“Total depravity.” What a dark, ominous phrase. Often identified with the theology of Protestant Reformer John Calvin, the roots of the idea go back to Augustine and the concept of original sin.
One of our students, training to be a marital and family therapist, wondered about the implications of a doctrine of depravity for her clinical work. Does it mean that people are incapable of good? That there is only darkness, and no light? That humans no longer bear the image of God?
Let’s begin with this. In the wake of the recent terrorist tragedy at the Boston Marathon, bystanders put themselves at risk by rushing to aid those who were wounded and bleeding. Afterward, the city and the media rightly celebrated that kind of altruistic heroism.
We can also appreciate the ordinary kind of altruism between friends in need, or the daily, loving ministrations of parents to their children–on and on the list might go. People are capable of doing what we might consider to be “good” things, behaviors that we would wish to be the rule rather than the exception.
But none of this need contradict a doctrine of total depravity.
Here’s a metaphor. Our neighborhood was built in an area that once hosted groves of fruit trees, whose remains have historically been a haven for termites. Some years ago, a pest control inspector brought me out to the garage to show me the telltale signs of possible infestation. We had to have our house fumigated, enshrouded by an enormous red/blue monstrosity of a “tent.” It looked like the circus had come to town.
Why the whole house? Couldn’t the garage be spot-treated? Yes, but not without risk. There are only a few places where the structural members of the house are exposed and can be inspected. If termites are found in those areas, chances are they’re also hiding in areas where they can’t be found. We could have opted to treat the garage alone–but that would have meant gambling that the rest of the house wouldn’t fall down around our ears.
Total depravity means something similar to infestation. A home can be beautifully decorated and be a place of solace and happy memories. But the very structure itself may be unsound, invisibly corrupt in a way that affects every room in the house.
People are capable of good outwardly. But the right thing can be done for the wrong reasons, or with an admixture of selfish motivation. We are capable of love. But we neither love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, nor our neighbor as ourselves. Unless God gives us life, our destiny is death.
Believe me, nobody wants to hear their home is infested. (And now that I think of it, the idea of a house full of dead termites isn’t exactly charming either.) We’ve worked so hard on its outward appearance; it’s nearly unthinkable to imagine something pernicious eating away at its very core. The termite problem goes deeper than we care to admit, and only a radical solution will suffice.
But we need to avoid an overly legalistic view. It’s not just about doing good, but knowing good. We’re not just rule-breakers, but broken people ourselves. We need more than purging; we need healing in every aspect of our lives.
We acknowledge our sickness to place ourselves in the hands of the Healer.