The sub-title of J. Budziszewski’s 2009 book, The Line Through the Heart, reads as follows: “Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.” The initial dedicatory citation in the book, from which the book derives its title, is a memorable one from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It reads: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Needless to say, this sentence is soul-wrenching. It compels us all to stop blaming external causes and systems for the conditions of our souls and of our society. This insight is but a graphic adaption of Plato’s affirmation that the disorders of our polities are first found in the disorders of our own souls. These disorders are not our subjective “feelings” about what ought to be if we were given what we wanted but standards first found in the reality of things that remain valid and have their defined consequences whether we ignore them or not.
What particularly struck me in reading Budziszewski’s book, however, was his attention to natural law as itself a sign of contradiction. He went into what has always been a murky moral area, namely, why is it so difficult to recognize and act on the truth of things? We might, at first sight, think that it is a rather simple problem. Show me the truth and I will change my ways! But it does not really work that way. One might say that our public order is today a massive refusal to accept the truth of human nature itself. We ultimately are forced to justify this doing what we want by denying that there is a human nature to conform ourselves to.
Ultimate questions are said to be insolvable. Thus, we are free to believe and act as we want. The purpose of government, as a consequence, is to make whatever we want to do possible for us with little or no cost to ourselves. If our activities cause diseases or derangements of human lives, the solution is not, through self-discipline, to stop the activities that cause the damage but to find a “cure” that will enable us to continue what we want without any consequences to ourselves. We look to technology to substitute for our own lack of self-rule.
The phrase, a sign of contradiction, is from Luke’s gospel (2:21-40). The scene in the Temple of Jerusalem depicts the aged Simeon who sees the child Jesus. He recognizes Him to be the savior who was promised to Israel. This Child will be the cause of “the rise and fall of many in Israel.” Evidently, the “cause” of this rising or falling itself had to do with the recognition or the refusal to recognize Him. It was something in our power to do or refuse. Simeon addresses these words to Mary, Christ’s mother. He tells her further that her soul will be pierced. In retrospect, we know that a relation exists between the rejection of Christ and His death on the Cross. This consequence too is related to the fall of many who reject Christ’s identity and hence the Father’s plan for our salvation through Him.
Benedict XVI takes up this theme of a sign of contradiction in his own reflections on the scene in the Temple when Christ is brought for His purification. Not only was Christ a sign of contradiction to the Jews but He remains a sign of contradiction to our times and pretty much for the same reason. What, we might ask, exactly is this contradiction that Christ is said to signify and portend? Clearly, it has to do with what Bernard of Clairvaux was getting at when he told us of divinity and humanity existing in the same person, in this Jesus. Obviously, man is not God. The claim of a man to be a god is considered blasphemy which attributes to man what does not belong to him.
Yet, if there is no God, there can be no nature either. Hence, the most basic step in establishing a human “freedom” that has no relation to what man is would be to deny the existence of a God who stood outside of the world which was dependent for its existence on Him. This is the specifically Christian God. Modern atheism is itself dependent on an understanding of a God who did not need to create. Thus, when it denies nature, atheism is likewise denying the cause of nature as we know it. Nature does not stand independently of God for its own being.
Benedict tells us that the “contradiction” that moderns express is directed toward the Christian God. That is, we are not merely saying that no god exists, but we are positively affirming, defiantly, that this creator God, who is said to create human nature and become incarnate in it, is specifically denied. The result is that we affirm man in the place of God. Our understanding of man must, in other words, reject in a positive, voluntary manner, those things in human nature that are said to be inclinations placed there by God. This God “limits” us. He wants us to be what He has intended for us to be. We are to choose what is best for us by following the inclinations of our nature, of our natural law. We would like to “free” ourselves from nature in order that we become what we “want” to be. And what we “want” to be must, logically, eliminate any sign that something in us is better made than what we ourselves could conjure up.
This result is why so much of our contemporary life is taken up with ways of life that deny marriage, children, and seek to glorify ways of life that are intrinsically opposed to them. To achieve this latter goal of complete independence from God, we must lie to ourselves about what we are. Here the pope takes up a theme that is already in Plato. No one, Plato said, wants a “lie in his soul about the most important things.” But if we do want to replace God with our own definition of ourselves, we must lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, about what we are. We must seek ourselves independently of what we ought to be. If we succeed in this endeavor, we will make ourselves into monsters and oddities, as Benedict spelled out for us in Spe Salvi.
If we turn back to the line of thought that Bernard was pursuing, we see that God did not disdain to join Himself to human nature as He created it. In the Incarnation, God affirms the goodness of human nature as such. Thus, modern atheism’s uniqueness is not just a denial that God exists, but that He could become man and remain true God. Indeed, there is no world of nature that exists apart from the divine plan that includes the Incarnation.
As Benedict graphically shows in the earlier volumes of Jesus of Nazareth, the world is different precisely because the Son of God became man in the world at a definite time and place. This fact, which all evidence seems to affirm as true, is itself sufficient to make us aware that the world is different when God is within it. It contains within itself an order to the divinity which passes through the heart of every human being and deals with his affirmation or rejection of good and evil.
The sign of contradiction is most manifest by the difficulty we see in accepting the truth of the Incarnation with all its implications. Yves Simon once remarked that it is a most difficult thing for a man to give up an idea or theory that he knows or suspects may be wrong. The habits of vice in many ways have become so solidified in our culture that it is almost impossible for most people even to conceive that their way of life is disordered.
In this sense, the natural law becomes yet another sign of contradiction as it remains present at least in our minds and memories as a judgment on how we have chosen to live. In many areas of the world, including our own, we are seeing more and more not just the legally enforced living of disordered lives but the official effort to repress any speaking or information that suggests anything is wrong with it. This is really what is behind the establishment of “diversity” as the only criterion of truth. It is a form of relativism that seeks to silence any possibility that “the goodness and humanity of God” are the true keys to human living and its ultimate destiny in eternal, not political, life.
The image above is a detail from “Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus” painted by Rembrandt in 1627.