01 May 2005

Justice and Human Nature

Naturalism v. Supernaturalism in pursuit of Justice

He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? — Micah 6:8

Justice. Without Justice there can be no peace. The opposite of Justice is oppression. But what is Justice? Justice for whom?

For the ancient Greek philosophers, and for everyone else since, it comes down to this: To do Justice is to do what is Good for Humankind. What is good for Humankind, of course, is that which is accords with Human Nature. Thus we arrive at the quintessential Humanist question: What is Human Nature? That depends on your theology.

If you believe that human beings are purely natural, evolved only by natural forces selecting variations in response to the circumstances of earth's natural history, you arrive at one set of conclusions. If you believe that human beings are partly supernatural, having been brought into existence (whether through instant creation or gradual evolution) by a God who has certain inconvenient ethical expectations, you arrive at another. On the one hand, we are meaningless accidents, of no more intrinsic value than any other living or non-living thing. On the other, we are made in, and bear the Imago Dei, the Image of God.

The naturalists can be noble. As the only known rational animal, we alone can make choices for ourselves and for all other beings on earth. That is, with our rationality comes responsibility. We should choose with wisdom and caring.

The naturalists can also degenerate into self-loathing. Because of our success as a species, we are covering the earth, re-making its surface, air, and water in our own image, causing the wholesale extinction of species as if we ourselves were a cometary impact on our planet. Since we are only one species among many, the planet would be better off without us.

Implicit in naturalistic self-loathing is the idea that success, dominance, is in itself evil. An idea borrowed (and twisted) unconsciously from Christianity, the repository of supernaturalism. After all, Jesus was not successful or dominant during his public ministry — he was killed by a successful, dominant empire.

The supernaturalists can be noble as well: The sanctity of human life is a Christian idea. Since we are sacred to our Creator, none but our Creator can lawfully take our life from us. Our bodies, and the use of our bodies are likewise sacred: we cannot lawfully be tortured or enslaved.

The supernaturalists can also degenerate into self-loathing. Because we are sinners, unworthy of the salvation freely offered us by God, we deserve nothing beyond the bare necessities to prolong our lives just enough to have an opportunity to accept God's great gift. And those who believe and teach otherwise must be ostracized in the community of faith. (In the past, heretics were killed, but modern Christianity has moved beyond that, thanks to challenges from within the faithful, as well as from the naturalists.

Contemplating the downside offers little from which to choose. The history of both camps has been blighted by malevolence, hypocrisy, and violence. One side can decry the Inquisition, the other the massive genocides under Facism and Communism. Ideologies from both camps have been used as a pretext for war.

On the other hand, the upside potential of the supernaturalists is clearly greater. Instead of being a thing, an object, I am a subject. I am more than an intrinsically meaningless lump of thinking, dreaming, talking meat. I am sacred to my Creator. So are all beings, plant, animal, and other. Imagine living in a world where everything and everyone was treated with a certain minimal standard of reverence, instead of the disregard and contempt we see and experience. That is the upside of the supernaturalist position. The naturalist position has nothing comparable to offer.

As we are swept into the future, naturalism offers the confidence to invent and explore technology and technique. Supernaturalism speaks to the purpose of invention and exploration. Naturalism seeks knowledge in order to understand and to use. Supernaturalism seeks knowledge in order to revere. As we understand ourselves and our cosmos in ever greater detail, let us grow, rather than diminish, in our reverence for each other and our Creator.

And let that reverence inform our administration of justice. I would rather stand before a judge who appreciates the sacred dimension of my being, than one who regards me as miscreant meat.

No comments: