The Question of Sin and Belief: Thoughts from PelagiusPosted by Ellyn Sanna on March 15, 2011, 11:11 am
Ellyn Sanna is the Executive Editor at Anamchara Books.
I grew up in an Evangelical church where we heard a lot about sin. We sang songs like, "My heart was black with sin, until the Savior came in,” and “Come, every soul by sin oppressed." Clearly, sin was my natural state, a congenital disease I could not escape. There was only one cure for this disease that was blacker and more foul than miner’s lung, and the hymns we sang also provided the remedy: "Would you be free from the power of sin? There’s power, power, wonder-working power in the blood." I could only imagine the black and bloody mess that lay hidden inside me.
As an adult, I grew to actively dislike the word "sin." I did my best to never use it when I wrote or talked about theology. I replaced it with the word "selfishness," a term that for me meant putting myself at the center of the world rather than laying down my life for others. Later, I came to understand sin as anything that made me feel separate from God (all the while knowing that Scripture told me NOTHING could separate me from God’s love [Romans 8:39]).
Today, I still struggle with theses concepts. When I worked with Julian of Norwich’s writings to create All Shall Be Well, I pondered her discussions of sin:
I saw that sin is nothing. All action is God, and sin is no action at all. God is all reality, and sin is the absence of reality.
At the moment, I'm working on a new project that focuses on Pelagius, the fourth-century Celtic theologian who was excommunicated by the organized church. One of the big problems the Church had with Pelagius in the fourth century (and has had with him ever since) is that he didn’t believe humans are innately evil. Instead, he believed absolutely in individuals' power (whether they had ever been exposed to Christianity or not) to choose to do good—or evil. The church accused him of not believing in God’s grace as the only remedy for human sinfulness. Pelagius said he did believe in grace, but that grace was to be found in the capacity God had given all humans to do good.
Here's what Pelagius has to say about sin:
"We have first of all to discuss the position which is maintained, that our nature has been weakened and
changed by sin. I think that before all other things we have to inquire what sin is—some substance, or wholly a
name without substance, whereby is expressed not a thing, not an existence, not some sort of a body, but the
doing of a wrongful deed. I suppose that this is the case; and if so how could that which lacks all substance
have possibly weakened or changed human nature?"
Sinfulness, then, is something we do, not something we are. This seems contrary to what Julian believed—that sin is "no action"—and yet, Pelagius agrees that sin "lacks all substance."
Pelagius brought down on himself the wrath of the theological heavyweights of his day, Jerome and Augustine. Their camp won the argument, the pope of the day excommunicated Pelagius, and he has been considered a heretic ever since.
You have to give those long-ago theologians credit for thinking deeply and carefully about their faith. By contrast, many Christians today are pretty lazy when it comes to theology. We tend to make sloppy statements about what we’re "supposed" to believe, without thinking through the implications of those statements. Many of us accept the doctrine that’s been handed down to us, believing not only that Scripture was inherently inspired but also that generations of Christians have inherently translated and interpreted that Scripture. The "right way" to believe has already been determined for us, and we just have to open up and swallow.
On the other hand, though, as I read through the writings of many of the early Christian fathers and as I sort through the various church councils that shaped Christianity, I get the impression that Christians got off track a long time ago. For centuries now, Christianity has been all about what we believe. And if that’s the case, then no wonder it was so important for all those councils to figure out exactly the right way to believe. Every little detail—from how the soul was passed along to babies (whether it was carried in the sperm or poked in by the Divine finger later within the mother’s womb) to the medieval question of how many angels could fit on the head of a pin—was important. They had to get it right. They didn’t want to believe the wrong thing and end up in hell.
Pelagius disagreed with this emphasis on beliefs. In fact, he went so far as to say that Jesus really didn’t care much what people believed—he only cared what people did.
Pelagius never denied that humanity chooses again and again to do evil. But he insisted that we do have a choice. We are not innately sinful. Body and soul, we are all made by God, unified creatures capable of being the Divine hands and feet at work in the created world.
"Who made the human spirit?" wrote Pelagius. "God, without a doubt. Who created the flesh? The same God, I suppose. Is the God
good who created both? Nobody doubts it. Are not both good, since the good Creator made them? It must be
confessed that they are. If, therefore, both the spirit is good, and the flesh is good, as made by the good
Creator, how can it be that the two good things should be contrary to one another?"
And he concludes, "There is no creature on Earth in whom God is absent. . . . 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."
The Spirit is actively at work in all of us, Pelagius indicates—no matter what we believe.
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