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Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”

I read The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s latest thriller not because I am one of his fans but because I am a Mason.  I did not care for the DaVinci Code because I was aware that Brown was really just fictionalizing the 1982 non-fiction exposé Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent et al.  I did not like the fact that Brown was getting credit for creating the story when actually he was basing it on someone else’s book.  Arguably, Holy Blood, Holy Grail contained so much speculation that it was already almost fiction.  Baigent and Leigh have published further books on their theory of the Merovingian kings descending from Mary Magdalene and Jesus.  But, in the weird world of publishing, a fictionalized presentation of the ideas caught everyone’s imagination.

The Lost Symbol is at least more original.  Brown has done some research on noetic science, freemasonry, and ceremonial magic, among other things, but when I hear the reviewers and readers complaining that he is not factually representing these things, I wonder what is wrong with readers today.  I don’t know anything about Brown.  I don’t think his writing is very good, but he does have that knack for writing a page-turner, and that is what sells.  What I find interesting is that he can pack so much thought-provoking stuff into that plot framework.  His stories almost collapse under the weight of exposition, but not quite.  He makes it just barely plausible by having his main character be a college professor, so the reader can accept the lecturing.  But why do readers mistakenly believe he is trying to represent the organizations in his stories factually?  They accept that the characters are fictitious; why not the organizations?

Dan Brown does what most novelists do: creates a fictional world.  It isn’t real.  If a novelist successfully represents the real world and a story that seems as if it could have really happened, that is one sort of novel.  But Brown is not writing that sort of novel.  Possibly, he is just bumbling along, but if so, his stories still work.  His main character is a “symbologist” which is a made-up academic specialty.  He calls Langdon a symbologist because readers would probably close the book if he was called a semioticist.  In DaVinci Code he borrowed Opus Dei and the Catholic Church to be the antagonists, fighting to destroy the evidence of the “real” Holy Grail.  But why do readers think that Brown want’s us to believe that his fiction is literally true?  The uproar surrounding DaVinci Code seems to have been generated by this wierd inability to tell fiction from expository writing.   Arguably, Brown’s failing as a writer is that he does not inspire that “willing suspension of disbelief” required of readers.  Instead, quite a few readers reacted as if Brown’s intention was just to bash Catholicism or expose Opus Dei.  Maybe that was part of his agenda, but I rather doubt it because it is so obvious that he is creating a work of fiction that does not remotely pretend to be real (that is, if you step back from the roller coaster ride).

Brown appears to be giving you a history lesson, and some of his “facts” are actually real scholarly opinions or interpretations of historical facts, but for the most part he is drawing on fringe elements — conspiracy theorists, or writers who are not scholars at all.  Does he faithfully portray the real Catholic Church? No.  That would spoil his story.  It isn’t a realistic novel.  It is just fooling you into thinking it might be real because it includes so many details of building’s architecture, real places, real paintings, etc.  But that is just a device to allow the author to slip in his fictional creation.  Novel readers today expect realism.  Even in science fiction they want “gritty” realism.

Well, Brown’s novels should perhaps be categorized as fantasy-thrillers.

The Lost Symbol takes five major elements and weaves them together (a pentagram?).  They are:

  1. The study of symbols in culture
  2. Freemasonry
  3. Noetic science
  4. Ceremonial Magic
  5. The architecture of Washington D.C.

I have some knowledge of all of these elements as they exist in real life. This knowledge, slight though it is, allows me to see quite clearly that Brown is fictionalizing all of them and not portraying them completely factually.  He adjusts the facts to suit the needs of his story.  Freemasonry is the one element that most interests me in this book, so let me take it up first.

Brown’s representation of Freemasonry is mostly accurate.  He borrows extensively from the writings of Masonic authors.  The saying that Freemasonry is “not a secret society; it is a society with secrets” has become widespread in the fraternity as a good comeback to anyone who calls Masonry a “secret society.”  Brown is right that Masonry is mostly about brotherly love and truth and acceptance.  He is correct that many civic leaders have been Masons, including presidents from Washington on.  He plays off some of the popular myths and conspiracy theories about Freemasonry in order to create creepy dramatic tension.   The opening scene of the initiation and the candidate drinking wine from a human skull is a good example of this.  On the surface it is playing right in to the folks who think Freemasons are creepy and that their rituals contain symbolism that smacks of “evil” or “dark magic” or whatever.

