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Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Critical Issues in Bioethics) Paperback – April 14, 2008
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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— Senior Editor of Pro Ecclesia
"J. Daryl Charles provides a sobering analysis of the natural law deficit in modern Protestant theological ethics. Making a strong case for reclaiming the natural law as an indispensable bridge for creating moral consensus on public policy in a pluralistic society, Charles argues that the Protestant voice on ethics and morality lacks power and relevance due to its general abdication of the natural-law tradition."
— Dallas Baptist University
"In Romans 12:17 Paul exhorts the church to ‘respect what is right in the sight of all.' This obviously suggests that there is something that all people respect as right, whether they want to admit it or not. Basic moral perceptions, engraved on the human heart, constitute the natural-law tradition, which itself enjoys the support of the biblical notions of general revelation and common grace. Daryl Charles's muscular volume on the retrieval of this tradition enables men and women of faith and goodwill to obey Paul's exhortation and, simultaneously, to illuminate and season the public square, love our neighbors in word and deed, and point to the real truth of things. In light of major-league bioethical and political concerns, now is the time for the Tao, to borrow C. S. Lewis's symbol for this outlook. You won't find a clearer, keener exposition and defense for it than this book. Charles, as it were, is a contemporary son of Issachar who understands the times with a knowledge of what we should do."
Christian Scholar’s Review
“J. Daryl Charles has written a highly stimulating discussion of natural law. . . . Charles’ book is researched thoroughly, drawing upon a wide range of thinkers and scholars. His arguments are laid out carefully, yet not at the cost of readability. Importantly, he emphasizes the stakes in the contest: natural law provides a way for Christians to be heard amidst the moral collapse occurring around us.”
“[Charles’s] discussions are insightful and even prophetic, calling the reader to honest and critical reflection. . . . There is much that is good and valuable in this volume.”
“The book, impressive in its catholicity and breadth of argument, deserves a wide hearing.”
Theological Book Review
“A well-written and clear analysis of highly important issues in bioethics.”
Southwestern Journal of Theology
“I highly recommend this work. It is at once theoretically robust and readily pragmatic. . . . An important volume for medical professionals who want to think deeply about the faith in practice and for theologians who want to take the essentials of the Christian faith into the public square.”
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In chapter one, titled, Introduction, the book confirms the sense of urgency that Christianity sees in restoring the natural law. In chapter two, Charles points out where our culture is currently at. He begins by making an assessment of the cultural climate. Chapter three brings in the point of Christian tradition in natural law. Charles argues that all people are equally intuitive of the moral law which is writ on their hearts by the Creator. Regardless of people's cultural or social context, every individual is equally accountable. From chapter four, it is evident that not all Protestant Christian ethicists hold on to the same beliefs in the realm of bioethics. Here Charles quotes theologians like Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, and Zwingli on the side of natural law and puts theologians like Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and H. Richard Niebuhr on the opposing side who contributed to the theological discontinuity of natural law. Chapter five discusses the nature of law, how it makes up the foundation of ethics and demarcates human behavior. Charles discusses in detail morality and law and ties it to the Christian moral tradition. Chapters six and seven take a detailed look at human personhood and the various debates and discussions surrounding it, with philosophical undertones of chapter seven with regards to human commitment to his fellow humans and the civil society in general. Chapter eight deals with an interesting and informative discussion on euthanasia and its general perception besides addressing ethicists', and legal theorists' arguments for and against it. The book concludes with chapter nine which summarizes the basic moral responsibility that every human being has toward the civic society. Charles exhorts that natural law is public responsibility. Charles calls forth the intellectually and academically inclined "to play a strategic role in helping to build a new awareness of - and respect for -human life." (pg. 300).
Interestingly, in an effort to set the stage for what seems like a theological journey into the bioethics arena, Charles quotes bioethicists from the opposite end of the spectrum of the bioethics like Peter Singer, Tom Beauchamp and others. The discussion gets philosophical for the next few passages where Charles challenges the readers with a few cultural and foundational questions. Charles' informative and challenging introduction throws light on why it is important to bring to public awareness the issues surrounding Christian ethics. Thus, a stage is set for a comprehensive study of the prevailing cultural deficiency and the Christian determination to put things back on perspective leading public to where it all began - the creation.
