The body’s promise, the mind’s amen

This is the fourth and final part of my series on natural law.  Parts 1, 2, and 3, whose purpose was to build up to what I say below, can be found here, here, and here.

Is there then no way around rationalism and the dualist’s alienation from the body? In fact, there is another possibility, one that doesn’t cut the person off from the suprarational capacities of his body to express meaning. Rather than saying, “This act means X, Y, and Z; therefore I affirm X, Y, and Z”, he can say “I affirm the totality of what this act means.” If he knows that the act naturally means X, Y, and Z, then he must indeed accept those propositions, but he doesn’t truncate the act’s meaning to his partial understanding of it, nor to his intellectual, linguistic mode of signification.  He accepts that his actions have dimensions of meaning that he may not entirely understand, and yet he commits himself to the whole meaning.  He may not realize all that he has promised his wife, but even what he doesn’t yet understand he acknowledges as already promised.

It is this third way that natural law proposes as man’s proper way of being in the world. One can see why, despite being the true and only way to overcome alienation from one’s body, natural law has been embraced more readily by the less intelligent sectors of society. Those with high IQ are more confident in their ability to give meaning to their lives through shear intellectual exertion. They think it fitting that a smarter man can think up a more comprehensive statement of love than a duller man, and they are less eager to imagine that God Himself has given to every man, regardless of intellect, a way of “speaking” his love for his wife with a profundity that no human intellect can match. Those of us who lack the elite’s mental gifts also lack some of their hubris. We would not wish for the depth of meaning in our lives to be limited to what our own imaginations could provide.

We Christians believe that God Himself uses natural significations, the “language of the body”, to make Himself present to us in the sacraments.  God doesn’t overwrite the natural meaning, but uses it to express His relationship to us. It is precisely the natural meaning of marriage as total self-donation between husband and wife that lets it serve as the living image of Christ and His Church. And it is fitting that a suprarational mode of signification should serve as the channel for the superhuman gift of grace.  When I receive the Blessed Sacrament, the priest holds the host before me saying “the body of Christ”, and I say “Amen”.  What does the “amen” mean?  Not that I can really fathom what it means that the thing before me is the body of the Incarnate God, or that I could fully say what it means–what I’m “getting myself into”–for me to consume it.  I have some idea, based on the natural symbolism of consumption, but my “amen” means “I mean what this act means”.  Because I can say this, I can say more than it is possible for a human mind to say; I can perform a supernatural act.

Even more important is the mode of expression natural meanings provide.  Natural meanings are given, rather than being products of one’s private intellect.  They allow us to step outside the limits of our imaginations, of our personal fixations and eccentricities, of the personality and style that we craft for ourselves.  What I say about marriage, fatherhood, and filiation is always colored by my self-image, my idea of what “a person like me” would say.  Natural meanings, by their impersonal–let us instead say “suprapersonal”–nature, allow me to step outside myself and make a completely authentic response to the thing itself.  Being a husband and father means taking on a universal role, a role not of my making but one that lets me participate in the mystery of creation.  The ephemera of my personality fall away, and I engage this mystery, not as “bonald” (35 year old, assistant professor, Star Trek fan, etc) but simply as Man.  By my imagination, I have my own private world, but by natural meanings, I am one with every human being who ever lived.  Fatherhood means the same thing for every father; it’s bigger than any one of us, and yet it is at the core of each of us.  Reflecting on these matters helps us see the real unity of the human race, the unity alluded to in the expression “Man” (“Adam” in Hebrew).  Man is the whole race considered together as one, but Man is also the essence of each individual, what we find when we look deeply into ourselves.  This escape from oneself and into Man is so important that cultures create formalized rituals–at weddings, funerals, etc–to provide more of it.  Here again, part of the act’s meaning is its universality, that I speak the same wedding vows my father said and my son will say.

In this matter the Christian has an advantage.  What is abstract for natural reason becomes concrete and vivid in the light of the Faith.  God’s substance and essence are one, so He alone can bridge complete universality and concreteness.  We believe that Man was made in His image, and at the appointed time, God Himself became Man, a new Adam, making Himself the core of humanity.  So when he acts “as Man”, the Christian realizes a sense in which he is acting “as Christ”.  When the body makes a promise (through sex, childbirth, etc), it is ultimately God Himself making the promise.  If we would not be so mean as to break our own word, how much more should we take care not to break His!

So we find our corporeal existence charged with meaning; God Himself has lent it His own voice.  Will you protest against this aspect of human nature because you didn’t choose it?  But this is what you are!  This is your inmost nature.  Surely the proper response to so great and holy a thing is reverence.  Reverence and gratitude.  Let us embrace our place in the order of nature, the place chosen for us by the Creator.  Let us respect the language of the body, with its suprarational, suprapersonal mode of signification.  Let us follow its calling to grow out of ourselves by putting on Man.

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10 thoughts on “The body’s promise, the mind’s amen

  1. Bonald, that was pretty awesome. I read the series as they were coming out, and want to try to give re-reading a chance as well.

    Particularly useful / beautiful, I found, was the disjunction between words and acts; how, in affirming the natural meaning of a thing, I am affirming something over and above any finite set of propositions, something I do not myself fully understand.

