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Friday, July 12, 2013

A Critical Review of:Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 2. A Misinterpretation of modern culture.

In the preface to the book, McFarland sums up the general attitude toward the doctrine of original sin among contemporary North Americans as follows: "The idea that we are all guilty because of an ancestor's misdeed is viewed as morally outrageous and historically incredible, summing for many everything that is wrong with Christianity." (p ix.) I couldn't have put it better. McFarland is not deterred. The aim of the book, he says, is to challenge that perception.

In order to do so, however, he must also clear some ground. The tradition of the church has left us with a "Hobson's choice" in its teaching on original sin. On traditional understandings, no matter which we favor, we are stuck in a dilemma of having to choose between a fundamental equality of all humans at the cost of whitewashing crucial differences or focusing on human difference at the cost of denying human equality. He proposes a solution to the dilemma and a challenge to the negative perception of the doctrine of original sin:

The chapters that follow are my attempt to examine this dimension of human equality before God, in the conviction that the doctrine of original sin, though one of the most unsettling aspects of Christian teaching, is also stimulating and productive for the life of faith. In reaction to a wide range of criticisms leveled against the idea of original sin, a number of Christian theologians in the modern period have attempted to develop a doctrine of sin in which the idea of original sin is heavily qualified or even rejected. Against these perspectives, I will argue that it is not only theologically defensible, but inseparable from the confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Indeed, I will defend the doctrine in what is arguably its most extreme form, as developed by Augustine and later defended in the Reformed theological tradition under the designation of "total depravity" -- the claim that no aspect of our humanity is untouched by sin. Yet what follows is not simply a restatement of earlier positions, because modern critics raise questions that cannot be ignored about how the doctrine has been defended and deployed in the past, even if (as I shall try to show) these questions can be answered in ways that confirm the place of original sin within the logic of Christian faith.(pp. x-xi)

No one can fault McFarland for a lack of courage. He is prepared to take on not only a modern consensus but also his own forebears and mentors in the faith. I intend to show that his challenge to the modern perception fails. His own explication of the doctrine of original sin, though clearly different from and in some ways better than traditional formulations, remains both morally outrageous and incredible. My basic approach will be to show that his characterization of "modern perception" is oversimplified. Furthermore, he appears to be largely unaware of the progress made by sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists and brain scientists at unlocking the biological bases of human nature as shaped by evolution. These discoveries have huge implications for Christian doctrines about human nature, most of which McFarland apparently has not explored. I will show that they thoroughly undermine his reconstruction of original sin. The book maintains a laser focus on the issue of original sin. I will point out that McFarland's reconstruction raises serious questions about his conception of justice and his soteriology. His failure to address these issues leaves him open to misunderstanding. Or worse, I may understand him all too well. In that case his silence amounts to self-deception at best. Finally, I will show how McFarland, in an attempt to avoid the "Hobson's choice" he mentioned above, lands himself in contradictions.

The remainder of this post will focus on my first criticism of McFarland, that his characterization of "modern perception" is oversimplified. He presents the following summary on pp 5-6:

The consumerist anthropology that shapes so much of contemporary western culture is predicated on a model of freedom in which choice is determined exclusively by the will of the chooser. To be sure, possible objects of choice are constrained by material circumstances, (e.g., a person with neither money nor credit cannot buy a hat), and the choices one makes may entail consequences that are not themselves desired by the chooser (e.g., someone who steals a hat is subject to arrest); but the act of choosing itself is conceived as radically private and autonomous: the individual is finally responsible only to herself for what she chooses. Within the consumerist paradigm, a person's choices will certainly affect other people and will themselves be affected by other people's advice and opinions; but however much such relationships may impact the calculus of choice, they remain external to the act of choosing, which can always be abstracted from them as a decision that is essentially by and for the self. The moral character of an individual's acts is, correspondingly, determined by assessment of her capacities and intentions.

Huh? Huh? As I pointed out earlier, McFarland is by and large fair in his handling of the views of other authors. It is a shame that he did not select a specific representative of this "consumerist anthropology" to critique. Absent a face and name, McFarland's summary of this supposedly prevalent western consumerism generalizes to the point of uselessness. "Choice is determined exclusively by the will of the chooser." Later on, McFarland will contrast the Pelagian view of the will as an entity that somehow escapes the cause-effect relationships of the natural world with the Augustinian view, in which the will simply follows a person's desires. I suspect he is importing Pelagianism into the "consumerist" paradigm. But this is an unwarranted conclusion, at least if one goes by the messages embedded in modern advertisements (the presumed media through which this anthropology is presented). The freedom to "choose" presented to a modern consumer is simply the ability to find out in the market something she really likes. It says nothing about the ontological relationship between "will" and "desires." His statement of the limitations implied by consumerism is highly tendentious. As if the average person in a modern western culture really believed that the only constraints on personal choice are finances and "what I can get away with." "The act of choosing itself is conceived as radically private and autonomous: the individual is finally responsible only to herself for what she chooses." As a representation of the views of modern culture, this is just flat-out false. Only if we interviewed prison inmates this might be a majority view. I think it is generally true that moderns believe an individual is immediately responsible only to herself for her choices, but as the consequences of one's decisions spread out to affect other people so does her circle of responsibility. Finally, a person is responsible for the welfare of the people whose lives she affects with her decisions and can be called to account if she fails in her responsibility. I can find plenty of examples to support this view in all areas of popular culture. "Within the consumerist paradigm, a person's choices will certainly affect other people and will themselves be affected by other people's advice and opinions; but however much such relationships may impact the calculus of choice, they remain external to the act of choosing, which can always be abstracted from them as a decision that is essentially by and for the self." On the one hand, this is trivially correct, because it is inevitably true of any view of decision-making. If McFarland wishes to propose a theory of decision-making, as opposed to other types of "voluntary" action, in which it is impossible to abstract a person's act of choosing from external influences, I wish him well. He certainly doesn't do so in this book. On the other hand, his concluding comment that on the consumerist anthropology all decisions are "by and for the self" is so prejudicial it takes my breath away. Seriously, no collective decision-making? No extra-personal considerations (like, say, my own family)? What was he thinking? Now McFarland might respond to this criticism by crediting Christianity's continuing influence on our culture for these remnants of social conscientiousness. At heart, he may argue, consumerism wants to banish all considerations except the needs and desires of the imperial self. Again, this is an overgeneralization. Not all products will sell if promoted with this type of message. Not all consumers will buy when confronted with this type of message. People, after all, are people. Even advertising copywriters realize that encouraging self-indulgence can be taken only so far before it backfires.

