Natural Theology & Natural Law -however otherwise weak, at least- defeat Nihilism

In science, faith & quotidian life, epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can normatively adjudicate any competing responses using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty.

The hermeneutical spiral, above, recapitulates Lonergan’s transcendental imperatives & functional specialties.


To wit:

De-liberatively, regarding our references, descriptively & interpretively, epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can adjudicate, normatively, any competing responses, using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty, evaluatively.

De-liberatively (cosmos & mythos – be free, be loving, be-loved per both temporal & ultimate teloi) …

regarding our references …

descriptively (logos or perceptionbe aware in research & communications) & …

interpretively (topos or understandingbe intelligent in interpretation & systematics) …

epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can adjudicate …

normatively (ethos or actingbe responsible in dialectics & foundations), any competing responses, using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty

evaluatively,(pathos or judging & decidingbe reasonable in history & doctrines).

I must stipulate with Hart & Milbank that any rivalry between ultimate worldviews, say nihilist vs theological, cannot be logically coerced. Reality remains far too ambiguous for us & way too ambivalent toward us to compel belief through speculative reason, alone.

With the Thomists, I would insist that, even stipulating that nihilism has not thus been refuted, philosophy well demonstrates the reasonableness of natural theology as an equiplausible competing worldview.

For me, Thomism’s reasonableness remains indispensable over against any thoroughgoing fideism, much less, nominalism, idealism, voluntarism or relativism.

I do not receive Milbank as coming from some Thoroughly [Post]Modern Millie, but, instead, take (eisegetically) his postmodern critique as an admonition to avoid the temptations of dueling hyper-formalisms in countering those insidious –isms.

This is to recognize that —

no essentialistic framing will finally foreclose nominalism, descriptively;

no naïve realism will convincingly defeat idealism, interpretively;

no intellectualistic speculation will logically overcome voluntarism, evaluatively;

no absolutistic insistence will compellingly obviate relativism, normatively; and

no rationalistic appeals will definitively refute fideism, existentially.

But what amount to epistemic misfires for some are but caricatures for others, whose

1) descriptive probes include semiotic & moderate critical realisms;

2) interpretive heuristics employ a metaphysical fallibilism;

3) evaluative dispositions engage an irreducible triad of logos-pathos-ethos, e.g. Aristotelian eudaimonia, Augustinian beatitudo or Thomist summum bonum;

4) normative propositions allow some degree of ethical pluralism grounded – not in an insidious relativism or vulgar pragmatism, but — suitable epistemic humility, metaphysical fallibilism & moral probabilism ; and

5) philosophical preambula vault fidei past the threshold of equiplausibility.

Thomism’s reasonableness thus gets vaulted philosophically past the threshold of equiplausibility by the valid & coherent arguments of natural theology & natural law. (And its deontological conclusions should be considered at least as modest as its ontological commitments are tentative). There, philosophy culminates in either the theological preambula fidei & its general precepts or a nihilistic cosmogony.

Any “competing” theological or nihilistic mythos would come after a normatively justified existential leap.

Past this threshold of epistemic warrant, speculative reason yields to practical reasoning under uncertainty. The speculative arguments between essentialism & nominalism, realism & idealism, intellectualism & voluntarism, absolutism & relativism and fideism & rationalism have previously been transcended by a fallibilist, critical realism.

Normative justifications commence and can lead either to the fideistic, voluntaristic dichotomy of a theological versus nihilistic mythos or to an existential disjunction, where rational equiplausibility principles, albeit often implicit, adjudicate a decision to “live as if” that which is (more so, perhaps, they who are) the most life-giving & relationship-enhancing, the most beautiful & good, the most unitive & liberative, will — first & proleptically, i.e. proximately & temporally, as well as eventually & eschatologically, i.e. ultimately & eternally — also happen to be the most true.

