Easy Solution or Divine Mystery
Who were the Manicheans?
The footnote from the edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine we are reading from has this to say about the Manicheans.
These were the Manicheans, a pseudo-Christian sect founded by a Persian religious teacher, Mani
(c. A.D. 216-277). They professed a highly eclectic religious system chiefly distinguished by its radical dualism and its elaborate cosmogony in which good was co-ordinated with light and evil with darkness. In the sect, there was an esoteric minority called perfecti, who were supposed to obey the strict rules of an ascetic ethic; the rest were auditores, who followed, at a distance, the doctrines of the perfecti but not their rules. The chief attraction of Manicheism lay in the fact that it appeared to offer a straightforward, apparently profound and rational solution to the problem of evil, both in nature and in human experience.
Cf. H.C. Puech, Le Manichéisme, son fondateur–sa doctrine (Paris,
1949); F.C. Burkitt, The Religion of the Manichees (Cambridge, 1925); and Steven Runciman, The
Medieval Manichee (Cambridge, 1947).
Easy solution or divine mystery. I do not think it is too strong to suggest that the appeal to the Manicheans is the same as the appeal to being able to choose to follow simple black and white rules without having to admit that life is complex. In some ways I would suggest that we see this in the current situation in the United States where we do not want civil, political or religious life to admit of any compromise.
And in the Confessions of Saint Augustine, in this chapter, it is the case that Augustine is caught up in the simplicity of Manicheanism because it provides an easy way to understand a complex world. And yet, as we will read, it is also the case that his experience of the Manicheans colors the ways in which he is unable to hear the Word of God
And it also colors the way in which he can understand God Himself. He fails to understand God as being itself, and he fails to see that the powerful relationship with God is what makes the difference. As he says, “For I was ignorant of that other reality, true Being.” Augustine simply did not know God.
What Augustine is trying to solve is the problem of evil. And to be sure, the problem of evil in the world, and the role of God with the problem of evil is challenging. Augustine can see that evil is often the result of human beings doing not so pleasant things. On the other hand, he can witness these same humans make progress in growing into becoming better people.
Even Saint Paul says as much. “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” Inside each one of us there is this tension between good and evil. And we could see the tension between good and evil solved by Manicheanism. But really, as Augustine realizes this is not solution at all.
Questions to Ponder
- In what ways to you reconcile evil and goodness in your life?
- How is it that you believe God wants to help you to overcome evil?
- Saint Augustine uses imagery from the gospel parable The Prodigal Son. How do you understand his use of the term husk and his life of sin? How does this relate to you?
- How do you understand God? How is it God invites you to spiritual growth?