Anthropological Manichaeism

Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is good… Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place. – Pope Francis

Last week, an evil and cowardly man attacked a concert venue full of women and children. This man believes that he was earning for himself a one-way ticket to paradise, complete with a harem of spotless virgins. The surprise that he will face when he realizes that instantaneous pain of the suicide bomb he used to commit this heinous act will never end is certainly a worthy topic of theological reflection, but that is not the purpose of today’s post.

Instead, I would like to turn our attention to another phenomenon I have observed during this era of terrorism. It is a theological error that I have dubbed Anthropological Manichaeism.

Manichaeism, most widely known among Christians because of the association with Augustine of Hippo and his brief time as a Manichaean, is an ancient theological error. In this error, the universe is governed by two ultimate principles. I’m not sure it is quite accurate to call them gods because in my understanding they are not personal entities. Either way, these two principles are locked in a constant struggle for dominance. The good principle is associated with the immaterial, while the evil principle is associated with matter.

Augustine was drawn to this system because of his observation of the world. He looked at suffering and needed an answer for why it exists. Manichaeism gave him this answer, at least temporarily.

It is often said that every human is born Pelagians. Pelagianism is another theological system associated with the Bishop of Hippo, as he was the greatest opponent of the wicked theology. Pelagianism asserts that man is untouched by the Fall of Adam, that apart from a bad example to follow we are basically good. This is indeed the default position of most naturalists.

However, as I’ve watched the news I have noticed that there is often an attempt to call out “the good” or “the positive” amidst these terrible acts. You see, atheists have to deal with the problem of evil as well. They look around at the world and see suffering, and have to account for it. However, as naturalists, they often deny the existence of anything but the material world. As a result, they seem to construct a system where the Manichaean struggle of two ultimate principles of good and evil exist within us. We must strive for the good to overcome the evil. For every suicide bomber, so argues the news, there is someone willing to rush toward the explosion to help the wounded.

Now, I don’t deny that this is true. We often see acts of heroism, even from those who are not Christians. There are a variety of ways to explain this, and that I will leave for another day. However, what is undeniable is that the solution to evil is obviously not inside of us. While it may be true that not every human is capable of the disgusting evil we see from ISIS fighters, it is also true that every human is capable of the disgusting evil of lying to their parents… or stealing from their employer. There are objective gradations of evil, but all of us to some degree are rotten from the inside out. While this corruption may not always work its way to the surface in the form of an idolistic crusade in the name of a demon and his prophet, it manifests itself with every lustful glance and selfish thought.

What the world needs is not for us to choose the good that is within us. It is not sufficient, as Papa Franky said in my introductory thought, to simply choose good as we conceive it… for our hearts are desperately wicked. What the world needs is not for humans to save it. It needs the Creator to redeem and restore it.

This principle of Anthropological Manichaeism is pervasive, and as Christians, we must recognize that it is not the Gospel. There is no spark of the divine inside us, there is no untainted root from which to fight the darkness without. The only hope we have of overcoming evil is to be transformed by the Spirit of the One who succumbed to the intentions of evil men according to the intentions of his holy Father.