Charles is harsh on his fellow ethicists from the Protestant circles when he remarks, "Because of Protestant pessimism toward human nature and the capacity of reason (over against its Catholic counterpart), there exists little or no room for natural-law thinking in Protestant social ethics." (pg. 22). Charles attempts to enter the public arena to educate the non-Christians, about the Christian ethics which are primarily, ethics for all humanity. He expresses tremendous concern when he notes, "and gone is any common ground on which Christians and non-Christians in a pluralistic society might engage in meaningful ethical conversation or debate." (pg. 22). In the absence of natural law, he says, Christian community is far removed from its counterparts due to the purpose for which it has been called - redemptive purposes. But with the affirmation of natural law, a common ground is established over which there is a large scope for an engaging moral dialogue with non-Christian community. This engagement in a moral conversation will enable the development and articulation of a public philosophy toward preserving civil society. Ethical reflection in isolation from generations past will not help in resolving ethical issues. Moral wisdom is universal and is a part of `general revelation.' These moral first principles are the responsibility of all humankind but reincorporating them into the current millennium's cultural ethos is the sole responsibility of Christianity, contends Charles.
Charles starts this chapter by addressing various pessimistic and grim assessments of the present culture. Starting with Vigen Guroian's question, `Is Christian ethics any longer possible?' Charles mentions other despairing views of the cultural climate in which morality is claimed to be out of question. Ridiculing Alasdair MacIntyre's comparison of the present cultural climate with the period of decline in the Dark Ages, Charles mentions others that share MacIntyre's views. They are: sociologist James Davison Hunter who remarked "the social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present," (pg. 27) who is closely agreed upon by James Q. Wilson who believes that to engage in moral reasoning and make moral judgments today is to be `unsophisticated and fanatic.' They may be done in private and in whispers.
Whatever the view and however pessimistic it is, what remains uncontroversial, for Charles, is the intellectual culture which does not any more assist in making moral judgments. If this pessimism continues, says Charles, there might come a day when foundational moral principles may cease to be the same for all. This view, summarizes Charles, would also run the risk of putting humans below the line of dignity, worth and sanctity and any discussion challenging such a view would be termed as public nuisance.
In the section on Contending for What is Permanent, Charles extensively quotes American Christian apologists that defended Christian basics, in the centuries past. Some of them quoted are C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton. What seems to have appealed to Charles is the unsympathetic reproach of these apologists for the spirit of their day. Of all the above mentioned people Charles quotes Lewis and his belief that is summarized in the statement, `a normal person will recognize the natural law's existence.' (pg. 37). He continues to quote Lewis for the rest of the chapter in support of his view of natural law which he calls the law of nature, because `everyone knew it by nature and it did not need to be taught it.' (pg. 37). Charles makes an interesting note of the Permanent with reference to Apostle Paul's ministry to pagans in Athens. He draws attention to the New Testament where Paul talks of being on the side of the law and winning those outside the law. Charles alludes to the teachable spirit of Luke which is indicated by the three speeches recorded in the book of Acts. By the end of the chapter Charles establishes that the natural law not only constitutes a consensus but also serves as a bridge between Christian and non-Christian morality. Natural law, therefore forms the basis for moral formation.
Wisdom is no one's property. She has but one Source and but one Maker - the Creator. "Basic truths are universally knowable and observable regardless of one's location." (pg. 76). This is the undergirding theme of this chapter. The bigger picture of this chapter, however, is that there are two types of natural law. One, which is rooted in the view of the state, and the other, that is rooted in certain metaphysical convictions.
Charles notes that when injustice visits a person, the person reacts to it. The attempt is, cent percent of times, to shun it, whatever the capacity of the individual to do so. This is to say that injustice demands of a human being a reasonable account.
Moral law is not the making of any one culture and has its roots in the pre-Christian thinking. The rest of chapter three deals in great detail with how the pre-Christian thinking of morality seeped into the Christian philosophy and how early Christianity shaped this thinking and passed it on into Protestant philosophy; and the reasons' behind Christian thinkers taking it upon themselves to reacquaint mankind with basic morals. In treating this vast topic that runs into centuries of philosophical and metaphysical developments, Charles makes note of contributions by philosophers starting from Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle to Christian fathers like Chrysostom, Justin, Tertullian, Clement, Ambrose and others down to modern thinkers like Aquinas. Interesting of all these is the mention of John Paul II and his views on natural law.
Charles maintains, on the one hand that `natural law is by no means the sole account of Christian morality.' (pg. 106). On the other hand, he notes that, `it is the position of classical Christian theology and moral philosophy that natural law exists as an enduring and concrete expression of divine providence.' (pg. 109).
After an examination of society in general and where it stands in terms of natural law and a description of how it translates into religion and how it became the symbolization of the Christian pathos, it is now time to assess Protestant perspective of ethics. Charles begins with Protestant and Catholic opposition to morality and their view of its impossibility in todays' society. Charles reiterates in this chapter that `law is not merely a Christian question.' (pg. 152). Rather, it is a human question. But what makes it biblical is it being a part of creation as creation is accounted for, in the Bible. The pessimistic views of Barth, Neibuhr, Ellus, Yoder and others as opposed to the Christian view of a moral hegemony over the world society, has been reasoned out in the sections of this chapter. Charles brings to light the prevalent tension between faith and culture, and the evident pietism among evangelicals that seek an escape route from these issues. Charles concludes this chapter with an exhortation.
