Natural Law, Anyone?

I am writing about “Nature” and more specifically about “natural law” since the topic came up in one of my recent zoom sessions. It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for years, have a number of books about, and have always thought made sense. Which led to the following ramblings. Please feel free to delete 🙂

I will begin with and gradually introduce broader concepts and analysis. At least I hope so to proceed.

Weather permitting, I often sit on our porch in Grand Lake – coffee or scotch in hand, themselves wonderful products of nature.  I talk to the trees and wild grasses, to the birds (crows and jays, ducks and geese, hawks and the occasional eagles) and animals (from squirrels and chipmunks to deer and moose –of late we’ve actually had a young moose nosing around our back yard, with big mother never far away).  I do talk (internally) but more often it’s non-verbal communing, and sometimes I’ll even break into (mile-hi) song.  Right now, with several feet of compacted snow gradually beginning to melt, I welcome nature’s awakening from winter slumber – the trees and grasses and flowers, but also the migratory birds.  Spring will really be here when the nesting Osprey return as the ice melts on our lakes.

I grew up on the Atlantic shore and still return whenever I get a chance to walk sandy beaches (Summer or Winter), picking up shells and driftwood, feeling engulfed by the roar of the surf.  Same when last we were in Costa Rica.

I also find myself doing similar listening and watching in Denver.  I sit with our dog (a wonderful link to the animal world) on the plaza outside Union Station and watch the parade of people.  I call it the greatest show on earth, and with the coming of Spring the clothes come off – lots of skin, and not just the women.  There are the tatted toughs of all races and genders, and the dandies, male and female.  There are the elders, some with walkers or canes.  Towards evening one sees and hears the stumbling drunks, and at any time of day the doped and their dealers.  (City’s cleaning up the Station area but it’ll just push this savage world elsewhere.)

In Denver more than in the mountains I admire (and occasionally despise) the many works of “man” – much marvelous architecture (old and new) and significant public art, as well as the terribly noisy Harleys and low-riders. Mile-Hi Stadium (Broncos), Ball Arena (Nuggets and Avalanche), and Coors Field (Rockies) are all within walking distance. As are the many moving tent-cities of homeless folk.

I mention these since it seems to be human nature to build things for shelter and business, for eating and drinking — though we typically refer to such building as culture rather than nature, that’s often a distinction without a difference.  My one significant book is titled “Building the Human City” and that’s something I feel very called to.  One of my colleagues at Regis (a photographer of the American West) is currently doing a series about Mormon tabernacles in Wyoming – from large to storefront churches and very small meetings in very small towns.

I’m still a firm believer in “natural law,” though I know the very idea is much disputed and has often been much abused, by Catholic bishops as much as racists.  And here the nature-culture distinction takes on some significance.  My wife and I have been blessed with many opportunities to travel – to Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zanzibar) and to Latin America (Belize, Costa Rica, and Argentina) and Asia (China, Viet Nam, the Philippines), and much of Europe (from Ireland and Spain and France to Hungary and Poland and Russia).  We’ve been even more blessed with opportunities to live abroad – a sabbatical in Australia, seminary (for me) in Switzerland, language study (for both of us) in Germany.

I mention these many places not to brag but to indicate my experience of the way that nature comes to different expressions in different cultures.  When my son was tutoring in South Africa, his students would often ask how he could manage to sleep without a two-eyed pillow (a woman), this while he was helping the high school students develop skits about AIDS and condoms for younger kids.  Feminine modesty was the rule in Viet Nam until the recently pervasive assault of Western advertising.  I also vividly remember attempting to shake hands with one of my female Muslim students at the graduation ceremony only to have her quickly withdraw because I, while a good friend, was not family. 

I’m one of the fighting Irish with deep anger inherited from my family, an anger rooted in 500 years under the British boot.  Yet there is also so much I admire and enjoy about British culture. 

It’s largely considered “natural” in this country to make as much money as you can in almost any way you can (or can get away with).  Yet what’s “natural” for liberal and neo-con economics is “unnatural” and deeply sinful for Catholic Social Teaching.  And then what many of us are coming to consider natural because of LGBTQ activism and education is still considered unnatural by Catholic and much Christian teaching.

I continue to believe in and to try to understand the idea of natural law, manifesting or expressing itself through different cultures, and terribly abused by different ideologies. It’s a challenge. As I’ve said, I have come to see “queer” folk as quite “natural,” I nonetheless find much tragedy in their struggles, and continue to believe that our media have taken up their cause because it implicitly affirms the media’s money-grubbing embrace of promiscuity.

Nature means, literally, that which is born.  And, as a consequence, that which dies.  For nature lives according to the rhythms of time In fields and forests, among all creatures great and small. 

Of course, with mention of “creatures” I have introduced what is probably the most foundational of my beliefs — that God is Creator and all of nature is Her endlessly-fruitful creation, and that is good. (We humans, and at least some animals, and mother nature herself are creative only in a secondary and derivative sense.)  Spinoza’s suggestion that nature is God loses, for me, the crucial distinction between creature and Creator and thereby (or so it seems to me) the crucial distinction between good and evil.

That which is natural is deeply good.  The anti-natural is evil, or perhaps better put, evil is that which is anti-natural. That’s one simple way of summarizing Francis’ magnificent Laudato Si’ as well as his constant condemnation not just of the arms trade but of all supposedly “liberal” (or throw-away) economics.  The contemporary destruction of nature is predicated on a supposedly scientific (Newtonian) or enlightened separation of the human from nature — a separation driven more likely by power lust and greed, a separation reducing nature to resource.  (My good and too early deceased friend Dave Toolan, SJ, wrote a wonderful book about all of this before he died:  At Home in the Cosmos, Orbis 2003.)

Let me try to tie these ramblings together by urging that through our different cultures we must continually struggle to both recover and discover the good of nature, of our human nature and of the natural world.  I reject the radical separation of natural facts and values or ideals.  It’s a tempting way to think, but quite wrong-headed.  For facts involve both is and ought, both what we discover about the natural and what the natural claims of us. 

Love to hear more about all this from any who’ve read this far. John

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