The Spiral of Natural Law:  An Emergent Paradigm for the Third Millennium?

The Spiral of Natural Law:  An Emergent Paradigm for the Third Millennium?

Dr. Robert D. Crane


Natural law as a focus to address the tension between science and religion has been a focus for thought since the first caveman sat on a rock and pondered the meaning of life.  He faced in his own culture the fact that conflicts arise when the independence of pragmatic thought excludes religion from reality just as much as when religion restricts the independence of human reason. 

Civilization, defined as a balance of order, justice, and freedom, declined in the Islamic world when religious dogmatism intruded into the realm of science, whereas European civilization is declining because scientific dogmatism in the form of scientism is relegating religion to the periphery of public life.  When either the transcendent or the immanent asserts its own primacy or even an exclusive claim to truth, cosmos becomes chaos, and civilizations clash and then disappear.

Civilizations rise when cultures develop independently by innovative thought in responding to new challenges.  They mature and flourish when they see the corresponding good in other civilizations not as proof of their own legitimacy but as proof of the legitimacy of the other.  The Indian Muslim, Muhammad Iqbal, sought to legitimate Islam for Muslims by constantly referring to English writers who agreed with him. This is a useful first stage in the revival of a culture, but only a beginning.  My approach is somewhat the opposite in that my writings seek to legitimate classical American culture for Muslims by showing that it agrees with classical Islam.  In either case, a higher level objective would be to demonstrate that all traditionally-based cultures, i.e., in their classical forms, are equally legitimate in the pursuit of order, justice, and freedom to the extent that they respect the validity and independence of both religion and science in the pursuit of truth.

The first task in seeking the relevance of religion and science to each other as independent pursuits is to define what one means by the classical thought of a particular religion-based culture.  This is especially necessary in addressing classical Islamic thought (from the third to sixth Islamic centuries), because it is “the most misunderstood religion.” 

Unfortunately, the religion of Islam is misunderstood by Muslims just as much as by non-Muslims.  This poses a problem because some ignorant Muslims claim to understand it when in fact they are promoting a pseudo-religion that has nothing to do with classical Islam.  Non-Muslims, usually being equally ignorant, have no way to distinguish what is pseudo from what is real.  Understandably, as their only evidence, they rely on the actions of ideological totalitarians claiming to be Islamic.

Historically, both Islam and Christianity have been highly politicized.  Muslims claim that in Islamdom there has never been a conflict between science and religion, whereas in fact there has always been such a conflict but using the different terminology of revelation versus reason, rather than Church versus State.  Only in the Christian West did the resulting conflict produce not merely all-consuming paradigmatic wars but almost unimaginable violence.  Perhaps this is because science as the search for knowledge died in the East and destroyed the civilization, whereas the scientific method, borrowed from the East, was harnessed to the search for power in the West and won out in the form of a new global civilization. 

The spiritual quest is the search for the “why” or purpose of life.  Science, including the human infrastructure of management and institutional innovation, is the search for the “what” or means and tools of action to pursue purpose. The severity of the conflict in the West, and its impact on the rest of the world, which threatens to destroy all civilization, may explain why the West has produced probably the world’s best literature on the mutually supporting roles of science and the spiritual quest as a means to restore civilization. 

Our “first caveman” represents the proto religions of humanity, including those of many Native American nations in the United States.  They traditionally use the spiral metaphor to address the insight that spiritual truths, including the interaction of physical science and the spiritual quest, are never lineal with a finite destination. 

This metaphor can also be used to express the truth that the apophatic path of The Buddha from self-denial to joyful self-giving is only one approach to knowledge, and that the opposite or cataphatic approach is equally valid, because they lead to and reinforce each other.

Using another traditionalist metaphor, the cataphatic or “yes” approach, relying on the human instinct for infaq which is the propensity to give rather than merely take in life, permits one to start at the center of the circle of wisdom in the presence of God, rather than at its circumference in the externals of existence.  These two paths, starting at either the periphery or the center, the external (zahiri) or inner (batini), are found in all traditionalist religions, which encompass always within themselves all ways.  One is directed inward from the externals in diverse human cultures toward the center, which is beyond Being but is known by its manifested attributes of power, loving compassion, and wisdom.  Then it spirals out again.  But, wisdom can also start cataphatically at the center, radiate outward, and then return to the source, because the spiral is merely the unitary harmony of both without beginning and end.

The key to the spiral is the trinity of Allah’s major attributes found in the first “opening” chapter of the Qur’an, which contains and summarizes the other 113 chapters.  The Fatiha invokes God’s infinite power (maliki yawm al din, Lord of all the Worlds), compassion (al rahman, al rahim), and knowledge (sirat al mustaqim), and it concludes with a prayer for guidance on the paths that God provides through these attributes.  These attributes inhere in every person, because every sentient being, according to the common teaching of every world religion, is made in the image of God. 

What is this path of guidance, which necessarily must connect science and religion?  A traditionalist answer, expressed in modern terminology, is “natural law.”  In Islam this is called the Sunnat Allahi, the way of God.  Everything in existence points to the spiral, because everything that is created is a sign pointing to its origin in the uncreated.

Christian thinkers have addressed these issues in recent decades generally better than have Muslims, which means that Muslims have much to learn from Christianity, just as Christians have an equal amount to learn from Islam.