By the end of the novel, however, Brown shows very dramatically exactly how the anti-masonic exposé is made. The video that is used to blackmail Peter Solomon shows actual rituals, but it shows only the most sensational parts out of context in order to suggest that the participants are a bunch of weirdos.  Masonic rituals are all initiations.  Every one of the 33 degrees is an initiation ritual, and it is true that the American public understands very little about initiations.  It also has a very low tolerance for unfamiliar rituals of any kind. Many Americans today even consider church services weird.  Brown does not show the actual beauty of Masonic rituals.  How could he when he is not a Mason and has not experienced them?  But he seems to have talked to enough Masons and read enough Masonic writers to fairly represent the idea that Masonic rituals are symbolic and harmless and that they are intended to raise the moral consciousness of the initiate.  Masonic rituals are not intended to convey real history.  They too are symbolic fictions designed to teach deeper truths.

I was amazed at some of the newspaper reviews I read of The Lost Symbol.  They seem to have failed to see any deeper truths the fiction is trying to convey.  Most took the attitude that the book was nothing more than entertainment and that it was well-crafted but not especially well-written.  The British Daily Telegraph seems to hate Brown for the way he “misrepresented” European manners and customs in his earlier books, as well as for a prose style that is almost beneath contempt.  But again, no sense of value to the truths the book is trying to convey.

Of course, these same writers might tread Masonry with a sardonic smile as a quaint and silly institution for men who like to play act and dress up and learn secret handshakes.  That description might be accurate for some Masons but there are many others who take the study of Masonic symbolism and its philosophical lessons seriously; many who have devoted a lifetime of study to the complex web of symbols.

All of these broad aspects of Freemasonry and many details (such as the very real House of the Temple) are fair.  The places where Brown deviates from fact into fiction are telling and I do not think they were done either out of a malicious desire to promote negative beliefs about the Craft, or out of incompetence.  The changes were deliberate artistic decisions  Let me enumerate again:

