(I tweeted a bit about this earlier, but I thought I might as well write some thoughts into a proper blog post.)
As if to confirm our most stereotypical expectations, a proposal is being put before a diocese of the Episcopal Church in Atlanta to “rehabilitate” Pelagius by reversing the Council of Carthage’s (5th century) condemnation of Pelagian teachings.
Now, I’m willing to believe that Pelagius got a raw deal in being tarred as an arch-heretic. Given the dearth of extant writings, it’s quite possible that he was unfairly targeted by the ecclesiastical powers that be. And certainly modern mainstream Christianity is–for better or worse–more doctrinally latitudinarian than the early church was.
Nevertheless, I can’t shake the impression that, possibly because of the lack of reliable primary sources, Pelagius has become a kind of cipher–a blank screen upon which modern liberal Christians like to project their idealized version of an optimistic, nature-loving, life-affirming Christianity. In other words, the opposite of everything they dislike about Augustinian Christianity (in what is usually caricatured form).
This is similar and even related to the vogue for a vaguely mystical, eco-sensitive “Celtic Christianity” that, again, often bears little resemblance to the real historical deal. Pelagius is often upheld (by J. Philip Newell, for example) as the paragon and forefather of Celtic Christian spirituality.
What ought to tip us off that something fishy is afoot here is that the popular version of Pelagian-Celtic Christianity is strikingly conformable to the concerns of comfortable, middle-class westerners: the affirmation of everyone’s inherent goodness, a rejection of the doctrine of original sin, a generalized eco-spirituality, and a belief in an immanent God that resembles a vague life-force more than the rather demanding God of the Bible.
A good antidote to this whole line of thinking that still takes some of the underlying concerns seriously is Paul Santmire’s Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology. Santmire, a Lutheran eco-theologian, wants to recover theological themes that can support care for the environment, but he also departs from the Matthew Fox-neo-Pelagian crowd at a couple of key points.
First, Santmire strongly affirms that eco-justice must go hand-in-hand with social justice. The slums of the globe’s vast mega-cities teem with millions of desperately poor people for whom the reality of injustice and radical evil are palpable everyday realities. From this, Santmire infers a need for a robust theology of sin and atonement:
[A]lthough Fox talks regularly about “justice-making,” he chiefly seems to be thinking about a revolution of consciousness that is going to transform the world, not unlike the idea of “Consciousness III,” proposed by Charles Reich in The Greening of America during the heyday of the 1960s. In Fox’s major works, we encounter little attention to the often stalemated, anguished struggles of the oppressed, which sometimes can last for decades, even longer, and then, with some regularity, still be lost.
The Christian masses throughout the ages have likewise lived and died with the bitter reality of struggle. Struggle against overwhelming odds has been their daily bread. This is why they have turned again and again to the figure of the crucified, and have struggled all the more desperately in this instance to make sense out of this apparently senseless but nevertheless redemptive death. (p. 22)
A neo-Pelagian gospel of personal self-improvement and consciousness-raising may resonate with a certain small strata of the global elite, but what Santmire calls the “Christian masses” are all too aware that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot save ourselves.”
Further, Santmire commends what he takes to be some of the authentic insights of Celtic Christian spirituality–but these differ rather starkly from the kind of feel-good New Agey themes often associated with that tradition. According to Santmire, the eco-sensitivity of Celtic Christians was rooted in orthodox Trinitarian and Christological affirmations, and these worked themselves out in a fairly severe spirituality that might make some contemporary devotees of “Celtic” Christianity blanch.
Santmire isn’t blind to the flaws of traditional Augustinian Christianity–but he maintains that it preserves important truths and provides resources for a more cosmic and creation-friendly vision (as evidenced by the mature Augustine’s thought, as well as that of Irenaeus, Luther, Calvin, etc.). Traditional theology’s vision is of a creation (human and non-human) in bondage that can only be freed by God’s overflowing, unmerited grace. In Santmire’s view, this speaks much more profoundly and hopefully to our contemporary situation of mass poverty and ecological devastation.