For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Friday, 3 May 2013

Nature and Sign

At the close of the previous post I wrote that a natural law account of morality, and marriage specifically, didn't satisfy me: but this is not because of what natural law accounts say, or even a criticism of the notion of natural law. The lack of satisfaction, for me, comes where most theories of natural law stop.

I would draw attention first to the Pauline account of the "law written on the heart", invoked in Romans against idolatry and depravity resulting from the pagan temple cults, specifically linked to sins "contrary to nature"; and one bunch of people on the criminal list are those "without natural affection". It seems to me that there is a parallel being drawn here between (1) a loss of reverence for God as Creator, One who is invisible but yet whose power and divinity are known through His creation, and (2) a loss of "natural" behaviour and understanding. The second passage I wish to pick up on is in St Paul's letter to Ephesus, where he describes marital union as two becoming one flesh, but then says that he is speaking a great mystery: he is speaking (primarily, I think one may understand) about Christ and the Church. It is with these two little seeds sown that I return to the topic of natural law.

Most Christian theories of marriage leaning upon ideas of natural law will say something like: marriage is not a solely Christian idea, but is consonant with human nature, how children are conceived and nurtured, the nourishing of the love of a man for a woman, the good of the community etc. Marriage thus understood stands independently of revelation. The underlying notion is that there is a foundational natural law, in some way present in created reality through the will of the Creator, that is superior to all "positive law", or law specific to certain circumstances, and by which positive law is to be judged. It isn't too much to say that in Aquinas, and certainly in Hooker, natural law is seen as in some respect above even Holy Scripture (an instance of positive law, given historically and in particular circumstances). Take the example of the Torah's permission of divorce, or the Patriarchs' polygamy: these are cases in which the natural law - for natural law in marriage read sworn lifelong monogamy - gives one a logic of judgment to discern the rightness or wrongness of such practices.

Liberal political theory, from Hobbes and Locke onwards, has seen our conceptions shift to a very different theory of law - free individuals enter into a social contract, and even when natural law is acknowledged to some extent, it becomes an obligation on one's (private) conscience, rather than a divinely ordered and obligatory basis of law transmitted and reflected in ancient customs. It is a short and easy way from here to the idea that common consent, via the state, creates valid law: and if this is accepted, on what foundation can the argument against a new definition of marriage rest?

One can return to natural law definitions, and explain why marriage serves both the common good, the good of the sexes in union, the basic human community, and children: but unless one uncovers the basis of natural law itself (divine order in creation, mediated through custom), according to liberal political understanding of law one will simply be expressing a point of view, and because it is not the point of view in power, or in vogue, it will be quite simply ignored. I am not saying that explaining the difference between natural law theory and a liberal theory of law would change anything, and in fact I think it would raise more antagonism rather than produce legislation sympathetic to the Christian tradition. But it would at least serve as a prophetic witness, a proclamation of the Lordship of the Creator over law and creation, which is surely what the church should be announcing rather than merely stating what it thinks the law on marriage should be, and why it is a good thing. (I should say that this has come across clearly in some, but by no means all, Christian public pronouncements on this subject.)

This brings me back to my original contention, that natural law theory by itself is an insufficient theory by which to defend marriage and more generally moral precepts, which I now appear to have gone back on, to say that what is needed is actually an explanation of the foundation of natural law theory. But I want to say a little more than that, for the reason that it is by no means obvious what the grounding of the natural law argument is for marriage specifically: is it ancient custom? the good of the spouses? children? all of the above? It seems to me that these little threads can be picked out of the pattern one by one. There is an argument in each case that each of these goods is not something necessarily unique to marriage; and even if one wished to make a cumulative case and say that a marriage (ideally) achieves all of these goods simultaneously in a way that no other custom or institution does, one has still produced only a collectively pragmatic, rather than a unifying and principled, rationale for marriage's unique status.

What I therefore want to say is something that I find difficult to formulate, but which points out the symbolic significance (and ultimately sacramental meaning) of marriage as its ultimate and unique foundation. Return for a moment to the idea of the foundation of natural law in "created order". If this order is somehow a reflection of the divine nature, and man the Imago Dei, then marriage is not simply a command but a command to be like God, and not simply a command to be like God but to participate in God's life (and hence His joy) through that likeness.

My claim is that the two passages from St Paul with which I began this post, both hint at the notion that male and female sexual complementarity, lifelong monogamy, the union in one flesh which makes children, the nourishing of children, the formation of a basic human community etc., all find their point of unity in the fact that marriage is a sacramental participation in the love and union of Christ and the Church. This may seem to take us a long way from natural law into revelation. I shall try to explain in the next post why I don't think it does, where St Paul's teaching seems to back up what I am trying to say, and why the notion of a male God embracing a female cosmos in a nuptial union is in fact a natural idea.

Suffice to say at this point, that I hope I have given some idea of what I mean by a sacramental and Neoplatonic notion of morality being needed to make morality coherent, going beyond the usual natural law theory which sees the end and purpose of ethics as human flourishing. One needs, I believe, some account of how the moral precept or principle points towards, symbolises and participates in the Creator.

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L'Ascensione (II)