  1. Drinking wine from a human skull.  obviously, given U.S. law about the possession of human remains, this ritual could only be symbolic and the skull a plastic one.  Such a ritual does fit with the skull symbolism that appears in many Masonic drawings — it is, as it has always been in human cultures, a memento mori, a reminder of the reality of our own mortality.  Not the symbol of a murderous pact.  Brown doesn’t suggest it is, but a non-Mason reading the book might get that impression.
  2. The oaths or “obligations” of the degrees do have symbolic “punishments” that sound gruesome, but they are just that: symbolic.  No Mason ever tells another that if they violate their oath a bunch of brothers are going to slit their throat in a dark alley.  The symbolic penalties allude to one of the stories dramatized in the degree rituals, they relate to the punishments three murderous conspirators called down on themselves in the story.  They are punishments suitable to the quasi-Biblical setting of the story and they are, again, symbolic even in that context.  Suffice to say that they symbolize the loss of speech (truth), heart (love), and bowels (integrity).  There is more to it than that interpretation, but you can get the idea.  The candidate calls those punishments down upon himself as a sign of the depth of his sincerity in his obligations to the craft.  Nobody else threatens him with them as literal punishments.  The confusion over this point has been perhaps the main aspect of the rituals that has been taken out of context by anti-masons and sensationalized in published exposures of the rituals.  The main point of all the obligations, moreover, is not simply to keep the secrets of the fraternity; the obligations taken are to aid other brothers in need and to otherwise behave morally and truthfully.  The obligation to “obedience” to the lodge is also easily blown out of proportion into some sinister intent to control the members of the fraternity.  In reality it means that members are swearing to do their best to attend meetings and participate in the organization.
  3. The young man being raised to the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite. Unimaginable. Middle aged, maybe, but the 33rd degree is  awarded for many years of service in leadership positions within the several bodies of the Scottish Rite.  Obviously, it would not suit Dan Brown’s plot to have to try to explain the realities of the Scottish Rite.  His story hinges on the idea that a young man can fool his way into the Rite in a short time by giving a huge donation to charity.  I think that would be pretty much impossible.  The honor of the 33rd degree is treated very seriously by those who have earned it.  Moreover, the Supreme Council that is the highest administrative body of the Scottish Rite is composed of members elected from among the large number of men holding the 33rd degree as an “honorary” degree.  Those council members are called “active” to distinguish them.
  4. The head of the Supreme Council is called “Worshipful Master” and oversees a “lodge.” Nope.  The Scottish Rite is organized very differently from a Masonic craft lodge (the first three degrees).  The head of the Scottish Rite is called the Supreme Grand Commander.  Why Brown made this particular change is unclear to me.  Possibly it fit his overall desire to make the Scottish Rite and blue lodge Masonry into one monolithic organization with a hierarchical organizational structure.  If he went so far in his research to read Freemasons for Dummies, he would know that this is not factually correct.  So, again, artistic license.
  5. The degrees of Masonry are the administrative power structure of the Craft; that is, Masons move up in a power structure with each degree they take.  Absolutely untrue.  The degrees are not a power structure.  There are a few degrees that have to be attained before a brother can be a member of particular bodies of the Scottish Rite or the York Rite, and he cannot vote in the blue lodge until he has been raised to the degree of Master Mason.  But beyond these gateway degrees to full membership, the degrees are unrelated to the administrative or leadership positions.  Each lodge and body of Masonry has elected and appointed officers who act as leaders and decision makers for a specified term of office.  By ignoring the real organizational structure of Freemasonry and its decentralized and democratic character, Brown makes it seem more sinister and easier to grasp.
  6. The symbol of the Scottish Rite is a double-headed phoenix.  A good example of artistic license.  Brown is not in error, he is deliberately changing the eagle to a more evocative bird, one that likewise fits his theme of death and resurrection.  The theme itself is one of those central mythological themes and at the root of the ancient mystery schools as it is rooted in Freemasonry’s symbolic language.
  7. The claim that Masons swear to protect a brother Mason even over one’s country.  That claim is definitely made up.  Freemasons might wince at it because it feeds into a common anti-mason accusation that Masons serve their order over the civil or religious authorities, but Brown slips it in for no other purpose than to heighten dramatic tension.  In his story, the looming question of whether the Masons are working with or against the CIA is crucial to the suspense.
  8. The Masons are guardians of the secret science of the ancient mysteries. This claim is one that is hard to judge true or false.  Many Masons would agree with the statement.  Others would say this is just the wishful thinking of nineteenth-century brothers who were heavily into comparative religion and the study of the place of magic in human culture.  The fictionalization comes in on a different level in this case.  Brown is creating a fiction about the ancient mysteries, one which suggests that they allowed practitioners in ancient times to perform miraculous wonders through the power of their minds (or as some might say, the power of faith).  Brown brings in noetic science as a term for what others call parapsychology.  It lies on the border between accepted science and the unknown.  Brown engages in science fiction when representing the work of Katherine Solomon.

These eight points are at least the major ones in which Brown fictionalizes Freemasonry.  As we can see in the final item above, these artistic choices to deviate from established facts spreads from his fictional representation of Masonry to his fictional representation of noetic science research, the ancient mysteries, the CIA, and ceremonial magic.  The CIA comes off smelling like roses.  Ceremonial magic comes off in very stereotypic form as evil demonology that involves blood sacrifices and megalomania.  Is what Brown says about the architecture and symbolism of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument factual?  I do not personally know, but if Brown took artistic license there, I would not be surprised in the least.  Finally, is the author’s representation of the academic study of symbols accurate?  Certainly not.  It is based on actual academic work, but it is fictitious, just like everything else.

Are those representations fair?  No, of course not.  They are not intended to be fair.  They are intended to push our buttons, to create dramatic tension and suspense, to keep the reader off balance, not sure who is good and who is evil or what the earth-shattering secret is, until the very end.

