Manichaeism grouped its followers into two distinct categories: the Elect were those who have attained knowledge by renouncing all sexual and physical pleasures, while the Hearers were second-class devotees who were not required to refrain from sexual activities as long as they did not regard them in a positive light.
One of the most troubling questions that continue to exercise the minds of Christian theologians is that of evil. If the good God has created all that here is, then how can we explain the ubiquitous presence of evil?
This was the question that vexed one of the greatest theologians in the Patristic era, Augustine. In his youth and before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine found the answer offered by the Manichees so compelling that he became a follower of that mysterious sect for nine years.
The sect was named after its founder Mani, the son of a member of an ascetic Gnostic sect of Persian origins. Mani grew up in this Gnostic community, absorbing its teachings and religious culture.
When he was twelve years old, Mani received a vision that instructed him to leave the sect. Twelve years later, he received another vision that commissioned him to be the prophet and apostle of the new “Religion of Light”.
When Mani died in the third century, his followers united under the leadership of Sisinius and brought the teachings of this sect to the Mediterranean Basin, where it became Christianity’s chief rival.
It is no surprise that the main tenets of Manichaeism are shaped by Gnostic ideas, given the background of its founder. Like Gnosticism, this sect stressed the importance of acquiring secret knowledge through divine revelation. But unlike Gnosticism, Manichaeism teaches that religious leaders like the Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus have also disclosed some bits of this secret knowledge.
Again unsurprisingly, Mani claimed to be the bearer of the complete and final truth, and the last and supreme prophet. Subsequently, Mani even claimed to be the incarnation of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.
Manichaeism grouped its followers into two distinct categories: the Elect were those who have attained knowledge by renouncing all sexual and physical pleasures, while the Hearers were second-class devotees who were not required to refrain from sexual activities as long as they did not regard them in a positive light. Augustine was a Hearer.
What was Manichaeism’s solution to the problem of evil that so impressed the young Augustine?
The solution that Mani and his followers offered is extrapolated almost directly and unimaginatively from the dualist metaphysics of the Gnostics. Everything is divided into two primordial realities that are in eternal and irresolvable conflict with each other: Light and Dark, Spirit and Matter, Good and Evil. These forces have such strengths and weaknesses that neither can vanquish the other.
From this basic premise, Manichaeism adopted a view of the Bible that is reminiscent of Marcion’s. The God of the Old Testament, who was responsible for bringing into being this material universe, must be an evil deity. This is because in the Manichaean system matter is essentially evil while spirit is fundamentally good. Although Mani rejected orthodox Christianity because of its undiscerning embrace of the Creator, he insisted that he was a Christian.
Another aspect of the sect that fascinated the young Augustine was its strict asceticism. Because of their revulsion of the material world, the Manichees advocated a spirituality that regarded “the lower part of the body” as the disgusting work of the devil. Given Augustine’s own struggle with his sexuality, it is not difficult to see why he was impressed by the discipline of the senior members of the sect, especially among the Elect.
Followers of the sect who were unable to submit to its exacting demands of renunciation (i.e., the Hearers), however, need not lose heart. As long as they continued to participate in the worship of the Manichees, embraced their doctrines, and gave to the “Church of Light”, they have a chance of being reincarnated as the Elect.
Augustine eventually left the Manichaean sect because of the lewdness he noticed among its top leaders. But Augustine also became profoundly dissatisfied with the sect’s alleged “solution” to the problem of evil. If the Manichaean god is so impotent against evil, Augustine reasoned, why should we worship him at all?
Several theologians of the Church besides Augustine, including St. Epiphanus of Salamis in the fourth century and John Damascus in the eighth, have energetically condemned the Manichaean heresy. The sect seemed to have totally disappeared in the ninth century.
Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.