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New book offers lessons for multicultural societies by exploring morality from different religious perspectives

Cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press.

David Novak, holder of the J. Richard Shiff Chair in Jewish Studies, is a philosopher and theologian with a deep interest in ethics, political theory (particularly natural law theory) and Jewish-Christian relations. His latest book, Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian and Islamic Trialogue is a collaborative effort, co-authored with U of T law professor Anver Emon and Matthew Levering at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. It explores morality from the perspectives of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Arts & Science News spoke with Novak about the book and its implications for the modern world.

What is “natural law” and what can it tell us about how we live, or should live?

Natural law refers to prescriptions that are considered to be normative or morally binding on all human beings. It does not describe what humans actually do, but rather is a universal morality. It is called “law” because it consists of such commandments as the prohibitions of murder, rape and robbery. It is called “natural” because we humans can understand it to be essential to our very humanness — to our nature — that our lives, bodies and property are not to be violated. Moreover, we can understand that just as our lives, bodies and property ought not be violated by others, so we ought not violate the lives, bodies and property of others.

As such, natural law lies at the heart of any assertion of essentially human sociality, which is manifest in the inherent human inclination to live with all others justly and peacefully. That is why most of us think those humans who deny this basic human inclination are “inhuman” or “unnatural.”

However, no human society is only governed by this minimal morality. Secular societies need positive laws that supplement natural law in response to their particular historical circumstances. Religious cultures like Judaism, Christianity and Islam need positive law that comes directly from God in order to constitute their concrete relationship with God, which is not a natural law concern. Nevertheless, both secular positive law and religious divinely revealed law lose their moral legitimacy when they attempt to abrogate, rather than build upon, natural law.

How was this book project born?

I already knew Matthew Levering from his 2010 monograph on my thought Jewish-Christian Dialogue and the Life of Wisdom: Engagements with the Theology of David Novak. Anver Emon and I were part of a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) colloquium on the interaction of Jewish and Islamic law. It was Matthew Levering who brought the three of us together for a colloquium to deal with the question of how the three monotheistic religions advocate certain moral norms to be binding, not only on their particular adherents, but on all humankind because of our common, universal, human nature. As such, there is natural law teaching in all three of our religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each of us had written books on this subject: Levering’s Biblical Natural Law; Emon’s Islamic Natural Law Theories; and my Natural Law in Judaism. So, we decided that the multicultural implications of our earlier separate works should be made explicit in a joint effort.

What has been the outcome of having three different intellectual perspectives brought into collusion?

Actually, there were two sets of multiple perspectives. First, there are three different religious perspectives. Each of us is a practicing member of his religious community: Levering is a practicing Catholic Christian; Emon is a practicing Sunni Muslim; and I am a practicing traditional Jew.

Second, there are three different intellectual perspectives: Levering’s perspective is primarily theological; Emon’s is primarily historical; and mine philosophical.

While we have had both religious diversity and intellectual diversity, we’ve had enough commonality to make our joint work possible, and enough difference to make our work interesting. Also, in the book, each of us comments in detail on the essays of his other two colleagues. That shows how our work is not three different essays written side-by-side, but rather a truly critical trialogue taking place among ourselves within the book itself. In other words, we don’t just advocate trialogue, we actually practice it.

Finally, there was a key human factor: the personal chemistry. We like and respect each other. We are friends. Indeed, without this human factor, which cannot be predicted in advance, this kind of a project would have never worked out.

What is the most salient difference between the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian perspectives on natural law?

One difference between Christian natural law theory and both Jewish and Islamic natural law theory is that the very name “natural law” (lex naturalis) is much more explicit in Christian (especially Catholic) theology than it is in either Jewish or Islamic theology. So, on the one hand, Christians have to be careful not just to repeat old formulas of natural law, but to rethink its meaning for societies that are much more secularized than the mediaeval societies where it was first formulated, societies that defined their very legitimacy in explicitly Christian terms. Jews and Muslims, on the other hand, have had to show that there is any natural law at all in their respective traditions, and that natural law is not a strictly Christian idea that is essentially foreign to classical Judaism and classical Islam.

As for a difference between natural law in Judaism and natural law in Islam, Muslims have had much more practical experience in the type of real jurisprudence in civil and criminal matters where discussion of natural law norms (by whatever name) cannot be avoided. For Jews, though, living in no society where traditional Jewish law is enforced by state power, natural law has been an issue of more theoretical than practical import.

How about the most interesting intersection or commonality?

One common problem we all have is the fact that there are Jews, Muslims and even Christians (especially many Protestants, and even some Catholics) who reject natural law as an imposition of what might be called a nonreligious idea (as first formulated by the “pagan” Greek philosophers and Roman jurists) on the law the respective communities believe has been directly revealed to them by God. Thus Jewish, Christian and Muslim natural law proponents have had opponents in our respective communities who themselves seem to have much in common.

What has been the most surprising outcome of this trialogue?

I am surprised — though not too surprised — that there hasn’t been more academic interest, at least so far, in our trialogue.

But, isn’t interreligious conflict among Jews, Christians and Muslims probably the most volatile political problem in the world today — and not only in the Middle East? How could anyone see our truly multicultural, interreligious project as being arcane or irrelevant? So I have come to a sort of conclusion from this academic indifference: it might be due to a dominant prejudice against any kind of serious religious, or even interreligious, discussion in our highly secularized, western societies of North America and Europe. In other words, here interreligious strife is not taken to be the problem. If it were the problem, an effort like ours would be viewed as an interreligious contribution to the solution of that problem. Indeed, it is a solution that can only come from religious thinkers if it is to be genuine.

Moreover, it is an approach that takes the secularity of our western societies seriously inasmuch as it speaks in terms of universal human reason rather than in terms of our particular faiths. Nevertheless, there are many in our society, whether in the universities or in the media or in the courts, who are convinced that religion itself is the problem. And, for them, the best solution to the problem of interreligious strife is either to ignore religious traditions altogether or to make their moral claims totally private, even idiosyncratic, preferences. But that, of course, makes them publicly irrelevant and thus unrecognizable to the very people who live by them.

What lesson can the project teach us about living in multicultural societies, such as Toronto?

Much multicultural discussion here in Toronto (and elsewhere to be sure) has been an exercise in fostering tolerance. That is, it has been an attempt for the members of various cultures — virtually all of whom define themselves in essentially religious terms — to get to know each other and respect one another as human beings living decent, nonthreatening human lives. That is a good and necessary beginning.

The next step, though, is for thinkers in these respective cultural traditions to deal with ideas that their traditions have in common, and the common problems their religious traditions have in living and being proactive in an essentially secular society. How do faithful Muslims, Christians and Jews put forth the moral claims their respective traditions see as being universal, yet avoid the charge that “you are forcing your religion down my throat,” a charge made by people of other religions or no religion?

The answer to that charge is that we Muslims, Christians and Jews are not advocating a morality based on the authority of our respective traditions, but only reiterating what ought to be known by every rational human being irrespective of any historical tradition.

Furthermore, how do faithful Muslims, Christians and Jews avoid falling into the kind of secularist universalism that sees religious particularism to be antithetical to the development of a common morality in our society, and that it ought to be “kept in the closet” so to speak? I think the natural law perspective we have developed in our book helps Muslims, Christians and Jews avoid these two extremes. Thus, it helps us to take secularity seriously without succumbing to secularism as, in effect, a new religion to supersede their own. And it helps us to be taken seriously in secular society as being more than sectarian opportunists who only want secular approval of an essentially anti-secular agenda.