On Natural Law: Carl F. H. Henry & Critics
In “Natural Law and a Nihilistic Culture” (January), Carl F. H. Henry argues that Thomistic natural law was unable to be a “cohesive social force.” Dr. Henry suggests that such a natural law has lost its appeal because evolution requires that “human nature no longer be depicted in terms of a basic human essence or purpose.” But natural law does not require evolutionary theory to be false; natural law is not concerned with human origins but only with our existence as a species governed by reason.
Dr. Henry characterizes natural law as a system of universal moral beliefs and notes that there is no universal agreement about any such system. But despite the absence of consensus about all moral claims, there is consensus about the fundamental moral obligation to avoid harm. For example, parricide is proscribed by all peoples. Furthermore, Aquinas explains that the universality of natural law lies only in its most common precepts and that the exigencies of human life may render a highly specific precept nonapplicable. For example, the proscription against keeping another’s possession is not applicable in cases where the owner demands the possession’s return in order to harm others. Borrowed weapons, thus, need not be returned to owners intent upon murder. In these cases, however, harm would be done not by the failure to return the borrowed items but by their return; hence, the universal proscription of harming others suspends the specific prescription of returning borrowed items. This attentiveness of Aquinas’ natural law to the exigencies of our lives makes it resistant to a codification of all moral obligations into a highly detailed and elaborate system. The power of natural law to shape a shared consensus about moral norms does not, then, require a systematic code governing all possible contingencies of human life . . . .
Perhaps current Protestant resistance to Aquinas’ natural law arises from the tendency to conflate the justification of believers with the justification of beliefs. Such a conflation makes the autonomy of Thomistic natural law appear as a rejection of the need for personal salvation. But although redemptive grace is necessary for the justification of believers, it is not necessary for the justification of every belief held by a believer. For example, the harm done to the victim, the victim’s family, and the community suffice to convince most that murder is never morally justified. Such a conviction illustrates the universal accessibility of natural law. . . .
Moreover, believers ought not deny the universal accessibility of moral norms. For if moral precepts were not universally accessible and if their justification belonged only to the realm of faith, then moral norms would bind only believers. To make moral acts impossible for nonbelievers is not only to excuse nonbelievers from moral responsibility but also to excuse them from the moral responsibility of pursuing in whatever way they can the truth about God. But according to Aquinas, it is a fundamental obligation of natural law for every human to act morally and to pursue the truth about God. Aquinas holds even the pre-Christians to the obligation of acting morally and seeking God . . . .
The justification of believers is not the justification of morality. Indeed, justification is used almost equivocally in these two instances. Believers are justified only through the blood of the Redeemer. Moral claims are justified through logical arguments that appeal to the requirement of human nature and dignity. (Of course, Aquinas also argues that God as the Creator specified those requirements and through them the natural law.) We ought not forget that there is more to life than morality: charity exceeds obligation. And it is charity or fellowship with God that inspired Aquinas most. He did, after all, choose to dedicate his life to God by living in a religious order dedicated to preaching and teaching the Christian faith. . . .
Hopefully, Aquinas’ distinction between the justification of believers and the justification of moral claims will facilitate the Protestant recovery of their medieval heritage, thereby enabling them to join forces with all acting in good faith to reanimate society through a renewed emphasis not only upon the importance of religious belief but also upon the universally accessible obligations of justice and love, which are the cornerstones of natural law.
R. Mary Hayden Lemmons
Department of Philosophy
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, MN
Carl F. H. Henry provides a nice summary of various aspects of natural law and how they have influenced thinking and ethics over the years. His conclusion, with which I wholeheartedly agree, that the necessary cohesive and restorative forces needed to buttress natural law must come from beyond it seems to be well-taken and supported by his arguments.
However, Mr. Henry casts some doubt on his own belief in this conclusion when he finally declares, “The atheistic rationalism and nihilism now permeating contemporary life are inevitable consequences of the apostasy expressed in the mindless Darwinian theory of evolution.” So it is remarkable that, after a scholarly and rational dissection of a number of theories, our intrepid moral philosopher is reduced to simple vituperation when it comes to the theory of Darwinian evolution-a theory far better verified than any he discusses. As the theory of evolution does not in any way contradict Scripture or any aspect of Christian faith, Mr. Henry’s problem (in this case, nihilism) would appear to be a lack of the very faith he espouses as the corrective to the world’s ills.
If we are to proceed into the Third Millennium with any hope of achieving Mr. Henry’s goals (which are certainly those of all of us), it will be necessary to keep our hearts and minds focused on the vast cornucopia of God-revealed truths (including natural law and evolution) to avoid the errors that creep in when nihilistic uncertainty clouds our view.
