Amy and I led a retreat for a wonderful Presbyterian church this weekend. The response to our leadership and the session material was excellent — though my wife scolded me for throwing John Calvin under the bus in one of my presentations. I should have explained to these new friends that, having completed the last third of our M.Div. training at Erskine Associate Reform Presbyterian Seminary, the great predestinarian reformer and I are fairly well-acquainted. Thanks to a particularly passionate professor of historical theology, I often declare my allegiance: “I am a Calvinist.” This affirmation usually draws furrowed brows from liberal Baptists, though a roomful of Presbyterians may have appreciated the nod of approval.
So, I have an appreciation for our 16th-century forebear, but Calvin and I part company when it comes to anthropology. His “depravity of man” doesn’t fit with my understanding of human origins and human potential. However, I believe there can be little doubt that Calvin’s humiliating evaluation of “the thinking creature” has had an impact on our collective psychology. (As if we need any more reasons to feel badly about ourselves.)
On the contrary, it seems to me that scripture gives an abundance of reasons to celebrate.
Genesis pictures the Divine Creator stooping into the dust, getting a little dirt under the fingernails creating us with an imago dei (a godly image), and when all is said and done pronounces us “very good” — which doesn’t sound like a recipe of depravity to me. Then there’s that amazing story about the Tower of Babel, with a plot that goes south only because God sees the humans working so well together, cooperating and crafting and creating so amazingly that God realizes “nothing they choose to do will be impossible.” Nothing will be impossible!
If God has an affinity for, and an understanding of, the inherent power of humanity in these Jewish stories, the Christian narrative ups the ante considerably by suggesting that not only is God willing to touch our frail humanity, but that God actually becomes one of us. God lives like a human being, and dies like one, too. (Yes … God!)
The Word becomes flesh, and then the reconciling ministry of Jesus is passed on to you and me. And why not entrust this divine mission to humans? Jesus actually says we will do “even greater things” than he has done. Wow. Depraved?
I think not.
Now, it’s not as if we don’t have our problems. If I’m orthodox about anything, it’s actually about the doctrine of sin. Reinhold Niebuhr had it right when he spoke of sin as “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” In other words, if you don’t believe in sin, you obviously haven’t read the newspaper lately.
I just believe it is possible, even probable, that the shortcomings, the failures, all the willful (sometimes depraved) indifference to one another, the sins that separate us from each other and God, are actually the result of a collective low self-esteem, not an arrogant superiority complex.
Praise a child, and watch her soar. Humiliate a child, scold and embarrass him, convince him he’s worthless, and he will be. (And then watch your back.)
Yes, we have problems. Some are grave, truly incredible, seemingly unsolvable problems. And the solution lies not in making ourselves part of the problem from the outset, but in believing that we — and our neighbors and “enemies” alike — are part of the answer.
The Apostle Paul says, “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think ….” but scripture gives us room to think pretty highly of who we are (and who we can become) if we’ll just start acting like it.