Helen Gould, NSW Regional Meeting.
Karl Barth the German theologian once described the British as ‘incurably Pelagian’. And indeed, as I have learned about the Celtic Christian Church of which Pelagius was an early Father, I have found much in common with Early Friends. This is what I intend to focus on in this brief piece.
Firstly, a brief comment on the man. Pelagius was born in the latter half of the fourth century and was, by tradition, the son of a Welsh bard. He was a contemporary of Augustine of Hippo (yes, the man who did more than anyone to make ‘original sin’ official Church doctrine) and was eventually exiled from the Roman Empire and excommunicated from the Church as a heretic. He returned to Wales, and possibly Ireland, and his teachings, which expressed values of his Celtic culture, continued to influence the developing Celtic Christian traditions. I have drawn my information from J. Philip Newell’s book Listening for the Heartbeat of God: a Celtic Spirituality[i]
Like Fox and other Early Friends, he was concerned about justice. He even called for the redistribution of wealth – he said, “a person who is rich and yet refuses to give food to the hungry may cause far more deaths than even the cruellest murderer.”[ii] “Wisdom’, he wrote, ‘consists in listening to the commandments of God and obeying them. A person who has heard that God commands people to be generous, and then shares what he has with the poor, is truly wise.” [iii]
Pelagius drew much inspiration from John’s Gospel (which is sometimes called “the Quaker gospel”) and he drew similar conclusions to Early Friends from John 1:9 “the light that enlightens every person coming into the world.” Like Quakers, he concluded that all persons received this Light of God, so it included non-Christians, women and babies. Hence he willingly taught women how to read and interpret Scripture. He asserted that in the birth of a child, God is giving birth to God’s image; humanity is essentially good. Creation, and procreation, are God-given and good. Deep within each person, at the heart of humanity, is the goodness of God.
Yet evil-doing is real.
He writes of “the long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over many years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature”[iv].
Early Friends emphasized that we must come to the teaching within our own hearts, and so did Pelagius. He wrote that if we desire to find the light by which to live, we should look within our own hearts where we will read the living Word of God; he instructs us to ‘write down with your own hand on paper what God has written with his hand on the human heart.’[v] In a letter to a young woman, Demetrias, he suggests that she ‘approach the secret places of her soul’ and there be attentive to the ‘inner teaching’ that God has placed within her, regarding what she should do, and then do it[vi].
However, he advises us to compare what we hear in this way, with what Jesus taught. “If you have formulated principles which are contrary to his teaching”, he says, “then you have misheard your conscience and you must listen anew.”[vii] Similarly, Early Friends believed that true guidance would not contradict Scripture. Yet Pelagius also wrote, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realize that Scripture itself is the work of human minds, recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters: it is becoming like him.”[viii]
On Scripture, compare George Fox ; a characteristic statement is: “I did not understand these things with human resources, or with the help of books… but I understood them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ and by his immediate spirit and power, as had those holy people of God by whom the holy scriptures had been written. Yet I had no little esteem for the Holy Scriptures; they were very precious to me. For I was living in that power that led them to be written in the first place. And what the Lord opened up to me I found later to be consistent with them.”[ix]
Celtic Christians like Pelagius affirmed the goodness of nature. He wrote, “Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the fish in the river and sea….There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent… his breath had brought every creature to life… God’s spirit is present within plant as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on earth is ugly.” And again, “when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree, we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.”[x]
Fox too knew the original goodness of nature. He writes, in a magnificent and famous passage, “I now came up in the spirit past the flaming sword into the paradise of God… And the whole creation gave off another smell… I knew nothing but purity and innocence and rightness as I was renewed in the image of God… But as people surrender to the spirit of the Almighty, they too can receive the word of wisdom that opens up everything, and they too can come to know the hidden unity in the eternal being.” [xi] He also understood “how every creature occupies the space given to it so that together they can maintain their unity.”[xii]
Yet most of us have largely lost sight of the goodness of the natural world and the Celtic Christian deep knowing that through nature we can glimpse the divine living being. Friends, this is, for most of us, not something principally grasped with the intellect, but through participating in nature, by meditating, and by other characteristically right brain “doing” such as ritual, art, music… The right brain is “Integrated/ holistic… it takes the component parts and organizes them into a complete image or concept (gestalt)”; it is “diffused or divergent in that the right brain’s attention is on the entirety. It integrates that component parts and organizes them into a whole. It looks at all aspects simultaneously rather than in isolated detail.”[xiii]
No, I haven’t “lost the plot” at this time when Quakers are particularly focused on Earthcare. In the wider society at this time, there is no need to emphasize the value of analysis and rational linear left-brain processing because this is “the” way that Western people value. Rather, we need reminding that if we are to survive the here-and-future chaos, we need art, music, time in nature and above all worship, meditation, letting-go so that we can let God.
[ii] Newell p12. All quotes are reproduced in Newell; they all come from Robert Van de Weyer (ed.), The Letters of Pelagius Arthur James, 1995, and from B.R.Rees (ed.) ‘Letter to Demetrias’ in Letters of Pelagius and His Followers, Boydell 1991.