By Greg Forster
History can teach us a lot about how different religions and faith traditions have approached work and economics. Last month, one story in particular caught my eye as we prepared to release the first research notes from the Economic Wisdom Project. These notes examine 29 books to uncover connections between the Economic Wisdom Elements and theology, biblical studies, and Christian history. We released notes on Elements 1-3, and this month we release notes on Elements 4-6. Both sets of notes can be downloaded here. The notes for Element 3 include a fascinating story unearthed by Robert Kitchen and published in “Engaging Economics.”
In the mid-to-late fourth century, there was a fanatically devoted religious movement in the Adiabene region (now part of Iraq) that divided its adherents into a spiritually superior group and an inferior group. The superior group, known as the Perfect, lived apart from all others and abstained from marriage, work, and possessions so they could spend all of their time praying and teaching. The Perfect didn’t even do works of mercy like helping the poor and sick – that would have interrupted their contemplation of the divine. Kitchen notes that the Perfect “pointedly do not do work.”
The Perfect were sustained in this meditative lifestyle by donations from the inferior group, the Upright, who married, held regular jobs, and possessed property and income. The Upright lived in town, raising families and holding jobs that contributed to the community; on top of all of those ordinary responsibilities, they performed works of mercy and carried the financial burden of feeding the Perfect. These were understood as requirements of their salvation.
Yet the Upright were considered inferior because their work, families, and possessions kept them from full-time contemplation. Kitchen writes that “by being involved with worldly affairs, especially money, possessions, and their business dealings, the Upright [were considered] contaminated and inhibited from attaining the higher levels of the kingdom of heaven.” Commenting on the Syriac “Book of Steps,” the manuscript from which we learn of this movement, Kitchen pointedly notes that “the author has an exalted conception of the Perfect life and does not seem aware of the irony that it is only by the ‘giving and taking’ of the Upright that the Perfect can ever hope to live their irenic lifestyle.”
Let’s pause here. With only this information, the description above sounds similar to the Manicheans famously described in Augustine’s “Confessions.” Manicheans were divided into the superior Elect, celibate and withdrawn from the world of work, and the inferior Hearers, who worked for a living and fed the Elect, patiently awaiting the day when they, too, might become enlightened enough to renounce worldly things. Augustine relates that Manichean mythology held that certain foods contained tiny particles of light, and the Hearers could become more enlightened by bringing these foods to the Elect and physically feeding them.
The Adiabene movement Kitchen describes, however, was not a Manichean or Gnostic cult. It was a Christian ascetical community. True, the boundaries between Christianity and Manichaeism were often blurred, and this movement’s location within the Persian Empire no doubt exposed it to influence from dualistic religions. Nonetheless, scholars identify the movement as Christian rather than Manichean.
The Adiabene Christians were not the first to go down this path, nor would they be the last. Half a century earlier, Eusebius blazed this trail in the church with his two-tiered ethical theory that divided the morality of ordinary life from the morality of pursuing perfection. Time and again in church history, Christians have slid back into these dualistic modes of thinking and practice. We are much more comfortable dividing body from soul, work from worship, and piety from productivity. As the Adiabenes and many other examples show, these dualisms are a major factor in the oppression and exploitation of those who work for a living by those who live supposedly superior lifestyles.
I’m pleased to report that the story of the Adiabene Christians has something of a happy ending. In the first part of the “Book of Steps,” the author exalts the Perfect as the best model of Christian life. Kitchen reports that by the end of the book, he seems to have reconsidered. “Disappointed and perhaps disillusioned in their failings, the author shifts at the end of the discourses to favor and encourage the Upright, who, except for their non-celibacy, have shown more evidence of the fully lived Christian life.” This part of the “Book of Steps” also praises Abraham for his godly leadership of many workers and faithful stewardship of great wealth. Kitchen gives us this encouraging observation: “The author seems to recognize that staying in the world is the more difficult route, and more spiritually beneficial.”
For this and many more stories on work and economics in Christian history, as well as biblical and theological connections, check out the research notes on Elements 1-3 here and on Elements 4-6 here. Look for the rest in the months ahead!