"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Monday, September 17, 2012

Some Monday Morning Origen

Origen, one of the early church fathers, is a fascinating figure to me. As is that of which he is a reminder—the notion of orthodoxy, of mainstream faith, a faith that has throughout history sought pretty clear boundaries as to what is normative, what is acceptable belief and practice.

Origen was a prolific writer and important theologian in the early days of our Christian existence. In recently reading On First Principles, I can understand the praise for him and the novelty of what he was doing. He wrote before some of the major church councils that sought to define the boundaries of orthodox belief. And...these councils did not look favorably upon him.

Why? Generally speaking, because humans are finite. The plethora of denominations (and religions) is a testament to this. No matter how much we may believe in God’s self-revelation to us, even if we can point to an event, as Christians do—God incarnate in the man Jesus—we are still guessing in many ways at how to think about these revelations, what to do with them, how to articulate their reality with the right language that will most capture the essence of the truth. We err. We are fallible. We try to express realities we don't fully understand. That’s human life.

But specifically, why didn’t the councils like him? After all, he appears to have had a very high view of Scripture, recognizing God (more than humans) as the author of the Bible. He produced a lot of commentaries and sermons on the Bible, obviously doing a lot of good for the Church. He, like John the Gospel writer, connected Jesus with the Logos, the divine wisdom of God.

It seems the two big strikes against him that got him pooh-poohed by the Church were a belief in the pre-existence of souls and in universal reconciliation. As I understand it, Origen believed that there was a divine host of beings, some of which were naughty in some way. The ones who were really naughty God made into demons, the ones who were only a little naughty God made into angels, and the middle-of-the-road souls—humans. So…that’s obviously not mainstream.

As for universal reconciliation—the notion that God’s salvation is effectual for all people, including even the devil according to Origen—that’s a fascinating topic for another day. Suffice it to say, such a belief is not mainstream and never really has been, though theologians throughout Christian history on the fringes have explored it.

But of most interest to me today is the way Origen dealt with Christ’s humanity and divinity. This has always been a challenge for Christians. Emphasizing Jesus’ humanity over his divinity can feel belittling to Jesus' greatness and glory and perhaps feel like a threat to the efficacy of his salvific mission.

But emphasizing Jesus’ divinity can make him feel a bit inaccessible, as if his commands to follow him were absurd in their unrepeatability (in which case many seem to assume Jesus was trying to humble us so we’d see our need for him). Many people just say "both" and call it good...they just declare "mystery." Mystery...bleh. (Wink.)

Here’s a nugget from Origen:

“Christ so chose to love righteousness as to cling to it unchangeably and inseparably in accordance with the immensity of its love; the result being that by firmness of purpose, immensity of affection, and an inextinguishable warmth of love all susceptibility to change or alteration was destroyed, and what formerly depended upon the will was by the influence of long custom changed into nature. Thus we must believe that there did exist in Christ a human and rational soul, and yet not suppose that it had any susceptibility to or possibility of sin.” (from On First Principles, Book 2)

I’m not totally sure I exactly understand Origen’s Christology (did Jesus learn how to not sin while being human?). Regardless, Origen’s understanding of the process of becoming incapable of sin—reminiscent of Plato’s (among others) understanding of virtue and the “altering” of will through training and practice—is so beautifully expressed here.

Clinging to righteousness. Firmness of purpose. Immensity of affection. Inextinguishable warmth of love. The message I’ve repeatedly received in my Christian faith has been, to oversimplify, don’t bother trying to be good because you’ll fail, instead, think about how good God is and that God still accepts you. This basic assumption has, while honoring the greatness of God in comparison to the baseness of humans, I think hindered the pursuit of living like Christ (or made it an afterthought).

And I’m not even thinking about salvation or earning God’s love; I’m thinking about freedom. Imagine not feeling anxious, not feeling cowardly, not feeling petty, not feeling reactive, not feeling vengeful, not feeling spiteful, not feeling jealous, not feeling insecure. And imagine not acting in the ways you’ve probably acted because of all these underlying instincts and feelings to which you may feel bound, imprisoned. Doesn’t a life like that, free of all these hindrances and bondages, sound…liberating?

It does to me, and this desire for that kind of freedom, for myself and others, has partly influenced why I’m here in Berkeley...and influences my spiritual life as well. I don’t expect to turn into Jesus. And I don’t think Origen is without flaws; I’m not holding him up here as authoritative, but only as a helpful voice. But I think it’s worth considering Origen's understanding of Christ's humanity as a model for a life of freedom and goodness.

I want to "fall at Jesus' feet" in worship and humility; but I also want to try to put my feet where he put his, walking his way—with God’s help—perhaps even slightly more than I think I am capable of doing, so that perhaps my efforts might eventually become more natural, enabling me to live a life that is more free and more beneficial to the world around me.

And I also want to talk to God about why I'm not an angel; I'm kind of miffed about that. :)

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