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Old Heresies Never Die, And One of Them Should't

According to Bishop Sims. Augustine and Pelagius should trade places as saint and heretic on the issue of sin and evil.

By Bennett J. Sims

Play golf with a friend of our "bishoping" years. Both of us have more fun now, both in life and at golf, than when we used to haul cases of ecclesiastical hardware (bishops' pastoral staffs) and software (ornate vestments) around in big cars while covering big territories to light fires in church people on Sundays, and then toil to put out church fires the other six days a weekhe as Bishop of Central Florida, William H. Folwell, and I as Bishop of Atlanta. We came out of widely differing church traditions as active clergy. Bill was on the "high Anglican" side of things, I on the low side. But in retirement we have found ourselves on remarkably congenial ground. Our agreements now are grand, sometimes even gleeful: as when our Episcopal Church elected Frank Griswold to be Presiding Bishop. We especially agree that retirement is the choicest time of life, and that staying active in some self-chosen form of continuing ministry is the deepest secret of the relish that comes with retiring. We maintain distinctive views as "old guys" with long histories in the church, but about our only serious disagreement has to do with how many strokes one of us is willing to give the other in eighteen holes at the Cummings Cove Golf Club.

During one round about a year ago, probably on the wickedly difficult 10th hole, where despair comes quickly after dumping your drive in the pond, I lamented to Bill that for years I have been accused of heresy by a few knowledgeable colleagues especially during the years when I served as a teacher at the Virginia Theological Seminary (low-church tradition). He laughed and told me what one of his teachers had said when he was a student at Seabury Western Seminary in Chicago (moderately high-church). "Anybody can be orthodox", this theologian had said to Bill's class,"but it takes brains to be a heretic." Of course, such a claim is wide of the truth, but it lifted my gloom and on the par four 10th hole that day I didn't mind recording a nasty seven.

The fact is that it takes good brains to be noteworthy either as orthodox or heretical. St. Paul, who wrote (or had attributed him) about one fourth of the New Testament, was so brainy that he could dash off personal letters that have been revered as defining orthodoxy for the whole Christian movement since though it should be noted that, by former colleagues in Judaism, he was hounded as a heretic. Three centuries later, the Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine (354-432) brought to the work of theology an I.Q. that must have been off the charts. Augustine was so brainy that he wrote documents that have rigidified orthodoxy for a very large part of the Christian population for 1500 years and tyrannised most of us with congenital guilt by insisting that every human being is born bad. For the great Augustine the world was bad, and, even worse, people were bad to the core. Only by the grace of God in Baptism and life-long penitence thereafter could the wicked world and wayward humanity be savedall administered by the Catholic Church and subsequently also by the fiercely sin-preoccupied reformation traditions of John Calvin and Martin Lutherand currently now by various other churches of pentecostal and fundamentalist persuasions. And if you wonder why
such an imprisoning theology could win its way over the human soul and human systems for centuries, consider how beautifully such a view of humanity and the world works for both churches and states that are determined to keep people in line while at the same time keeping both church and state in permanent control.

You will realise that doctrines are the invention of the human minds, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realise that scripture itself is the work of human recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe (in youre head) that matters; it is how you respond with youre heart and youre actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters, but becoming like him"

Pelagius, Celtic Christian Theologian c. late 4th cent. to mid-5th cent.

If ever you have felt a nagging sense of shame about youre sexuality you have experienced the subtle power of the great Augustine ... |If ever you have felt a nagging sense of shame about your sexuality you have experienced the subtle power of the great Augustinewho held that the core of human badness was transmitted through sexual intercourse because it repeats the lust of Adam and Eve. Those two defiers of God and defilers of Eden were, for Augustine, the original flesh and blood historical persons, and their guilt has been as inescapable thereafter as legs and lungs in all human beings. Or take another case. If ever it seemed to you that church services were subtly designed to organise your guilt and then, by the standing privilege of an ordained person, offer you a pardon which only priestly officials of organised religion can bestow, you saw through, however dimly, the smokescreen of the control mechanism derived from Augustine's doctrine of original sin.

