How religious is natural law?

In the Crisis piece mentioned in the previous entry, I suggested the relationship between the two was ambiguous. A blogger who wants to maintain a strong distinction between natural law and religion called me on it, so I had to develop my thoughts a little.

My answer was that the distinction is important intellectually, and it helps discussion with well-disposed people, but it can’t bear much weight as a practical matter.

If someone believes there’s a system of natural ends that gives rise to an obligatory natural morality, then he’ll likely end up believing there’s a authoritative person (God) whose ends those natural ends are. The whole picture seems more cohesive that way, and people settle into views that form a cohesive concrete picture. That’s how they carry on their lives.

Also, views on various sides of the matter affect each other. If someone’s a Hindu who thinks of God as ultimately impersonal, with no goals, then he’s likely to see the world as illusory or anyway not a meaningful order. If he’s an atheist who wants to exclude God, he’s likely to see the world as atoms bouncing off each other in the void, with no natural ends.

Even if he’s a theist what he believes about God and nature go together. Moslems (I am told) reject natural law, and their God is infinitely transcendent and knowable only in the form of arbitrary command. Those points seem to go together. Catholics in contrast believe that the world was created as intrinsically good, so much so that it lent itself to God becoming incarnate in it. They also have a strong sacramental principle. Those views seems to me closely connected with a view of nature as loaded with natural ends and meanings.

So if you decide what nature’s like it seems to me you’ve gone a long way toward deciding what God’s like, and conversely. That’s relevant to my piece in Crisis, because it means that natural law can’t support any very strong version of religious pluralism.

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