Thursday, December 16, 2010

I haven't posted for quite awhile, one reason being that I re-entered Divinity School after a thirty-three year hiatus. I did a lot a things new to me in taking just one course. I had never been in a study group before, so I invited a few folks and we had a wonderful time helping each other study and getting to know a bit about what brought each one to this adventure, each a non-traditional student returning to school after much life experience. I had never been in a discussion group before, and one feature of that experience was writing six brief papers, one prior to each discussion. One of those appears below - it's my favorite because I let myself have a bit more than average fun with it.

Grace Abounding

“Hi, I’m Gwen. I’m a recovering Pelagian…” What an opener for a 12-step meeting! Many times I have remembered a sermon from my youth. I knew then that it was misguided but I had no theological label for the belief system behind it. A much-beloved Bible professor from my college, also the minister at my parents’ church, did a series on the Beatitudes. He focused on each one in turn and admonished the congregation to “try harder” to demonstrate those qualities that Jesus called “blessed”. I knew even at that age I could never achieve blessedness by my own efforts. I had been trying, and failing, to do better ever since I was five. And I had begun to hear rumblings of a different way of life, a life dependent upon and empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. I sensed it was real, and I wanted it.

I never knew until today that I grew up Pelagian. I did know that I have long struggled against a tendency within myself to think will power is the key to success in the spiritual and well as the natural life. I saw in scripture, particularly in Romans and Galatians, that such self-reliance was counter to the message of the gospel. It has required a life-long series wrestling matches for me to relinquish my imagined strength and determination to achieve spiritual goals by my own efforts.

Along the path to recovery I have fallen into each of the pits which Augustine warns await us if we learn the moral law without receiving assistance from God to perform it. Pit 1: I thought that revelation and enlightenment and insight were going to change my behavior. Pit 2: I spent much too long a time under the condemnation of the Law, and then reacted by “presumptuously endeavor[ing] to accomplish [my] justification by means of free will as if by [my] own resources.” Pit 3: I was most definitely “puffed up” by knowledge, spending more than a decade in a church so characterized by religious striving that we were proud of our emphasis on humility.

I resonate with Augustine’s assertion that “the man…who has learned what ought to be done, but does it not, has not as yet been ‘taught of God’ according to grace, but only according to the law, not according to the spirit, but only according to the letter. Although there are many who appear to do what the law commands…” That was Pit 4. It was my experience and that of many in my Pelagian church that within the strictures of that setting we could perform according to the higher standard to which we had aspired, but outside it we found our old addictions and attitudes rushing back to prominence. Indeed, “That love…which is a virtue comes to us from God, not from ourselves.”

Once the veil of Pelagian self-reliance has been dissolved, one can clearly see that all one’s own efforts lead to, at best, temporary and shallow results. I bear witness to Augustine’s assertion that “it is not by law and teaching uttering their lessons from the outside, but by a secret, wonderful, and ineffable power operating within, that God works in people’s hearts not only revelations of the truth, but also good dispositions of the will.” To rely on God’s work, God’s grace, God’s sufficiency is to accept my role in our relationship as His creature. He initiated the relationship (I Jn. 4:19) and His love and grace must sustain it. As the old Sunday school song taught us, “They are weak but He is strong.”

When I read Pelagius for the first time today, I was reminded of Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 6:1, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” That’s just the kind of question Pelagius would be likely to ask. Pelagius’ concern for the bolstering of the human will reminds me of the modern concept of “learned helplessness”. He’s afraid all this talk of grace will be enervating and lead to spiritual sloth, while also reflecting badly on God Who, as the source of our competency and free will, could be blamed for our failures as well as our successes. Pelagius wants to empower people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Augustine would counter, with Paul, that “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).

Quotes are from Aurelius Augustine, On the Grace of Christ