Responsibility

We have seen how some accounts of humans can locate sin only in the structures of society. It is a strength of a greater emphasis on the role of the individual and of personal responsibility that sin can also be located at the individual level. A determinist must have difficulty in taking sin seriously as there seems little possibility of holding anyone morally responsible for what he or she does. According to such a picture, we are all the products of forces beyond our control, whether social or biological. What then are we to make of the sociobiological emphasis on inherited tendencies to selfishness? One reply might be that this is partly what can still give plausibility to the doctrine of original sin. That has always linked a human disposition to sin and an inbuilt selfishness with our biological inheritance. The doctrine has often been expressed in biological terms as a matter of inherited taint though it has typically implied that humans were once in a sinless state from which they have fallen. Anyone who accepts modern scientific accounts of the transmission of genes might wish to doubt that. The underlying picture remains, though, of an inheritance which presents us with tendencies that are not wholly good. Our agonizing problem is that we are simultaneously in the grip of such desires, and also can stand back from ourselves and see that natural inclinations at times need to be resisted rather than slavishly followed. In fact, even sociobiologists sometimes defend their discipline by maintaining that greater knowledge of our motives may give us the ability to have greater control over ourselves.

Any moral theory has to take account of human nature as its raw material. It has to have a conception of what humans need and what they want. This is yet another example of our ability to stand back from ourselves and reason about ourselves. We seem never wholely the prisoners of our biological nature, even if we may sometimes pretend that we are. In the same way we may not be the prisoners of the culture which has produced us. Biological and social influences, separately and in combination, influence us all the time. They provide constraints and obstacles as well as opportunities. Yet human freedom cannot be totally discounted. Even blaming society or our genes for what we do is an exercise of that freedom. In the end, any theological anthropology has to take seriously the freedom and responsibility which each person possesses.

Our social and physical environment, including our biology, may present us with many disadvantages. Some people have more severe problems to encounter than others. Social status, as well as physical weakness, may provide many obstacles. It is, however, a basic theological insight that, whatever their circumstances, people can never be mere puppets being controlled by someone or something else. How we react to our circumstances is finally a matter for each person, however apparently powerless. It follows that a Christian doctrine of redemption cannot be satisfied with a political programme which aims to correct injustice, let alone with some biological technique which would try to engineer a better set of human genes. We may well wish to improve social conditions, but it can be argued that even the urge to do so will be rooted in the personal responsibility which individuals feel to those who may be worse off. However complicated the relation of individuals to a community may be, it will be individuals who will be able to change society. Society can never change itself. The worth, or otherwise, of an institution, will depend very much on the calibre of its participants. Not even the Church can hope to flourish, if its members are corrupt.

This is why a strong conception of the self as the locus of moral responsibility, as well as of rationality, should be part of any theological understanding of what it is to be human. According to such a position, we each, as individual selves, are accountable to God for the way we live our lives in the circumstances in which we are placed. It has often been recognized that the freedom of the individual cannot be emphasized to the exclusion of all other considerations in a theological context, but has to be seen in the context of the grace, and providence, of God. Too much stress on human freedom and responsibility can appear to detract from the sovereignty of God. This has led some, such as Calvinists, to talk of predestination. We may, it seems, be wrong in thinking that we can rely on our own spiritual resources. That, however, does not mean that we should blame social circumstances as a way of escaping responsibility. Similarly, it is not enough to blame our biological inheritance. Just as we are presented with the consequences of a myriad personal decisions by members of previous generations, so what we make up our minds to do will have consequences for those who are to come. Individuals are not isolated units or atoms. We have a responsibility for others. Any genuinely theological anthropology will hold that we are moral agents with the ability to respond to or reject the will of God. The very term suggests that if God created us, to be truly human must be to live as God intended.

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