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Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 7: There are limits to our responsibility for ourselves.

I am finally approaching the conclusion of this long series of posts. In the last two posts I dealt with McFarland's argument that any person's "sinfulness" is ultimately not caused by factors external to her personality and that as a result the responsibility for human "sinfulness" rests wholly with us, not with God. My primary goal in those posts was to demonstrate that McFarland is wrong about causation and human behavior. Ultimately, a person's behavior is caused by factors external to her personality. In the next few posts I intend to address McFarland's conclusion that human beings are wholly responsible for human "sinfulness."

In support of this conclusion McFarland employs two unique arguments. He deserves credit for at least attempting to find a more satisfying account of original sin from a relatively orthodox Christian viewpoint. The first argument was examined in the previous two posts; I will not repeat my criticisms of that argument here. The second argument attempts to distinguish between human responsibility and human guilt. Responsibility is an inherent characteristic of a human being, since we have a will and so do everything we do willingly. Guilt, on the other hand, applies to an individual to the degree that she acts against God's will intentionally. This means that we can legitimately distinguish between sins for which we can be blamed and sins for which we cannot. In contrast, we cannot avoid our responsibility for all our acts, intentional or accidental, conscious or unconscious, engaged in freely or under complusion.

The way McFarland employs the distinction between guilt and responsibility is certainly unusual, but I don't think it holds up under scrutiny. Via a critique of this distinction I hope to uncover a number of other deficiences in his account of human responsibility which, taken together, undermine his argument as surely as the problems we found with some of his other premisses in earlier posts. Let's allow McFarland to speak for himself here. He summarizes this part of his argument as follows: "Using the anthropology developed in Part II, I argue that it is possible to affirm a complicity in sin shared by all human bings as personal agents who cannot disown their actions, without reducing this complicity to a matter of choice for which the agent is appropriately blamed." (p. xii) In Chapter 7 McFarland lays out this argument in some detail. Interestingly, he uses as a test case people who have been severely victimized, and argues that in their victimization people become complicit with their persecutors in a way that reveals their sinfulness and for which they must repent in order to be healed. Here he is relying on prior work by Alistair McFadyen, which he sums up as follows:

Drawing in particular on feminist studies of abuse, McFadyen observes that an integral part of the dynamic of abusive relationships is the abuser's co-opting of the child's will (e.g., by persuading her that no one will believe her if she reports the abuse, or by offering material inducements in exchange for acquiescence), enmeshing it with the will of the abuser so that the child "consents" to her abuse. The effectiveness of this process is such that to ignore the entanglement of the will of the abused in such situations by labelling them as purely victims of another's sin can actually exacerbate the deleteriaous effects of the abuse on the child's sense of self:
Certainly, the abused need to be freed of inappropriate feelings of guilt, related to inaccurate senses of their power and agency in the situation ... But a description of abuse which suggests that because they are in no way the cause of abuse (being incapable of consenting), abused children exercised no agency or will renders them as powerless, passsive objects, not subjects -- of therapeutic processes as of abuse.
As McFadyen is careful to note, the point of drawing atention to the role of the will of the abused in situations of abuse is not to make the abused child feel bad about herself (in this his conclusions are entirely consistent with Park's worry about the damaging effects of ill-considered talk about sin). On the contrary, his claim is that an Augustinian understanding of the bondage of the will may provide a conceptual framework that is therapeutically more effective than any alternative when it comes to helping heal the child's distorted sense of self.