This leads me to the one point about which McFarland is glancingly correct. The consumerist anthropology values human freedom of choice. Leave out the Pelagian/Augustinian disputes for a moment to consider the nature of this freedom. Consumers have needs and desires and buy goods and services to satisfy them. Since people have many different needs and desires, the markets adjust their offerings to match what customers are willing to buy. I go to the store looking for a blue hat and find only red ones. The salesperson tells me, "We don't carry blue hats, nobody else wants them." I go home frustrated by my lack of options, until I find a store online that carries blue hats. I place the order and bless our consumer-oriented economy that gives me the freedom to find and buy something that I want. When the market operates this way, it shows respect for consumers as human beings with legitimate desires that may differ from those of other people. Even more fundamentally, it respects the consumer as a person capable of recognizing and pursuing her own well-being. This kind of freedom, the freedom to pursue one's vision of the good, is no invention of modern consumerism. There is good evidence to suggest that a self-perception of being free to pursue options has been selected for over the long course of human prehistory. Therefore, anybody who attempts to rob other human beings of this freedom or even of the sense that they have this freedom, risks serious backlash. For that reason respect for human freedom can be found in all cultures, including the Bible. Consider Paul's teaching on slavery to sin. This slavery robbed Paul of the ability to pursue the good he saw in the law. But in Christ, he was set free from the "law of sin and death." Yes, set free to serve a new master, but in this case, the master commands only what Paul already wants to do, because the Spirit sheds the love of God abroad in the hearts of his people. Granted, Paul's gospel is not "giving people what they want." Nevertheless, by promising "freedom" in Christ, Paul provides an inherently appealing solution to the inherently appalling dilemma of being enslaved to the evil masters sin, death, and the devil.

Likewise, when the market tries to manipulate the consumer to buy things she doesn't really want or need, or squeeze her into a mold in order to suit the convenience of the providers of goods and services, the consumer feels robbed of freedom and resists. It is in this arena that a battle for the consumer's freedom rages. Providers of goods and services will sometimes lie or use various subtle, emotionally-manipulative techniques to encourage consumers to buy. Sometimes, even while the ostensive message is flattering the consumer about her sovereign wisdom to choose for herself, a second, subtler message is appealing to her emotions. The combined message amounts to a deception, undermining the person's normal decision-making capabilities. People are generally appalled when they suspect that they are being manipulated in this way. A general suspicion of manipulative salesmanship is the kiss of death for a product or producer, which explains the great lengths to which they will go to hide or deny manipulative practices. All of this underscores the importance of human beings' sense of their own freedom to act in their self interest. They will fight hard to preserve this freedom. I submit Dostoyevsky's "The Underground Man" as exhibit 1. He was willing to fight for his freedom to destroy himself, if necessary, simply to prove that he didn't fit into someone else's theories of what made people tick. Now, it may very well be that this freedom is at least partly illusory. In one sense, it doesn't matter. The point I want to make here is that this freedom, real or not, is what really lies at the heart of modern western culture's values.

In conclusion, McFarland's initial foray into cultural analysis is troubling, to say the least. I'm sure he could have done better; that he did not should make you wonder how well-attuned he will be to the bases for modern objections to the doctrine of original sin.


James Jordan said...

There is no need for "original sin" if we will simply allow works to play a part in salvation. The whole point of original sin is to banish works and make Jesus' sacrifice all that matters. You can't do anything -- you're disabled by original sin -- so Jesus' sacrifice and the Holy Spirit do it all -- just sit on your easy chair and receive.

If instead, Jesus' sacrificed paved the sidewalk but you've got to walk on it, then original sin is useless theologically and can be tossed. This also provides moral impetus. No more "I can bang my pastor up his butt and still go to heaven because justification is by faith alone" -- sorry Episcopalians. The fact is, as goes original sin, so must go Paul the Gnostic heretic. Original sin is tied with faith-alonism: they both must die together and must return to believing that living a moral life is necessary to salvation in addition to Jesus' sacrifice, which is clearly the way its presented in the gospel of Matthew and in James.

Jim Moore said...


I agree with you that the Augustinian doctrine of original sin leaves us absolutely helpless. God has to do it all for us or we are lost. On the other hand, every "Augustinian" I've ever met (including myself at one time) believed that part of God's work is to change the heart so that we desire to do good and immediately start doing it. As God gives more grace, we do more good. There was no tolerance for the idea that you could bang your pastor up his butt and still go to heaven because justification is by faith alone. If you were saved, you wouldn't bang your pastor up his butt anymore, period. If you insisted on continuing to do so, it was evidence that God hadn't really given you grace to change and you'd be subject to church discipline.

Frankly, I'm way beyond disputes about faith alone vs. faith and works. Both views are wrong and for essentially the same reasons. Orthodox Christianity is a falsified belief system and rejecting one element of it, such as "original sin" won't do much to save the rest. Oh, by the way, as far as I'm concerned, there is nothing inherently wrong with gay sex either.