    I liked how you linked the argument to your discussion of tradition–in that as tradition also peels one away from the idiosyncrasies of one’s personality, so also do natural meanings. It is a good theme, inasmuch as, while for a liberal natural meaning / tradition are perhaps seen as something *repressing* the real man and keeping him from expressing himself, for you natural meaning / tradition are something that *forces* the real man to expand beyond the bounds with which he feels comfortable, and to become more than he could be by himself. In the first view, what is other than oneself shrinks oneself; in the second, what is other than oneself expands oneself. That’s also a nice theme. We should talk more about how natural law really makes one live; how the glory of Christ is man fully alive. And we could also talk of how, in rejecting natural law / tradition, the liberal is really shrinking before the challenge of being a man.

    I had one question, though. This is supposed to be a “defense” of natural law. Does this mean that it is a defense against anyone in particular? (I’ve looked back, and I don’t think anywhere you really specify, although I may have missed something.) Specifically, is it something that is meant to convince atheistic / deistic / nominally Christian advocates of divorce, say, that divorce is wrong?

    You link natural meanings with the existence of God in this last section; God creates natural meanings. I also see the existence of natural meanings as linked to God’s existence, like Sartre or Josef Pieper. But, on this supposition, the defense simply won’t work against any atheists. Period. And similarly, I don’t think it would work against a deist that saw man as a product of evolution solely–not that there are any deists like that. (And it might not work in some versions of Protestantism, as well.)

    So I just wanted to point out that *this* defense of natural law, as phrased, seems only to work with Christians. That seems to me an important point to make.

    Perhaps I am too cynical of the abilities of reason.

    But, more generally speaking, I see the chief value of *any* discussion of natural law–not merely this discussion–to be that they explain in more detail to Christians what they already, in some sense, implicitly adhere to. When I discuss natural law with someone who is not Christian, I would naturally tend to expect them to be, as it were, already in a “conceptual scheme” or “language” so distant from my own that my arguments would, as it were, slide off without finding a handhold in that person’s mind. This is not necessarily the case, I suppose, but I generally expect it to be so.

    Such arguments would still be important–but their importance, I think, lies more in the fact that they are necessary for a complete elaboration of the Christian worldview, so that Christians can act fully rationally and be satisfied, in their own minds, that their beliefs are rational.

    • Hi Anodos,

      Thank you for the appreciative reading. Your third paragraph is a really excellent summary of the post.

      Having read your comment, I realise that my “defense” must have seemed odd to some readers because I never clearly identified the attack I was defending against. The attackers I primarily had in mind weren’t atheists or deists but Catholic heretics such as Charles Curran and Philip Keane and the “personalist” assault on natural law. The “personalists” claim that natural law is crudely biological and fails to recognise humans as free, reflective, interdependent, etc, etc, persons. I hope if nothing else that I’ve showed those accusations to be groundless. Perhaps I’ve also showed how insulated I can be in the Catholic intellectual world that I saw this one Catholic faction as presenting the most formidable challenge to natural law ethics.

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  3. It is fascinating that Christians (since CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity) must defend Natural Law – which is a pre-Christian thing, and indeed a human universal – before we can even begin to preach Christianity.

    This is a measure of the state of the world.

    It is also (I think) an example of what I mean by Things Coming to a Point – in the sense that *everybody* used to agree on Natural Law – and the disagreement was about revelation.

    Now, since Atheism/ Radicalism/ Leftism dispensed with Natural Law (or rather, refused to *assume* its validity, but instead challenged (problematized), denied, subverted and inverted NL) Christians are in this weird position of having first to convert to paganism (I mean real paganism, not neo-paganism – i.e. pagans who assume the truth of Natural Law) and only then continue onto Christianity.

    The coming to a point is that now very few people who are not devout adherents to reactionary/ traditionalist/ orthodox branches of one of the older religions is prepared to *assume* the validity of Natural Law – which now means very few people in the West.

    But the weird things is that, nowadays, when Christians make arguments like those you do in this series, people from mainstream secular culture actually think that this is a *Christian* argument being advocated!

    They may then look into Scripture and fail to find explicit instructions to behave in this way, and assume that Natural Law has been just made-up.

    Whereas revelation is built-upon the assumptions of Natural Law. It would have seemed absurd to earlier generations to formalize explicitly things that every rational person already agreed upon. They were tacitly assumed rather than stated – and that is the measure of their fundamental necessity.

  4. From what I observe of history, I actually fail to see how it is safe to assume that Christians have generally had a good understanding of what natural law is, as bonald has explained it here, and it seems important to note that teaching on natural law is in fact Christian teaching, even if some pagans preceded Christianity in a good understanding of it, and perhaps paved the way. To understand nature rightly, or at least not to have a wrong understanding of it, is necessary to understand Christian revelation as it relates to that nature, but many Christian heresies, including some that are alive and well today, thrived by attempting to handle Christian revelation without understanding the corresponding nature of things. Gnosticism, dualism, Manichaeism (body bad, spirit good), have all had their heyday, and continue to survive, among the faithful largely because the faithful have rejected, or at best held naive-ly, what bonald has explained in part in this series.

  5. Overall, a great series Bonald. You should consider binding them up into another essay for Throne and Altar (along with your 10 or 11 part series on the history of Catholic thought, parts of which I often find myself needing to consult but having difficulty doing so because of how spread out they were).

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