Harrowing Of Hell
January 24, 2021

Fishing with Pelagius and Augustine for a Trinitarian God

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Today I want to preach about the state of our nation, and while the January 20 inauguration was honorable and majestic, as it should be, I am still troubled by what happened at the US Capitol building  on January 6.

The memory of signs and symbols asserting that it was a Christian sanctioned movement: a cross, a sign that read Jesus 2020, and the Jesus flags, one with a picture of Jesus and the words “In God We Trust” laid over an American flag – those images gnaw at me, and I feel, must be spoken about… in fact, they must be challenged.

There is no doubt that God was in the midst of the protesters, and even with the insurrectionists that stormed the building, as well as, the Senators and the Representatives and Vice President, and even in the White House.  I say that as a matter of fact, because God is a present God, there is nowhere that God is not. That said, God’s presence is not an indicator of approval or disapproval, it is simply the fact of an omnipresent God.

And so, of course, God was present with the protesters, and in the Capitol, and with the Congress, and in the White House; but that reality, does not mean that Jesus would have been there, in the crowd, cheering them on. 

What God’s presence means is that in every place, at every moment, we all have the opportunity to turn toward God, to call upon God.

Or to say it another way, we always have the freewill to do whatever we are doing the way God would want us to do it, that is, the way God designed it to be done. And if we don’t know what that way is, if we’re not sure of the God way, then we go to the default position, which is love, actions of love.

The story of the Good Samaritan makes this point. A person walking down the road, sees a wounded man, and he stops and tends to the man. That is the way of love

There are two things we can always be sure of at any moment in time: God is there (or shall I say here), and love is the default position. Which is why the symbols of Christianity carried by the insurrectionists were so disturbing, they were fundamentally contrary to the way of Jesus, to the way of love.

And that is frustrating to see as someone who loves the Lord and loves the church. And so, in frustration I turn an accusatory heart toward God and ask: “Why do you let that kind of blasphemy occur? Why do you let your name be so desecrated and disparaged and misinterpreted?”

And the answer I get back is always the same:  Freewill. Freewill, because God is love there must be freewill. There is no love if there is no freedom. Love to be love must be freely chosen.

Here is the complicated thing about freewill, it requires good information to be best applied. I am sure there were men and women caught up in the protest melee on January 6 that were the acting with good intentions, yet based on fundamentally flawed information, and half-truths fed to distract and manipulate them.

The risk of freewill is that people can use their freewill to manipulate the freewill of others. That is something that has happened since humanity left the garden of Eden. And so, the dilemma that followers of Jesus find themselves in is this: while freewill is essential for love to be realized, the flip side is that freewill can be selfishly manipulated for a person’s own purpose and power. You’ve seen that before.

And here is what breaks my heart: that perversion of freewill also finds fertile ground in the Christian community; which is why we saw men earnestly kneeling in prayer, and then standing up and with great hostility commanding people to get out of the way so, they could stop the work of government. 

Hostility is never a Kingdom of God response, because hostility is never a loving response…the hostility that fomented in the hearts of those men, should have been a signal to them that they were making decisions based on bad information; that they were being manipulated by an interest that could care less about them.

And so, how did the name of Jesus get so easily co-opted, misused, and abused? There are many answers to that question, but the one I want to examine today is the winner-loser paradigm. I’ve spoken of it from this ambo before.

It is a paradigm that promotes insiders and outsiders, with the outsiders being bad, and the insiders being good. It is an idea that is fundamentally counter to the nature of our Trinitarian God, and yet, too often, seeps in and pollutes the practices and governance of the church. It is this flawed thinking that fueled the “soldiers for Jesus” mentality that we witnessed in the attack on our US capitol building.

And so, this is the soup we are standing in…love, freewill, and in this case this faulty winner-loser paradigm. Are you with me on all this?