To clarify his point McFarland observes that the engagement of an abused child's will in her abuse does not imply that she intentionally went along with it: "Because human beings are irreducibly agents, their acts -- whether as perpetrators or survivors of personal violation -- always engage their wills, but they need not for that reaon be willful. Indeed, what makes sin so catastrophic in an Augustinian perspecive is the recognition that in sin (again, whether that sin is experienced from the perspective of the one who inflicts pain or the one who endures it) we so frequently will ways that run counter to what we want." McFarland knows that his readers are likely to question whether the abused child's enmeshment in the manipulations of her abuser should be categorized as sin at all, given that she is certainly not in a position in most cases to stop her abuser or escape from the situation. Here he refers to features of Jesus's ministry that indicate Jesus preached repentance and forgiveness of sin to people who were more victim than victimizer. He identifies the precise sin that the oppressed and abused commit and for which Jesus's call to repentance is the correct remedy:

When Jesus warns against causing someone to stumble (Matt. 18:6 and pars; cf. Mal 2:8), he implies that there is a category of sin that arises as a consequence of being actively sinned against. In other words, alongside the various forms of sin that result directly in the suffering of others, there is also sin that is produced by such suffering. The Gospel texts do not provide any explication of what Jesus has in mind, but the fact that the root of the word translated as "stumbling" used in these passages (skandalizesthai) connotes a trap or snare is suggestive of putting a person in a position where her freedom is impaired. Furthermore, since Jesus' explicit object of concern in these passages is the well-being of "these little ones who believe in me," it is natural to interpret this impairment as the result of some temptation or offense (both possible translations of skandalon) that undermines a person's capacity to believe. In other words, since trust requires confidence that the person trusted is well disposed toward you, one way to cause one of the "little ones" to stumble would be through words or actions that erode their sense of themselves as children of God and full members in God's convenant community.

In other words, the sin of the oppressed is their lack of trust in God that is a consequence of their victimization. He says,

If the sin of the oppressed is understood in this way, there is nothing implausible or unjust about seeing sin as a defining feature of their identity. To be sure, the unbelief that defines their sin is different in both origin and form than [sic] the sin of the oppressor, but given the variety of ways in which the term "sin" is applied in the Bible as a whole and the New Testament in particular, there is no reason not to call it sin. Indeed, insofar as it describes the kind of broken relationship with God that is a common feature across the various sorts of acts that are called sin in Scripture, there is good reason to insist on naming it just that way:
Prophetic language that rightly names perpetrators [of oppression] is necessary but not sufficient; and it tends toward atheism whenever it calls traumatic distrust something other than sin, as though "God" were merely a background source of rightly-made moral judgments, and not a living presence calling all to repentant turning across whatever sort of brokenness interferes with an ability to love and trust God above all else. (p. 180)
This excerpt ends with a citation from a paper delivered by Amy Carr to the American Academy of Religion in 2007.

Sensing that a modern reader will still be repelled by the implication that the abused are somehow guilty for failing to trust God implicitly after having undergone oppression, McFarland reaches for some distinctions. He says,

Even at this point, however, lingering doubts remain about whether "sin" is the best term to describe the situation of those whose lack of faith is caused by having been sinned against. After all, the remedy for sin is forgiveness, and to claim that the "little ones" need to be forgiven seems to imply that they are at fault -- an inference that Jesus' assertion that they have been caused (by someone else) to stumble seems explicitly designed to block (p. 180)
McFarland responds that Jesus still preached repentance and forgiveness of sins to everyone without distinction. Clearly, then, being caused to stumble still places one in the category of sinner, according to Jesus. On the other hand, Jesus handles the victims of oppression (e.g., prostitutes) and oppressors (e.g., Pharisees) very differently, which suggests the next distinction:
One way of accounting for this difference is to recognize a distinction between accountability and blame. Especially in the case of those who have been caused to stumble, to be guilty of sin is not necessarily to be counted worthy of blame; but neither is it to lose accountability for one's actions. In short, it is possible to be accountable and yet without blame. The difference is rooted in the nature of the two concepts. Blame is a moral category; a person becomes blameworthy because one is at fault for a particular act. By contrast, accountability is an ontological category: a person is accountable simply by virtue of being an agent.

