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Pelegianism and authoritarian personalities

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Wikipedia)

Preamble: Why I’m not too enthusiastic about Christian theology  (skip to main entry, Pelegianism)

Reading over material for this update, I came to feel that Pelegianism is a great example of why I’m not overly enthused about the history of Christian theology and its related squabbles.

While converting to Catholicism in 2001 I asked the leader for our RCIA course, an elderly priest, how certain parts of the Bible came to be included in the Catholic canon.

I could have also asked the related question of how certain dogmas and teachings came into being but I’m pretty sure I only asked about the formation of the Catholic Bible, which differs from other Bibles.

In retrospect, the priest was probably caught off guard. He was a good, educated man who no doubt knew about the various Councils held in early Christianity.¹

Also, the RCIA participants met in the evening. The leader was probably tired after a long day of fulfilling his priestly duties. And maybe he felt he had to answer to the group, not just to me. But still, his answer seemed simplistic at the time.

He replied that certain Biblical books “resonated with the people” and others did not, as if a majority community democratically decided what should and should not be included in the Catholic canon.

This may be true on some level, but the final decisions were made by a select few. Even today, many of the clergy are quick to point out that the Church “is not a democracy.” For the most part, unchanging truths are apparently revealed through some ambiguous process I still don’t fully understand.

Does anybody?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not disagreeing with the Church’s basic teachings. But many elaborations, it seems, are questionable and supported through incredibly weak arguments.

A high school student could pick apart some of the arguments upheld by members of the clergy—especially, imo, those concerning why only men may become ordained priests.

But I digress. I’ll pick up on these ideas in the postscript.

A17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagi...

A 17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius. The caption says “Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence Durst thou excuse man’s foul concupiscence, Or cry down Sin Originall, or that The love of God did man predestinate.” – Wikipedia

Pelegianism

Pelegius was a British monk (circa 354–420 or 440 CE)  who came to be associated with a body of teachings called Pelagianism. Pelagius, himself, came to deny those teachings that had been linked to him.

So what is Pelagianism?

Pelagianism is the heretical Christian view, loosely associated with Pelagius, that salvation is attainable through one’s own efforts, as opposed to redemption through divine assistance.

Pelagius believed that Adam and Eve’s original sin (as related in the Biblical book of Genesis) was a bad example for the rest of us. But Adam and Eve’s sin did not indelibly stamp sin into every human being born after him.

In other words, Pelagius recast the traditional idea of a universal “original sin” into a more specific “first sin” of Eve.

So sin is something we can avoid by making good ethical choices and following up with good ethical actions. This places full responsibility on the individual, and less emphasis on the need for divine aid. God already gave us the “tools” as it were, to avoid sin by giving us free will. So grace, intercession, intervention, and so on, may occur but are not necessary to avoid sin and to make good ethical choices.²

Jesus sets a good example and offers a means for atonement. But for Pelegians, Christ does not die for the original sin that we, so the traditional teaching goes, inherit from Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God.

Pelegius also rejected infant baptism, a topic often raised by non-Catholics in favor of adult baptism. And he saw the popular Catholic idea of “weakness” as a crutch for not trying hard enough to eradicate bad behavior.

Pelagius was disturbed by the immorality he encountered in Rome and saw Christians using human frailty as an excuse for their failure to live a Christian life.3

In the early 5th century St. Augustine condemned Pelagius’ ideas. Pelagius was accused of heresy and acquitted.

But this was only a reprieve. Pelagius was later charged again in 431 CE, condemned as a heretic and excommunicated. Not necessarily executed, he was banished from Jerusalem to Egypt where he disappears from history.

Pelagius’ ideas have returned, however, in literature and film.4 And although most of his writings are lost, the thrust of his arguments remain intact by the writings of his opponents (most likely biased to make Pelagius look as wicked as possible).5

Pelagius, flanked by two ministers of his chur...

Pelagius, flanked by two ministers of his church, from a miniature of the Liber testamentorum. (Wikipedia)

Postscript: Why I dodge dogmatic obsessives (see also, Preamble)

Why don’t I like studying the history of Christian theology, as mentioned in the preamble?

