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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.

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.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 6: Human desire is caused by a set of non-personal factors.

This post is a continuation of an argument I began here. In that post I laid out McFarland's argument that human "sinfulness" is not caused by our natural condition as created by God and began to critique it by questioning his use of a distinction between "nature" and "hypostasis." In this post I will turn to his presentation of cause/effect and show that the type of cause/effect relationship he says does not apply to the relationship between our natures and our character as individuals is also not the type of cause/effect relationship scientists actually posit between them. In other words, although he apparently intends to correct any and all arguments that external factors cause our desires and/or behaviors he ends up passing right over the most convincing arguments. Second, McFarland employs the case of Jesus Christ's "will" to show that human nature cannot cause us to sin because Jesus had a nature just as damaged as ours yet he did not. This argument trades on a basic misunderstanding of multi-factor causation and so fails to accomplish its intended purpose.

Both of McFarland's arguments share a basic misrepresentation of what scientists mean by causality in the case of complex biological systems like human beings. Most of these passages relate to the traditional orthodox Protestant views of original sin as a result of the sin of Adam. In the context of pointing out that modern biology has made the doctrine of monogenesis highly doubtful, he adds, "This inconsistency with the best current scientific knowledge, however, is itself rooted in their common -- and theologically problematic -- commitment to an explanatory framework of cause and effect: Adam sinned (cause) and therefore all humanity is burdened with original sin (effect)." (p. 153) McFarland is entirely correct about this flaw in the traditional Federalist and Realist views of original sin. Modern theories of human behavior agree with this criticism in the sense that one person's actions do not directly, by themselves, cause another person's actions. In fact, the same can be said of almost any biological organism. All external stimuli get filtered through internal chemical and sensory mechanisms, and the combination of prior internal states and internal processing of external stimuli are the actual, direct causal factors for subsequent behavior. Had McFarland limited his criticism of the use of cause/effect categories to its use in traditional accounts of original sin, he could have come out OK. But, as I pointed out in my previous post, McFarland is haunted -- correctly -- by the fear that admitting cause/effect categories into a discussion of the origin of human sin will lead to the conclusion that God created us sinners, and since his commitment to traditional orthodoxy forbids this conclusion, he has contracted a severe allergy to causation.

We can see this in the way that he transfers the idea of sin being the effect of a single, discrete cause from the case of traditional theories of original sin to any theory that asserts human behavior is caused by external factors, no matter how sophisticated its view of causation. Consider this statement:

...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 "inheritied" 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. Consequently, "Adam" can only be regarded as the first in a series of sinners and not as the unique "cause" of subsequent human sin. The language of causation is simply inadequate here: original sin is not a force that radiates forward or outawrd from a single point in a manner that would justify blaming our sinfulness on others."
In one sense, McFarland is right; we can't deny that we have desires that we know are bad and harmful and that we often act on them. Knowing that certainly rules out "blaming our sinfulness on others." On the other hand, it in no way rules out that our actions and desires are caused and that one key factor is our genetic inheritance. Modern theories never claim that the scientific equivalent of "original sin" radiates out from a single point. McFarland uses this simple, single-cause analogy elsewhere as well. In one place he uses billiard balls hitting each other as an example of how causation is inedequate to explain the relationship between "damage" to nature and human sinfulness. In another place, he says,
This point may be illustrated by contrasting two models of the damaged will. The first conceives it on analogy with a physical wound that I can isolate as a well-defined feature of my being with an assignable, external cause.[emphasis mine] Where this imagery prevails, original sin is fundamentally an individual affliction, however widespread it may be: others may have it, but that does not bear materially on my sin, except in the very restricted sense that it was caused by a common ancestor. In the second, original sin is conceived more along the lines of the kind of damage that afflict the members of a radically co-dependent household. Here every individual's sin is intimately bound up with others' (in the sense that it can only be understood by reference to what everyone else is doing in the system), and yet the unity of the system is such as to preclude isolating any one member as the unique "cause" of anyone else's sin, let alone the oldest member of the family as the cause of everyone else's sin (even though that person will have been temporally the first sinner). It will not do to make any one person the scapegoat: none is a sinner apart from the others -- and none can be healed fully apart from the others. (p. 159)

