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Taking Depravity Seriously

March 24, 2014

Calvinism, in neo-Calvinist form, is doing quite well.  When I went to college one of the more fashionable exits from an untenable fundamentalism was to become a neo-Calvinist and I’ve seen little evidence that the brand has suffered much since then.  Since Calvinism is (at least in its current form) based around the famous Five Points and the first of these is Total Depravity, one might think that there was a lot of excellent Christian thought going on about depravity.  I wish to argue that there isn’t.

The first reason for this is fairly simple[1].  A lot of modern Calvinist thought seems to be aimed outwards at combating non-Calvinist Christians.  This tends to mean that rather than discussing what depravity is like and how it works, a lot of thought about depravity focuses on whether or not it is total.  Effectively the theological battle within Protestantism sucks resources away from other things.

The second reason is less simple: most people doing any sort of thinking in the Western world are post-Enlightenment thinkers.  One of the real triumphs of the Enlightenment was a drastic reduction in religiously-motivated violence.  By chopping life into personal, private sections and public sections, the Enlightenment managed to end large amounts of violence that had been driven by what were now deemed “private” concerns[2].  However, taking depravity seriously requires breaking out of the Enlightenment boxes.

As a brief aside: taking depravity seriously also means realizing that a complete breakdown of the Enlightenment boxes without any sort of replacement would inevitably lead to the sort of violence that marked the pre-Enlightenment period.  Since people remain the same sort of sinful people as they were before the Enlightenment one can’t simply break down the safety fences and hope the newer set of habits will hold.

The issue with Enlightenment boxes and depravity is that Enlightenment boxes are supposedly non-intersecting.  One’s politics (public) and one’s religion (private) are not supposed to touch.  One’s employment (public) and one’s views on raising a family (private) are not supposed to interact.  Of course these things do interact – politicians make the right noises about religion to appeal to certain demographics and people choose jobs based on part on the time this allows for their families – but the Enlightenment fiction is that they basically don’t.  Herein lies the problem: depravity is a religious statement (and an easily-observed fact of the world but this is frequently missed).  Since depravity is a religious statement it naturally spreads out across its entire Enlightenment box.  However, depravity is effectively the statement that “everything is broken” and so it naturally makes claims on all other boxes.

Indeed, I believe that the real power of taking depravity seriously is that depravity ignores the boxes the Enlightenment has created.  It is very easy as a Western Christian to assume that the Enlightenment boxes are natural and real.  We read religious injunctions and think that they must naturally apply to our private lives and our personal intentions.  We rarely think that they should extend out to the wider world except in specific exceptional cases.  (For example, most of us choose jobs without reference to our religion but would agree that a small class of egregiously-sinful jobs like prostitution or drug-running are off-limits.)  When we hear that everyone is broken we say, “Yes, of course, everyone is broken in their intentions and thoughts.”  We then think carefully about our intentions and thoughts.  However, we don’t think about the other categories.  Are we broken in our economic theories?  Are our ideas about governance based on sinful premises?  Do we measure our work in non-Christian ways?

Some of this is a general blindness to structural evil.  However, much of that is itself a failure to take depravity seriously.  Many a good Calvinist will assert in Bible study after church that they personally are deeply and utterly wicked.  This is despite the fact that this Calvinist is in Bible study at church thinking carefully about how not to be wicked.  It is taken as a given that depravity can lurk behind a façade of goodness and that this façade can even fool the one who puts it on.  So why should we expect the structures of the world to be any different?  If we can hide our own brokenness from ourselves why should our structures be clean?  Doesn’t this involve rejecting depravity and insisting that some part of us that makes structures is morally perfect?

I believe that it is well worth taking one’s personal depravity seriously.  It is, in fact, always more severe than one really believes (something one is reminded of every time one tries to address some “minor” moral lapse in oneself).  However, we should take very seriously the idea that everything we do is broken – our thoughts, our actions, the structures we create, our measurement of ourselves, the way we do business, and so on.  Much of the world around us recognizes the brokenness of our public lives.  It’s worth it as Christians to recognize that this is a real and natural outgrowth of our broken selves.

[1] I’m ignoring the (relatively common) issue wherein people who do not do a lot of theological reading misunderstand what is total about Total Depravity.  Most commonly people do this by assuming that Total Depravity means that everyone is depraved when it actually means that everyone is depraved all the way through.  (This is in contrast to beliefs that hold that some part of a person remains free of the crippling effects of sin.)  However, people who are not even doing the work to understand the terms right are probably not about to contribute great thoughts anyway.

[2] Of course, I would argue that this is largely because violence is always driven in reality by a few simple things and the rationalization that is placed on top of it is not the real reason for the violence.  If one designates a particular area like religion as a stupid reason to be violent towards someone most rationalizers will pick some other rationalization for their violence.


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