Total Depravity, the Highest View of Man (part two)

Marilynne Robinson

Pulitzer prize winning author Marilynne Robinson says of total depravity that it is the “counterweight to Calvin’s rapturous humanism.” In the previous post I sought to make the point that total depravity is actually the highest view of man. I know it sounds paradoxical (and makes for a provocative title I might add), but it really isn’t. Understanding man’s condition on this side of the fall can only be understood by understanding what is revealed in Scripture of man’s condition before the fall. The two go hand in hand and we may not understand one without the other. When I first heard Marilynne Robinson say that her goal in writing was to show forth John Calvin’s theology, I smiled; when she said she wanted to show forth his high view of humanity, I nearly spewed out my soda. But I kept listening, and I am grateful I did. I will let her explain it in her own words. The following is an excerpt from a February 2010 article in Christianity Today.

Perception is the Point

For Robinson, Calvin’s theology centers on the belief that God has given individuals the ability to commune with and respond to him without the mediation of priests or bishops. “Perception is at the center of Calvin’s theology,” she observes; God willingly floods our senses with his grandeur in such a way that we can take it in and reflect it back, his glory “shining forth” as we participate in it. “It is as if we were to find a tender solicitude toward us in the fact that the great energy that rips galaxies apart also animates our slightest thoughts.” Think how elevated a vision of the human soul this is, Robinson suggests, and how far it is from how we often view ourselves.

At the same time, our ability to perceive God is deeply compromised. None of us sees clearly; indeed, none of us even desires to. All of us turn away from God’s presence, failing “to acknowledge what ought to be obvious,” Robinson writes, inclined instead “to indolence and selfishness, dishonesty, pride and error, cruelty.” She calls the notion of total depravity the “counterweight to Calvin’s rapturous humanism,” insisting that we can’t understand the one aspect of his thought without the other.

Working together, writes Robinson, these twinned elements of “our strangely mixed nature” mean that the passage of a soul “through the vale of its making, or its destruction” will be marked by halts and recoveries, each attempt to find meaning chastened by a recognition of limits. This almost exactly describes Ruth’s voice in Housekeeping, now traced to one of its sources.

Not everyone, however, carries this realization as a great weight, or senses a chance to find release. The doctrine of election, developed in Scripture but popularly associated with Calvin, is a third element for Robinson, who links it to Calvin’s focus on perception. True perception—”the radical understanding of the presence of God, and of his nature as manifest in Christ”—is something God must grant a person. It is not natural to our fallen state.

And because God grants such ability entirely according to his own mind, we are brought into a chastening—and, to Robinson, exhilarating—encounter with “the freedom and mystery of God.” Far from inducing a dulled passivity, such a doctrine leads to a deepening awareness of the grandeur of God and the fragile beauty of one’s neighbors. To borrow a phrase from Dickinson, it keeps believing nimble.


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