dignity and depravity – it’s what makes us human

As I’ve taught a course for the past 5 years called Psychology in Relation to Theology, I’ve found that most of the questions students have revolve around a fundamental polarity.  This polarity has, in some respects, defined a debate between Christians who have been influenced by the psychological insights of the past 100 years, and those who remain wary of modern psychologizing.  At the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that the first camp leans in the direction of emphasizing human dignity and second camp leans in the direction of emphasizing human depravity.  Now, both are fundamental to the question of theological anthropology (a biblical view of human nature), but this has not always been recognized.  As a result, one of the two are usually over-emphasized.

A New Exodus paradigm for understanding soul care embraces both human dignity and human depravity.  It recognizes the original dignity or goodness of humankind and, in fact, all of creation.  Men and women were created to image God.  And imaging God can be summed up in the three R’s:  Rule, Relationship, and Righteousness.  In other words, God’s people were meant to rule and reign in His name, as ambassadors imprinted with the King’s image on us.  We were meant, secondly, to relate in the self-giving way of the Trinity, loving God and neighbor selflessly.  And, we were intended, thirdly, to image the perfect righteousness of God.  Our hearts were made to drink from this well of life, living for the sake of ruling, relating, and righteously walking in the ways of the Trinity.

i20will20follow20barefoot-1But we also know the rest of the story.  On the heels of this original blessing, something went radically wrong.  Theologians call the result of this original sin, or depravity, the exchange of God’s good original plan for a cheap imitation, a human approximation.  Ever since humanity’s radical fall from grace, we’ve lived in the tension of dignity and depravity.  However, it has intensified because of the work of Jesus.  The death and resurrection of Christ paved the way for restored dignity.  2 Corinthians 5:17 says it boldly.  Anyone in Christ is “new creation.”  Paradise, in Paul’s words, is restored.  The “old is gone, and the new has come.” 

That’s fine, unless one considers St. Paul’s apparently contradictory words in other letters.  It is also the case, according to St. Paul, that new creation is not complete yet, and that all of creation, including human beings, is groaning and longing for the complete restoration to come (Rom. 8).  Herein lies the tension, the polarity, the two extremes of the great psychological debate.  Are we good or are we bad?  Are we made for dignity or resigned to depravity?  St. Paul’s answer is a resounding “Yes!”  Both sides get it right…to a point.

Now, for someone like me who has been influenced by both sides, this is a difficult tension.  On the one side, I find myself grateful for Larry Crabb’s wonderful vision for human relationship and, indeed, church community.  In his books Connecting, The Safest Place on Earth, and Soul Talk, Crabb embraces the effects of sin, but leans heavily on the power of new creation life.  His friend Dwight Edwards, distant relative of Jonathan Edwards, provides the theological firepower behind this vision in his wonderful book A Revolution Within.  I’m grateful to Crabb for his hard work and good thinking over the years, which is (in my estimation) better than much of the less theologically sophisticated work of other writers on the subject of Christian counseling.  One might also mention the great success of John Eldredge, a student of Crabb’s and an even more poetic mouthpiece of new creation life.  Eldredge’s theology of desire finds its roots in C.S. Lewis and his prolific expression of sensucht.  Perhaps Eldredge’s success (like that of others who emphasize human dignity) emanates from the vision he, and Crabb, cast for how life is meant to be lived.  There is much to be commended here because human beings need a vision, a purpose, a calling.  Perhaps, this is why Rick Warren and Joel Osteen sell so many books, as well.

But, this is only one-half of the story.  The other side is, perhaps, less glamorous.  Yet, it is no less true or real.  The writer C.S. Lewis was most influenced by, George MacDonald, got the other half of the story when he wrote: 

     Lord, I have fallen again–a human clod!

     Selfish I was, and heedless to offend;

     Stood on my rights. Thy own child would not send

     Away his shreds of nothing for the whole God!

     Wretched, to thee who savest, low I bend:

     Give me the power to let my rag-rights go

     In the great wind that from thy gulf doth blow.      

