When I was young, my Christianity was heavily influenced by a Calvinist doctrine called “total depravity.” In practice, this had two primary consequences, one personal, and the other communal:
1) On a personal level, the idea of total depravity led me into scrupulosity and despair, since I believed that I was, to my very core, vigorously opposed to God, even when I believed that I was loving and serving Him. It had a kind of gas-lighting effect: “Even if you believe that you love God, your nature is so corrupt that you can’t even see that you hate Him and are working against Him at every opportunity.” The idea that all works were useless, and that if you weren’t “saved” that even great acts of goodness were despicably worthless in God’s eyes was very difficult to overcome.
2) The other effect that total depravity had was to convince us that we were the sole “good” people on the planet — that the only people who were right with God were those who agreed with our theology, and that everyone else, regardless of how many “good” things they did, were hell-bound enemies of God. We were told that everything that Mother Teresa did was worthless in God’s eyes, unless she believed the way we believed. That nothing that anyone did had any value (“filthy rags”) unless they also happened to be saved when they did them, in which case they would kind of even out: not actively bad anymore, but more pointless, since Jesus had done all the work of salvation. Works could be good, but they were unnecessary.
Now, there are many things I could say about this, and I may in the future, but today I wanted to approach it from an experiential standpoint, primarily as regards the second consequence above.
Once I grew up and began to go out into the world, the idea that everyone who wasn’t a member of our tiny community of like-believing people was an active enemy of God and was heading for eternal damnation on a speeding freight train started to seem a little off. I had been told that if you weren’t an Evangelical Christian who held all the correct positions on Bible interpretation, then you had to be the other binary: evil, and opposed to God in every way. But that didn’t square with what I saw: people who held different Christian beliefs, people who held different religious beliefs, people who claimed to hold no religious beliefs whatsoever — so many of them were decent people, many of whom loved God deeply and were trying to the best of their knowledge to serve Him and love others.
This was a not insignificant part of why I left Christianity in the first place: one of the main teachings, as I understood it, didn’t fit with reality as I was seeing it. Deism made a lot more sense: God gave everyone reason and a moral sense, and then everyone did their best to live up to what they knew. It accounted for reality better than what I had before. I began to see people as flawed, but still having the capacity for good, even if they weren’t “saved.” And the Catholic Church recognizes this: she differentiates between natural and supernatural goodness, and doesn’t deny that people who aren’t within the Church or within Christianity can still do good, and even be connected with God in a variety of ways.
So I had been fairly content with this view up to this point: that human beings, while their nature has been flawed by sin, are nonetheless created in the image of God and as such, have the capacity for good. And while some people use their free will to commit acts of great evil, most people operate with a basic level of natural goodness.
And then, I encountered turbulence.
My husband’s family had never been practicing Christians, certainly not to the level that my family was when I was growing up. They had done many things that we would have considered very wrong, but in general they were kind, decent, hard-working people who would sacrifice themselves for their family and friends. In short, they belied what I had been taught growing up: that all people who aren’t active Christians are depraved sinners. Or at least, they seemed to.
As long as I was part of their family, they were welcoming, loving and accepting. At times I even felt like they loved me more than my husband! Then, a couple years ago, I left my husband; his abuse had made me so afraid of him that I couldn’t function in a normal way. For my own psychological safety, I had to leave.
At the time, I didn’t contact his family. I had no desire to damage his relationship with them, and felt that nothing could be gained by telling his family all the ways he had mistreated me. I still loved them, and planned someday to write them a letter, probably when/if we ever actually divorced.
But when my mother-in-law died, I found out for the first time that his family had completely rejected me, to the point that they didn’t want me at her funeral.
I was emotionally rocked by this. For some reason, I had assumed that just because I could not live with their son/brother anymore was no reason that my relationship with them would be affected. And maybe it wouldn’t have, if I had communicated better with them.
But, I think, it may have had more to do with the way that I grew up: because everyone I knew was Christian, in general I lived in an atmosphere of supernatural love. I didn’t think of it that way; as Christians, it was just the way we lived our lives. I assumed that “love your enemies” was common practice, because it was the baseline for all of our morality. And even when I grew up, and realized that “unsaved” people could still be good, I attributed supernatural goodness to them instead of merely natural. I suddenly realized what Jesus meant when He said:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:32-36)
I had encountered people with natural goodness, who were good to those who were good to them, when everything was going fine. But I hadn’t realized that the true test of supernatural goodness is when everything ISN’T going fine. I had grown up assuming that even great wrongs were not beyond forgiveness, because I was steeped in the notion of Christian, supernatural love, and I didn’t realize that it WAS supernatural.
So many times, I think, we don’t see Christianity for the outlier that it is. Because we live in a culture that has been primarily Christian for so long, we assume that supernatural goodness is the order of the day: individual rights, care for the weak, forgiveness of wrongs, the value of the human person. We forget that that is not the way that humanity naturally is; we’ve been living in a Christian bubble for the last 2000 years. We don’t have the perspective of the first Christians, who were taking an idea that was truly new and radical into pagan Rome, or of missionaries who take the Gospel into places that have had no contact with Christianity. We don’t see how amazing and different the Gospel is. When every child for hundreds of years learned “love your enemy” in their catechism, we began to think that that was normal, instead of an insane, radical idea that ultimately, changed the world.
When I was growing, up, because our culture was basically Christian, our conception of “conversion” basically meant that someone who was already operating within a Christian culture would become slightly more Christian: they might come to church more times a week, and follow more stringent moral principles. A lot of what we considered the “difference” was completely internal: people would get saved, and they would talk about feeling “overwhelming love,” or warmness, or some other fairly subjective sensation. And if that was all that Christianity was, I couldn’t see the point.
But when you look at Christianity in contrast to the “real” world, a world where human nature runs amok, where hatred and vengeance and bitterness and cruelty and violence and objectification are NORMAL, then you realize why it had the impact it did. It’s hard to convince someone to commit to a narrower channel of Christianity because so many people now enjoy the benefits of living in a Christian culture without really having to sacrifice anything for it. But at one time, Christianity would have made all the difference in the world.