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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 8: If we're guilty, God is guilty

This post is a continuation of a review of McFarland's view of human responsibility for "sin." See my previous post for a summary of McFarland's analysis and my counter-arguments. I also argued in detail that 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. In addition, I argued that modern legal doctrine is entirely correct to relate responsibility to conscious choice and called into question the justice of the concept of "unintentional sin," which McFarland uses to critique modern legal doctrine. In this post I will make a couple of brief points in further support of the modern legal doctrine on the limits of human responsibility. Then 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. Also, 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.

At several points in the beginning of the book McFarland identifies consumer culture as the primary influence behind the modern tendency to limit human responsibility to contexts in which humans make conscious choices. I think a much better case can be made that this tendency is a product of the enlightenment together with the humanitarianism of left-wing Protestantism and the social upheavals brought about by the industrial revolution, the spread of representative government, and the rise of a middle class. If anything, consumerism is just another consequence of these other forces, one that also arrived later than the establishment of voluntary action as a criterion for responsibility. Blaming consumer culture for modern legal doctrine is a cheap substitute for a sustained critique.

McFarland also diagnoses the modern tendency to limit responsibility to conscious choices as a symptom of an incipient Pelagianism. This is simply false. The reader is encouraged to reread the second and last paragraphs of the definition of voluntary action cited in my previous post. These paragraphs are in no way a brief for Pelagianism. They do not rule out any position on determinism or internal constraints on a human's ability to choose a course of action. They simply insist that a person must be consciously engaged in whatever activity she is pursuing. Furthermore, the extended responsibility described in the last paragraph assumes that a person under the influence of an overwhelming impulse or disabling condition who knows in advance that she may be prone to perform criminal acts is responsible while she is not under the influence of an overwhelming impulse or disabling condition to take steps to avoid the situation or to change the circumstances so that she does not cause harm. This extended sense of responsibility assumes that people are not always so overcome by a particular overwhelming impulse or disability that they are unable to imagine an alternate future and take action to achieve it. As I argued in a previous post, evolutionary theories of human behavior make the same point. McFarland's claim that human beings are always responsible for everything they do appears overly rigid in comparison.

Now to deal with McFarland's case against victims of abuse. First, to remind the reader, McFarland claims that victims of abuse are accountable for their continued failure to love and trust God above all else and yet without blame. McFarland intends that to mean that abuse victims can be guilty of the sin of unbelief and yet without blame. This is in fact false. As we pointed out, being declared a "sinner" is a legal statement, an assertion of liability to punishment on the part of a judge. To declare a blameless person guilty is an injustice, plain and simple, as the counsel to judges in the Hebrew Bible makes abundantly clear. Therefore, the following statement of McFarland's is, to put it plainly, nonsense: "In short, at stake in the distinction between accountability and blame is the conviction that even one who cannot be blamed for not trusting God (for why should one who has been so profoundly betrayed by relationships open herself to another?) may nevertheless recognize an accountability before God that renders it meaningful to speak of both needing and receiving God's forgiveness." (p. 182) Yes, an abuse victim can be said to be accountable to God in general for her actions, but in terms of her unwillingness to trust others as a result of her experience of abuse she is not in need of forgiveness precisely because she has not done anything wrong in this particular case and therefore is not guilty of sin. If McFarland -- or Amy Carr or anyone else -- still wants to defend a condemnatory judgment against this victim of abuse he will either have to show that it is morally wrong for an abuse victim to refuse to trust God implicitly during or after such an experience or redefine forgiveness. In fact, McFarland attempts to do one or the other in the following sentences quoted in my previous post: "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." According to this either one can be forgiven for doing nothing wrong or an abused person's lack of trust in God is a condemnable offense for which God offers forgiveness.

