Monday, February 23, 2009

Orthodox Criticism of Natural Law

One of the most valuable things, for me at least, about keeping a blog is the questions and criticisms that people offer in response to what I've posted.

Certainly this has been the case with my recent series of posts on the psychology of pastoral leadership. One commentator in particular, David, has offered a number of penetrating observations. (Unfortunately, my shift from Holscan to JSKit for my comments means that David's comments and questions have not shown up here—I suspect I need to go back to Haloscan or possibly move my blog over to Wordpress, but this is for another day.) You can read David's comments here, here and here. (I hope!)

As a recent article in The Tablet suggests (thank you Sr Macrina), one of the difficulties in a discussion drawn from the catholic moral tradition is that most of us are unfamiliar with the philosophical presuppositions that frame the discussion. That is certainly true with my own thoughts on subsidiarity. As I allude to in an earlier post (which can be read in its entirety here), subsidiarity presupposes at least a basic understanding of natural law. But this of course raises another question: Which view of natural law?

Natural law theory has had a much greater influence, I think, in Western Christian theology than in the Eastern Christian theology. Indeed, two contemporary Orthodox theologians—Fr Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky—seem to reject the idea that natural law has any application in Christian theology since (following ironically enough, an argument which St Augustine, that paragon of Western theology, would have embraced) what is "natural" for human is our state before Adam's transgression. Now what we know about humanity is profoundly unnatural.

In an essay that appeared several years ago in The Word, "Pastoral Considerations on Current Problems: Sex, Natural Law and Orthodoxy,"
Fr. George Morelli, a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist and Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, offers what seems to be a typical criticism of natural law. In response to the idea that extra-marital sexual relations are not contrary to "natural law" Fr George writes:

Extra-marital sex is not against the natural law. In science, when we speak of natural we mean what is in nature. In nature, many types of behaviors exist. There are many varieties that we see in our own culture and even more varieties that we can see in cross cultural comparisons. Sociological and anthropological studies lead the way here. Thus monogamy, polygamy, war, murder, chastity, and homosexuality, etc., are all equally lawful in nature because they all exist. For example, we may observe that in a certain culture, homosexual behavior occurs and thereby deviates from what the average individual does. But that neither makes it unnatural nor immoral. The fact that it exists means it is natural, as natural as a sunrise or an earthquake, a flower or a flood.

Fr George argues that we cannot basis Christian moral norms of empirical science, but only on the Gospel. He goes so on to argue in the above essay that whenever the Church "has based its faith, dogma or morals on science, she has been terribly embarrassed." Precisely because the primary concern for the Orthodox Church is evangelical, Fr George argues that as Christians "We do not obey a proscription, sexual or otherwise, because it adheres to some so-called "pseudo" natural law."

Rather Christian obedience is of a different kind.

We obey according to the measure of our faith. The measure of our faith will be based on the depth of heart and sincerity of our prayer. It would be well to keep in mind what our holy fathers have taught us - obedience leads to faith and prayer, and in turn, faith and prayer lead to obedience. Being excellent psychologists, the fathers tell us that the main pitfalls to prayer and obedience to God's will are forgetfulness, ignorance and laziness. Possibly we could sum up these three categories into two: knowledge and perseverance (or persistence). Real knowledge of the Christian spiritual-moral life can only come from the light of faith in accordance with the Gospels and the guidance of the Church. Persistence in seeking the will of God and obedience to His commandments also comes through faith. Obedience itself makes for even greater love, faith and obedience.

As I said, I think that the above argument is a good, popular expression of the rejection of natural law by many Orthodox theologians. In which the Orthodox criticism asserts, that our knowledge of the spiritual and moral life comes "from the light of faith in accordance with the Gospels and the guidance of the Church," I would heartily concur, as I suspect would most Catholic thinkers.

I will, in my next post, offer a response to the Orthodox rejection of natural law.

Until then, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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