A REALLY Old-time Religion

When we say something is Manichean, or someone has a Manichean view, we mean “black and white,” a very sharp distinction between good and evil, with no gray area.  But where does the term Manichean come from?

The Manicheans were a sect contemporaneous with early Christianity.  My portrayal of Saint Augustine as an adherent of Manicheism as a young adult was based on his own admission in his Confessions.

Mani (a term of respect meaning Light King, probably not his real name) was executed in Persia in 276.  Similar to Christianity, his evangelists wasted no time in spreading his story throughout the Mediterranean, and Manichean missionaries were active in Carthage by 297. By Augustine’s time, the cult had adherents in Africa, Spain, France, Italy and the Balkans.  It was known as far east as India, China and Tibet, and lasted for almost 1000 years in parts of the Middle East.  Unlike Christianity, the Manichean cult remained illegal under the Roman Empire, and was hated and feared by Christians and Pagans alike.

Also unlike Christianity, whose central tenet is salvation by the Grace of Jesus Christ, the Manicheans believed that the enlightened elect could obtain godlike status by virtue of their own knowledge and actions.  In this respect, the cult was a form of Gnosticism (the belief that salvation is obtained by acquiring special knowledge; some Christian heresies were also Gnostic in nature).  The Manichean elect knew complicated secret prayers, practiced extreme fasting and were forbidden to own property, eat meat, drink wine, gratify any sexual desire, engage in trade, or engage in any servile occupation.  “Hearers” like Aurelius Augustine had only to obey the Manichean Ten Commandments (similar to the Commandments familiar to Christians), pray 4 times each day and serve the elect.

The Manicheans were prolific writers, and we know the titles of many of their writings, but almost nothing has survived.  From what little we do know, the Manichean theology seems like a confusing mess of demiurges, light particles, multiple creations, and a fire that will burn for exactly 1486 years to separate the light from the darkness.  Yet, the Manicheans claimed to offer absolute rational proof of their theories, and insisted that phenomena in the physical world were demonstrations of the truth of their theology.

It’s easy to see why a bright young man like Aurelius Augustine, a passionate seeker of truth, would be initially attracted to such a cult.

Another central tenet of Manicheism was the notion that spiritual world is completely good (light) and the physical world is corrupt and evil (dark).  This is the source of our current use of the term “Manichean” to mean a very black-and-white view.  In the Manichean theology, Man can only hope to attain any goodness at all because a few light particles leaked into humanity at the time of the third creation.  These light particles of our good selves are helplessly trapped in our corrupt physical bodies.   This notion may also have appealed to young Augustine, who was so morally serious and having such a difficult time controlling his natural sexual urges.

Later in life, Augustine wrote a whole book entitled Concerning the Nature of Good:  Against the Manicheans.   Like Zoroastrianism and the temple religions of the ancient world, Manicheism failed the test of time.  It lives on only in the descriptive term that is reminiscent of its strictly dual view of the natural and spiritual worlds.

Be the Change #14 – Just Listen (part one)

Over the past several years, it’s become harder and harder to talk to someone who disagrees with you politically.  After the bruising, exhausting 2016 election year, it might even feel impossible.  If a political topic comes up, many people will plead, “Oh, please, can we not talk politics.  I’m so tired of it.”  Others will instantly be emotionally triggered and start repeating the stale arguments of the recent election.

I admit that I’m in the second group.  I try to be respectful and not be the one to bring up political issues in conversations.  But, if somebody else starts it, I can’t let it go past me.  Just can’t do it.  In a non-political meeting recently, a good friend insisted that Hillary Clinton was “disbarred four times.”  I found myself yelling at her, “Prove that!  We’re sitting in front of a computer right now!  Find me a reputable news site that says that!”  Not one of my better moments.  Another friend had to figuratively separate us, and after I calmed down I apologized for yelling. (P.S. Before we disengaged, my friend did try 3 different fact-check sites and they all called her claim False.)

So maybe we’re not quite ready to talk rationally.  At least I’ve made it clear that I’m not.  But maybe we can listen.  Here is the challenge I am setting for myself this week.  I am going to ask someone who supports President Trump what they are hoping for from the next four years, what they like about this President I find so appalling (and I promise not to say “What the hell do you like about that inarticulate authoritarian egotist?”).  And I will exercise whatever level of self-control it takes to JUST LISTEN.  Not for the purpose of arguing back.  Just for the purpose of understanding what one of my fellow American citizens is thinking.

I’ll report back next week on my results.  Try it, and let me know your results, too!

Be the Change #13 – Save the planet

I’m excited about the Mars mission planned for 2030, aren’t you?  But, we’re not there yet.  For now, we still have only one home.  Your assignment for this week is perform at least one action that will reduce pollution, waste or atmospheric CO2, so that this beautiful planet will be livable for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.


Reduce Waste:

  1. Take your lunch to work in reusable containers.
  2. Use cloth napkins instead of paper.
  3. Start a compost bin.
  4. Recycle plastic & newspaper.
  5. Buy less.  Seriously, any American with an average income has too much stuff already.  Our grandparents used to say “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”
  6. Or buy used.  Or borrow.

