The 4th century Church Father, known as St. Augustine was not proud of his past. His nothing-to-be-proud-about past, fortunately became the basis of his reflections on God, as revealed in Jesus Christ.
I was going through Alister McGrath’s brilliant book named Heresy (London: SPCK, 2009) and came across St. Augustine’s response to the heresy known as Pelagianism, which gave me much hope, in my ministry, as recently as this morning.
Pelagianism, according to McGrath can be summarised in the following arguments (found mostly on page 163) :
- Human beings are completely free to act. To a great extent such an action is imperative for “moral action and spiritual renewal.”
- The behaviour of human beings is not influenced significantly by hidden forces, nor is it restricted by powers that ultimately lie beyond their their control.
- “Any imperfection in human nature that might stop us from acting morally could reflect badly on God.”
- “The significance of Christ needs to be located primarily in his teaching and examples.”
In one of writings, Pelagius goes to the extent of saying, ” No one knows the extent of our strength better than God who gave us that strength… God has not willed to command anything impossible, for God is righteous; and will not condemn anyone for what they could not help” (page 164). Julian of Eclanum (386-455 ACE) is said to have further developed these thoughts in ways that it was turned into a gospel of self-improvement “that was adapted to the norms of the Roman culture,” a “sophisticated self-improvement with a strong spiritual core.”
Till here it sounds great, and I can’t help notice how much it sounds like the self-help books I have read. You have the power within you, given from above! We have been blessed by God with everything we need to make life better! Just do it! Heck, it even sounds like one of my sessions, which I believe are deeply rooted in the Bible.
Augustine takes a different stance, summarised as follows ( found on page 165 onwards):
1. We are created good, but the fact that humanity has sinned, causes contamination to our nature.
2. We seem to have, as a result, an inclination to sin, which is not the result of the divine creation, but of the fall. He suggests that the human will has been “weakened and incapacitated – but not eliminated or destroyed – by sin.”
3. He goes on to say that we need divine grace to heal that will.
4. We are not in control of our sinfulness and it contaminated our life from birth and dominates our life thereafter.
Instead, Pelagianist thought does not agree to human disposition towards sin, adding that failure to choose good and sinning could not be excused on any grounds.
A moment to reflect
I want to stop here and mull with you – isn’t that most often where we find ourselves? We are not ready to accept our failures and sins, and often times do no forgive ourselves for the sins we commit. We berate ourselves on the inability to measure up to God despite the fact that Jesus has done everything he needs to do on the cross? As a pastor, this thought has been the most worrisome. Of course I do believe and accept grace, as Augustine does, yet somewhere, this aim to become perfect like Jesus finding failure is unacceptable to me, pulling one down into the abyss of self-condemnation and disappointment.
At this point, the Pelagian heresy reveals itself as moral authoritarianism, says McGrath. For Pelagius only morally upright persons should be allowed to enter the church, whereas Augustine pictured the Church as a hospital, “where fallen humanity could recover and grow gradually in holiness through grace.” (page 167). It also implied that life on earth was a time for recovery and complete healing will be achieved when we are finally in the presence of God. Till then, the Church must include both the sinner and saint.
These are the words that encouraged me:
“Augustine’s view of humanity is that it is frail, weak, and needs divine assistance and care if it is to be restored and renewed.. Grace, according to Augustine is God’s generous and quite unmerited attention t humanity by which this process of healing may begin… Human nature requires transformation through the grace of God…”
also the following words on page 169:
“God in an act of grace, then came to rescue fallen humanity from its predicament. God assists us by healing us, enlightening us, strengthening us, and continually working within us in order to restore us. For Pelagius, humanity merely needed to be shown what to do and could then be left to achieve it unaided; for Augustine humanity needed to be shown what to do and then gently aided at every point if this objective was even to be approached, let alone fulfilled.”
I needed to hear these words at this point of time in my ministry. I did not want to do build this youth ministry on my own, with the burden that he has given me everything – the circumstances, the possibilities, the gifts, the finance, the creativity… It is too much to do justice to. I wanted to hear that God, in his grace, will guide me, and restore me when I fall, which I was bound to do. I wanted to hear that it was alright to fail, from the God of the Bible. Sometimes it is pastors who preach grace who keep themselves from experiencing any of it.
McGrath’s words on Pelagianism that follows, almost meditative and surely contemplative, are a chilling reflection of how deep rooted these thoughts are in our culture (page 170) :
“Yet Pelagianism continues to be a deep influence on western culture, even if its name means little to most. It articulates the most natural of human thoughts – that we are capable of taking control of ourselves and transforming ourselves into what we would have ourselves be.”
It gives an idealised view of humanity, but Augustine seeks to capture the essence of the human predicament. And that is liberating, especially since, I am not to worry about my failing before God, since my nature is inclined to sin. This must not lead me to taking it for granted but to leaning all the more on his ever-sufficient grace.
Endnote : Disagreement in the Oasis
I do disagree with St. Augustine on his doctrine of Original Sin, just as most of the Eastern, especially Syriac churches would. J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines suggested that the Eastern Church was hardly impacted by his views, taking a different line of thought. I would like to write another post on the human predicament from the eyes of the Eastern Church fathers.
