Doubting Thomas (Yes, Still)

A discussion of the viability of a revitalized Natural Law Theory for Christian public discourse.

I am not talking about the caricature of the guy who just quotes Bible verses as “conversation stoppers.” I am talking about a willingness to boldly give deep and “thick” biblical and theological descriptions of reality, to allow what we really believe to organically, openly, and unashamedly shape our entire view of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I am quite confident that can be done in conversation-enriching ways. In fact, I think it is when we actually get to the heart of the matter, the antithesis between two deep convictions on the nature of reality and ethics and knowledge, that conversations actually get interesting.


[I was privileged to participate in a panel discussion with Francis Beckwith on the topic of Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law Theory. We were responding to a series of lectures by J. Budziszewski. My remarks as delivered are below. They are very similar to what I posted here a year ago, with some changes. Enjoy.]

I am so pleased to participate in this conversation today, and would like to thank [….] for so graciously inviting me and Professor Beckwith, whom I greatly admire, for his willingness to participate.

Our topic is Thomas Aquinas; more specifically, the viability of a revitalized Natural Law Theory for Christian public discourse. I should admit at the outset that I am one of those Christian critics of natural law theory about whom Dr. Budziszewski has called today, “embarrassingly misinformed.” But I promise I’ve never let that deter me before.

Let me make clear at the outset that what is in question here is not that reality is ordered by transcendent norms; for me, the question is whether Thomistic Natural Law theory is truly capable of arriving at these norms by way of its characteristic method.

There’s no better way to begin than by making the root of my concerns clear. Thomistic Natural Law draws a distinction (to varying degrees of sharpness) between natural knowledge and “supernatural” knowledge, between natural reason and faith, between general truths that may be known to “unaided” reason and special truths that may only be obtained by special revelation.

This is the general contour of Thomistic epistemology, and there has been great debate over just how sharply one should draw these lines. Why the concern? It is best illustrated by a philosopher who himself maximally exploited this dichotomy: Immanuel Kant. Kant famously made his distinction between faith and reason absolute: the “noumenal” realm (that which is outside our experience) is faith’s domain; the phenomenal realm (the world of our experience) is reason’s sole domain. It should be noted that Kant thought he was doing God a favor–“making room for him” was his phrase; but, as Stanley Fish wryly puts it, he essentially, “kicked God upstairs and out of sight.”

The Enlightenment vision of Kant and his successors was to create a public space free of faith; Reason would be the sole arbiter of public truth. Insofar as Natural Law theory is an attempt to argue for transcendent moral norms solely on the basis of natural reason and free from faith claims, it seems content to live, move, and have its being in what I believe to be an artificial construct. I am less than inclined to accept secularism’s terms of participation in the public square.

Some Thomists have felt the weight of this. Henri deLubac and the Nouvelle Theologie have produced a more “integrationist” account of Thomas, arguing essentially that “pure nature” is not really a condition that is “unaided” by God’s revelation or grace after all. In fact, this more integrated interpretation is what you heard just now from Professor Beckwith, and from Dr. Budziszewski today when he insisted that, for example, without divine grace no one could reason about anything at all, or when he said that Natural Law takes into account the salvation history revealed in Scripture. But I have to say: Dr. Budziszewski’s vigorous effort today to paint a singular, cohesive tradition of “classical natural law” genuinely surprised me. Because, with all due respect, that is embarrassingly misinformed.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, whom nobody would accuse of ignorance, summarizes where things stand in the scholarly world: “To say that there is not a consensus view on Aquinas’s understanding of natural law is to understate drastically the depth and scope of controversy on the matter.” (Justice: Rights and Wrongs [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008], 39.)

I mention all this because I think it is important to note that there are varying accounts of Thomism, and that after these well-nigh thousand years Natural Law Theory (still) isn’t a settled matter. The irony of my disagreement just now with Dr. Budziszewski is that my own sympathies are with him and deLubac; the more integrationist an approach (meaning the less sharp a dichotomy between faith and reason) the better. But I also believe we do even better to rethink the entire construct.

Allow me to briefly delve into some more specific concerns about the deployment of natural law theory.

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