In this quote McFarland is guilty of the fallacy of the excluded middle. What is worse, he clearly has not kept up with psychological research. In fact, most serious psychologists would argue that the desires and behaviors of members of a radically co-dependent household are caused, just not caused directly by the behavior of the other members. If the reader doubts this, a few minutes worth of Google searches for "co-dependency and causation" should clear things up. What McFarland left out completely is the view, not just that we have genetic predispositions that give rise to "sinful" behaviors, but that these predispositions interact with our environment, both physical and social, and other features of our developing body and personality in highly complex ways that in total fully account for our resulting behavior. In regard to causation we are not billiard balls. We are massively-complex biological feedback loops. As a result, psychologists and neurologists are often reserved about the use of cause/effect language when studying the relationship between various factors that affect human behavior. It is much easier to find correlations than cause/effect relationships. But psychologists use the language of correlation as a matter of caution. When research provides sufficient evidence for it, psychologists use the language of causation. For McFarland, the exclusive use of "correlation" to describe the relationship between a damaged nature and a sinful individual is the result of a prior theological commitment to avoid at all costs the conclusion that God made us sinners, no matter what the evidence to the contrary might suggest. This may seem unfair to him, but how else are we to explain that he provides nothing more than cursory and uninformed arguments against modern theories of human behavior?

As I mentioned above McFarland's other major argument against causation is the case of Jesus. He spends chapter 5 of his book arguing that Jesus's human nature included a "fallen will," the traditional confession that Jesus was sinless is valid, and the reason Jesus was sinless despite having a "fallen will" is that his "hypostasis" was the Second Person of the Trinity. Since Jesus is the divine Son, the sinlessness of his divine nature overrules his fallen will. As a human, he was fully exposed to the love and knowledge of God and so followed God's will perfectly at every point. This made him uniquely unable to sin, unlike the rest of the human race, which is unable not to sin.

McFarland is notably cagey about relating this argument directly to the relationship between human nature and individual character. He does not assert explicitly that the case of Jesus rules out a causal relationship until this passage late in the book:

In light of this proposal, it might seem to follow that original sin is simply a way of referring to the effects of the fall as it applies to the will in particular, since the fallenness of all the other components of human nature does not (and, indeed, cannot) produce sin apart from the will. But if (as argued in Chapter 5) Christ assumed a fallen nature and yet was free from all sin, this interpretation evidently cannot be accepted. To do so would be to conflate nature and hypostasis, as though the quality of the latter were determined [emphasis mine] by the characteristics of the former. ... Consequently, though it is right to speak of human desires as distorted by virtue of a vitium inherent in postlapsarian human nature, this cannot be understood as a causal explanation of why fallen human beings are in fact sinners. (p. 184)
A sceptic could ask McFarland for evidence that the historical Jesus possessed a divine nature of the type orthodox Christianity posits. She could also point out that the incomprehensibility of a union of two natures with contradictory characteristics in the same individual makes it impossible for us to come up with a sensible account of such a person's internal states.

As it turns out, there is no need for such scepticism in order to see the flaw in McFarland's argument. In both customary usage and technical language just about everyone besides McFarland would use the language of causation to explain the difference between the case of Jesus and the case of other human beings when it comes to sin. Jesus was not able to sin because the force of his knowledge of God's will so moved his human nature that he invariably desired to follow it more than anything else. In terms of the rest of humanity, that has to mean that his internal experience of the qualities of the divine character continuously stimulated brain circuitry in such a way that his emotional state and patterns of thought always led directly to actions in accord with the will of the Father. This is a causal relationship, pure and simple. To generalize, human behavior is the result of multi-factor causation. In the case of Jesus, McFarland introduces a dominating factor that is absent for all other human beings, namely Jesus's divine nature. Remove that dominating factor and the remaining factors interact as they would otherwise, leading to a different effect. It is ridiculous to assert that the changed effect in the presence of the dominating factor proves that there is no cause/effect relationship between the effect and any of the factors. If I get rid of strep throat by taking an antibiotic, I can't then claim that bacteria do not cause strep throat.

