Levitating with Augustine

Somewhere in my early teens I wanted to levitate. The thought of defying gravity struck me as an obvious life skill only a fool would neglect. I went to the library and secured the appropriate book: Yoga & Meditation for Beginners. I remember a man on the cover sitting in a yoga pose with his legs pretzel-folded, his face serene and dull. Blank whiteness surrounded him and I saw no sign of a floor.

I was sure of it: HE WAS LEVITATING!

The librarian wrote up the slip, looked at the cover, then handed it all back to me with an approving expression. “You’re doing yoga?”

With a shrug, and constrained enthusiasm, I said, “yeah, thought I’d try it out.”

When I got home I cleared some space on a slab of carpet in the basement. “This is it,” I said, sitting on the floor just like the guy on the cover. I wasn’t quite sure how the physics of it all worked, but I imagined myself meditating so hard and so pure that gravity itself would weaken all around me, and I imagined myself suddenly weightless.

Questions flooded my mind: When I became aware of my levitation, would my excitement break my concentration, hurling me back to the hard floor? If I began rising, what would keep me from banging my head on the ceiling? I had no answers, but just to be safe, I slid the carpet away from the ceiling fan. Then, I took a breath and opened the book.

Looking back on it all now, my confidence surprises me. I was so sure I would levitate! Why else would so many people devote themselves to so much time sitting alone in stiff silence? And, candidly, I thought, maybe, George Lucas based Yoda’s levitation in Star Wars on something real. Yes, I know Yoda tapped into The Force and that’s how he levitated, but maybe Yo-da represented Yo-ga, and maybe yo-ga held its own levitational potentials.

But, no, as I paged through the little book, the only things that levitated were words from the page, like inhale, exhale, calm, anxiety, and stress-release. I found no mention of levitation anywhere in the entire dumb book.

Sometimes the reality of one’s own stupidity suddenly slaps you in the face. People can’t levitate! There’s no yoga-pose that causes weightlessness! The whole practice, I saw then, had more to do with old-people-things, like inner peace, anxiety-management, and achieving imperturbable dullness. The librarian, pfft, when she saw my meditation book, I then realized, she thought I was some kinda mature young man managing my emotions, or some good-boy nonsense like that.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

I confess this foolish philosophical floundering simply to commiserate with Augustine before I discuss his own substantially greater philosophical goofiness. I confess my own dimness as a way of standing before Augustine with open arms and saying: “It’s okay, man. I get it.”

Smuggling the Light

Young Augustine, somewhere around the age of 19—just a few years older than I was on my own ridiculous excursion—came upon the teachings of Mani, a wiseman whose teachings excited Augustine’s young mind. The Manichees pitched a narrative about ultimate reality where two gods struggle for dominion over creation: the Lord of Light, and the King (you guessed it) of Darkness.

The story gets spicy for us when the bad god tries to capture some of the good god’s light. To do this, he creates human bodies, each capable of ensnaring one precious particle of pure light. Humans serve as light-mules, basically, with each person able to smuggle one particle of pure light onward to the Kingdom of Darkness.

The more human light-smugglers the King of Darkness can make, the more pure light he can imprison and hoard for his own. So he made these human vessels exceedingly horny to ensure procreation. Each person, then, is a walking carnival of sexuality, with pure light trapped deep inside their dark bodies.

What can the Lord of Light do? How might the good god redeem his stolen particles of light?

Simple. Mani proposed that the Lord of Light selected certain people, whom Mani called The Elect. The Elect dedicated themselves to rigorous schedules of prayer and fasting. These special disciples pushed back against the sinister libido rioting inside of them by refusing to marry and by repudiating all sexuality. Taking such a stand required great sacrifice. The Elect abandoned their families, sold all of their possessions, and maintained a strict vegetarian diet—strict in both adherence and preparation: they could not “kill” or prepare any of the vegetables they ate.

Adhering perfectly to these sexual and dietary purity rules, supposedly, changed the very constitution of The Elect. Through obedience they would each somehow transform into vessels through which the Lord of Light could liberate the particles of pure light held hostage inside humans. Through sexual abstinence and non-violent eating, The Elect served as vessels of salvation, thereby thwarting the King of Darkness’s schemes. The epic war between good and evil, between light and darkness, and between the good god and the bad god, rages in the bellies of The Elect, whose salvific metabolism redeems the world.

And you thought your dinners were exciting!

Fading Light

You might wonder: how could The Elect eat vegetables without harvesting or preparing them? Augustine to the rescue!

Only a small number of Manicheans made up The Elect. Augustine, like the great majority of Manichees, served as a mere Hearer. Hearers lived easy compared to The Elect: they could marry and take jobs. Sure, they still fasted and prayed, and they could not lie, steal, murder, or commit adultery. Most important, though, Hearers had the great responsibility of harvesting and preparing the produce that The Elect would consume and digest for the salvation of the world.

Augustine eventually converted to Christianity. Unlike my silly little philosophical pursuit of levitation, which only lasted about fifteen minutes, Augustine dutifully gathered the fruit for the Manichean Elect for almost ten years! But when Augustine finally did reject Manichaeism, he did it boldly and publicly. On September 5th & 6th, 392, Augustine debated a fella named Fortunatus, a charismatic and powerful leader of the local Manichees, all in front of a frenzied crowd.

Reading the debate sometimes feels like reading a heavyweight fight (you can read it for yourself here: Day 1, Day 2). But more than the drama of the bout, Augustine’s theological mutations captured my attention most—especially knowing where his theological evolution would eventually take him.

What I mean is: Fortunatus defended multiple beliefs, which Augustine countered robustly, one-after-another. And yet, within 20 years, Augustine would go on to champion a Christianized version of almost everything Fortunatus held, and for which Augustine originally combatted so passionately.

