Sunday, June 22, 2014

Confusing natural law with revelation, nature with grace

It's a debate (and a confusion) that's been around for some time now, but Ed Feser's uncommon common sense about natural law and its relation to supernatural revelation and God's grace is always refreshing.

Edward Feaser, "Natural law or supernatural law?" (Edward Feser, September 26, 2013), begins his article with some common sense observations:
When you blur a real distinction between any two things A and B, you invariably tend, at least implicitly, to deny the existence of either A or B. For instance, there is, demonstrably, a real distinction between mind and matter. To blur this distinction, as materialists do, is implicitly to deny the existence of mind. Reductionist materialism is, as I have argued in several places (such as here), really just eliminative materialism in disguise. There is also a clear moral distinction between taking the life of an innocent person and taking the life of a guilty person. To blur this distinction, as many opponents of capital punishment do, is to blur the distinction between innocence and guilt. That is why opposition to capital punishment tends to go hand in hand with suspicion of the very idea of punishment as such.

... A real distinction that is all too often blurred in theology is that between the natural and the supernatural -- between the limited relationship with God that is our natural end and the gratuitous, supernatural gift of the beatific vision; between the knowledge of God’s existence and nature that is available to philosophical reason, and that which is given only in revelation; and between the natural law and supernatural virtue. One way to blur this distinction is to collapse the supernatural into the natural -- for example, to reduce God to a symbol, and Christian charity to a mere political program for social justice. This, as Karl Barth famously put it, is not to speak of God at all but merely to speak of man in a loud voice, a kind of virtual atheism.

But another way to blur the distinction is to go in the other direction, absorbing the natural into the supernatural -- a tendency to be found in Catholic Nouvelle Théologie writers like Henri de Lubac and, it seems, in David Bentley Hart. Where morality is concerned, the tendency is, as we’ve seen recently with Hart, to denude the notion of natural law of significant content, so that it is only through the lens of revelation that one can clearly see what the natural law requires and only via grace that one can to any extent obey it. (I do not say that this is exactly what Hart himself thinks – though it seems to me he did not make it clear exactly what he thinks – but only that this is the direction in which his recent remarks about natural law tend.)

But a law that cannot be known from the nature of things, but only via special divine revelation, is not the natural law. Read more >>
[Hat tip to C.B.]


Robert Allen said...

I must say that I myself have struggled mightily to understand the difference between RM and EM. If we maintain that pain, to use the stock example, is nothing but firing C-fibers, are we not then committed to excising the former phenomenon from our ontology? Why continue applying folk-psychological terms to our experience if their designations turn out to be bodily processes? Is that redundancy not simply an invitation to conceptual confusion? The linguistic fact is, the vocabulary of folk-psychology implies some form of Dualism, a real distinction between mental and physical phenomena (just as 'water' carries with it the notion of being elemental, not composite). EM was born of the frustration entailed by the Reductionist's project. There turned out to be too much linguistic/conceptual baggage associated with folk-psychology to effect the desired reduction. So some Materialists, led by those intrepid atheists the Churchlands, decided to dispense altogether with its vocabulary. Unlike their RM brethren, they are to be praised for their consistency, if not good sense. For taken to its logical conclusion, their philosophy leads to a 'home', such as the Churchland's, where the children are discouraged from using the word 'love'. (No kidding, I read it in the NYT.) Talk about hell on earth.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

I LIKE Edward Feser. If he had a fan club, I would join it. I don't know if he has a Twitter or FaceBook following; he's on his own there, because I despise the cell phone and the entire petri dish culture that it has spawned. But still, Feser is gifted with clear insight and the ability to render complex ideas comprehensible. De Lubac, Balthazar, Rahner: not even their most squeally fans would claim them to be masters of clarity. Their gift is the gift of all religious charlatans: obfuscation. They make the shabby seem portentous and consequential by dressing it up in obscure phraseology and logical meanderings: Madame Blavatsky without the seances, racist bloviations, and comically piercing stares.

To understand why nouvelle theology in its bulk is nothing more than a steaming pile of theological elimination, you really don't have to read more than this:

"When you blur a real distinction between any two things A and B, you invariably tend, at least implicitly, to deny the existence of either A or B."

How much of the post-kantian "Christian" spiritualist crap artistry of the last couple centuries that now dominates the public theology of the Roman Catholic Church rests on that foundational error? All of it?

I wonder if I could fit it on a bumper sticker.