Implied in the present argument is the conviction that ecumenical dialogue on the place of the natural law in Christian ethics is both necessary and timely, especially given the wholesale deconstruction of metaphysical foundations going on in our culture - a deconstruction that has moral, social, political, and legal implications. (pg. 155).
In chapter five, Charles provides many biblical references in support of his view that law `as moral concept has an ethical end, or telos.' (pg. 156) Charles seeks refuge in the philosophy of Aquinas for whom the task of reconciling faith and culture is primary and for whom the eternal law and the natural law are interrelated. Natural law is inherent to human nature and eternal law is sourced from the Creator. Charles agrees with Aquinas that natural law is the light placed in human hearts that enables the understanding of the eternal law. Charles goes on to establish that a deeply secularized culture rejects and neglects law causing the society to decay into an amoral entity. The interrelation between natural law and eternal law is what makes law divine.
The next section deals with the role that morality plays in dictating human law. According to Charles, `it is universally assumed that morality informs - which is to say, supersedes and thus transcends - human law.' (pg. 163). Charles refers to the three principle spheres of obligation of historical moral philosophy or ethics - obligation to the Creator, to oneself and to one's neighbor. Law therefore is not merely legal. It is first and foremost moral. He states that ethics concerns itself with what is morally requisite.
Charles then moves on to discussing human accountability to morality. In this section he addresses such questions as `are human beings capable of moral reason and free choice and thus responsible for their actions?' and `is there a dimension of human existence that transcends the gene and ilogy, thereby allowing humans to define themselves morally and spiritually?' and `is human behavior determined by one's genetic makeup?' (pg. 172).
Charles throws light on the growing crime rate in America and holds the advancement of bioethics as partly responsible for this and vice versa. He contends that the development of one arena clearly correlates to the development in another. (pg. 177). In the sections that follow, Charles resounds with the traditional Christian view of free will - human beings are significantly free and therefore morally accountable for their actions. Charles concludes this chapter with a thorough study of working for a consensus between moral insanity and moral sagacity.
While chapter six deals with the issue of personhood and the question of it being a quality or sanctity, chapter seven talks about human commitment to his neighbor and the civil society in general. Charles, like his fellow Christian ethicists remains loyal to the fact that `humans possess an intrinsic dignity by virtue of their being humans.' (pg. 199). And that human dignity arises from the fact that human life has been `designed' after the divine image. Traditional Christian theology reverberates in the statement of Charles when he says that the significance of the doctrine of the imago Dei is that every human creature points toward a Creator. It is therefore necessary to protect personhood.
The social responsibility of Christianity lies in their commitment to their neighbor. This is the theme of chapter seven, which establishes that responsible citizenship is beyond the understanding of fundamentalists, pietists, isolationists or even cultural accommodationists. One requires approaching this subject with spiritual discernment, says Charles. He makes interesting note of Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political ethicist, and agrees with her that in a civic society, to safeguard morality and to defend it from such `ists' as mentioned at several places in the book, there is no alternative to stating things accurately, appropriately and honestly. Here is an interesting read about language and its deceptive linguistic hide (skin). In the pages that follow, Charles takes a diversion to summarize how language could be manipulated to suit the political-ideological ends. He quickly brings it to the notice of the reader that he has not brought language into context for nothing, taking the attention of the reader to the importance of language and its mutilation in early biblical history at the Tower of Babel. The manipulation of language has a tremendous effect on conceptual truth, infers Charles.
Moving on to the discussion on the advancement in human reproductive technology, Charles talks of how progress has contributed to the abolishment of personhood. It has bestowed upon man the freedom to choose and hence has marred human dignity.
Charles' German connection is clearly evidenced in this chapter. He makes use of the German academic thought, lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of living), to establish that there is no such human life in creation that is not worthy of living. And more importantly, it is not for humans to decide on the worthiness of life, either of oneself or of others. Charles makes a study of biological and economic factors along with medical and legal factors of lebensunwertes Leben and concludes that the word "compassion" has been manipulated to accomplish the evil and selfish ends of euthanasia.
After a thorough treatment of topics like `natural law and the Christian tradition', and `natural law and the Protestant Prejudice', in chapters three and four, respectively, Charles sees it logical to include a chapter on `natural law and public morality.' In this chapter he seeks to reaffirm the moral order and distinguishes moral law from civil law. The primary distinction being, moral law dictates civil law. Charles stresses on the importance of moral formation and moral education in this day. In doing so, he examines the fact that `precious little attention is' paid to `the moral life, to the acquisition of virtue, and to the civic responsibility', in Protestant colleges and seminaries - evangelical and mainline. (pg. 297). In small sections, Charles points to the importance of moral fortification of society. In imparting this he connotes to the necessity of developing a culture of life as articulated by John Paul II; building moral consensus; educating the society on matters pertaining to humans - origins, person, sexuality, marriage, and family; cultural gatekeeping; addressing false cultural dichotomies and most importantly, civic responsibilities.
