Essay / Blog

On Being Faithful Citizens

The last of Torrey’s 2013-14 distinguished lectures has just become available online, so it seems appropriate to take a look back at the series and consider what our speakers had to teach us about the theme, faithful citizenship.

There’s much that could be said; all of the speakers were excellent and stimulated a lot of fruitful discussion. However, I’d like to focus on our two spring lecturers in particular, Robert George and Gilbert Meilaender, because I think juxtaposing their work highlights an important question Christians encounter as we engage the public square. What I have to say only indirectly concerns their Torrey lectures (though I highly recommend those to you). I’m more interested in the general cast of their respective approaches to moral reasoning and public discourse.

Both Robert George and Gilbert Meilaender are very accomplished senior scholars and high-profile public intellectuals. Robert George holds the McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence at Princeton University. Gilbert Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso. Among many other public roles, both served for years on the President’s Council on Bioethics. This, of course, involved them in heated debate on a range of moral issues where the traditional Christian position on the sanctity of human life has much to say. Although both men are staunch defenders of traditional moral norms on these issues, they have notably different approaches that exemplify a diverse practice of faithful Christian citizenship.

The idea of human dignity provides a clear way into the difference between them. Consider this fundamental question of bioethics: Is everything that science enables us to do consistent with the dignity of the human person? For example, is it morally permissible to produce and harvest embryonic stem cells for the purpose of regenerative treatment of Parkinson’s disease? Or do we run the risk of deeply degrading ourselves in the grave effort to relieve human suffering?

Prof. George approaches human dignity from the Thomistic-Aristotelian natural law tradition. That is, he seeks to give an explanation of our shared dignity that is grounded in generally accessible moral principles and does not rely on religious premises like the existence of a Creator God. So although he holds to the Christian belief that the imago dei sets man apart from the rest of creation, he refrains from such arguments in his writings and in public debate.

Instead, Prof. George argues that the essential uniqueness and dignity of mankind is grounded in our shared rationality and freedom. With these capacities we possess the ability to transcend (in a limited but nevertheless real way) the normal order of natural causes and to act freely as uncaused agents. As George puts it, we have “the power to envisage a possible reality or state of affairs that does not now exist or obtain, to grasp the intelligible point—the value—of bringing it into being, and then to act by choice (and not merely by impulse or instinct, as a brute animal might) to bring it into being.” Although we possess these capacities in varying degrees (some folks are smarter than others), these basic abilities define the kind of beings we are and invest humanity with a greater dignity than the rest of nature.

Prof. George is quick to point out that seeing the force of this argument does not require any prior commitment to God’s existence or creative activity. Indeed, his atheist Princeton colleague, Jeffrey Stout, understands human dignity in precisely the same terms George does. Although they have vastly different accounts of why mankind is the way it is, they can both agree that the uniqueness of man is real and invests him with a special dignity.

Gilbert Meilaender differs significantly from George about what adequately accounts for human dignity. For Meilaender, the trouble with George’s natural law account is that it cannot ultimately explain why we take humans to possess equal dignity. If human capacities alone explain our dignity, why wouldn’t we have to say that Albert Einstein simply has more dignity than your average high school dropout, that Mozart has more dignity than Justin Beiber, Lincoln than Mussolini? And in one sense, we would want to say just that. People of high virtue and cultivated excellence attain a status of dignity that far exceeds those who, in many cases, actively degrade themselves.

At the same time, Meilaender argues, we have to recognize that even the worst criminal has not entirely lost his humanity. In an important sense, Mother Teresa and Ted Bundy possess equal human dignity. They are both persons, never mere animals or objects. Never a what, always a who. To fully account for this fundamental equality, Meilaender reasons, it seems we simply must recur to man’s relationship to the divine—the imago dei that both elevates us above the rest of creation and reminds us that all men are equally removed from the infinite goodness of God. To affirm with the Declaration of Independence that all men are “created equal,” we must explicitly embrace our creaturely status and acknowledge the Creator.

