The topics of discussion today in my Biomedical Ethics class were Natural Law Theory, the Doctrine of Double Effect, the Principle of Totality, and Animal Testing. Whew! A great debate ensued between my students about ideas, ethics and if there are “natural laws” as Aquinas might define them. In our doctoral reading this week, “A Brief Guide to Ideas,” William Raeper and Linda Edwards cover a range of ideas from historical thinkers on epistemology, identity, religion, philosophy, politics, feminism, science, etc.
Due to my current teaching focus on Natural Law Theory and some of the aspects surrounding it I want to explore in this writing a few of the ideas about God. The descriptions of God varied from philosopher to philosopher. Plato discussed God as the Ultimate Form of the Good. Aristotle called God the “Unmoved Mover” which causes a desire for perfection. Augustine described God as Ultimate Truth. Aquinas took some of Aristotle’s ideas and discussed the idea of “Eternal Law.” He believed that there are eternal laws and these laws are affected in humans as natural laws. In other words, there are moral laws in place that can be known through reason. Humans can discover what is right and these laws are even written in our nature. C.S. Lewis shares this idea of natural laws and also determines that we consistently break these laws. He explains that there would not be quarrels if there wasn’t a set standard that both parties agreed upon. For example, in almost every society in the world stealing is against the law. However, a person may determine to steal a loaf of bread from a bakery in order to feed his children. In this case, other natural laws, or perhaps the “inclination” towards hunger led the man to steal and break this natural law. The baker and the man who is stealing both know stealing is wrong but the thief also does not want his children to starve to death.
This leads me to the question of why humans are in the predicament of knowing the natural laws, many of which might be found in the Ten Commandments, and also in a world that demands the breaking of these laws in order to survive. Perhaps, some would say that this is due to “evil,” “original sin,” or even the great deceiver “Satan.” So, next let’s look at an idea regarding God and evil by Descartes. Descartes uses reasoning from Aristotle and argues for the method of doubting in order to discover knowledge. For Descartes, “The idea of God has to be caused by an infinite substance, but there is only one infinite substance – God. Therefore God exists. …God is perfect…. If God is perfect, then he is perfectly incapable of deceiving us. Therefore there can be no deceiving demon, as God would not wish us to be deceived.” (87)
From here let’s ask some questions: Why does evil exist? Why are we subject to evil? Why would an all-knowing perfect God put a plan in place where humans are caught in a lifetime of doing good with evil sometimes being the result (Doctrine of Double Effect)? Why are humans subject to a “Fall” that happened at the beginning of time? What and where were human souls before the Fall? Why don’t humans remember “falling?” How does a perfect God create imperfect beings? Would Jesus have had to die for sins if a sinful world would not have been created? Is being a sinner a necessary evil? Are we asking the wrong questions? Are we coming up with faulty answers?
These are some of the questions that have led to the ideas we find in this reading. At some point there must be a place of mind where one lays aside the questions and lives life without confusion, if even for a few moments. Aquinas must have had some kind of experience of laying aside his ideas about God (a vision? a nervous breakdown?) when in 1273 while giving Mass he stopped writing and told his secretary he could not continue, “…because all I have written now seems like straw.” (65)
I sometimes find that momentary respites from ideas about God are exactly where I more deeply understand God.
Do you set aside moments where you lay the questions aside and still your mind? Do you ever take a momentary respite from ideas about God? What are your best practices for doing this? Do you think this type of practice is important? Why?
Please feel free to share your own questions or answers.
One more thing, “Happy 1st Day of Spring!”
Edwards, Linda and William Raeper. “A Brief Guide to Ideas”. Oxford, England. Lion Publishing, 1997.