Pillars of Self-Determination: Pluralism and Natural Law
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
Cicero, the great Roman philosopher of two thousand years ago, said, “Before one begins the discussion of anything whatsoever, one should first define terms.” Doing so is not splitting hairs, but is an essential first step in human thought and communication. Otherwise the misuse of words can become a tool of mimetic warfare, which is designed to capture the subconscious of an opponent in order to disarm independent thought. The dangers of imprecision are especially great today during an era of major changes in space and place, including the evolution or devolution of language, such as the current implosion of English into the jibberish of apes.
Egregious examples of such mimetic warfare are the terms “socialism,” which is a term used to concentrate ownership in the political elite of the collective “state” under the pretext of equality in sharing the economic pie, and “democratic capitalism,” which is a term used to concentrate ownership in an economic elite under the pretext of efficiency in building a bigger pie. Both of these goals require “creative destruction” of all existing and potential opposition and are pursued allegedly out of humanitarian concern for freedom and democracy.
Two of the most contentious or problematic terms in the drafting of modern constitutions are “pluralism” and “natural law.”
Pluralism, according to Websters Dictionary has four distinct meanings. These range from the ontological to the sociological. One meaning, which fortunately has gone out of style except among postmodernists, regards pluralism as a synonym for plurality, which is defined as “a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality.” This, of course, is just as absurd as saying that one plus one equals three or that three equals one.
The fourth dictionary meaning is “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interests within the confines of a common civilization.” This sociological definition is closely related to and in fact is a direct product of an additional fifth meaning that increasingly is now used among interfaith leaders when referring to religious pluralism.
This fifth meaning, as we might come to define it is: “A term used to describe the acceptance of all religious paths as equally legitimate in the eyes of God not because they are equally true but because religious diversity is part of the divine plan for every person’s pursuit of goodness and salvation and as vehicles for cooperation in applying justice, which is the opposite of the term multi-culturalism when used to mean that all religions and cultures are equally true and that there is no rational reason to accept or belong to any of them.”
Mike Greaney, the long-time research director of the Center for Economic and Social Justice, comments that pluralism: “means every individual has a civil right to practice whatever religion he or she wishes, or none at all, so long as it doesn’t harm the individual, others, or the common good. That is, with respect to the civil order (“society”), all religions all equally valid, as long as they do not undermine or attack the natural law. This says nothing about purely religious teachings (“revelation”), in matters of which the different religions vary widely, but that is a matter for individual conscience, not the rest of society.”
Unfortunately, this distinction might seem to confuse “separation of Church and State” with separation of faith and reason. Thomas Jefferson emphasized the danger of either organized religion or organized politics intruding on each other’s spheres of responsibility, but throughout his writings he emphasized the universal interdependence of faith and reason when freed from any organized human authority. Any monopoly of authority by either Church or State, and especially by a combination of the two, necessarily would deny this interdependence. The misbegotten secularist attempt to separate faith from reason was a reaction to the clash between the religious totalitarianism and the secular totalitarianism that gave rise to the Thirty Years War between Catholicism and Protestantism, which ended in 1638 when the Treaty of Westphalia invented the “state” as a substitute for God.
The totalitarian ideology of separating faith and reason can be even worse than institutionalizing either one or both, particularly if such institutionalization requires either societal acceptance or rejection of those elements of faith that are beyond accessibility or proof through human reason. These elements in Islamic thought are called the ghraib or what is hidden or other than humanly knowable. These include the afterlife and the nature and even existence of God. The arguments about whether reason trumps faith or faith trumps reason has been raging within the Muslim world for untold centuries, but the mainstream scholars agreed a thousand years ago that neither the rationalist Mutazillites nor the literalist Salafis trump the other, simply because there can be no incompatibility between faith and reason, and whoever thinks there is has misunderstood at least one of them.
The second problematic term discussed in the drafting of modern constitutions is “natural law.” This may be used to resolve the issue of pluralism. The agreed purpose of the Abraham Federation, which was adopted by various groups at a constitutional drafting workshop at a three-day gathering in Saint Louis earlier this month, resolved this problem by introducing the term “natural law”: “The Abraham Federation is a coalition of organizations that hold in common the idea that access to property ownership is the key to justice, and justice is the key to peace. We are a think-tank and catalyst for social change comprised of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all who uphold the principles of natural law. We advocate limited economic power of the State, free and open markets, and the full rights of private property.” Perhaps this should have included expanded access to ownership in the means of production, i.e., to private property, and recognized limits to the rights of private property, but this distinction was deemed to belong more properly to documents on legislative intent.
