Understanding Nature

In the latest discussion over on Passing the Salt Shaker, I attempt to provide a brief introduction to the notion of nature as it functions within natural law thinking:

As human beings, we are person-bodies embedded in a larger natural world and moral order in which we participate. We have both forces at work within us that are greater than us and natural orientations towards expression of, participation in, and realization of realities that exceed ourselves. The natural order beckons to us from both within and without. Living according to natural law is more of an art than a matter of speculative science. It involves deepening our acquaintance with and honing the directivity of the natural order that is already incipient within and operative upon us, through the feedback loop of participation in and reception of a natural reality that exceeds us.

Read the whole thing here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Creation, Ethics, Passing the Salt Shaker, Philosophy, Sex and Sexuality, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Understanding Nature

  1. quinnjones2 says:

    Re:Understanding Nature:
    A very interesting response to Hanna’s post and link.
    ‘There are forces at work within us that are greater than us and natural orientations towards expression of, participation in, and realisation of realities that exceed ourselves.’
    Just a few thoughts from me about this:
    Not all of us are drawn to heterosexual relationships, but most of us are, and this intimate union with the ‘other’ leads us into a community of many ‘others’ – our in-laws ( if we marry ), our children ( if we have them, and many of us do), the friends of our children and their parents, schoolteachers, the spouses of our children ( if they marry when they reach adulthood) and the spouses’ parents, who will also ( hopefully) be the grandparents of our grandchildren …so it goes on! It’s all about being in community with ‘others’, who are almost inevitably also different from ourselves, sometimes even of a different nationality. Sameness doesn’t come into it much!
    I ask this only half in jest: does anyone know if is there a word that means ‘fear of differentness’? I think that this fear might be at the root of a lot of difficulties!

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I just made one up: ‘allosphobia’
      I don’t know Greek – I just did a quick search. I’m sure someone else can come up with something better.

      • I am not sure that there is any word that quite captures what I am referring to. The ‘otherness’ in view here is not straightforward otherness, but an otherness of our most intimate selves, the sense that my body, desires, and inclinations are not purely my own but express a greater reality that is at work within me. I can’t detach myself from this otherness as the otherness in question is my very self.

  2. quinnjones2 says:

    Thank you – I can understand that. I can see that I was thinking of something else when I wrote my earlier post.
    I know you are speaking of understanding nature here, and of a dimension of ourselves which is greater than the self we mean when we say ‘I’. I played no part in my own creation, nor do I play any part in the finely-tuned inner workings of my body, and I am sometimes amazed, or disconcerted, by discoveries of a ‘me’ that seems to be ‘not me’. I think of an expression I’ve heard (and said) on occasions: ‘It just wasn’t me. I wasn’t myself.’ (Who was I, then?!)
    Ah, sweet mystery.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I’ve had some more thoughts – about ‘otherness’, ‘the church’, and ‘…gendered reason and emotion…’ (the latter taken from the title of Hannah’s article, which you referenced at the beginning of your article, Alastair).

      1.’I can’t detach myself from this otherness as the otherness in question is my very self.’

      I say Amen to this. In response to it, I have re-read Romans 7, and I remain as concerned about verse 20 as I was when I first read it 22 years ago:

      ‘Now if I do what I will not to do, it is not I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.’

      I realise that Paul was writing about a different ‘law’ from ‘natural law’, but he was also writing about the ‘I’ who was Paul and the ‘sin’ within him. My focus here is that he seems to present them as separate entities, with the ‘I’ who was Paul dissociating from the sin within him and accepting no responsibility for the actions that ensued from that sin. He was St. Paul and I am I, so how dare I think of him in this way? Yet I still see the attitude he expressed in verse 20 as at best immature, and at worst mentally unsound. It puts me in mind of a three-year-old who used to say, ‘It wasn’t me. It was the little man in my throat’, and it also puts me in mind of the legal defence of ‘diminished responsibility’. I don’t actually want to think either of these things and I have tried to find reasons for thinking otherwise. Paul did, of course, go on to say that Christ Jesus could deliver him from ‘this body of death’ and he gave glory to God. Yet it still seems to me that Paul did not see himself as an integrated, though complex, ‘self’. My tentative conclusion is that Paul was ‘thinking aloud’ when he wrote this passage and that he was still ‘work in progress’ in the hands of the great craftsman.

      2. ‘The church’ – I have seen ‘the church’ referred to many times as though it were a single homogeneous entity, when it is, in my opinion, ‘a many-splendoured thing’! A warning light comes on in me when I see statements which seem to transfer individual experiences of church onto ‘the church’ in general. I think I need say no more about this!

