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It’s Only Natural

Ewwwh—that’s just gross!  It is wrong on so many levels.  I often hear people, Christians actually, making visceral comments like this about complex ethical issues.  Some argue that this instinctive, gut-reaction is a trustworthy guide to right and wrong.  I’m not so sure.

In today’s postmodern world, where good and evil are always contextual and relative, we struggle to find some firm ground.  Floundering in this moral morass, many Protestant Christians seem to have lurched toward a sort of natural law—something universal, a right and wrong that is hardwired into us.  When we see it violated, we just naturally respond “ewwwh!”  (The boomlet of attention to Kuyperian thought by American evangelicals is likely driven by this same aspiration—to find some categories and footings in the postmodern quicksand.) 

This sort of “poor man’s-Protestant” natural law has been evident for some time in the debates over homosexuality—“It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” or comments about anatomy “just fitting.”  But it has been the recent clashes over contraceptives that have stirred my thinking.  I’m not talking here about the “religious liberty” questions, but rather the disfavor toward contraception in general that this discussion has surfaced. 

The quiet surge among Protestants favoring “natural birth control” a.k.a. the rhythm method, is an example of this simplistic natural law trying to find expression.  Agree or disagree, but Catholic teaching on this has complex reasons for their view that every act of sex should be open to the possibility of conception.  The Catholic view is not, as Monty Python once spoofed, that “every sperm is sacred.”  But that caricature would just about seem to fit some of these new Protestant anti-birth control folk.  It is as if they take the anti-abortion view to a bizarre, unnecessary, “logical” conclusion.  Incidentally, I believe, this extreme conclusion hurts the anti-abortion cause, making it appear as some sort of primitive, quasi-luddite sexual ethic—anti-women, anti-sex, anti-fun.  The intense reaction to “Plan B” birth control (which is not an abortion drug, but only a strong dose of “the pill,”) indicates to me that the impulse to punish people, to make them pay for their actions, is for some Christians, stronger than the impulse to care for women or reduce unplanned pregnancies.

I studied with Jesuits for a number of years.  They use natural law with such lithe nuance you can barely tell that they are actually employing a natural law ethic.  And sort of like Protestant biblical interpretation, these Catholics can reach extremely different conclusions all while using the same natural law.  In other words, classical, Thomistic natural law isn’t a blunt instrument of “my gut just tells me” or “every sperm is sacred.”  Interesting irony that American presidents with a strong evangelical base tend to appoint Roman Catholics, with their sophisticated, subtle and conservative natural law framework, to the Supreme Court.

We Protestants have historically been dubious about natural law—our instincts, our guts, our conscience, have all been warped by sin and so are not the most trustworthy guide.  Even the Apostle Paul, on those rare occasions when he relied on the claim that something is “against nature,” had a hard time differentiating between what may be contrary to nature and what is simply his society’s preferences and tastes that he, like all of us, wanted to anoint as normal and natural. 

I recently heard an incredibly innovative and articulate Christian agriculturalist speak.  To almost everything he said, I both smiled and said “Amen.”  Then using his same expertise and mental schema, he veered into the realm of human sexuality.  It was an unfortunate comment.  I thought, “What you know about pigs and chickens and crop rotation does not translate well into the realm of human sexual ethics.  You’re out of your depth.” Why?  Two words came to mind: incarnation and resurrection. 

In the creation account of Genesis 1, we—humanity—are created on the same day as lemmings, geckos and three toed sloths.  In Genesis 2, we are created out of the dust of the earth.  Wise messages of connection and humility.  Nonetheless, when the Living God came to earth, it was as a human being.  In some way or another, that sets us apart.  Things that may be good and true for flocks and herds are not necessarily true for us.  I’m just not going to be taking much ethical advice from an agriculturalist, even a very creative, Christian one.  When the topic is human beings, the incarnation of Jesus Christ trumps the rhythms of nature.

If anyone is in Christ—new creation!  That’s it in a nutshell—this simplistic, sort-of natural law just doesn’t take Jesus seriously.  The resurrection of Jesus changes everything, including what we believe to be “natural.”  At first glance, the way of Jesus seems so very much against the grain of the universe.  In a beautiful twist, the way of Jesus is—in John Howard Yoder’s words made famous by Stanley Hauerwas—“with the grain of the universe.”  But how could the way of Jesus, who is the eternal Word through whom all things are created, be anything but truly natural?  But this deeply natural way is informed not by instincts and visceral reactions, but by Jesus. 

Gross.  Against nature.  Disgusting.  My gut.  These just aren’t the primary categories Christians should be listening to when trying to face today’s ethical issues.  They are easy and shallow categories, dull and clumsy tools that are often only our likings masquerading as natural.  Discerning the new creation of the risen Christ is rarely simple or quick and probably won’t slay the dragon of postmodern relativism, but to whom else shall we go?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

One Comment

  • Eileen says:

    What strikes me as strange is the silence on the issue of how the contraception debate affects missionaries sent into third world countries infected with Leprosy and other diseases where it would be very dangerous for couple to conceive and risk contagion when the drugs required in these situations would harm a child in the womb. Even in North America there are many medical conditions that require drugs that are incompatible with the safety of a child. Would the church have a woman put a baby at risk of birth defects when the doctor requires her to use birth control in order to receive the life changing medication or should she risk her health so she can have a baby she may not live to raise?

    The church talks about stewardship but ignores that when talking about making as many babies as you can.

    I think it is time to take a look at what Jesus said about Sabath Laws and apply that to Sex.

    Man was not made for Sex … Sex was made for Man and Woman. We should be master of, gifted with it, it not a slave to it.

    Just one woman's opinion.

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