20 Apr

“It’s all my fault…but I’m not to blame!”

Friday began well. I thought for a moment I had caught a contemporary theologian saying something sensible. It was an article in Church Times by Ian McFarland, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. He began most promisingly: “On Original Sin I’m pretty Augustinian.”

Then he spoilt it all:

“One important reformation of the doctrine I affirm is the irreducible character of human agency. Calling people victims of sin, while intended to be helpful, can actually undermine their healing process, which depends on them claiming their own agency. Of course, this raises the worry that people will blame themselves for the harm they have suffered, and here it’s important to distinguish agency — and self-responsibility — from blame.”

This is such a wonderful agglomeration of contradictions that it repays closer study before we rush out into the sunshine.

I rejoiced when he said we are not “victims” of sin. Three cheers for Professor McFarland! Here, by implication, he is protesting against the hideous contemporary culture of victimhood which abolishes personal and social morality. You know the kind of thing: we are not gluttonous but we suffer from obesity. We can, if we have the time and patience, analyse all the seven deadly sins after that example and declare that we are not responsible for what we do but in some weird and incoherent sense afflicted by our own actions. As if it were the fault of the whisky that i got drunk. Some years ago, I read of an extreme example of this abolition of morality. A young man had murdered his mother and father and run off to New York with all their money. When he was captured and brought before the court, his defence offered a plea in mitigation: the young man had done nothing wrong but instead was “suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.”

Professor McFarland seems clearly to reject this fondness for the culture of victimhood: sinners’ healing “depends on them (sic) claiming their own agency.” As they say in the crime films, this means the culprit saying such as, “OK gov, it’s a fair cop. You’ve got me bang to rights. I’ll come quietly.”

Or, more elegantly,at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, He is just and faithful to forgive us all our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

So far, so good. But then the Regius Professor turns wonky: admitting our guilt – our “agency” – “raises the worry that people will blame themselves.”

Well yes – what’s wrong with that? Accepting my agency – it was me wot done it – means taking the blame. To put this formally: the acceptance of agency means taking the blame, being responsible, owning up. It is a plain contradiction to claim agency while rejecting blame.

The whole of personal and social morality, rewards and punishments and the concept of justice itself requires the antecedent concept of personal responsibility. Without the capacity to attribute blame (for bad acts) and praise (for good acts), there is no morality.

St Augustine believed and taught that all morality originates in God, in divinity. The way Professor McFarland would have it, there can be no morality and consequently no divinity.

So what’s the point of the Regius Professor of Divinity?