Ash Wednesday 2020 – Invitation to a Pelagian Lent

Pelagius in a letter to Demetrias

“We sometimes point to particular people, and say that those people are incapable of doing good; they seem so corrupt that they are compelled to be malicious and evil. We point to other people, and say that they are incapable of doing evil; they seem so kind, gentle, and generous in spirit that they are compelled to do good. In truth no one is totally evil nor totally good; every person at every moment is capable of choosing good or choosing evil. Yet habit is very important. If a person gets into the habit of choosing evil, then at each moment of choice his inclination will be to choose evil again. Equally, if a person gets into the habit of choosing good, then at each moment of choice her inclination will be to choose good again. So as parents we should encourage our children to get into good habits. And we ourselves should retain good habits. If we habitually choose good, then it is much easier to make right choices in the future.”

The Letters of Pelagius: Celtic Soul Friend, ed. Robert Van de Weyer (1995)

Recently, thanks to the writings of John Philip Newell and the retreat I went on last week, my eyes were opened to the richness of a theologian who has been marginalized and misrepresented almost as long as Christianity has been a religion. Newell convinced me that I have myself misunderstood Pelagius and that I have passed along this misunderstanding when he has come up in theology courses that I have taught. I am working to correct that misunderstanding for myself–and will definitely be revising my courses as a result!

Pelagius hailed from Britain (not exactly the heart of power) in the mid-fourth to early fifth centuries. In church history and theology courses, he is depicted as the foil to Saint Augustine. Augustine articulated the doctrine of original sin and engaged in a vehement campaign to disenfranchise Pelagius whom he believed undermined humanity’s need for grace. After several attempts, Augustine ultimately succeeded in having Pelagius declared a heretic and excommunicated. Nonetheless, as often is the case, Pelagius’s “heresy” persisted. In the introduction to the little book Letters of Pelagius, Van de Weyer quotes Karl Barth as describing the people of Britain as “incurably Pelagian.” I say, thanks be to God.

Newell draws the distinctions this way. Through the doctrine of original sin, Augustine would have us believe that who we are at our very core is opposed to God. “The human child is born depraved and humanity’s sinful nature has been sexually transmitted from one generation to the next, stretching from Adam to the present” (Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, 14). But Pelagius taught that “to look into the face of a newborn is to look at the image of God; he maintained that creation is essentially good and that the sexual dimension of procreation is God-given” (Newell, 14). Newell goes on to say:

Pelagius’ emphasis on the essential goodness of humanity did not involve a denial of the presence of evil and of its power over the human. Rather, it implied that at the heart of humanity is the image and goodness of God, a goodness that is obscured or covered over by the practice of wrongdoing and evil. Deeper than any wrong in us is the light of God, the light that no darkness has been able to overcome, as St John had written. At the heart of humanity is ‘the light that enlightens every person coming into the world.’ For Pelagius, evil was rather like an occupying army. The people yearn for liberation, but are bound by forces of evil. Redemption, therefore, can be understood in terms of a setting free, a releasing of what we essentially are. Our goodness is sometimes so deeply buried as to be lost or erased, but it is there, having been planted by God, and awaits its release. For Pelagius, the redemption that Christ brings is such a liberation, a freeing of the good that is in us, indeed at the very heart of life.

John Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, 14-15.

We do need grace, according to Pelagius, but not because we are essentially broken and depraved. We need grace to allow us to become deeply in touch with our goodness and belovedness. Who we are at our core is not opposed to God, but beautifully aligned with God and at home with God. As Newell put it on our retreat, “Grace is not opposed to our nature, but is given to reconnect us to our nature.”

So this Lent, my spiritual journey is going to take me along this ancient path and I’m going to try to share some of that journey with you here. I want to do a sort of Pelagian re-write of the season of Lent.

How might you need to be set free to release the goodness that you essentially are?

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

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