Monday, December 30, 2013

Nomos and Phusis

I picked up a lovely little book entitled "The Ancient Guide to Modern Life" by Natalie Haynes.  Haynes is a British author who writes the book as a defense of the study of the Classics to a modern reader.  It's rather engaging, although somewhat simplistic - a nice little reminder of many of the joys and wonders I came across in even lower division Classics classes in college.

And she reminded me of something that I hadn't really remembered, or put words to.  She writes as follows: "An intellectual debate that raged in fifth-century Athens was the nomos-phusis question.  Nomos means a man-made law, or custom.  Phusis is natural law, the basic order of things.  So, a stop sign on a deserted coast road is an example of nomos.  You'll stop, but only because society's conventions say you should.  But if, two feet behind that sign, the road disappears over the end of a cliff, that would be an example of phusis. You'll stop, because otherwise you'll plunge to an early death.  So which should take priority, nomos or phusis?  Nomos tells us that we shouldn't kill, phusis says to go right ahead.  Just as a lion can bring down a wildebeest, why shouldn't we enslave, torture, or kill those weaker than ourselves?"

I love the example of the cliff - and what we have here is the old, classical (attic) distinction between Nomos (which we get in the Scriptures as "Law" normally... ah, normally... nomos... normal...) and Phusis... the rules, the laws of nature, the law of the jungle.

When modern Christians speak of "Natural Law"... I don't think they mean to be speaking of phusis... of the rules of the Physical world, per se.  "Kill or be killed" makes perfect sense in a fallen world.  Rather - by "natural law" they are referring to the "law written upon our hearts" - a "nomos" given by God to man, that all men intrinsically know.  A nomos that is self-evident, even when not written down.  A nomos that can only be avoided when conscience is quashed.

So, what does all this mean.

First, I think it explains (to me, at least) some of my gut reaction against a lot of "natural law" talk.  Phusis is physics, is cold and callous and amoral.  It cares not for right or wrong, but simply what the effect is - the ultimate "ends justify the means" or "might makes right".  I don't wonder if this old debate hasn't been rummaging around in my head.

Second, it codifies why I don't really... care for modern theological Natural Law talk.  Why?

It's nomos.  Why should I spend time trying to wonder about implied nomos, or the nomos upon my heart when God Himself has SPOKEN His nomos to me?  And also, which then it greater... the Nomos, or the Word of God Himself, Christ Jesus, who has died and risen for me?

Because I can't shake the feeling, no matter how pious and dutiful it sounds, that behind a lot of natural Law talk isn't God's nomos written on our hearts (we hold these truths to be self-evident...), but rather a cover for a pious recasting of Phusis into something theological.  Physics (or we would say biology) shows that homosexuality isn't productive.... of course, the law of the jungle says the top lion can have his run of the pride if he so chooses.  It's not a defense of the moral, even when it lines up.

Our Greek friends have a bit of liturgy when it comes to the reading of God's Word.  "Wisdom.  Let us attend."

When God speaks, whether it be through the prophets of old or now in these final days through His Son, our greatest attention ought be paid there.


the Old Adam said...

Good stuff, Rev.

The law is written upon our hearts.

We know what to do (already).

Our trouble is that we just flat out refuse to do it.

Our "free-will" has a better idea.

Thanks, friend.

Tom Lemke said...

So many of the arguments from "Natural Law" are ultimately just utilitarian in nature - what behavior has the "ideal" outcome. Problem is, "ideal" is subjective, so while one person would say that cannibalism is against natural law because it results in loss of human life, another could say that it is compatible with natural law because it provides highly biological available protein on account of the fact that the amino acid ratios present in the tissue is already perfectly in line with human needs.

I think it's interesting that the places in Scripture NL proponents like to cite as examples of NL arguments are ones that reference the Creation account in some way (i.e. created male and female, so no homosexuality; man created before woman, so women aren't to be Pastors; woman created from man, so he is her head, you get the picture). So is it really a "Natural Law" argument if it pulls from Scripture at that point?