A: In our discussions lately, you’ve been emphasizing the role of personal responsibility in the journey of healing and faith, and I’ve been waiting for somebody to jump up and accuse you of being a Pelagian. How do you feel about the Pelagian philosophy of free will?

For the record, Pelagius was born sometime in the late 300’s CE, and died around 418 CE. He and his followers drew vicious attacks from Augustine of Hippo and Jerome, and Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy in 431 CE.

J: Without getting too much into the details of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius on the nature of free will, I’d have to say that both of them were wrong.

A: How so?

J: Neither of them had a balanced view of what it means to be a human being. Augustine had no faith at all in the ability of human beings to consciously change their lives and their communities through human initiative. He thought people would be happier if they just accepted their miserable lot in life. Acceptance of Original Sin and concupiscence was the best they could hope for, in his view. His views on human nature have created no end of suffering for devout Christians over the centuries.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Pelagius preached the opposite extreme. He taught the path of spiritual ascent — anagogic mysticism — which says that people can achieve a state of holiness and perfection if they just try hard enough. He placed the entire burden on the individual. This is no less damaging to people’s lives than Augustine’s idea. Neither man understood — nor wanted to understand — that the path of healing and relationship with God is a path of balance. There must be a balance between personal responsibilities and group responsibilities, a balance between personal responsibilities and divine responsibilities. In particular, there must be a willingness on the part of individuals AND on the part of groups to be honest about their own limits. This honesty is the foundation of great strength for souls-in-human-form. Unfortunately, both Augustine and Pelagius hacked away at this foundation with all their might. They both snatched away a source of deep courage and strength for Christians, and insisted on despair and self-blame in its place. It was a cruel thing to do.

A: So your understanding of personal responsibility isn’t the same as what Pelagius taught.

J: It’s important to note that in the Peace Sequence we’ve been discussing, I’ve placed personal responsibility as the third “gear” in the sequence, not the first gear. Pelagius and others have tried to place personal responsibility in the first position on the Peace Sequence, not the third position. They’ve tried to equate free will with personal responsibility, as if they’re synonymous, as if they’re exactly the same thing. But they’re not.

A: Can you elaborate on that?

J: Personal responsibility is perhaps the most complex, most advanced skill set that human beings can learn during their lifetime here on Planet Earth. It’s not a single skill or a single choice. It’s what we referred to earlier as a “meta-choice” — a pasting together of several smaller choices into something bigger. A meta-choice is so well integrated, so cohesive, so holistic that it often seems like a single choice. But actually it’s a blend of several other choices. It’s a blend of the choice to be courageous, the choice to be empathetic, the choice to be humble, the choice to be intuitive, the choice to be well organized, and the choice to be self disciplined. It’s all those things together.

A: You mean . . . maturity. Emotional, psychological, and physical maturity.

J: Yes. It’s maturity. It’s individuation. It’s compassion. It’s Whole Brain Thinking.

A: Using the whole toolkit of the human brain instead of isolated parts of it.

J: The human brain has long been treated as a single organ, though really it’s an interconnected series of semi-autonomous sectors, each with its own specialized ability to “choose” on behalf of the whole. When all the different choices work together towards a common goal, the human brain works smoothly. If “feels” like a single whole, a single choice. But really it’s a combination of choices. When a person has arrived at the stage in life when he or she “gets” the concept of personal responsibility, it means his/her biological brain is working in a balanced, holistic way. The fruits of this long process should — if all goes well — START to be visible in the actions of people 16 to 18 years of age. The process isn’t normally complete, however, until about age 21 or 22. If all goes well.

A: Last week, after Vancouver lost to Boston in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals, large crowds of young people — many of them now identified as coming from “good” families — rioted in downtown Vancouver. There was a lot of looting and vandalism. Something tells me these young people haven’t developed the Whole Brain Thinking approach to personal responsibility.

J: There were some people in the crowd who stepped forward and did the right thing to protect others who were being beaten. These Good Samaritans are the individuals who instinctively know “the right thing to do” in a crisis. Their sense of personal responsibility, of right and wrong, of courage and compassion doesn’t desert them in an emergency. In fact, it may only be during an unexpected emergency that they themselves realize for the first time that they “get it.” They act first and ask questions later — fortunately for those they can help.

“Do not give what is holy to dogs, or they might throw them upon the manure pile. Do not throw pearls [to] swine, or they might make [mud] of it” (Gospel of Thomas 93). Jesus taught several centuries before either Augustine or Pelagius, so of course we don’t expect to see any reference to these later theologians in the Gospel of Thomas. On the other hand, Jesus had unflattering things to say about both the Pharisees and the Herodians, whose teachings resembled those of Augustine and Pelagius respectively. It seems likely that in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus was using the metaphor of “dogs” to refer to the Pharisees and the metaphor of “swine” to refer to the Herodians. It seems Jesus wasn’t impressed with either group’s approach to God’s holy things. Recently, I visited a Toronto Conservatory where several generations of cardinals have learned to enter and exit through the automated roof openings so they can build nests for their young in a warm, safe place. These birds not only provide basic food and shelter for their offspring, but also, in this case, are teaching their young an unusual and complex skill set that calls upon them to maximize their latent potential without exceeding their limits. In other words, the parent cardinals are mentoring their offspring. Photo credit JAT 2017.

 A: You’re saying that maturity — personal responsibility — is the product of many years of education and mentorship of children. Is that right?

J: Yes. Education is the first “gear” in the process, but education alone isn’t enough to guide a child towards maturity and personal responsibility.

A: As the well-educated youths who rioted in Vancouver proved all too well.

J: Along with education there must also be appropriate, mature mentorship. It’s the older mentors who are supposed to guide children in their emotional growth with firm, consistent, boundary-respecting compassionate tough love. Parents, grandparents, teachers, sports coaches, medical professionals, and many others can all be mentors for children if they so choose.

A: What about ministers and priests? Can they be mentors?

J: Ideally, yes. However, realistically speaking, they rarely are.

A: Why not?

J: Because most of them have deeply embraced either Augustine’s idea about human nature or Pelagius’s idea. Neither approach helps a young person learn how to find the balance they so desperately need. In addition, those ministers who try to inject balance into their youth work are also the ones most likely to have rejected the idea of the soul and the spiritual life. It’s lose-lose for ordained clerics.

A: Unless they’re willing to accept new doctrines of faith.

J: For that to happen, they’d have to apply their own God-given free will. It’s a choice each cleric will have to make on the basis of his or her own conscience. That’s what divine courage is all about.