I suspect McFarland really intends the latter, primarily because he regards lack of trust in and love for God above all else as the root disorder in all human "sin." The abuse simply exacerbates unbelief by providing the victim with a (spurious?) justification for an otherwise unjustifiable, wicked rebellion against God. But this diagnosis undercuts his exegesis of Jesus's statement about the "little ones" being caused to stumble. If a victim of abuse is already infected with a root disorder that leads her to distrust and rebel against God at every point, so that everything she does is sin, then how can her subsequent encounters with an abuser cause her to stumble in unbelief when she is already mired in it? That is not at all what the language of this Gospel text implies. To cause one of the little ones to stumble is to get them to do something that they would not otherwise do (which is all that is required by the use of skandalizesthai). And if Jesus were referring to undercutting someone's faith it fits the Gospel text only because the text is speaking about Jesus's own disciples, not about victims of abuse, who may or may not be followers of Jesus or have even heard of him or had any exposure to the Christian concept of God. For this reason alone McFarland's use of the case of abuse fails to support his contention that original sin is "sin" for which we are not to blame.

Furthermore, McFarland makes an unnecessary assumption that because the Gospel text refers to the "little ones who believe in me" the offense that causes them to stumble must be some impediment to their faith. "Who believe in me" could simply mean Jesus's disciples rather than children. The offense could be anything that makes them go against the will of God. In the case of victims of abuse, it is worth pointing out that they are whole human beings who live life in a number of other contexts besides that of abuse victim. If the actions of an abuser fit into the category of causing someone else to stumble, that could mean a number of things, including that the victim turns around and subject others to abuse or that the victim puts someone else at risk of serious harm in order to escape from the abuser.

In short, the argument that victims of abuse who subsequently fail to trust God are guilty of sin for their lack of faith is evil, because it attempts to protect the reputation of the powerful (God) by condemning the innocent. The victim of abuse can quite correctly ask, "Why should I trust God, who not only allowed someone to abuse me, but arranged circumstances in such a way that it was unavoidable? Why should I not demand positive, trustworthy evidence that God intends my long-term good before trusting my well-being to him/her? Why do you blame me for doubting God's good intentions when by any sane measure he/she has completely betrayed me?" McFarland acknowledges the justice of this complaint but waves it away anyway, because, he claims, he is not blaming the victim for her lack of faith. If that were true, he should have abandoned the language of sin in this case altogether.

Now, it may be that the God of orthodox Christianity is good after all, but this is far from obvious to a victim of abuse. God could remedy this by providing good contravening evidence to a victim of abuse. His/her supposedly appointed representatives and defenders do not help his/her case at all by telling the victim she should nevertheless trust God "above all else," even in the absence of contravening evidence. Yet, this is precisely what orthodox Christianity has committed itself to doing and has built a sophisticated and, for those who are trapped inside, nearly impenetrable apologetical shell around itself to fend off empirical challenges to its demand for faith. See an expose of this strategy here and here

Now we should examine McFarland's distinction between accountability and blame when it comes to original sin itself. He raised the example of abuse as a test case for the idea of sins of which someone is guilty and yet not to blame and wanted to extend that to the case of original sin. My analysis here is highly dependent on my criticisms of McFarland's views on the relationship between "will" and "desire" and his argument that the causes of human desire cannot be identified. As I pointed out in the latter post, McFarland not only rejects every view that attempts to identify an historical event or set of events with the origin of sin but even claims that the attempt to identify an origin for sin misses the point of Biblical language about sin. (p. 158) Instead, McFarland argues that the origin of sin is a "mystery." Furthermore, even though we cannot explain how it is that we are sinners, we know intuitively and unavoidably that we are nevertheless responsible for our sin. As McFarland points out, the orthodox doctrine of original sin asserts that it is universal and congenital. Every human being is born already a sinner and that fundamental feature of her existence explains why she inevitably commits individual sinful acts. What precisely is this original sin? It is disordered desire; desire for creaturely goods before desire for God himself. In more negative terms, it is hostility to God and a refusal to trust him. Being congenital, these desires precede not only individual sins but even a human being's conscious experience. A human being's "will" follows these desires, as it must, because human nature is precisely ordered so that willing always follows desire.

