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?
There are three basic observations I would want to make about this. In order to say that the Bible does talk about something, but that this something is “not fundamental,” we first have to do a search for synonyms. If I might, let me use an illustration that may annoy my baptist friends, but I am not doing it on purpose. I am merely in pursuit of a higher truth. Before I was paedo baptist, life was simple. All I had to do was get a concordance, look up all the instances of baptism and baptizing, look at who it happened to, and the discussion was done. And if we limited it that way, I think this is a fair read. But central to my change of mind was the realization that I also needed to look up and incorporate into my theology of the issue words like generations, covenant, circumcision, olive trees, Jew, Gentile, promise to Abraham, grafting, new Jerusalem, and so on. In short, the issue was much bigger than I had previously thought, regardless of how I came down on it.
It is the same kind of thing with nature. God doesn’t create “nature” by name in the first chapters of Genesis, but He does create the heavens and the earth. He creates all these things, culminating in the creation of man. And the first thing He sets man to do is the task of naming. Now naming in Scripture is not a matter of attaching arbitrary labels. It means looking at a thing, perceiving its characteristics (one might say nature here), and giving it a name. This is how Adam names his wife, for example. “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). Her second name goes the same way. “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20).
So if we defined nature as that which is identified by a wise act of naming, then I think it is safe to say that nature is fundamental.
Second, I don’t see why the phrase “concept of nature” has to be equated with picturing the world “as a collection of created natures.” Because the world was created, and is not an accident, we can assume that the whole thing is designed from top to bottom. It presents an exquisite unity, and at the same time it still has identifiable parts. We have already dispensed with clockmaker Deism which should make it safe for me to return to the image of making a clock. A clockmaker doesn’t put parts with defined natures together randomly, only to be surprised at the end of the process with a clock. No, the natures of the parts and the nature of the whole is all one glorious unity. We don’t need to get there by a process of simple addition. Nor do we get to nature of a periwinkle by starting with the nature of the cosmos and then subtracting. God did it all together.
And last, getting to the question I posed, I believe that the idea of nature is helpful to us when we remember that we, the observers, the scientists, the namers, are part of the show. We are not transnatural beings describing nature, but rather natural beings describing nature. In other words, what is out there resonates with something that is in here. When nature teaches me that it is disgraceful for a woman to shave her head (1 Cor. 11:14), I am not saying that the shaving reveals a divinely placed tattoo on her scalp that says, “This is disgraceful.” What Paul means is that there is something in the observer that recoils. In another place he says that the Gentiles by nature observe certain things that are contained with the law (Rom. 2:14). But this means that there is a certain impulse that arises within them, and which they cannot perhaps give a reasonable accounting for, but which is authoritative nonetheless. In short, an important part of general revelation is the capacity for getting the creeps.
So when parents give their thirteen-year-old daughter some lipstick, we might think “too soon,” or “too much,” or “just right,” but no reasonable person would think it is a blasphemous outrage. But if they were to give that same tube of lipstick to their thirteen-year-old son, the thing becomes a monstrosity. We receive important information from the feeling we have that it is unnatural.
Now the reason it does is that nature has an authoritative role in teaching us how to name. Adam named Ishah according to her nature, and according to his own. He saw his bone, and hers. He saw his flesh, and hers. She shall be called woman. When he saw her capacity for bringing new human life into the world, he gave her another name, also in accord with her nature. She is called Eve because she is the mother of all the living.
Though you drive natural law from your theology with a pitchfork, yet will she return.
How does one distinguish an aesthetic impulse from a moral impulse?
Here is my defense of the moral relativist’s case. It depends on who is observing what. If I am an Aztec priest, I do not recoil at ripping the hearts out of children, I sharpen my teeth to a point and become quite good at it because it pleases me. If I am a Christian looking at that Aztec priest–(like a Spanish Conquistador) I kill the damn Aztec priest. On a softer note, the accounts of British sailors describing the dignity of the Polynesian woman who wore no clothes in contrast to the (insert word here) of the buttoned up… Read more »
Doug, I don’t know about this. I “get the creeps” when I think about unnatural relations between two men. In fact, the creeps I get are in large part why I do not affirm homosexual practice. But there is a part of me that sympathizes with the liberal response that “getting the creeps” or the “ick factor” is simply not a good reason for rejecting a behavior as “unnatural.” I still don’t agree with the liberals on homosexual practice, but I find myself where you are – I get the creeps – and I’m afraid that’s not a sufficient reason.… Read more »
Not to mention the fact that some kids growing up today don’t get the creeps at all when they see a gay couple. So how can they give an accounting for what is natural? And how can we say that the creeps we get are the true creeps that determine what is natural and what is not?
