The Manichaens thrived in all parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and as far away as China and Europe, from the third century onward. So popular were they that the church fathers tried to make people believe they were a Christian heresy. But their real roots are in the dualistic thinking of ancient Persia, stretching back to the prophet Zoroaster.
Their appeal was huge, however, and Mani’s culturally omnivorous followers availed themselves of all sorts of religious ideas (and possibly even Christian writings) in formulating their philosophy. In turn, the Christian gnostic sects used it freely and imitatively, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to sort out Manichaen and “purer” gnostic forms of teaching.
Not to mention that even the most “orthodox” Christian teaching got a heavy dose of Manichean ideas. The most famous of the early church writers, Saint Augustine, was a Manichean throughgout most of his formative period. And some cynics have noted that he only converted to Christianity in 387–after the emperor Theodosius, worried about the influence of Manichaen thought on Christianity throughout the empire, issued an edict (382) ordering the death of Manichaens. A coincidence, to be sure.
What I like about the Manichaens is that they based their teachings on the simple observation that there is more evil than good in the world, and that two eternally opposed powers of good and evil preside over everything from the cosmos to the individual soul or will. Giving to charity and lying about your tax liability to the IRS are perfectly natural expressions of your humanity. So is patience with children and wanting to beat the crap out of the guy who just cut into your lane, missing your car by inches. It keeps us in a constant state of stress and imbalance, and if this weren’t so the stars would fall out of the sky.
Good and evil are simply modes of the universal struggle and the impulses that govern the individual life. Since we live in a world governed by material things, the downward trend of our desire for pleasure, sex and riches is more or less guaranteed. Let’s not call it sin. Let’s call it human nature. Because when writers like Augustine get hold of the idea, they’ll equate the two and we’ll just feel sorry for ourselves. Christianity is the great confusion of a much simpler, earlier dualism.
True, their myths are far more complicated than I’m letting on, and the light and dark imagery and personages who populate their stories (like the quasi-gnostic Mandaens of Iraq) can be a bit obscure and exhausting–a bit like Hinduism. There is also the problem of knowing which of the sources we possess, interspersed as they are with all kinds of religious teaching ranging from apocalyptic Judaism to Buddhism, are really representative of Manichean religious thought. But that just makes them more interesting–in my humble opinion.
Manichaeism remained highly vaporous, dangerous, and a little sexy. Orthodox Christianity pinned everything down to definitions and ended up sounding like Daffy Duck.
The big advantage over orthodox Christianity is that for Manicheans there is no real problem of evil. Evil (as Nietzsche and Richard Strauss saw, philosophically and musically) is just a mode of reality. Good and evil are correlative forces creating the basic tension in the universe. In the basic myth of the Manichees (there are many), God is not all powerful, so he couldn’t subdue evil if he wanted to, and humanity itself is a byproduct of the struggle–a mythological way of saying that our personalities are symptoms of eternal, unresolved swirl and restlessness. Like Jessica Rabbit, we’re not bad; we’re just drawn that way.
The Christians meantime taught that Satan was relatively puny, a tempter, slanderer (diabolos, devil), adversary (Satan), or lesser angel of light (Lucifer) who infiltrated creation, spoiled its primordial goodness, and then had to pay the price of his mischief through the coming of a “redeemer” who could satisfy the devil’s demand for the payment of a debt God had incurred in a game. God the almighty had lost the world in a wager when Adam “fell” from grace. History becomes the staging ground for getting it back.
No, I am not making this up: almost all the church fathers taught that Satan had won the world to his side in the Garden. Even the concept of original sin is developed in the light of this belief. God is seen as a gambler who invents the stratagem of salvation: producing a god-man who belongs to the devil by right (all humans do, according to Christian theology) but not by nature, since he is “truly God,” and hence more powerful than a speeding devil.
The belief that between the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus paid a visit to hell and “caught” Satan by surprise (“with the bait of his humanity on the hook of his divinity,” Irenaeus and Basil liked to say) is actually preserved in early christian creeds, like the one curiously called the Apostle’s Creed written late in the fourth century by Ambrose of Milan.
