CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Affirming Responsibility in an Age of Irresponsibility

Aug 31, 1998

One never ceases to be amazed at the things that will turn up in the daily newspapers. A recent newspaper account of a new study will certainly put a new twist on an old excuse. A new study has been presented which claims that male infidelity and promiscuity may be genetic. The findings were presented in February at a scientific conference in Philadelphia. The findings claim that men born with a certain gene will be more likely to have sex with a variety of partners. Interestingly, these findings come from Dr Dean Hamer, the same researcher who about 5 years ago reported he had discovered a genetic basis of homosexuality. His earlier research has been roundly criticised.

It is interesting to note how far people are willing to go to deny or ignore human responsibility. Various theories of causation keep arising, suggesting that the way we act is predetermined. Marxists have said we are economically determined. Freudians have said we are sexually determined. Darwinists have said we are biologically determined. All such determinists seek to undermine the reality of personal responsibility and accountability. One can only imagine that genes will soon be discovered to account for anger, gossip, lying and racism. But then two can play at that game. If we are to accept, for example, that gays are genetically determined to be that way, perhaps homophobes have a genetic compulsion to be so as well.

While there are obviously various biological and environmental factors that have an influence on our behaviour, we are nonetheless primarily free moral agents with the ability to forge our own destinies and make responsible choices. As scripture implores, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” “Whosoever will may come”. “Choose life, that you may live”. Such verses can be multiplied at length.

The Scriptures hold us accountable as sinners simply because it assumes that we have freely chosen to rebel against God. Yes, we are all affected by the power and pull of original sin, and yes, there are strong environmental factors that need to be considered. But overall we are seen by God as individuals who can make free moral choices and will reap the consequences of those choices. That is why mankind has been seeking to make excuses ever since that fateful day in the garden when Adam passed the buck to Eve, and she in turn blamed the serpent. Everyone wants to live as they please, without accepting the consequences for their choices.

That is why so many people find various alternatives to the Christian faith so appealing – alternatives which minimise personal responsibility and accountability. For example, many are flocking to the New Age and eastern religions, which in part teach that what we are and do today has been determined by what we were in a past live. People find it easy to embrace the ideas of reincarnation and the law of karma (you are living out now what past lives have determined), because it takes away personal responsibility.

No society can last for long when everyone insists on doing whatever they please without anyone being willing to accept the consequences of their behaviours. Anarchy will quickly result. Fortunately some perceptive thinkers are starting to wake up to this fact. Several books which have sold well in the secular market have been arguing for the need to own up to personal responsibility. One such book is How Could You Do That?: The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience by Laura Schlessinger. Dr Schlessinger contends that no matter what past or present influences weigh down upon us, we are still free to choose how we respond, and we ought to start taking a bit of responsibility for our actions. In a nutshell, “the path to solid, supportive, healthy relationships, self-respect, and a quality of life starts with the usually painful decision to do the right thing.”

Another good book which deals with this problem is Charles Sykes’ A Nation of Victims. In it he argues that we have become a nation of victims, with everyone blaming his or her lousy behaviour on the actions of others. Unfortunately, explains Sykes, “this is a formula for social gridlock: the irresistible search for someone or something to blame colliding with the unmovable unwillingness to accept responsibility. . . . A community of interdependent citizens has been displaced by a society of resentful, competing, and self-interested individuals who have dressed their private annoyances in the garb of victimism”.

It is encouraging to see others coming to see what Scripture has affirmed all along. Considering how many church folk are buying into the “I can’t help it” line, it is more necessary today than ever that we rediscover afresh the Biblical understanding of personal responsibility and accountability.

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