I recently took the Which Early Christian Heresy Are You? quiz and my result was Arianism. I posted on Facebook my disappointment at not receiving Pelagianism. But after a few days of contemplation, I’ve started to wonder if I’m really that disappointed.
Pelagianism and Me
In a nutshell, Pelagianism is the idea that there is no such thing as original sin, put forward by a dude named Pelagian sometime in the fourth or fifth century A.D. Alas, we don’t actually have Pelagian’s writings — we only know what the people who didn’t like him (like Augustine of Hippo) had to say about his beliefs. Assuming those critics accurately presented his ideas, Pelagian apparently rejected the notion that people are born sinners simply because Adam and Eve sinned. Theoretically, according to Pelagian, a person could live a sinless life without ever having been baptized or needing to ask forgiveness. At its core, Pelagianism is an extreme belief in libertarian free will.
I first learned about Pelagian in a historical seminar my senior year of college. Our text for the class was John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I had to write a paper on one of the heretics Newman condemns, so I semi-randomly chose Pelagian. (Incidentally, I went way over time in presenting my paper, a condition that still plagues me in my weekly podcasts on Buffy and Doctor Who.) In discussing my paper with Dr. David Basinger, with whom I was taking a directed study course in logic at the time, he told me that he had sometimes been accused of Pelagianism in his academic work. I recall being sardonically amused, and somewhat surprised, at the idea of modern philosophers hurling ancient heretical epithets at each other. Having explored the academic world further since then, I’m no longer surprised, though still sardonically amused.
As a young man exploring new ideas, I was drawn to Pelagianism for several reasons:
- It approached humanity from the perspective that people are essentially good, contra the orthodox notion that people are essentially evil and require external validation and “cleansing.”
- The concept of original sin, covered by the fifth doctrine of the church I grew up in, had always bothered me because of its cosmic unfairness: Why would God condemn a person for someone else’s actions? Various philosophical and theological replies to this never really satisfied me.
- Furthermore, in no other orthodox teaching is it even possible for one person to sin for another, yet somehow the first man sinned for everyone else. I saw (and still see) this as a major inconsistency in modern ecumenical Christian belief.
- It was anathema to my upbringing, and I am at heart a contrarian.
It was my first real flirtation with heterodoxy, and as with most flings it was hot and heavy for awhile. But then I moved on. Now, as an avowed mesotheist, I can’t really be a Pelagian: Without a working concept of sin, it’s pretty much impossible to argue either for or against a belief in original sin. Thus, I am relegated to looking fondly back at my youthfully vicarious philosophy.
The Heresy of the Individual
However, this quiz I took the other day got me thinking again. Maybe it could work between me and Pelagianism. Maybe we could get back together. I’ve changed as a person, but you never know. Maybe Pelagianism has changed, too….
Although free-will libertarianism and political libertarianism are discrete ideas, there does seem to be a fair bit of overlap. At heart, political libertarianism is about letting people make their own choices, and while those choices could be deterministic on a biological or philosophical level, there’s a distinct language of free will that is used in politically libertarian circles. A lot of that language is couched around über-individualist ideals of “the self-made man” (er, person…) and “pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps,” and yadda-yadda-yadda. The classic American-dream trope that a person can achieve success and happiness despite their birth status, the cultural landscape, governmental intrusions, social pressures, and other seemingly prodigious forces that stand in their way, has a distinctly Pelagian feel, it seems to me.
This is to say that, if individual freedom is the virtue of political libertarianism, then sin is the obstacles which impeded that freedom. Like many Christian conceptions of religious sin, yielding to those obstacles is a failure of human character, an acceptance of a sinful state, because the choice is not the individual’s but that of the one who impedes the individual.
(Note that there are some versions of Christianity, and other religions, which explicitly tie religious sin and economic failure together: Those who are righteous are successful, and frequently vice versa. This is not what I mean. My example is a metaphor only.)
But perhaps I’ve approached this from the wrong end. The explanation of a heresy only fully makes sense when set against the orthodoxy it rejects.
The idea of obstacle as sin is not a solely political libertarian metaphor. Both progressive and conservative authoritarians accept similar notions of the “sin” of obstacles in people’s lives.
Progressives tend to view people as occupying various states of either privilege or unprivilege — that is, as either having certain obstacles in their way or not having them. You are poor or you are rich; you have access to education, jobs and health services, or you don’t; you are a minority, or you aren’t. The obstacles that impede a particular person (or group of people) varies, but some tend to go together, such as poverty and access to affordable education or health care. Like original sin, people are born into these states of unprivilege, and despite not being at fault for the unpriviliege into which they are delivered, they are punished because of it.
What really brings the metaphor home, however, is the progressive approach to combatting lack of privilege. Like a Christian needs a God who offers forgiveness for sins (including original sin), an unprivileged person needs a savior to offset their hardships, according to the progressive mindset. A government that distributes resources to the unprivileged is tantamount to a divinity who pardons transgressors. As with evangelical conceptions of a benevolent and loving God who offers forgiveness if only one asks, progressives also believe that corrections for unprivileged situations should flow freely from the state in the forms of no-cost services and monetary empowerments.
