Sermons & services

Natural Law

Published Sunday 28th Feb. 2021, at 3:35 p.m.


Natural law sermon

This is the second in a series of 5 lectures on how we “do morality” which Father Tim started looking at last week looking at the “Principles of Christian morality.” This week I will be looking at “Natural law”. So what is natural law? We all know what a law is. If I go shop-lifting, steal a car or fiddle my taxes, there are UK laws which mean that if I get caught I can either get fined or go to jail. But are these laws as arbitrary as the law regarding driving on the left hand of the road whilst the law in France is to drive on the right? Are they just a question of historical custom?

It certainly doesn’t feel that way for most of our laws. We would certainly be very surprised if there was no law against shop lifting once we got out of the Eurotunnel in Calais. It would be very odd. And indeed the law in France and in the whole world is similar when it comes to shop-lifting. All humans seem to recognise that it is wrong. It seems to be universal. It seems that even if there was no law written down against shop lifting, we would still all know that it would be wrong. It is almost as if recognising that shop lifting is wrong is part of our human nature. Hence “natural” law.

Now from an atheist standpoint that is very strange. If you don’t believe in the supernatural, how do you account for something which you may accept as a given, but which you can’t see, you can’t put under a microscope, you can’t stick in a test tube, but which we still seem to bump against, and which is encountered as very real? If there is nothing supernatural, everything is reducible to matter, but here is something which is not material, but yet which seems to be in some way “real”. Maybe in many ways more real than matter.

This universal feeling of a moral code impinging on us, certainly does not stop at the church door. It is very much alive and well amongst the most ardent atheists. Take this quote from Christopher Hitchens.

“Violent irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and bigotry, invested in ignorance, hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women, coercive towards children: organised religions have a great deal on its conscience .”

Now clearly I don’t recognise that picture of organised religion, but I do recognise the natural law behind Hitchens’s every word. He, like every other human being, seems to recognise, to know, that it is not a good thing to be irrational, intolerant, racist or abusive. The question though is how Christopher Hitchens, and all atheists explain this universal non-physical phenomena. How do you explain the natural law?

As an atheist you really only have 2 options. The first is that it is all nurture, the second that it is all nature. Sadly that leads to more problems. If it is all nurture, if natural law is just a question of social custom, a “Social construct” in a popular phrase much in use today, then what is stopping us undoing a simple custom. If shop-lifting is wrong simply because we have got into the habit of saying it is wrong, then surely like all habits they can change. People used to be in the habit of wearing ruffs. They do no longer. Why shouldn’t it be the same with laws against shop lifting? That clearly is not very satisfactory, which is why, in spite of the popularity of moral relativism, when push comes to shove, the second option - it is all nature - is much more popular.

It’s in the genes. It’s part of who we are. It comes up wrapped up in our evolutionary story. As we have evolved, we have developed certain human traits which have allowed us to thrive as a species. Reason and morality, in effect natural law, seems to be 2 attributes of humanity unique amongst all the animals on the planet which have allowed us to thrive like no other.

In the words of 2 prominent atheist writers, E.O. Wilson and Michael Ruse, one an evolutionary biologist, the other a philosopher:

“The question is not whether biology is connected with ethics but how. As evolutionists we see that no justification of the traditional kind is possible. Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. . In an important sense ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed on us by our genes to get us to co-operate. It is without external grounding. Ethics is illusory in as much as it persuades us that it has an objective reference.”

Now what does one do with an “illusion fobbed on us by our genes”? If it is a lie, if it has “no objective reference”, do we need to follow it, or abide by it? Niestche certainly did not think so. He thought we should instead build a moral code based around the superman, “ beyond good and evil”, no longer concerned by the “slave morality” of Christianity which privileges the care of the weak and ties down the strong in knots not of their own making.

Thank goodness, though many accept that morality may be “an illusion fobbed on us by our genes”, it is only a minority who follow Nietsche in taking the next logical step, that we can do of morality what we will if it is ultimately nothing but a genetically induced illusion.

For it takes a sociopath to ignore the deep discomfort which comes from doing wrong. Habitually doing wrong, ignoring the sense of obligation which we all feel through our conscience, is not recognised as the stuff of a life well lived. As St Paul says this sense of moral obligation is common to both Jew and gentile:

“When gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts”.

This universal sense of moral obligation, this sense we “ought” to do this rather than that, is only what we should expect as Christians. For the Judeo-Christian tradition has as the cornerstone of the whole of reality, of all that is, a personal God, not some Star wars mystical “force”, not some “world-spirit”, but a person. And as the philosopher Richard Taylor puts it:

“A Duty is something that is owed to a person. There is no such thing as a duty in isolation. The concept of a moral obligation is unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain, but the meaning is gone.”

But it doesn’t stop there. This personal God to whom we are obligated is the God who IS love. And in the words of Genesis “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”. We are made in the image of God who is Love.

That Love is our destiny, for what we are made. In the same way that an acorn is made to grow into an oak, we are made to grow in love. It is in our nature. It is our end. Everybody, whether they recognise or not that they have been created by the God who is love, will recognise what a life well lived looks like, simply because they are the artefact of the God of Love. They will know that a life of unremitting tight-fisted hatred and selfishness is a life badly lived, and that a life of self-sacrificial love is one that is well lived.

But then comes the problem. We also know that this perfect life of self-sacrificial love which we recognise as the perfectly good human life is impossible. That we all fail, in small and occasional spectacular ways every day of our lives on earth. We are prisoners in the cage of our own selfishness looking out and longing for something better. In the words of St Paul

“I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

The answer of course is “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” For in Jesus, through the bars of the cage of our ego, we can see a human life of perfection. A life of perfect love. And that perfect life of love can be ours. The Christian life is not about gazing through the windows of our prison onto perfection, but on letting Jesus in. In one of the most famous passages in Revelation puts it Jesus says:

“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me”.

It is only through his grace that we are even given the power to open the door of our lives to God. And it is only though his grace, that every day we let him take over more and more of our inner house. That we surrender our selfishness, large and small, so that he can turn us into what we were meant to be: In the words of Peter “Partakers of the divine nature”, part of the life of God, of the household of God, in the heart of the Love of God, where any need for the natural law will have fallen away.

For in heaven we will behold God face to face. We will see the “beatific vision” where any sense of “obligation” or “guilt” will be incomprehensible, for faced with perfect goodness and love, being tempted away from perfect love by the different idols of our heart, as we are on earth, will no longer be possible. The natural law in our heart will have served its purpose. It will be redundant.

Our life will have reached its purpose, its end. For God “ will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying not pain any more, for the former things have past away”. Amen