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Exploring Manichaeism: St. Augustine, Part 3

In his search for an alternative to catholic Christianity, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) turned to a religious sect known as Manichaeism, which promised to synthesize Christ’s “true” teachings with classical wisdom. The Manichees1 followed the teaching of Mani (AD 216–277), a Persian religious leader who was crucified for claiming to be the Paraclete and restorer of the true teaching of Christ. An odd blend of materialism and dualism, Manichaeism taught that the world was dominated by two co-eternal and opposed principles, one benevolent (Ormuzd: “light”), and one malevolent (Ahriman: “darkness”). These two “realities” were responsible for bringing eternal strife and conflict to the world. Like the Gnostics, the Manichees believed that Christ was solely spiritual, had no material body, and did not actually die on the cross. The Manichees strongly opposed catholic Christianity.

As a faithful Manichee, Augustine had three basic problems with Christianity. First, his materialism prevented him from conceiving of God as an immaterial (or incorporeal), transcendent reality, imperceptible to the senses. Second, Augustine had questions about the problem of evil, especially evil’s relationship to God. He asked: “Where then is evil? What is its origin? How did it steal into the world?…Where then does evil come from, if God made all things and, because he is good, made them good too?”2 In his mind, Manicheans provided a better explanation to the problem of evil through its dualism.

Third, Augustine believed that while Christianity is based on faith, Manichaeism was based on reason and, thus, provided the truth. Finding the truth was, after all, Augustine’s main objective. Furthermore, Manichaeism’s view concerning cosmic evil and strife in the world (a type of fatalism) allowed Augustine to justify his own sinful tendencies (especially sexual) as actions beyond his personal control.

A Closer Look at Manichaeism

While Augustine remained a Manichee for nine years, ultimately his keen analytical mind began to question the coherence of Manichaeism’s dualism. He questioned whether his chosen religious system could provide the adequate explanation of ultimate truth and reality he sought.

Manichaeism’s hold on Augustine finally broke when he met with the highly regarded Manichee bishop, Faustus. Though charming and articulate, Faustus could not answer Augustine’s metaphysical and epistemological objections to Manichaeism. Augustine came to view this religious system as having deep philosophical flaws and, therefore, unworthy of his deepest commitment. However, while he was no longer officially within the Manichee fold, some of its ideas continued to shape his philosophical and religious thinking—thus, he still retained his three stated objections to Christianity.

Continued in two weeks

  1. Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), s.v. “Mani, Manichaeism”; and Ed L. Miller, Questions That Matter, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), 374–75.
  2. Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992), Book VII, 5.