Holding ‘Folk Responsibility’ Responsible
(In this article, we’ll talk about the Fall in flatly literal language, even though I go with Origen’s perspective on the origins account, where some degree of folk symbolism obfuscates the underlying history.)
A while ago we talked about the Big Three Sovereignties: Three Christian approaches, broadly, to the soteriological and theodicean nitty-gritty of God and human freedom.
One of those broad approaches was the “Libertarian Free Will” approach. This is the wide path taken by most who believers in Christ: Numerous Evangelicals (both progressive and conservative), many Mainline Protestants (particularly Arminians), the vast majority of Orthodox and Catholics, and fans of things like Molinism and Open Theism / “Open Future.”
Libertarian free will lacks a coherent definition, but each attempt goes about positing a world — or nature of human choice — wherein causal backtracing is “cut off” at the point of human decision.
Remember that “power” of libertarian free will as we make a slight diversion.
“Responsibility” is the identification of cofactors that contributed to something happening. This identification is in service of predicting, changing, encouraging, or fixing similar cofactors in the future.
This is what has made such a vital tool, for both individuals (regret, retrospect, self-teaching) and societies (punishment, reward), for both basic survival and for the rise of civilization.
But a weird thing happened, and continues to happen.
The process of ascribing responsibility became naturally simplified into something that mostly “did the job” of the above sense of responsibility, but was a bit easier to articulate and packed a bigger “punch.”
This was the idea of “causal buck-stops-here responsibility.” We can nickname this “folk responsibility,” as pretty much everybody slides into it “by default” and has to crawl and claw their way back out.
The “algorithm” works like this:
- Select an event that satisfies (+) or fails to satisfy (-) interests.
- Backtrace through the event’s causes. Stop backtracing when you arrive at any willful agents.
- Populate an array with each found willful agent.
- Divide responsibility — credit (+) or blame (-) as defined by your interests against that event-in-question — among those in the array.
That’s “folk responsibility,” and it’s the by-default view of responsibility, even such that it is popularly considered “what responsibility is.”
The above algorithm, of course, has a problem with a God exhaustively sovereign over a world that “runs on” cause-and-effect.
That’s because even the actions of willful agents are events with backtraceable causes. With God in the mix, he becomes the root cause of everything that happens (albeit most of it through indirection).
So, we have a problem:
What do we do?
See Romans 9:19. Our antagonist is saying, “Who then can be blamed? For who can resist his will?”
Enter Libertarian Free Will
Remember the “power” of libertarian free will: “Causal backtracing is ‘cut off‘ at the point of human decision.”
It doesn’t matter that libertarian free will lacks a coherent definition; not even advocates therefor can agree on one.
All definition attempts are plays at coming up with something that has the “power” above.
That’s what it’s all about, like a centuries-old theological Hokey Pokey.
It is a maneuver designed to protect folk responsibility — to prevent it from becoming absurd under classical theism and a world of cause-and-effect — because folk responsibility is taken for granted as true.
- Diseases? No problem; backtrace them to Adam’s decision in the Garden, then cut off.
- Natural disasters? Hah! Backtrace them to Adam’s decision in the Garden, then cut off.
- God creating those he foreknows will go to endless hell? Big deal. Backtrace their doom to their own decisions (their sins and obstinacy), then cut off. A man damns himself. God’s hands are clean.
Nice job, team. The Problems have been solved!
So, What’s the Problem?
Unfortunately, the problem with folk responsibility was always that it broke down under the load of various test cases.
Like a 16th-century schooner ferrying too many barrels of sugar.
Scripture’s pretty clear that Adam was deceived. Not only did Satan deceive Adam, but Satan deceived the whole world. Satan is responsible. And yet, Adam is still held responsible for his (and, by inheritance, our) expulsion from the Garden of Grace.
How does that work under folk responsibility?
It doesn’t. It violates the algorithm (and for good reason!).
We (that is, the majority of believers) choose to arbitrarily ignore the backtrace-stopping at Adam and keep going, while simultaneously adding Adam to the array of culpable agents.
Furthermore, we (again, the majority of believers) arbitrarily say God “catches” only the “leftovers”; when it comes to unsavory stuff, we never add him to the array unless everybody else is “disqualified” for culpability.