To be sure, this is the rest of the story.  Lewis and Eldredge were right to unbury desire, because underneath the mess of human sin lies the pearl of human dignity.  Yet, the prophet Jeremiah was right, too:  The human heart is wicked.  This is what the great humanist psychologists of the 20th century missed.  For all of his optimism and grace, Carol Rogers missed a fundamental reality, that human beings sabotage what good they begin.  One need not have an elaborate theology of original sin to tell this story.  The great novels and the great movies always hinge on a moment of tension, a critical turn often fostered by the apparent stupidity of the protagonist.  In the end, good usually overcomes evil.  But, this is how stories are written.  And, this is how the Greatest Story Ever Told is written.

For Christians practicing soul care, the point is evident.  Both dignity and depravity mean something in our work.  Those who tend to focus on human dignity miss the reality of self-sabotage and self-deception.  They place their heads in sand, refusing to see the awful truth that humans are, in a word, stupid.  What else might explain the illicit affair, the binge, the cutting, or the lust for wealth.  We’re prone to find security, satisfaction, and sacredness in all the wrong places.  We’ll look for it in food, in drink, in drugs, or in relationships.  We’ll search for meaning in wealth and approval, in knowledge and in power.  And, in the end, we’ll fall flat on our faces, if not by our own efforts, by the grace of God.  As St. Paul says in Philip. 2, “every knee will bow,” even if we fight it. 

Those who focus on depravity, often seen in the old-school nouthetics, miss the reality of 2 Corinthians 5:17.  If we are in Christ, St. Paul says, we are “new creation.”  Eden is recovered, we discover.  Something of the innocent and pristine sensucht Lewis talked about finds expression.  We begin to long for the right things – truth, beauty, and goodness.  We begin seeking God.  We begin to trust our hearts, not in some schmaltzy-Disney kind of way, but in the sense that Augustine gets at when he says, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  We pick up a book by Eldredge, God forbid, and see that our hearts long for beauty, and wildness, and wonder.  We pick up a book by John Muir or Annie Dillard and recognize our heart’s ache for the beauty of a sunset or the intricacies of the butterfly’s life cycle.  We see in Robert Frost or Mary Oliver the wondrous truth found in a good poem.  We see in Larry’s Crabb’s The Safest Place on Earth the joy of Christian community living in peace and joy with one another.  Because of the reality of human dignity re-discovered because of the work of Jesus through the Spirit, impossible realities become possible.  People begin to live into the bigger picture and purpose of life.  And human depravity seems to become a leftover of an ancient and out-of-date way.


Until we screw up again.

Thus, the polarity, the tension of dignity and depravity, and the now and the not yet.  This will continue to be a tension until Jesus comes back.  And writers on soul care will continue to emphasize (or over-emphasize) one of the two realities.  Even still, Christians have the opportunity to live into the dignity of “new creation” while being broken, finite, messy, and ‘stupid’ along the way.  We will continue to blow it, to be sure.  But, in between the screw-up’s, moments of great dignity will illuminate the way.  We’ll see “human clods,” as MacDonald puts it, act in radically unselfish ways.  We’ll see apparently hopeless caricatures of Christian freedom do wild and crazy things for Jesus.   This is, after all, what St. Paul calls the “foolishness” of the Gospel.  We’re a messy bunch, prone to blow it again and again.  But our dignity shows up in the craziest places.  We do things that make the world look, and in so doing we become witnesses to death and life of the Jesus Christ, the most foolish human who ever lived. 

Dignity and depravity.  This is the tension of life before Jesus comes back.  It illustrates the endless debate of Christians who practice soul care.  And it marks the messy reality of life now, and not yet, lived with the fullness of desire, sometimes distorted, yet embraced because of the new life given…all for the sake of something bigger than ourselves, something we can hardly put words to, a reality yet to come.              

soul thaw

In his new book The Pastor as Minor Poet, Craig Barnes argues that we’re prone to become so obsessed with the ordinary text of life that we miss the subtext – the deeper story lurking beneath the apparently obvious plot-line.  Prone to fix and manage and handle the contingencies of life, we often fail to take a moment to consider what lies beneath these things – the richer meaning and substance, the motives, the hidden pain.  Frederick Buechner provides an example of this in his memoir Telling Secrets, where he tells of his own experience of missing the deeper story of his life – the subtext, as Barnes puts it.  Obsessed with the responsibilities of teaching and pastoring and writing profound books, his lack of attention to another plot that was unfolding nearly led to the tragic death of his anorexic daughter.  A man so attuned to see the subtext of life (evidenced in his wonderful novels like Godric and Brendan) missed his own subtext, let alone his daughter’s.  The neglect of one’s soul can be costly.

