Learning to Love the Doctrine of Total Depravity
I mentioned a couple weeks back that I was catching up on back issues of the Christian Century. A contemporary Episcopal priest, Heidi Haverkamp, wrote in October of finding help in an expected place. By reconsidering a doctrine of her great-grandfather, a Dutch Reformed pastor.
The Calvinist doctrine of humanity’s total depravity.
Haverkamp writes of her earnest attempts to right the world’s wrongs, but it wasn’t enough. “I do not feel theologically equipped to handle the enormous weight of evil I see in the world. After all I was raised to believe that humans are capable of stopping it.” That would be after her great grandfather’s Calvinism had been set aside in favor of a more “modern” faith.
This is a common lament of those formed within an optimistic civic faith church and culture who have lived beyond age 30 and thus seen something of life. Not feeling “theologically equipped to handle the enormous weight of evil I see in the world,” Haverkamp found, to her astonishment, help in the doctrine of total depravity.
“If you’ve never heard the term before, ‘total depravity’ might sound like a joke or the name of a high school metal band. It is, in fact, an astoundingly dire theology.
“Total depravity frames humans not as good people who sometimes mess up but as messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good things — but nothing completely free of selfishness or error. We are unable to make a choice that is unquestionably, entirely good. None of our actions, loves, or thoughts can be truly without sin.
Haverkamp continues in a confessional vein,
“I find a surprising grace in the bleak, unflinching outlook of my Calvinist heritage. Total depravity matches the sin-sized hole in my belly in a way that ‘all people are basically good’ never could . . .
“It’s just that the more I make the salvation of the world a rational, solvable problem, the deeper I seem to sink into futility. But when unreasonable, unremitting sin is something I expect, then I can face the headwinds of evil without despair. When I believe that human life — including my own — will never be without sin and suffering, I have a greater ability to tolerate pain and horror and to keep on doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly. I can, as Anne Lamott would say, keep singing ‘Hallelujah!’ and looking for grace anyway.”
To say that “humans are not good people who sometimes mess up but messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good things,” may seem bleak. Certainly it’s un-American. Nor is it a doctrine that people who consider themselves “successful” will ever embrace.
That said, this hoary doctrine of TD offers some genuine positives. Like humility. Having done some good things in this world, people and institutions tend to become self-congratulatory. “Aren’t we special!” TD would have us give thanks that we have done some good, God working in and through us . . . it’s not (all) about you.
This doctrine may also make us more compassionate. If we are all beset by sin and in need of grace, we may be more understanding of human failings and failures. “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Finally, recourse to this doctrine also might help us to have more reasonable expectations of ourselves, of others, of life. “When I believe that human life — including my own — will never be without sin and suffering, I have a greater ability to tolerate pain and horror and to keep on doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.” Somehow, we have come to expect the moon 24/7, which is a recipe for vast disappointment. And for blaming/ shaming ourselves if our life isn’t as “awesome” as we thought it was supposed to be.
My friend, Rick Floyd, is fond of saying that, “Anyone who believes in the doctrine of total depravity can’t be all bad,” which sort of catches the paradox of this odd, dire and strangely gracious teaching.