When the natural law condemns the lawgiver

by Robert

Professor Matt McCormick provides an excellent exposition on the dilemma facing theists regarding the morality of God’s actions – and inactions.  He asks, “If a human did what God is allegedly doing right now, would we consider that a morally good action?”  He briefly touches on one implication of his argument for the “natural law” – an implication I would like to delve into further.

The “natural law”, in case you’re not aware, is the term used by some theists to describe an alleged objective moral standard instilled in our hearts by God.  We all appeal to this standard, they say, when judging the goodness of others’ actions or our own.  But a problem arises when God’s own behavior violates the natural law.  Genocide – whether committed or ignored by God – is perhaps the example that comes most readily to mind.

What are we to make of these divine violations that transgress our moral sense?  Believers rationalize them away by claiming there must be a higher moral good behind them, but what this higher moral good is, they cannot say, for God never provides or demonstrates one.  Prima facie, they are moral violations, and should be considered such until we’re given compelling reasons to believe otherwise.  When someone commits murder, we don’t let them go scot free when their lawyer proclaims, “There was a higher moral purpose behind my client’s actions, and you’ll just have to trust him on that.”  Even those who say God told them to murder are still locked up (one way or another).

Even if we grant the proposition that God is a morally perfect being who can never commit a moral transgression, it still leaves us with what to make of the sense of moral violation.  Why do we still have it?  The natural law is seemingly producing false positives.  Essentially, theists tell us to ignore our sense of moral outrage whenever divine action seems to violate the law, but what about divine inactions, which can just as strongly trigger moral outrage?  Are we to ignore those too?  But that would entail ignoring our moral sense altogether, since we never know – absent being provided a compelling rationale – whether any moral transgression served some higher moral good.

For instance, returning to the example of genocide, how do we know the Holocaust wasn’t a critical piece in God’s overall plan?  Wouldn’t moral condemnation of the Holocaust be at best premature and at worse mistaken?  Given the theistic supposition that God chooses to intervene or not intervene in human affairs – invisibly, unpredictably, inscrutably – there is literally no event in which God’s involvement positively can be ruled in or out, and thus no moral outrage we can be confident of.  The natural law thus becomes neutered as a moral guide.

Some theists might argue that “sin” affects our ability to discern the natural law.  Since we’re said to all be living under it, the question becomes, to what extent does “sin” impact discernment?  They never say.  And if “sin” is muddying the waters, so to speak, how can we really even trust our moral sense as an intuitive guide?  An objective law capable of divergent interpretations is little different than no law at all.

When it comes down to it, the choices are pretty stark for the theist: abandon divine moral goodness, or abandon the natural law.  Both cannot existence concurrently, unless the latter doesn’t derive from the former, in which case theism itself must be abandoned.

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