Heart half full or half empty?

When you grow up evangelical, you grow up believing that that is what Christianity is. I guess because we don’t tend to label ourselves particularly, except possibly with words like “Bible-believing Christians” (as opposed to all those other Christians who think Jesus spoke a load of rubbish but follow him anyway…) I think as evangelicals, and particularly those on the ‘conservative’ side, we don’t tend to be very self critical and we tend to think we’re doing Christianity properly, more seriously than others – that is, if we think they’re really Christians at all! All of that has troubled me in recent months and I was pleased to stumble across a definition from Ridley Hall, Cambridge, of their ethos of ‘open evangelicalism’ – you can read the page here but one bit that stood out for me was this:

Open to God’s work in other Christian traditions. Evangelicals do not have a monopoly on the truth, and through partnership and dialogue we seek to be open to learn from what God has done and is doing in other parts of his Church. This refers to other Christians in our own Western setting, but must also increasingly include the voices of our fellow believers in the Two-Thirds World.”

So, I’ve been trying to pay attention to what we can learn from other Christian traditions, what aspects of evangelical culture or even theology might be rightfully challenged by others, where we might be missing out, and where we can simply learn from the differences. Naturally, I’m gaining more questions than answers at the moment… But I quite like the uncertainty! I’d love to hear what others think about some of these though, both from those who consider themselves evangelical (however you want to define that!) or of another sort of Christian tradition, or not Christian at all.

Here’s my first big question – how optimistic a view can we take on the human condition? And what impact does that optimism or pessimism have on the rest of our theology and experience? Does it affect the way we treat people, think of ourselves, and relate to God?

Fallen humanity…?

This is what I’ve grown up with and I think it can have varying effects – on the one hand, it can lead to a deep personal humility, a determination not to judge others because we’re all in the same boat, a real appreciation of and dependence on the grace of God, and a security in knowing we’re loved and saved not conditionally on anything we do, but unconditionally and eternally. On the other hand, I find myself wondering if those with this view of humanity are often missing a lot – it’s a view that doesn’t chime well with most people (though obviously popularity is not the same as truth!) because we see good in others and even in ourselves. We want to celebrate achievement and selflessness and love where we see it. It’s a view of humanity that can stifle much of our self-expression, our creativity and artistic expression and our spontaneity and initiative because we think that at heart, our humanity is corrupt and bad, so expressing it freely is dangerous. Unconditional love and acceptance despite ourselves might make us more grateful and humble, even more secure, but might it also significantly damage our sense of worth and value for who we are?

None of these are new questions. Augustine and Pelagius (if I remember rightly from first year Patristics essays!) wrestled with similar subjects in the when they argued over the whether people had the ability to choose to do good, or whether we’re born with original sin. One of the five points of Calvinism is total depravity, the assertion that we’re totally enslaved to sin and totally unable to choose God for ourselves. It can become a bit of caricature about evangelicals, that we’re so pessimistic about humanity – we talk about sin in every other sentence, not just as the things we do but as the orientation of our hearts, we point out that there’s no difference between a fascist dictator and a selfless saint when it comes to our own righteousness before God left to our own devices.

There are some more optimistic views of humanity that say we’re actually fine, we don’t really do wrong, we just make mistakes and grow through them, it’s all part of a process for which we don’t really need to take responsibility as long as we’re well meaning at heart. This is the kind of view evangelicals react strongly against, because it denies the reality of our sin and so downplays the importance of Christ’s death for us – it seems the whole Christian message falls apart with this kind understanding of our humanity. But I wonder if we can be optimistic without denying our need for grace? The Iona community seem to capture something of this in their liturgy (© The Iona Community, from the Iona Abbey Worship Book, published by Wild Goose Publications) :

 “We affirm God’s goodness at the heart of humanity, planted more deeply than all that is wrong.”