I think the ick factor is unreliable because it depends so much on the environment. Drew is right that there are many young people (I raised one of them) who seem to have no ick factor about things (like men in full makeup) that bother me. Kids raised Amish would have a huge case of the creeps about sights LA kids take for granted. Many kids are appalled by the discovery that their parents engaged in sex, if only once. The nuns I knew did not ever mention gay sex, but if they presented it as disgustingly as they did… Read more »
“When nature teaches me that it is disgraceful for a woman to shave her head (1 Cor. 11:14), I am not saying that the shaving reveals a divinely placed tattoo on her scalp that says, “This is disgraceful.” What Paul means is that there is something in the observer that recoils.” Just last week I was reading 1 Corinthians as my devotion, and got stuck at 1 Corinthians 11:14-15. I’ve read it many times before, but this time when I read it the image came to my mind of the African women who uniformly wear their hair extremely short. Is… Read more »
Romans 2:14 doesn’t say “Gentiles by nature obey” — because on their own they don’t obey, any more than Jews with Scripture obey.
Paul say rather “when Gentiles by nature obey…” = should you find them obeying, with happens …
Paul is saying the Gentiles with access to nature only (i.e., no special revelation involved) can have the Spirit do His work in them just as much as Jews with Scripture, if the Spirit is working.
“the African women who uniformly wear their hair extremely short”
Rereading that, I thought I should clarify that I was referring to the subsets of African women who wear their hair extremely short, not making a declarative statement that all groups of African women do so.
I think there are other cultures with extremely “kinky” hair (maybe native Australians or some of the Southeast Asian tribal groups?) where the same is also true.
At the beginning God said His Word & Spirit made, maintain & inhabit all things of nature. The Word = the Light of man — and that on display from the beginning! Men’s blindness doesn’t erase His testimony of mercy to be seen in rainbows. Men’s deafness doesn’t quiet His threat of judgement to be heard in thunder. The WCI1 is wrong telling us nature is deficient in Light & Knowledge content. The Spirit is always there in nature, in our own consciences even, declaring. We are the ones deficient in seeing & hearing capacity. But Romans 2 tells us… Read more »
And almost Scripture = Alice Parker’s tune God is Seen: Through all the world below God is seen all around, search hills and valleys through, there He’s found. The growing of the corn, the lily and the thorn, the pleasant and forlorn, all declare God is there; in meadows dressed in green, God is seen. See springing waters rise, fountains flow, rivers run, the mist that veils the sky hides the sun. Then down the rain doth pour, the ocean, it doth roar and beat upon the shore, and all praise, in their ways, the God who ne’er declines His… Read more »
I reckon Genesis 2 is crucial here, especially in regard to the future. It transcends the cultural accommodations as well. The most obvious “boundary” is long term fruitfulness, and we have a propensity to sacrifice this for short term gain. Adam can take steroids to become “more manly” but it will murder his testicles. A nation’s wombs can become barren because it makes its bank balances look more healthy right now. Men can take more than one wife to build a kingdom faster than God intended, but idolatry and murder soon follow. So lipstick for a girl is far more… Read more »
How would you respond if someone asked you to explain how you know nature disapproves of a boy wearing lipstick? He might just as easily say that though it gives you the creeps, it does not give him the creeps.
The “creeps” is the worst way to reason morally. It’s entirely self-centered, in that you consider your own opinions and inclinations to be authoritative and dismiss any that disagree. How many of your own beliefs, actions, writings etc give people the “creeps”, and yet you would never take that as any kind of criticism.
Brent & Matt,
You’re asking if the nature of a thing can really be authoritatively & accurately surmised.
Can an Adam really know what the true name should be of that the soft bumpy thing with those eyes?
The Spirit always hovers in nature’s revelations.
Hence Doug notes it is a gift to accurately see what nature reveals.
Or the reverse — to be rightly repelled by sins against nature.
