The first time I actually heard the words "total depravity," I was in college. Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL is a nondenominational school founded out of the Reformed tradition (read Calvin). Growing up Southern Baptist, I'd actually never heard of the Christian Reformed Church. I most certainly had never seen such a high concentration of Dutch individuals in one area. In Kentucky, you're either Southern or you're not. At Trinity, "if you ain't Dutch, you ain't much." In my world, "tulip" was just a pretty flower that one had to re-plant every year.
As I learned more about the Calvinist understanding of T.U.L.I.P.—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints—I was bothered, mostly by how I saw the effects of certain ways in which total depravity had been understood and interpreted. From my vantage point, total depravity was being interpreted to mean that from the moment of birth, pardon my French, humankind is shit. Irreparable. Damaged goods. And the scripture passages used to support this doctrine are vast.
Rooted in the Augustinian understanding of original sin, the idea of total depravity suggests not only that humankind is unabashedly enslaved to sin from the point of conception, but also that whatever good is done by humanity is tarnished and tainted by our sinful nature and only takes place because of God's prevenient grace. Basically, the moment we enter this world, we're robots living out our sinful nature unable to do any real good apart from God tinkering with the system.
My beef with total depravity is this: it makes it nearly impossible to believe that, at our core, humanity is good. Furthermore, for those who are "unbelievers," who only have access to prevenient grace and not irresistible/efficacious/saving grace, the good within them, the good done by them, exists not intrinsically but externally. Total depravity strips humankind of any form of agency to do good, to be good, apart from God's bloody "seal of approval."
And we wonder why so many Christians are so... damned... depressed...
It makes me sick, honestly, that we seem so hell-bent on living lives of internalized self-deprecation, lives where we refuse to believe that there is any good that is intrinsic to our personhood. It just doesn't make sense to me.
Maybe I just heard it all wrong. Maybe it was never fully explained to me. I really can't say. But what I do know is that now, anytime I hear these two words, they are riddled with feelings of helplessness, of self-loathing, of the disbelief that there is anything good about us as human beings.
One of my classes this semester, Theological Education in the Parish, addresses how those of us in ministry are called to facilitate theological reflection, to help those whom we serve more deeply understand and become more self-aware of their personal, embedded theologies, both as individuals and as faith communities. When I reflect on experiences with my own various faith communities in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Chicago, often I realize just how twisted the idea of total depravity had become.
Here's how I see it: total depravity does not teach that we as God's creation are, at our core, bad. At least it shouldn't. What it does reflect is an awareness that somewhere along the way, a glitch entered the system: sin. Sin separates us from God in the sense that it harms the relationship we as humanity were meant to have with God, and it impacts our world deeply. Sin is a wound running throughout the flesh of creation, but what sin does not do is strip us entirely of the goodness intrinsic to our createdness.
God saw all that [God] had made, and it was very good...
If our decision to sin, if our free will is so powerful that it undoes that which God weaved into the very fabric of our being, then we seriously need to re-analyze why we would follow such a God, a god castrated and made impotent at our hand.
Maybe Christ didn't come to show us just how bad we are. Maybe his mission was to remind us of how good we are, leading us to re-believe that which many of us profess to be true. Because if God cannot look at us and say, think, and believe that we are good, then the book we profess to be life-giving can no longer be such. Maybe Jesus came to snap us out of our self-hatred and loathing. Maybe he came so we could re-develop for ourselves the love our Creator already has for us, so we could believe in our good-ness the way God does. Maybe he came so we would finally stop misunderstanding our "depravity" and start understanding our true beauty.