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Secular nightmares told calmly

Untethering rights discourse from its Christian foundation will spell trouble

Jacques Maritain Wikimedia Commons

Secular nightmares told calmly
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A while back, a video clip of the World Economic Forum’s favorite pop philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari, went viral. In that video, Harari denigrated the notion of human rights as just a “fictional story” we tell ourselves, completely untethered from “reality.” There are many angles from which one could address this nihilistic, materialist worldview, or even the relationship between “stories” and reality. But I would like to introduce another voice to the cast of commentators on this debate.

Jordan Peterson registered his strong disagreement, advocating for universal human rights as established in  “the structure of being.” Historian Tom Holland quickly responded to Peterson, in a certain respect agreeing with Harari. Holland, though supporting human rights, thinks the idea that they are “built into the structure of … being” requires a “leap of faith.” Extending his logic from Dominion, Holland argues that the idea of human rights emerged out of a particular set of historical circumstances and that these assumptions are only “self-evident” to us because we live downstream of centuries of Christian influence in the West.

Here I think an especially helpful figure for this debate is one of the great architects of late modern rights discourse: the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain was extremely influential in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and around the time of World War II he wrote quite extensively on human rights, their relation to natural law, and varying levels of awareness of both across societies throughout history.

During World War II, Maritain also wrote The Rights of Man and Natural Law. As indicated by the title, Maritain grounds his exposition in natural law. He assumes his readers will all agree that there is something called “human nature,” and that this something is the same in all men. “The true philosophy of the rights of the human person is,” argues Maritain, “based upon the idea of natural law.” Natural law lays down fundamental duties, and duties and rights are correlative. “It is because we are enmeshed in the universal order, in the laws and regulations of the cosmos and of the immense family of created natures, … and it is because we have at the same time the privilege of sharing in spiritual nature, that we possess rights vis-à-vis other men and all the assemblage of creatures.” Furthermore, Maritain argues that human persons are gifted with reason by which they can discover their given nature in such a way as to order their actions to live in line with the necessary ends of the human being. This “order” is an “unwritten law,” and this is natural law.

As the gospel penetrates human cultures, awareness of natural law comes into fuller flowering.

Maritain immediately explains that the reality of this law and knowledge of it are two different things. “Natural law is not a written law. Men know it with greater or less difficulty, and in different degrees.” But Maritain doesn’t just tie this varying recognition to individual persons, but also societies and periods in history. “Man’s knowledge of it has increased little by little as man’s moral conscience has developed.”

Maritain’s arguments along these lines are also echoed in an important postwar book: Man and the State—especially in the chapter on “The Rights of Man.” In both of these writings on human rights, Maritain argues that our consciousness of the natural law can develop, and it has developed in societies that have been impacted by Christian witness. As the gospel penetrates human cultures, awareness of natural law comes into fuller flowering. Natural reason is increasingly “awakened” by the “Gospel leaven fermenting” in societies.

In a quote that would probably resonate with Holland, Maritain makes some stark contrasts between the modern West and pagan antiquity as it pertains to recognition of human rights:

The consciousness of the dignity of the person and the rights of the person remained implicit in pagan antiquity. … It was the message of the Gospel which suddenly awakened this consciousness …. Under the evangelical impulse, this same awakening was little by little to spread forth, with regard to the requirements of natural law, over the realm of man’s life here on earth.

Maritain reveals that Peterson and Holland are both partially correct. Human rights have ontological depth—they are “built into the structure of being”—even if this is not everywhere and at all times obvious to all persons. It has been mostly obvious to us in the West for some time as a result of the gospel’s awakening of our reasoning to see what was there all along. This is the West’s “leap of faith.” Darkness looms over societies that continue to walk away from that light.

James R. Wood

James R. Wood  is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario. He is also a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, co-host of the Civitas podcast produced by the Theopolis Institute, and former associate editor at First Things.

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