Think Free


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


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.




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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Seven Sins by Hartwig HKD

Seven Sins by Hartwig HKD via Flickr

In early religion, Sin was a Mesopotamian moon god, also called Nanna. His cult was most prominent at the Sumerian cities of Ur and Harran. Bestowing light in the dark, Sin maintained justice through the night hours.

In Catholic theology sin is any thought, speech or action that transgresses the law of God, where one chooses to enact personal will that conflicts with God will. St. Augustine is often quoted by Catholic writers:

Something said, done or desired that is contrary to the eternal law.¹

The Catholic Church breaks the idea of sin up into several categories, the most important being:

The general idea of sin is widespread but understood differently among world religions. There are three main emphases:

Saint Augustin et Sainte Monique

Saint Augustin et Sainte Monique (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, believers in God concerned with ethical action are faced with a dizzying array of prescriptions on how to do the right thing and avoid sin. When all is said and done, it seems the most sensible approach to living right and avoiding sin is to follow one’s own conscience, lived experience and personal reflection.

However, many seem unable to grow into mature adults and prefer to defer to some perceived authority, distant or near, for guidance on how to live.²

This arguably schoolboy or schoolgirl approach to ethics may afford psychological comfort. After all, when you let some organized leader or group tell you what to do, you gain a ready-made personal identity and sense of community (even if the latter is, perhaps, largely imaginary). But for those willing and able to embrace the degree of freedom and responsibility required to make up one’s own mind, off-the-rack ethics just isn’t an option. Prefabricated ethics often seem immature, hypocritical, and arguably fall short of our true human potential.²

¹ St. Augustine, Con. Faust 22.27 cited in Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn, 2009, p. 850.

² Many Christians use the word Sin with pretty clear connotations. But the original Hebrew and Greek terms (that actually occur in the earliest versions of the Bible) are not quite so simple). See Greek and Hebrew words for Sin.

³ See comments on this complex issue.

Related Posts » Adam, Calvinism, Contemplation, Donatism, Eden, Fasting, Felix culpa, Jainism, Jesus Christ, Madonna, Milton (John), Virgin Mary

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Photo credit: Seth Anderson

Image: Seth Anderson via Flickr

Solipsism is the philosophical position that only the subject exists and all impressions of others and the outside world are illusory.

Many dismiss solipsism as an extreme or strange view, but others say it is logically impossible to prove or disprove.

If one believes, however, that God is good and, as such, would not deceive a person with a chimerical world peopled by phantom others, one would likely reject solipsism.

Again, some maintain that solipsism cannot be proved or disproved, but there is another way to look at the problem. And this way doesn’t need the idea of God to reject solipsism. Instead, we reject solipsism on the grounds of it being an impractical and bad way of living.

Basically, we can ask: What if solipsism is false? We cannot really know for sure one way or the other. In the face of this uncertainty, doesn’t it make sense to live as if others are real? Isn’t this the best ethical choice, just in case solipsism really is false?

In a way, this echoes Pascal’s Wager, where he believes it best to live as if God were real. Although, again, the above challenge to solipsism does not necessarly rest on the idea of God. It just rests on wanting to do the right thing.¹

Some have likened solipsism to the Asian concept of maya (Sanskrit = illusion, deception).

Maya is the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain belief that the changing, material world isn’t real or is relatively real. But the exact meaning of the concept of maya has been debated among different schools for centuries, making its comparison to solipsism somewhat problematic.²

¹ Some theologians would disagree on this point. They maintain that one can only do the right thing when one’s actions are in line with God’s will. So, God must exist for good actions to occur. See for instance

² For a standard history of the idea, see

Related Posts » René Descartes

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English: St. Augustine arguing with donatists.

St. Augustine arguing with donatists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Donatists were a 4th century schismatic group in the North African Church, named after their leader, Donatus. They disputed conventional theologians like St. Augustine and also the authenticity of a certain bishop (Caecillian) whom they said had been consecrated by a traitor to the faith (The traitor apparently had handed over the Bible to Roman persecutors).

The Donatists resorted to violence in their bid to wrest Africa from Roman rule. And they survived until the Arab takeover of North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries.¹

Theologically, the Donatists believed that a corrupt priest could not effectively administer the sacraments. So apart from their political importance, they raised a theological question which many still wrestle with today:

Can a corrupt priest effectively administer the sacraments?

Not too many contemporary critics of Catholicism are aware that the Church quickly dealt with this question—albeit, in its own way. Basically, the Church forwarded an argument that is now known as ex opere operato (Latin: by the action performed). Among believers, ex opere operato indicates that a sacrament is always effective when administered by a consecrated priest, regardless of the moral condition of his soul at the time.

