How an Architect Taught me about Natural Law: A Review of Till We Have Built Jerusalem

I don’t even remember when I purchased this book, but I’m certain the purchase was ill-advised, given that in the last three semesters I’ve either been studying for comps or taking an overload of graduate courses. Nonetheless, I finished it Saturday night, and I can recommend it without reservation for anyone looking for a genuinely Christian conservatism, a glance at what Aristotelian ethics might look like in the twenty-first century, or simply wants some great quotes about baseball. (I’ll cite my favorite shortly.) And all of this came out of a book by an architecture professor.

Phillip Bess is the head of Notre Dame’s architecture department and a public voice for a movement called New Urbanism. To oversimplify, the movement calls for a concerted legal, economic, and ethical move away from suburban sprawl and back towards traditional small towns and urban neighborhoods, places where automobiles, to paraphrase his frequent formula, are not necessities to live day-to-day but conveniences for occasional use. Concretely speaking, Bess imagines (and remembers, but aren’t those pretty closely related?) towns and neighborhoods roughly 150 acres in area, places across which a healthy person could walk in roughly fifteen minutes and which contain not exclusively residences or commercial businesses but places to sleep, buy food, worship, play outside together, and possibly even watch a ball game.

The benefits of such neighborhoods are immediately evident: the elderly and children, neither of which drive as safely as adults, become less dependent upon car-driving family and care providers to function day-to-day. People who walk rather than drive everywhere tend to be healthier. Instead of the class stratification that characterizes so many places, people actually see each other, even the odd ones, on the streets. And with the return of actual, physical town squares, democracy has a chance of being something other than an abstraction as people have a chance to gather and to deliberate on public matters.

Bess traces the demise of old urbanism (or walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, to cite another of his formulae) to zoning laws that rose up around the late forties and early fifties. Around that time, in the spaces surrounding cities, county governments started passing zoning ordinances that segregated residential, commercial, and industrial zones. To paraphrase one of Bess’s metaphors, these laws took what used to be pizzas and replaced them with piles of dough separated by miles of asphalt from piles of cheese, in turn separated from piles of pepperoni. The automobile became necessary for middle class life as the abandoned small towns lost jobs and the abandoned downtowns and inner suburbs, also empty of opportunity, took in the enterprise of the drug trade to fill what legitimate businesses used to provide.

New Urbanism, according to Bess, differs from Old Urbanism (or simply Urbanism) in that it intentionally attempts to establish walkable mixed-use communities in the context of of a suburban world. So their projects might involve reclaiming abandoned shopping malls and their associated parking lots and using that space to develop a community, encourage relocating churches to build small towns instead of massive parking lots around their new sanctuaries, or revitalize old small towns via Internet-fueled businesses.

Not surprisingly, the movement draws its share of critics. From the left (there’s always a left in these books, ain’t there?) critics say that NU simply panders to developers and sells “community” as one more toy for the wealthy. And from the libertarian right critics say that NU is simply another iteration of “big government” telling people how to live.

To counter these, Bess digs back into Thomas Aquinas and his latter day interpreter Alasdair Macintyre. (Even if the baseball quotes weren’t there, the frequent Macintyre quotes would have won me over. But the baseball is coming, I promise.) Over against John Locke and his heirs (the bad guys in sections of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, if you remember), Macintyre would agree with Aristotle and Aquinas that human desire, unredeemed and undisciplined by community life, is not the basis for a system of government (why does Monty Python pop up?) but one facet of communal life best governed (not eliminated by any means) by means of civic and community authority. In other words, markets are fine, but they are not the end (in the Aristotelian sense) of life-together. Instead, going back to Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Macintyre insists that life with different people requires that people become civi-lized. (That was a Latinism, not a bad Mark Twain imitation.) In other words, the human goods of justice, fortitude, wisdom, and morality are not “private” matters that have nothing to do with “the state” but instead find their truest meaning in the city, the community of communities, and never so much as when one’s neighbors are Jews and Muslims.

In all, the book states and develops a compelling thesis about real, concrete ways that human life could be better in walkable neighborhoods than it could be in suburban sprawls, and that’s where natural law comes in. As Bess repeats in several places in the book, he and the other New Urbanists are neither advertisers nor opinion writers but philosophers, and they expect readers to take their claims as truth-claims that stand open to discussion but not dismissal as “true for you but not for me.” And there’s natural law: a reasoned (not necessarily from the data of revelation) account of good human life, based on the human body (we walk upright) and the human soul (we experience the world through senses and language) and thus prescriptive by force of its truth.

This kind of account astonishes me because, in so many times that I’ve read the phrase “natural law,” it’s been used as a blunt instrument rather than reasoned out. If a capitalist uses it, then “natural law” is capitalism. If an anti-gay writer uses it, then “natural law” is anti-gay. Here, for the first time in my reading, someone took the time and effort actually to reason out a case for natural law, and I think that for the first time, I get why it’s been such a compelling idea through the history of the Church.

Since my review is getting so long as to be burdensome, I’ll leave you patient readers with the baseball line that I promised:

Baseball is… like the Catholic Church: divinely inspired, sufficiently simple to be taught to children, sufficiently complex to satsify the highest intellect, and never entirely free from corruption in either its members or its leadership (Introduction xviii).