Do these claims hold together? Not in the least. I already pointed out that McFarland's analysis of "will" and "desire" is fatally flawed by its reliance on at least partly falsified folk psychology. For now, let's grant him this simplistic view because even on his terms his argument falls apart. If the will always follows desire, then evil desires always precede our activity. Even in cases where our activity may inflame wicked desires, the activity in turn was stimulated by prior evil desires. If these desires are ultimately present from the moment of birth, we cannot be held responsible for having them. We literally had nothing to do with producing these desires in ourselves. It won't suffice to point out that subsequent to having these desires we express our unwillingness to part with them. That unwillingness is merely one more effect of the original desires which we did nothing to produce or stimulate.

Of course, McFarland will insist that we are responsible for these desires nonetheless, because being responsible for ourselves is a fundamental feature of human being. I would like to approach the issue from a slightly different angle by way of analogy. Over a series of several nights a drug dealer sneaks into a neighbor's house while the neighbor is asleep and injects her with a strong dose of heroin. The neighbor, puzzled over the origin of the sudden and dramatic changes in her feelings and behavior, goes to the doctor and is informed that she has become addicted to heroin. For a moment, let's leave aside her intense and urgent curiosity as to how this happened. She checks herself into a treatment program. It just so happens that her genetic makeup renders her an exceptionally poor candidate for therapy and the treatment program fails. She abandons the treatment facility and goes out on the street. She ends up committing petty theft, check kiting, and neglecting her other financial obligations in order to raise money for heroin. She gets caught for her crimes and ends up in jail. Of course this analogy is unrealistic; I only bring it up to make a point about limits to responsibility. The addicted woman ended up in jail because of things she did as a result of her addiction; she did not end up in jail merely because she was addicted. Let's compare this to the case of original sin. Current laws do not make addiction a criminal offense. In contrast, being a sinner always renders one liable to God's judgment, according to Christian orthodoxy. In regard to the origins of one's sinfulness, the sinner is in situation similar to that of the drug dealer's neighbor. Just as she had no say whatsoever in the process of becoming addicted, so the sinner has no say whatsoever in the process of being born with disordered desires. Just as she subsequently ended up performing illegal actions under the influence of her addiction, so the sinner ends up breaking God's laws under the influence of her disordered desires. Just as the addict is legally liable for crimes she commits while being addicted, so the sinner is liable to God's judgment for specific acts she commits while following her disordered desires. The critical difference is that the sinner is condemned merely for having disordered desires, regardless of whether she acts on them. In case the reader has forgotten that McFarland holds this view, consider this:

Here again the ontological oddity of the will comes to the fore. On the one hand, our distorted desires, as the motive for all our willing, are not themselves something we will (indeed, with Paul we may find ourselves desiring against our will, whenever we find ourselves wishing our desires were different). [For a detailed critique of this statement, see this previous post.] From this perspective, we experience sin as a power that intrudes on us from without, shaping the mode of our willing. In this sense it is "original." But because those distorted desires are also ineluctably within us, sin's being "original" does not preclude it being ours. We can, of course, reason that we received our wills in this damaged state as part of our natures, and thus that we "inherited" them from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and so on, back up the human family tree. But because the will is the faculty in and through which I recognize my own agency, I can never coherently dissociate any defect in my willing from my agency. [Emphasis mine] (pp. 159-160)

