Revelation Sheds Light on Natural Law
In a brilliant article in the November issue of First Things entitled “Natural Law Revealed”, J. Budziszewski explains why Revelation makes it so much easier for people to understand the natural law. One might think that since the natural law is, well, natural, we would not need any special help to get it right. One might also think that any advantage brought to us by Revelation must somehow invalidate the “naturalness” of natural law.
Both of these thoughts are wrong, and Budziszewski’s argument is so good that I want to summarize it for you here. The author shows that Revelation sheds at least five different kinds of light on nature. The first light is that of precept. Sometimes God commands or forbids something that the mind itself can recognize as right or wrong, such as the prohibitions in the Decalogue against murder or stealing. Of this kind of light, St. Thomas said that the promulgation of such laws is useful because, in a few cases, people can be led astray concerning them. So here, by command, Revelation strengthens our perception of the natural law in question.
The second light is that of affirmation. Here Revelation affirms something about the nature of things that makes it easier for us to work out the logical moral consequences. Budziszewski offers the example of conjugal sexuality. The Book of Malachi (among other revelatory sources) affirms that God has made us to communicate life to others and that He expects us to take this purpose seriously through faithful and fruitful marriage. Once that is affirmed, it is not difficult to work out the logic that marriage is unique among all types of human association, and is apparently deliberately ordered toward a stable procreative end. Our particular age may have trouble seeing this, yet the Divine affirmation prods both our vision and our logic.
The third kind of light is narrative. Left to ourselves, for example, it might take a long time to figure out that everything around us is broken, and to reason from that fact that nature has something to communicate to us which we have to get past the brokenness to see. Thus the Biblical narrative of the Fall enables us more easily to perceive that, of course, the ideal condition of nature was something other than what we have now, and so everything begins to make more sense. As Budziszewski points out, if we had never seen a healthy foot, we might not realize that a broken foot is broken. Once we do realize that the foot we are examining is broken, it becomes easier to discern the purpose of a foot.
Fourth, Revelation provides the light of divine promise. Budziszewski suggests that two promises—forgiveness and divine providence—are particularly important in our ability to understand the natural law:
Without the promise of forgiveness, natural law would show us only a face of accusation. Few could bear to look at it at all; none could bear to look at it steadily. Without the promise of providence, contemplation of the wrongs of the world would drive us to yet greater wrongs. Whether by its own guilt or by rage at the guilt of all others, the intellect would be undermined, and the counsels of natural law would be pulled in perverse directions.
Fifth and finally, Budziszewski argues that Revelation sheds light on nature through the sacraments. For example, St. Paul’s teaching that the submission of husbands and wives to each other in marriage is a mystery that refers to the relationship of Christ to the Church is quite astonishing. Paul is “saying that a natural reality and a supernatural reality not only happen to correspond but were made for this correspondence—that is, in the depth of God’s creative plan, the marriage of the spouses invokes the Marriage of the Lamb and in some measure makes it present.” Thus some natural events are not just signs of supernatural events but participations in them. Grace does not violate nature, but perfects it. Looking at the supernatural reality helps us to understand more fully why the natural reality was designed as it was.
The article is not yet available on the First Things web site, and First Things has recently asked us to no longer include their materials in our document library (a decision we accept sadly but without the least rancor, as this is their right). In any case, the ideas in this article can provide a universe of meditation, as well as demonstrating once again the remarkable correspondence between the supernatural and the natural for those who worship the One who created everything as an expression of Himself.
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