A radical rescue operation

By Giles Fraser
17 Oct 2010

"The Christian message is basically amoral and irreligious, however paradoxical that may sound." - Eberhard Bethge on the message of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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Christianity is essentially a rescue operation. We are about salvation — 'being saved'. Those who want to tone it down or make it acceptable to a more sceptical mindset often try to represent the Christian faith as a religion of ethics, as something to do with being good. But, really, it is no such thing.

The idea that Christianity is fun­da­mentally about autonomous ethical behaviour was the great heresy of the fifth-century British monk Pelagius. His theological message was simple: God wants human beings to be perfect, and they can be perfect by following God’s commandments.

This philosophy had real power for many of those dissatisfied with the corruption of late-Roman society. Inspired by his teaching, a number of wealthy Christians gave up their lands and possessions in order to live out this 'perfect' Christian life.

So why is this religious radicalism considered to be one of the great heresies? In short, because it fails to understand Christianity as rescue.

Augustine, who came to define Ca­tholic orthodoxy, says that the prob­lem with Pelagius is that he completely misunderstands the com­plexity of human nature and moti­vation. Pelagius believed that doing good was simply a matter of choice, a question of will-power.

In contrast, Augustine thinks of human beings as profoundly ad­dicted to their own sickness — so much so that we are just not capable of achieving the sort of compliance with God’s commandments which Pelagius insists on. We are thwarted by some deep inner weakness that leaves us trapped. That is why we need to be rescued.

Augustine’s sense that some original sin is what keeps us trapped is often disparaged. And I also want to resist his unhelpful association of this sin with sex. None the less, the idea that human beings are a bit like alcoholics on a 12-step programme — where we must first accept that we are incapable of helping ourselves, and that we need assistance from elsewhere in order to set things right — seems exactly right.

Ultimately, the breezy moral optimism of Pelagius leaves us feeling like failures, trapped thou­sands of feet underground, trying to escape by digging with our bare hands. Au­gustine tells us that this cannot work. We need help.

In winning the argument against Pelagius, Augustine made this asking for help the guiding prayer-thought of the Middle Ages: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, have mercy upon me.” I wonder how often Chilean miners caught up in their disaster and rescue have prayed a prayer like that in recent weeks?

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(c) Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute. This article is adapted, with acknowledgements, from his regular Church Times (http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/) column.

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