Mike Aquilina

Augustine and the Old-Time New Agers

Thursday December 28th 2006, 3:03 am

The Manicheans were the New Agers of the olden days. Derivative of Christianity, but straying far afield, the religion of Mani proffered an answer to the problem of evil and a path to salvation that held enormous appeal for intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals from the third century onward. The young Augustine almost fell under its spell, but backed away before making a commitment. In later life he wrote the most devastating refutations of Manichean doctrine.

Now New City Press has gathered these eight works together in a single volume, The Manichean Debate. Augustine’s responses take several forms: treatises, dialogues, and letters, some of them mingled with memoir. The translations here are good and the introductions and notes very helpful. Some of the works appear for the first time in English.

Manicheans held that the world was made not by God, but by a wicked creator, the so-called god of the Old Testament, which they rejected. Matter was the locus of evil; spirit the realm of the good. Thus, they rejected the world and all of its delights: sex, wine, meats, and so on. Their arguments, perhaps the most persuasive of all the Gnostic species, drew out Augustine’s most important distinctions: about the goodness of marriage and food and strong drink, when ordered to their proper ends, and the even greater value of the renunciation of these goods, when they are given up for a higher Good.

Some converts to Mani’s way were drawn by the cult’s severe asceticism. It was enormously attractive during a time when the Church was wracked by scandals. The translator of this volume, Father Teske, summarizes Augustine’s response in a way that speaks to the anxieties of many of today’s Christians: “The number of the saints who follow the narrow path is small in comparison to the multitude of sinners, but that small number is hidden on the threshing floor of the Church.”

The volume will delight readers interested in Christian antiquity. But it will also prove useful for contemporary apologetics. The old religion of Mani — which would build a wall of separation between matter and spirit — is rising again under new names. Who better than Augustine should teach us to respond?