I recently read Peter Leithart’s piece on nature at the Trinity House page here, and my initial reaction was to pose a test case scenario for him. It looked like this. I wrote Peter and asked him to write an article that assumes his “un-metaphysic” about nature, and use it to demonstrate the sinfulness of getting, for example, a sex change operation. This has to do with his point about the nature of limits, and I really want to see how his approach protects “natural” limits from the perversions of men.
So I asked him to write an article on this for the excellent reason that I wanted to read it. But turnabout is fair play, and while Peter said he would give it some thought, he also asked me to answer my own question. So okay, we both need to write something. Here is my shot at it.
What I was looking for is some kind of anchor found in the world that is capable of saying “thus far and no farther.” I think that nature provides us with an ancient boundary stone that we are not supposed to mess with, and I was trying to come up with an example that is not expressly prohibited in Scripture.
Paul says that certain activities are “contrary to nature,” but I am genuinely interested in how it is possible to deny that nature has a nature, and still do the casuistry in drawing a distinction between getting braces for your kid’s teeth, for example, which overcome a limit in nature, and getting him hormone shots, which do the same thing. Both involve procedures, both require medical training, both are altering “what is,” and so on.
I suspect the key difference between Peter’s approach and mine on this topic is found in his first paragraph. But before proceeding to discuss that, I need to point out that there are many observations that Peter makes in this post that I agree with, the central one being that if we lay nature spread out on a dissecting table and cut it up, and act like we are disinterested observers focused on “just the facts,” we will simply prove the truth of Wordsworth’s dictum, “we murder to dissect.” I don’t want anything to do with an impersonal nature, grinding away in obedience to impersonal natural laws, observed, if at all, by a bored and distant Deity.
Here are the sentences from Peter’s first paragraph that perhaps highlight our different approaches.
“Here and there, the Bible uses this word and something like the concept of nature, but it’s not fundamental. The Bible doesn’t picture the world as a collection of created natures, but as a collection of creation things and processes and patterns of behavior.”
The way this is posed reminds me of the problem of the one and the many. Are we getting to the giant lego nature by means of stacking up all these little legos, such that nature is the sum of all these smaller natures? Or are we doing something else?