Blame attaches to active forms of personal violation; one who commits such an act is blameworthy. (p. 181)

With this distinction in hand, all McFarland has left to do is explain precisely how an abused person's lack of faith fits in the category of blameless accountability:

... No less serious, however, is the legacy of her relationship with the abuser that undermines the victim's capacity to trust others -- both God and human beings. Here -- in sharp contrast to the abused person's mistaken sense of personal blameworthiness for the act(s) of abuse -- the effect can only be countered by accentuating the individual's accountability, not for the abuse itself (that would be to return to the language of blame), but for her continued survival and healing. To receive Christ's forgiveness in this context is not to accept blame for some incident or set of incidents for which one is blameless, but rather to confess that one's very self has been received and blessed by God notwithstanding one's own active resistance to God's love. It is to be given the capacity to trust God -- and to know oneself liberated by that capacity -- in spite of one's prior refusal to give God one's trust. (pp. 181-182)

So there you have it. An abused person who is not to be blamed for distrusting God as a result of her abuse hears the good news that through Jesus Christ her sins are forgiven and repents of her distrust of God. She now trusts God and takes responsibility for advancing her healing by following his will. Put that way it sounds very encouraging at first blush. Unfortunately, in the bowels of this argument lurks in a new disguise the same monster that haunts the pages of the Old Testament. Let's pull off the disguise.

To save the impatient reader some time, here is an outline of my argument. The full argument will take an additional one or two posts to complete. First, in his distinction between responsibility as an ontological category and blame as a moral category McFarland has committed the error of the excluded middle. Responsibility is also a legal category and in legal contexts is usually associated with moral fault or blame. Second, McFarland attempts to use the concept of "unintentional sin" as found in parts of the Hebrew Bible to call into question the modern idea that responsibility should be closely related with conscious choice. I will argue that modern legal doctrine is entirely correct to relate responsibility to conscious choice and will present arguments that call into question the justice of the concept of "unintentional sin." Third, I will argue that McFarland's attempt to identify victims of oppression as sinners for their lack of faith in God while at the same time claiming that they are without blame is incoherent. Fourth, I will demonstrate that if McFarland is correct that humans are responsible for original sin, then God is even more responsible for it. Therefore, McFarland's revision of the doctrine of original sin undermines rather than preserves the fundamentals of the orthodox Christian doctrine of redemption.

McFarland's distinction between accountability (responsibility) as an ontological category and blame as a moral category fails to help his broader argument because the meaning of responsibility he uses to sustain this distinction is the not the meaning he uses elsewhere. A fuller account of how the words "accountability," "responsibility," and "liability" are used in modern legal and moral contexts will expose McFarland's confusions. As a first step we will consider "responsibility" or "accountability" as an ontological category. In order to be accountable, a being must be capable of intentional action -- my preferred language for the legitimate referent of McFarland's "will" -- and language. The being must be motivated and able to act on given motives and must be self-conscious enough of her motives and competent enough in her language ability to be able to give an account of what motives led her to act in a particular way. In this sense accountability or responsibility is an ontological category. Another way to put it is that as an ontological category responsibility or accountability refers to a set of capacities.

Next we need to remember that these capacities do not come into play if there is no one else around to whom an account can be given or from whom an account can be demanded. Accountability or responsibility assumes relationships between people and is therefore also a legal -- and moral -- category. As a legal category, responsibility or accountability or liability has two distinct meanings. On the one hand, the term can refer to a person's legal status as the object of an investigation into whether that person should have a penalty applied to her due to her alleged involvement in a criminal or civil violation. On the other hand, the terms can refer to the result of such an investigation, when that result determines the person in question was involved and should have the penalty applied to her. To put it more simply, I can be called legally "responsible," "accountable," or "liable" in a potential sense when I am under suspicion of having broken the law and in the end be called in fact legally "responsible," "accountable," or "liable" because I did break the law.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to suppose that the legal contexts in which a person is found "responsible" or "accountable" can be easily separated from morality. While it is true that in all societies some laws are designed to promote the interests of those in power and even laws that are intended to enforce moral values may only enforce the moral values of those in power, in nearly all societies the bulk of the laws are a codification of a society's values in those cases in which it feels its values should be enforced by government power. We can summarize this analysis of the legal language of responsibility as follows:

