Neither Heredity Nor Environment
Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? (John 9:2)
We are all heirs of the common heritage of humanity through our parents running all the way back to Adam. From our immediate parents we receive certain capacities, trends and tendencies which identify us with a narrower clan within the human family. In our general and special heritage there are many things which taken together make for each of us a wonderful fortune. There may be also a few things which answer as handicaps and limitations. But whatever the fortune, we received at our birth the capital which has enabled us to operate the business of life up until the present time. We could but receive it passively, and whether it was much or little, we ourselves are not to be either complimented or condemned.
The custom of accounting men as products of factors over which they have no control is not a new one. It is the easiest alibi for our own failures, and the best method of accounting for the successes of others which cannot reflect any credit upon those whom we may be inclined to envy.
Dale Carnegie observes that two generations ago some of the very leaders of thought, men like Emerson and Horace Greeley, were adepts of “phrenology,” and believed that a man’s capacities could be read in the bumps which appear on his head. Many stores retained phrenologists in connection with their selection of persons for their staff, and a good many are known to have lost their positions because the bumps on their heads marked them out as wanting in ability or as possessing qualities that were undesirable.
That is indeed a poor philosophy which contains no message for the less fortunate. It is not only a poor philosophy, but with thankfulness we affirm it is a false philosophy. It is all well and good for those who have it to boast of their “blue blood,” but must the others be told there is no hope? Must a man succumb to the handicaps of his heredity? Is man but plastic clay in the hands of unknowing fate? Must all take the place for which the heritage of the past fitted them?
The early years of our lives, likewise, were entirely in the hands of others. We could no more choose the guardians and companions of our infancy than we could choose our parentage. We are happy if we find in ourselves evidence of wisdom and goodness in those who taught us by precept and example our first lessons on how to live in the curious world into which we found ourselves introduced. But whether those evidences reflect credit or blame on the guardians and companions of our earliest earthly days, we cannot either undo what was done or go back and live those days again.
It were folly, of course, to say that heredity and environment are not factors in our making. But it is a hurtful heresy to hold that they are determining factors. In our responsible years we must not surrender to the fatalistic notion that our parents and our surroundings made us, and that we are neither to be praised nor blamed for being what we are or for what we are in the process of becoming.
No matter how baffling the phrases of theologians, philosophers, psychologists and others, we all know within ourselves that we are responsible. We know we are not clods and stones upon which the elements work at will. We are not even primarily dependent flesh and blood. We are essentially mind and spirit. The sun of our surroundings tans or bleaches according to the use we make of its rays. Circumstances are but fibers out of which we weave our own cloth. We know these things are true, no matter what the speculators say, and no matter how much we might at times prefer the alibi which determinism furnishes the individual.
“Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” asked the fatalistic disciples. But the free Master replied, “Neither this man nor his parents, but that the glory of God might be revealed.” This does not mean that the man’s blindness was in no sense the responsibility of his parents. But it does mean that neither the blind man nor those who lived with him were to take the situation as complete and hopeless. The man’s very limitation became the occasion for a notable miracle, so that many a by-stander may have wished himself the victim of misfortune only that he might on that account be partaker of the Master’s mercy.
Hezekiah was the good son of a bad father. Joseph kept his purity in vile Egypt. Even the Nazarene acquired His cognomen from a city without reputation for either wisdom or fame. On the other hand, Manasseh was the son of a good father. Solomon, the builder of the temple of God, turned to idols right in Jerusalem. Judas, the treasurer of the college of apostles, became a traitor while enjoying the Master’s choice favor. Men may be bent toward a certain course by their heredity, and they may be encouraged in the selection of a certain way by their environment, but at the point of choosing they are free, and in spite of all that unsought forces can do for or against him, man is yet “the architect of his own destiny,” and should be praised for his virtues and blamed for his vices.
