It’s theology, my precious…

If you haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson, you should take the time and effort, because the character of Gollum reveals in a disturbing way humanity’s problem with sin.

First, notice that Gollum has been twisted and hideously deformed by sin. Gollum used to be called Smeagol, and Smeagol was good once, just like the other happy hobbits, and in every scene of Jackson’s film, a glint of Gollumy goodness shines through. Gollum is never totally devoured by the evil. Even as he plunges into the fires of Mount Doom there is still a desire that is not totally corrupted.

There’s no “total depravity” here. Gollum’s goodness is horribly twisted. The light is shaded, but not extinguished. In my journey to the Catholic faith the Catholic understanding of original sin came as a great relief. I had been brought up in a kind of default Calvinism. 

Total Depravity was one of the doctrines that lay at the foundation of the form of Evangelicalism I was taught. I realize there are subtle explanations of the doctrine of Total Depravity that are more nuanced, but what I heard was, “You are dead in your trespasses and sins. There is none righteous, no not one. Your righteousness is as filthy rags. You cannot please God. You are totally and utterly depraved. You are a pile of dung that needs some snow to cover you.” The conclusion I drew was that I was worthless, and under judgement for something I had no choice in, and was powerless to do anything about.

The Catholic view of original sin is that we are created in the image of God, and although we are born in sin, the image of God is wounded, but not utterly destroyed. I found this view not only refreshingly compassionate, but also more true to what I perceived around me. G.K. Chesterton says something somewhere like this: “Sometimes things are actually just as they seem. There is no conspiracy, no secret knowledge, no esoteric understanding.”

Most people mean well. Nobody I know gets up in the morning and says, “Now, let me see what can I do today that is totally wicked, perverse and horrible.” Most people perceive their desires as good (even if they’re not good) and this means they want to pursue the good.

Experience indicates that most people are not totally and utterly depraved. They desire goodness. They want God (if they only knew it). They want love and life and all things good. Yes, we often go about getting what we want in wrong ways, and we are too often content with the good and too lazy to pursue the best. We’re sinners, that’s for sure — but like Gollum, there is always a glimmer of goodness within us. That’s what God sees, and that’s what he redeems, and that’s what he rescues. That’s the little ember that he wants to gently blow into life with the breath of the Holy Spirit.

In addition to this, the Catholic viewpoint says, “You may be cursed by sin, but with God’s grace, you can do something about it. Your actions matter. Your decisions matter. The good you do and the evil you do matter. You’re responsible. With God’s help you can do something about the state of your soul.”

That’s why Frodo continues to have compassion on Gollum. He sees what Gollum was and what he still can be. Frodo knows the terrible corrupting power of the ring. He’s seen how it made a monster of Bilbo. He sees how it’s made a monster of Smeagol, and he feels how he himself is being made into a monster, but this knowledge breeds compassion, not judgement in his heart. He looks on Gollum with pity not with blame.

It’s the same with us. Twisted and deformed by sin, but still the image of God glimmers within — and Christ, like Frodo, knows the burden we bear, and sees not how deformed we are, but how beautiful we were, and how beautiful we can be.

He looks on us with pity, not with blame.