Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Rendering to Caesar What is God's

The idea of a personal relationship between the Creator God and each individual… in its pure form is limited to the sphere of biblical religion. But there is an objective connection between this and the conviction that was common to almost the whole of mankind before the modern period, the conviction that man’s Being contains an imperative; the conviction that he does not himself invent morality on the basis of calculations of expediency but rather finds it already present in the essence of things.”
A Turning Point for Europe?,  28-9

Reflection – The idea of a natural moral law is not especially Christian, either in origin or by necessity. It is theistic—there can be no law without a Lawgiver, after all. But the idea that there is a structure to reality, an inherent way that things work, that they are supposed to flow, and that morality lies in conforming our own free choices to the structures of reality in existence—this can be found in Plato and in Aristotle, in the Greek dramas and the Jewish Torah.
Once we exclude that idea from our calculations, which is the commonplace attitude today, we truly are in a bind, at least intellectually speaking. We’re not in so much of a bind in our actions—'just do whatever the heck you want!', basically, is the outcome of rejecting the natural law. But to justify our actions rationally without recourse to a natural law has proven to be more difficult than was originally thought.
Most ethicists have ended up taking one strand of the natural law and elevating it without justification to an absolute position. Utilitarianism does this; so does consequentialism. The ‘natural’ law for these ethicists seems to be to do whatever is most useful or has good consequences. But without a theory of nature, in other words a theory of what it’s all for, how are we to calculate what is useful and good? I might think it’s good to rob the local liquor store and spend the loot on fast cars and loose women. Certainly, it’s useful to me to do this. Why exactly should I subordinate my immediate needs and desires to the common good?
Theories that disallow any kind of inherent structure to reality, and particularly any kind of purpose, or end, to human life, fail to justify this. And smart guys like Sartre and Nietzsche see through that, and counsel us to just do whatever we want to do. The strongest will prevail, and its all pointless anyhow.
And many follow this counsel today, without the hyper-dramatic emotional climate of European existentialism. But what happens when your unfettered will and mine clash? How do we resolve the conflict? Rock-paper-scissors? Pistols at dawn?
Usually we go to court. In other words, the government decides. Having refused to render unto God what is God’s, we render unto Caesar… everything, basically. If there is no power, no truth, no justice higher than the state, then the state is the highest power of all. And this is the bind we increasingly find ourselves in, in our modern world. Allowing no natural law to hamper us, we find ourselves increasingly hemmed in on every side by ever-expanding numbers of decidedly unnatural laws.


  1. Thanks for this post Fr. Denis, it makes the concepts manageable!

  2. Thanks, TiPsi (hee hee - I love your new nickname!).