The end has evidently disappointed some of Brown’s readers.  They were hoping for some juicy, controversial accusations against some big organization. Some, naturally, thought the book would suggest that the Freemasons are, after all, running a secret world government, the puppet-masters whose existence would.  Or maybe the readers were hoping that he was, at last, going to reveal the secrets of the ancient mysteries —  the secret to immortality and magical powers.

The irony, and I think the strength of The Lost Symbol is that Brown does reveal the mysteries.  His narrative and the symbolism in his story points right at it for those with eyes to see.  But it is deliberately (I suggest) different from the denouement of the film National Treasure.  Readers who have seen the film, which also features Masonic secrets, cannot fail to notice the resemblance.  Both stories (like DaVinci Code) are riddle plots.  The protagonist must solve the riddle before the antagonist heads him off.  But in The Lost Symbol there is no fabulous, fantasy treasure.  There is not magical device that will unlock a sci-fi doorway into superpowers.  In fact, right toward the end of the plot, Langdon realizes that there are actually two riddles: the riddle of the pyramid, and the riddle of what Mal’akh is doing and where he is doing it.  They turn out to be two separate riddles, only connected by Mal’akh’s belief that he needs the “lost symbol” to write on his Fontanelle so that he can become a demon.

In the resolution at the end of the story, the reader, with Langdon, is shown that what is lost is not a “symbol” in the sense of a glyph, but is the Lost Word, the knowledge and understanding of the Logos, that divine light which resides in each of us.  The “lost symbol” is merely a symbol for “that which was lost” once upon a time.  The ancient mysteries told the same tale. The story of the Garden of Eden does likewise.  Somewhere in the mists of the past, the myth says, human beings lost their connection to the Divine.

That’s it.  Boom.  Anticlimax?

Every brother Mason who has knocked on the door of the lodge and been raised to the degree of Master Mason has asked himself that question.  Every Master Mason who has gone on to achieve the 32nd degree of the Scottish Rite asks it.  After all of this drama, symbolism, and apparent teasing with the Lost Word, is that it?  But this is how Freemasonry works.  It is not an elaborate succession of initiations in which a brother must prove himself worthy to receive the secret.  It is a series of rituals that lead him onwards, ever onward, to discover the secret for himself.

Dan Brown makes the “secret” of the mysteries sound a bit like “The Secret” — that other best-selling book in the past few years.  The power of intention, the power of prayer, the magic of visualization and repeated affirmations — that is the big “secret.”  But students of the mysteries and of magic have known that secret for generations, and probably back to the dawn of civilization among cultures outside of Europe — Tibet, India, China, and many tribal cultures.

So, do Freemasons practice “The Secret” ?  Actually they do, even if they might not make the connection with that popular book and the New Age cosmic consciousness movements.  They practice focused intention in prayer and in rituals devoted to symbolizing virtues and so, if the noetic theories be true, send out into the world good vibrations of love, truth, charity, and respect — the brotherhood of men.  Whether you believe in good vibrations or not, it is undoubtedly true that whenever a lodge meets the men who come out of its doors at the close of the lodge are filled with the love of virtue, kindness, and hope for humanity.  There is Light out of Darkness, and Order out of Chaos.

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Pelagius and the idea of Grace

The figure of Pelagius has long interested me.  He came from Britain, lived in the 5th century A.D. and I have often wondered if some druid teachings had not persisted in the culture of Britain that influenced his view of life.  In college, I read the “Confessions” of St. Augustine and I have felt since then that the Western Church was founded on the ideas of a man who, however brilliant, was plagued with guilt and shame and projected this onto the whole of humanity.

The issue between Pelagius and Augustine centered on the concept of Grace.  This concept interests me partly because  of the way it is used in The Lord of the Rings where (in the films at least) the “Grace of the Eldar” is shown as the ability to give part of one’s own life to another when they are dying.  As Immortals, the Eldar could give freely of their life force because they had an infinite amount of it.