Of course, slimy reasoning that this is, McFarland judiciously confounds "defect in my willing" with "distorted desires." Unless I have completely misunderstood him, McFarland distinguishes elsewhere between "will" and "desire." While the will is that faculty "in and through which I recognize my own agency," the root of human sin is not the "will" itself but the desires it follows. McFarland never asserts -- for good reason -- that desire is "the faculty in and through which I recognize my own agency." If he did, then huge swaths of the animal kingdom would also have to be agents, given that they all experience desire in some way. If it is possible to experience desire without being an agent, then it should also be possible for a human being to experience desire without acting as an agent. If this is possible, then it is also possible for a human to experience desire without being held responsible for having it. In response McFarland might argue that since we humans are agents our experience of desire is fundamentally different from that of other animals. While they cannot not be held responsible for their desires we must be. Trouble is, McFarland never bothers to make an argument supporting his contention that a human being is an agent and hence responsible for everything she "does," conscious or not, chosen or not, merely because she is a member of the human species. As McFarland is very well aware, the bulk of the Christian tradition sides much more closely with the modern legal doctrine of responsibility than he does. In particular, for those Christian traditions that teach the "Augustinian" doctrine of original sin, Adam was held accountable for his sin in the garden because he freely chose to violate God's commandment. Although traditions differ in the way that they relate Adam's sin to his descendants, they all pretty much agree that one way or the other we participate in Adam's sin and therefore are guilty with him. Where there is explicit reflection on the fact that each of us is born with a corrupted heart, the justice of that situation is traced back to the sin Adam committed when his heart was not already corrupted by sin. McFarland is entirely correct that the various ways in which Christian traditions attempt to identify us with Adam so that we share in the guilt of that sin all fail. But they at least attempted to link our original sinfulness to a specific deed for which a human being could be held responsible. In short, the bulk of Christian tradition sides with the modern legal doctrine of the limits of human responsibility. This puts the burden of proof on McFarland, a burden he has yet to take up. He ought to abandon his position, defend it better, or be ready to accept some other corollaries.

The first and most important corollary is that if each of us is individually held responsible for the state in which we are born, then God is even more responsible for it. To refer back to the addict analogy above, just as the dealer who injected heroin into the addict's arm while she was sleeping is guilty of a greater crime than the addict herself, so a sovereign personal God who so arranges the state of the world that every human being is born a condemned sinner is more responsible for the sinner's condition than the sinner herself. Admittedly, one could dispute the use of the word "responsibility;" I use it first as a concession to McFarland's objections to causal language when it comes to the origin of sin. Second, however, I use it because ultimately one cannot make any evaluation of God's involvement in the history of human sinfulness without using the word responsibility to describe his role. To state the obvious, none of us existed before we were born. On an orthodox Christian view, God was not constrained in any way in his creation of human beings, not as a species nor as individuals. For that reason alone, McFarland's assertion that sin is a "surd" that is contrary to God's intentions for human beings (p. 187) is patently inconsistent with Christian orthodoxy. If God did not want human beings to sin, he had 14 billion years to figure out a way to prevent it. McFarland appears not to believe in incompatibilist free will, but that is the only scheme in which one can assert consistently that the way the world actually has turned out is contrary to what God wanted all along. In short, God wanted us to be sinners and arranged the world in such a way that we invariably have become sinners.

To make this point another way I would like to borrow one of McFarland's analogies. He compared the damage of original sin to the destructive dynamics of a radically codependent family. He used this analogy to argue that one could not trace a causal relationship between the "sins" of family members back to the parents, as if one of them was the unique cause of the whole destructive dynamic. Instead, everyone in the family is ensnared in the dynamic, and each family member's actions contribute to the overall disfunction in one way or another. Somehow McFarland managed to leave God entirely out of this clever analogy, as if he had no role to play in the origin of human "sinfulness" whatsoever.

To make the point yet another way, consider the legal doctrine of Respondeat Superior. It is defined as follows: "A legal doctrine, most commonly used in tort, that holds an employer or principal legally responsible for the wrongful acts of an employee or agent, if such acts occur within the scope of the employment or agency." I would like McFarland, or anyone else for that matter, to explain what about this principle is unjust or why it should not be applied to God as the superior in the case of our supposed congenital sinfulness. One could say in response, "You're assuming God can be put in the position of a defendant in a court of law. But he can't, because there is no human court anywhere competent to judge his actions." I am willing to grant the God of Christian orthodoxy this "Get out of jail free" card, so long as Christian theologians are consistent about the application of their objection.