  1. One can in general be ontologically responsible for one's actions and yet in a particular case not legally responsible (i.e., innocent).
  2. In nearly all cases in which one is legally responsible (guilty in the eyes of the law) but not morally responsible (i.e., innocent in the eyes of some moral code), either the law is unjust or the moral code is evil. The idea that one can be guilty of crime when judged against a good law while being faultless when judged against a good moral code is extremely unlikely if not nonsensical.

While the terms "responsibility," "accountability," and "liability" are not used very often in the Bible, it is clear that they fit in the legal and moral contexts of the Bible's discussions of sin. For one thing, there is a close relationship between sin and crime. For another, the consistent Biblical teaching on sin is that it is an offense to God, a violation of his laws, incurs his judgment, and brings upon the sinner judicial penalties. We even have a linguistic equivalent to "responsibility" or liability" in the expression "his blood will be on his own head" found most frequently in Leviticus and Ezekiel for both crimes and sins. McFarland himself uses this language often enough to prove that he intends "responsibility" or "accountability" or "liability" as a legal category. At appropriate points in all sections of the book he refers to the consequences of sin as "damnation," "conviction," "condemnation." He frequently asserts that human beings, even those who are not personally at fault in a particular instance, are nevertheless "implicated" in sin. As we all know, in our society this type of expression is most often used to indicate that someone is criminally guilty. Given orthodox Christian teachings about the consequences of being convicted of sin, claiming that someone who is not personally at fault is nevertheless implicated in sin is a serious charge. In one note, McFarland mentions briefly the doctrine of hell and although he appears not to be in favor of the idea that any human beings actually end up there, he never denies the traditional view that hell is a just consequence for human sin. It takes McFarland until a note on p. 140 to inform us that his talk of being implicated in sin is "(hopefully) neutral." Sorry, Dr. McFarland, you don't get to invent your own language. In a legal context, talk of being "implicated in sin" is hardly neutral. By this point in the book, not only will the poor reader find it extremely difficult to exorcize from his mind the impression that McFarland has been using the language of implication as a form of fault-finding or blaming, he will ultimately not be able to make sense of McFarland's insistence that being implicated in sin while not being personally at fault still renders a sinner guilty and liable to the penalties imposed by God's law.

We should now consider more closely the relationship between ontological responsibility and legal responsibility. One's actual legal "responsibility," "accountability," or "liability" can be determined by ontological considerations. According to modern legal doctrine, there are certain circumstances in which a human being is not capable of giving an account of her actions. In these cases, she is not to be held legally responsible either, regardless of whether her actions happen to violate laws. Examples abound: insanity, minority and mental disability are the most common instances in which a person's capacity (i.e., responsibility in the ontological sense) is so compromised that she is no longer held legally liable for committing acts for which others would be held legally liable. The legal definition of voluntary action outlines the criteria by which our justice system typically makes decisions about a person's legal responsibility (liability) in a particular case:

To constitute a voluntary act for which a person may be held criminally liable, the act must result from the person's conscious choice. The choice need not be the product of thorough deliberation but may stem from an impulse, as long as the person is physically and mentally capable of exercising restraint and discretion consistent with the requirements of the law. A person who suddenly slips on a mountain trail and reaches out to grab the arm of a bystander to avoid falling has acted voluntarily because his mind has quickly grasped the situation and dictated a response.

Acts over which a person has no physical or mental control are not voluntary. A muscle reflex driven by the autonomic nervous system, such as a knee jerk, is not considered voluntary under the law. Acts committed during seizures, convulsions, hypnosis, or unconscious mental states also lack sufficient volition and judgment needed to impose criminal liability. For the same reasons, acts committed during episodes of sleepwalking are not considered voluntary.

