In Paul Schrader’s film “Hardcore,” the main character, played by George C. Scott, is asked what he believes in. “Tulip” is his answer. I think that may be the only Hollywood film reference to the acronym for the five points of Calvinism. Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. TULIP.
Consider the first one, total depravity. This doctrine describes our fallen nature. The idea is that our nature as fallen human beings does not naturally turn to God but turns instead to the fulfillment of our own desires. While it’s usually associated with the Reformed tradition, it certainly shows up in my (UM) tradition as well.
Calvinism seems to be making a comeback these days. I caught up with it the other day on my iPod in a sermon with this thesis: unless you and I are convinced of our own total depravity (meaning: unless you and I are convinced of how truly bad, how deeply evil we are) we cannot experience the fullness of God’s grace. If we think we’re really not so bad after all, if we buy into the prevailing cultural idea that people are not really evil, just misguided, then it weakens God’s grace. Grace becomes a vitamin pill we take in the morning to give us a spiritual glow as we go around doing good things.
As I understand the doctrine, it doesn’t mean that everything we do is evil and worthless, but that even when we do something good, it’s tainted with selfishness and pride. So when we tithe, for example, there is a sense that we are doing it for God but that is twisted together with some other more self-centered notions like, “Hey, look at me! I am really doing some good for the Lord now” or “Why can’t everyone just be like me and tithe and the church would be so much better and so on …”
On the other hand, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have always seemed to me to be most powerfully aware of God’s grace because they knew they were on a path leading to destruction. Perhaps they have an advantage over the rest of us who are unaware of how self-serving we really are. If untended, the many ways sin infects my life will lead to serious problems, but probably not destruction, at least not any time soon. It’s more of a slow burn with a subdued need for grace.
So how bad are we? Do we need to be a whole lot harder on ourselves in the church? Are we missing out on grace because we have patted ourselves on the back and said, “Oh, come now, boys/girls will be boys/girls?”