Finally, McFarland's theory is apparently not very convincing even to him. Despite his rejection of every variant of the theory of an historical fall, he ends up using language that only makes sense if some kind of historical fall has taken place or does take place. Consider this: "As created, the will is that feature of human nature by which human beings are freely (i.e., as self-conscious agents) empowered to desire God. When the will is damaged, therefore, its desire is no longer for God -- and desire that is not oriented to God is by definition sinful." (p. 183) Really, "no longer?" When did/does this damage take place? Since he is talking about "damage" he is referring to human nature, not an individual human hypostasis, meaning that something else besides God's creation damaged human nature. Who or what did it? What evidence does McFarland have that any human being -- Jesus Christ excepted, as McFarland so often puts it -- ever exhibited a desire for the Trinitarian God of orthodox Christianity above all else without being explicitly taught to do so? While there may be a genetic component to religiosity, there is no genetic component to Christian faith. We are not born with a desire for God above all else and there is no good evidence anywhere to suppose that any previous human beings were born with such a desire.

What conclusions can we draw? First, assuming that that the God of Christian orthodoxy exists and evolution is true, God created human beings to be sinners. It is true that God can't commit sins for his human creations, but he certainly did arrange for everything necessary to ensure that they would sin. He certainly had the time and power to produce a different outcome, and he didn't. The only reasonable conclusion is that the state of humanity and progress of human history as we have seen it so far is precisely what God wanted. See upcoming posts for the implications of this conclusion for McFarland's account of human responsibility. There are several alternative views that could avoid this conclusion. Most of these views deny something about God that orthodox Christianity asserts, such as his role in the creation of the universe, his sovereign control over it, his goodness (in any sense that we would normally use the word), his personhood, or his existence. Adopting any of these views is anathema to most Christians. Consequently, they regard evolution as the source of the trouble and reject it as inherently incompatible with Christian faith. Obviously, they would not agree with McFarland's use of the nature/"hypostasis" distinction to separate human sinfulness from the web of cause/effect. Second, given that evolution is so well supported by existing evidence and that human "sinfulness" is caused by a combination of factors external to human self-consciousness, orthodox Christianity is false, and modifications around the edges will not be sufficient to save it. If McFarland truly wishes to bring Christian faith closer to the truth, he will need to set aside the pruning shears and get out his axe.

McFarland, if he ever responds to this sort of criticism, is likely to object that my view is inconsistent with our intuitive awareness that we are responsible for our actions. If I am right, McFarland will object, human beings can't be held accountable. This is a serious objection and needs to be addressed. The next set of posts will answer this objection in the context of a larger examination of McFarland's account of human responsibility and his lack of an account of divine responsibility.

One other brief note about causal factors for human behavior. While the view I am advocating for is deterministic, it is not a secularized version of the doctrine of "total depravity." The causes of human behavior are multiple, complex, and operate at various levels. For instance, for all we know some of our thoughts and moods are stimulated, even if ever so briefly, by "random" events at the biochemical or even quantum level. There is no overarching psychological evil genie that twists every firing neuron pattern to yield results only matching its design specs. Creativity is one key phenomenon in support of this view. In contrast, McFarland asserts that while we may be able to control specific behaviors we have no control over our ability to commit sin. Since the root of sin is disordered desire and we cannot control our desires, absolutely everything we do is sinful. This is really just one more example of orthodox Christians holding human beings to unrealistic and impossible standards (as mentioned above, we have no good reason to suppose that the type of desire for God that McFarland describes as true to our created nature ever did or could evolve in the environments in which our pre-human ancestors lived) in order to promote their scheme of a God justified in condemning us all, given a free pass to rage through history murdering and mauling -- we deserve worse than anything we've seen yet --, and punishing his own Son for our "sins" and demanding that we believe in him or else. Wait until you see how McFarland defends this pernicious bullying in his account of human responsibility. Don't miss it!

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 5: Misleading distinctions

This is the fifth post in a series. Please use the navigation guide if you want to check out previous posts. In this post we will explore the relationships between human nature, the individual, desire, and causation. This may seem like an odd combination of topics, but we must examine them together in order to evaluate a key argument of McFarland's properly.

In the previous post I laid out what I believe is a more adequate account of human desire than that presented in McFarland's book. The final implication of that account is that an individual human's desires are caused by complex interactions between her genes, environment, development, perceptions, and prior brain and body states. McFarland, on the other hand, attempts to detach human "willing" and desire from the web of cause/effect. In fact, this is one of the key goals of the book. If he fails, his entire theory crashes to the ground. In this post I intend to prove that he fails, but first we must understand his argument more precisely.

