Francis Chung/E&E News and Politico, via Associated Press
The senator who gave the mob headed to the capitol last week a raised-fist salute in solidarity and is among those senators who rejected the vote of the U.S. electorate even after the melee that followed has taken on one of my Celtic saints and heroes, Pelagius. In “The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage,” New York Times columnist Katherine Stewart wrote [January 11, 2021]:
In multiple speeches, an interview and a widely shared article for Christianity Today, Mr. Hawley has explained that the blame for society’s ills traces all the way back to Pelagius—a British-born monk who lived 17 centuries ago.
Apparently, Hawley takes issue with Pelagius’s view that, as Stewart puts it, “grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.”
Reading this sent me back to my “go-to” guy for Celtic Christianity, the Rev. Dr. J. Philip Newell, a Church of Scotland minister who has served St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh as well as Iona Abbey, a Celtic Christian community off the coast of Scotland, both of which I’ve visited. I’ve studied and taught several of his books and attended a weekend course he led at Columbia Theological Seminary here in Georgia.
In Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, Newell explains that, until recently, as translations of Pelagius’s letters have become available, what was known about him came from his opposition, none other than Augustine of Hippo and his school of thought, whose concept of “original sin” and human depravity (echoed in John Calvin and the Scottish Reformation) was at odds with Pelagius’s view that we are basically good, in Newell’s words, “his conviction that every child is conceived and born in the image of God.”
Pelagius’s letters offer other positive food for thought:
The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.
People do not argue about whether generosity and forgiveness are good or bad; they know that they are good.
You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realize that Scripture itself is the work of human minds, recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.
A person who is rich and yet refuses to give food to the hungry may cause more deaths than even the cruellest murderer.
There are some who call themselves Christian, and who attend worship regularly, yet perform no Christian actions in their daily lives. There are others who do not call themselves Christian, and who never attend worship, yet perform many Christian actions in their daily lives. Which of these two groups are the better disciples of Christ? Some would say that believing in Christ and worshipping him is what matters for salvation. But this is not what Jesus himself said. His teaching was almost entirely concerned with action, and with the motives which inspire action.
My own two cents: early Christians understood “belief” in Jesus to be not mere assent but devotion to and practice of his principles.
Newell explains Pelagius’s view that “the Church becomes liberator rather than custodian of salvation. It provides the key that gives access to the treasure of God’s life instead of being the source of that richness; the treasure is already present, though hidden, waiting to be unlocked, in every person.”
Hawley’s attempt to deny the U.S. presidency and vice presidency to President Biden and Vice President Harris reminds me of the church politics in the scheming of Augustine to get Pelagius declared a heretic by both Empire and Church.
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