Lesson 5: What is Natural?

A gay couple holding handsMost of us act as if there is some kind of natural reason, even if we are not conscious of what we are doing. We find ourselves declaring, “Everyone knows…” , assuming what makes sense to us makes sense to everyone else. We sense there must be a natural law ingrained in nature.

Some Roman Catholic theologians come up with elaborate systems they believe are based on principles on which all right thinking people can agree. Some Evangelical preachers teach Laws of Creation. Other groups make moral decisions they believe are compatible with scientific findings, often talking about “following the data.” For others, “natural” has become “normal,” so in one way or another they use polls to determine what is right or wrong.

However, their claims for discovering the natural become questionable in the face of widespread disagreement. Not everyone thinks a law that rejects all contraception and abortion is natural. Many believe power is no way to determine what is right. And others find democratic decisions are often a far cry from rational ones.

I think the difficulty of understanding what is natural came home for me about 25 or 30 years ago. A number of us had gathered at a marvelous cabin in a beautiful state park. After dinner, we decided to walk through the woods. I was totally at peace listening to the sounds of the forest on a clear, starry night when I realized the Philadelphia artist with whom I was conversing had gone silent. When I asked if something was wrong, she replied that she was terrified. Hearing unfamiliar noises in the darkness put her into a panic. She felt wild animals were ready to pounce on her. She asked if I would leave the group to walk her back to the cabin. She had lived her entire life in the city where bright lights burned 24 hours a day. She was constantly surrounded by the sounds of motors and human voices. My “nature” was “unnatural” as far as she was concerned.

There might have been a time when people had little trouble deciding what was natural, because the community shared a common story that defined a common good. However, in our current pluralistic, global, technological society few see any evidence for a universal natural law.

Most people once readily accepted Paul’s words in Romans 1:18-32: “Ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” However, today many object when the passage is used to show homosexuality is “giving up natural intercourse for unnatural.”

A natural birth used to be the criteria for making moral decisions at the beginning of life. Now modern medicine saves newly born infants who used to die. It enables couples who could never conceive to have children. Before long, would-be parents will choose the features of their unborn children. Most of us admit we are not sure what a “natural birth” is anymore.

A “natural death” once was the standard for end of life decisions. Now, we all use pills and surgery to overcome what used to be regarded as terminal illnesses and injuries. We increasingly use drugs to lessen the pain of death, sometimes quietly employing them to hasten an approaching death. And many use cosmetic surgery to make the old appear young. Many are befuddled trying to discern what “natural” means in these cases.

Theologians like Martin Luther think the problem stems from sin blinding us from ever fully understanding nature. Our corrupted human nature prevents us from discerning the divine in our environment. Others say the image of God that defines our true humanity is never completely corrupted. Living in Christ enables us to discern some features of the love that holds all people and things together. Next week we’ll begin looking at what the Bible says about all this.

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