Manichaeanism vs. “Fallen Goodness”

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 99-100.

Didymus the Blind was a fourth century Christian thinker in Alexandria, Egypt. Quasten discusses Didymus’ belief in apokatastasis, the view that God will ultimately reconcile all beings to himself, including Satan and the demons. In the course of the discussion, Quasten states that Didymus “never tires of refuting the Manichaeans by showing that evil is not an essence [(ousia)] but an accidental condition, and that God will totally destroy it (Contra Man. 2, 1088).”

I could not find Didymus’ works online, but I figure that this post is an opportunity for me to learn more about the Manichaeans. I’ve often heard that Augustine was one of those before he became a Christian, and the word “dualism” comes to mind whenever I hear the term. But I don’t know much about the Manichaean belief system, and this blog presents a chance for me to learn.

The Quasten quote stood out to me because I often wonder if evil is the “essence” of who we are. In my eighth grade English class, I read Anne Frank, who was solidly convinced that all people are “good at heart,” even though the Nazis killed her family and her people. That’s puzzling, considering that a lot of Christians point to the Holocaust as if it’s empirical proof for original sin, the notion that human beings are corrupt and innately evil on account of the Fall of Adam and Eve.

And yet, I wonder if Anne Frank had a point. Perhaps there was some core of humanity even in the hearts of the Nazis, but it was buried underneath various things: lies they heard about the Jews, the prejudices of their culture, economic difficulties, training their minds to see others as less than human, etc. While they were certainly responsible for their horrible crimes against humanity, was their brutality the sum total of who they were–deep, deep down?

And, on a far lesser scale, the same may be true of the people I dislike: there is some humanity, or beneficence, deep down within them, despite the bad things that they do. An atheist acquaintance of mine in high school once remarked, “I think people are good, but we just do bad things.” My impression of human nature is not so positive, to tell you the truth, but I agree that there is at least some good in every person. I often wonder if the evil things that people do are “accidentals” rather than expressions of who they truly are deep down inside. I don’t know.

On Manichaeanism, I looked through the following articles:

CHURCH FATHERS: On the Morals of the Manichaeans (Augustine)

CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Manichaeism

Manichaeism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

My impressions are that (1.) the Manichaeans were dualists, who believed that there was a good force and a bad force of roughly equal power, and (2.) they were like the Gnostics in that they held the flesh to be evil and the soul to be good, albeit deceived. Christian opponents of Manichaeanism maintained, by contrast, that (1.) God was good and omnipotent, and (2.) flesh and matter were good creations of God, but they were fallen and corrupt as a result of the Fall. Evil, in the “orthodox” Christian scenario, was not a separate entity from the good, but rather a corruption of the good.

That could be why Didymus says evil is not our “essence”: God created us good, so our essence is good. But we’re broken, and that’s why we need God to fix us.

Here are some thoughts:

1. In terms of anthropology, the Manichaeans and the orthodox Christians overlap. Both believe that there’s a good part of humanity and a bad part, only they define them in different ways. The Manichaeans claim that humans have a good soul and bad flesh, whereas the orthodox Christians hold that human flesh is good yet fallen.

2. Maybe they’d part ways in their views on asceticism and sex, but I wonder to what extent. The Manichaeans were quite ascetic, yet so were “orthodox” Christians. Perhaps Augustine wasn’t as extreme as the Manichaeans, for he denies that eating flesh is harmful (see here) and supports marriage, notwithstanding all the bad things he says about lust (see here).

3. On the issue of sex, my readers know that I’ve often criticized the Christian “no-lust” rule, which appears in Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NRSV). Such a rule strikes me as profoundly ignorant of human nature, which has a sex drive. Saying “lust is bad” sounds so Manichaean to me! But is there a way to use an orthodox paradigm (which the orthodox may not have even used!): to acknowledge the human sex drive as something good and created by God, while recognizing that our misuse of it may fall short of what God intended? In this scenario, the solution would be not to extirpate the human sex drive, but to use it appropriately, in accordance with certain values. After all, notwithstanding Matthew 5:28, there are Scriptures that are more cognizant that we are naturally sexual animals. For example, I Corinthians 7:9 (which I prefer in the King James): “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”

(Note: I still need to read Richard Foster’s Money, Sex, and Power, which Felix recommended to me, but I haven’t gotten to it.)

4. Is evil merely fallen goodness? I can understand the notion that evil people are not totally evil. As C.S. Lewis points out (I think in Mere Christianity), even Satan has his qualities, such as intelligence, beauty, etc. But there are things that seem so evil that they lack any shred of goodness: killing someone, raping or molesting a child, etc. One could perhaps argue that these acts flow from something good: a just sense that we’ve been wronged may motivate us to kill, a desire for prosperity could lead us to rob someone, sex is positive, etc. But evil looks to me like a separate entity from good: it is proactively hurtful and destructive, rather than a mere deficiency of goodness.

In any case, those are my thoughts for today. Feel free to chime in if you have anything to add!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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