Saturday, June 11, 2011

Total Depwavity

So the question got pitched to me from a brother on FaceBook this week:  what did I think about the concept of total depravity?

For those of you not immersed in the language of 19th century Calvinism, total depravity is the idea that human beings are of themselves utterly irredeemable, so epically craptacular as to be completely incapable of being in right relationship with God and one another.

To repair that breach, there's just not a single thing that human beings can do.  Good works don't matter.  Trying to do right doesn't matter.  We're just out of luck.  In order to make things right, we have to just rely completely on Jesus.  We are depraved on account of we're deprived...of Jesus.  

This concept, derived from Paul and Augustine but mostly from John Calvin, gets quickly taken out to the conclusion that there's just nothing good about people at all.  We're just uniformly nasty, wretched, miserable hell-briquettes.  This truth extends particularly that chatty and affable Muslim guy you laugh with at the office.   Oh, and Gandhi.  Calvinist God hates him some Gandhi.

Here, though, Calvinism once again goes well beyond Calvin himself, and misses two key points of that admittedly challenging doctrine.

So let's play around in Calvin's brain for a while.  In his Institutio Christianae Religionis (XI.II.iii), Calvin does lay out where he stands on the subject.

First, Calvin clearly and repeatedly notes throughout the Institutes that nature, creation, and humanity itself are good things.  Creation is the first book, evidence of the glory and goodness of the Creator.  As part of creation, homo sapiens sapiens was made to be good.  Our reason is a blessing.  (VI. xiv.20)  Our purpose as human beings is not nastiness, and in our created nature, there is strong good.  Calvin hated neither humankind nor creation.  In fact, Calvin also kinda sorta loved the writing and thinking of folks who weren't Jesus folk at all, particularly Plato.   He was perfectly capable of seeing value in the works of reason, and of seeing goodness in the world.  As he puts it:
In every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven towards virtue throughout life.  I have nothing to say against them even if many lapses can be noted in their moral conduct.  For they have by the very zeal of their honesty given proof that there was some purity in their nature...These examples, accordingly, seem to warn us against adjudging man's nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by it's prompting not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life.  (XI.II.ii.3)
Second, Calvin did argue that sin was a basic characteristic of humankind, but he wasn't doing this as an abstract theological exercise.  He did so for a particular reason.  According to Calvin, we just can't not sin.  (XI.II.iii.5)   Even the best among us are far from perfect.  That isn't, however, something that we're supposed to lord over other people.  The purpose of teaching depravity is not, not, not to condemn others.  This isn't something you sneer out at someone whose life is in ruins.

It's for those of us who might have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we're somehow better than the rest of the world.  It's a big theological smack in the chops for the pious, the reverent, the upstanding, and the church-going.  Calvin puts this out there for the same reason the Apostle Paul did, as a challenge to pride and self-righteousness among the faithful.

Personally, I still resonate to this for a variety of reasons, making me perhaps one of only two or three progressive Christians who don't just reflexively reject the concept.

I'm deeply aware of how intensely we are, as sentient beings, separate from one another.  The existential boundaries between us are an insurmountable wall, topped with electrified razor wire.  Like you and I, right now.  I can string together these symbols, which you can observe on your screen and understand as shared concepts.  If you're nearby, near enough to be physically present, I can talk to you.  I can see you.  I can hear you.  I can smell you, your stress or your ease.  That last one gets more intense in the summer months.  Hoo boy, does it ever.

But knowing you?  As you know yourself?  I can't do that.

At best, I get an approximation, an image, cast in my mind, knit together from observation and my own intuitive gut-sense.  For this reason, when Paul and Calvin tell us we can't uphold the Law, I don't think of Law as Torah.  I think of law as the Great Commandment.  How can I love you as I love myself?  How can that be, when my knowledge of you is so imperfect and filtered through my own assumptions?

So I fail before the Law, even when law is understood first, foremost, and only as love and grace.

But it goes beyond relationship, and into my own self.  I'm not what I could be.  I am deeply aware of my own limitations as a being, and also of my failings when it comes to living out of the value set that I profess to define my own existence.  Love of God and neighbor does not define my every action and thought.  Particularly thought.  There, deep writ in the neural firings of my cortex and the stirrings of my lizard brain, there are angers and lusts and anxieties that snarl and hoot and cower in most unholy ways.

From that self-awareness, I'm aware that my actuality and my potentiality are very different things.  The self that I could be, were I to be both internally and externally conformed to the radical compassion of Christ, exists only intermittently.  It is the state of being towards which I strive, but when in fleeting moments I do find it, I am deeply aware that finding it is an act of grace, a moment of mystic union, for which I cannot truly claim responsibility.  Those moments are a work of the Spirit.

So.  That's what I think about it.  That help, Kyle?