There is much talk today about the “culture of death” and certainly there are powerful forces emanating from competing worldviews that predictably foster such conditions. These worldviews have driven us as a culture to legitimize abortion, consider euthanasia, and proceed to cross a whole host of bio-ethical issues as technology advances. However, these worldviews, in which the value of life and human dignity are diminished, inevitably encounter a most formidable obstacle: natural revelation.
The doctrine of natural revelation was probably best articulated by the 13th century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas in his monumental work, Summa Theologica. Aquinas argued that truth is known through both reason (natural revelation) and faith (supernatural revelation). This followed the Augustinian concept of “I believe (i.e. have faith) in order to understand.” However, the 17th century Enlightenment project turned this on its head by now saying “I must understand in order to believe” and unfortunately that has been the dominant epistemology in the Western world ever since.
In contrast to the Enlightenment approach to knowing, which excludes any knowledge derived from supernatural revelation; the biblical understanding of knowledge and what can be known regards special revelation (faith) and natural revelation (reason) as complementary rather than contradictory. For example, by excluding supernatural revelation—that which could not otherwise be known apart from the unveiling of God, i.e. Scripture—one cannot accurately comprehend the natural world (God’s natural revelation) and how best to govern ourselves. Morality and ethics, in particular, become areas in which we struggle to accurately determine good from bad and right from wrong. We see this in our culture today and specifically in the categories of what it means to be human and how we determine the value of life.
Under the narrow Enlightenment approach, these distinctions become arbitrary and we deny that which, in our deepest senses, we know to be true by means of natural revelation. We know them to be true because that is what the natural order of things confirms. This “feeling” or sense that we carry corresponds to reality and our collective human experience. This natural revelation was most powerfully confirmed in a recent story on NBCs Today about families who have suffered the tragic loss of a newborn child.
The story focused on an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, which serves to capture the fleeting moments of a dying newborn child’s life in photographs. In every instance, the preservation of their child’s likeness was a source of great comfort and meaning because as one mother said, “It is proof that she existed.” This mother, or any parent for that matter, knows that their newborn child is different from every other “thing” because children represent the pinnacle of God’s creation, being endowed with special value and dignity as human beings. We know this innately. From the beginning of time and across cultures, parents have grieved and will continue to suffer excruciating heartbreak over the loss of a child. This is the unrelenting culture of life and no amount of cultural corruption and political sloganeering will negate this universal fact.
Despite this fact, there are those, such as the eminent Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who argue that “something” can only be a person (or human) if it is self-aware and has temporal awareness. Using Singer’s definition, anything less than a “person” remains a “thing” and we know that the loss of a thing could not cause us to grieve in the same way that we do for a human being. So again—contrary to these monstrous philosophical assertions—experience or natural revelation confirms for us that human life is of greater value than anything else.
We know without being taught that each life does have meaning and purpose that extends beyond what one can or cannot do -- that human life, in any form, possesses equal dignity and value. For some of these families, their children were stillborn, never taking a single breath outside the womb and yet these too are lives to be celebrated. For these families, the photographic preservation of their pregnancy underscores the fact that their unborn child mattered! These parents know that their unborn child was not some mere biological product or “thing” but a fully intentioned human being. This is not merely “wish-fulfilling” positive self talk in the wake of overwhelming grief but rather an innate realization that comes from God’s natural revelation.
This is why so many who defend abortion on demand remain uncomfortable with their position. No one publicly calls for more abortions and even advocates speak of abortion as a “regrettable” last option. If it’s not the termination of a fully human life then why is it regrettable? This is why abortion advocates use euphemistic language such as “reproductive rights” and “right to choose,” because their position ultimately conflicts with what they know to be true by means of natural revelation.
This, in one way, reveals the failure of the Enlightenment project. On the one hand we may be able to assert a false position intellectually (reason) but on the other, these philosophical assertions will likely conflict with our inner sense (faith) of what it is right. I don’t know Peter Singer personally but I suspect that if he had experienced the tragic loss of his own newborn child that the experience would have affected him in a way that is at odds with his philosophy. This is why “defectors” overwhelmingly emerge from the false side of a perspective. This undermines the Enlightenment dichotomy of knowledge by demonstrating that there is a knowing, which comes from within (natural revelation) apart from reason.
Despite what at times may seem to be overwhelming obstacles to preserving and promoting a culture of life, the fact is, there is the greater obstacle of natural revelation opposing the culture of death. We must no doubt continue to press for legislative changes and measures that promote life in every instance but this is not our only hope. We must simultaneously point people to what God has graciously revealed to them in the essence of their very beings and His created order. We must certainly continue to validate the grief and sorrow of those who have suffered such a tragic loss. Finally, as Christians we must remember that while evil may reign for a season, throughout history and under the sovereign hand of God; it ultimately never wins!
© 2008 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the founder and President of the Center for Christ & Culture
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.