Henry J. Schultz
Santa Clarita, CA
. . . Carl Henry rejects reason because of its modernist perversions: nihilism, relativism, subjectivism, and historicism. All deny the “objectivity” of the world around us. His essay uncritically accepts modern rationalism’s flight from reason as if reason itself had failed. Thus he joins his opponents-Hegel, Darwin, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Marx, and other modern rationalists-in their attacks on reason.
America’s Founders-up to and including Lincoln-seem to suggest that true moral law and rights result from the fruitful dialogue, or tension, between reason and revelation. Reason isolated from its divine source becomes self-destructing rationalism; unreasoned revelation becomes irrational fanaticism.
The incomparable advantage of natural law as practical reason open to revealed teaching is its universally obligating character: since all men possess the faculty of practical reason (whether they use it or not), they can legitimately be compelled by positive law to follow the law of nature. For instance, prohibiting slavery is a reasonable act of positive law because it is grounded on the natural right of all men to liberty. A slavemaster may not say, “I don’t believe in natural law” to justify enslavement-even if his slave agrees!-because both are bound by the natural law rooted in the faculty of reason . . . .
And in St. John’s Gospel (1:1-5) the first principle, or “beginning” (arche), of all creation is Logos. Logos means in Greek both “reason” and “speech,” and we are told that God created nothing without Logos. Thus Scripture itself enshrines the principle of reason in the very nature of things, and it is that principle which supplies the ultimate, divine foundation for natural law.
To yield up natural law to the perversions of modern rationalism, as Henry does, would inevitably lead to giving up the revealed teaching as well. In our postmodern world, the process of re-evangelizing the Word of God must not be separated from the defense of natural law against the enemies of reason.
Carl F. H. Henry’s article seems to reveal much common ground between the writings of Calvin and the Catholic natural law tradition. Henry quotes William Klempa, interpreting Calvin, saying that the moral law is nothing less than the natural law and the “conscience which God has engraved on the minds of men.” Earlier, however, Henry states that “knowledge of the irreducible distinction between . . . good and evil is for Calvin prephilosophical.” He says that man’s sinful condition works against the development of this knowledge “into a universally accepted body of truth.”
This does not seem to be inherently inconsistent with the thought of St. Thomas. He sets forth certain things of the practical reason that can be known most easily. Good (what all things seek after) is to be sought, and evil avoided. There is for a person an inclination to continue in existence, . . . to know the truth about God, and to live in society; which latter two maxims translate into, “to shun ignorance, to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things regarding the above inclination.”
We are given at creation this “law in our hearts.” Some people are more skilled than others in understanding, verbalizing, and articulating it. Believers are supported on both legs, Divine Revelation and the law of our hearts. Both can be used as the basis of our voting in politics. We can use natural law maxims as “supplementary political resources” (Klempa), and can use them in our discourse with others. .
Carl Henry ably puts his finger on the malaise of Western civilization- the continuing erosion of belief in an objective moral order. He also rightly shows that traditional natural law theory is suspect because it downplays or denies the corruption of human understanding by sin. At the same time he argues with some credibility that humanity even in its fallenness retains a fragmented knowledge of the moral law-bestowed by God at human creation and imbedded in the structures of human existence. The only moral power that can serve as a cohesive and restorative force in society, he claims, is respect for the divine commandment given at creation. He acknowledges the similarity of his position with that of Carl Braaten, who appeals to orders of creation that are blurred but not eradicated by sin.
A more biblical stance from my point of view finds the source of moral renewal in society in faith in the gospel, which illumines and recasts the law of creation. The gospel gives us the right understanding of the law and also the power to obey it. In place of an ethics of natural law or an ethics of orders of creation I propose an ethics of gospel and law, which anchors right conduct not simply in the divine imperative but in the divine redemptive act in Jesus Christ. In the light of redemption we can begin to appreciate and understand the law of God in creation. This position, I believe, is fundamentally in accord with that of the Protestant Reformers, but it has been articulated more succinctly in the modern period by theologians like Karl Barth and Jacques Ellul. I have also learned from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr, all of whom assign a significant place for a “morality beyond morality,” a spiritual righteousness that controverts as well as fulfills the righteousness of code and law. This note can also be discerned in the Catholic tradition of the Church, including Augustine.
One implication of a gospel-law ethic is that a real distinction (but not separation) must be made between love and justice, evangelism and social reform. Whereas all people have a rudimentary sense of justice or moral law, only people of faith have experiential contact with the sacrificial love of the cross that transcends common morality. Every person can have some intimation of justice-fair treatment, giving each one his or her due-but only people of faith can appeal to a higher standard-neighbor love-which renders justice more equitable and merciful. In the biblical view, justice is not simply treating people fairly but bringing people into a right relationship with one another. The key to both cultural viability and social reformation lies in the proclamation of the gospel, which by the Holy Spirit opens the inward eyes of men and women to the higher morality of love that critiques as well as transforms the common understanding of justice. Reinhold Niebuhr has insightfully reminded us that justice without love can become stultifying and legalistic, whereas love without justice becomes sentimental and antinomian.
