Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thomas Merton to Dorothy Day on Natural Law (Reading Notes)

From Thomas Merton's letter to Dorothy Day (December 20, 1961):

"[A]s Christians we have to keep on insisting on the distinction between the man, the person, and the actions and policies attributed to him and his group. We have to remember the terrible danger of projecting on to others all the evil we find in ourselves, so that we justify our desire to hate that evil and to destroy it in them. The basic thing in Christian ethics is to look at the person and not at the nature. That is why natural law so easily degenerates, in practice and in casuitry, to jungle law which is no law at all. Because when we consider 'nature' we consider the general, the theoretical, and forget the concrete, the individual, the personal reality of the one confronting us. Hence we can see him not as our other self, not as Christ, but as our demon, our evil beast, our nightmare. This, I am afraid, is what a wrong, unintelligent and un-Christian emphasis on natural law has done.

Persons are known not by the intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the impersonal 'law' and to abstract 'nature.' That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, its demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him, condemned to death along with him, sinking to the abyss with him, and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who 'saves himself' in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.

It is all too true that when many theologians talk about natural law, they are talking about jungle law. And this is no law at all. It is not natural either. The jungle is not natural. Or rather, perhaps the true primeval life is natural in a higher sense than we realize. The 'jungles' which are our cities are worse than jungles, they are sub-jungles, and their law is a sub-jungle law, a sub-sub-natural law. And here I refer not to those who are considered the lowest in society, but rather those who exercise power in the jungle city, and use it unscrupulously and inhumanly, whether on the side of 'law and order' or against law and order.

And yet, as a priest and as one obligated by my state to preach and explain the truth, I cannot take occasion from this abusive view of natural law to reject the concept altogether. On the contrary, if I condemn and reject en bloc all the ethical principles which appeal to the natural law, I am in fact undercutting the Gospel ethic at the same time. It is customary to go through the Sermon on the Mount and remark on the way it appears to contrast with the Mosaic law and the natural law. On the contrary, it seems to me that the Sermon on the Mount is not only a supernatural fulfillment of the natural law, but an affirmation of 'nature' in its true, original Christian meaning: of nature as assumed by Christ in the Incarnation. As a remote basis for this, we might consider Colossians 1:9-29, noting especially that we humans who were at enmity with one another are 'reconciled in the body of His flesh.' Christ the Lord is the Word Who has assumed our nature, which is one in all of us. He has perfectly fulfilled and so to speak transfigured and elevated not only nature but the natural law which is, in its most basic expression, treating our brother as one who has the same nature as we have. Now here is the point where our ethical speculation has gone off the rails. In the biblical context, in the context of all spiritual and ancient religions that saw this kind of truth, the good which man must do and the evil he must avoid according to the natural law must be based on an experience or a realization of connaturality with our brother.

Example: if I am in a fallout shelter and trying to save my life, I must see that the neighbor who wants to come into the shelter also wants to save his life as I do. I must experience his need and his fear just as if it were my need and my fear. This is not supernatural at all, it is purely and simply the basis of the natural law, which of course has been elevated and supernaturalized. But it is per se natural. If then I experience my neighbor's need as my own, I will act accordingly, and if I am strong enough to act out of love, I will cede my place in the shelter to him. This I think is possible, at least theoretically, even on the basis of natural love. In fact, personally, I am sure it is. But at the same time there is the plentiful grace of God to enable us to do this.

Now to approach casuistry: if the person who threatens the life of my children, say, is raving mad, I have a duty to protect my children, it may be necessary to restrain the berserk guy by force...etc. But my stomach revolts at the casuistical approach to a question like this at a time like this.

My point is, rather, that I don't think we ought to simply discard the concept of the natural law as irrelevant. On the contrary I think it is very relevant once it is properly understood. Matthew 5:21-26 is, to my way of thinking, a vindication of human nature because it is a restoration of human nature. I admit that this view of nature is perhaps not that of the scholastics but rather that of the Greek Fathers. But it is to my way of thinking more natural, more in accord with the nature of man, to be non-violent, to be not even angry with his brother, to not say 'race,' etc. But we cannot recover this fullness of nature without the grace of God. In this peculiar view, then, the natural law is not merely what is ethically right and fitting for fallen man considered purely in his fallen state: it is the law of his nature as it came to him from the hand of God, the law imprinted in his nature by the image of God, which each man is and must be in his very nature. Hence the natural law is the law which inclines our inmost hear to conform to the image of God which is in the deepest center of our being, and it also inclines our heart to respect and love our neighbor as the image of God. But this concept of nature is only comprehensible when we see that it presupposes grace and calls for grace and as it were sighs and groans for grace. For actually our contradiction with ourselves makes us realize that without grace we are lost and condemned to a sub-natural law.

In a word, then, I want with my whole heart to fulfill in myself this natural law, in order by that to fulfill also the law of grace to which it leads me. And I want with my whole heart to realize and fulfill my communion of nature with my brother, in order that I may be by that very fact one with him in Christ. But here, as I said in the beginning, I must rise above nature, I must see the person (this is still possible to nature 'alone') and I must see the person in Christ, in the Spirit" (The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, 141-143).

Picture of Merton above used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust
Picture of Dorothy Day above from

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