For one, it seems too abstract. Theological writings also can come off arrogant and mean-spirited. Instead of reading about the ideas a group of men have developed – and the victims they historically were willing to persecute to advance those ideas – I much prefer good, honest histories about political intrigue and battles. Something I can sink my teeth into and possibly relate to contemporary news.

My kind of history may relate to religion and theology but it involves the whole picture. Not just religion. Theology by itself sometimes seems like a conceptual game.6

Maybe that’s a little extreme. I can understand why a given Church wants to get it right. But I think the humility factor must take precedence, not the arrogance or authoritarian factors. And it seems that many who boldly proclaim as correct their view of theology are probably authoritarian personalities hiding behind a plethora of unresolved psychological issues. Can they avoid dealing with their psychological issues by focusing on their apparent “certainty” on every issue under the sun?

I wouldn’t call obsessive dogmatics “losers” because everyone has a role to play in the grand scheme of things. And we’re all imperfect people, after all. But I wouldn’t spend time having a coffee with them, either. Personalities like that can be toxic. And as a spiritually sensitive person, they can make me squirm, maybe even give me a headache.

So I keep a respectful distance. Fortunately, people so different from myself tend to not want to associate with me either. So it usually works out. There are always a few needy or disturbed exceptions. People who just do not take a broad hint. They tend to be more difficult. But again, one can’t waste time with them.

There’s too much love in the world to spend time with regimented haters. We can pray for them. But getting too close only fans the flames of their authoritarian anger.

¹ In fairness, if someone asked me out of the blue, I’d probably refer them to Wikipedia or the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

² I’m not sure if I agree with this. I tend to think that God educates us as to why we are sinning. That is, what we once thought was AOK becomes clearly sinful from the higher perspective of grace. So we can’t necessarily choose correctly from the get-go. We have to be educated by God about making the right choice. To make things more complicated, this probably varies from person to person. God’s expectations may be sometimes be personal and not always universal. That’s why we should really only judge ourselves and not others.

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius#Pelagius_in_literature_and_film

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius#Writings

Some histories of Christianity, of course, do include political elements and all the Church’s warts. But others gloss over the scheming and iniquity. See, respectively, Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (gritty) vs. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (glossy).

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Elizabeth – The Mother of the Last Great Jewish Prophet?

Statue of the Visitation at Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel via Wikipedia

In the New Testament, Elizabeth a daughter of Aaron, wife of  Zechariah and the mother of John the Baptist.

Among Christian theologians and homilists, John is often spoken of as a link between the Old and New Testaments. He’s the last of a long line of Jewish prophets who announces the coming of someone so great that he, himself, is “not worthy to untie the strap on his sandals.”¹ That person, of course, turns out to be Jesus of Nazareth, who goes on to become the founder of the world’s largest and most international religion.²

A nice New Testament story is one that also becomes part of the Catholic Holy Rosary as “The Visitation” of the Joyful Catholic Mysteries.³ This is the tale, true or not, that the unborn John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when the pregnant Mary, bearing Jesus, comes to visit.4

This story reminds me of several studies, true or not, suggesting that the unborn get used to and turn out smarter if they hear classical music through their mother’s abdomen. 5

But in the case of John and Jesus, I would also think that these two babies, being who they were, would be especially spiritually sensitive. So quite possibly John leaped in the womb because he could sense the presence of Jesus. Not so much because he heard Mary’s voice. However, John’s reaction could have been prompted by both auditory and spiritual factors—if the story is true, that is, and not just a pleasant religious tale fabricated by early enthusiasts to advance their religious beliefs.

Most of us have heard the tale about the angel coming to visit the teenager, Mary, giving her the choice to be the mother of a miraculously conceived Jesus. But not quite so popular is a parallel story about an angel coming to visit Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah:

But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born (Luke 1:13–15).