Barnes argues that our lack of curiosity about the subtexts of our lives, and the lives of others, leads us down the road of a kind of soul-starvation.  Cut off from our own feelings as well as the feelings of others, we do life by managing one contingency after the other, never taking a moment to look beneath the surface.  We end up ‘fixing’ the problems of life that we encounter, but never deal with the source.  A wife ‘nags’ her husband about failing to repair the faucet or do the taxes or call the neighbor, but her subtext – the deeper story – is missed:  Do you hear me?  I’m lonely, and it feels like you just don’t care.  If only we had the ears to listen more carefully.

Lent is the spring-time of the soul, a sacred time corresponding to a season of warming and thawing.  It’s a season that invites us to vulnerability.  C. S. Lewis once wrote:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

Buechner says that it is this vulnerability that we spend our lives avoiding, in part, because we fear what we might see – the weakness, the insecurity, the lack of control.  In the meantime, the subtext looms underneath, telling the truth – that we’re not as in control as we think, that we’re scared, that we’re not as confident as we project.  Eventually, God will awaken us, usually by discomforting us…not because he’s mean, but because he knows that we can’t live in the dark and thrive.  Something has got to give.  Fail to pay attention to the subtext, Barnes says, and you’ll find yourself in an addiction, or enslaved to anger, or a stranger to your children.  

The vulnerable life is modeled in Christ, of course, whose self-emptying way exposed the futility of our silly power games.  It’s the harder way, to be sure.  But it’s the only way that leads to life.


And so, I find myself thawing from my own wintry season of the soul, a season that found Sara and I managing the contingencies of a cross-country move, a home depreciating in value, hard goodbyes, endless new introductions, a learning curve to navigate the San Francisco urban labyrinth, and two kids who sometimes thought their parents were going crazy.  For a time, it was easier to neglect the subtext because it was just too hard to feel the sadness of goodbyes, the anxiety of hellos, and the insecurity of everything in-between.  Lent’s springtime thaw is much-needed.  It’s as if the soul says, “Hello…I’ve missed you.  I know you’ve been busy, but it’s good to have you back.”

The parting clouds and the warming sun of Lent are a welcome sight, ending a wintry night, inviting the soul to thaw, to soften, to breathe again…

The executive and the hermit

Brennan Manning tells the story of an executive who went to see a hermit for spiritual direction.  The executive was overwhelmed with the demands of life.  It seems that everyone wanted a piece of him – his company, his family, his church, younger executives, customers.  Amidst the demands of life, he had lost himself.  His prayers became flat. The more he tried, the harder it was to accomplish intimacy with God.  

The hermit listened to the executive tell of his struggle, and then recessed into the darkness of his cave.  He emerged with a basin and water, saying to the executive, “Watch as I pour the water into the basin.”  The executive peered into the water.  The hermit called his attention to the turbulence of the water as it rushed into the basin, spinning and splashing around the sides of the basin.  But in time, the water began to level itself, moving methodically back and forth across the basin.  Soon, the water was still.  As the executive peered in, the hermit asked, “What do you see?”  The executive said, “I see myself.”  The hermit responded, “This is your life.  And so your turbulence will recede as you still yourself before the Lord.”      


Lent invites us to become still, but our deepest fear is often this:  that we might be alone with the person we most dread being alone with – ourselves.  Sometimes it is easier to choose the turbulence over the reality of the person we see reflected back in the still water.  But if we sit still long enough, we may actually hear the whisper of the One who says, “I love you, warts and all.  Come out of hiding.  You are my beloved. “