank you for the honesty of this post. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

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