What does all this mean for our society today? Since we live in a pluralistic culture and since the higher morality is veiled to those who are spiritually lost, we cannot impose the transcendent standard of the gospel upon a constituency for whom such a standard can only appear puzzling, even foolish. We can, however, appeal to the universal norm of justice or moral law of which everyone has some intimation, though only those who embrace biblical faith have a clear or adequate perception. A society that simply rests on orders of creation or natural law lacks the rejuvenating moral energy to solve the great social dilemmas, since this energy comes only from the Spirit of the living God. The task of Christians is to be light and salt in society, to point their non- Christian neighbors to a higher standard than simple justice. The ills of the world can be met only when people learn to love one another in the freedom of the Spirit, a kind of love available only through faith in Jesus Christ. When we have such faith we will then be motivated to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit those in prison, to minister to the despairing. In the meantime we should press for just laws that respect the rights of all people, but a society that relied exclusively on such laws would be barren of spiritual and moral viability.
Yes, there is an objective moral norm, but this is the divine commandment in its unity with the divine promise, the moral law illumined and transformed by the power of the gospel. This norm will generally become visible to the world at large only through revival given by the Spirit of God and enacted through preaching, prayer, and perhaps also fasting. I salute Carl Henry for presenting a telling critique of traditional natural law theory, but I urge him to go beyond an appeal to God’s commandment and see the law and the gospel in their dynamic unity as the enduring moral standard for all people in every culture and religion, though most of them do not yet have the eyes to see or the ears to hear.
Donald G. Bloesch
Dubuque Theological Seminary
Carl F. H. Henry summons natural law to do battle against the behemoth of contemporary nihilistic culture. The outcome of this battle is of apocalyptic significance: “Upon the resolution of this conflict may well turn the moral fortunes of the Western world, and beyond that, ultimately, the entire planet.” Wow! But Henry doesn’t help his cause much by setting potential allies against each other. There are in fact many supporters of the idea of a natural moral law who approach it from different philosophical and theological perspectives. To my mind, that’s the beauty of it. If the idea of natural law is valid at all, it means that all people participate in common structures of truth, beauty, and goodness whether they know and confess the biblical God or not. Carl Henry seems to want only those on board who share his version of an orthodox evangelical perspective. He writes: “For evangelical Christianity the content of morality turns on divine revelation and the Bible . . . . Only what God says in Scripture and has disclosed in Christ is normative.” In the interest of baptizing natural law, Henry has weakened it and restricted its scope by making its normativity dependent on biblical revelation.
Perhaps it is Henry’s intention to contribute something positive to the construction of an ecumenical consensus on natural law. We need all the friends we can get if we are to fight off the beast of nihilism. But Henry seems determined to set the Reformers against the natural law tradition in Roman Catholic moral teaching. Thus he reinforces the traditional caricature of Thomas Aquinas, a caricature that has been challenged by current Thomist scholarship. Carl Henry says: “The Reformers in principle questioned the epistemic viability of natural law theory.” I am not so sure. Henry himself cites the statement by William Klempa that for twentieth-century scholarship Calvin’s teaching on natural law is “a major battleground.”
Apparently there is no consensus among Calvin scholars. Some deny that Calvin taught a doctrine of natural law, while others affirm it. But if Calvin scholars are in such disagreement on the issue, how can Henry be so confident in drawing sharp lines of difference between Calvin and Thomas, as he does? The issue is whether Thomas’ doctrine of natural law is constructed totally without regard to God’s revelation and the whole of Christian theology, whether for him the natural law is purely autonomous, playing into the hands of a godless world and its emergent nihilistic culture. So Henry states: “Thomas may have thought that he was directing Aristotelian thought God-ward; instead, he grounded Christian theism and morality on secular turf.” Surely this is wrong interpretation. To the contrary, Thomas said: “The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.” I think both Luther and Calvin would agree.
I do not think it is very helpful to imagine that one of our heroes- Thomas, Luther, or Calvin-or the traditions that evolved therefrom developed a theological doctrine of natural law radically different from the others and to which the others need only submit. The radical distinctions have been constructed later in the interest of supporting inter-confessional rivalries and opposing identities. Let us rather work toward a truly ecumenical theology of the natural moral law universally valid in human experience, history, and the world.