This constitutes meta-discourse, however inchoate or implicit, whether variously held provisionally or confidently, yes, prior to special revelations, and yes, on tradition-transcendent grounds. Importantly, this needn’t be formal discourse or what can sometimes devolve into sylly syllogisms, but more often, via our participatory imaginations, comes from our common sense & common sensibilities, from connaturality, an illative sense, a tacit dimension, intuitions & informal abductions.

The most problematical arguments of natural theology are rationalistically grounded in naïve rather than critical realisms. The most problematical arguments of the natural law are a prioristic, rationalistic, deductivistic, biologistic, physicalistic & infallibilistic, especially as they move from general precepts to specific concrete norms, particularly because of epistemic hubris and the lack of a more inductive, personalist relationality-responsibility approach. But the abuse of natural theology & natural law is no argument against their proper use.

The questions that beg?

What constitutes the most life-giving, existentially?

How do we define & measure the most relationship-enhancing? The most unitive, interpretively & orthocommunally?

Where’s the most beautiful instantiated, evaluatively & orthopathically?

And the most good realized, normatively & orthopraxically?

And the most liberative, metanoetically & orthotheotically?

These are not questions that yield to an armchair cognitive map-making but which must actively engage participative imaginations that are naturally embodied, historically situated, socially embedded, culturally bound, politically immersed & transcendentally horizoned.

Of course it’s incredibly problematical to apply our ortho-metrics to competing worldviews, precisely because their instantiations are so very particular & traditioned.

But I wouldn’t want to defend the notion that nihilism remains in that competition?

Finally, Between an overly pessimistic Augustinian interpretation & overly optimistic transcendental Thomism, perhaps a Goldilocks theological anthropology can be articulated:


Gelpi recognized both as donative realities – a gratuity of creation & gratuity of grace, the Spirit’s universal presence (e.g. nomicities) & particular presence, where Grace is mediated via transmuted experience, where, for example, Kerygma matter immensely.

This discussion continues here:

Where in the World is Sophia? —a Sophiological footnote

The created grace Gelpi refers to would be constituted by reality’s actualized potencies, eternalized teloi (both temporal & ultimate teloi) of Peircean thirdness, efficient materialities of secondness, connaturalized indeterminacies of firstness, existentialized essences, formalized finalities, participatory intimacizations eternalized, all temporal realities coaxed forth Pneumatologically, Christologically & Paterologically via Divine Energies as would account for effects as would be proper to no known causes.

Every trace of human goodness, for example, eternalized, i.e. every beginning of a smile & all wholesome trivialities!

Whether interpreted in Platonic, Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, Thomist, Scotist, Palamitic or Peircean categories (and I cross hermeneutical bridges between them all), collectively & dynamically, these cumulative actualized potencies or eternally realized divine teloi may represent Sophia, who participates in the Divine Energies in a perichoretic Divine Dance.

In The Wisdom of God, Bulgakov spoke of two Sophias, one created and the other uncreated. She to whom I refer above would be the created Sophia in her participatedness. While I affirm the Divine Energies per a formal distinction, I must defer to others regarding the manner of viewing Sophia in Orthodoxy. And still wonder just how we might best account for ecstatic visions of Sophia.

See more re this theophany:


This body of work largely comprises my project, which I refer to as Pan-semio-entheism, because, as a systematic theology, while it is metaphysically realist, it prescinds from any given metaphysical root metaphor (substance, relational, process, experience, etc) to a phenomenological meta-heuristic.

See: Amos Yong With John Sobert Sylvest, “Reasons and Values of the Heart in a Pluralistic World: Toward a Contemplative Phenomenology for Interreligious Dialogue,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 20:2 (2010): 170-93

Integralism as a Pre-political Anthropology & Meta-political Norm Grounded Philosophically in Natural Theology – The Pre-political Grounding of both Liberal & Illiberal Regimes

Liberal & illiberal regimes may all have their times & places.

Licit regimes will share certain theoretical foundations, hence, criteria of liceity.

Consistent with such foundations, then, consider the following criteria:

Public laws serve as one of many means toward just ends.

We critique political strategies, diagnosis their deficits & prescribe their optimality by prudentially judging them per criteria defined by just ends.