Of course, original sin affects everyone, while unprivilege doesn’t. But the metaphor still holds even for privileged folk, however one defines the term. For paradoxically both unprivilege and privilege are sinful states into which people are born, the latter coming with perceived responsibilities to feel guilty and help one’s fellow man (er, again…person). There’s even a biblical parable about trying to squeeze through a needle’s eye, or something, after you give up all your money. Progressive redistributive policies aim to correct both the original sins of unprivilege and privilege in one fell swoop.
If progressive tendencies are more evangelical (metaphorically speaking), conservatives are a bit more Catholic. They might pretend to want to help everyone, but in practice they take care of their own. Oh, conservatives talk an almost secular Pelagian game of free-will and ardent individualism, but they believe deep down that people are born into an originally sinful state. They preach the evils of Government and Socialism and talk about ways to get rid of them — by controlling government and society themselves.
Like progressives, conservative authoritarians wield the divine power of government to establish protectionist policies and create tax breaks for favored companies, a practice known as crony capitalism. With the right connections, or the right indulgences, they’ll even waive away sinful obstacles — such as by issuing subsidies that help big agriculture or awarding government contracts to large defense corporations.
Thus like medieval Catholics and Protestants, conservatives and progressives fight bloodily over minutiae, claiming each other holds a massively differing theology. In the end it’s not their beliefs, the tenets of their common orthodoxy, that are different but the ways in which each group responds to those beliefs. Both approaches are alienating because both focus on the inability of individuals overcome injustice, to surmount obstacles — to live without sin.
Eschewing Original Conditions
Okay, I’ve taking the metaphor a little too far, perhaps. I stretched it out of shape, and it got a little thin. Throwing out the religious terminology, there is a sense in which something like original sin seems to exist in the world. As a student of literature, I’ve spent many hours (and days, weeks, years) pondering various facets of the so-called human condition. We are all born into the same fundamental situation with which we have to learn to deal.
One of the reasons why I dislike both progressive and conservative approaches is that they both insist on prescriptive structures, which themselves become original conditions. Neither group likes to admit that their proposed solutions to the misfortunes of life merely shifts those misfortunes, and quite often even creates more of them. No human organization can be anything greater than human. Pretending that any collection of individuals is somehow transcendently capable of curing all worldly ills is to misunderstand the nature of organization.
Pelagians never argued that everybody lived a sinless life. The most they contended was that it was theoretically possible for someone to do so without intervention from any divinity. But they acknowledged that such an accomplishment would be incredibly difficult and unlikely. Likewise, political libertarians believe strongly in the capabilities of the individual to circumvent obstructions and become successful. However, most would acknowledge that they receive some sort of help (possibly even government help) to do so.
The heresy of the political libertarian, then, is the idea that people help each other more — through voluntary affiliations, trade and the freedom to exchange ideas that benefit everyone — by pursuing their own interests than by prescribing ineffective dispensations for others. It eschews the notion that original human conditions define us, and that altering them requires cosmic intervention. Not everyone can escape the conditions they are born into, and psychologically most people continue dealing with their birth conditions throughout the rest of their lives. And yes, “you will always have the poor among you,” but not every person born to poverty will remain poor. Political libertarians don’t deny that people are born with either more or less privilege (or whatever terminology you want to use). Rather, we deny that those conditions predetermine the courses of our lives.
Ultimately, looking to some higher authority for absolution from the circumstances of your existence is to deny your merit for the very deliverance you seek. Because there is no higher authority than yourself. At least, not on this earth.
I gave my good friend Dave a preview of this musing, and he had some additional thoughts. Here they are, slightly edited for formatting.
This is an interesting take on libertarian philosophy, albeit a quite obscure one.
It struggles to define its audience. It seems to me that two facets of libertarian thought bear relevance to your metaphor: the knowledge problem and the origin of inequality.
Your argument seems to fall into the Mises/Rothbard camp in the way it is structured. That is, it leans toward the positive assertion that “original sin” can be transcended. Whereas Hayek would come at it obliquely like: “maybe original sins do define us, but we can’t really quantify those cases to effectively fix them.” Only the former is real “secular Pelagianism.” In the latter case, intractable original sin may still exist, but we can’t actually solve it. So it seems that Hayek offers a way to square libertarian thought with the existence of “economic sin.” (ie. sin exists, but the market ameliorates it best.)
But there is an additional moral component here which you could explore more too. In Christianity, original sin is introduced by explicitly immoral acts (disobedience). Progressives speak of social and economic inequality in these terms as well. To Marx and his intellectual heirs, this inequality results from immoral exploitation of the working class. It is possible that this is the case, but it is also possible that inequality is not an effect of immoral acts, but in fact can come into existence as a by-product of only moral acts (voluntary exchange, as Hayek asserts). While the “knowledge problem” approach makes Hayek seem not Pelagian (or at least agnostic), his ideas about the origin of inequality seem to lean Pelagian.