Pelagius: My Favourite Heretic

Pelagius is a very controversial figure. The Pelagian Heresy has been thought of by many to be the most commonly recurring heresy. It keeps popping up here, there, and everywhere. But heresy is in the eye of the beholder, and Pelagius felt that the notion of original sin itself was heretical.

Ironically, many modern Christians have views very much in line with what Pelagius taught. I think it is a “heresy” well worth revisiting.

Pelagius taught that to be a Christian is more a way of life than it is a set of doctrines. He taught that people can live good lives even if they are pagans. He taught that people have inherent worth and goodness and that we can achieve great things if only we have the patience to live truly virtuous lives.

This is a quote from his letter to Demetrias:

Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and the conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues.

New Eden Ministry offers a virtual retreat called Sacred Spaces. In it we discuss Pelagius and his letter to Demetrias in more detail. The retreat includes 4 videos about Pelagius, here is the introduction:

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.

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19 thoughts on “Pelagius: My Favourite Heretic

  1. I’ve read Pelagius and much about the so-called “heresy.”

    My understanding of the value of the identification of a heresy is not so much in what Pelagius actually said, but in what it is pointing to.

    My understanding over several decades has been that the core of what was identified as heresy was the idea that the little me, the false self, as Paul referred to it, has the power to enter contemplation.

    From Thomas Merton in the modern age back to Dionysus and even to the pre-Christian contemplatives such as the Lord Buddha and the sages of the Upanishads, it has been known that the very idea that the little me can do ANYTHING betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of contemplation.

    Nowadays, it’s basic neuroscience that we normally think of as “I” – as the “doer” – comes into being some time in the 2nd year of life, can easily be disrupted, and actually simply takes credit for what arises spontaneously. This is one fo the great neuroscientific insights of the Christian mystical tradition. It has great practical relevance as well, since it seems that almost everyone practicing centering prayer seems to be involved in effort and doership (same thing in the mindfulness community, unfortunately)

    But if the Divine Presence is always present (and how can it not be) then every effort to “contact” the Presence is actually an affirmation that it is not Present.

    So in fact, much of what we are doing when we pray is affirming God’s absence.

    This is the great hubris of modern humanity, something even the so-called atheist Nietzsche saw quite clearly!

    The answer is incredibly simple:

    1. The “Sky” of omnipresence IS, always.
    2. we do not recognize this because the sky is covered over by “clouds” of egoic self-preoccupation (in modern language, distorted brain functioning)

    3. So rather than TRYING to “find” the ever present sky (foolishly, like a fish trying to find water!), we simply become brave enough to see ALL of our distorted brain programming, and Grace then becomes available to us (it’s always available but we aren’t available to it! It’s like Grace is an accident, something we can’t control – BUT we can make ourselves accident prone!)

  2. Not everything a heretic says is wrong. I’m sure Pelagius said some very wise things. But denying original sin and saying that we can live holy lives without help of God’s Grace is heresy, regardless of how great a guy he was otherwise.

  3. The Pelagian “heresy” seems to occur time after time,like God is trying to tell us something….

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