      3. ‘Gendered reason and emotion’: I cannot speak for men and women in general, and my attitudes are formed from my own experience and relationships, from prayer, and from what I have gleaned from listening to others and from reading. I am certainly aware of a reason/emotion ‘split’, but I also know some men who wear their hearts on their sleeves and I know one man, who thought of himself as very ‘macho’, who sobbed uncontrollably at his young daughter’s funeral. I also know (a few) women who think that it is inappropriate to weep, even at funerals, and who urge mourners to rejoice because their lost love one is ‘with the Lord’. I prefer Todd Billings’ approach (‘Rejoicing in Lament’).

      And back to ‘forces at work in us which are greater than us’ – these forces are also incomprehensible to me at times, but I look forward to continuing on my journey of discovery and I thank you all again for opening up this discussion.

  3. Christopher McCartney says:

    I would call into question the sharp line you draw between biology and directedness. Your example, that eyes are for seeing, would seem to be an example of a biological fact. Likewise, if we ask why blood circulates, we are asking a teleological question, but also quite clearly a biological question: it circulates _for the purpose_ of delivering oxygen to the cells, because cells need oxygen _in order to_ engage in cellular respiration, which gives them the energy to do what they do. Often modern people, even if they believe that nature is more than what a mechanistic philosophy would allow, assume that science, at least, is mechanistic. But that doesn’t fit with what we actually see when we look at the science of biology. Biology is not merely about what happens among living things but also about why they happen, for what purpose they happen.

    Because of this we can recognize certain arrangements as biologically defective: a blind eye, a broken bone. And since sex (not just human sex, but sex in general) is for reproduction, that’s sufficient to see that homosexuality, in any animal, is a defect. We don’t have to go beyond biology to see this, we just have to recognize that biology is not a mechanistic science.

    • Thanks for the comment, Christopher.

      You are misreading me if you think that I am drawing a sharp line between biology and directedness. As you observe, the very example that I gave of directedness was a biological one. Rather, my point was that nature and its directedness isn’t reducible to biology, not that biology isn’t shaped and characterized by nature’s directedness. Nor do we have to believe that biology is a mechanistic science to believe that the directedness of sex is not something that will fully appear within the ambit of that discipline.

  4. Christopher McCartney says:

    I’m sorry, I see that I did misread you.

    I took your “second” to be explicating your “first”, as if you had said, “nature is more than biology, and here’s how: it involves directedness.”

  5. This interview with the French Catholic philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj brings up some helpful themes that relate to my points in my Understanding Nature post.

    • Cal says:

      I read most of the interview, and I am supposing you’re only drawing upon his discussion of how biology necessitates a certain language (and thus a reality) of ends, purposes and teleology? I found his use of Levinas gut-wrenching for marital life. If we’re suspended as Other, this denies the flat biblical diction of unity and oneness. I suppose he’d say there is oneness in mystery, but his continental metaphysics seem to make a mess of things.


      • I don’t think that the emphasis on otherness need negate unity and oneness. We are one with Christ, for instance, but he always remains other to and apart from us.

      • Cal says:

        Though, I do think he’s on to something when he discusses how if pleasure is constitutive of sexuality it will gut your ability to make an argument for a man-woman definition of marriage that is both biblical and sensical.

        He’s dead-on about sexuality not being a neutral, like the body, that is overlaid with morality and spiritual goodness. These things are good, and the body and sexuality are beneath the domain of the Spirit. It’s perhaps why our society is at both hyper-body focused (i.e. look at a magazine rack) and yet treats Body as a mere putty or carrying-case. It’s because the Body is the primary tool of the Will, who is the real us.

        I think the Catholic conception (pun not-intended) of sex as procreative is a good route to go. But a truly biblical understanding must understand the spirituality of the body and the embodiedness of spirituality. Creating life is more than having children, it is the growth of life and love between two. But one cannot be separated from the other.

        2 cents,

      • Cal says:

        Fair point. The two become one flesh does not necessitate there is a complete melding or undifferentiation. But neither are the romantic notions he criticizes (rightly). His use of Levinas and Other presuppose some catergorical rupture as the two inhabit totally different worlds. This is not fundamental to man and woman, but a consequence of sin in all relations. He says he’s heavily indebted to Levinas, this makes what he says suspect for me.

  6. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Cal,
    I am fascinated with your comments. I think that conjugal ‘unity and oneness’ is organic (plus more besides). I don’t think that Hadjadj is suggesting a ‘categorical rupture’ (because the two live in totally different worlds), but his terminology does jar with me and I think its truer to say that we have different places/spaces in the same world. It also occurs to me that the attraction between male and female is similar to magnetic attraction in that ‘like attracts unlike’. Physics was my worst subject at school, but I remember the iron filings experiment. It also occurs to me that, as ‘like repels like’ in magnetic fields, homosexuals are going against this particular scientific law.
    Please correct me if my limited knowledge of physics is unsound and/or if my application of it is unsound!

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