Grace, at root, is the gift of life.  For Augustine and Pelagius and the 5th century Churchmen, the question was whether “original sin” — i.e., Adam’s disobedience in Eden — was transmissible through the human species, and if it was, could humans overcome it by themselves or did they need to rely on being “redeemed” or rescued by God.  This was an important issue because in the four centuries since the death of Rabbi Yeshua ben Yoseph, the great teacher, he had been transformed into a rather more abstract sort of archetypal person — not an earthly messiah but “the Christ” a Greek idea of a god-man, or “son” of  the One God who came to earth and was crucified unjustly so that he could serve magically as a sacrifice — the sacrificial lamb or scapegoat — dying in place of all humanity.

This Greek myth took the Platonic idea of the One as the ultimate Divine power above all the personified gods and goddesses of the old Greek pantheon, and it combined this idea with the Jewish theology of One True God the Father, who was not only supreme over all other deities, but was the only one that should be worshiped.  One practical advantage of monotheism that must have appealed to kings with budgets to set, was that one god and one temple and one divinity to make sacrifices to was a great deal cheaper than having a dozen gods and goddesses to support and placate.  Philosophically, the Platonic idea of the One was very appealing because it seemed much neater and more mathematical.  The Jewish God Yahweh was the Creator-god, and combined with the abstract idea of the One, allowed philosophers to contemplate a universe of diversity and multiplicity that had originated in simplicity and unity.

Another advantage of this way of thinking, for the spiritual  philosopher was that if everything was One, then all men were One, and so brotherhood and brotherly love was a force that was not only right and moral, but was part of the very fabric of creation. (I am bracketing the significant problem of patriarchy and the male-dominated society that increasingly included women from all of these benefits, thus speaking in terms of “brotherhood” a gendered term.)

These ideas combined to give the evolving new religion of Christianity that focused on the One God characterized by omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.  Since such a god could do anything and was inherently in all places at once, He could beget himself a Son who was Himself (being omnipresent) and offer that Son as a human sacrifice to placate Himself  and so save humans from the doom of death He Himself had pronounced upon them after Adam and Eve’s disobedience in eating of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Confused yet? Just wait.

Eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (in other words, we are talking about Moral Knowledge, not science and technology here), the original humans were expelled from their life of leisure in the Garden and so denied access to the Tree of Life, which was the other tree in the garden, one from which, apparently they were not forbidden to eat.  If this is a correct interpretation of the myth, then Adam and Eve were immortal so long as they stayed in God’s employ as his gardeners and didn’t mess about with moral philosophy.

It all sounds a bit silly if you take it literally, so I don’t.  I interpret this myth to be about human evolution.  Humans lived in a state of bliss.  They could talk but were very close to the animals and to Nature.  Didn’t need clothes, didn’t have shame, and got along just fine.  Then they began to think about good and evil — in other words they came up with those words and concepts.  That was the end of bliss because it introduced the possibility of doing wrong, hurting others, or hurting oneself, and so feeling guilt and shame.  And indeed, if we consider Adam and Eve to be representative of all of primitive tribal humanity and the junction between pre-linguistic rules and language with abstract thought, then their expulsion from the garden can be  read as a representation of the point when humans cast people out of the tribe as punishment for wrongdoing.  Chimps certainly will ostracize a member of the clan or tribe as punishment (though it is usually a simple matter of defying the reigning patriarch).  Well, defying the patriarch is the main reason for expulsion or arrest in human society too.

This first instance of “Sin” helps define the concept in Christianity.  I understand that in the Jewish faith and in the Hebrew language the word for “sin” means something like “missing the mark.”  In other words, it is not so much about disobedience and defiance of the law as it is about making mistakes.  We might interpret sinfulness to be the human state of being imperfect and making errors in judgment or behavior.

No one would argue that this description fits humans.  But the chaps like Augustine thought there was something far more sinister about sin.  By the fifth century, the idea of “sin” had gotten firmly connected with “sex.”  Moreover, the frustration and guilt this produced in Augustine and his ilk, caused them to deduce that their own inability to stop thinking about sex and women was driven by an ingrained depravity.  Not wishing to think that he was the only one who was depraved (who would?), Augustine posited that all men were inherently depraved because of Original Sin (i.e., Adam’s depravity, which presumably had something to do with listening to Eve, or failing to question where she had been doing the grocery shopping.)