Throughout the book McFarland describes the current human condition as "fallen." It needs to be pointed out immediately this and related expressions are nothing more than a dead holdover of traditional theological language. McFarland does not believe in an historical fall, collective or individual, even though he knows that by giving up on an historical fall he is boxing himself into a tight corner. As he points out, traditional theology about the fall served an important theodical purpose, namely, it protected God from the charge that he made us sinners. According to the traditional approach, God created us good, but we ended up as sinners due to a primordial act of sin by our first parents. Even though we all now sin because we are sinners, we all ended up as sinners because at one point a non-sinner committed the first sin and by some mechanism we all share in the resulting guilt, alienation from God, corruption of character, suffering, and death. McFarland rejects this approach. He raises objections against every variant of the theory of an historical fall. Traditional views that original sin is the result of an act of "Adam" and/or "Eve's" are made unbelievable by modern discoveries about evolution and the internal inconsistencies of each variant approach (pp. 35-39, 148-153). His criticism of these views strikes not only against many traditional theologies but also against a straightforward reading of Biblical texts such as Genesis 2-3 and Romans 5. He proposes no alternative reading of the texts or doctrine of Scripture. I find that odd, given that he often treats Biblical texts elsewhere in the book with the respect -- or naivete -- of a fundamentalist. Be that as it may, he has no more sympathy for modern theories of original sin that suggest the "fall" is an individual experience brought about by nature and/or nurture. These fall short either because they fail to take account of the universality and inevitability of sin or end up identifying the created order as the source of human sinfulness. (See especially pp. 39-48, as well as 144, 154). Although he does not say so explicitly, it is fairly clear from his failure to advance an alternative view of an historical fall that he believes there never was a time when human beings, individually or collectively, were not sinners. Therefore, on McFarland's theory human beings are not "fallen," strictly speaking, because there was nothing to "fall" from. He is well aware that taking this approach appears to expose him even more to the criticism that his theory of original sin makes God the origin of human sinfulness, as in, we sin because God created us sinners. McFarland spends the better part of chapters 4-6 advancing an argument to resist this conclusion.

Here I will try my level best to give a fair outline of his argument. It starts with a three-sided distinction between "nature" and "hypostasis." They differ as type to example, innate characteristics to developed character, and structure to mode. Human nature is that set of characteristics that all human beings share in common, whereas hypostasis refers to each human being's individuality, that which sets her apart from every other human being, that which makes her an "I." Human nature refers to that set of qualities with which we are born and so have no role in producing or developing ourselves, whereas "hypostasis" refers to the individual as an agent who plays an active role in everything she experiences. Finally, nature refers to the invariant structure of each individual being's bodily and psychic existence, whereas "hypostasis" refers to a specific way of expressing that nature, much as each chemical element has a (relatively) invariant atomic structure but can exist in various states depending on the temperature of its immediate surroundings. The facility or capacity to act on desires, which we commonly call "will" is part of human nature. But it is also that part of human nature that expresses each person's individuality and by which each of us comes to own and take responsibility for our actions. In regard to original sin, "damage" is applicable to human nature but "sinfulness" is only applicable to a human person ("hypostasis"). In other words our human nature is "damaged" in such a way that when an individual with this damaged nature exercises her will, she inevitably commits sin. But it is wrong to conclude that damage to human nature causes an individual to sin. Rather, since the individual has a will her acts are voluntary. Even though she cannot help but sin, all her sins are performed willingly and therefore she must take responsibility for them. To put it another way, humans act wrongly because our desires are perverse, and our desires are perverse because we are the kinds of people who have perverse desires, namely sinners. How we came to have these perverse desires is a mystery, an unanswerable question that is really beside the point anyway. Since we are responsible for our own deeds, we can never fully explain them by reference to any combination of external factors. Ultimately, each of us does what she does because she wants to do it.

McFarland repeats this argument in whole or in part on pp. 126-131, 144-147, 154-161, and 184-187. Each of these sections is meant to stress a specific part of his overall argument and adds some detailed observations in support of his position, especially the middle two sections. Also, it is important to note that McFarland's overall framework is derived from his analysis of the implications of the dyothelite Christology of the third Council of Constantinople as expounded by Maximus the Confessor. He argues that Jesus himself had a fallen human nature and yet was sinless because as an individual (his "hypostasis") he was none other than the second person of the Trinity. Being at once God and human, his human will was "deified" or "glorified" (perfected by direct exposure to the fullness of God) and so conformed perfectly to the divine will. McFarland uses this framework to separate "damage" to human nature from "sin" by human individuals. Jesus was as damaged as we are, yet he committed no sin. Therefore, there is no causal relationship between the damaged nature and the sinful individual. Of course, we are not divine persons and do not have "deified" wills. Lacking that direct communion with God we as individuals express what is in our damaged human nature and so we inevitably sin (See chapters 4 and 5).