Roman Catholicism’s greatest twentieth-century theologian, Etienne Gilson, in the chapter, “God and Contemporary Thought,” of his book, published in 1959, God and Philosophy, beautifully stated the premise that positivist science and normative wisdom are independent of each other in the sense that neither proves the other, but they are not unrelated. 

A second major premise in the spiral of natural law is well developed in Russell Hittinger’s book, First Grace, Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, which was reviewed in my article in The Muslim World Book Review of Summer, 2005.  He posits that the purpose of natural law theory is to discover or assert the prior premises of human law, which coalesce around three foci: order in the Divine mind, order in nature, and order in the human mind.  These three approaches to reality are not only related but are dependent upon each other as aspects of compassionate justice.

Other major Christian contributions from mid-century America most relevant to compassionate justice as the link between science and religion are: 1) Jacques Maritain’s Natural Law (as edited by Sweet), which treats the subject in terms of apophatic “con-naturality”; 2) Paul Tillich’s Love, Power, and Justice, 1954, which condenses his Gifford Lectures published from 1950 to 1957 as volumes in his trilogy entitled Systematic Theology; and 3) Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man (1944), which collects his Gifford Lectures, and his earlier Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). 

Other superb mid-century contributions include: 1) Lecompte du Nouy’s Human Destiny, which was published in 1947 and was so important in my own intellectual development; 2) the famous trilogy by Louis Mumford, starting with his last great work, The Condition of Man, published in 1944, which followed his earlier works, Technics of Civilization (1934) and The Culture of Cities (1938).  His Condition of Man was the first book assigned to me by my father in a one-year crash course at home when I quit Harvard in 1947 in protest against the superficiality of its rampant secularism found in its triumphalist and militant hostility to the transcendent.  As an economics professor at Harvard, my father was a proponent of the secular utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, but fortunately the books he assigned taught the exact opposite.

Mid-century analysis should also include G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man; Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison; Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert; Martin Buber’s I and Thou; Arnold Tounbee’s War and Civilization and America and the World Revolution; and perhaps even Maurice Hindus’ A Traveler in Two Worlds.
My personal library contains hundreds of books from the 20th century that may be uniquely relevant, but I cannot judge this because I initially read them from a perspective different from the spiral of natural law.

Contributions from fin de siecle or end-of-the-century thinkers are many, but perhaps the best is Hans Kung’s Theology for the Third Millennium, An Ecumenical View (1988), which is a functionally-Islamic work and provided one reason why the Vatican ever afterwards has forbidden him to teach at a Catholic university.  Another profound thinker is The Reverend George F. McLean, who for many years held elite conferences of theologians from all the world religions on every continent and has produced a shelf of twenty volumes on the results.  After completing his volume in 1999, Ways to God, he invited me to share his quarters at Catholic University in order to help flesh out his observation that the first millennium was focused on God and the second on man, whereas the third millennium may be devoted to the unification of both.

Analysis of fin de siecle thinkers should include also Francis A. Schaffer, who founded L’Abri in the Swiss Alps and authored the trilogy The God Who is There (1968), True Spirituality (1971), and He is There and He is Not Silent (1972), as well as his most famous book relevant to natural law, namely, Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion (1994).  Other relevant contemporary contributions that bring out compassionate justice as a core of the permanent things include James V. Shall’s Another Sort of Learning (1988) and Peter Kreeft’s Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War (1996).  This controversial book by Kreeft, who has published many books widely acclaimed by Evangelical Christians, reflects the wisdom of Muhammad Iqbal and the sophia perennis as best developed by Fritjhof Schuon, Martin Lings, and Hossein Nasr.

Perhaps it takes eight decades of intellectual and spiritual inquiry to see long-range global trends, which has been my profession most of my life.  I matured during the last decade before the mid-point of the 20th century, in the 1940s, when the desacralization of public life and the creeping but rampant injustices of the world provided the impetus for triumphantly secularized and malignantly utopian ideologies to threaten world civilization.  In 1940, at the age of eleven during the beginning of World War II, I wrote a 150 page novel entitled From Savagery to Civilization.  Eight years later in 1948, I celebrated my twentieth birthday in Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago or system of slave labor camps as a result of my “field research” on the spiritual dynamics of underground resistance to the modern totalitarian state. 

Now again in the first decade of the 21st century, contrary to the hopes of benign, secular dreamers, the same desacralization and rapidly accumulating injustices have provided the impetus for an even more dangerous totalitarian movement to threaten the human future on earth.  This is the de facto desacralization of both private and public life by demonic totalitarians using the cover of a religion, Islam. 

The choice before us is whether the wisdom of compassionate justice can unite religion and science in addressing the causes of the new totalitarianism in order to counter the otherwise inevitably resulting chaos, or whether the intellectual elites who shape the agendas that control policy will continue to rely on the utopian search for stability by maintaining the status quo with all of its injustices.

The trends are going all the wrong way.  Nevertheless, there may be room for hope, because, according to chaos theory proven in every branch of science, this disintegration into seeming chaos from doing more of the same without a productive result is a necessary first step in the emergence of a new paradigm to address an underlying reality that has hitherto lurked as a potential understood only by those on the fringes of society.

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