What If Julian of Eclanum Had Beaten Augustine?

safe_image.phpWe all know St. Augustine of Hippo, the theological genius of the fourth and fifth centuries who influenced the medieval church more than any other bishop and continues to have significant influence today – particularly thanks to what I would say is the toxic doctrine of original sin, which has warped our view of human nature and sexuality so that we think of these things negatively rather than positively.

We don’t know as much about the people who opposed Augustine’s beliefs, those ill-fated objectors who raised objections to the doctrines he formulated. One of those was Julian of Eclanum, a southern Italian bishop who was deposed and excommunicated because he refused to sign Pope Zosimus’ edict against Pelagius. Julian was a second-generation Pelagian, the group against whom Augustine fought often in his career. Pelagians held an exalted view of human nature and held strongly to the notion of free will, contra Augustine’s leanings toward predestination, but did so to such an extent that they thought humans capable of achieving perfection in this life.

So of course these battles, as they often do, came down to two sides advocating the extremes of an issue, the one with a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity and its sexual proclivities, the other a decidedly optimistic, if not naive, view of the same.

Yet when we look at what Julian wrote – such as we know it, mostly through Augustine’s rebuttals – it’s hard not to get the sense that he was quite well ahead of his time, by about 1,500 years or so.

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It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

20130614-012013.jpgIn the end, it just hit me.

A single sentence, in an article not even about homosexuality or theology, not about Leviticus 18 or Romans 1, not about the Boy Scouts or the Southern Baptists.

In the end, what got me was a New Republic article by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz.

“The Lethality of Loneliness” describes how psychobiologists “have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Loneliness is defined as “want of intimacy.”

The story is fascinating and well worth reading. Shulevitz reports that scientists rank emotional isolation as highly as smoking among risk factors for mortality, and those most likely to feel emotionally isolated are those who are most rejected – as Shulevitz puts it, “The outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different” (emphasis hers). The lonely experience higher levels of stress, which injects the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the chronic overdosing of which leads to numerous maladies, the most serious being heart disease.

Since those who are rejected feel lonely more often, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the biggest studies into loneliness have occurred among those who are gay. Scientists studying HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s discovered this incredible fact: “The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly … was whether or not he was in the closet.”

Closeted men were more sensitive to rejection, more fearful of being outed, and therefore less intimate with those around them. Their lives were more stressful, and stress hormones feed the AIDS virus. And then came the sentence that stopped me cold:

[Researcher Steven] Cole mulled these results over for a long time, but couldn’t understand why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease: “Did God want us to die when we got stressed?”

The answer is no. What He wanted is for us not to be alone.

And there it is. Is it really that simple?

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The Trouble with Literalism

250px-Saint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_ChampaigneThe problem with a strictly literal approach to the Bible, as people from Christian Smith to Rachel Held Evans have argued, is that it sets up a false dichotomy in which the literalist gets to decide what is worth taking literally and what is not. It allows the literalist to set the rules of a complex game in which she can only win and anyone else must surely lose. By ignoring the assumptions implicit in all of our approaches to the ancient texts of the Bible, the literalist can claim superiority through a “truer” reading of the Bible than those who take more critical approaches.

This isn’t new, nor is it groundbreaking. We all believe the way we read the Bible is the right way to read it. That’s why we read it that way! The hard part is understanding that others who read it differently may not be reading it wrongly. Although this is tough for me – it means acknowledging that, yes, no matter how unlikely I think that is, biblical literalists may be reading scripture correctly – but it seems especially difficult for the literalists, whose reading of the text essentially forces them to consider all other approaches not just misguided but influenced by Satan and potentially damnable. Kind of makes a conversation difficult.

But we do all have assumptions, and no one takes the Bible literally. Our assumptions play a foundational role in how we approach that text. I mention this because I’ve posted my paper for this semester, and it looks at the assumptions underlying one of the most transformative doctrines developed by one of history’s greatest theologians. I wanted to see where the doctrine of original sin came from, and I found that it really comes from Galen – or, more accurate, the biological-sexual assumptions propagated by ancient Greek doctors and philosophers. Augustine didn’t know that, or at least he didn’t acknowledge it. He cited passages like Romans 5 and Psalm 50:7, but more often he cited, albeit indirectly and apparently unknowingly, Aristotle and Galen.

