This will be a little choppy….
Romans 2: 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
God has written the (natural) law on men’s hearts, whether they believe in God or not. C.S. Lewis develops this in the Appendix of The Abolition of Man. And some version of the Golden Rule is found in every major religion. Let the non-believers believe whatever they want about why this is so. We know it is because God made man in His image and breathed into man, giving him a soul.
If this is so, that God has written the law on men’s hearts, why was pre-Christian Rome so ethically degenerate – believing, all-the-while, that their behavior was quite moral? As I have noted before, Rome was a cruel society, albeit the Romans did not believe it to be. They practiced their ethic, finding their behaviors to be quite moral.
What was some of that Roman morality? Thousands of slaves crucified at a time; executions in the central amphitheater, cheered on by thousands of onlookers; slavery, necessary and beneficial; women, kept in the quiet rooms of the house; infanticide.
It wasn’t that these actions were done but frowned upon; these were done openly and considered moral. Other societies around the world at that time held similar moral views. So where was this law written by God on men’s hearts? Why were there no pangs of guilt or remorse at such behavior?
This began to change with Christianity, almost immediately. While slavery continued, with Constantine the slaves were no longer to be the sex toys of their masters; women held a respected role with the growth of the Church; infants were made in God’s image, just as much as their parents.
Not to say civilization immediately resolved all of these moral issues – we still work on these today (sadly, going backwards on many). But the change wasn’t a natural evolution from pre-Christian Greco-Roman morality.
Did it take the Incarnation to change this? Clearly, God just giving man the Law was not sufficient (the Hebrews couldn’t even get out of the desert due to their failures). Various ancient cultures had some version of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. But they all took as moral many behaviors that violated many of these same commandments.
Was there something necessary about seeing the Law fulfilled in one Man, in the flesh, incarnate? Correlation is not causation, and sometimes coincidence is nothing more than coincidence. But sometimes correlation is due to causation, and coincidence is not merely coincidence.
Did it take the Incarnation of Jesus to open up man’s eyes and enable his reason to discover the natural law? I will have to give this more thought, and welcome any thoughts you have.
The Search for Meaning
The foundation of, and objective for, natural law ethics is to be found in man’s purpose. Man’s purpose is beatitudo. Normally translated as happiness, but not the superficial meaning as we know the term today. Better translated as fulfillment through other-regarding action: love. Jesus said the same thing, when answering the question about the greatest commandment: love.
A non-believer wouldn’t put it this way, yet he still is brought to tears when Tony Stark snaps his fingers in Endgame. Why? As noted in the passage from Romans, above: God has written it on men’s hearts.
There has been plenty of discussion in the last few years about what has been labeled the meaning crisis in the West. I find that resolving this meaning crisis and moving toward liberty are both addressable by the same thing (and only this one thing): how is one to live? The answer is easy: according to man’s purpose. A second question: how do I find meaning? That answer is easy: by living according to man’s purpose. What is man’s purpose? Beatitudo: Love.
A lion in a zoo has plenty of food without the struggle of the hunt, access to free healthcare, and is protected in every physical way. Is he living a meaningful life? To ask the question is to answer it. His life has meaning if he lives according to his purpose – and that purpose isn’t going to be found in a zoo.
This is why the search for meaning must incorporate the importance of a natural law ethic. It is the ethic that conforms to man’s purpose, and a life lived according to man’s purpose is a life of meaning.