Monday, August 7, 2017
I had the opportunity earlier this summer to speak at the Portsmouth Institute Summer Conference, "Being Human: Christian Perspectives on the Human Person." I was asked to present on human ecology and, in the main, spoke from prior writings on this topic, some of which I'd published in Public Discourse earlier this year.
Relying on Pope John Paul II (and others), I made the claim in both the PD piece and at the Portsmouth Institute that perhaps "human ecology" could serve as a better analogue to the reality classically understood as natural law. Here's some from the original piece in Public Discourse:
For these recent popes, “the ecology of man” seems to approximate what would have been described classically as natural law: the idea that the human person possesses a nature that must be understood and nurtured for his full flourishing (eudaimonia, for the Greeks; beatitude, for the Christians). But the modern connotations of both nature and law are, without a great unlearning, too fixed or static to represent the dynamism of the human person in an authentic way. Consequently, natural law as a concept today is greatly misunderstood. For most, it is almost unintelligible.
But I wanted to dig a bit deeper at the Portsmouth Institute than I had in the PD piece about why "natural law" had become unintelligible to modern ears. Perhaps this was too complex to get at sufficiently as a sidebar (and may have taken my presentation too far into the weeds!), but I thought MOJers may find it of some interest. Here's some of that sidebar:
The natural law of course requires that good is to be done and evil to be avoided. But it emerges more fully from reflections upon man’s natural inclinations to goodness, truth, and beauty, to self-preservation and intimate union, and to living in community. It is organically discovered (and discoverable) from within, we might say, not artificially (or arbitrarily) imposed from without.
But (sadly) “human nature” and natural “law” are concepts that have become reified over time (that is, these terms, to the modern mind, inaptly connote something fixed or static and, yes, imposed artificially and arbitrarily). The ecological analogue may better allow that same mind to reflect then, with fewer intellectual stumbling blocks perhaps, upon the dynamic and complex internal structure of the human person and of human experience.
For the inner intelligibility that informs the natural world—that which allows scientists to study it, to understand it, to promote methods of protecting it—that same intelligibility informs all of creation, man no less. As Bishop Robert Barron reminds us, it is intelligibility itself, the capital ‘L’ Logos that is at the heart of, is that which makes possible, every quest for human understanding-- every small “L” logia (from ecology to biology to psychology).
And so, the intelligible dynamic structure of the human person ought not be confined within concepts that have lost their capacity to ignite insight into the reality of things themselves, the reality, most essentially, of the transcendent yearning for truth, goodness, and beauty that God has placed in each and every human heart.
So, for instance, the term “law” now inaptly conjures for many a kind of Hobbesian command, a fixed statute borne of the arbitrary will of the legislator (to which each solitary individual owes his obedience)--with little sense of the reasoning, principles, and concrete particularity by which and from which it was derived. (This, we should be reminded, is a far cry from the more organic, reason- , virtue-, and tradition-dependent, common law understanding in which the jurist, accompanied by the accumulated wisdom and experience of the precedents before him, employed his reasoning capacity to ‘discover’ rather ‘create’ or ‘invent’ (or ‘rationalize away’) the way in which enduring legal principles might inform new circumstances. …And so we can begin to see how this older understanding of law would have properly served as a strong analogue to natural law in prior days).
And so, with the loss of law as a really good referent, the analogy to “ecology” may more readily represent to the modern mind the complex reality of human contingency, human agency, and human interdependence: that the human person is created, and he is endowed with a dynamic internal structure by which he desires, knows, and wills, and yet, by his choices, he creates himself; that he is deeply influenced by and, in turn, influences others; that he is conditioned by the environment in which he finds himself and yet is capable of transcending it.
Now, we should of course continue to work to recover the authentic meanings of natural law and of human nature in our post-modern age (and great philosophers such as Servais Pinckaers, Bernard Lonergan, and Karol Wojtyla have helped us begin to do just that). But in the meantime, those of us engaging others in the world can work to reach them by speaking in the tongues of our current culture.
Moreover, translating natural law insights not only affords a potential bridge to our fellow man; it also inspires those of us doing so to re-appropriate for ourselves the tradition anew so that we do not, in Russell Hittinger’s words, simply “regurgitate truisms,” without ever penetrating these ancient truths for ourselves. This inauthenticity is rejected immediately today, as well it should be...
Human ecology, as used by the popes then, implicitly assumes the existence of the moral law written on the heart of every human person, that when nurtured through love, cultivated in virtue, and protected from moral toxins, affords each of us an internal guide toward happiness. But “ecology” is also better able than “law” today to help conjure in the modern mind’s eye the social influences that may either support or undermine the development of that internal guide. In John Paul the Great’s words: "Man receives from God his essential dignity and with it the capacity to transcend every social order so as to move towards truth and goodness. But he is also conditioned by the social structure in which he lives, by the education he has received and by his environment. These elements can either help or hinder his living in accordance with the truth."
What the great saint was urging us toward, of course, is a more dignified culture, a social ecology worthy of the dignity of the human person. [It was to that topic I then turned.]
For more on how thinking ecologically can assist in the assimilation of ancient truths with scientific discoveries --and how all this can help get us beyond the (destructively) false modern idea of freedom as autonomy, I cannot recommend enough Matthew Crawford's brilliant book, The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. You may have seen reference to the book in John Water's must-read First Things piece, "Back to Work."
In case you needed any more summer reading...