Carl Henry’s evangelical theology can surely also contribute something to a possible ecumenical consensus. A good sign of this is that though a Calvinist he does not write disapprovingly of the “orders of creation ethic” which he rightly attributes to me and to the Lutheran tradition. However, he laments that I “surrender to negative biblical criticism the literal historical significance of the Genesis creation account.” I do not feel so guilty about this because I am rather convinced that the concept of “literal history” is alien to the biblical text and is not necessary or even useful in establishing its authority.
Apart from that, Carl Henry does observe a possible problem with my own theology of natural law in that I insist “that natural law must be correlated with eschatology.” He adds that some think this relativizes the universal applicability of justice. I would respond that a comprehensive theological interpretation of such things as natural law, human rights, and social justice does not limit their general applicability. As Christians we see with our own eyes, but what we see can be seen by others also with their eyes. Natural law does not lie in the eye of the beholder. Natural law is present and operative in all persons and societies; its principles are universal and its authority is immutable, underlying all cultural relativities and historical variations, because God is the author of natural law. But natural law written into the “way things are made” is not autonomous, as though it functions on its own independently of the ongoing creative and providential rule of the living God. A full theological interpretation of the natural moral law will necessarily orient it not only to the doctrine of creation and providence but also to Christology and eschatology. The reason is that the whole law of God in all its expressions is fulfilled in Christ: “For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified.” (Romans 10:14)
The theological differences between our Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran traditions on natural law need not be seen as mutually contradictory but capable of contributing to a more comprehensive theological interpretation of the moral law as the work of divine grace. No doubt elements in these traditions need to be cancelled for the sake of a higher synthesis, but that is already happening through the self- critical reflections going on in each of the traditions. Thus, to speak as a Lutheran, the sharply dichotomous view of the two kingdoms has yielded to a greater sense of their unity within the economy of God’s Trinitarian activity in the world. The Thomist “nature and grace,” the Lutheran “two kingdoms,” and the Calvinist “covenant” theologies will all take a seat at the ecumenical roundtable and have something to teach the others. And Henry will be at the table, but so will Barth, despite Henry’s protestations to the contrary.
Carl E. Braaten
Center for Catholic and
Carl Henry puts his finger on the Achilles’ heel in the natural law argument. It is that this law, in practice, is notoriously ambiguous and hard to identify. After all, despite the presence of natural law undergirding American life, 70 percent of the public still say that there is no such thing as absolute truth (truth applicable to all people in all times and places) and 66 percent say the same of moral absolutes. Worse yet is the case of Humanae Vitae, whose argument against artificial means of contraception Pope Paul VI grounded in natural law- yet this law is not at all self-evident to the overwhelming majority of Catholics who use contraceptives.
It is important, however, that the baby not be lost in the disappearing bathwater. While the content of natural revelation is fractured both by sin and culture, the capacity of the human being for moral experience is unaffected by either. That is one of the truly baffling dilemmas of contemporary experience. Despite the postmodern assault on all morality, and despite our present cultural spiral into a therapeutic vision of the world in which all of reality is psychologized so that the moral dimension is lost entirely, people still are compelled, by their own nature, to speak in moral categories. That is why Christian faith can still be commended to the conscience as true and why postmodern skeptics inadvertently appeal to this same capacity by commending their views as right.
David F. Wells
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
South Hamilton, MA
Dr. Henry writes that “Thomas may have thought that he was directing Aristotelian thought God-ward; instead, he grounded Christian theism and morality on secular turf.” No doubt, some modern philosophers and theologians, including “Thomists” of a loose observance, speak as though the “secular” is the same thing as the “natural.” This equation suits various modern efforts to carve out a sphere of autonomy for human reason, especially in matters of ethics. Once the “secular” is substituted for the “natural,” however, the nature-grace distinction is completely changed: the “natural” is no longer what God creates and governs, nor what grace perfects.
But it is an anachronism to read this back into St. Thomas’ theology. Nature and the natural can mean different things, depending upon what problem is being addressed, or what distinction is being drawn. The concept of “nature” can be predicated of both God and angels; the word “secular” usually refers to diocesan priests. In any case, one can confidently assert that the “secular” does not track the “natural,” and in fact our familiar concept of the “secular” forms no part of the repertoire of ideas and distinctions in St. Thomas.
About the matter of “grounding.” The natural law is always defined by Thomas in reference to the eternal law: “It should be said that the natural law is a participation of the eternal law, and therefore endures without change owing to the unchangeableness and perfection of the divine reason.” The idea that natural law is grounded in, rather than known by, human reason would subvert the metaphysical order laid out in the Summa . While many things are known from the bottom up, as it were, they are not “grounded” in this way. This system, after all is a neo-Platonic scheme of participation.