Eve tasted of the fruit — that is, she came up with the idea of good and evil and was the first human to understand moral philosophy.  I think it is important to remember that it is not only “sin” in the story that originates with women (or women listening to serpents), but it is moral philosophy that originates with women.  And it seems worth considering the implication that moral understanding originates by ignoring God’s prohibition and thinking for yourself.  Eve exercised her own free will and wanted to “be like God”.  That is usually seen as a terrible thing to want.  Yet, is not the whole teaching of the theologians and Jesus particularly focused on the idea that we must strive to be like God?

Well, all of this long tale, leads up to the theological conundrum of Grace.  If God condemned us to death (taking away our immortality), then clearly he is the only one who can issue a reprieve.  That way of thinking makes us all prisoners, condemned to die.  The doctrine of Heaven and Hell contemplates the problem of death, however, because it really re-introduces immortality into the picture.  Humans, it turns out, still have immortal souls — spiritual parts which remain immortal even when the body dies.  This teaching permitted the religious leaders to introduce the idea of eternal reward and eternal punishment.  Heaven is the paradise of eternal bliss.  Hell is the place of eternal pain and punishment.

This myth has served parents and kings well for many centuries.  Actually, we see the same idea in ancient Egypt and Greece.  For the Greeks and Romans one died and went to an Otherworld which was divided into a place of torment for the wicked (Hades) and relatively happy eternal life with the great heroes and philosophers of the past (the Elysian Fields).  So, death was the issue, not because we were to be saved from dying at all (as the Eldar), but because we would be sent to heaven or hell based upon the state of our soul at death.  Thus we needed God’s Grace if we were to get to Heaven because, according to Augustine everyone was totally depraved and no amount of good deeds could make up for that deadly taint.

I will quote at length from the Wikipedia article on Pelagianism in relation to Grace.

Pelagius vs. Augustine of Hippo

In the fifth century, a debate that affected the understanding of grace in Western Christianity, and that was to have long reaching effects on subsequent developments in the doctrine, took place between Pelagius and St Augustine of Hippo.

Pelagius, an ascetic who is said to have come from Britain, was concerned about the retention of man’s moral accountability in the face of God’s omnipotence. He strongly affirmed that men had free will and were able to choose good as well as evil. Pelagius denied that original sin had extinguished God’s grace in Adam’s heirs, and that consequently mankind had the power to do good, to convert themselves from sin by their own power, and the ability to work out their own salvation. Religion’s purpose is to teach us virtue, from which we can expect reward from God. By great efforts, it is possible for those in the flesh to achieve moral perfection.

So, Pelagius wanted humans to be morally accountable.  The idea that we are saved by Grace alone and not good works, gets humans off the hook for their behavior.  The Christian could say, “Well, I may have done a lot of bad things in life, but I believe in Christ as my personal savior and so I will go to Heaven anyway, saved by His Grace.”  This interpretation makes perfect sense if we think the point of the death of the Divine Son (the “death” of God) was to redeem us from Sin and Death.  If you could save yourself by being good, then that makes a mockery of the big sacrifice that saves us.  But if you cannot save yourself by being good, what is the point of being good?  You see the problem.  Some in the Church, even after Augustine, persisted in asserting that you had to store up merit in Heaven to get to paradise when you died.  A third Otherworld had to be created to fix the inherent contradictions of the system — Purgatory.  A place where you had to work off your bad deeds if you had not stored up enough merit during your lifetime.

Pelagius avoided this bizarre complexity and the commodification of merit by stating that humans were not totally depraved and had not been deprived of God’s Grace.  Indeed, the point of Jesus’s dying on the cross was to demonstrate to sinful humanity that they too had the Grace of God within their souls.  The implication is one of far more sophisticated moral philosophy.  In stead of using the old pagan and old Jewish idea that the Divine had to be propitiated by sacrifices, and that human sacrifices were the highest form of magic in this regard, the moral philosophy of Pelagius makes the crucifixion as symbolic act meant to teach us dramatically that each of us has immortality, if we only believe in it and can nurture our souls through good works — compassion, helping others, connecting, moving closer to the ideal of Unity, the One.

Well, the Wikipedia article also gives Augustine’s rebuttal.  Permit me to quote and dissect.

