Is America 53% Pelagian?

Is America 53% Pelagian? September 18, 2012

As the pastor of a politically “purple” congregation, I need to tread lightly on the controversy surrounding Mitt Romney’s remarks about 47% of Americans not paying income tax. I am trying my best to transcend the superficial “issue” level of our increasingly absurd political conversation so that I can yank out the theological roots of the bad weeds that we find in our commonly held assumptions. I really believe that America’s problem is fundamentally theological (and it’s utterly bipartisan). One dimension of it is the impoverished understanding of “individual rights” that Ross Douthat and others have linked to the corrosive impact of secularism (which John Milbank correctly categorizes in Theology and Social Thought as a self-disavowing sect of Christian-rooted thought that has gone atheist). Paul Ryan was right to observe that our “rights” have become dangerously stripped of their bark if there is no longer an assumption that we are “endowed by our Creator” with them (and not by whichever majority of Americans happens to be in power). But the irony is that many of the very people who cheer when they hear lines like, “Our rights come from God and nature, not from government,” actually embrace secularism when the question is framed differently. To say that we are a society of “makers” and “takers” is a profession of disbelief in the relevance of the one true Maker. If I believe that everything I have and everything I have used to gain what I have is a gift from God, then He is the only Maker and we are all takers with one Father who commands us to care for each other as brothers and sisters.

I didn’t have space in my already too long introductory paragraph to explain the term that I used in the title: Pelagianism. It is an ancient Christian heresy dating from the 4th and 5th century (warning church history geeks, I’m going to paraphrase and oversimplify). Pelagius was a monk who got into an epic debate with the famous Christian theologian Augustine over the degree to which human nature has been corrupted by sin. Augustine’s conviction was that humans were hopelessly corrupted by nature without the intervention of the grace of God. Pelagius considered sin to be more like a contagious but treatable disease that humans can overcome through their own willpower. In Pelagian thought, Christ paid the penalty for sin on the cross, but humans are responsible for engaging in the spiritual disciplines necessary to gain admittance into God’s presence, having been acquitted of their crimes against Him. In contrast, Augustine might say that not only was the cross necessary to pay for sin, but it also to heal us from sin, which can only happen insofar as we are transformed by the real presence of Christ’s crucified flesh within us.

The Pelagian account is a robust individualism, while the Augustinian  account is essentially a “culture of dependency” in which humans are utterly helpless without Christ’s constant intervention in our lives. The church took Augustine’s side in the debate, but the American spirit is utterly Pelagian. Most (perhaps white?) Americans desperately need to narrate our lives as the stories of people who work hard without any handouts from anybody and gain success if we just put their minds to it and avoid premarital sex and drugs. That is exactly what Pelagius was arguing that humans could do. What’s interesting is that the Mormon theologian Sterling M. McMurrin argues that Mormonism, the only religion to be born in “indigenous” European America, is basically Christianity according to Pelagian terms. So… you might say, what’s the big deal?

Here’s the problem as I understand it. We have two basic choices for how we narrate what happens in our lives. Either my life happens to me as a gift through the perpetual intervention on the part of an infinitely intimate sovereign God who is constantly infusing the world with His love and working through people to shape us into a kingdom of mercy. Or else I happen as a self-reliant, autonomous individually responsible free agent who enters into social contracts with other individuals and owes none of His success to divine intervention but can claim it instead as a reward for hard work. Most American evangelicals say that they believe the former, but they live the latter. And it’s fascinating to watch how emphatically some evangelicals express their doctrinal “belief” that salvation is a gift as the means by which they can be rewarded with salvation. The problem is that the whole point of believing the former is to be saved from living the latter, because individualism is a lonely, God-rejecting existence that ultimately culminates in an eternity spent outside of communion with God.

The American church has been thoroughly corrupted by the hidden taint of the Enlightenment’s secular individualism that is so integral the fabric of our nation’s values. As a result, we have sidestepped the real problem of human existence in a misunderstanding of how our trust in Christ saves us. What we are saved from is self-justification (or if you prefer, spiritual pride), the vicious slavery of needing to be right and prove my worth to other people. This is not some new innovation on my part. Augustine coined the term homo curvatus en se (humanity curved in on itself) to describe the way that we cannot possibly gain an uncorrupted vantage point to interpret the events of our lives or act upon them without being liberated by the mercy of Jesus’ cross. Since we’re rational creatures, we need to “make sense” to ourselves, and we will spin our interpretations of whatever we’ve done that hasn’t made sense in a way that erodes our rationality, unless we have been given the freedom to be wrong by the blood of Christ that justifies our unjustifiable behavior. The “curvature” of our will and reason from which we cannot escape on our own is what I mean by my term self-justification.

The difference between Augustinian and Pelagian thought basically comes down to two completely different views of freedom. To an Augustinian, freedom is the ability to live according to the beautiful flow of the Holy Spirit because I have been liberated by God’s grace from the forces within me that make me behave irrationally, not doing what I most deeply want to do and doing what I hate doing (Romans 7:15). An Augustinian would say freedom is something God gives us to escape what is inside us. To a Pelagian, freedom is simply a presumed default that I enjoy as an individual. I have the resources within me to tame the beasts of my soul’s passions and appetites. I am Invictus. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” The only threat to a Pelagian’s freedom comes from the outside. A Pelagian is free as long as the only tyrant in his life is himself.

There are certainly threats to our freedom that come from the outside, but we lose the freedom that matters more when we assume the delusional perspective of self-reliance. We can call the good things we do our success and hard work, but if we label them instead as blessings and privileges and really mean it, then God can help untangle us from the monstrous magnetism of the narcissism where all of us begin. The freedom that matters is the joy, mercy, and gratitude that fills our hearts when we stop keeping score and surrender to the Savior who says,  “I am the vine and you are the branches… Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

I realize that many American Christians have genuinely experienced the beauty of surrendering to Christ even though they live simultaneously in the world of self-reliance. I’m not sure how exactly Mitt Romney used 53% and 47%, but I suspect most individual American evangelical souls are more than 53% Pelagian and less than 47% Augustinian. I’m not saying that God will revoke your “sinner’s prayer” if you read and enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, but you’re making a farce out of justification by faith if you reduce faith to a checklist of statements to which you say “Yes” instead of confessing your absolute dependence on Christ as savior and Lord (Romans 10:9) not only with your mouth but with your attitude about your fellow “takers” and “mooches” and “beggars” and “ne’er do wells” that you encounter in life’s path. If having been given the unmerited gift of eternal communion with God instills no change in your attitude about other people receiving things they don’t deserve, then you haven’t accepted Christ yet. Try again. (Of course, I don’t believe in the ludicrous idea that salvation happens in an instant so I know that Jesus is always having to re-save me from my narcissism.)

When we claim the good that happens in our lives as an earned reward rather than a gifted blessing, we are making a declaration of independence from God, whether you want to call that Pelagianism in which you believe that God exists but isn’t sovereign or secularism in which you admit that a God who isn’t sovereign doesn’t really exist. No plant can ever say that it gave birth to its own fruit; God Himself grows every fruit that has ever grown through the sun, the soil, and the rain. We are no different than plants. God is constantly filling our world with spiritual nutrients to help us grow. So let’s stop pretending that we’re doing it on our own. Be grateful; be merciful; don’t keep score. That’s how God makes a kingdom that cares for all of its mooches far better than any secular nation-state ever could.

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