Sufficient strategies will attain a modicum of justice as realized in public virtue, order & peace.

Confluent with other just ends, we exercise the end of freedom by being who & doing what we ought, i.e. properly forming & duti-fully exercising our consciences to flourish in & as community, where the necessary goods of a sufficient material progress serve as a means to higher moral & spiritual ends.

Freedom’s inherent duties, thus objectively & communally ordered, realize the aretaic & deontological ends (teloi) of eternal & natural laws.

We grow in freedom through a formative & liberative process of learning, which will necessarily include the increasingly habitual practice of these duties.

Freedom’s rights remain correlative with & inseparable from its duties to be/come who & do what we ought.

Radically finite, the concrete states of both individual & communal realities constantly evolve, so, continuously, we must prudently discern the means of their flourishing and adapt our public laws & political strategies to those states.

Laws & policies must variously prioritize & subordinate agreed upon (at least practically if not substantively) rights & interests and, when those rights unavoidably & truly compete, adjudicate them, balancing & reconciling them through accommodations that, foremost, preserve & foster the common good, but only ever limiting the rights & interests – or burdening the consciences – of individuals in the least restrictive manner practicable.

The abovementioned criteria obviously share certain theoretical foundations.

Even if only implicitly & inchoately, we can anthropologically & philosophically ground rather substantive (suboptimal but satisficing) agreements regarding theories of humanity & of the cosmos, of truth & of knowledge, of goodness & of beauty.

We thus abide some degree of ethical pluralism derived – not from an insidious relativism or vulgar pragmatism, but – from a moral probabilism consistent with an appropriate epistemic humility & suitable metaphysical fallibilism. Our de-ontologies should therefore be as modest as our ontologies are tentative.

A given community may well move beyond such an implicit & inchoate philosophical grounding, e.g. natural theology, to an explicit & definitive revealed theology. In that case, any agreed upon rights & interests may more optimally reflect humanity’s ultimate telos, condiligentes, i.e. as co-lovers with God.

In such a community, religious conversion can further foster, even trans-value, its members’ realizations of humanity’s proximate, erotic-agapeistic-eudaimonistic teloi.

Beyond a given community’s vision of ultimate teloi, transcultural realities & religious pluralism invite further excursus, e.g. regarding shared orthocommunal (topos), orthodoxic (or polydoxic logos ), orthopathic (pathos), orthopraxic (ethos) criteria.

Maritain, McInerny, Murray, MacIntyre, Milbank & a Medieval Integralist walk into a bar

Maritain, McInerny, Murray, MacIntyre, Milbank & a Medieval Integralist walk into a bar serving optimism & pessimism. Let Maritain & McInerny drive you home. The others are inebriated.

Regarding the following questions –What would Murray, MacIntyre, Milbank & Medieval Integralists Say?

Has a clearly successful civil polity (with articles of peace but not of faith) ever been founded in any pluralistic society based on some shared thematized natural law?

Has a fairly successful civil polity (with articles of peace but not of faith) never been founded in any pluralistic society, at least based on shared values, although not on shared justifications?

Has a lack of certain shared moral outlooks always necessarily ensued from some subjectivism, emotivism, voluntarism, relativism, utilitarianism, vulgar pragmatism, secularism or nihilism that precluded shared metaphysical commitments & axiological frameworks? What about Mortimer Adler’s account of humanity’s common sense & sensibilities and of certain self-evident prescriptive inferences that derive from our being immersed together in a similarly situated human condition, especially regarding major precepts?

Has a lack of certain shared moral outlooks never otherwise ensued from an ethical pluralism that included shared metaphysical commitments & axiological frameworks, but was derived with a suitable epistemic humility, metaphysical fallibilism & moral probabilism?

Murray, MacIntyre, Milbank or Medieval Integralists would each in their own way employ a theological anthropology that’s either excessively optimistic or pessimistic, based on (mis)conceptions regarding the relationship between nature & grace, variously implicating notions regarding the gratuity of grace.

