The polycephalous monster of Pelagianism is so difficult to avoid. I am grateful to my friend Samantha Cohoe for showing me that I fell prey to one of its coils in my last post. With her permission I reproduce part of our discussion of the matter on Facebook:
Samantha Cohoe: Pater Edmund– in your piece you get say something very wrong about St. Paul that is instructive of the way you are very wrong about this whole subject. Contra your rhetorical question, St. Paul holding the cloaks of the murderers of St. Stephen was not any closer to God than tolerant Gamaliel. To make such a claim, you must assume that St. Paul’s extremism in his mistaken beliefs in some way earned him God’s favor. The opposite is true– St. Paul calls himself the worst of sinners for that very act. When Jesus appeared to him and knocked him off his donkey, he radically altered Paul’s whole course in life. You aren’t reading Paul very well if you attribute his salvation to anything but God’s unmerited favor.
Joel HF: ^Was about to post the same thing.
Samantha Cohoe: Similarly, Pater Edmund is acting as though “religion” is some natural virtue than can be exercised meritoriously. This is completely false, of course, since man’s attempts to reach God through “religion” are entirely fruitless.
Joel HF: And a fervent Jew living at the time of Christ is situated rather differently than anyone today. Of course the sincere and righteous Jew of that time is better positioned than the luke-warm one! For the Christian, that’s practically the whole point of judaism.
Samantha Cohoe: Exercise of a false religion is, at best, an aid to human virtues, and at worst, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, a drive to horrible vice.
Pater Edmund: Of course Paul’s conversion is all grace. I don’t think I was assuming that his zeal earned him any favors. I do think that it helped make him a better Christian though. But you are right that St Paul’s case doesn’t really fit the account that Newman gives, since there is nothing gradual about Paul’s conversion.
Joel HF: #gradualism
Samantha Cohoe: #gradualismisBSgnosis
Samantha Cohoe: If you don’t assume that Paul’s zeal earned him any favors, than what is the basis of your assertion that he is in better standing before his conversion than Gamaliel?
Samantha Cohoe: or “closer to the Kingdom?”
Pater Edmund: (Tries to think of a way of saying this that is not semi-Pelagian, fails) Yeah, I was wrong.
[Triumphant gloating on Samantha’s part— omitted at her request… Also omitted: tangential comment on a movie]
Pater Edmund: There still seems to be something true about Newman’s quote though, even though it doesn’t apply to St Paul:
«For is it not one’s duty, instead of beginning with criticism, to throw oneself generously into that form of religion which is providentially put before one? Is it right, or is it wrong, to begin with private judgment? May we not, on the other hand, look for a blessing through obedience even to an erroneous system, and a guidance even by means of it out of it? Were those who were strict and conscientious in their Judaism, or those who were lukewarm and sceptical, more likely to be led into Christianity, when Christ came? […] Certainly, I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light, and that it mattered not where a man began, so that he began on what came to hand, and in faith; and that anything might become a divine method of Truth; that to the pure all things are pure, and have a self-correcting virtue and a power of germinating.»
Joel HF: Yes, but acting as if continuing in one’s childhood religion stubbornly is a virtue ignores Vatican I.
Samantha Cohoe: That’s just the same BS point with fancy words. What is this “blessing” that is supposed to come from following a false religion?
Pater Edmund: The idea is that if one tries to serve God, and do what you think is His will, He will lead you, and show you more clearly what His will is.
Pater Edmund: This was Newman’s own experience.
Samantha Cohoe: total semi-Pelagianism
Pater Edmund: The case of Newman is different from St Paul though, since he was baptized from the first. That is, is whole path pre-supposed grace. It wasn’t about earning grace through natural virtue, it was about meriting more grace on account of previous grace. So, his example of the Jews was wrong, but his point is right as a point about the Christian life.
Samantha Cohoe: Yeah, ok, in the Christian life. But to apply it more broadly is Pelagian.
Pater Edmund: True.
Pater Edmund: I retract.
[Samantha Cohoe says something kind— omitted to balance out having omitted her previous gloating].
People complain about Facebook being a waste of time: a dreary series of cat videos, complaints about the weather, faux-outrage at current events, ignorant and self-assured opinions about politics, misrepresentative self-portraits, complaints about being tired, complaints about not really having enough time to post on facebook, flattery, rudeness, and so on. But facebook can also be a means for logocentric dialogue, learning, thought. And also for conversation of the sort described in Put Out More Flags:
the whole intricate art of it — the timing and striking the proper juxtaposition of narrative and comment, the bursts of spontaneous parody, the allusion one would recognize and one would not, the changes of alliance, the betrayals, the diplomatic revolutions, the waxing and waning of dictatorships that could happen in an hour’s session…
My exchange with Samantha occurred on a long thread on the ‘wall’ of someone whom I consider to be a true master of the Facebook medium: Matthew Peterson of the Charles De Koninck Project. Peterson’s long thread (over 50,000 comments) has its own fan-page, its secondary literature, so to speak. It is called “The Neverending Thread,” or (by those who don’t understand that the definite article ought never to be included in an acronym) “TNET.” It is a thing of wonder.
Update: Fanaticism vs. Devotion