Friday, November 02, 2012

Faith and natural law

Now we can't but wait for Wednesday 7 to know the result of the elections. Where my preference goes should be well known. Not because I am more "republican" than "democrat", but because of what I said in the last post of more than a month ago: the total failure of the incumbent president to be as he promised post-partisan and post-racial. Which also means his incapability to respect the nature of the USA, which is to be democratic because it is Christian: not meaning by this that everybody has to be Christian (Romney, strictly speaking, isn't), but that only to Christianity is due the extension of human representation to any single individual, which makes the only acceptable sense of democracy. While they plead to be for the poor, liberal democrats look at them with a sort of condescending benevolence, more as people needing help than as people to be promoted in their humanity. Because it waned from their outlook any normative notion of humanity: of what used to be called natural law.

I'd like therefore to insert here this couple of pages on faith and natural law which I wrote for another occasion.


Pope Benedict opened the year of faith together with the Synod of bishops dedicated to "the new evangelization". The theme in both cases is faith, but the Pope himself remarks that faith is in need to be explained again to people to whose culture it has become alien.
One reason of today’s difficulties in speaking of faith is that we tend to identify it too directly with Christian faith. By so doing we deprive ourselves of the universal cultural background to which “faith” is natural. When saint Paul, for example, spoke to the Greeks of faith (pistis in Greek), he didn’t give to the word any special meaning different from the current one. So we need to recover such a meaning.
One way of doing it, is to notice that the concept of faith had a role of mediation between “natural” and “culture”. In other words it belongs to the realm of what we traditionally call natural law. It is an ancient notion originating in Greece and Rome to express the cosmic rooting of human things: in the totality of all things that we still call in a generic sense nature.
Today’s “sciences of nature” don’t give the sense of what nature was for ancient and non-modern people: to use the Greek word, a cosmos, an ordered whole, endowed with beauty (that’s why we call “cosmetics” the products for the care of beauty). The word cosmos refers then to the common human experience of knowing the world in such a way to be able to orient ourselves in it. Thus, when we describe something, we also prescribe what to do about it: how to do the right thing. Not so with the modern descriptions of “nature”, to which the prescriptive sense of “culture” is extraneous.
This makes the notion of natural law extraneous to the current understanding of law, as being essentially man made. It makes us unable to see in the law the enunciation of a pre-legal right. What is lacking is a nexus between the description of how things are and the prescription of what to do about them.
What is lacking is essentially a reflection on faith. A description is in any case included in a discourse by which the speaker claims to be speaking for everybody. Let’s call it a claim of authority. Before the distinction of sciences there is the ordinary experience of language, even previous to our perfected adult capability of speaking. We observe in the way children learn how to speak, how the world take shape for them, thanks to their reliance on those who educate them. But reliance is another word for confidence, confiding in somebody, having faith in him. Hence “faith” has its correlation in “authority”.
Therefore the blessed Antonio Rosmini called faith “a voluntary assent given to the revealing authority of God, in whatever way this authority be known”. Such is the root also of the tendency immanent to human reason to fill the gaps of perception, like when I see somebody as a friend by the signs he gives me.
In English we have a happy distinction between “belief” and “faith”, even though we tend to confuse them. It corresponds to the distinction theologians make in Latin between fides quae creditur e fides qua creditur. Belief (fides quae) concerns the doctrines or theories we hold as true, faith (fides qua) concerns the relation between listeners and speakers, teachers and pupils, in general among people in their reciprocal doings.
It would be a worthy effort to see how different languages equally recognize and name what is peculiar of such relations, making them possible. I spoke of “reliance”; another word in English is trust. However far it might be etymologically from faith, the meaning of the two words is very close. The sense of trust, in fact, is embraced by the two words which have originally entered into the shaping of Christian theology: the Greek pistis  and the Latin fides.
In Greek pistis belongs to the vocabulary of “persuasion”: the corresponding verb means “to be persuaded”, or, in an active form, “to persuade”. But the first thing of which one has to be persuaded is the trustworthiness of the one who addresses him and hence solicits his faith. This falls therefore in the realm of what used to be called “rhetoric”, or “art of persuasion”. The persuasion depends on the things said and on the quality of the speaker, both included, at the same time, in the reflection which gives a theory of this art. Such was ancient philosophy and also theology, in their dealing truth and truthfulness. We recognize here the universal validity of the mentioned distinction of fides quae and fides qua.
We come so now to the Latin fides, in which the personal sense of faith is still more evident. The Latin construction of “to have faith” is such that it takes us to the realm of human interrelations: it shows that the original Latin meaning of the word is something like “credit”. So fidem habere (“to have faith”) didn’t mean my subjective stance toward something or somebody, but rather that somebody has or enjoys credit with me.
We say currently that faith is a gift, “God’s gift”, that some have and some don’t: a way of saying that becomes an alibi for those who negates their assent to God’ authority. Indeed, it is right to say that faith is a gift, if we keep in mind the Latin construction of the word fides. One has credit with somebody else because of what he has given him.
Everywhere, in all times and places, we find witnessed a distinction of contractual exchange and gift exchange. In a contractual exchange people have something that others might want, and for which they are ready to pay. In gift exchange we define by what we give the relation in which we stand with each other: if I give something to somebody who is a friend or whose friendship I want to solicit, he feels obliged to reciprocate if he does consider himself my friend or wants to accept my offer of friendship. Such is the meaning of faith-credit: what is given is capability of participation in friendship. Furthermore giving is a sign of authority enabling us to enter in the friendship circle of exchange by giving in turn.
With gift comparative anthropology takes us onto the sense of justice universally present in human relation, however articulated in different societies. Justice is the measure of things immanent in human relations: let’s call it natural right. But the measure has to be enunciated as a rule: let’s call it natural law. The great question which differentiates societies is: what authorizes somebody to speak and act for all, by enunciating the measure and the rule?
The answer is: he who gives more, everything, his own life. Such is ideally the figure of the king, actually realized in Christ the king. It is Christ himself who enunciates this as the criterion of authority: “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”. The “for my sake” concretizes what is otherwise a wisdom maxim with reference to the one who represents in his own life what the maxim says. In this way “Christian faith” meets the universal natural law.
If such is the evidence witnessed by anthropological comparison, we couldn’t recover by it the full meaning of natural law, i.e. the cosmic rooting of human things, if we leave the sciences of nature out of comparison. This means that we have to take also these sciences for what they are: expressions of human understanding and knowledge, i.e. human sciences. Not easy undertaking, on which it floundered and went under great part of modern philosophical, and even theological, thought. I cannot enter into it, except to remark that perhaps no one else, besides Antonio Rosmini, offered suggestions able to integrate the witness of contemporary natural sciences with that of history and anthropology: to account for the universal experience in which the order of the world is given as ordered, which is also the experience of faith in the Orderer.