A Goldilocks Theological Anthropology, neither too optimistic nor pessimistic, would be better reflected in the anthropology of Maritain, combined with Gelpi’s adaptation of Lonergan’s approach as modified by Gelpi’s account of grace as transmuted experience.

Per Maritain, humanity’s transcultural apprehension of the natural law is not robustly & discursively thematic but more so inchoately & connaturally intuitional. So, we can share evaluative dispositions, moral sensibilities & ethical intuitions that presuppose varying degrees of moral realism without sharing their justifications via deeper metaphysical commitments. Maritain would thus answer the above questions differently from his pub buddies.

If we adopt Gelpi’s Lonerganian adaptation in conjunction with Maritain’s account of humanity’s ubiquitous moral sensitivity to the natural law via connaturality, we can distinguish between the secular conversions (intellectual, affective, moral & sociopolitical) and religious conversion, whereby the former more properly reflect the gratuity of creation with its obediential potencies for grace, and the latter relate to the gratuity of grace, itself, to which one responds responsibly in faith (to some historical act of divine self-revelation & self-communication).

Certainly, from a pneumatological perspective, the secular conversions reflect the ordinary presence of the Holy Spirit in the world via its universality & prevenient connaturality. The particularity of the Holy Spirit’s action in the lives of Christian believers, however, reflects a radically transformative & extraordinary presence.


This does seem to be the crux. With Maritain we can’t deny that a prevenient connaturality hasn’t provided humankind’s inchoate realization of natural law via shared moral sensibilities & ethical intuitions, sufficient for a modicum of public peace, order, justice & morality? With Gelpi, we wouldn’t deny that humankind journeys more swiftly & w/less hindrance when secular conversions (intellectual, affective, moral & socio-political) are transvalued by religious conversions (radical & kerygmatic; yes, other religions w/degrees of truth & goodness) . So, no, there’s never been some edenic epoch of either a Whig Thomism (neocon or neoliberal) or an idyllic integralism (political Augustinianism). And monastic, anarchic & pacifist approaches have only ever been vocational & spirituality “options” not theopolitical norms (as in Augustinian radicalisms).

Too many conceive Catholic social & moral teachings as primarily intended to shape politics, reflexively thinking in terms of coercive polity in response to every papal utterance or episcopal exhortation, relegating their familial, social, civic & nongovernmental implications. They see government as the primary means of coordinating the initiatives of our better angels, which it sometimes can be, rather than for ameliorating the initiatives of our fallen angels. Gospel inculturation, moral enculturation & ministerial accompaniment aren’t coercive.


Regarding a Supposed Natural Law Impotence

Impotent natural law arguments nonvirtuously cycle abductive hypothesizing and deductive clarifying without the benefit of inductive testing, unlike the church’s highly esteemed social teaching with its NL plus personalist approach. Too many NL theorists employ abstract, aprioristic, deductivistic, rationalistic, biologistic arguments that bear little resemblance to the concrete, lived experiences of people. Church social teachings have employed triadic inference w/inductive, personalist approach+NL and are widely received. For some, NL hasn’t been tried and found wanting but hasn’t even been tried. When it has been done properly, it has been highly esteemed and widely accepted. Flawed methodologies need fixing. Shared inchoate NL sensibilities and intuitions suffice for public order, public peace, public justice and public morality in a secular governmental polity. More robust NL methods are of course required for thornier moral objects (e.g. bioethical). The latter methods can result in an ethical pluralism due -not to relativism, but- metaphysical fallibilism and moral probabilism, ie epistemic humility not HUBRIS!

Does faith shape our politics or is it too often the other way around?

From a formative spirituality perspective, “other way around” may happen more often among those in earlier stages. If we view progressive & traditionalist sensibilities as charisms of pilgrims & settlers, later on our faith journeys, those gifts may well shape our political ministries.

It does also seem that, even within denominations that accommodate a plurality of theological opinions regarding nature & grace, where one stands on the optimism-pessimism spectrum of theological anthropology (depravist & exclusivist vs inclusivist) often seems to shape political approaches.