What such a moment of "seeing through" means is wonderfully simple, namely that all orthodoxies invite challenge. From the standpoint of the state, democracy, as a political construct, represents a revolutionary repudiation of orthodox doctrines in support of divinely appointed hierarchies and oligarchies (rule by the few). Democracy, aside from its ancient Greek philosophical origins, is a fairly recent phenomenon. But theological repudiation of "bad to the core" doctrine goes way back. Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine and condemned as a heretic, is the great man whose letter to a new Christian in the 380's is the quote above. Even earlier there were theologians who thought better of the world and humanity and who were moved by other constraints than slavish servitude to the bitterness about humanity in the early chapters of St. Paul's letter to the Romans. Nor did the early objectors to certain deductions from Scripture seem moved by the need to control people. Valentinus, Gnostic advocate of spiritual freedom in the second century, and Origen, apostle of hope in the 3rd century, were both condemned as heretics. In the 13th century it was Meister Eckhart who brought down on his head the scorn of the Catholic establishment. They despised him as an unpardonable heretic for insisting on the goodness of creationthat God is in all thingsand that all things are interconnected. And to bring the matter up to date, the gifted contemporary theologian, Matthew Fox, is now an Episcopal priest, having been drummed out of the corps by the Pope as a menacing disturber of orthodoxy.
Teihard, scorned as a heretic, made my spirits soar ......

...that creation is God's book of life and that humanity is a turning page.
As Pelagius accurately perceived, "doctrines are the invention of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God". Doctrines in any field of mystery, like science and religion, are the natural result of the human need to know how the world works and what is the meaning of life. They are attempts in the face of mystery to clarify and codify what seems self-evident to the clarifiers and codifiers. Just as natural and inevitable are the serious challenges to doctrinal formulations by clarifiers and codifiers who see the same mystery from a different angle. Any great field of inquiry into mystery will spawn both orthodoxy and heresy. Orthodoxy means "straight" thinking. Heresy, by contrast, implies "crooked" or "deviate" thinking. My early training in Christian orthodoxy focused on the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Happily Barth never took himself nearly so seriously as did my teachers back in the 1940's. For them Barth was the last word in orthodoxy, and any deviation, especially from his Augustinian doctrine of original sin, was considered practically punishable.

About a third of the way through my own theological pilgrimage, in the 1960's, I began to read and cherish the work of the French scientist/theologian Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1975), pronounced "Tayahr". Like Pelagius before him Teilhard was accused of heresy. His writings were officially repressed by his Church and the Jesuit orderto both of which he remained personally loyal all his life. But Teilhard, scorned as a heretic, made my spirits soar. The reason for my resonance with Teilhard was that he confirmed my certainty that science and religion belong together as partners in the power to servethat there was a way to love the world ardently and remain faithful to the Gospel that the cosmos is on the move and that humanity is reaching for ever higher levels of consciousness that creation is God's book of life and that humanity is a turning page.

Finding Teilhard was a final break away from my training in Karl Barth whose so-called "neo-orthodoxy" was no longer convincing. Barth's idea that Jesus was an invasion into history from outside history seemed nonsense, even though the Creed suggests this by saying that "he came down from heaven". Jesus did no such thing. For me God has always seemed an "evolutionist", continually creating the world and always acting within history, never outside it. For me Jesus is emergent from within the world, not invasive as a first century "E.T.". Jesus Christ, by many testimonies of Scripture (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17; Revelation 13:8 KJV) is simply the eruption into historic visibility of that creative, commanding and forgiving love of God which has been present in the world from the beginning of the world. This makes the world eminently good, not a rotten place as the object of holy scorn or pious indifference. Nature is one of the books of God intended for our love and learning. And humanity, again by testimony of Scripture, made in God's own image is originally blessed and not bad to the core. Looking into the face of a newborn child is not to see a soul already corrupted but alight with the beauty of God's goodness. Each child is corruptible to be sure, and quickly, since evil is real and humanity bears the burden of free moral choice. But everything newborn is a gift already cherished by God. This is Pelagian doctrine.
The doctrine that holds an unbaptised child as going straight to hell is the invention of human minds at work to secure the ecclesiastical establishment as a system of control. Baptism does not make one beloved, or even saved in my understanding. Baptism is like the coronation of Elizabeth II. She was already a queen for having been born the first daughter of a king. Her coronation simply declared, in a public ceremony that invokes the presence of God, what had been true all along. This does not demean Baptism; it heightens its meaning and extends its reach into all the world as the God-infused sacrament of proclamation about human worth. Baptism into Christ simply declares to the one baptised, and to the beholding family of God, that this person has been a child of God from the moment of conceptiondearly loved and honoured with the tracery of God's express image, by testimony of Scripture.