I have much to say in criticism of this argument, but first I would like to give McFarland a chance to explain himself in some detail. Here is one version of McFarland's argument in full. It occurs in the context of his discussion of Jesus Christ's having a deified human will:

In order to see how this understanding of Christ's person does not fall into a Docetism according to which his material existence was only a sort of divine play-acting, it is necessary to attend to the peculiarity of the will among all the components of human nature. The deification of the body involves transformation of its physical properties in order to render it incapable of suffering and death. By contrast (and as Maximus takes pains to insist), to speak of Christ's will as deified does not imply any such structural alteration: as a piece of human nature, the deified will differs from the non-deified will only in its relationship to God (i.e., in its mode of operation). This difference reflects the ontologically odd status of the will as the feature of human nature that gives this nature a kind of open-ended indeterminacy. This is not because our wills allow us to determine or to override our natures. To argue that way would be precisely to succumb to the Pelagian understanding of the will as some sort of ontological reserve standing over against human nature rather than as part of it. The will is not a power we have over our natures (since we will what we desire, and we do not control what we desire), but rather identifies the fact that we live out our nature as agents who (and to be an agent is precisely to be a "who") are always implicated in our nature in a way that makes it impossible to view it as simply given. In short, human nature's open-endedness is a function of the fact that a human being is someone rather than something, and thus not adequately or fully described in terms of what she is.

The phenomenon of sin further displays the ontological oddity of the will. As both Maximus and Thomas agree, human beings hunger, grow tired, experience fear in the face of danger, and the like because these phenomena are natural consequences of material embodiment that cannot be altered except by the wholesale transformation of human bodies through the resurrection. They are, in other words, ontologically determinate features of human being under conditions of earthly existence prior to glory and, as such, constitute the determinate "whatness" of our nature in time and space. By contrast (and following the Augustinian insight that human willing follows desire), the reason human beings sin is that their desires are perverse. But when it comes to explaining why those desires are perverse, the only answer that can be given is, "Because we are sinners" -- that is, in terms of the "whoness" (or, in the language of classical theology, the individual hypostasis) -- that is the mark of a created nature with a will. In this way (and as a further example of the correlation of will with human nature's open-endedness), the will, as that aspect of my nature (i.e., my whatness) where my status as agent (i.e., my whoness) is revealed, discloses a limit on all attempts to account for my being solely in terms of what I am (i.e., my nature). (pp. 126-127)

This excerpt illustrates two fundamental problems with McFarland's argument. First, with his distinction between "nature" and "hypostasis" he employs a false conception of individuation. Second, his attempts to exempt "willing" human action from the web of cause/effect -- outside of a person's own inner desires -- all fail. I will address the first problem in the rest of this post and tackle the second in my next post.

McFarland tells us that "nature" and "hypostasis" are "Chalcedonian categories," which I guess means that he intends the terms in accordance with their use by the theologians of that and immediately following generations. (For those who may not know, the Council of Chalcedon was a church council formed to settle a dispute over the relation between the divinity and humanity of Jesus. It issued a confession in 451 CE. that Jesus has both a divine and human nature united in one "hypostasis" (person) without mixture or compromise of the attributes of either nature.) I do not have enough knowledge of how 4th and 5th century theologians used these terms (more precisely their Greek and Latin equivalents) to make any comments about that. Instead, given that McFarland is working with concepts that arise in a very unfamiliar intellectual environment, I will try to map his use of them to what appear to me to be equivalent modern concepts employed in the sciences and see how his argument holds up under that light. We can start by acknowledging that each of McFarland's distinctions has at least some validity. The genetic code all humans are born with marks us out as a distinct species and structures our bodies and minds. This common code accounts for the the common set of characteristics that gets the label "human nature." But we are also born with variations in our genetic code that distinguish us from other human beings, some of which we may share with others, such as "females," "pygmies," and "people carrying the recessive gene for type 1 diabetes." As we add up these genetic variations in the genome of a single human being, the number of others who share the same combination of variations shrinks until we have a list of variations so specific that it matches only one human being. Clearly, then, each of us is born not just with a given human nature, but with a nature specific to ourselves. Some of these variations are known or very likely to be a major or even the dominant or sole factor in the development of a characteristic that will profoundly shape our personality and relationships without dramatic post-natal inverventions. Clinical depression and psychopathic personality come to mind almost immediately. This is hardly news and wouldn't need to be mentioned except that McFarland underplays it.