So, let’s do a case study on how this has played out in the past in a way that has diminished the church. We’ll pretend it’s a Harvard Business School case study. There were two men, Pelagius and Augustine, who lived in the 4th century. Pelagius was a monk who found his way to Rome from the British Isles and then onto north Africa. He was a saintly man, an ascetic, well-versed, to the extreme, in the spiritual exercises. What Pelagius believed, and others saw evidenced in him, was that through the spiritual exercises one could create habits of the heart that oriented actions, habitually, toward the love of God. Pelagius believed God’s love was achievable by freely choosing to engage diligently the simple spiritual exercises, such as prayer and fasting and tithing, as taught by the church. You all know these exercises as we talk about them at Epiphany all the time. 

Augustine was a bishop from north Africa. He had been a power player in the secular city of Hippo, and then, in a moment of revelation became a follower of Jesus Christ. He had the fervency of a convert, and, as such, was well aware of the habits and impulses that called him out of relationship with God. These impulses were so powerful, that he believed they were beyond the influence of freewill. And so, he argued that the only means to a Godly life was through Christian baptism. People who choose baptism where included, they were Kingdom of God winners, if you will, and those who did not, were losers, outsiders, maybe even damned to hell.

And these two men, Pelagius and Augustine, got into a public, protracted argument about access to the Kingdom of God. Pelagius took the position of practice. Augustine took the position of belief. Pelagius was about physical action. Augustine about intellectual affiliation. 

And in the end a Church conference was convened at Carthage, to settle the point, and Augustine was crowned the winner and Pelagius the loser, and branded a heretic and banished from the church. I am teaching a class on March 14  that will go into greater detail about what all of this has meant for the church.

But here is the fundamental problem with the outcome of this decision: because it was decided upon within the winner-loser paradigm, which has no standing within the Kingdom of God, there was no true resolution achieved… and thus, the Pelagian/Augustinian argument between works and belief remains in the church to this day. It remains because it was decided upon by an invalid precedent, which has no standing in the world as God designed it.

And so, you might be asking what does this have to do with the storming of the US Capitol?  I think it points to two cautionary considerations and brings us to the galvanizing reality that following a Trinitarian God matters for reconciliation and unity in this nation. But first, to the cautionary considerations.

First, when belief is of more value than what someone does, as it is in many corners of the Christian church, then a person can get down on their knees and earnestly pray to God, and then get up and act badly toward someone else.

When belief is more potent than action a person can live with the delusion that they are on the inside and best friends with Jesus, which means, in their mind, that God loves them and affirms whatever they do. And anyone who doesn’t agree with them are heretics, like that Pelagius. And we know where that leads us.

The second cautionary note is revealed through the shadow side of Pelagius’ work ethic. Underlying this high standard there is perceived the presence of a “grading system” where there is a hierarchy of holiness built upon one’s capacity to master the spiritual exercises. This too, can create the feeling of an insider/outsider, winner/loser paradigm; and worse yet, a sense of judginess: which, I must admit, infected my heart as I watched the protesters that were even peacefully marching on January 6.

And so, with this story of Pelagius and Augustine before us, as we stand in this soup of love and freewill, holding the winner/loser paradigm, the question is: “What have we learned, and where does this lead us?” I hope back to the clarity of a Trinitarian God.

Both Pelagius and Augustine offer something real and true to Christianity, that works better when held in partnership rather than chopped up by the winner/loser paradigm. Belief and the community it engenders is good. Thank you, Augustine. Practices and the formation of the heart it develops is good. Thank you, Pelagius.

But the transforming depth of these theologies is best achieved when they are set upon the foundation of love, freely chosen; when they are united, as they were meant to be, by an interconnected, relational God. God designed creation to be inextricably connected.       That is the foundational truth upon which all decisions can and should be made. And it is this understanding of God, the Trinitarian God, that is a gift we can offer a nation torn asunder. How we think about and articulate God matters more today than ever before.

And so, we as a Christian church, even a small one tucked up in the hinterlands of this United States of America, must be spacious; we must be gracious; we must be and believe and practice the default position of love. It is our freewill choice to do so.

It is our gift to others to be a Christian community that chooses to be place of unity, where belief and works, and everything else we do is set upon the foundation of the inclusive connected Father and Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinitarian, relational God of love.

This is the Christianity that has the capacity to heal this nation.