I named my son “Augustin.” I chose it because I admire the life and writings of Aurelius Augustinus (St. Augustine of Hippo, a Doctor of the Catholic Church). Most of those who have heard of him have also heard a sadly inadequate version of his theology. He’s blamed for making Original Sin all about sex; indeed, for making religion all about sex.
It’s true that Augustin got bogged down in a decade-long argument with other Christian leaders in the 5th century AD. The argument started with discussions of heresies and history but narrowed down more-and-more to “How does the ordinary person live the Christian life?” That argument came to focus on having a right relationship with sex, whether to remain a virgin (unmarried and ascetic) or to marry and have a family.
Augustin said sex is a good creation, given to us by God. And sex was not the result of sin nor the cause of the first sin. But sin caused us to lose our right relationship with sex, so that it too often becomes mere lust for the flesh rather than a binding act of love. So the first sin corrupted sex along with all our other actions. We are incapable of free will now. We are forced to sin…unless we receive Grace.
The argument went off the rails due to Augustin’s attackers trying to pin the label of Manichaen on him. He fought viciously because he had a lot to lose — but also because he was a passionate fighter for truth. He had begun his adulthood as an adherent of the faith of Mani which saw the material world as the creation of a evil spirit and the spiritual realm the creation of the good — a dualist theology. Mani thought that matter, that flesh, was evil, and we are trapped spirits needing to be free of it. But Augustin’s long life of intensive research and reflection changed him in many ways.
He was the ultimate critical thinker and not one debilitated by self deception.
We owe Augustin a great debt. Like George Washington, who single-handedly saved the American experiment when he said “no” to despotic power and stepped down from the presidency, Augustin absolutely saved Christianity from becoming merely another form of Greek elitist philosophy.
Those theologians Augustin argued with were trying to make Christianity a religion with two classes of people: the spiritual elite capable of great feats of self-denial, saved by their own deeds, versus the common sinners who could only hope for Grace because they were weak and incapable of perfection as they lived average lives.
Other theologians (especially Pelagius) lauded the ascetic monks and those who renounced the pleasures of the world. These people were better Christians and worked their way to heaven. But Augustin disagreed. No one can do good without Grace. If a man does a moral act, it is because Grace suppressed his sinful inclination, not because that man is especially dedicated. What the good man does is the reflection of Grace running through him not a reflection of his own effort. Man does not even have free will unless Grace removes his sinful inclination first. You see? For Augustin, Grace GIVES us free will. We do not have it naturally.
It’s an elegant argument. It changed Christianity into a religion of sinners, invalids dependent on God. Every religion and philosophy, even today, has its spiritual elite: those who are better people or more favored by God because of their actions. But Christianity is not like that — at least not in its essential theology. The saved and unsaved are mixed together in the church and on earth, and only God knows which is which. We cannot know, not even by our actions.
Of course many people and many denominations tell us we can work our way into heaven. They even think they can tell us who is going to hell. They also see spiritual leaders like monks or priests as elite castes, as special to God. These ideas are decidedly not in the Bible. These thoughts are an infection from human sin, our competitive desire for hierarchies.
This is why I love Augustin: he alone fought for the equality of all by embracing human mediocrity. He said we’re all equal in our weakness…and in our strength, as well, because our strength is from God. None of us can look upon another with judgment.