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04 October 2018

Pelagianism: “Humanity’s not all that bad.”

When Christians imagine we’re good enough for heaven.

PELAGIAN /pə'leɪ.dʒi.ən/ adj. Denies the Christian doctrines of original sin and total depravity: Believes humans are inherently good, able to make unselfish choices, and can be worthy of heaven on our own merits.
SEMI-PELAGIAN /sɛm.aɪ.pə'leɪ.dʒi.ən/ adj. A Pelagian whom we kinda like.

Every once in a while somebody, usually a theology nerd like me, is gonna fling around the terms Pelagian and semi-Pelagian. Hopefully they know what they’re talking about. Many don’t, and are just using those words to mean heretic. ’Cause in the year 431, the Council of Ephesus declared Pelagianism to be heresy—so whether critics understand Pelagianism, councils, or heresy, what they’re really trying to say is the person’s wrong, and any label will do.

So let’s back up a bunch. A Pelagian, like I said in the definition, believes humans are inherently good. Children are born innocent, and if nothing upends that natural innocence, stay good and wholesome and benevolent. They grow up to be good people. Good enough for heaven.

It’s what pagans believe. Optimistic pagans, anyway; there are a lot of cynics who think humanity totally deserves hellfire. But a lot of us like to think the best of people, and give ’em the benefit of the doubt. Myself included. I’m not unrealistic: I know evil people, and I know even good people screw up, or have times when they act selfishly or deceptively. When they do so, it doesn’t blindside me. But just about everyone believes in karma, the idea our actions have repercussions in the universe and on our afterlife. So many people—unless they’ve quit trying in despair—are usually trying to be good. Or good enough. Or settling for explanations why they’re kinda good enough.

But the scriptures teach otherwise. The first humans were created good, but sinned. They passed down that sinful, self-centered nature to their descendants, us:

Romans 5.12 KWL
This is why it’s like sin enters the world through one man; and through sin, death;
and therefore death comes to every human—hence everyone sins.

Therefore humanity is inherently selfish and sinful. It’s why we need Jesus! We can’t save ourselves, can’t earn salvation, can’t accept God’s love, can’t follow God’s laws, without his help. We gotta depend on grace. Which God provides in abundance, so no sweat.

But if you grew up believing people are inherently good, the idea we’re inherently not is gonna bug you. Humans don’t like to think we’re corrupt or flawed; we like to imagine we’re good! And if it helps to imagine everybody else is good deep down too… well then we will. Even though we’ve tons of evidence of human depravity. We’ll just keep insisting evil is the exception. Something humanity can evolve past.

Hence Pelagianism. Pelagius (390ish–418) was a Rome-educated British monk. He was hardly the first guy to float the idea, but it nonetheless gets named for him: A Pelagian believes humans aren’t inherently sinful. We’re good. So be good!

Bear in mind Pelagius was dealing with a lot of slacker Christians. Fellow Christians and fellow monks would blame our sins on our sinful nature. (Still do.) They’d insist we can’t be good; we’re just too corrupt. We can’t help but sin. And if this is the case… why try? Why make the effort to do better, to be better, to be like Jesus, when our very nature rebels against the idea? Best to just give up, stay the same ol’ sinner, and depend on cheap grace.

Pelagius hated this idea. I hate this idea. Any reasonable Christian should. It’s not biblical!

Romans 6.1-2 KWL
1 So what are we saying?—“Continue to sin, for there’s plenty of grace”?
2 Never gonna happen. We died to sin. How could we live in it?

But Pelagius’s correction went too far: He rejected the ideas of human depravity, and of Adam and Eve’s original sin affecting humanity. He insisted anyone can stop sinning if we just make the effort. That’s what he taught his monks, and that’s what his monks taught Christendom. Particularly Celestius of Rome, Pelagius’s disciple.

03 October 2018

Being strong and courageous.

Sometimes people wanna fight. And think they have a verse which permits fighting.

Joshua 1.9

One of my biggest peeves about the way Christianity is practiced in the United States has to do with the way certain Christianist men’s groups regularly twist the scriptures in order to justify culturally-defined “masculinity.” Not masculinity as Jesus demonstrated it, nor even as the fallible men in the bible practiced it: Masculinity as defined by popular American culture. With, frequently, a lot of chauvinism and sexism mixed in.