I suspect that Catholics and evangelicals differ somewhat in their estimation of what role philosophy should play in theological inquiry. Yet Christian theology, whether Catholic or evangelical, has to protect nature and the natural from being mischaracterized as a “secular” sphere independent of, or immune from, God. As St. Bernard remarked in his sermons on the Song of Songs: “He claims our earth not as his fief but as his motherland. And why not? He receives from it his Bride and his very body . . . . As Lord he rules over it; as Creator, he rules over it; as Bridegroom, he shares it.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but for Catholics “the earth” is not “secular turf.”
School of Philosophy
Catholic University of America
Man, the Bible tells us, is created in God’s image. Human beings, unlike nonhuman creatures, possess reason and freedom. They can choose to bring into being what is worth bringing into being but might otherwise not be. Human choosing, then, like divine choosing, is creative. But creative choosing presupposes reasons for choice and action; and such reasons can be provided only by ends or purposes that are understood as choiceworthy.
A critical reflective account of the “intelligible goods” that provide the most basic reasons for choice and action, and of the norms of reasonableness in choosing that are entailed by principles directing choice and action towards these goods and away from what is contrary to them, is a natural law theory. To offer such an account is in no way to deny God’s existence, creativity, authority, revelation, or active role in human affairs. It is merely to acknowledge that God directs men toward their proper end by endowing them, not with instinct, but with practical reason. So endowed, man is, in his creative freedom, truly God’s image.
Far from being unbiblical, natural law theorizing is invited by biblical anthropology. Why, then, is a great Bible-believing Christian such as Carl F. H. Henry so skeptical about it?
Henry says that natural law theory “affirms . . . that all human beings share a set of ethical norms and imperatives that they commonly perceive without dependence on supernatural disclosure and illumination.” He summarizes natural law theory as holding that “humanity . . . universally knows a body of morally binding laws that shape a common pattern of social behavior.” He takes Thomists in particular to be claiming “that there exists a universally shared body or system of moral beliefs.”
But neither I nor any natural law theorist known to me holds a view remotely like this. Contemporary natural law theorists of every stripe are cognizant of the wide diversity of moral views and commitments, not only across cultures, but within cultures such as our own. While we maintain that moral norms are intelligible and, thus, accessible to reason, we are under no illusions regarding the fact of moral diversity.
As for what “humanity universally knows,” we hold only that the most basic principles of natural law, principles which themselves refer to the multiplicity of ends that provide basic (i.e., noninstrumental) reasons for action, are common to humanity. (And even with respect to these principles, understanding can be impeded and even defeated by stupidity, prejudice, carelessness, and other factors that block understanding in every field of intellectual endeavor.) But these principles, considered individually, create moral questions by providing incompatible-and thus competing-reasons for action. To solve such questions, the basic principles must be put to work together, and their implications for fully reasonable choosing must be derived. The fruit of such a derivation are general moral norms such as the golden rule of fairness and the Pauline principle that evil may not be done even for the sake of producing good consequences, together with the more specific norms (e.g., do not lie, steal, kill the innocent) that are, in turn, derived from them.
While all reasonable persons are capable, in principle, of grasping the principles of natural law, the diversity of moral views-indeed the diversity of views among natural law theorists-is no embarrassment to natural law theory. Moral disagreements among reasonable people warrant the conclusion that not all moral truths are obvious, not all moral questions are easy. They do not warrant the conclusion that moral truth is inaccessible to reason.
Robert P. George
Department of Politics
Carl F. H. Henry replies:
I’m pleased that my article on natural law theory has evoked wide interest. Much in this exchange, including letters posted direct to me, is worthy of sustained interaction. But for now I must rely on these brief comments:
1.I note the impressive disagreement among my correspondents over the nature and value of natural law. I shall await with interest Dr. Lemmons’ forthcoming reconsideration of the Thomist version. The claim that “the harm done to the victim, the victim’s family, and the community suffices to convince most that murder is never justified [emphasis added]” should be referred for contemplation to Hitler and the Nazis and to Mao’s Red Guards.
2.To Mr. Schultz’s approving comments, which he supplements by an insistence that “the theory of evolution does not in any way contradict Scripture or any aspect of the Christian faith,” I would ask which of the competing theories he regards as holding universal scientific and philosophic approval.
3.As to Mr. Teti’s claim that I reject reason, nothing could be further from the truth. I do reject prideful claims for and by philosophical reasoning, which many philosophers now concede has reached a dead end. Whether the American Founders championed natural law theory is quite another issue. My essay referred to scholars who bracket such claims with a revelatory creation ethic.
4.With Mr. Gask I would agree that much in Thomas Aquinas is compatible with Reformation thought. Thomas personally believed that God is the source of the moral order. But his formulation of natural law and natural theology, which excluded any appeal to God and revelation and professed to demonstrate the existence of God and of universally shared ethical imperatives, fails, as I see it, to fulfill its promise.