As Christian public intellectuals, Profs. George and Meilaender present us with a significant dichotomy: cultural engagement through seeking common moral ground versus engagement that foregrounds one’s own religious commitments. Whereas I think this is a significant dichotomy, I’m also convinced that it’s not as sharp as it’s often portrayed. Those of Prof. George’s ilk are often criticized (even by fellow natural lawyers) for falling into an essentially Enlightenment conceit: to overcome all moral and political disagreement (caused by religion) through the power of a universally shared rationality.

This criticism is simply overwrought. I was impressed during Prof. George’s visit to Biola how often and seamlessly his natural law arguments moved to a discussion of their ontological grounding in the eternal law of God. Now, one might think that this was simply a result of context: at a Christian school you talk about Christian things. But it was more than that.

Prof. George’s connections between the natural law and the eternal law followed the close relationship between the two that Thomas Aquinas lays out in his Treatise on Law. For Aquinas, the natural law is an expression in the created order of the eternal law of God. The former is ontologically dependent upon the latter; apart from God, there is no natural law, no shared human nature, no universal moral order. But if this is the case, must our talk about the natural law always include reference to its transcendent source?

Yes and no. Thomists make a helpful distinction between the order of being and the order of knowing. According to the order of being, we absolutely must say that the natural law depends upon the eternal law. However, the order of knowing presents us with a further question: Can we know the content of the natural law without knowing that God exists? Can I know, for example, that I must not murder without consciously acknowledging that there is a God who forbids taking innocent life and has written that law on my heart? Prof. George thinks, as do I, that the answer to that question is yes. If this is the case, then we can meaningfully engage non-Christians on the basis of shared moral knowledge without having to reason back to its ultimate source.

Yet this is not to say that the natural law simply stands alone or swings entirely free of its ontological grounding in the nature of God. On the contrary, it becomes powerful evidence for the existence of God. The effect has a Cause. It is possible to reason about an effect with one who has not yet traced it back to its cause (e.g., I know that it’s objectively wrong to kill an innocent person, but why do I know that?), but a thoughtful encounter with the natural law will ultimately lead back to the Lawgiver. This connection, in fact, does much to explain why truths of the natural law are so often denied. Having committed themselves to rejecting God, many people are stuck in the very sad position of having to deny the most obvious moral facts.

I once had an extended argument with an atheist Jew who could not bring himself to admit that the Holocaust was objectively wrong. He could only say that in his opinion it was bad and that it violated the moral commitments of our community. Being a Jew, his atheism was self-conscious, and he understood the implications of affirming universal, transcendent moral norms. But I’ve also witnessed the inverse: unbelievers who were compelled to acknowledge that the moral knowledge we shared was powerful evidence of a Law-giving God.

So, to return to the George-Meilaender dichotomy, where does this leave us? Are both options an expression of faithful Christian citizenship? I think so. George’s brand of natural law argumentation does not embrace an arid rationalism abstracted from any broader theological context. It is, rather, an invitation to engage the culture on the basis of the God-given , transcendent, moral knowledge C.S. Lewis outlines in The Abolition of Man.

At the same time, I think, it’s a mistake (as does Prof. George) to say that the natural law provides the only means for Christians to faithfully engage the culture. Prof. Meilaender gives us a wonderfully clear example of that. Meilaender’s careful and open-minded consideration of human dignity led him to the conclusion that an explicitly theological premise is necessary to adequately explain essential characteristics of human dignity. For Meilaender, then, faithful citizenship is practiced by making the directly theological argument he finds most persuasive.  Anything else would be spurious—a disservice to his fellow citizens, as well as to God.

What faithfulness requires of us is that we earnestly seek the truth—about the human condition and how best to order our lives together—and that we articulate that truth as clearly, accurately, and winsomely as we can. Often times an argument advanced in common moral terms will be both faithful to the truth and most likely to persuade a diverse audience. At other times, we may find ourselves unable to adequately speak the truth as we understand it apart from clear theological commitments. Professors George and Meilaender demonstrate for us that both cases are consistent with faithful Christian citizenship—provided we speak the truth in courageous love.

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