While we are enjoying the approach of Halloween’s witching season, let’s not forget a super match. A theological dispute with real stakes. The Pelagius and Augustine super match, the dispute — it’s very timely. Pelagius (circa 354-418 CE) was the champion of free will. The can-do attitude. (Read the Wikipedia article on him.) St. Augustine of Hippo was massively profound and entertaining, and he can still instruct us shallow digital culture vamps. I.e., me. And possibly you.
In my personal impious journey, I’ve always thought that Halloween had something — don’t laugh, please — sacred about it. I don’t mean the plastic ghouls and dragons and would-be satanic mirrors my neighbor in Houston put in his yard. That well where you look down and it just keeps replicating the image. That’s how we socially deal with the opportunity to have fun and explore the dark side, without guilt.
No use not living, guys…
Anyway, Augustine was no hypocrite — he LIVED large. Versus Pelagius who defended, let’s call it human pride and ingenuity in getting along. Except he was also disciplined, a champion ascetic. He could have been a venture capitalist in our day. Later on, of course, the theme of that same human pride has kind of (sssh!! — glancing around, lowering my voice) melded with — you know — Satanism. The “we can find wisdom and power on our own” cult.
Ladies of the night, drink, hashish and The Matrix
Augustine, who had been through a lot, from pleasures of the flesh to many other things, said oh no-no-no. He knew. Really, if you haven’t read about it, you should… He had drunk of what French poet Rimbaud called, much later, “the untaxed liquor of Satan’s still.” But if you are going to renounce sin, much better to know what it is you are renouncing.
“To transcend,” said a wise man, “you first have to learn to accept.”
Augustine spoke not just from prejudice or lack of experience. Aside from St. Paul, says the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, Augustine is probably the most influential Christian thinker in history. (Read the short “St. Augustine, Christian bishop and theologian” article in britannica.com.)
Specifically from the point of view of fusing Christian theology and pre-Christian esoteric wisdom traditions — such that of Plato. You know, the radiance, the cave, the quantum reflection on the wall. Which is how yours truly as a callow student discovered that not all those pious church guys were crazy.
Plato’s Matrix, you gotta see it
The divine radiance that informs us — that informs and forms the world — was Plato’s thing. It is a version of The Matrix but with Augustine later playing the role Keanu Reeves had in the Wachowskis’ film.
Augustine was interesting exactly because he wasn’t a good boy all the time. He insisted on tasting, he delayed a full commitment to piety because he knew he wasn’t ready. He knew he would fail his vows, so he waited. And tasted.
The AI of Theology
Augustine’s Principle No 1: to transcend the flesh you need the grace of God, young Ruby coder. Or whatever your favorite programming environment is. (I like Ruby and Python, but that only means I’d like to know them better.)
Anyway, Artificial Intelligence was not big back then. And I’m just imagining what Augustine would have said about program syntax and algorithms. What their analogies are in theology. This debate between the saint and li’l satan (Pelagius) started on purely theological mind vs mind terms, but Augustine declared victory for the church. He had attained a certain stature by then. Pelagius kind of… disappeared from view. A loss for history, I mean it.
Oh you and your Halloween stories!
From where starts another Halloween story of uncertain provenance. The Pelagian serpent-bearer vs. the goddess. Well, we know how that is going to end — no one defeats women — and Halloween is coming, let’s remember our betters. And their stories.