A lot of these men have taken their cues from the 1990s’ mythopoetic men’s movement, which author John Eldredge repackaged for Christians so we can do the same thing. They scoured myths, legends, and fairy tales for clues as to what’s really true about masculinity. Took a lot of those old stories out of context, in so doing. Eldredge prefers pulling his ideas from the bible and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, but he makes the same mistake of overlaying his prejudices on them, then claiming his prejudices came from them. Or are at least supported by them.

So men nowadays, claim Eldredge and the sexists, are too effeminate. Cowardly, wimpy girly-men. Our culture requires men to suppress our manly urges and behave ourselves. But, they insist, our urges are natural and good: Men were meant to be wild, free, and fighting. Not just fighting randomly in bars and sporting events, but fighting for noble causes—for truth and justice, to tame nature, in the defense of loved ones, in the cause of Christ, in certain political venues, to pretty much punch anyone who dares challenge our prejudices…

Really, any excuse will do. So long as we get to do some fighting.

For fighting, they insist, is the deep down—but suppressed!—desire of a man’s heart. Men fought throughout human history. Men needed to fight, ’cause noble causes. They claim God gave us this desire to fight, smite, scratch, and bite. And God wants to give us the desires of our hearts, right? Ps 37.4 Yet our culture keeps trying to “civilize” us. So fight that culture; it’s all pagan and secular anyway, and feminists took it over back in the ’70s or something, and now they’re turning us into wimps. Fight back. Be a man. Kick some ass.

This verse is their mantra:

Joshua 1.9 KWL
Don’t I command you? Be tough! Be strong! Not afraid, not shattered.
For your LORD God is with you everywhere you go.”

In the NIV it’s “Be strong and courageous,” and Michael W. Smith wrote a song about it, so that’s how we tend to hear it in the United States. And this verse is used to defend “masculine” behavior—legitimate and not.

I write all the time about how people bring our prejudices with us into Christianity, project them upon Jesus, and pretend he endorses all our beliefs—that we got ’em from him. Unfortunately, those who don’t really know Jesus, like pagans and newbies, fall for this. And either they recoil from this fraudulent Christianity in horror… or they fall for it, ’cause it fits so well with their own prejudices, and become twice the sons of hell as their forebears. Mt 23.15

So if men are competitive; if they enjoy rough, violent sports and video games; if they love the idea of standing their ground and shooting bad guys in the head, Jesus must approve, right? These violent urges must’ve been put into us by God, right?

Not in the slightest. They come from our selfish, violent, corrupt sin nature. God never put that in us; sin did.

02 October 2018

The “Where are you?” prayer.

God’s always there. But when we don’t feel him, it helps to acknowledge this.

Ordinarily, God is invisible. Can’t see him.

So we compensate by trying to feel him. Sometimes by “practicing his presence,” of constantly reminding ourselves he’s here, including him in our actions, talking to him… and discovering he talks back. Other times, and less legitimately, by psyching ourselves into feeling him—and all the problems immediately caused when we confuse happy thoughts with the Holy Spirit.

But sometimes we can’t feel him. Either those feelings are drowned out by our other feelings, ’cause we’re going through a crisis, or mourning, or something else is creating a whole lot of emotional noise, making God (or “God”) harder to detect. Or we’re depressed: We feel nothing, lest of all God.

And sometimes God’s totally behind this. Because we’ve taken to trusting those feelings instead of him, and he wants us to follow him. He tolerates our immature methods of “hearing” him for only so long, and it’s time to grow up.

So the next step for us Christians is to read our bibles—and to start praying what Richard Foster, in his book on prayer, calls “Prayer of the Forsaken.” I’m not fond of that title, ’cause it makes it sound like we somehow are forsaken, and no we’re not. Instead I call it the “Where are you?” prayer. When we can’t detect God anymore, we need him to show us how to hear him. We’re kinda praying the equivalent of a lost cell phone connection: “Hello? Are you still there? I think we were cut off.”

Well, we were cut off from the warm fuzzy feelings. But relax: God figures we’re ready for next-level communication.

01 October 2018

The armor of God.

It’s not just for costume parties, but to help us resist temptation.

Ephesians 6.10-17

Christians are fascinated by the armor-of-God metaphor which Paul used in Ephesians 6. Sometimes a little too fascinated.

Jesus teaches us to foster and encourage peace. Mt 5.9 Of course, our sinful human nature would much rather fight, and kick ass for Jesus if we can. So the idea we get to wear armor and play soldier really fires up certain Christians, who’d love to engage in a little testosterone-fueled warfare, and find this passage an excuse to indulge their blood-soaked he-man fantasies a little. If only metaphorically.

