Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Learning the hard way

Law | Natural law may not be as good a teacher as some Christians think

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

A plump rabbit once encountered a hungry coyote in the forest. Careless in vigilance, the rabbit had allowed himself to be boxed between a boulder and a log with no way of escape. “Wait!” said the rabbit. “Can’t we find some common ground?” Intrigued, the coyote cocked his head to one side. “We both have to eat,” the rabbit went on. “And we’re both mammals. As members of the mutual mammalian society, wouldn’t it make sense to join forces?”

The coyote cocked his head to the other side, appearing to listen as the rabbit went on to explain how, with his superior hearing and the other’s superior sense of smell, they could double their effect and halve their effort—and didn’t nature herself teach cooperation? “Good point,” grunted the coyote as he sat back on his haunches. The rabbit saw an opportunity to edge past those menacing claws, but scarcely had he taken a hop before the coyote swiped him to the ground and sank sharp teeth in his furry neck.

“Wait!” choked the rabbit. “I thought you agreed!”

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“That was then,” said the coyote, and proceeded to tear his prey apart. “Besides,” he remarked, after enjoying his meal, “I’m a carnivore.”

Moral: Nature is a lousy teacher, but a brilliant executioner.

The last time I remember hearing about “natural law” in the news, it was during the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, whose presumed belief in it was considered a strike against him. Natural law theory claims that certain enduring principles apply to all societies at all times, because they are based either on human nature or on nature’s God. This was the philosophical mainspring of the Declaration of Independence. But to contemporary legal thinkers, natural law is an outdated disguise for authoritarian principles that have little or no relevance to our time. As man evolves, so must his laws, and what worked for medieval theologians, Reformation pastors, or Enlightenment philosophers won’t stand up to scrutiny now.

Is the law not written on their hearts, as Paul says? “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Romans 2:14). Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart doubts that Paul is talking about natural law as we understand it. Nature, says Hart, is limited in her instructional capacities, unable to tell us “that abortion is murder, that lying is wrong, that marriage should be monogamous, that we should value charity above personal profit, and that it is wicked (as well as extremely discourteous) to eat members of that tribe that lives over in the next valley.” Those strictures are deeply embedded in cultural assumptions, not nature, and cultural assumptions change. Especially after decades of being hammered by relativism.

Christians may have underestimated the degree that moral standards rely on revelation rather than intuition, and that’s why we’re stunned at how quickly they have eroded. We can’t even conduct a rational argument, for between carnivores and herbivores there appears to be little common ground.

But one thing doesn’t change about us, and perhaps it’s a distant echo of natural law: However virtue “evolves,” most human beings want to feel virtuous. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was often called the New Morality (even though old fogeys at church insisted on calling it the old immorality). Some of my Facebook friends proudly “Stand with Wendy” Davis (the state senator who filibustered the Texas legislature to prevent passage of a late-term abortion ban) and applaud grossly expanded food-stamp benefits as “compassionate.” Justice Anthony Kennedy, rather than cite legal grounds for ruling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, chose to castigate DOMA on moral grounds.

But, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). Nature’s God declares that “the two shall be one” and “he who does not work shall not eat” and “you shall not murder.” The unraveling of our society proves Him true: if nature fails at instruction, she’ll gladly dole out consequences.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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