Natural Law and a “Christian Pragmatism”: A Note on David Bentley Hart

A long footnote appended to chapter 3 of my latest book manuscript, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, forthcoming in the Church and Postmodern Culture Series (Baker Academic, 2014), in which I obliquely engage David Bentley Hart’s recent sorties on natural law:

This is also why a pragmatist account of knowledge and meaning—which I am arguing is the only account that really does justice to our contingency, dependence, and sociality—undercuts most accounts of “natural law” insofar as they treat natural law representationally—as something that can’t be known atomistically, without dependence on a particular community of practice.  Quite apart from a pragmatist critique on this point (but resonating with it), David Bentley Hart has recently pointed out the problems with such notions of natural law.  As Hart puts it, like natural law theorists, “I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.”  The problem, then, is not the assertion that there are norms for human flourishing that are bound up with the “ends” of nature; the problem is that “the natural law theorist insists that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation” (David Bentley Hart, “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws,” First Things (March 2013), 72, emphasis added). What Hart calls “cultural formation” is what pragmatists like Wittgenstein and Rorty are getting at when they talk about social inculcation and “training”—learning with and from a community of practice how to “take” the world, how to “use” the world.  “To put the matter very simply,” Hart concludes, “belief in natural law is inseparable from the idea of nature as a realm shaped by final causes, oriented in their totality toward a single transcendent moral Good: one whose dictates cannot simply be deduced from our experience of the natural order, but must be received as an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations that nevertheless, miraculously, makes the natural order intelligible to us as a reality that opens up to what is more than natural.”  But such a “concept of nature…is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions” (ibid., 71, emphasis added).  And, the pragmatist account would add, one only comes by such convictions thanks to a community of practice that passes them on, in which one is trained to see the world in such a way.  So the “recognition” of the moral telosof nature is dependent upon supernatural convictions that are relative to a particular community of revelation.  Hence the pragmatist, qua pragmatist, does not deny the ontological reality of natural law; s/he only denies the possibility of knowing that law apart from membership in a contingent community of practice that teaches us to see the world as such.  As Hart notes in his sequel to this piece, “Nature Loves to Hide,” First Things (May 2013), at stake here is actually an account of the relationship between nature and grace.  The Christian pragmatism I’m advocating would simply emphasize (per Romans 1:21-23, but also per Calvin’s account of the “book of nature” in the Institutes) that one needs to be inculcated in the community of grace that is the body of Christ in order to be able to “see” nature as the natural law theorist claims any rational being can.  In chapter 4, in dialogue with Robert Brandom, we’ll see that what’s really at issue here is how to understand “rationality.”