Talking About Nature in an Unnatural Age

"Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret"

Last week I attended a talk by Robert Reilly on his new book,Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Gay Behavior is Changing Everything (Ignatius Press, 2014).

The talk, at the offices of First Things in New York, started with Aristotle’s Politics and the idea of natural functioning. If you follow human nature, the idea seemed to be, politics begins with the family, the family with the bond between man and woman. Such a view evidently disfavors homosexual behavior, and denying that verdict in the interests of sexual freedom means denying human nature as the basis of politics. That’s a problem, since (among other things) it does away with limits. Politics becomes a technology like any other, to be used by whoever controls it for whatever purposes he happens to have.

So Reilly is among those who point out the totalitarian implications of today’s progressivism. As he puts it, making gay okay changes everything—and not in a way any sane person would want.

But what will this kind of argument get us in the world as it is today? As Maureen Mullarkey notes on the First Things website, we’re in a real mess now. Reilly mentioned in his talk that thinkers like Dewey and Sartre explicitly reject human nature, but it’s not just a few eggheads any more. Today everyone respectable rejects the idea of natural order, especially with regard to sexual conduct. People have been taught to view the concept as a high-toned rationalization for bigoted actions growing out of atavistic feelings of disgust.

But if that’s what people think, how helpful can it be to keep bringing up such arguments?

The question points to a basic problem for Christian proclamation in public life today: we’re stuck preaching the word out of season, because the basic assumptions on which discussion is carried on are radically anti-Christian. Reilly presents secular philosophical arguments for his views, but the basis of those arguments—the principle that the natural world and human body have meaning—is also basic to the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation. Do away with natural meanings, and so with a nature fitted to completion by grace, and you may get Buddhism or some other religion but not Christianity. If you try to present a teaching like charity in such a setting, in which things mean what people want them to mean, it’ll come out sounding more like the celebration of diversity: we should love not what people are, since there are no settled identities, nor what they should be, since the very concept is oppressive, but instead whatever they choose to make of themselves.

So it seems that presenting natural law arguments on sexual matters is necessary, but not because they are going to persuade Justice Kennedy any time soon. We need them because natural law is essential to the picture of the world we want to present. Not everyone is fully persuaded by the abolition of nature—it’s not the sort of thing it’s easy to believe through and through—and we’ll pick up some stragglers if we give them reasons to drop off altogether. That’s how converts are made. And in any event the arguments help us maintain our own sense of what’s real and reasonable in a world that tries endlessly to disrupt it.

Nor is all gloom and doom. As Reilly also noted in his talk, abolishing the concept of the natural falsifies reality, and that doesn’t work forever. Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret: “you can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she’ll still hurry back.” The more the effort is pursued, the more it will eventually come crashing down, and we prepare for that day by keeping better understandings alive.

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About James Kalb 139 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).