Again, is this just good religious storytelling or did things really happen in parallel as written? While scholars and religious people argue this point back and forth, for me the answer, like most things in life, ultimately comes down to belief.

Sadly, the human story ends miserably for both John and Jesus. John is beheaded at the hands of Herod Antipas who grants the cruel request of his step-daughter Salome and her mother. And Jesus dies on a cross after willfully submitting to a complex political web involving the Jewish religious leaders in Israel, some of an assembled mob, and the occupying Roman authorities. I say the human story ends miserably because, according to the belief, both of these figures endure in unimaginably great heavenly places, beyond time and space as we know it.

¹ https://www.google.ca/search?q=i+am+not+worthy+to+untie+his+sandals…

² https://www.google.ca/search?q=largest+world+religion…

³ https://www.google.ca/search?q=roary+the+visitation…

4  https://www.google.ca/search?q=john+leaps+in+elizabeths+womb…

5 https://www.google.ca/search?q=the+unborn+like+music…

Related » Hail Mary Prayer


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Max Müller – Another free thinker held back by creeps

English: Photograph of Max Muller as a young man

Photograph of Max Muller as a young man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Max Müller (1823-1900) was a German born Indologist who is often credited with creating the disciplines of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion. His Sacred Books of the East is downloadable and can probably still be found in most major libraries, in the archives if not circulating.

Muller was a freethinking Lutheran and the religious conservatives of his day hampered his career advancement.¹ He believed that Hinduism needed an update, much like Christianity underwent its protestant reformation. For Müller, the ideal Hindu would jettison what he saw as “superstition” and be Christian-like but neither Anglican nor Catholic. In other words, Müller wanted to get to the core of what makes religion great, getting rid of all the cultural constructions that make it pedantic.

I can certainly relate to this view, having converted to Catholicism after a non-churchgoing childhood and young adulthood. From that perspective, sometimes the rituals and expectations seem arbitrary, even superficial.

But at the same time, most of us need some kind of structure. The question is how much structure helps and how much hinders in serving God. And this differs from person to person.

Debate between Catholics and Oriental Christia...

Debate between Catholics and Oriental Christians in the 13th century, Acre 1290. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is really tiring is when-well meaning but narrow-minded Catholic acquaintances start preaching to me what I should be doing, how I should be approaching Catholicism.

Funny thing is, they usually pick and choose what rules and regulations work for them, ignoring the others. But at the same time, they get some kind of self-righteous pleasure out of telling me which rules and regs I should abide by!

It’s pretty hard to take people like this too seriously. They may mean well but clearly have not integrated their consciousness to a level of maturity that, I think, the future demands. I always feel like I’m dealing with psychological children when talking with them. True, Jesus said we should be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. But I think he was talking about being childlike in love and wonder, and not childish in hypocrisy.²

¹ Today, I think it’s more institutional corruption that hinders career advancement—at least in Canadian academia and in the Catholic Church. I’m not sure about the US and beyond. But petty differences in belief along with personal likes and dislikes could also play a role in career sabotage.

² It seems that some folks get a new social identity by playing the role of “saint,” “victim soul” or “missionary.” I think in reality there’s almost always a combination of unresolved psychological material and genuine religious experience. And anyone who claims otherwise probably could benefit from looking into whichever end of the psychological-spiritual spectrum they are ignoring.

Related » Veda, Vedanta


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Process Theology – A God who loves

Image credit - Anthony Easton via Flickr

Image credit – Anthony Easton via flickr

Process Theology means different things to different people. Generally speaking, it refers to the idea that God is both wholly other yet immanent within a process of creation.

Christian versions emphasize a God who is, on the one hand, eternal, unchanging and beyond, and yet who also feels and is affected by the actions of humanity.¹

According to this view, God suffers with humanity, leading individuals to eternal salvation not through coercion but as a loving parent, friend or spouse.

Wikipedia says that process theology comes out of the work of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, but this claim could be a bit misleading if taken out of context. Reading further down the Wikipedia entry, we see that Whitehead is influenced by a whole host of Medieval theologians and ancient philosophers—St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, Aristotle, to name just a few.

