I was asked to review a blog-post by Donald Miller called “New Research May Change Your Views on the Depravity of Man”. This is not something I would normally do, but I took a look at it and found a couple of interesting glitches in the thoughts that were expressed.
Nerd Alert: Disclaimers
Anytime a free-will person – and I am a Wesleyan – even brings up any Calvin-influenced theme, it is inevitable that real Calvin fans are going to object by saying ‘if you really understood Calvin …’. So let me just say that I am talking about the street-level average person in the pew using diluted concepts they have inherited.
I know that Donald Miller is not a theologian. He is however a very public voice that is comfortable utilizing theological words and ideas.
Total depravity is a completely unhelpful concept in the 21st century. It has accumulated so much baggage and has become so convoluted in it’s common use that is entirely unclear and totally unhelpful for any meaningful contribution.
Total depravity in it’s contemporary usage – like we see with Miller’s post – is at best an a priori category that one crams data into to mold it to the form. At worst it is, to borrow from Zizek, like the person who walks into a house that has a horseshoe over the door frame and assumes that it is the horseshoe’s power that keeps the house safe.
Never mind that there are houses still standing that have no horseshoe above the door – as well as houses that had horseshoes that are no longer standing.
Total depravity is totally unhelpful as a category of analysis.
I would like to suggest three alternatives for our everyday conversation:
- As an initial concession, replace total depravity with ‘sufficient depravity’. Forget the debate out the totality of humanity being partially depraved or whether each human in totally depraved: the word ‘total’ as well as the concept itself belongs several centuries back in an antiquated argument about substance.
- Move away from a substantial concern (are the we corrupted at the cellular level?) to a relational approach that asks ‘is the way that we interact and relate to each other warped and flawed?’
- Get out of the round-and-round argument of the reformed cul-de-sac by adopting either an emergence or evolutionary analysis of ‘competing desires’ or ‘drives’.
The advantage of this third move is that it opens up the conversation beyond the tight constraints of inherited theological categories and begins to engage biological, social, and psychological realties of our contemporary world.
- Why are we both attracted to the stability of a long-term committed relationship for stability and child-rearing as well as drawn to the adventure, variety and allure of other potential mates?
- Why do I desire stability and peace and then at other times fly off the handle and want to disturb the whole system?
- Why can I be so aggressive to some people then so defensive and protective of others?
- Why do we tell the truth when it goes against my own best interest?
- Why do I lie for a short-term gain that may endanger my own long-term health?
In the blog Miller asks:
What about the confusing middle where we both love and hate, lie and tell the truth, pursue justice but also ignore it? What does Total Depravity look like for us?
The answer to these questions is not ‘total depravity’. The answer is more along the lines of a ‘non-zero game’ of mutuality, social synergy and personal prosperity within the common good.
I would love you thoughts on the original Miller article or my suggestions here.