Heroes and Heretics
Psalm 139; Romans 9:11-18
So last week, I found myself standing outside a church in London, protesting against the Christian act of worship that was going on inside. Now protesting acts of worship isn’t generally a big hobby of mine but the service in question was giving thanks for 50 years of nuclear weapons in the UK and – whatever differences of opinion we might hold on the justification of nuclear weapons from a Christian viewpoint – actively thanking God for such weapons of mass destruction seems to go against, y’know, the whole Jesus thing!
So there I was, with CND campaigners, former sergeants turned peace activists and the odd confused tourist on one side of a barrier whilst deans in divine vestments welcomed Princes and privates on the other side…I’ve never felt more non-conformist! And as I strolled onward from the protest, looking out for how next I could stick it to the man, I bumped into the gang of protestors who are permanently encamped on College Green , next to the Houses of Parliament – Remainers on one side, Brexiteers on the other. It was quite a sight and the dialogue between the two sides was, shall we say, more colourful and less civil than that from my Christian comrades earlier on. But whether civil discourse or civil war, as a society, as a country or perhaps even Church, we seem to find ourselves in a place where we’re more and more divided into sides, clans, tribes…Brexit v Remain; left v right; progressive v evangelical…
In many ways, of course, twas ever thus…and I was reminded of this fact when I visited the stunning St David’s last month. As Bethan brought the English up to speed with the facts and figures about St David, she shared the famous tale about the Synod of Brevi. It was here that St David is said to have been preaching when the ground was raised so that he could be heard better – a miracle about which the late historian John Davies noted that one can scarcely “conceive of any miracle more superfluous” in that part of Wales than the creation of a new hill. But factual or not, superfluous or not…does anyone here know on what David was preaching?
Well, apparently, the content of David’s sermon…the subject so important that God raised the ground and created a sacred sound system was…in fact a diatribe against Pelagianism. So now you know…what do you think? Are thankful for the hill-making or are there any Pelagius fans amongst us?!
I’m being a little unfair, of course as I’m guessing that very few of us have ever heard of the 5th century theologian, Pelagius. And if that’s you, well hold onto your hats…or any other clothing you choose, for today’s the day you learn about a guy called Pelagius! My favourite Pelagius fact…every minister should have one…is that 19th century scholar, Hillaire Belloc, best known for his cautionary tales for children which included “Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion” and “Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death”…found in all good bookshops…that Belloc wrote a drinking song against Pelagius that began… Pelagius lived at Kard-a-noel and taught a doctrine there; How, whether you went to heaven or hell…It was your own affair…oi!” I’ll spare you the other verses!
But drinking songs aside what you really need to know about David’s great rival was that he was the prime founder of a doctrine which has since been deemed as heresy – a scary word there, essentially meaning ‘contrary to accepted teaching of the Church’.
Born at the end of the 4th century – most probably in Wales in fact – Pelagius was an educated man who lived a simple life and who became increasingly concerned about the moral laxity of his society. He blamed the immoral behaviour he witnessed on false Christian teachings and so set out to teach others his understanding of Christianity. Much of what he believed and taught was common to all Christians – God as Trinity, creation, cross, Christ etc but the issues that he became most famous for…and which David was preaching against remember, could be summarized into three key beliefs.
Number one – Pelagius believed that we had free will. Now, the question of free will…the ability to freely choose how one acts, what one believes…was a significant one for the early Christian communities…and one that continues to baffle philosophers and psychologists today. Do we really have the freedom to choose what we think and how we act or are our choices constrained…or even dictated…by our upbringing, our genes, or even by God? Can we choose to be good people…can we choose to be Christian…or is this out of our hands?
Well, let’s look at the first of those…can we choose to be good people? Most Christians in Pelagius’ day would have essentially said ‘no, we cannot choose to be good people’. For, they argued, Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden and so all humankind are fallen beings, tainted with collective guilt. This doctrine of original sin was widely held in Pelagius’ day and, when unpacked, essentially teaches that babies are sinful and deserving of judgment, simply through the fact of their birth. As we grow, we might appear to do good, loving actions but these are either born out of selfish desires or come from God for nothing good can come from us…we are, as many within our own tradition put it, totally depraved. What’s more, we can only be saved from the judgment we deserve if God predestines to save us…if God chooses, on no account of our own beliefs or actions…to save some of his children and damn others. As we heard in the book of Romans – Jacob God loved but Esau God hated…God has mercy on whoever God chooses and hardens whom God wants to harden.
So…what do you think? Some of us here might see some truth in this. For it’s easy to look at the news and despair at our inhumanity; its easy to look around more locally and point out the flaws in other people, rather than their gifts.
