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What Does "Natural" Really Mean?

March 20, 2018

"I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God."   (Ezekiel 36:25-28)

Did you catch that little part in the middle? For some reason it hit me this morning like never before:  "I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts."

Other translations render "natural hearts" as "hearts of flesh" but either way, this is an amazing statement to me. How often do we hear from others (ourselves for that matter) that this or that sin is "natural"? I think we throw the word around far too carelessly. From drug use to any kind of sexual behavior imaginable to even violence toward others, it's not uncommon to hear human actions declared to be permissible or even good because they are "natural."

But here's the question I think the reading above should lead us to consider: Is something automatically morally good just because it's "natural"? More to the point: What does "natural" really mean, anyway?

Usually, we seem to use the word to generically describe 1) anything that we find in nature (like marijuana) and its usage in a number of ways, and 2) just about any behavior that an animal exhibits. In this way of thinking, it would be just as natural for me to kill someone I have a disagreement with as it is for a dog to kill a groundhog. But for this to hold, we have to make some pretty broad and incorrect assumptions:

 
  1. If something appears in nature (is "natural"), then I can use it however I want.
 
  2. We are nothing more than animals, driven and even controlled by biological instinct.
 

There are some serious problems here. To the first point, just because something originates in "nature", it certainly does NOT follow that we can use it in any way we want. If you don't believe me, try replacing your washcloth with poison ivy. Or try cuddling with a rabid wolverine. Yes, poison ivy and wolverines are "natural." Playing around with them is not a good idea, though. Viruses and bacteria and UV rays are natural, too. So is marijuana, but does that mean that smoking it is morally neutral or even permissible? What is your criteria for answering that question?

 

To the second point, it's just simply not true that we are exactly the same as every other animal in the world. We are rational beings. We don't merely act on instinct, though we certainly share the instinctual drive of the animals. But human nature is different. It is not a set, permanent, unchanging fact of my being. As Dr. Peter Kreeft has pointed out, we are the only species in God's creation, next to the angels, who can fail to achieve our intended nature. Trees are always and everywhere "treeish" and dogs are "doggie" and mountains are "mountainous." But we can truly be "inhuman." We can choose between following our base instincts  or foregoing them in loving sacrifice for the good of others.

This is because we alone among the animals operate on the moral spectrum. We don't just pick between neutral actions. We choose between good and evil. Our thoughts, words, and deeds have moral and eternal consequences, both for us and for everyone else in the world, for we are one human family. The Catholic principle of solidarity emphasizes this: we are all united and the choices I make either bring humanity up or down. Sin is not merely a mistake. Every sin, from the little white lie to grand theft auto to murder is an act of nature-mutilation. Everything we do makes us more human or less human. Every choice we make turns the world a little more holy or a little more wicked. This is a tremendous responsibility, but it is also an unfathomable gift from the God who made us to bring His presence into creation at every moment.

So next time we're tempted to lower the bar even further, maybe we should tap the breaks and ask ourselves this question: "What does the One who designed me say I should do right now?" After all, who has more of a right to say what my "nature" really is than the one who thought me up in the first place?

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