Yes, moral realities are transparent to human reason without reference to special revelation. BUT Prudential judgments evaluate conditions of MORAL legitimacy, presupposed within an established framework of values and priorities. For example, coercive measures mustn’t produce evils & disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated!


I was heartened when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act here in US bolstered 1st Amendment protections regarding federal statutes (states would have to effect their own). While a generally applicable law advancing a compelling government interest could burden consciences, strict scrutiny requires that be done with the least restrictive means practicable.

The US approach to the Enlightenment employed a secularist political strategy that fairly well strengthened the influence of religion in citizens’ lives. On the Continent, however, a militant secularism marginalized religion; beyond a mere political strategy, it was driven from other spheres – civil, social, economic & cultural.


Maritain recognized that prudential judgments must discern which civil polity is optimal from one location and concrete set of circumstances to the next, even from one epoch to the next. As the degrees of successful Gospel inculturation & moral enculturation thus vary, strategies advancing human dignity, common good, justice & peace must adapt.


Throw tribalistic cultures into the mix, along with recent results regarding neoconservative democratization “strategies” (e.g. war) & Arab Springs unsprung, is it not clear that no one political shoe will fit all peoples?


Prior to any political theology, one needs a Goldilocks theological anthropology, i.e. neither too optimistic (eg transcendentalistic) nor pessimistic (eg dialectical imagination or depravity), so, I commend the thoughts of my late fellow Yat (N’orleanian). For the convenience of any who may be interested, Don Gelpi on grace pt 2

Finally, I commend Amos Yong’s In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism & Political Theology, where he writes: Catholic Social Teaching is important less because of specifiable political proposals but because it articulates a theological vision of social & economic justice that has broad political implications.

I commend Yong’s book as in continuity with Gelpi’s theological anthropology and Maritain’s political philosophy.

From an anonymous reviewer:

Our political interaction, as expressed in our many different modes of public interaction, takes on a contextual expression that responds to the particular instances in light of the work of Christ. With this in mind, then, a Pentecostal political theology does not mandate a specific response that must be applied in all settings, but rather builds a framework of values and priorities which give freedom to those in each setting. This framework is not a wishy-washy approach, suggesting that whatever is done is always baptized in the Spirit, but instead offers freedom within the context of responsibility. We who are Christians, who seek to participate in this world in the power of the Spirit, do so in light of Christ’s own calling, and it is as such that Yong formulates his constructive theology.

Finally, I commend The Conservative Pragmatism of Charles Peirce by Thomas Short.


Catholic Social & Moral Teaching – provides a framework of values & priorities to advance human dignity & the common good. Within that framework citizens apply their best prudential judgments to optimally realize those values & priorities. Such liberative strategies are not first and foremost coercive or political, but, when they do resort to political solutions, those have included most of the following:


Integralism & Political Augustinianism

Augustinian Radicalism

Classical Liberalism





Political emphasis on negative rights & free exercise

Social, Economic, Fiscal, Political & Cultural conservatisms

Modern Liberalism

Social Democracy

Social Liberalism

Economic Statism & Keynesian Economics

Political emphasis on positive rights & nonestablishment

Social, Economic, Fiscal, Political & Cultural progressivisms






Just how could such manifold & varied political strategies, almost all, ever be deemed largely compatible with Magisterial teachings from place to place & time to time? That will be the subject of my next tweet, which I’ve been working on for the past decade. Since I’ve recently been afforded 280 characters, though, it’s going to take me a bit longer to compose it. I’ll give you a hint. Each of the above represents an ideology that variously over- and/or under-emphasizes one aspect of Church teaching or another. Foundationally, they can also be overly optimistic or pessimistic regarding their preconceptions of nature & grace vis a vis their implicit theological anthropologies.

Simone Weil – patron saint of the religious Nones?

A wise nephew once told me that families are often like a fire. At the proper distance, we can warm ourselves, while, being too close can get us burned.