The same entry at Wikipedia sums up the general Christian view of process theology very nicely:

Rather than see God as one who unilaterally coerces other beings, judges and punishes them, and is completely unaffected by the joys and sorrows of others, process theologians see God as the one who persuades the universe to love and peace, is supremely affected by even the tiniest of joys and the smallest of sorrows, and is able to love all beings despite the most heinous acts they may commit. God is, as Whitehead says, “the fellow sufferer who understands.²

¹ Those interested should look at the discussion of Dipolar Theism.

² See this entry for some of the variations present in Christian and non-Christian faith groups: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Process_theology

Related » Charles Hartshorne

St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation of “Father, let this chalice pass from me”…

The Politics of Good Friday: We Must Stand With the Innocent When They Suffer

Good Friday (Thomas Aquinas)

Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster

Misunderstanding the Book of Genesis


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Soteriology – does it make sense with Buddhism?

English: Resurrection of Christ

Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Christian theology, soteriology is the study of spiritual salvation or a series of beliefs and teachings about salvation. It often involves concepts such as faith, repentance, conversion, justification and glorification.

More recently, the term has been applied to all religions and beliefs that involve some idea of “salvation.”¹

Wikipedia tells us that the roots of the word are from Greece:

Greeksōtēriasalvation” from sōtēr “savior, preserver” and logos “study” or “word”

So to apply it to, say, Buddhism arguably is a bit of a misfit because Buddhism, at the base level, has no concept of God. It also has no concept of a “Self” to be saved.

On the other hand, one could argue, I think fairly enough, that language evolves and we don’t have to stick to the original meanings or roots of words. However, I think it is useful and instructive to understand where words come from, and how their meanings may, perhaps, be adapted to fit political agendas—and not necessarily for accuracy.

¹ See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soteriology

Related » Fatalism, Providence, Teleology


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Universalism

Welcome to Salvation Mountain by slworking2

Image by slworking2 via Flickr

1 – In some areas of Christian theology universalism is the belief that everyone will be saved in the fullness of time. Because God is loving, merciful and understanding, some Christians do not believe that God would permit an everlasting hell. Recent versions of this theology exclude for need for Jesus and argue that all persons will be saved in all religions, paths and life-situations.

2 – Another religious application of the idea of universalism is that all human beings need some kind of religion, its rites and moral code.

3 – In philosophy universals are apparently changeless ideals, like Plato‘s forms. Philosophers have also debated whether universals actually exist in themselves or simply as a product of language (i.e. conceptualism).

Related Posts » Origen, William of Ockham


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Winnowing

English: Rice winnowing, Uttarakhand, India. F...

Rice winnowing, Uttarakhand, India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Old Testament agriculture winnowing is the separation of the edible grain from the chaff (the inedible stalks and husks) – Ruth 3:2.

The grain was either raked with a “winnowing fork” or thrown into the air where the breeze would blow away the chaff but not the heavier grain.

Similar agricultural methods are still used in the 21st century in the Near East, Africa and Asia, and the process can be traced back to several ancient cultures, including Greece and China. Sometimes water is used (instead of wind) to separate the chaff.

The image of winnowing occurs several times in the Old Testament, symbolizing the dispersion of Israel during the exile. It is also used as a metaphor for the judgment of Yahweh.

Sergei's Court A Winnowing Fork (A Pitchfork) ...

Sergei’s Court A Winnowing Fork (A Pitchfork) חצר סרגי קלשון (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the New Testament, which for most Christians fulfills the Old Testament, the image of winnowing designates a final judgment and eternal separation of good souls that enter heaven, vs. evil souls that descend to hell.

Along these lines, John the Baptist awaits the Messiah (Jesus) who holds a winnowing fork (or fan) to clean the threshing floor, gather the good wheat and throw the useless chaff into the eternal fires of hell.

His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:17

Catholic teaching has, to some degree, elaborated on this ancient, polarized view of salvation vs. damnation with the idea of purgatory.