On the other hand, acts that are not fully the result of independent will but are committed with extreme indifference to human life are usually treated as voluntary. A conscious person who points a loaded gun at another, for example, will typically be held liable for any harm that results from its accidental discharge because the act of brandishing a loaded gun is treated as a voluntary choice manifesting a recklessness toward the safety of others. Similarly, an intoxicated person who passes out behind the wheel of a car cannot escape liability for any criminal acts that ensue, because they followed from the voluntary acts of drinking and driving. Persons who have a history of seizures, fainting spells, or blackouts may be held responsible for criminal acts that result during such episodes if a court finds that reasonable precautions could have been taken to avoid the dangers created by these physical and mental conditions.

Except for the last paragraph, this definition fits remarkably well with McFarland's summary of what he calls the modern consumer culture's view of responsibility, which he criticizes as too closely tied to the idea of autonomous, conscious choice.

That close fit exposes the superficiality of McFarland's analysis. According to him, accountability for one's actions is a fixed characteristic of being human. Modern legal doctrine denies this on the entirely reasonable basis that in some circumstances a human being cannot account for her actions. This view of human ontology has prima facie plausibility for the simple reason that we all know there are huge swaths of our lives (e.g., nearly the entirety of the time we spend sleeping) for which we cannot give any detailed account. The burden of proof to the contrary lies with McFarland. As I argued in an earlier post, McFarland's attempts to link activities such as sweating to the "will" fail. In fact, nothing in his argument in favor of viewing sweating as a willed act rules out other bodily events such as "acts committed during seizures, convulsions, hypnosis, or unconscious mental states." In all these cases, McFarland believes we are potentially "responsible" for our acts and so, if the acts happen to harm our relationship to God or neighbor, we are also actually responsible, i.e., guilty. To illustrate the foolishness of this account of responsibility, consider this short example.

George, is a married man with three children. His wife is a homemaker. Two of his children are identical twins and autistic. One night George quite unexpectedly has a heart attack in his sleep. His wife awakens to find George unresponsive and calls 911. George is revived by the EMTs who arrive on the scene and is rushed to the hospital, where he is admitted for observation. After a visit from the attending physician, George's wife begins complaining bitterly to George. If she had not awakened at just the right time, George would have died, leaving her to care for the children by herself and leaving the children without a father to provide for their needs. How could he abandon the family to such a catastrophe? While one can sympathize with George's wife, her accusations are obviously ridiculous. What could George possibly say to account for his heart attack? Is sweating a different kind of human activity from having a heart attack? In terms of intentionality, not really. If McFarland wants to deny that heart attacks are "willed," then neither is sweating or any other human action that takes place under the radar of consciousness. Since his account of responsibility depends on the link between "willed" activity and responsibility, it would appear that his view is caught in an irresolvable dilemma. McFarland attempts to wriggle out of this dilemma (unconsciously, I presume) by using "responsbility" in the sense of a settled legal declaration of guilt in cases in which he wants to stress the inevitability of sin or the justice of God's condemnation and then using it in the sense of a mere capacity to give an answer when he wants to stress the distinction between responsibility and moral fault.

In his early discussion of the Biblical material relating to sin language, McFarland advances Biblical teachings on "unintentional sin" to challenge the modern view that responsibility for our actions can be limited by intentionality or "conscious choice." He argues that "sin" is defined as "lawlessness," that someone who breaks God's laws unintentionally can be "convicted of sin," that those who committed "unintentional sins" were required to perform ritual expiation (pp. 6-8). All of this legal language should have made McFarland reflect back on the cogency of the concept of "unintentional sin." Instead, he swallows the Levitical conception whole and attempts to use it against modern the modern legal doctrine.