For example, Romans 8 tells us that creation was subject to frustration — disease, natural disasters, thorns, etc. — as a choice of he who cursed it, that is, God. While the curse was indeed a response to human folly, God chose to respond in the way he did.
But here, we do not add God to the array, nor do we stop the backtracing, even as God is ostensibly a “freely willing agent!” Instead, we let the responsibility trickle back to the Adam/Satan combo from earlier, which itself violated our algorithm.
You can make the Adam/Satan “share” or “hierarchical stack” for the Fall. And you can make the God-to-(Adam/Satan) “pass through” for the agonizing thorniness of the Curse. But you cannot do both and have a consistent view of responsibility.
We make these arbitrary exceptions because even as we assert folk responsibility, our reasoning tells us that responsibility doesn’t really work like that: We know that responsibility can be mitigated, transferred, shared, and stacked hierarchically, with potential for blame and credit to vary along that stack, depending on prospective intent (benevolence or malevolence), recklessness, negligence, and a host of other moral factors.
In other words, we’re almost all infected by cognitive dissonance on this issue.
- We know folk responsibility isn’t really valid,
- but that’s the definition of responsibility we assert,
- and furthermore assert that it is valid.
The Disease’s Power
Unless laboriously rooted-out and recognized, cognitive dissonance is extraordinarily powerful in rhetoric.
That’s because it acts like a wildcard: An Ace when the round is called high-hand, a Deuce when the round is called low-hand.
And thus it is used — very convincingly to even very intelligent people — in an intricate, special-pleading dance to keep God’s hands 100% clean.
As logical dealers, we need to firmly say, “No wilds.”
(And the point of this post is that above “laborious rooting-out” and “recognition.”)
Folk responsibility should not be protected. It sucks.
The Other Avenue
Instead of the “Protected/Compromised” avenue from before, we ought to do the following:
We then assign credit and blame (and even amoral ascription!) according to the moral teleology mentioned before, precluding the absurdum that “God suddenly becomes a sinner,” and adopt compatibilism, precluding the absurdum that “we suddenly become robots.” We rightly reject such conclusions as Kochab’s Errors, subsisting on an incomplete, only-partial rejection of folk responsibility.
Further, we appeal to a manifold interest set of God to:
- Find meaningful the discrimination between primary and secondary causation. (More reading.)
- Explain, at least in theory, why things are messy at all, i.e., why God would choose the thorny response. Which he did. On purpose! (More reading.)
Remember our antagonist from Romans 9:19? “Who then can be blamed? For who can resist his will?”
Romans chs. 9 through 11 have a “national,” not an “individual” thesis.
But Paul’s response wasn’t, “You misunderstand! We individuals can resist his will.”
Rather, Paul’s response was a reiteration of God’s superordinate responsibility as a potter who makes vessels of both honorable (Gr. timen) and dishonorable (Gr. atimien) use; wine jugs and chamber pots (v. 21).
Indeed, Paul’s chapter 9 thesis is predicated on nations being like individuals, employed — sometimes despite themselves — for an ultimate chapter 11 ending.
But even though Paul did this, he proved his dynamic view of responsibility later on, in his second letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:20-22).
Here, he used the very same juxtaposition — of honorable implements and dishonorable implements, wine jugs and chamber pots — and emphasized the subordinate responsibility “we vessels” have to determine our own timen/atimien status!
This doesn’t work under the definition of responsibility that sucks.
The Bible’s “heterophroneo handling” of responsibility is absolutely vital.
The following chart gives an overview of the cyclic “free will debate” in the form of an adventure game. The Blue character is a compatibilist, arguing for the compatibility of human choice and responsibility with determinism, against the Green character.
Notice how the lynchpin moment happens at “responsibility for choices,” ending in a boring acceptance of compatibilism, a stubborn refusal to refine language, or a re-engagement in the cycle ad infinitum.
The following video features several thought experiments to help articulate why folk responsibility is bad, and how we, when we use our noodles, intuit responses according to dynamic responsibility instead.
Note that none of this is “Calvinism.” Many Calvinists are Christian determinists and compatibilists, but Christian determinism does not entail Calvinism, which has a number of eccentricities, especially in how it struggles with the prospect of endless hell.