Second Radio Interview: Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law

Invited back to Theology Matters with the Pellews -- the idea being that I might start doing more or less regular guest spots focused on key Christian (and also atheist) thinkers of the past -- I proposed that my discussion this time focus on Thomas Aquinas and his conception of Natural Law.  Not just Natural Law by itself, in isolation, though, but understood in conjunction with several other key conceptions of laws in Thomas' thought, namely, Eternal Law, Divine Law, and Human Law.

The original date had to be shifted from early August to later on in the month, due to some computer issues on the end of the show, which prefigured a few technical difficulties that occurred during the second portion of the actual show.  Overall though, it seems -- going by listener responses -- to have been a good show.  Given my somewhat perfectionist tendencies, the fact that I was one of the speakers, and the sort of "professional blinders" that being an expert in the field inevitably brings, I'm not a good judge of these sorts of matters -- how well the presentation, the dialogue, the interaction actually illuminated Thomas thought for the non-philosopher listening in.

If you'd like to listen to -- or download -- the full podcast of the show, you can do so by clicking here.

You might wonder what Natural Law would have to do with Christian apologetics -- which is the main focus of that show, and I would guess the main interest of its listening audience -- and there's a good answer for that.  One of the fronts on which atheists like to press Christians is their conception of morality -- quite often trying to skewer them on the horns of a dilemma.  Either their moral conceptions are coming to them from some revealed source -- which the atheist then gets to reject as purely subjective, requiring an irrational religious commitment, etc. Or, the moral conceptions have to be entirely divorced from religion, and will generally not include all of the sorts of requirements or values that religiously-based moralities will.

Natural Law moral theory, at least in principle -- since there are plenty of people who would reject some of its bases or starting points (obstinately or naively, in my view) -- offers a coherent moral perspective that can be shared, debated about, worked out further by believers and unbelievers alike.  They do need to be rational and they do need to have and be able to understand basic human inclinations -- so those who would follow or interpret Natural Law do need to make use of our common human nature and inheritance. . .  and it can be, Thomas Aquinas reminds us, obscured, rendered inoperative in some people, due to the deforming influences of vices, particularly bad cultures, and the effects of the passions.

One of the most memorable portions of the show -- which you can hear on the podcast -- for me, was an atheist caller of the sort where, as soon as you hear their forced tone of urbanity, you know that there's some real worked up emotions just barely held in check, and that all of the old anti-religious anodynes are about to come out.  I'll just say these three things about it:

I made sure to put into practice a kind of severe self-restraint and reserve on my own end -- there were earlier stages when I would have leapt into the fray, much more motivated by the chance to draw argumentative blood, to score sanguinary points, than to really defend the values or principles I was ostensibly serving.

On the caller's end -- as I pointed out -- each time he came to the table, it was in a sort of bad faith pretending to complete objectivity, even to be "scientific."  There are ways to defining terms in an argument which prejudice the matter under consideration from the very start, and I made sure to point that out to him.

I suppose when it comes down to it, I'm not one anymore to engage in debates or apologetics.  I often feel bad about that, since it lends the impression that I'm setting aside a duty to explain and defend my reasons for belief, to argue for the reasonableness of Christian faith, even just to clarify what is actually believed, taught, practiced. . .  But, on the other hand, that sort of easily impassioned argument is not something generally productive -- and for me in particular, tends to bring out worse parts of myself that I've tried, without all that much success, to erode or transform.