Reduce your carbon footprint:

  1. If you’re going less than 1 mile, walk instead of driving.  Good for your health, too.
  2. At least one day each week, ride public transportation, bike or carpool to work, or work from home.  Just one day per week saves 20% your work-related carbon emissions.
  3. Install a programmable thermostat.  Your house doesn’t have to be warmed or cooled to a comfortable level when you’re at work during the day, and you actually sleep better if the house is cool at night.
  4. Use CFL or LED light bulbs instead of incandescent.  CFLs use only about 2/3 the energy of incandescent, and will save you about $40 over their life.  LEDs use only 15% as much power as incandescent
  5. Eat less meat.  On average, a meat-eater’s carbon footprint is 3000 pounds heavier per year than a vegetarian’s.  Go meatless just one day per week and reduce your carbon footprint by 430 pounds per year.

Be the Change #12 – 12 Random Acts of Kindness

Promise me that you’ll do at least one of the following this week:

  1. Compliment the first 3 people you talk to.
  2. If you are shoveling snow or cleaning up debris in your yard, do your neighbor’s yard, too.
  3. Take your unwanted or unused coupons to the supermarket with you and leave them beside the product so someone else can use them.
  4. Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line, or the takeout order for the car behind you.
  5. Start a conversation with the person beside you in the elevator.
  6. Let someone go ahead of you in the supermarket line if they have only a few items and you have a full cart.
  7. If you receive good service at a store or restaurant, tell the person’s manager.
  8. If you work at an office and a colleague provides great service or assistance to you, send them a thank-you e-mail with a copy to their boss. I am a boss and I love hearing about it when one of my staff provides great assistance; I do keep track and take it into account in performance evaluations.
  9. Instead of selling something on Craig’s Lists offer it for free.
  10. Tip 20%.
  11. Take a batch of muffins or cookies to your local library, or police or fire station.
  12. While you’re at Petco, buy an extra bag of cat or dog food and donate it to your local animal shelter.

Post some of your own ideas in response, and I’ll use them in a future post.  Or let me know how these ones work out for you.  I got most of these ideas from Parade Magazine’s Random Acts of Kindness website.  Check it out for more ways to spread kindness.

Augustine on Friendship

Our pastor’s sermon last Sunday was on the topic of Christian friendship, and that made me think of Saint Augustine’s experience of friendship.

In my first teacher conference about my son Chuck, his first-grade teacher said “Charles is a good boy who picks bad friends.”  Chuck outgrew that by second grade.  Aurelius Augustine took quite a bit longer to outgrow the same tendency.

The opening scene of The Saint’s Mistress is based on a real incident from Augustine’s life, described in Book II of his Confessions.   The near-rape of Leona and Numa is fictional, but the theft of the pears was real.  Augustine describes himself the way I portrayed him in my novel:  ambivalent about the act, mostly interested in impressing his friends.

He continued to keep bad company during his college years in Carthage.  He joined a group called the eversores (loosely translated, The Wreckers or The Overturners). He hung around with the eversores, but didn’t join them in taunting and insulting newcomers to Carthage.  In Book III of Confessions, he says that he felt ashamed that he wasn’t brave enough to join his friends in their insults.  Clearly, the future saint was conflicted between his own morality and a perverse desire to fit in with the unscrupulous friends he continued to choose.

Later, as a young adult, Aurelius Augustine started to choose better friends, but in at least one case it was he who led a friend astray.  My character Amicus is loosely based on the real Amicus, described by Augustine in Book IV of Confessions. In my book, I have Amicus, Aurelius and their friends all attracted to Manicheism at once.  The reality was that Augustine convinced Amicus and become a Manichean and then, as Amicus lay dying, his family had him baptized as a Christian at the last minute.  His leading Amicus away from the true faith was a source of sorrow to Augustine later in life.

Our hero made some better friends later in life, including Simplicianus and Bishop Ambrose, who were instrumental in bringing Augustine to the Christ.  After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine formed an informal ascetic, contemplative community with his mother Monica, Adeodonatus and some like-minded friends.  They spent the winter of 386-7 at a country villa in Cassiciacum.  The group of friends spent their days reading and discussing the Bible, Virgil and neo-Platonist philosophy.  The following spring, the future church father was baptized by Saint Ambrose in the cathedral at Milan.  The baptismal font can still be seen in the basement of the Milan duomo.

Weknow from his letters that Augustine maintained warm friendships during his time as Bishop of Hippo.  He spoke movingly of friendship in his writings and sermons.  In a letter to his friend the widow Proba, he has this to say: “Good human beings seem even in this life to provide no small consolation. For, if poverty pinches, if grief saddens, if bodily pain disturbs, if exile discourages, if any other disaster torments, provided there are present human beings who not only know how to rejoice with those in joy, but also to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15) and can speak and converse in a helpful way, those rough spots are smoothed, the heavy burdens are lightened, and adversity is overcome.”

The adolescent whose main thought was to impress his rowdy gang, had become a mature man with a deep sense of the compassion that is the heart of true friendship.

For more of Augustine’s thoughts on friendship, see this LINK



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