For such people, God’s armor is never for defense, Ep 6.11 only offense. Those who fancy themselves prayer warriors love to talk about how to attack with the armor. Christians even make plastic armor for children to play with—including a sword of the Spirit, Ep 6.17 which kids can use to smite one another. In so doing they learn—wrongly—the word of God is about hurting people.

But just because God’s word is sharper than a sword He 4.12 doesn’t mean we’re to wield it in any such way. Using it surgically is the Holy Spirit’s job. When we use it, we’re not so expert; without his guidance it’s a blunt instrument, used to maim our foes, not cure them.

But as part of Paul’s inventory of God’s armor, properly it’s used for defense—to parry our opponents’ swords, just as Jesus did with Satan. Our Lord quoted Deuteronomy in order to defeat the devil’s, not to sin, but to promote himself. And sometimes we gotta do likewise: We know what God’s told us—assuming we do, and aren’t just projecting our own will upon him. So it doesn’t matter what devils and nay-sayers suggest: God’s will and motives win.

Paul actually borrowed the idea of God’s armor from Isaiah 59.17, and expanded it a little:

Ephesians 6.10-17 KWL
10 Lastly: Get powerful in the Master, in the authority his strength gives you.
11 Wear all God’s gear, so you’ll be able to stand fast against the devil’s tactics,
12 because we aren’t in a battle against blood and muscle:
We’re against types of authority, power, things which govern the dark places in this world,
types of supernatural evil in the high heavens.
13 This is why you put on all God’s gear,
so you’ll have a fighting chance on the evil day. You’ll be entirely ready to stand fast.
14 Stand: Belt your waist with truth. Wear a vest of righteousness.
15 Lace your shoes in preparation for the good news of peace.
16 Carry at all times the shield of trust in God,
which you’ll use to put out every flaming arrow of evil.
17 Accept the helmet of your salvation
and the machete of the Spirit—which is God’s spoken word.

And pray at all times in the Spirit Ep 6.18 —but I’ll discuss that another time.

28 September 2018

I am not the baseline. (Neither are you.)

Which, as a follower of Jesus, I’m not allowed to presume. He should be our baseline.

Whenever I have God-experiences, ranging from when he tells me stuff during prayer time, to watching him cure the sick, my usual response is humility. ’Cause it’s God, you know. Even though Christians who live a life of faith oughta see miracles on a regular basis, and oughta have the Holy Spirit empower us to do all sorts of supernatural things, I can’t imagine growing indifferent or jaded to the fact God’s doing stuff. He’s still awesome, and it’s incredibly gracious of him to include and involve us in everything he’s doing.

Fells this way to me, anyway.

To others… well yeah, their bad behavior and bad fruit kinda indicate they do take God’s presence and power for granted. I’m thinking in certain pastors and Christian ministers in particular; some I know personally. They tend to be unkind, judgmental, fearful, and ungracious. Their financial practices are suspect at best, conniving at worst. I needn’t get into the awful ways they mutilate the scriptures to suit themselves. I’ll just say their response to God is far from humble: If anything, they act as if why wouldn’t God endorse them. They remind me of the spoiled kids of rich people; trust fund babies who were born on third base and act as if they hit a triple. In this case their father is God, whom they totally take for granted. Humility never occurs to them.

I very seldom dwell on these guys; I have better things to do. But I know they exist.

Maybe it’s because I seldom dwell on these guys that I found myself very nearly saying in a bible study, “When we experience God like that, our usual response is humility…” I had to back up and correct myself: My usual response is humility. Plenty of other Christians I know, likewise have a good sense of our relationship with God, and likewise respond with humility. But yeah, there are Christian jerks out there who won’t respond with humility, who figure God had better come through for them. I can’t relate, but I can’t go around talking about my experience as if it’s the norm. I have no proof of that.

And this, folks, is how we’re supposed to do theology: Don’t go round declaring our experiences, our norms, our preferences, are true for everyone. Unless we’ve done a scientific study or have a properly-interpreted passage of scripture to back us up, we’ve no leg to stand on. We’re claiming a subjective experience is universal. And this is precisely the reason so many people automatically doubt “absolute truths”: Far too often, it turns out they’re not absolute. They’re just the old prejudices of lazy lecturers.

But there are a lot of lazy lecturers out there. Because people like to imagine they’re normal. They don’t wanna be unusual; they fear being weird; they don’t wanna stand out from the crowd. What they think and like is what everybody thinks and likes. Or what everybody oughta think and like. Their worldview oughta be everyone’s worldview. They are normal; anyone who thinks differently is not normal.