term of the week: natural law

Natural Law, n

Natural law is universal law that is, or should be, obvious to all people at all times. It is the law that is naturally apparent. It is a kind of the ultimate, or foundational law which other laws should be based on. So, for instance, human rights are often based on an appeal to a free natural state of human beings: as if it should be obvious that humans should be free and provided for, etc. Positive law is law that is put forth, posited, by organizations. It is human-made law that is created, not pre-existing and natural (think Locke and social contracts). Tangled up in this discussion, of course, is epistemology, or how we know stuff. In the course of history Natural Law is closely linked to discussions about with Reason, which makes sense, since Reason seems to be one of those things that is universal, even if the fool in front of you is trying to drive 80 with a cell phone and a Big Gulp.

St. Augustine proposed that after the fall, natural law was impossible to apprehend, and live by. He argued that before the fall we could live in a natural state that was Godly, but after, our rational faculties are too damaged and instead of being able to live rightly according to natural law, we need divine intervention to save us. Aquinas (who really colors how Aristotle was read) made a sharp distinction between Natural Law and Divine Law. He upheld reason as a common universal law that all people could grasp but thought it insufficient for salvation. He thought by applying one’s reason to Natural Law, “ta da!,” -you should arrive at the cardinal virtues which any person might exhibit, just not salvation.

Natural Law is thorny stuff. On the one hand, if you assume that all human beings share the same nature, then it is reasonable to argue that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and any things else – oppression, slavery- is a violation of Natural Law. Hmmm. Catholicism, it should be noted is deeply committed to natural law, hence their refusal of Gay marriage and contraception: “it’s not natural.”

There are profound problems to consider with Natural law, as well. As I groused about here, it is debatable whether natural law exhibits much good in the first place. Violence and decay seem just as natural as inalienable rights. In fact, in nature, survival at any cost seems to be the highest value. Just ask Donald Trump. Similarly, philosophy itself has called into question whether all forms of reason are universal (or neutral) as reason is also historically constructed with certain aims and objectives.

So where does it leave us? Well, it depends on whether you’re a “glass half empty” or “glass half full” kind of person. I tend to be a “half empty” kind of guy, and pacing Barth here, of course, I find no correlation between the natural world and God. Sure the “heavens declare His majesty,” to people who have faith, but those same heavens declared the reality of Sagittarius to the Greeks. Apparently, something in the universal message of nature isn’t getting through. Natural law also seems to imply that apologetics can climb the ladder of reason and arrive at knowledge of God, but this too, I am unsure of. If you can only describe God by what you can see and understand (natural law/empiricism) then you will arrive at a God that you can create. So for the moment, I remain firmly committed to filling my glass and drinking deeply from the tap of revelation, not natural law.


  1. Interesting. Never thought of that last point. What if taking the time to come to a revelation is part of natural law? I mean, we realized all the other ones sometime along our history, that didn't exist (to human reason) prior.

  2. Hi anonymous, thanks for posting.
    I'm afraid I don't quite understand your point. To define my own terms better, revelation occurs when God speaks and is in no way contingent upon history. So Moses knows God, not because any laws made it apparent, nor because he "waited on God." He knew of God solely because God spoke to him through a burning bush. Revelation is always an intrusion on the natural world, not something ever arrived at. Does that help?

  3. What bothers me is, practically speaking, people can claim revelations about God that are contradictory. So then how do we know what is a legitimate revelation or a creation of someone's imagination? If we can't distinguish what is true revelation, revelation is still someone creating a God that fits their paradigm.

    *In no way am I supporting apologetics. I did my time in the prison that is apologetics and found out there is too much in life that falls outside of reason.

  4. Thanks for the clarification. I think I missed a lot of your points reading it the first time, ie "I find no correlation between the natural world and God."

    It seems as though natural law can never exist. Nothing will ever be obvious to all people, at all time. We are too involved in our own opinions.

    When I started reading your post, I already had my own opinions on the topic, which made me miss your whole point the first time...and likely the second and third time.

  5. @Tim: That's a hard one. Increasingly, I think the answer is Christological, that is, the Bible and tradition point to Jesus as the truest revelation of who God is, so every "revelation" is judged by Christ as the criterion, and it is precisely because Jesus continually breaks our paradigms and explodes our categories, that we can have confidence it is His voice speaking to us.

    @anonymous.I think I agree. My biggest concern with natural law is that it makes natural processes holy somehow, as if the way the natural world works is right.


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