But aren’t we also, as Psalm 139 says, fearfully and wonderfully made? Aren’t we also capable of love, creativity and compassion? And are babies really inherently depraved and worthy of hell…or are they innocent, vulnerable, beautiful? Well, Pelagius thought the latter. Contrary to the common Christian understanding of the time, Pelagius believed that we are born sinless…that we are not sinful, guilty and depraved through the act of our birth. He believed in original goodness that came from God’s grace of creation. We are not hardwired to always choose to sin but have the potential to choose to do good.
And it didn’t end here for Pelagius’ beliefs about free will and goodness influenced his views on the purpose of the church. For most Christians of St David’s time, the church was considered an arc of salvation. It protected you from false beliefs that might drag you to hell and it allowed you to experience God’s presence through its rites and rituals. But for Pelagius, the Church existed to transform society…the substance of Christian worship lay in moral action – in seeking to do good, seek justice, serve the poor – rather than in the self-indulgent cultivation of mystical feelings.
And, once again, I wonder where we stand on this one today? Some of us may well disagree with Pelagius, viewing the church as the community which keeps us in correct belief, which preaches the word, baptizes and presides over Communion. But some of us might have empathy for Pelagius’ point of view. Some of us will see the church’s mission as sharing God’s love in action or seeking to transform society and may look at churches where Christians sing songs about their personal saviour and where emotions seem to be manipulated by the worship leader as dubious at best. Some of us would in fact side with Pelagius over his view of the church.
Taking all this into account, perhaps the picture of St David as hero on the hill and Pelagius as villain in the valley isn’t quite so clear-cut as we first thought. Perhaps we might even find ourselves on the other side of the barrier, in league with Pelagius’ view of things rather than our great St David!
But before we give up on St David – as if I could make you do that!!! – there’s one more key belief of Pelagius that we’re yet to consider. That of how we are ‘saved’…
It’s a question that many of us might feel uneasy about anyway for many of us don’t have a worldview where some will go to heaven and some to hell…but that’s the picture St David and Pelagius had and it’s the one that the majority of the Church still espouses today. So the question, for Pelagius and St David is…how do we make it on the list? What will get us into heaven…to spend eternity in God’s presence.
For Pelagius, it came down to our morality again. Not only did he think we could choose to do good, but he thought we could continue to. That we could go through life always choosing to do the right thing, that it was our actions that will get us into heaven or not. But for St David, it was all about God’s grace. According to him, we could never earn our salvation for it was a gift from God, a blessing from above. For St David, Christianity wasn’t about us being good or holy enough, it was about God being gracious to us – through creation, through Christ and the cross; all about God’s scandalous, extravagant, amazing grace!
All of which makes me really confused. For I don’t know whose side I’m meant to be on. St David with the beliefs in original sin, predestination and grace…or Pelagius with his beliefs in free will, a world-changing church but salvation based on what we do. There seems to be biblical support for both views. And when I look at the state of the world, I see evidence for both. So whom to cheer? Which side to support? Whose team are you on?
Of course, all this talk of sides and teams is naive, ignorant and unhealthy. We might often be tempted to paint a picture of clear-cut right and wrong, heroes and heretics…those who understand how God or the world works and those who spread lies…but isn’t that because we want to know all the answers, because we feel more at ease with black and whites rather than shades of grey – 50 or otherwise?!
The truth, as I begin to understand it, is that our scripture, our faith, our world and our God are all far more complex than any doctrine and dogma, rules and rituals will allow. The Bible cannot be shrunk to a salvation spreadsheet and God’s glory cannot be reduced to our limited language or understanding. Perhaps the mistake that Pelagius, St David and all those, traditionally male leaders throughout history have made is to expect to know how all the answers, to presume to be right over and against others. After all, isn’t this what Jesus often condemned the Pharisees for?
So where does all this leave us then? What should we believe and how should we act? Well, perhaps our consideration of St David and Pelagius might remind us that the division of people into us versus them based on black and white thinking and easy judgment is just unhelpful. Perhaps we are reminded of how foolish it would be to think that we have all the answers, that we have nothing to learn from our fellow Christians, as well as those of other faiths and none. Perhaps it might challenge us to listen to the views of those with whom we vehemently disagree – to perhaps even to defend the church as a place of dialogue rather than dogma. For without a willingness to listen to the stories and outlook of others, we can become just as cocooned, just as self-righteous as those whom we accuse of doing the exact same things. Such thinking does not mean that we will have to dilute or change our beliefs, though that may indeed happen, but in listening to the other, we might learn of how others experience God and the world, we might reflect on our own faith, might gain insight into what it is like for those outside the church to listen to us.
So after all my waffling…perhaps I actually am on Team David…and Team Pelagius too…for both are part of a bigger team, a greater community – the broken but beloved children of God who continue to discover new wonders about God and Gods creation each new day. So may we endeavour to be a church that stands up for what it believes yet is open to new insights; that speaks of God’s glory yet knows that words can never be enough; and that reflects the love of God whilst knowing that God’s love is deeper, wider, far more wonderful than we could ever imitate or imagine. Amen.