My concession leads to the second corollary. If McFarland insists that we are unable to conclude God is legally responsible for arranging the world in such a way that we would become sinners, then he will also have to give up all attempts at theodicy. If we are unable to make a judgment about the legitimacy of this condemnation, then we are unable to make a judgment about anything God does. In fact, the entire Christian project of theodicy is illegitimate. Rather than attempting to persuade us that God is trustworthy, Christians should just command us to trust God, come hell or high water, simply because God commands us to do so. Any attempt to evaluate whether he is worthy of our trust is doomed to fail and should not be attempted. This post will not stray into the twisted maze of Christian apologetics. I will simply point out that Christians by and large do not accept the idea that we can't tell the difference between a good God and an evil God.

There are other ways to at least attempt to escape from this dilemma. One way is to admit that God is responsible for the congenital sinfulness of the human race. With this approach, the Christian scheme of salvation becomes necessary in order for God to fully glorify himself in the demonstration of his justice. Without compensating his creatures for the unnecessary sufferings he constrained them to endure, the revelation of his goodness is undermined. Admittedly, this move is so radical that it would gut the core of traditional Christianity. The entire doctrinal scheme is built on the assertion that God is supremely and purely good in everything that he does. Furthermore, he never does anything to "repay" his creatures, as if he ever did or could owe them anything. Anything good we receive from God is an act of grace on his part, as in, if he did not give it to us, his goodness is not in the least compromised, because we never at any time have any right to make any claims against him. Admitting that God is responsible for congenital human sinfulness implies that God owes himself -- and us -- better. It doesn't mean that we somehow earned a reward, just that God cannot call himself good and at the same time fail to compensate his creatures for sufferings that he brought upon them. I would argue that there is a sustained undercurrent of this type of thought in the New Testament, much of it redirected against Jewish "legalism" and exclusivism. That it is actually directed against the Hebrew Bible's conception of God and his dealings with human beings can be inferred from the heavy use by New Testament authors of the distinctive exegetical methods of second temple Judaism, which were designed from the ground up to avoid the plain meaning of the text and find other meanings that are not there. Even then, the New Testament authors were constrained by their prior commitment to the God of Israel and his word found in the Jewish scriptures from lessening the Hebrew Bible's condemnation of human beings or impeaching God for our dilemma.

I suspect that McFarland would prefer another attempted method of escape. He never presents his doctrine of salvation, even in summary, except for some scattered references to forgiveness, grace, the incarnation, and his claim that Jesus is the sole savior of the human race. He never discusses the atonement, hardly mentions justification, and provides some sketchy clues to a doctrine of sanctification in the last chapter. He believes in some kind of eternal life and apparently believes that salvation, whatever it may involve, is universal. I have already commented on his implicit acknowledgement of the dominant legal context of Biblical "sin talk." One would think, then, that in keeping with the central themes of reformation Protestantism his doctrine of salvation would include atonement and justification as God's actions to remove his own legal judgments against his people. A careful reader will have figured out by now that my criticisms of his conception of original sin would also count against this type of soteriology. He could respond that Biblical language of transgression, condemnation, atonement, justification is metaphorical. Given his frequent references to the issue of trust and the love of God, he could say that the literal referent this language is reconciliation. Although I don't think this approach is adequate, it is certainly far better than traditional understandings of Biblical sin and salvation language.

There are other, even more radical ways to escape this dilemma. One can deny that God is omnipotent and/or omniscient, that he is good, that he is personal, or that he even exists. It is my hope that the reader of this review, if she hasn't already, would investigate these alternatives. That would be a natural and appropriate reaction to reading Dr. McFarland's book. If that statement surprises you, consider what McFarland accomplished. First, he exposed fatal flaws in traditional accounts of the doctrine of original sin. Second, he presented a reconception of the doctrine that is also fatally flawed. This is very good news. It adds more evidence in favor of the view that not only are the traditional forms of orthodox Christianity indefensible, but attempts to modify them around the edges are even more indefensible. The things in the Christian way of thought and life worth preserving cannot be isolated and preserved without bringing down the whole rotten structure of traditional Christian belief and starting again from the ground up.

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