Fortunatus held a deterministic philosophy—whatever will happen is already determined, and nobody can do anything about it no matter how much they think they can. To drive this point home, Fortunatus appeals to Ephesians 2 to show how the Bible’s language of predestination spiritualizes this deterministic view of reality. Augustine retorts that Ephesians 2 assumes free will, and that human guilt, and even the whole notion of sin itself, requires authentic free will to make any sense.

Augustine goes on to say that it’s our freely chosen sinful behavior that alienates us from God, not some corrupt nature that sabotages us. But Fortunatus starts throwing verses back at Augustine, showing how Paul seems to think we do have a wicked nature that thwarts us, like: how Paul seems to think our mind is inherently hostile toward God (Romans 8:7), and that our flesh naturally wages war against our spirit, such that we struggle to simply do what we want to do (Galatians 5:17), and how a foreign law lives inside of us that compels our behaviors (Romans 7:23-25). A corrupting nature, Fortunatus argues, seems to sit at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the heart.

Augustine replies by arguing that our free choices accumulated and automate into habits, and that these habits become so strong that they act inside of us in ways indistinguishable from nature itself.

In summary:

Fortunatus defended:

  • Predestination
  • Corrupt Nature
  • Deterministic readings of Ephesians, Romans, and Galatians

Augustine defended:

  • Free will
  • Corrupt Character
  • Free will readings of Ephesians, Romans, and Galatians

Augustine argued passionately against Fortunatus’s fatalistic beliefs, and rejected Fortunatus’s entire interpretation of Christian scripture. Surprisingly, though, within just a few short years, Augustine’s beliefs mutated again. Augustine’s perspective by 412 looked almost indistinguishable from the perspective Fortunatus defended in that 392 debate. In fact, Augustine even appropriated Fortunatus’s interpretations of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians.

By the time Augustine battled Pelagius, we see the peculiarity of Augustine’s evolution fully. Against Pelagius:

Fortunatus Augustine defended:

  • Predestination
  • Corrupt Nature
  • Deterministic readings of Ephesians, Romans, and Galatians

Augustine Pelagius defended:

  • Free will
  • Corrupt Character
  • Free will readings of Ephesians, Romans, and Galatians

In his debate with Fortunatus, Augustine defended a free will position and effectively ran the deterministic Manichaean religion right out of Hippo. Twenty years later, Augustine used Fortunatus’s expelled arguments against Pelagius—who basically championed Augustine’s own free will perspective—and ran Pelagius out of town.

Augustine may think he won his debate with Fortunatus, but in the end, it seems, Fortunatus got the last laugh.


In the end, Augustine’s worldview never seemed to escape the gravities that drew him into Manicheism. After spending so many formative years in a movement marked by pessimistic determinism, with a belittling view of human nature and a scolding posture toward sex and marriage, Augustine threw himself into the liberating arms of the Christian faith… where he soon embraced a theology just as pessimistic, fully deterministic, equally belittling of human nature, wholly shameful toward sex, and equally denigrating toward marriage.

I don’t doubt the authenticity of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity—I mean, the guy became a bishop. Nor do I doubt his rejection of Manichaeism—we don’t know of a more ardent and influential critic of the Manichees from that era. But what we ground our theologies on matters, especially when one’s theology seems to grind against casual readings of scripture.

As I read the Bible, I don’t find an inevitable future that unfolds according to some pre-ordained, or even pre-known, monotonous script. I see a reality so pregnant with possibility that even God experiences the buzz of surprise (Isaiah 5:4).

As I read the Bible, I don’t see God’s elect as specific individuals chained to God’s purposes and imprisoned by God’s pre-ordained selection. For starters, all in Christ are elect (1 Corinthians 15:22), and the names God wrote in his eternal book were written, apparently, in pencil, because it seems they can be added or removed (Revelation 3:5). The elect can opt in, though they can also opt out. They are chosen, but they are not elite, not more loved, nor are they more entitled than others.

As I read the Bible, I don’t see sin nature as an inevitable part of being human, nor do I see justification for Augustine’s mostly negative attitude toward the flesh. Rather, I see people who are loved by God, and even delightful to God, with their imperfections and profound spiritual shortcomings. Jesus, in fact, became fully human (Hebrews 2:17) after the fall. Humans are fundamentally loved (Romans 5:8), and each human possesses the profound capacity to grow toward goodness or badness, holiness or sin, life or death, blessings or curses (Deuteronomy 30:15). We have the real capacity to become wicked humans, but that contingent potential should never be the basis, or even the starting point, of our understanding of human nature.

This all matters because Augustine would go on to have such a massive impact on so many theologians and church leaders over the next thousand years—and still today! As John Wesley put it, Augustine’s influence became so great that a Christian making an argument needs “no other proof of any assertion” other than: “St. Augustine said it.” But, for Christians, it has always mattered from where, and upon what, we form our beliefs. So we’d do well to think carefully why Augustine believed what he believed, and from where those beliefs originated.
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  1. This article emerged out of my research for my next book. You can be part of the research and writing process by joining the Surprising God Think Tank. A few spots remain open.
  2. My favorite source for this post is Paul Eddy’s article entitled: “Can a Leopard Change Its Spots? Augustine and the Crypto-Manichaeism Question” which you can find HERE. But don’t pay for it. Go to your local Seminary and create an account to use their library.
  3. John Wesley quote from: “The Works of the Late Reverend John Wesley,” (1835 Edition), volume 2, p. 110.
  4. Art: Boy with a Basket of Fruit, by: Caravaggio, c.1593.

Thanks for reading!

Dan Kent