The doctrine that holds an unbaptised child as going straight to hell is the invention of human minds at work to secure the ecclesiastical establishment as a system of control. Such a doctrine is crashingly contrary to scripture where, by any serious attention to Jesus, the defining work of the church is clearly not to be a self-aggrandizing hierarchy of control but an inclusive system of Servanthood, in the image and likeness of Jesus who knelt before his disciples to wash their feet. The important work of organised religion only begins with baptism as we undertake the nourishment of the baptised in the knowledge and love of Godjust as the important work of marriage only begins with the wedding.

Now, this question. Since the straightest thinking in both science and religion knows that Adam and Eve are not the original flesh and blood specimens of "homo sapiens", and that sexual intercourse is not the invention of humanity but the design of the Creator for the perpetuation of sexually reproduced species (and in humanity a gift for the dearest exchange of interpersonal love), may it not be appropriate now to insist that Augustine and Pelagius trade places as heretic and orthodox on the commanding mystery of sin and evil? Which of the two is the "straighter" thinker and which the "crookeder"?

This is a perilous question, but it goes to the root of Servant Leadership. If the Augustinian view of sin has blown itself into a vast self-aggrandizing system of church controland if the true call of the church and all authority structures is not to subjugate but to servewould it not help to recall the church to its God-given role as servant to install the sunnier and straighter thinking about the mystery of goodness and badness in the Pelagian mode? Such a choice does not diminish Augustine. His place in the annals of Christian thought remains secure as a towering and saintly intellect but misled on the capital mystery of good and evilmisled by his own obsessive sexual remorse about his early years of sexual adventuringand further misled by his moment in time when the Church could not yet see the Adam and Eve story in Genesis as a trenchant myth, far truer and more useful as myth than as literal history.
...may it not be appropriate now to insist that Augustine and Pelagius trade places as heretic and orthodox on the commanding mystery and sin and evil?

Pelagius was a Celt. Like Teilhard he loved the world and encouraged others to cherish the earth. "Look at the animals roaming the forest: God's spirit dwells within them...Look at the fish in the river and the sea: God's spirit dwells within them...When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life. Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wildflowers and the grass of the fields; look even at your crops. The presence of God's spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful."Pelagius spent time in Rome and there drew the scorn of more "orthodox" leaders like St. Jerome who was offended by Pelagius' practice of teaching women to read scripture. Pelagius' desire to educate women was rooted in his conviction that God's image is found in every person, male and female. He offended the powerful who complained that Pelagius was spending too much time talking indiscriminately in public squares and crossroads, and especially that he was discussing the scriptures with women.

All Christians are free to choose for themselves what, for them, is orthodox or heretical what seems to them the straightest kind of searching into the enduring mysteries of God and the world. Karl Barth used to say that the British are incurably Pelagian. As an Anglican of the Episcopal Church in the USA, for whom England and Ireland are both holy lands, and whose theological foundations for Servant Leadership lie far more in the Celtic tradition of Pelagius than in Augustinian ideas about humanity as being "bad to the core", I need to say, "Thanks for the compliment, Professor Barth."

Footnote: If any want to pursue the Celtic spirituality of Pelagius the best book I know about it was published in 1997 by SPCK and written as a popular work of scholarship by J. Philip Newell, Ph.D. For credit card orders phone: +44-681-700404 (the Abbey in lona, Scotland). The title is "Listening to the Heartbeat of God", a small paperback of little more than 100 pages and a marvellous read.

  Bennett Sims is the Bishop Emeritus of the the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and founder and president of the Institute for servant Leadership in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is the author of Servanthood: Leadership for the third Millennium.

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