Celtic Soul Part IV, “A Pelagian Optimism”

Celtic knot Credit: wiki, public domain

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and therefore high time to finish this post, which I edited last on June 20, 2011, around the time I wrote the other parts of the “Celtic Soul” musings. Particularly after having finished the second of three immersions last week, and with new developments in the Anusara community, there’s a lot about which to write. But this work insinuates itself into my consciousness today.

This post concludes musings begun in Part One, “A Musical Journey,” and continued in Part Two, “A Hardworking Lad” and Part Three, “Roots and Shoots.”

To the question of how to reconcile my roots with my new path, I found the answer on Facebook. Well, not exactly. I found it because of Facebook, because as I was pondering this question, the “people you may know” feature surfaced my favorite college professor, Joe Fahey. Remember him, from at least a thousand words ago? Seeing his face in this context brought back to me an article he wrote in 1996, for a special issue “Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Peace Studies” in Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture  (Vol. 31, No. 1) “Student Pessimism and Pelagian Optimism.”

In this piece, Fahey surfaces his own concerns about Western culture, namely, whence comes this pessimism about human nature that students have learned, or perhaps mis–learned. He gives the examples of war and economics. Most students reject as “unrealistic” or “impossible” alternatives to the excesses of the predominant responses to conflict and the distribution of goods and services. Fahey offers three explanations for student pessimism:

  1. It’s their fault—students are neither bright enough nor knowledgeable enough to know better;
  2. It’s the culture’s fault—students are not taught the successful history of societies that have worked with a maximum of justice and a minimum of violence
  3. It is the fault of human nature itself as expressed in the doctrine and social understanding of Original Sin; student pessimism is rooted in “reality” since fallen men and women can never achieve justice and harmony in this temporal “Earthly City.”

He continues:

While I have often been tempted to argue for (1) above, I, of course, realize the absurdity of the proposition since (a) each student is natively quite intelligent and (b) students cannot be held responsible for what they have not been taught. Those of us in the field of Peace Studies resonate quite a bit with (2) since research demonstrates that justice and harmony are neither novel nor unusual; these are universal phenomena which have existed in every culture in every historical period. If the answer is (3) then we are all in rather deep trouble.… Hence, while (1) is to be rejected outright and (2) is to be affirmed, it is nevertheless proposition (3) that defeats any hope that there can be some permanency to justice and harmony in this world. (39-40)

Fahey believes that his students have inherited their pessimism from Aurelius Augustinus (354-430 C.E.) more commonly known as Augustine of Hippo.

In a radical departure from early Christian pacifism, Augustine legitimized the violence for Christians through the advocacy of the “just war” principles of the non–Christians. Further, Augustine was a prime mover in the abandonment of the central Christian ethical obligation to renounce wealth upon conversion to Christianity. With his advocacy of child baptism, Augustine considerably weakened Christian social ethics and helped to fashion the emphasis on personal, rather than social, salvation which was, in part, to tolerate so much social injustice in Western history. Augustinian teaching on sexuality has dominated Catholic social ethics and has had a profound effect on the negative attitude toward women in Western culture. The Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin and Augustine’s ardent defense of predestination were instrumental in the eventual legitimation of what is now called capitalism. Humankind in Augustinian thought is a massa damnata; human nature does not evidence God’s grace but rather is testimony to its absence. Jesuit moral theologican John Mahoney recognizes that there is much that is positive and even brilliant about Augustin’s thought. However, as he says in his The Making of Moral Theology: “But if one is concentrating precisely on his moral teaching, it is there that the darkness and somber pessimism are most in evidence and, it must be said, at their most dogmatic and devastating.” Mahoney observes that Augustine has cast a “long shadow” over Western moral thought but thinks optimistically that the Church “appears to be in the difficult process of shaking off its long Augustinian mood.”

Well, perhaps not so much given the sixteen years since Fahey wrote, in light of the Roman Church’s continued obsession with sexuality, and the penchant for misogyny among some of its most politically visible adherents. My roots seem pretty doomed as a source of inspiration, don’t they?

Enter Pelagius, a lay theologian from the British Isles.

Little is know [sic] about Pelagius himself. It is known that he was a lay theologian from the British Isles and that his theology was strongly influenced by his naturalistic Celtic Culture. He appears to have been a quite well educated and virtuous layman. As a consequence, Jerome called him a monk (monarchus), a title Pelagius himself rejected.…

Augustine and others sought to have him excommunicated and branded a heretic. He successfully defended himself against the latter charges, even though this is how Catholic history mis–remembers him. Augustine has a long shadow, indeed. Having higher expectations of human nature than Augustine, Pelagian ethics were social ethics.

…Since Pelagius’ ethical insights were so well expressed and so thoroughly grounded on a sound biblical and traditional foundation, his adversaries—bishops Jerome and Augustine—wisely did not challenge him on these grounds. Rather they attacked his theology and argued that Pelagius neither believed in Original Sin nor in the necessity of God’s grace (48).

Ah, yes, that theology, that is want I have been wanting to get to.

Pelagian theology is founded on three distinct but complementary principles: (1) the “natural sanctity” of human nature; (2) “Posse, Esse, Velle,” [Power, Will, Realization] and (3) the continuity of grace.… For Pelagius, it was impossible to understand human nature apart from the God who created it.… Pelagius held that evil did not come into existence because of human nature but due to a denial of human nature. Evil did not proceed from human nature (“ex natura”); evil was contrary to human nature (“contra naturam“). Pelagius resolved the paradox of evil by distinguishing three components of human nature. He explains:

We classify these faculties thus, arranging them into a certain graduated order. We put in the first place posse [power], in the second velle [will], and in the third esse [realization]. The first of these faculties in the term posse is especially assigned to God, who has bestowed in on his creature. The other two, indicated in the terms velle and esse must be referred to the human agent because they flow forth from the fountain of his will.

…Consequently, evil does not result from possibility, which is God given, but from act which is a human choice (48-49).

As we used to say on retreats I had attended in Clifton, right outside of Montclair, NJ, “God don’t make junk.” Nature, that which surrounds us, and our our own natures, because we are a part of that which surrounds us, have, as the Quakers say, “that of God” within. What a delight it is to discover this resonance with my new paths, this ability to trace roots to shoots. I can claim these roots to Pelagius because he has influenced my dear professor (of Irish descent himself) this dear teacher of mine, reaching out to me across time through words on the printed page. Indeed, delight is what concludes his essay, and I count myself among the students in which he is delighted.

What a delight it would be to teach students who believed that the quest for peace through justice is the central mission of humankind. What a delight it would be to teach students who are optimistic and hopeful about the future. What a delight it would be to teach students who imagine and dream. What a delight it would be to teach students who can understand history from the humorous perspective of eternity. However, as we celebrate twenty five years of Peace Studies at Manhattan College, it is a delight to have taught a generation of Peace Studies majors and minors because they are already where there classmates will be one day. Peace Studies students are the future in our midst. Pelagius, I think, would be delighted.

It certainly is a delight for me, this St. Paddy’s Day, to conclude this “Celtic Soul” cycle in honor of my dear teacher, Joseph J. Fahey.

Joseph J. Fahey, Manhattan College


About Richard Hudak

I am Senior Adjunct Faculty in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and I have been a practitioner of Anusara™ yoga. I have completed 200 hours of teacher training within its diaspora community, consistent with its philosophy and alignment principles.
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