5.Dr. Bloesch has rightly grasped the thrust of my essay and commends my critique of natural law theory. Instead of faulting it, he affirms a quasi-Barthian alternative. This is not the place to debate his view other than to comment that justice, as I see it, is the form that neighbor love takes in community relationships. Dr. Bloesch insists that apart from the Gospel most people “do not yet have the eyes to see or ears to hear” the enduring moral standard. But in that case can they be declared culpable for rejecting it? The human predicament, as I see it, is more volitional than cognitive, though sin invades the total personality.
6.Dr. Braaten emphasizes that much current Thomism rejects traditional Thomist theory. In the interest of as wide an assault as possible on contemporary nihilism he ecumenically welcomes as inclusive a spectrum of approaches as possible except for mine (because it links the moral crisis centrally to human defection from the self-revealing Creator and the scriptural revelation). I do not think that Dr. Braaten’s alternative forfeiture of literal scriptural history can be compensated for by a species of natural law.
I do not deny that “all people participate in common structures” of truth and goodness; why and how and with what consequences are the issues. Let me say again that Thomas does not deny the priority of God. But in stating the case for natural law and natural theology he excludes an appeal to God and bases the argument on empirical considerations.
There is much that I respect in Dr. Braaten’s many contributions, and even regarding moral law I heartily agree with some emphases. But the emphasis that diverse and contrary and even contradictory views can serve the purpose of a coordinate witness troubles me. It seems ultimately to put truth on a cross.
7. Dr. Wells squarely the nail on the head. Sinful humanity cannot totally escape the shattered imago Dei. The sinner’s rebellious predicament is more volitional than cognitive. Yet conscience hails the rebellious human anticipatively before the judgment throne of God. Scripture verifies which of our interpretations of general revelation are authentic.
8.Regarding Dr. Hittinger’s protest, my point here is not all that subtle. It merely reflects the standard disagreement over whether Thomas christianized Aristotle or Aristotelianized Christianity.
9.With Dr. George I agree that the moral crisis is due not to the obscurity of divine revelation (which penetrates the mind and conscience of humanity) but to a rebellious will; in short, the problem is more volitional than epistemological. Fallen mankind may not be free to do the will of God, but nonetheless has choice. Mankind is not under a metaphysical necessity or epistemological necessity to distort or deflect divine revelation, but chooses to do so.
The Giving Tree: What Gives?
“The Giving Tree: A Symposium” (January) was a rare treat, both the original tale and the response to it. I expect it will elicit many letters from your readers. Here is my two cents’ worth.
To me, the boy and the tree are not two different people but two parts of the same person. The tree is the part of the boy that lives for his own sake. It is the part of him that gives to himself, not to career, wife, family. The tree is his talents, his gifts, his beauty, his passion for himself, his genius. The story tells not of one person expending herself for another but of the boy himself being consumed by his own life, used up by his experiences, drives, responsibilities.
As a child he lives with the tree. As an adolescent he begins to look outward from the tree. As a man he visits, but not to “stop and stare,” only to collect what he needs. His gifts he expends for others, bypassing himself. At the end he returns to be with the tree again. Now he just sits on the tree, looking off into the distance. His passion is spent. All he can do is hold himself up. But the tree still has its heart and its roots-the boy still has his heart, his roots, his memories, and his beginning with which he seeks to be reunited. And he finds that here indeed he can rest. . . .
Only a bunch of academics could fall for the old propagandist’s ploy that because something is written it must be true, and because it’s impenetrably obscure it must be deep. Shel Silverstein’s bittersweet little kiddy kitsch, The Giving Tree , is neither literature nor deep. Analyzing it with the same intellectual artillery one would bring to discover the meaning of “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov is misdirected overkill.
What we have is two incomplete short stories-one a potentially lovely tale that begins with a kid and a tree. When Silverstein can’t finish that in the way it started, he shifts abruptly to a second story, one without a beginning, about a nice kid gone rapaciously adult. There is no transition, no character development, or anything to suggest why an adult is a kid gone bad, except that that theme is a central one to left-wingers who write children’s books.
I was given a gift subscription to your publication for Christmas and your January issue was my introduction. Having been given the impression that First Things was oriented to religion and especially to its Christian view, I was surprised by the various analyses of The Giving Tree by your symposium. Whether or not intended by the author, a very simple and beautiful view of God and His Son, Jesus Christ, is variously described by its members in esoteric terms of humanistic psychobabble so prevalent in this country’s “christianity,” both on the right and on the left.