Charles chooses an interesting way to end this chapter and the book by explaining the difference between retribution and revenge. What he insists, is that there is a moral necessity of engaging in retribution in order to promote a civilized culture devoid of all immorality.
In conclusion, summarizing a book of this enormity (in terms of information) within the constraints of space is a challenge. In an age and culture when human beings perceive themselves as gods in manipulating birth, life and death, there is no telling how important, to the well being of society at large, such volumes of information are in determining where mankind stands in its ethical nature. After all, an informed society is a flourishing society. Rejecting the substance view of persons is rejecting the very law that God wrote on the hearts of men. Correcting this view of secular society and the view of opposing Protestant ethicists and academicians is the responsibility of traditional Christianity. As Charles insists subtly, all through the book, that it is for this higher purpose that Christians have been called which will have to culminate in the redemption of society at large.
First, Charles makes an exceptional case for the need to restore natural law. He begins with an exposition of where the culture is at then argues that the culture is in need of a kind of re-orientation toward natural law morality. He shows the culture, writ large, to have been influenced by a philosophical pluralism, relativism, pragmatism and utilitarianism. He argues that this kind of thinking is steeped in subjectivity moving toward a moral relativism without any objective moral norms. He contends that we need to get back to a kind of metaphysical realism, that grounds basic moral norms, for which human persons are able to access through reason. Appropriately, he cites Pope John Paul the II in fides et ratio wherein he makes three comments about the nature of human reason: first, reason is oriented to truth; second, humans are truth-seekers; third, humans seek after God, existence and life. Next, after surveying the general stance of church thought on natural law, he discusses the Protestant bias against natural law thinking. Prior to this point he has persuasively argued that natural law is presumed in the Old Testament and Paul's teaching from Acts 17 and Romans 1 where all men are spoken of as knowing God and knowing the difference of right and wrong through perception. In chapter 4 he discusses the source of the Protestant prejudice and its justification. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Bulinger were proponents of the natural law. While they did dissent from the Catholic church it was not for the Catholic churches position on natural law, but it was for theological reasons. It was not until Karl Barth that we find a strong movement away from natural thinking within the Protestant tradition. This is due to the influence of Ellul, Yoder, Hauerwas and Niebuhr. This in itself is a move away from the Protestant reformers earlier in history. This due in part to a mis-understanding of total depravity, exaggerated views of divine command theory, and a faulty reading of Scripture. Yoder for instance has a pacifist reading of the gospels that tends to exclude any sort of natural law ethic. In effect, Yoder argues that the ethic of Christ has nothing to do with natural man's ethic for a natural law ethic teaches retribution and this is not the teaching of Christ, according to Yoder. For example, Yoder reads the passage on "turn the other cheek" on both a personal and community level. In brief, the problem with this reading is that Jesus seems to be arguing on a personal level regarding social interactions. Furthermore, Yoder is a part of the Anabaptist tradition and as such he goes against most of church history on the issues of natural law, just-war theory and biblical interpretation. This is cause for doubt. Finally, he concludes his thought by discussing Niebuhr. Niebuhr considers those in the natural law tradition as a kind of "Christ of culture" alongside liberalism. Charles critiques this by saying this is not only odd, but without natural law we have no real grounds of interacting with the unbeliever in the public square something Paul gave us precedent to do.
Second, Charles takes two significant principles for bio-ethics and applies natural law to both. First he discusses the nature of personhood, and second, the nature of the common good. He argues that personhood is fundamental to the discussion of abortion, euthanasia and other related debates. Personhood is the ground for arguing that humans have moral worth and anything that is done to harm or negate personal goods must not be done. He discusses other related issues of the fundamental nature of personhood undergirding potentiality, the debate over "rights" and "freedoms". Second, in chapter 7, he discusses the concept of the common good. This presumes certain things, such as the logical priority of the individual, the progression and development of the group and an undergirding and stable moral foundation. Along these lines, Charles argues that this fixation on "freedom" and "choice" that has no restrictions results in undermining the above-mentioned principles and contradicting these basic moral truths.
Third, and finally, Charles exhorts Christians on the use of natural law. After discussing the role of natural law in education, culture, personal and social responsibilities, and the difference between retribution and revenge Charles gives three exhortations in terms of the church's cultural mandate. First is a theological exhortation of affirming the depravity and dignity in human persons. Second is an apologetic exhortation to understand and "discern the philosophical underpinnings of the culture." Third is an ethical exhortation to inform the cultural discussion on matters moral. For the church to do this she must affirm the natural law.