Compare this to the following statement found on p. 187:

Hypostasis is irreducible to nature, as the mode (tropos) in which the nature subsists. In this context, it is important to remember that the constitutive features of human nature (whatever these may be supposed to include) are by definition those features that all human beings have in common. As that dimension of human being that is irreducible to nature, hypostasis is an anomalous category: all human beings are hypostases, yet because the hypostasis refers precisely to the distinctiveness of each individual human being, it is misleading to speak of it as something common to all human beings. On the contrary, it refers to that which cannot be defined (e.g., in terms of its properties or capacities), but only named as an unrepeatable particular.
Here McFarland's distinctions come into conflict with one another. If "nature" is what each of us is born with, then it cannot be defined merely as "human nature," because that is just an abstraction for the characteristics we share in common. Since we are also born with characteristics that distinguish us from other humans, these inborn characteristics must be ... part of our "hypostasis?" But then, how can McFarland say the hypostasis is indefinable? OK, then, these unique inborn characteristics must be part of our nature, which conforms with my observations above. McFarland errs, then, by failing to account for the specificity of our inborn nature.

Furthermore, McFarland's description of human nature as "open-ended" in the first quote above is problematic. This characterization is based on a passage earlier in the book in which he reflects on the nature of Jesus's obedience to the will of God expressed in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, "not my will but yours be done." On pp. 98-99 he says, "...Maximus' answer rests on making a distinction between what is natural to human will (in this case, avoidance of death) and the movement of the same will inasmuch as it is 'wholly deified' and thus fixed immovably on God. ...the movement from rejection of the cup to its acceptance illustrates a progression from human nature as it operates according to its own powers and nature that, as enabled to transcend those powers through grace, fulfils [sic] the particular calling of the individual within God's wider plan for deified humanity." McFarland concludes from Maximus' interpretation that via the will's obedience to God's call, an individual human being can perform acts that go beyond her natural capacities (i.e., without God's grace she would never do them.) In that sense, human nature is "open-ended." And if a person can go beyond her natural capacities in obedience to the call of God, we cannot say that human nature causes our behavior. Let's leave aside for the moment doubts about the historical veracity of the temptation in the garden and focus on Maximus's claim that Jesus's willingness to go to his death went beyond the natural capacities of human beings. How does he know this? Given the number of people over the course of human history who have gone to their deaths willingly to save others' lives or in defense of an ideal, it seems that McFarland will have to engage in some special pleading to defend Maximus's definition of human nature. Of course, McFarland can always claim that all these instances were in response to the action of God's gracious calling. On what basis can he make this claim?

What can we say about our "hypostases?" Obviously a great deal, and most of us are more than happy to elaborate! Given the fact that each of us is born to a specific pair of human parents at a specific time and place and go on to trace a unique history on the universe in which we live, it is hard to see how any of us "cannot be defined." On the contrary, we would need a massive library to contain a complete description of a single human being. Of course, no human being has ever been fully defined in this way; it is simply beyond our capabilities. McFarland could point out that if we live eternally it will be impossible to ever complete the definition anyway. But I don't think that's what McFarland had in mind in the first place. He really needs an indefinable "hypostasis," because indefinable is also indeterminate, i.e., outside the realm of cause/effect. This is in contrast with the "determinate 'whatness' of our nature" that he mentions in the first quote above and in comparison with the "open-endedness" due to our having a "will." By the way, on p. 139, note 52, McFarland tells us that "hypostasis" refers to "the whole human being, body and soul," not just the aspects of a human being that make her unique. I bring this up merely to illustrate that in order to keep the formation and exercise of individual character clear of cause/effect relationships with the rest of the natural world McFarland can't hew consistently to his own definitions.