Some may object by saying that dressing up a theological idea in fancy sounding Latin doesn’t necessarily make it a true idea. On the other hand, if one believes that we’re all born with the taint of original sin and remain imperfect throughout our lives, the ex opere operato argument seems not only reasonable but necessary. That is, if a priest had to be morally spotless to effectively administer the sacraments, would it ever happen?

¹ S. G. F. Brandon (ed.) Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, p. 245.

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Digital Sampling

Music Meme

Music Meme (Photo credit: rejectreality)

In sound and music recording digital sampling is a technology that first appeared in the 1970s but took off in the early 1980s. Digital sampling takes tiny slices of sound and writes the waveform to computer files, permitting the original sound to be reproduced, altered, rebroadcast or re-mixed with other sounds and music.

While musicians were already recording and mixing with analog (old style) tape decks for many years in advance, the great advantage of digital sampling is that there’s absolutely no sound degradation once he recording is made. This may seem underwhelming to today’s generation, but to the older set, the advent of digital sampling was a breakthrough, and its influence on not only the clarity but also the style of recorded music (and live concerts) has been tremendous.¹

Representation of a digital sound, displayed b...

Representation of a digital sound, displayed by the Cool Edit Pro 2.0. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like any technology, digital sampling may be used for good or ill. An artist in the United Kingdom, for instance, uses a specially tuned radio receiver to obtain and sample private conversations from cell phones. He then re-mixes the conversations with music and markets it in CD format. Although all names are removed, we have to ask it it’s ethical to package and sell personal conversations without the knowledge or permission of the individual speakers.²

Before its invention, a few audio and music pioneers wanted the audible effects of digital sampling so experimented with the technology of the analog tape loop. Brian Eno looms large in this area, but Terry Riley, Robert Fripp and Steve Reich were also experimenting with tape loops around the same time.

¹ When CDs first came out, however, some critics said the sound was thin and artificial compared to the warm and continuous waveform of vinyl records. Most agreed, however, that CDs outperformed at higher volumes, while a select few stood firm in believing that vinyl sounded better at lower volumes. And to my mind, the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band never really sounded right on CD.

² This story was all over the web a few years ago but seems to have disappeared. If anyone has the link, please comment. I’d like to reference this by linking to the story or artist.

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Burning of Sodomites for Homosexuality

Burning of Sodomites for Homosexuality (Photo credit: Jesus In Love)

Ethics is a branch of knowledge and philosophical inquiry concerned with moral ideals, choices and the good or bad actions which may or may not follow from those choices.

Ethics may focus on personal, social and spiritual issues, separately but often in relation to one another.

Within world religions, ethical decrees might seem fixed within a given faith tradition. But various schools of interpretation usually coexist, usually with some degree of tension—e.g. the Protestant acceptance of female and in some instances homosexual ministers vs. the Catholic rule of an exclusively male priesthood and homosexual acts being specified in the catechism as “intrinsically disordered.”¹

¹ See


Free Will


"WE'RE FREE TO CHOOSE" - National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, 1941 - 1945) - 516103 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Free Will is the belief that human beings have the ability to make choices. Most philosophers advocating the belief in free will agree that personal freedom has practical limits, but not all agree that the freedom to choose is limited with regard to ethics. That is, some say that we can always choose the good, even though we may not always be able to choose certain activities.

The view that we can always choose the good, however, is complicated. As both Catholic theologians and psychiatrists will say, personal culpability for doing bad things might be lessened by such factors as peer pressure (with teenagers), stress, trauma, emotional immaturity or instability, and so-called mental illness or mental injury. Of course, just what constitutes a bad thing is not always agreed upon among theologians and psychiatrists—masturbation being a good example.¹

J.-P. Sartre called the practical limits of personal freedom ‘freedom in facticity’, meaning that individuals have a limited range of choices, particularly with regard to available opportunities and activities.² But for Sartre individuals can choose to do ethically right or wrong actions, and to give or not give consent to issues involving ethics.

Some thinkers like B. F. Skinner and Daniel Dennet believe that we have no real freedom but our thoughts and actions are the outcome of a complex series of antecedent causes.

Meanwhile, the Protestant Christian reformer John Calvin believed that some people are predestined for hell and others for heaven.

Who can figure!

Related Posts » Behaviorism

¹ Here’s a good comment:

² When I was at school a common example you’d hear was, “can someone in a wheelchair be a mountain climber?’ Today, however, this example doesn’t really hold up because new attitudes about persons with so-called disabilities are, in many cases, contributing to these people being seen as persons with difference. And in many instances, truly extraordinary things are being achieved by persons different from statistical norms. See, for instance, The Blind Painter (below).