Pelagius’s seemingly optimistic creed in fact burdens weak mortals with a burden too great to bear; or at least this was part of the response of St Augustine…

Who says it is “too great to bear”?  That is merely circular reasoning. Only God can say whether asking mortals to raise themselves to the level of the Divine is a “burden” at all.  Pelagius’s  understanding of Grace is that God gave it to us (Gratia means “gift”).  Even if we accept the validity of the myth of expulsion from paradise, the myth does not say that God took back the gift of life from us.  If he had, Adam and Eve would simply have dropped dead.  What the myth says is that Adam and Eve were sent out into a world less hospitable than the Garden and had to work for their living.  Now, for an upper class Roman like Augustine, having to work for your living, might seem like eternal damnation, or and unbearable burden, but the rest of humanity knows quite well it is possible to grow your own food by the sweat of your brown and suffer the travails of childbirth and still be a good person,loving and helpful to others, and not too selfish.

The burden “too great to bear” is Augustine’s ridiculously extreme standard of perfection.  He says, paraphrased by Wikipedia:

The taint of original sin did extinguish God’s grace in men’s souls; no matter how righteously they conducted themselves, their virtues could never make them worthy of the infinite holiness of God. Men are massa peccati, a mass of sin; they can no more endow themselves with grace than an empty glass can fill itself.

Can humans be “perfect” ?  Perhaps not. But can they be good enough to be loved by God and taken to live with him to complete their moral education in Heaven?  I think so.  By positing that God’s “infinite holiness” requires humans to become infinitely holy in order to be “worthy” of Him, Augustinian thought makes it impossible for anyone to ever by worthy.  But this is a deliberate fabrication of Augustine.  It presumes to know God’s mind.  And why, I wonder, would God, the omnipresent spirit of the universe who, by definition of “omnipresent,” resides in each one of us, think that we are unworthy of Him.  We ARE Him.  Augustine’s argument (as presented) is the equivalent of a person saying that his red blood cells are not worthy of being a part of him because they are not his whole body.  The logic is ludicrous, and is made infinitely more ludicrous when we are talking about a Person whose “body” is infinite.  Obviously no part of that body can ever equal the infinite whole.  Yet, presumably it is not too far-fetched to posit that part of something infinite partakes by nature of that whole infinity in some way.

Augustine’s characterization of humankind as “a mass of sin” or an “empty glass” comes from no logical premise at all.  These are merely statements that, since I have read his Confessions, I believe come from his own self-loathing.  The man was pathological and it is sad that there were no psychoanalysts around to help him work through his guilt about sex and his mother-complex.  Augustine’s boyhood debauchery haunted him as an old man, and that self-loathing was turned into theology.  It is almost mind-bogglingly sad.  The man passed on his self-hatred and the feeling that he himself was nothing more than a mass of sin to generations of Christians who believed him to be a wise saint.

The writer of the Wikipedia article on Grace makes another point which I have already addressed, but the point as stated shows the kind of blindness to logic and premises that characterize Augustinian thought.

…More importantly, it does not clearly explain why Jesus Christ had to die for anyone’s sins; if men can redeem themselves by their own efforts, atonement by Jesus on the Cross was at best a vague sort of moral example…

As I pointed out above, the theology of Pelagius invites us to cast off the ancient pagan basis for this bit of theological theory.  Jesus overthrew the tables of the money changers in the temple and condemned the temple sacrifices not to foreshadow his own sacrifice as the “real thing.” He condemned the practice of offering sacrifices because it was so archaic and because it had become big business.  It was not only old-fashioned magic; it was not necessary.  Admittedly, I am a bit fuzzy about where the idea of “atonement” comes into the Biblical accounts.  I suspect, however, that it was not something Jesus said, but rather an interpretation of his death, an attempt to make sense out of it in the archaic logic of temple sacrifices.