What else can we say about our "hypostases?" Being an individual human being does not, in and of itself, implicate one's "will" in everything that happens to her. This is an implication of the fact that the fundamental distinguishing mark of an individual is her body. This is also so obvious that it hardly needs mentioning, except that McFarland downplays it. On p. 106 he acknowledges that our individuality is also marked out by our bodies (and minds), but this observation bears no fruit in his broader argument. McFarland might say in response that he focuses on the "will" because it marks each of us out as an individual agent, which is critical for his argument about our responsibility for "original sin." Trouble is, he ends up confusing individual experience with individual responsibility. To illustrate, consider this more correct analysis of McFarland's sweating example. When I say, "I am sweating" I am not implicitly confessing a crime, even if as a result I feel embarassed or guilty. Rather, I am simply acknowledging that the body that is sweating is the same body that noticed the sweating. I own my sweating because the sweat droplets formed on my skin, and as they cooled and dropped the temperature on my skin, they kicked off nervous impulses that reached my brain and generated the sensuous experience of coolness and wetness which I virtually instantaneously recognize as a part of the experience of my body's sweating. When other bodies sweat, my body, i.e., I, do not have these experiences. Not only is my body what I am, without remainder -- to borrow a phrase that appears later in McFarland's book -- it is also for the most part who I am. My thoughts are mine because they occur in my brain, which is located in my head. When other people think, I do not experience their thoughts as occurring in my head, and so on. None of this self-identifying language logically implies that I, that is, my body, desires or "wills" to have these experiences, even experiences I, that is, my body, actively contributed to having. Furthermore, this conclusion is not only not compromised by phenomena such as split personality or the "alien hand" syndrome experienced by some individuals with brain injuries, they underscore it. We know that our experience of a unified consciousness, an "I," is not only more fragile than our bodies but can and has been manipulated and disrupted by brain injuries, sickness, medications, and artificial stimulation. When a person experiencing "alien hand" syndrome sees her hand moving without consciously intending to make it move, she does not say, "That's not my hand." She says, "Someone else is moving my hand!" McFarland may object that the physical damage to such an individual's brain says nothing about the situation of the "will" in a normal individual, but I respectfully disagree. For one thing the experience of this type of person simply underlines the primacy of body awareness for our sense of self. Second, the experience of alien hand is a "canary in the coal mine" type of phenomenon. How many other activities in which we are engaged appear to our conscious minds to be motivated by some conscious desire or decision but in fact are motivated by an entirely unconscious process?

It is ironic that McFarland works so hard to separate "hypostasis" from causality; when you think of it, of all the places to look for cause/effect activity the first place we would pick is a concrete situation. After all, no abstract concept causes another abstract concept to do anything. Causation takes place on the level of individual real objects in the world, not between concepts in our brains, or at least that is what we intend by the language. To speak of causation operating on the level of human nature but not on the level of an "hypostasis" is absurd. In response McFarland may concede the point when it comes to events affecting an individual's body, but claim that at the core of her personality the fact that she has a "will" prevents us from ascribing her behavior solely to external causes. Part of McFarland's justification for this claim is his view that humans are basically "rational," which I refuted here. The other key part of this claim is an argument from human experience. McFarland states it most clearly and succinctly here: "... 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." (p. 160) Since the "will" is intimately linked to desire, it further follows that I can't dissociate any defect in my desires from my agency. Finally, this experience of agency rules out the possibility that any of my desires can be caused exclusively by factors external to my "will." McFarland never justifies this last claim. It is true that our experience of ourselves as agents leads many of us to conclude that external causes cannot fully account for our behavior/desires, etc, but our experience could be misleading. I already suggested the evolutionary value of this belief; that in no way implies that it is a correct belief. We are not self-conscious all the way down. As McFarland himself acknowledges, it is adaptive for us not to have exhaustive knowledge of our own body's functioning. Our own motives are also partly hidden from us. What is more, it is not just our motives that are partly hidden from us; it is also the bodily and external events that give rise to these motives that are often at least partly hidden from us. For that reason, our experience of ourselves as agents is not a sufficient basis upon which to rule out that our desires, even those that we consciously experience and base our decisions upon, are caused by one or more non-personal factors.

Pardon me, reader, for going on at such length on this issue. In the next post we will examine McFarland's account of causation in detail.