Listening for Goodness
Listening for the Goodness
While there has always been a recognized orthodoxy in the church with those ways of thinking that run contrary to it being discredited, it remains for us in our time to examine the controversies of the previous generations and decide for ourselves whether or not such thinking was indeed heretical and dangerous to a proper interpretation of the word of God or whether it was a politically motivated attempt to control the spiritual journey of the people.
Many of us trace our roots to the British Isles with many of us laying claim to that heritage now recognized in song, art and poetry as Celtic. And while we may well recognize that the Celts were a spiritual people before the arrival of Christianity, there may be still questions in our minds as to the nature of that spirituality and whether or not it could find a legitimate expression within the Christian faith.
While there were signs that the Christian faith had been introduced to the Celtic people as early as the third century, it was not until the fourth century that what has come to be viewed as a distinctive Celtic spirituality emerged. One of the first prominent Celtic theologians was a man named Pelagius. Many people believed that Pelagius was teaching that we are capable of saving ourselves and that we do not rely on the redeeming grace of God. Since most of the writings of Pelagius have not survived, it is difficult to give a fair assessment of his thought. He is most often viewed through the eyes of his two greatest critics, Augustine of Hippo and Jerome.
Pelagius grew up in a different world from Augustine or Jerome and his spirituality grew out of his experience of God in what was a far more wild part of the world. The isolation of the British church – due to its position at the far edge of the Roman Empire – contributed to a number of things which did not sit well with Augustine who was more closely tied to Rome and the central seat of the faith. In everything from hair-style to diet and even physical appearance, there was much to criticize. Certainly it could be argued that it was inappropriate to adopt or carry on some of the pre-Christian practices but over the centuries we have discovered that such things can help to bridge the gap between the pre-Christian experience of God and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For many cultures their spirituality found a natural connection to the Christian message and so enabled people to embrace the faith and find a deeper meaning to their life.
Many people actually found the teachings and thoughts of Pelagius to be deeply spiritual but his appearance caused others to find reasons to discredit him. The whole emphasis that is in the church today on spiritual direction and finding a spiritual director or guide is a feature of the Celtic church where people were encouraged to find what was called an anamchara or soul friend. But Pelagius did not expect this person to be the priest or religious leader. For him, the soul friend needed to be someone to whom you could open your inner self, ‘hiding nothing’, he says, ‘revealing everything’ in order to know and further explore what is in one’s own heart. Each of us would do well to find such a person.
Another typical mark of the Celtic spirituality which Pelagius emphasized was a strong sense of the goodness of creation in which the life of God can be glimpsed. He believed that narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth. Every movement of the animals, the birds, insects, and fish – all revealed to him the presence and the spirit of God. This was not animism – a belief that the actual object was God but rather that as part of creation given life by God, the spirit of God dwelt there as it did throughout creation. He saw beauty and goodness in all creation. Not sure if mosquitoes and black flies were in his world and whether he would have been as positive about God’s presence in them. They are a challenge!
Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbour to mean not only our human neighbours but all life. He ran himself into trouble because he sought to widen the circle and challenge the people to not live their lives strictly in response to a set of beliefs or doctrines but to live a life of wisdom. They were encouraged to love all people, friends and enemies alike, and do good in return for evil. For him Jesus was the embodiment of all wisdom and humility and was the perfection of the wisdom by which we are to be guided in life.
For Pelagius, doctrines may help to explain mysteries, Scripture records for us the teaching and example of Jesus and the early church, but it is how we respond with our heart and actions that truly matter. For him, to believe in Christ was no sign of true faith or spiritual growth; it was how that belief translated into a life seeking to follow the example of Christ. Many people came to believe that he was suggesting that we did not need to believe in Jesus or his atoning sacrifice but rather he was encouraging us to go beyond simple belief or doctrine to embrace the message of Christ in such a way as to grow in likeness to him. Never did he believe that we could become perfect but he believed that we needed to strive to that perfection. To restrain from doing wrong deeds is of little good if we are not prepared to also do good deeds.
Pelagius also firmly held that every child is conceived and born in the image of God. He believed that the newborn contains the original, unsullied goodness of creation and humanity’s essential blessedness. For him in the birth of a child God was giving birth to his image on earth. While many believed that Pelagius denied the presence of evil and its power over the human person, rather Pelagius believed that the image and goodness of God was at the heart of humanity and that wrongdoing and evil obscured or covered it over. The light of God is at the heart of every person waiting to be liberated. Our redemption in Christ becomes for us a setting free, a releasing of what we essentially are. What Pelagius emphasized and sought for people to come to appreciate was the dignity of our human nature. He believed that our deepest desires are for God even though other desires obscure our true heart. He never claimed that we could not do that which is evil but he would allow us to believe that we could be forced to do it by a fault in our nature. He strongly believed in our freedom to choose the good and sought for people to have the confidence to know that this was God’s hope and desire. He never denied the centrality of God’s grace but rather saw it as the strength that enables us to choose the good and do it. Evil, he says, is like a fog that blinds is to our true selves.
Pelagius looked for the good not only in the people within the Church but to those outside. When we meet good, kind and just people outside the church, where do these qualities come from? For Pelagius it is a sign that their essential nature is good and that nature is a gift of God. Rather than the world being opposed to the Church, Pelagius sees the Church as an integral part of the world given the key to unlock the essential nature of all creation. Our own acknowledgement of God in Christ is to be viewed as a liberation of our spirit to discover the essential goodness that our creation has granted us. The question for Pelagius is not how do we institutionalize this goodness but rather how do we help others to discover that essential goodness within them. For Pelagius, the gift of the gospel is that we are ‘instructed by the grace of Christ’, encouraged and shown the goodness of God that is within us.
- Philip Newell, the author whose work is the basis for this series writes the following:
If we believe that at birth we lack the image of God and are essentially sinful, what are the implications for our spirituality? Does it mean that there is no vital connection between true spirituality and the sort of purity, simplicity, innocence and goodness of an infant?
If we deny that God is at the very heart of life, are we essentially without God, without original goodness in our mothers’ wombs, so that our spirituality does not grow out of what God has planted within us? Is spirituality alien to our original nature, or does grace nurture our innate goodness? What about our relationship with the rest of humanity? If we regard others as lacking essential goodness because they are outside the Church’s sacramental ministry, does that mean that our spirituality has nothing to learn from other faiths and from the virtues that, as Pelagius reminds us, can be observed in our neighbours, many of whom are not members of the Christian church? (Listening for the Heartbeat of God, pp. 21-22)
We do not know how Pelagius responded to his harsh treatment at the hands of the institutional church but we do know how he chose to live his life and express his faith. He wrote: ‘Wisdom consists in listening to the commandments of God, and obeying them. A person who has heard that God commands people to be generous, and then shares what he has with the poor, is truly wise. A person who has heard that God commands people to forgive…. and then reaches out in love to his persecutors, is truly wise’ (Carmina Gadelica III, p. 207)