There are alot of concerns being voiced here with utilizing one’s feelings when engaging the culture around us. I should like to point out that the idea of being “objectively critical,” when observing and interpreting data, is impossible. It is a myth of scientism. Subjective criticism, emotional or non, is always involved in understanding. Michael Polanyi helps us here by pointing out that “We cannot ultimately specify the grounds (either metaphysical or logical or empirical) upon which we hold that our knowledge is true. Being committed to such grounds, dwelling in them, we are projecting ourselves to what we believe… Read more »
Here is the answer: Romans 1:19-21Amplified Bible (AMP) “For that which is known about God is evident to them and made plain in their inner consciousness, because God [Himself] has shown it to them. For ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature and attributes, that is, His eternal power and divinity, have been made intelligible and clearly discernible in and through the things that have been made (His handiworks). So [men] are without excuse [altogether without any defense or justification], Because when they knew and recognized Him as God, they did not honor and glorify Him as… Read more »
Why do I still get the “ick” factor when married Christians have affairs? And why don’t so many other Christians?
I can’t see a reason why moral sense and aesthetic sense would be necessarily aligned but certainly our decadent postmodern culture is savagely if somewhat counterintuitively anti-aesthetic. I view it as likely an effect of the withdrawal of common grace that comes with God’s judgement.
If long hair is what we should have by nature, why do they have to go through such an unnatural process to get it? I have read the blog of a woman with this type of hair who says that women of african descent are just as capable of growing their hair as long as their occidental and oriental sisters (with the caveat that since it kinks and curls it looks shorter than the same length in straight hair), but that after a certain length it becomes troublesome to maintain, even without the use of chemical relaxers and straighteners. So… Read more »
So.. One of the keys that lurks behind this entire argument that is unsaid is: Knowledge of Good and Evil vs The “Will” and “Law” of God Let’s take an example….. King Agag in 1st Samuel 15 Here’s a king taken captive during battle. Now, he’s a prisoner…. Murdering prisoners is morally wrong…. you are supposed to protect prisoners…. But.. That was CLEARLY not the Direction of God – who had given specific instruction to kill every single person…. And.. There’s a moral conundrum… Do you Obey God and violate a basic moral tenet – or do you disobey God… Read more »
Arwen – but if the long hair is problematic and troublesome to maintain, then it doesn’t seem like it is preferable by nature, is it? The statements I’m finding online, at least, seems to indicate that African hair is by nature extremely tightly coiled and therefore brittle, so that it tends to break before it can grow long. The brittleness makes it short in fact, and the tightness of the coils makes it even shorter in appearance. Certainly not the long-haired glory that might be seen in another hair type. http://genetics.thetech.org/ask/ask107 Digging through this shows a similar claim, with a… Read more »
Pastor Wilson, I should have commented earlier for feedback from you, but I do have a question: I agree with the idea that some universal, culturally transcendent, innate human responses have been programmed into us to help us identify “unnatural” aberrations. We are unsettled when we see certain types of physical and behavioral abnormalities. Although individuals may be less sensitive toward these abnormalities, others are excessively so, and the mean societal response should be normative. However, I also agree with the idea that we suppress knowledge of the truth to the point that we normalize abnormality in our thinking. We… Read more »
Oh, and I forgot 2 Samuel 14:25-26 “Now in all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. And when he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king’s weight.” Here’s the Nazarite vow in Numbers 6: “And the Lord spoke to… Read more »
Why’s the boy wearing lipstick? Same reason the girl is? Now why’s she wearing it? Does it simulate or evoke an exaggerated image of something else like some people say it does? If so, I’m not even sure I’m good with the girl, or the woman, doing that, never mind the boy. Creep and creepier. Now if /where you can make the case the boy is wearing lipstick or growing long silky locks for reasons unrelated to peacockery, simulation, solicitation (of?), or denial of anything, or the woman is shearing her mane with no thought of defiance toward God, convention,… Read more »
I’ve been thinking more and more about this. If anything made up of words is going to be true, there has to be something real (a “nature”) to which those words refer. Any attempt to make scripture independent of those realities to which it refers ends up turning scripture into the purest non-sense.
This has implications for our knowledge of scripture too. We have to know something about the world, what it is like, before we can even begin to read scripture.
“But if they were to give that same tube of lipstick to their thirteen-year-old son, the thing becomes a monstrosity. We receive important information from the feeling we have that it is unnatural.”
That is so obvious that I wonder how a conscience could be so abused as to not get the creeps.
Don Smith, What is so obvious? What is so creepy? Surely not the substance of makeup being given to a male. Throughout history and today, various perfectly benign cultures, professions, and occasions require men to wear makeup to enhance their masculinity. The obviously creepy bit is the intentional giving by the parents to their son the accouterments of a woman. The creepy thing is when parents make a point of raising their children in intentional and bold defiance of the concept that male and female are different and should be differentiated. That is what is creepy. Not the substance of… Read more »