This part of Augustine’s anthropology is definitely an oasis. It is a cool breeze on humid afternoon.
I am encouraged, humbled and strengthened.
The enormity of this city challenges me. There is always something more to do, more people to reach, more scope in the ministry, and more and more.
As a youth chaplain, the scope of ministering to the youth in a city like Mumbai is tremendous, often hitting mind-boggling scales.
I must also know that I am not able to do everything on my own. Must not either.
I remember advice of setting up a human resources team that could assist in various aspects of ministry. We have that in a virtual form, with volunteers with a wide variety of skills from singing, designing, teaching, leading, law, medicine, communication and a lot more. However, a structured, systematic outreach – is that possible through volunteers who may have something to do at times and therefore unable to commit?
I have been careful not to be disappointed or expect too much of youth who are already busy and have priorities. I have always approached them knowing that any time that they spend for youth ministry is because of their commitment to the cause and I rejoice no matter how short a time they are able to give, as long as they involve, as long as they share a part of themselves to ministering to fellow brethren.
A concern in my mind is, how can the youth ministry grow and reach out to more? How can it assist the growth of more youth in Christ? There are hundreds of unreached youth. People who are on the ledges of faith. How do we get to them?
That is when I begin to think God needs to give me some more support. And as you may have rightly judged, that is where “I” the person, the ego, begin to emerge. Of course, the ministry is not about me at the same time it deeply involves ‘me’.There is no impersonal ministry, as far as I can gather. As much as I would like to see fruit, I must also remember that as a pioneer, my job is to till the ground, sow the seeds. And that is not easy. Preparing the ground, as Isaiah 4 reflects, involves clearing the ground of stones as well.
Perhaps, as I reflect, this ministry should have started many years ago. The need is quite telling. It should have grown and bloomed by now. I wonder why it never began. Were we, as a Church, blind?
However, I am privileged that I could be part of the beginning. That also mean I perpetually carry the burden that I am not reaching out enough.
From Virar to Colaba.
From Kalyan To Dadar.
From Dadar to Ambernath.
I feel paralized. I need more help and support. Perhaps more staff?
While interviewing fellow youth workers from other organizations during the first year, I gathered that the struggle is real and that they face the same too. People have become busier. There is always more people to reach out to, more hearts to be touched, more people to come to salvation in Christ.
From time to time, I remember teachings that I have learned and read. This ministry belongs to God. He will do what He has to do in His time. At this moment, he wanted me to be here. He will accomplish what he has started. His words will never return empty. My job is to trust him and to entrust him with my weaknesses and strengths so that he can accomplish what He has to, in His time.
For the first time I received an email by someone who read my blog. It was wonderful to hear that the person had been moved to ask me some questions.
One of the things I learnt last year in ministry is to avoid evaluating oneself with tangible results. One must not chase tangible results, it can be very disappointing.
Moreover you never know whose life you touched. Sometimes you get to know later, most of the time you just don’t. The most important thing is to do faithfully what God has entrusted you with.
Of course, the moment you hear from someone who was blessed by what you shared, spoke, sang, sketched,
rapped, forwarded or wrote, is indeed a sweet one. It encourages you to continue.
But just don’t depend on it. You do what you have got to do. Let God do what He will, and just trust Him.
Thanks for writing in friend!
Yes, it is that time of the night, quite normally Mumbai-ish.
I’ve been visiting houses and praying while the accompanying office bearers write receipts for cheques and cash. It’s the Diocesan week and I have been learning.
I am observing, experiencing the new, the now. Widows giving beyond their means for mission. Retired Gulf-returns posing questions with flexed muscles on the relevance of this work, merely a subtext of their childish grasp on the Gandhi papers, called Money. People living in slum like areas adding the zeroes to the right of their triple digit daily wages.
More than ever it was my free course on ‘Life’. I was learning what frustration means; what desperation does, what giving reveals, what praying makes and what love breaks. I have been learning to pray from the innermost parts of my heart. I have been changing.
And nobody told me to. That’s the best part.
It’s happening and I feel it.
I don’t mind the time. The Creator of all time has given me enough and more.
And I will continue to grow in Him.
My post graduation was in Clinical Psychology. There we learnt that every therapist required to undergo a specified duration of supervision. It helped a therapist be clear headed, avoid bias and administer therapy meaningfully. Even practicing therapists were to have regular supervision, which I found most meaningful. The therapist would go to his supervisor, share their difficulties and struggles. The supervisors would even bring unchecked aspects in therapy to their notice.
I’ve been thinking. Even pastors need supervisors. Someone they could turn to. Someone to ask advice. It’s not just enough that all the fellow pastors are friendly enough and approachable. Someone who has seen the tides of time wax and wane. Someone who is scarred by experiences that made them wiser. Someone who would call a spade a spade, yet, keep it all together with brotherly affection.
I find this need especially in pioneering ministries begun in new places.
Yet supervision does not mean spoon-feeding. One should have the creative freedom and the thrill of taking the uncharted route, beautifully narrated by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear.
Currently I find myself in front of that road which is grassy and wants wear.
I could do with some advice for the journey!