Excuses and alibis are easier than self-correction and evangelism. And so even to this day wherever men meet to talk it is popular to berate the dictators and bewail the evils which we have no power to correct All these things are done as substitutes for personal repentance and responsible use of the means at hand for improving the general conditions of our day. Many who berate the dictators abroad yet vote for liquor at home. They become exercised regarding “the terrible days in which we live” and then go out to desecrate the Sabbath and disregard the laws of God and man themselves. They talk of “the good old days” of the Pilgrim fathers, and then do not attend church themselves. They glorify their fathers’ and mothers’ religion, and themselves neglect family and secret devotion. It seems to be a human trait to get agitated over things we cannot help, and to be little affected over things that appeal to us for choice and action. But the order is in reverse: it is no use to get stirred up over things we cannot help, and when we get stirred up over things we can help, we should do something about them. There are many things in our present environment which we are as powerless to help as we are to help in the matter of the environment of our infancy. But we must not generalize too soon: there are many things we can help, and perhaps by the time we get these done other evils will have been corrected by others or we shall be strong enough to help with these also. Therefore what we cannot do is no excuse for being remiss in the things we can help.
Coming first to ourselves: let us be encouraged by the fact that nothing that is outside of us can get inside to do us harm without our consent. It is the will that counts. The power to perform may be denied us, but whoever wills to be good is good. But let us not avoid the converse: nothing outside of ourselves can get in to do us good without our consent. It is our response that counts. We may be brought up in the very “lap of the gospel” and yet be renegade. It is not what has been offered us, but that which we have received that makes the difference.
Never once did Jesus accept or reject anyone on the basis of his pedigree or his surroundings. To Christ every man was an opportunity. What good could come of blaming a man’s parents for his plight, even though they were somewhat at fault? What good could come merely of charging a man’s state to his own guilt and leaving it there? Here was a blind man who needed help and who seemed ready and willing to accept it. Christ disregarded the pride of Paul and the unsavory occupation of Levi, and offered them both a place in the apostleship. But neither the proud pedigree of the one qualified him, nor the unsavory occupation of the other constituted an insurmountable barrier.
Pride and self-pity are contiguous, even though they are listed as dwelling at the antipodes, for they both lay the foundation for defeat. The man who accepts his present as the ultimate goal collapses quite as completely as the one who follows failure as though it were a prize.
Coming now to our service for others: let us be consoled with the fact that God brought us to the kingdom for such a time as this. There can come no good of pining over our genealogical misplacement. Of course one soldier with a machine gun and plenty of ammunition could have driven Alexander’s army from the field. But there was no such a soldier then, and when he did appear, behold defense was apace of offense, and the modern soldier can show no better odds than the brave men of the past. There is no question that our day is evil. But as to whether it is worse than some days of the past or than other days that are yet before us, of this we cannot be sure. But even if we could tell, what good would such speculations do? Suppose the blind man’s parents were to blame for their son’s want of sight, what good would it do to settle the blame? The blind man did not care to know why he was blind. What he wanted was power to see. Perhaps I could have done good in the days when my father was my age; but granted that I could, what help is that to anyone? This is my day. I did not choose it. God gave it me. If it is an extra difficult day, then it is a compliment that God should give me a heavy task. Men are different now from what they used to be? Granted. I am different also from what those men were who tried to be good and do good in the days that are past. If there were not some useful place for me God would not have brought me and my day together. Now that He has done it, why should I speculate about the unchangeable? God is in heaven. Christ still pleads at the Father’s right hand. The Holy Spirit is still in the world. No one in any age ever had greater resources than are offered me. So mine is to follow the example of the Master. He refused to accept either heredity or environment as explanations and excuses, but turned His hand to the healing of a man born blind. That blind man represents my task. Why should such a task be given me? No answer to that question can be of any service. The task is here and I am here, in any case.
But since we have drawn on the story from the Master’s life for a basis for human responsibility, let us also draw from it assurance that the divine enabling shall not be withheld. The Master used the weak clay which He found ready at His feet. I, too, shall have to use weak instruments. But the infinite God touched that blind man’s eyes on the occasion of the anointing With clay, and it was that divine touch that brought sight to the blind. And may there come in the moments of my efforts that touch of divinity that shall make my efforts useful in the difficult task to which divine Providence has appointed me! Following the lead of Phillips Brooks, I ask not for power to work miracles. Rather I ask that I may myself be a miracle. After that my works will be only such as might reasonably be expected of one so transformed as I shall be. This is the substance of my prayer, and from the example of the Master, I am encouraged to believe it shall be answered.