Wasn’t that a great line? And I think this one is a great book.

Cross-posted from Hardly the Last Word


About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


11 thoughts on “How an Architect Taught me about Natural Law: A Review of Till We Have Built Jerusalem

  1. >Hmmm, not a fan of the other two. Campbell and Jefferson tend to stand for everything I am against in Theology and Politics. Against the Thomases I prefer the Johns – Calvin and Adams.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | July 29, 2008, 8:06 pm
  2. >LOLI’ve given up on that; I just call myself a Thomist (Aquinas, Campbell, and Jefferson) any more.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | July 28, 2008, 5:25 pm
  3. >The story of my (thought) life: Trying to get Calvin and Thomas to play together nice.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | July 28, 2008, 5:14 pm
  4. >I’m not surprised that Calvinists find that problematic; I have read Institutes, after all. ;)I tend to be more persuaded by the Thomist categories largely because I spend a fair bit of time reading and teaching classical Greek and Roman texts, and Thomist and Erasmean categories give me more tools with which to read ’em than do Calvinist categories. I do agree that Thomas sees autonomy where Calvin doesn’t, but I’d add that unredeemed reason in Thomas is not adequate to reality, even if it is a gift given to Muslim as well as Christian.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | July 28, 2008, 2:53 pm
  5. >Thanks for the added detail Nathan.Calvinist theology, of course, in part due to the biblical teaching of foreordination/predestination, views every moment as an event of revelation. If every moment/event is foreordained by God, including human cognition, then it must be revelation from him. I say “in part” because many Van Tillian Calvinists understand Romans 1:20 to teach explicitly that all of creation is revelation.This is not to deny the importance of the concept of “nature” in the Creator-creature distinction. The concept of nature is fundamental to the Calvinist doctrine of second causes.As a Calvinist, I think the Thomist nature/grace distinction is problematic because it teaches human autonomy in the realm of nature.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | July 28, 2008, 2:17 pm
  6. >As I was saying, in Thomas and Macintyre, since human beings are themselves part of Creation, “reason” signifies the natural faculties proper to human beings and intended (by divine design) for good human life. None of this is to deny its created status; it’s simply to say that Egypt as well as Israel possesses these gifts. Because there is no historically intelligible moment when “green” or “three” or “contradiction” was revealed to humanity, Thomist theology puts it in the category of faculty (reason) rather than event (revelation).Revelation refers to those moments of super-natural perception, times when God allows certain persons or nations or Church to “see” what is not apprehensible to healthy human perception or human reason. Moreover, when Thomas talks about revelation, he generally has in mind historical events such as Sinai, the preaching of Ezekiel, or the Resurrection of Christ.To call all human cognition revelation requires a theology to append “general” and “specific” as prefixes; Thomist theology in general considers revelation its own category rather than a name for cognition simpliciter.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | July 28, 2008, 12:55 pm
  7. >if everything is revelation, then nothing is revelation.Except God himself. He is not revelation. He is the revealer and the revealed. Every created thing is revelation.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | July 28, 2008, 1:21 am
  8. >True enough. Within Thomist traditions revelation more often than not refers specifically to those things, inaccessible to human reason, revealed to the Saints. I’m not by any means an expert here, but I would imagine the rationale being that if everything is revelation, then nothing is revelation.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | July 27, 2008, 5:36 pm
  9. >Okay. So from a Calvinist wordview, the concept of “natural law” would be subsumed under the category common grace, though for the sake of clarity many Calvinists (myself included) prefer not to speak about a nature/grace (or revelation) distinction but rather a general/specific revelation distinction, since they would view all creation as revelation from God.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | July 27, 2008, 2:42 pm
  10. >By “data of revelation” I mean those specific and intelligible “givens” (Latin data) such as the Trinity, the Resurrection of the body, that salvation is from the Jews, and other such truths unavailable to unassisted human reason but given to the Church.So “natural law,” in Bess’s argument, is accessible not only to communities who confess Christ together but also to cities of Christians and Muslims and Jews and atheists living together.With regards to prescriptive reason, I had in mind a process of reasoning capable of moral as well as theoretical syllogisms, something that Kant and his successors deny is possible. (I believe, though my memory is cloudy, that philosophy profs often refer to the “is/ought distinction” here.) Bess argues from actual human life towards better human life rather than assuming that “human nature” is either immutably selfish or to be discarded in order to do anything good. In other words, he does his ethical reasoning as a Thomist/Aristotelian rather than as a Lockean liberal or a Nietzschean nihilist.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | July 27, 2008, 10:50 am
  11. >natural law: a reasoned (not necessarily from the data of revelation) account of good human life, based on the human body (we walk upright) and the human soul (we experience the world through senses and language) and thus prescriptive by force of its truth.Sounds like a very interesting read Nathan. What do you think Bess means by reasoning that occurs apart from the data of revelation? For instance, if when we reason we are making value judgments, and revelation is the standard by which value judgments are possible, how then can we conceive of reason as occurring apart from revelation.Also what do you think Bess means by describing his assertions regarding the good life as prescriptive by force of its truth?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | July 27, 2008, 3:03 am

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