Whether one views the tree as the Father giving His Son or Jesus as the giver of His human life, God gives all He has to each of us unconditionally for our salvation. The author’s reference to the tree in feminine terms gives Trinitarian support to this view since the fruits of the spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-open to and necessary for all Christians, male and female-are in essence our feminine component, so often missing in American males, and now diminishing in American females: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity.
The boy represents every one of us, loved by God and loving Him in return in our childhood. The story relates our inevitable distancing of ourselves from that God, a process that starts and progresses at different stages of life for each of us, but that occurs in one degree or another in all of us, without exception, as we reach for the false god of self-esteem, which is the only god the world can offer. Unfortunately, the old man at the end of the story only represents some of us-if we believe Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:13-14, a minority of us- who discover the falsity and return before death to our roots-our Creator and only true God-for eternal rest.
James E. Hamilton
You’ve done a valuable service in presenting a symposium on The Giving Tree , whose title’s lack of irony startles and dismays those who chronicle the routine disorders our age accepts as health.
Nearly as disturbing as the story itself is the fact that so few of your discussants identified its tainted depiction of love between parent and child. Jean Bethke Elshtain points to its load of “passive-aggressive nonsense,” and to the horrible victory won by the tree in the dependency and sadness of the male. Timothy Fuller’s gnomic response indicates his reservations. But it is, as so often, the good sense and insight of Midge Decter that gets nearest the core of the matter: Silverstein’s negative portrayal of maturity and his disturbing promotion of an old cliche: the martyr-mother whose own neediness teaches dependency, fatigue, and despair.
There are some issues especially pertinent to children today not addressed by any of the discussants, pro or con. Even Decter’s valuable reminder of the real experience of children, attending to pictures more than words, barely glances at the damaging way The Giving Tree handles gender and reflects the decay of contemporary families.
The very basis of Silverstein’s story reflects an aspect of contemporary life so pervasive that it has become all but invisible. Where is the father? This lack is part of the grosser absence in the story of all relationships except the stiflingly exclusive and disturbingly eroticized world of the tree and child. Not only words, but tone and, above all, pictures tell us that neither tree nor boy thrive as the boy grows. Both are destroyed, and Decter and some other critics note that the process of maturity is presented in an almost totally negative light. Both are destroyed but the tree gets her wish: despite acquiring a paunch, the boy remains a boy-not a happy, eager child but a weak, dependent, and unappealing one who needs the tree for everything . . . .
Mary Ann Glendon gets it right in her closing remarks. Future decades will look back in pity and horror at the stories our culture considers classics for children. The images of tainted giving and of gender, particularly the ugly images of boys and men, speak volumes of what we expect and accept.
. . . The boy comes back a last time, old and hunched, exhausted and alone. The tree gives him gladly all it has left, its stump to sit on. To have him receive that final gift, small as it is, and thus to be not alone, makes the tree happy to “The End.” The man’s “The End,” however, is to sit without energy or further desire on the stump, symbol that nothing he asked for has ever been withheld from him, numbly miserable.
(The Rev.) Paul G. Bretscher
Thank you for the symposium on The Giving Tree . I relate this tale to God’s grace and parental love. I do not see it as necessarily cruel and selfish on the part of “Boy.” The giving was one way, but isn’t God’s grace also one way? What would you have Boy do? . . .
My ninety-three-year-old father now lies in a nursing home. He has given my siblings and me far more than we have or were able to give him. There is nothing we can give him now but our company. Would he be better off if we had taken less? I doubt it. Would he have enjoyed it more if his assets were distributed to strangers or used to pay taxes? Some of this will occur and he is unhappy about it. I do not think Dad ever wanted anything back from us except our presence and our company, especially after mother died.
Since both parties, the tree and the boy, were happy, I think it was a good deal for both.
Gerald E. Kiltz
The symposium on The Giving Tree provided an interesting discussion on giving, selfishness, and human love. It reminded me of what Thomas Merton wrote in No Man is an Island about the nature of love, which is relevant to this discussion.
A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy . . . .
Yet there can never be happiness in compulsion. It is not enough for love to be shared: it must be shared freely. That is to say it must be given, not merely taken. Unselfish love that is poured out upon a selfish object does not bring perfect happiness: not because love requires a return or a reward for loving, but because it rests in the happiness of the beloved. And if the one loved receives love selfishly, the love is not satisfied. He sees that his love has failed to make the beloved happy. It has not awakened his capacity for unselfish love . . . .
The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.
From this perspective, the tree’s love went unfulfilled because it was visited upon a selfish object. The tree’s obligation to love was fulfilled, but not the higher expectation that its love transform the beloved into an unselfish lover.