The modern meaning of “natural law” is the exact opposite of what it has meant in totalitarian circles, which for some centuries now has served to eliminate all reference to truth beyond what man creates. The revival of natural law has been spearheaded by a host of Christian and Islamic scholars in the search for a source of normative law independent of the kind of democracy that is understood as the tyranny of the majority, which was anathema to the traditionalist founders of America and to the entire heritage of both classical Islam and classical Christianity.
The concept of a higher or transcendent law was introduced to America by the traditionalist movement, which originated in the Scottish Renaissance and was led by the head of the minority party in the British Parliament, Edmund Burke. He distinguished between law and morality but held that both come ultimately from a higher law. Burke was the mentor of America’s founders, not Locke or any of the contract theorists, who posited man, specifically majority vote, as the ultimate source of deciding between right and wrong. Burke taught that democracy in this sense is merely a tool of governance, a means and not an end, which means that whatever Congress decides and whatever the U.S. Supreme Court rules as justiciable and thus enforceable must be based ultimately on the natural law, which gives authority to positive or “manmade” law.
Strict constructionists oppose any judicial legislation that purports to restrict the rights that are guaranteed in the 9th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which refers to this higher law. The higher law, as far as we can understand it, provides guidance primarily on morality, which belongs in the realm of religion not of government.
Thomas Jefferson’s entire philosophy was expressed in his statement, “No people can remain free unless they are properly educated; education consists primarily in learning virtue; and no people can remain virtuous unless both personal and public life are based on loving awareness of Divine Providence,” by which he understood God. I might add that he understood education more as teaching the “do’s” rather than the “don’ts.”
At Harvard Law School more than half a century ago we studied the “penumbras and emanations” of the Bill of Rights, which themselves include the natural law, even though Harvard has been by far the leading force in corrupting American tradition by elevating man to the level of God.
In my lengthy article, “Taproot to Terrorism: The Loss of Transcendent Law in America and the Muslim World,” published in The Muslim World Book Review, Summer 2005, I discuss the various terms used by Muslims and Christians as synonyms for what I call “transcendent law” or even “meta-law.” Muslims call it the maqasid al shari’ah, or normative principles of the higher law apparent in divine revelation, in the scientific study of the universe, including human nature, and in or through the use of human reason. Muslims scholars refer to these three sources, respectively as haqq al yaqin, ‘ain al yaqin, and ‘ilm al yaqin. This concept of “transcendent law” is discussed in my subsequent article in the September 2007 issue of this same journal, entitled “The Higher Justice of Divine Revelation: The Creativity and Dynamism of Islamic Jurisprudence,” which introduces some of the holistic methodologies for deriving moral guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah and applying it to contemporary issues of conscience, especially to economic justice.
From July 15th to August 15th, 2008, a group of twenty Islamic scholars met in intensive debate at the International Institute of Islamic Thought to explore these methodologies, including the concept of natural law. Next year these and perhaps other scholars may reconvene to build on the results of this year’s working group to discuss how to apply in the present the best of Islamic thought to build a better future.
For purposes of understanding religious pluralism, Christians are now resusitating the term “natural law,” just as Muslims are doing within such traditionalist concepts as the maqasid al shari’ah or normative law and the methodology of nazm or coherence of divine revelation. On page 13 of the above article on Taproot to Terrorism, I write: “Unfortunately, this framework of normative law has gradually been deconstructed over the past century and a half in America, and even more so in Europe, so that the primordially religious nature of all law in human society has been reduced to the positivist concept that natural law is non-existent, or irrelevant, or synonymous with human reason. This deconstruction poses a threat to the higher identity of every person and community and therefore evokes the fight or flight response of the animal whose very existence has been challenged.
The increasingly popular and powerful Christian response to such existential anomie has been best articulated by Russell Hittinger in his book sponsored by the traditionalist Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, 2002, 300 pages. He writes, “The purpose of natural law theory is to discover or assert the prior premises of human law. These coalesce around three foci; order in the Divine mind, order in nature, and order in the human mind.” Hittinger explains how “the great tradition of natural law allowed each of these three foci to have its own salience, depending on the problem at hand.” Through this framework the “law-makers” are guided by a higher law than themselves, and through it the justices are able intelligently to apply the legislative intent.
Muslims are hypersensitive about anything that smacks of anthropomorphism, so they would object to the metaphor “the Divine mind,” but this hang-up is similar to Catholic sensitivity to statues of humans in churches that might redirect prayer away from God. The risk is indeed there in both cases, but humans are created different from angels because we can both understand and intelligently use symbols, such as words and metaphors, to express what otherwise might be inexpressible. Angels know by infused knowledge, and so do humans, but we have “dual carburation” in that we can know what we know and also reject it.
Our unique nature as humans equips us to be stewards of creation with freedom to determine our own future and with the power to recognize the blessings of divine guidance so that we can benefit from the natural law of tawhid and appreciate the sacred coherence of diversity that points to the Oneness of God.