8/04/2005

Academic Pelagianism

Timothy George's article The Pattern of Christian Truth in last month's First Things is well worth a read. This paragraph is particularly good:

Augustine discerned in Pelagius the same scorning of humility that he had witnessed among the neoplatonists. This is an occupational hazard for all of us who stand with one foot in ecclesia, and the other in schola. We may be Augustinians in our theology, but we are all socialized to be Pelagians in our profession, to exaggerate the importance of personal effort and personal worthiness.
This is something I am prone to forget. It's tempting to think that God is concerned only with saving my soul from hell, and that He's not very interested in extending grace to the mundane details of my programming or my academic career. But this is surely mistaken. God does not 'save from hell'. God redeems. He heals. He transforms. And, being orthodox Christians, we believe that the whole man is in need of redemption. His soul, his body and his mind have been stained by the fall. St. Thomas' prayer before study acknowledges this: "Pour forth a ray of your brightness into the darkened places of my mind. Disperse from my soul the twofold darkness into which I was born, sin and ignorance." Ignorance is a darkness that clouds our minds, and it takes the grace of God to disperse it - however much we would like to claim our intellectual accomplishments as our own. "What do you have that you have not recieved?" asks the apostle.
Augustine made a distinction between a way of knowing he called scientia—the image of a man hanging off a cliff by his fingernails, frenetically digging and scratching, straining every nerve until his fingernails are embedded with the dirt and blood of his exertion. He said there is another way of knowing, sapientia: wisdom. And this often comes to us as an unexpected insight. In such moments cognition becomes recognition and you know that this is not achievement but gift. This is the kind of knowledge that generates humility before the mystery of the holy.
Dr. Reynolds tells a story about his days in graduate school. He had spent an entire weekend working on one logic problem, and simply couldn't solve it. At church on Sunday morning, dejected, he happened to mention this to an elderly woman. "Let me pray for you", she said. And Dr. Reynolds thought, "that's a nice gesture, but I'm working on graduate-level philosophy. How is an elderly lady's prayer going to help?" As she was praying that he would come up with the solution to his logic problem, however, it came to him. This is the sapientia of which Augustine speaks. It goes by other names, too: the Muse, inspiration, etc. But it is always a gift of the gratuitous, bountiful grace of a loving Father for his children. And we malign the grace of God when we boast as if we had not recieved it.