In our modern world, we take offense when people attempt to change us whether by love or any other power. But this is exactly what we find in the love of God in the incarnation of Christ. The gift of Christ to this world was not just to give out of obligation or impetus to give, but to love to transform those God loves. A love expressed out of obligation or necessity is ultimately selfish, because the love is satisfied, not in the change in the beloved, but in their own having fulfilled the call to love. It is for this reason that The Giving Tree is ultimately an inadequate picture of the way love should be expressed between people.
(The Rev.) Edwin R. Brenegar III
Davis & Elkins College
. . . In considering this book, there are two salient points that should not be overlooked:
(1) Great “children’s stories” from Aesop to Andersen to Silverstein are actually written for adults-who can then use the stories to teach and even to entertain children.
(2) Whether he intended it or not, Silverstein actually wrote a fable of divine love-the self-sacrificing love of Christ for a humanity that eagerly takes, but sometimes in the end begins to realize-just a little- that the divine love is always there.
Incidentally, I became acquainted with The Giving Tree a few years ago when my thirty-something daughter gave me a copy for Mother’s Day-as a talisman of our understanding love.
I fear that most of your reviewers are a bit short on understanding poetic statements of idealized sacrificial Christian love.
Silver Springs, MD
. . . Had I been the author of The Giving Tree , I would have made the same gender assignments to the boy and the tree. However, I can’t help but wonder if the attacks on the boy’s character by the symposium participants would have been made had the players been “old man tree” and Lucy.
Donald G. Hilker
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Ungracious and Mean-Spirited
James Nuechterlein’s article on political correctness in sports writing (“The Wide World of Sports,” January) was marred by a curiously bitter, and digressive, paragraph on Canadian indulgence in anti-American rhetoric. I am one Canadian who does not engage in such fruitless bad manners. I also oppose my countrymen who act as if Canada’s identity is most easily established by criticizing anything American. Therefore, I feel I have the credentials to call Mr. Nuechterlein to account for his petulant dismissal of this “improbable nation,” as he calls Canada . . . .
I profoundly wish we Canadians would operate differently with respect to our American neighbors, however frustrated we may be with America’s legendary ignorance of all things Canadian. But I do remember that this improbable nation was founded precisely in opposition to your Revolution. This contrariness has continued to this day, made worse perhaps by the immense difference in our sizes and our consequent sibling jealousy. But this differentiates us from no other nation on earth. They all share this love-hate relationship with the world’s largest and most prosperous nation. But I had hoped that Mr. Nuechterlein, imperial citizen of “the Empire to the South,” would have demonstrated a greater graciousness and less mean-spiritedness in his remarks, especially since they had nothing at all to do with proving his contention that sports writing has embraced political correctness.
W. J. Douglas Ball
Richard John Neuhaus is unfair in his flippant dismissal of the moral “proportionalist” theologians (“Moral Theology at Its Pique,” Public Square, January). These good men have dedicated their lives to fulfill a recognized charism in the Church, and in their writings have attempted to be faithful to its magisterium in a nuanced, careful theological analysis. The important truths rediscovered in their thorough study of traditional Christian morality work as a dialectical corrective to maintain the health of the “splendor of truth” that is the Church’s mandate to announce to the world.
The proportionalists remind us that moral method is much more sophisticated and complex than simply discovering moral laws and following them. They rightly insist that method should be both deontological and consequential, hence proportionalism. Because moral choice must contain those transcendent values that image the Creator and that are spelled out in the Ten Commandments, a deontological process is appropriate. But secondly, the proportionalists have retrieved the Thomistic understanding that every moral choice must have those consequences which make the moral agent into a co-creative, co-provident partner to God-hence the need for consequential reasoning in moral choice. When humans fail to seriously take consequences into consideration, they miss the mark in living up to this God-delegated partnership . . . .
In addition, the proportionalists have shown how human morality serves human dignity. In this they are obediently responding to the Spirit who in the “signs of the times” is raising the consciousness of human dignity throughout the human family. Hence, one cannot speak of the “moral” at all until what is essentially human is engaged in choice, i.e., the mind and the free and unmanipulated human will. And this, simply put, is what Richard McCormack means by “intentionality.” In our grace-enabled moral choices each of us self-create our fundamental option for God through the reasoned and free choice of Him implicit in every morally good decision. The demands of human dignity cannot be satisfied if moral choice is pictured primarily as a “blind” obedience to authority; it must be seen as a God-bestowed glorious human ability to co-create good things.
Thus, in moral method, deontology without consideration of consequences is reductionist. Jesus’ parable about the talents applies: it is not enough to bury the talent given-a simple deontological-follow-the-law approach; one must use one’s moral talents to be God’s co-creative partner in response to this call in making us moral beings. This is the proportionalists’ insight.
Macon Kathleen Boczek