How much credit should we give to this ancient Hebrew conception of "unintentional sin" in the Mosaic law? First of all, we need to be clear about what counted as "unintentional sin." McFarland mentions specifically the cases of someone who fails to testify in a court of law about a matter with which she is familiar and someone who makes a "rash" vow. As McFarland points out, these sins are not unintentional in the sense that the person was unaware of what the law required. Instead, Leviticus says that the person did not know what she was doing at the time she did it. Somehow, the implications of her act escaped her until later on (pp. 6-7 and notes). Leviticus 5 also specifies that unknowing contact with anything that renders one unclean incurs guilt and requires a sin offering to obtain forgiveness (Lev. 5:1-6). Under what circumstances would a person come in contact with something that renders one unclean and not realize it until later? For a man, a nocturnal emission. For a woman, a period while asleep. Many other examples come to mind.

The similarities of these cases to the example of poor George above should have given McFarland pause. If the root of sin is hostility to God or unwillingness to trust him, how does a bodily act that takes place while one is asleep count as sin? How would rightly-ordered desires prevent someone from having a nocturnal emission or a period in her sleep? McFarland tells us that the sinlessness of Jesus demonstrates that sinfulness is not a necessary consequence of bodily existence in this world. Sinfulness is not caused by our bodily "fallenness." Does this mean, then, that Jesus could not have had a nocturnal emission, and that no biological modifications were needed in order for this to happen? McFarland could start backpedaling here. Nocturnal emissions are not the type of "sin" that renders one liable to God's judgment. I would agree with this move completely and then press McFarland to apply that conclusion to his evaluation of the concept of "unintentional sin." Why should a person who experiences one of these events be penalized with the requirement to make a sacrifice? Why should the priests get the leftovers of the offering? This whole arrangement looks like a scheme to provide more economic security to the priesthood. The "sin" language is simply a theological lever to use against a potentially reluctant audience. "Hey, if one of these events happens to you, you are guilty. God's wrath will fall on you unless you make a sacrifice."

In case McFarland has forgotten, let us remind him that the same law code systematically deprived women of equal protection and institutionalized slavery, trial by ordeal, genocide, and trans-generational vengeance. Most of this McFarland passes over in silence. Where he bothers to mention it, he fails miserably to deal with it responsibly. He makes a brief comment about Saul's failure to carry out the command to exterminate the Amalekites as an instance of sin without any apparent recognition that the entire narrative in 1 Samuel 15 is written to bury the question of the morality of the divine command in a pile of anti-Saulide propaganda. He attempts a weak interpretation of the confession that Yahweh visits the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation -- it refers to the natural and unavoidable consequences of a parent's misbehavior on his descendants (p. 140) -- despite the abundant evidence in the Hebrew Bible that Israel was required to take action against the descendants of sinners when commanded to do so by Yahweh. Yes, the law told human judges that they were not allowed to punish children for the sins of the fathers and vice versa. But this is best explained as a restriction meant to preserve the society from plunging into a bloodbath of mutual vengeance. "Yahweh" reserved the right to impose trans-generational punishments to himself, or, more precisely, to his supposed representatives, i.e., the prophets and the priests. It was up to Yahweh to decide when bloodbaths were appropriate. How convenient.

With my analysis in mind, consider this part of McFarland's summary: "... the Old Testament suggests that sin be identified in terms of the character and quality of one's relationships with God and neighbor. One can, correspondingly, be convicted of sin when one's action damages those relationships, even where that damage was not freely chosen." (p. 7) This is just nuts. If something that happens while I am asleep hurts my relationship with Yahweh, it can only be because Yahweh is an unjust, unreasonable, and merciless monster. If God really had the type of character that McFarland's account of responsibility implies, there would be no relationship with him worth preserving. All of this evidence points one way: the ancient concept of "unintentional sin" is unjust and should be rejected. We are not responsible for unintentional acts.

There is much more to say in criticism of McFarland's account of responsibility, but it will have to wait for another post.