I have been reading a fabulous spiritual memoir by Mike McHargue called “God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science.” One of the things I learned from Mike is that neurological research points to the positive effects of prayer on the brain as long as people have a core understanding of God as loving and not angry.
I am a Presbyterian, rooted in Reformed theology, which, in some of its more extreme theological expressions, paints God in a firm (and perhaps angry) way. God is sovereign and God hates sin – it is only through God’s initiative that we could ever be reconciled to God. Reformed theologians are known for using phrases like “total depravity” to describe just how deeply screwed up and dead we are without God’s action in our lives.
I know some angry Calvinists. It makes sense that having a high view of God and a low view of human capacity could cause us to focus on God’s judgment on sin. Unfortunately, sometimes this has meant that we have passed angry judgment on other people. And so I wonder: Is Reformed theology good for our brains, our souls or our relationships? Would it be better to focus on the fact that God created humans “good,” in God’s image? Should we scrap “total depravity”?
When I teach newcomers to our congregation about “what Presbyterians believe,” I explain total depravity as the observation that no part of our lives or our world is free from sin’s touch. Even our best intentions have threads of self-interest woven throughout. Total depravity helps me understand why our world is so deeply messed up, why no utopic vision ever seems to succeed. We are created in God’s image, but sin distorts that image, and it’s hard to live as the people we want to be, no matter who we are. This doesn’t mean that people are incapable of unselfish acts of sacrifice. This would deny reality: You don’t have to be a Christian to do good in our world. But, it is hard to do good all the time; it is even harder not to be corrupted by power.
I have been thinking deeply lately about the value of total depravity as it influences our United States’ government. Our civic ancestors experienced how power in the hands of one person (like a king) could be exploited, and so they sought to ensure that power would be checked by diffusing it through the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It’s maddening how long it takes things to change in our states and in our nation, but I’m grateful. While power in the hands of one person could quicken change, no person is so good as not to abuse that singular power. We are all created in God’s image, and we are all stricken with sin. And so we need one another to hold our power in check.
I don’t think total depravity denies us the reality of the deep love of God. God did create us in God’s image, and this means that every human life has value (even people who hoard power). God loves us and our world so much that God refuses to allow sin to reign. God heals us from sin; God sets us free to live a different kind of life – one rooted in love, one that can give power away rather than hoard it.
So, I choose to hold on to my conviction that we are all “totally depraved” as I pray to a God who lavishes us with love.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.