Essay - Unnatural Law

Author:
Mark

Here's a recent essay from my daughter. She 'completed' high school earlier this year yet learning continues apace on the Road to 21. This essay reflects upon Arthur Leff's address "Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law".

It’s an age-old issue—the question of fairness. Everyone scolds a cheater and abhors a traitor. And all of us must admit to using the phrase, “that’s not fair”, or one of its equivalents, almost daily, if not more often. The issue of fairness pervades our lifestyle, regardless of culture, but perhaps its commonplace nature has diminished the attention it should be receiving. I know that when I accuse someone of shirking a duty, taking my seat, or somehow offending me, I often appeal to the standard of fairness without contemplating its importance. Fairness is all entangled in the concept of right and wrong, righteousness and wickedness, and there’s an underlying standard to which we all appeal without realizing its significance. C.S. Lewis began his famous book, Mere Christianity, with an exploration of this truth. He calls it “the law of human nature”, and explains that this law would be inherently impossible without Someone who set it up and has ways of enforcing it. Those enforcements often exist within us, in the form of our sense of right and wrong. A man’s conscience is a very mysterious and important thing, as we all have experienced personally. It’s not a disembodied voice floating alongside us, like in the scene from the movie Finding Nemo, where Dory and Marlin are stuck in silent darkness, and Dory asks Marlin if he is her conscience. It’s a knowledge of what we should be. I once heard it described as a little triangle in one’s soul that pricks when it is disturbed, but if it is often ignored, its corners become worn down, and are not as easily felt. The fact is, we are all born with a sense of right and wrong, an inherent knowledge of good and evil. And every facet of our lives is tied into this. Our judicial systems (of every sort) are built on this universal “law of human nature”. We feel the repercussions of it daily, as evidenced by our tendency to say, “that’s not fair”.

Arthur A. Leff, a professor at Yale Law School, wrote an extensive and insightful article on this subject. He battles with his observations of this obvious standard to which we all appeal, and with the equally obvious fact that this standard points to a higher power who set it in place. He admits to wishing for two mutually exclusive ideals, beginning the article thus, “I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we want to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.” His article interested me immensely, because while he admits to the Universal Standard (that is, Natural Law, “The Law of Human Nature, or whatever you wish to call it), he also attempts to deny it. As an agnostic, he refuses to acknowledge God’s hand in the workings and hearts of mankind. He refuses to acknowledge and submit to the Creator of the Standard, but he refuses reluctantly, because he realizes what all men must at some point see and fear: that the alternative is most bleak. He wrestles through the difficulties of being wholly free to choose what we want, both individually and as a species. For of course it’s impossible to live happily if every man is a law to himself unless we are all perfect recluses. The moment one person’s individually created standard clashes with another man’s, discord arises. The realization of the impossibility of life in such a world drives Leff to wish for the first alternative: a transcendent and immanent standard of right and wrong. All would seem to be well, since that standard so obviously exists, but Leff is faced with a quandary, for he will not admit to the existence of a God. He falls back, instead, on denying the provability of the Standard. Nearly all humans may agree that murder is wrong, but there is no way to prove it, mathematically. So Leff is stuck in the middle, between his two ideals. While wishing for both of them, he gets neither, even though one would seem to be staring him in the face. Unfortunately, it makes no difference to a blind man if the truth is staring him in the face. Although the mere existence of this obvious standard points toward that which he is denying, and although he himself admits to wishing he could believe and feel secure in belief, he cannot reconcile himself to the final confession. His logic leads him to the Lord, and yet he cannot take the final step.

As a professor, I would like to assume that he read the Bible at some point during his life time, because a book that’s influenced the world more than any other should be a part of any committed scholar’s library, Christian or otherwise. I wonder if he ever studied the book of Romans at all. He might have been surprised at how well it answers his questions in the first and second chapters when it says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them (men), because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made……….. Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself.” This is Leff’s very quandary written out in Scripture. For this universal standard which he cannot prove is too obvious to ignore. In the mere act of accusing someone of unfairness, we appeal to this higher standard. We appeal to the Creator of that standard. From birth we try to hold others to it, and thus we ourselves are condemned when we trespass against it. We offend it every day, and in doing so, we estrange ourselves from its, and our, Creator. And we are, as Romans says, without excuse. We all know the truth; God has set it in our hearts. But sadly, many of us live trying to deny it. Arthur Leff comes to the conclusion that, “we are all we have”. But he succumbs to confusion when he ends his article thus:
“Nevertheless:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is such a thing in the world as evil.
[All together now] Sez who?
God help us.”

God help us indeed, for His truth is staring the world in the face, and yet it is blind. Someday we will all be judged according to God’s universal standard. And all of us are without excuse, for God’s presence pervades existence and the knowledge of Him is in every man’s heart… whether man acknowledges Him or not. It is far better to acknowledge than to deny the truth, because in this case, truth is Life, and Life abundantly. St. Augustine grasped the beauty of it when he said, "To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement."

Article Comment

Very well written. I commend the author, and offer my thoughts.

Perhaps a critique of the speaker's beliefs deserves revisiting. The speaker is agnostic, thus wishes only proof of universal rules. The rules found in the Bible are offered as the proof sought. Yet similar rules can be found elsewhere in universal publications.

The speaker focuses on proof, perhaps inferred if not clearly read in the speech text, as "scientific" in nature, i.e. observable and reproduceable.

Your article offers Christianity and the Bible as such proof. A scientist might offer a math formula, such as the one required to reply to your article, or something more tangible. Christians might be right to respond to the scientist "yes, but God created the formula" whereas the scientist might respond "the formula created God."

I hold what I believe to be similar beliefs to the author of the essay. The Bible seems to confirm God's creation of agnostics, as well as non-believers, etc. Unfortunately other religions make the same claims, the Bible also acknowledges doubt, sin (c.f. King David) and math as well. Thus the speaker is fairly observed to be in a quandry - what to believe?

The essay offers the Bible as the source of all answers. The speaker offers human doubt, questions, and to this reader options he and others might consider.

Maybe faith is the answer - if not the proof.

My hope is this might stimulate further discussion and learning. Again, my compliments to you. Well-written and thought-provoking.

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