Simone Weil could not bring herself to approach the hearth of the institutional church — not only for the fear of getting burned, herself, but — out of a genuine fear of others, whom the church excluded, getting burned even more. She chose to remain outside, beyond the institutional margins, travelling as a pilgrim in a noninstitutional vehicle, an unmarked ecclesiological car of the Mystical Body.

For its part, the institutional vehicle was too often (not to say either exclusively or always) being steered (both hierarchically & by many infantilized laity) by those whom I would call People of the Lie, those whom Scott Peck generically referred to whenever he encountered persons caught up in efforts to preserve sick identity structures, whether of themselves or of their institutions.

It wasn’t the mysteries entrusted to the Church but the institutional evils encrusted on it that Simone rejected.

Noninstitutional vehicles are manifold & multiform. Sometimes, they’re the only viable means of traveling. Returning to the first part of this mixed metaphor, they’re the only form of community by which some can warm themselves without getting burned or possibly burning another.

Every time that a man has, with a pure heart, called upon Osiris, Dionysus, Buddha, the Tao, etc., the Son of God has answered him by sending the Holy Spirit.

And the Holy Spirit has acted upon his soul, not by inciting him to abandon his religious tradition, but by bestowing upon him light — and in the best of cases the fullness of light — in the heart of that same religious tradition. … It is, therefore, useless to send out missions to prevail upon the peoples of Asia, Africa or Oceania to enter the Church. (Simone Weil, Letter to a Priest, 1951)

I am heartened by some recent papal admonitions against proselytizing.

The phrase “with a pure heart, called upon,” to me speaks of – not just an intentionality, but – a profoundly relational intentionality. In reading and encounter, I have come across this type of devotional dimension in all of the world’s great traditions, as well as both indigenous and even nontheist religions.

Intertwined with (yet largely abstractable from) these devotional intentionalities, which are creedal or propositional in the way that they point toward specific “targets” of intentionality, e.g. cosmos, others, God or even self, are all manner of practices, disciplines, rituals, asceticisms and exercises, which, without being essentially propositional, foster our growth in human authenticity (a dispositional reality wherein our intellectual, affective, moral, social & relational dimensions take on postures of humility).

Humility presents in other domains beyond the intellectual, including affective, moral, social, political and relational. I elaborate on that elsewhere on this site, where I distinguish between the dispositional trajectories of Lonergan’s conversions and the developmental trajectories of the human growth theories of Piaget, Erickson, Kohlberg, Fowler and so on.

In my view, our Spirit-inspired traditions all share the same soteriological trajectory, that growth in authenticity that Bernard Lonergan called secular conversions, which I like to refer to as the love of wisdom. That’s what ortho-doxy or true glory means to me.

That’s why we can appropriate certain practices from other traditions and integrate them into our own, eg. Christian Zen.

Our traditions may otherwise diverge to various extents, taking distinct sophiological trajectories, growing us as “beings in love” with specific “targets” and dimensions of intentionality, e.g. cosmos, others, God or even self. That’s what poly-doxy means to me, many-gloried, and even nonbelievers can participate.

Folks like Maslow, Viktor Frankl and Lonergan all, each in their own way and time, eventually came to recognize that authenticity, in order to be sustainable, required self-transcendence, which I like to refer to as the wisdom of love.

I don’t deny how our getting our creedal propositions right can help us journey more swiftly and with less hindrance, enjoying a spiritual superabundance. So, I’m not suggesting some insidious indifferentism. But I do believe that these soteriological and sophiological trajectories, as I have come to understand them, can be realized ubiquitously, yielding human value-realizations in abundance, across traditions. Some folks have even co-inhabited traditions, although that’s rare because, anthropologically, religions’ cultural embeddedness present major challenges to converts, often requiring deep participatory immersions for both creedal inculturations as well as moral & sociological enculturations.

Simone, I believe, was in touch with such a profound pneumatological (Spirit-inspired) optimism and inclusivism as I have tried to describe. That may be why she saw no need to proselytize as evangelizing, itself, was sufficient, and why she also felt safe abiding beyond the margins, journeying in a noninstitutional vehicle.