Greek philosophy eventually could do better than that.  Possibly Pelagius teaches us that Druid philosophy could do better than that too.  The mechanistic notion that human sacrifice was necessary to perform acts of salvation for the whole people goes back to the most primitive state of human mental development.  The idea of blood sacrifice atoning for some evil deed is a stock part of ancient pre-Christian religions and the fact that Christian theologians should think they had to perpetuate this idea rather than refute it, is one of those queer puzzles in history.  One can only suppose that either the religious leaders were incapable of thinking in other terms,or that they felt they could better sell their new religion to the masses by talking in terms of blood sacrifice and atonement. But was this following Jesus’s teaching?  I think quite the contrary.

Augustine and his ilk believed they were adding a kind of Roman sophistication to blood sacrifice by sacrificing one Son of God once and for all for all time.  A blood sacrifice so great it would atone for every sin past, present, and future.  It is perhaps worth noticing that this idea of blood sacrifices had become a sport and form of entertainment among Romans.  Augustine writes of attending the Arena as a young man.  It was one of the things that disgusted him and started his personal reformation and turn to Christianity, his mother’s religion.  But blood sacrifice was deeply ingrained in Roman culture at that time, and it may come as no surprise that Augustine and his fellows decided to turn Jesus into the ultimate sacrificial victim.

The Romans of Jesus’s time, however, did not see his crucifiction as either entertainment or magico-religious blood sacrifice.  They saw it as an execution of a person tried and condemned for sedition.

Finally, the Wikipedia article offers the following rebuttal to Pelagius and the question of human free will in relation to the empty glass filing itself.

… While we may have “free will” (liberum arbitrium) in the sense that we can choose our course of conduct, we nevertheless lack true freedom (libertas) to avoid sin, for sin is inherent in each choice we make. It is only by God’s sovereign choice to extend His grace to us that salvation is possible.

This, alas, is a straw man argument.  Pelagius, I believe, did not suggest that humans could completely avoid sin — that is that they could become so perfect they would never make a mistake.  But on the moral plane, he believed that one could choose perfectibility.  That is, one could make the choice to improve oneself morally, mentally, and physically.  The claim that “sin is inherent in each choice we make” is unwarranted.  There is no reason to believe this except because you believe Augustine’s premise that humans are a “mass of sin.”  That assertion is predicated on the premise that in Eden God removed his Grace from Adam and Eve and so from the whole human race.  That particular premise is the one Pelagius refuses to accept.  He does so wisely because it is a hypothesis that is unproven and against which there seems to be plentiful evidence.

If God’s Grace had been “removed” from our being, then how could we ever choose to do good?  How could we even live?  Because we presume God to be omnipotent, He could presumably do the deed.  He could withdraw his Grace from us, if he chose to do so.  But doing so, he would be withdrawing his Grace from part of himself, since he is also omnipresent.  It would be a lapse of Divine Love, which we suppose to be infinite.  It hardly remedies the logical contradiction to say that God thought better of his choice and offered up this very convoluted plan to eventually (thousands of years later) send a Savior who was Himself in human form.  What, one may well ask, is the point of that?  It seems preposterous.  The idea of Atonement instead of Teaching as the point of the life of Rabbi Yeshua ben Yoseph is a travesty.  Jesus was a man who was trying to get us to see that we all live by means of Grace and contain the presence of God.  In saying that he was a Son of God, he hoped to break through the notion that humans are mere “creatures” and God the “Creator” who fashioned them from clay thousands of years before and gave them life.  The dichotomy between Creator and creature is what separates us from the Divine and fills us with fear and guilt.  To realize that the Creator is not only our Father, but dwells in us in his omnipresence, is to realize the perfectibility of our nature.  And by perfectibility, I mean, the ability to strive toward those three qualities — power, knowledge, and presence — that characterize the Divine One.  The mystery of the meaning of those three terms is what the good Rabbi, and so many other moral teachers, have continued to teach.  Continued, because  all humankind had not learned the lesson yet.

Pelagianism was repudiated by the Council of Carthage in 417, largely at Augustine’s insistence. The Eastern Orthodox Church, as expressed in the teachings of John Cassian, holds that though grace is required for men to save themselves at the beginning; there is no such thing as total depravity, but there remains a moral or noetic ability within men that is unaffected by original sin, and that men must work together (synergism) with divine grace to be saved.

– OWL

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