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Pelagius and the idea of Grace

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September 2009
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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.



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