Slightly embarrassed by this highly mythological way of looking at why Jesus came into the world (bait? hook?), the church finally turned to philosophy, where it tried to make roads and ended up creating the system of potholes we call Christian theology.
In this system, the devil still exists but plays no real role in the drama, leaving God vulnerable to the all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing trilemma. –The one the Manichaens never had to confront, as their divine powers were fairly equally matched, at least in this cycle of creation.
The theologians’ God (as distinct from the God of the Bible, lore, and early legend) had to account for the fact that the deity, being omniscient, must have known creation would turn out wrong (evil) and being all good must not have wanted it to turn out that way and being all powerful could have prevented it, yet didn’t. No matter how you de-horn this preposterous beast it’s still mighty ugly. Every theologian from Augustine to Plantinga and Hick have had a try at solving the problem that James L. Mackie saw as Christianity’s fatal intellectual flaw. I recommend reading them only if you have ten years in solitary confinement to kill, and even then get plenty of exercise. –No wonder that this branch of Christian theology, “theodicy,” is often misspelled “theidiocy.”
My real proof that the Manichaens are right however is not that orthodox Christianity looks wrong, it’s that the pure force of evil within the Church is plain as the nose on your face.
My guess is that for two thousand years the Church has been a kind of hothouse for evil. The process reached a pre-climax in the Crusades and later in the Inquisition. But only in our own time has the complete success of the evil forces been clear.
Still not convinced? I offer the following exhibits:
1. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A woman so in love with poverty that she did everything in her earthly power to propagate it on a global level. Especially successful was her campaign against family planning and HIV-AIDS education, calling abortion, in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize address,”the greatest destroyer of peace in the world.”
2. Pope John Paul II (Blessed John Paul II): The charismatic bishop of Rome and soon to be canonized supreme pontiff and successor of Peter (1978-2005) whose “Gospel of Life” and blind eye towards the moral decrepitude of thousands of priests was the Catholic church’s belated contribution to the sexual revolution.
3. Pope Benedict XVI, right-hand man to John Paul, whose skill at delaying judicial proceedings against the criminal acts of priests and bishops revealed a level of technical proficiency seldom witnessed, even in ecclesiastical bureaucrats.
4. Bernard Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston, the first bishop shown to be actively involved in a cover up of the criminal acts of priests accused of child abuse, and duly rewarded for his service to his Church by John Paul II by being appointed to a lifetime sinecure in Rome and archpriest of Saint Mary Major basilica, one of Rome’s cushiest benefices.
6. Father Paul Shanley, who managed to combine his pastoral work with street people in the 1980’s with plenty of downtime with adolescent boys (at least nine), and after being transferred to faraway San Bernadino, California, where the living and bishops were easy, co-owned a B&B for gay tourists with another priest in Palm Springs. A self-starter, Shanley used his rectorial experience to found the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Hymnal appropriately includes “I get high with a little love from my friends.”
6. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, who rightfully stripped St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status after insolent nun, Sister Margaret McBride, assented to a surgical procedure to save the life of a woman in her eleventh week of pregnancy, on doctors’ advice. In the spirit of the Church’s robust defense of unborn life and its commitment to the spread of poverty, disease and infant mortality in the developing world (cf. the “Gospel of Life,” above), Bishop Olmsted also noted that Sister Margaret had incurred automatic excommunication for her intervention.
7. Honorable mention. With its aggressive media, it was almost tempting to think that only the American church had been overcome by devils. Now we know that the spirit of evil is alive and flourishing in Canada, Belgium, and best of all, around Galway Bay, where Paddy can now be a nickname for Patrick–or something else.
Basically, wherever God thought he had won, there is plenty of proof that he lost–just like in Eden all those millennia ago. As far as I’m concerned, the Manicheans had it right all along. What a craven poltroon, what a yellow-bellied dastard, what a sissy, a milquetoast, a Scaramouche. He couldn’t even manage to wipe out the whole human race with the flood, and hasn’t had the cojones to follow through with his promise to do it again only this time for real.
Put your money on the devils.