The Iona ethos is not about denying our brokenness and sinfulness, those words in the worship book come right after a confession and prayer for God’s forgiveness and help. But it affirms that the corruption of our human nature is not the deepest thing in us, that being made in the image of God is even more a part of us that our tendency to sin. I guess the effects of that can be all those things that a pessimistic view denies – an encouragement towards creativity, the valuing of individuals and of our contribution to the world. It might allow us to respond to absolutely anyone, whoever they are and whatever they believe, with welcome and acceptance rather than any kind of suspicion. But what are the dangers? Perhaps we find ourselves getting complacent, or feeling responsible for contributing to our own salvation. Perhaps it raises many more questions about who might be saved, or what that even means. There’s risk in moving away from something which starts with everyone evil and condemned before they express faith in Jesus – might we start seeing God’s grace in the lives of those who don’t acknowledge it? There might be knock on effects for the rest of our theology. Is that a ‘Biblical’ way to understand God’s grace at work?

Any thoughts? How should we understand the inherent corruption of humanity, or the deep image of God and his goodness planted in us? Have I misrepresented any particular view? What other effects might either of those two views have? What are the dangers? Are dangers enough reason to avoid something? Are there other options that I haven’t suggested?


About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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6 Responses to Heart half full or half empty?

  1. Intelligent and coherent as always.
    I think another negative effect of the total depravity mindset (which for the most part I resonate with) is that we tend to expect the worst of people. We are not only not surprised by bad behavior but we anticipate it, sometimes taking offense when we should respond in love. If we are inherently depraved, then responding with the love of God should make complete sense as Christians because unbelievers will have limited experience with such interactions. Indeed, it's what's supposed to set us apart.

  2. Claire Jones says:

    That's interesting – the total depravity mindset sets up a bigger difference between how we think of ourselves as Christians, changed by God's grace, and other people who are still in that totally depraved condition. So whether or not that makes us judgemental, it still creates more of a “us and them” scenario than a more positive view of all people does, which probably limits the extent to which we are able to engage with others.
    I wonder how far we expect, starting from that mindset, to find ourselves changed by grace so we are able to respond with the love of God? I totally agree that it should set us apart – how optimistic do you think we can be about how well we'll do it?! Do we hold on to the idea of our own utter corruption so much that even as people who have experienced grace, we still have a defeatist attitude towards what we expect of ourselves now?

  3. I also feel a bit uncomfortable when we evangelicals describe ourselves as “Bible-believing Christians”, as – like you say Claire – it seems to implicitly treat Christians from other traditions as second-class; so I think it's really helpful to consider what we can learn from others. On balance I think that an emphasis on our sinfulness is important, as it teaches us to be humble, non-judgemental and reliant on grace. However, I do think that it can sometimes lead us to be a bit defeatist, when it's not balanced by a recognition that, having experienced grace, we as Christians are able to shine out the light of Christ to others. I've just finished reading a great lent book by Paula Gooder, called 'This Risen Existence', which explores biblically the idea of our resurrection existence. She emphasises how the resurrection allows us to increasingly live a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led life in which we ourselves become “life-givers, life-breathers and life-makers” in the world. Obviously this isn't a new idea, but I nonetheless found it a helpful reminder that, as individuals who have been raised with Christ, we should be positive about our capacity to do good in the world, whilst acknowledging our continued failings.

  4. Claire Jones says:

    Thanks for the book tip, I'll definitely look it up – I heard Paula Gooder speak at Greenbelt once, and thought she was great.

  5. solucas says:

    Very interesting blog post, it’s really interesting to see that the ‘us and them’ aproach to religion exists in elsewhere, even if I do find it devisive. I found myself really becoming really upset with my religion’s views on the human condition. Whenever an ‘elder’ made a mistake the response was ‘we’re born imperfect,’ however when it suited, others would be reprimanded. I was tempted to say this is isolated case to that one congregation however I think that most people have an idea of what they will accept as genuine human imperfection and what they won’t.
    Personally, I subscribe to the philosophical tradition that all people are born a ‘tabula raza,’ or blank slate. Therefore I can’t say that anyone is born with any inherrent sin, or grace – but that all vices and virtues are developed through the course of life. But evidently that is from a non-theological perspective. 🙂

    • Claire says:

      Thanks for this – I definitely agree that people tend to have double standards when it comes to who is responsible for which mistakes, what mistakes are natural and which are somehow much worse! Where is the phrase tabula raza from? The idea of a blank slate is a really interesting one, I don’t think I’d disagree – perhaps by talking about God’s grace for instance, I’m just talking about one extra influence on that blank slate, along with all those that a person encounters from other people? Or maybe God’s grace comes through those people and life experiences…

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