Let me give an example.

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Sex and the Single Doctrine of Original Sin

It’s not often I can link to a metal video when I discuss complex issues of theology, so I’m thrilled to introduce the band Theocracy, which often broaches complex theological matters in its songs, as it does in the video above, for its song “Hide in the Fairytale.”

The song blends several different strands of thought together to defend the notion that humanity is inextricably trapped in sin as part of our nature, and conversely that any notion of being inherently good, rather than evil, is unrealistic and unscriptural. Consider the first verse and chorus:

A child in sweet duplicity – for innocence, or slavery
To nature and the bents that haunt him straight out of the womb?
He doesn’t have to learn the things unseemly that his instinct brings
To carry like a burden from the cradle to the tomb.
You’ll never have to teach him how to lie!
If we are born in innocence, well, don’t you wonder why?
For selfishness already dwells inside –
The birthright of Adam, the curse of the old man.

Day and night –
Jekyll and Hyde in the fairytale;
This is much more frightening.
Darkness and light –
Feed the new man and tear the veil;
See the old man dying.

This more or less is an argument for the doctrine of original sin, which forms the underlying basis for most of modern-day Christian thought about our relationship to God and our understanding of ourselves. It has been this way now for about 1,500 years – ever since Augustine, bishop of the North African city of Hippo, developed it.

Yet, as this lyrical defense shows, the consensus surrounding original sin has begun to crumble – for two reasons, one scientific and the other philosophical.

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John Chrysostom: Ahead of His Time – and Ours

This might be John Chrysostom week here on the blog, but if I have to read a whole book about him, I may as well take you along for the ride.

Chrysostom was by no means a liberal, at least not as defined by our modern context. He frequently called his Antioch congregation to forsake the customs of the secular culture and embrace a separation that recalled more the radical teachings of Jesus and Paul than the compromising practicality that arose in subsequent centuries. Consider his description of dancing:

For where there is dancing, the devil is also there. For God did not give us feet for this purpose, but for us to walk with discipline: not for us to disgrace ourselves, not for us to leap like camels. [159]

Any quotes from or summaries of Chrysostom’s sermons come from Jaclyn Maxwell’s Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and His Congregation in Antioch.

Even more entertaining, Chrysostom’s decision to go after fancy shoes. As Maxwell notes,

Chrysostom promotes a very puritanical Christian aesthetic in this section, condemning paintings and decorations, and especially the gaudy shoes some of the sandal-makers were producing. Weaving was fine, but not when it was too fancy, because shoes decorated so elaborately caused men to become irresponsible and effeminate. The audience’s reaction to this condemnation was evident in Chrysostom’s defense of himself:

“I know that to many I seem to be concerned with petty matters, meddling in other people’s affairs. I shall not stop on account of this. For the cause of all evil is this: that these sins seem to be petty and because of this they are ignored. And you say, ‘What sin can be more worthless than this, of having a decorated and shining sandal fitted on one’s foot, if it even seems right to call it a sin?'”

Either Chrysostom had heard his audience’s opinions, or he merely expected that the average Christian considered fancy shoes to be a very negligible sin, or maybe not a sin at all. The preacher even expected the congregation to be angry at him for denouncing these shoes. He later explained that their refusal to acknowledge that wearing fancy shoes was immoral had forced him to expound upon the subject. The possession of such shoes was cruel, not only because unnecessary luxury was sinful, but also because they were wasting money that could have been given as alms to the poor. [153-54]

So that’s a long way of saying Chrysostom was not particularly liberal. Yet he was ahead of his time, at least in a couple of key areas, where he remains a voice the church could use today.

One of those areas, as discussed previously and glimpsed above, is his overriding concern with the poor and how Christians should sacrifice much to help them. The other is rather surprising, given the excerpts quoted above.

John Chrysostom was rather liberal when it comes to sex.

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