Episode 31. Origen’s system, or “Down the rabbit hole”, or Don’t Fall for the New and Shiny.

This week we pivot to Origen’s system. Quotes from the episode are below, and you can find the episode here.

I must say, that the more I read Origen, the more I read about him, the more impressed I am with his brilliance. At the same time the more horrified I am that there are people who follow him as if what he had said was the summum bonum of the Christian faith. I’m impressed with Nietzsche, but I’m not going to follow him into madness.

They wish to argue that he wasn’t ever realy condemned by the Church, and that those who took exception with him either misunderstood him, or were really only condemning his disciples, who also misunderstood him.

When I teach at University one of the things I tell my students is that they should not trust anything any of their teachers tell them, not even me, and that they need to find things out for themselves, exercise skepticism, but most of all restraint. Four years is not enough time to devote to a subject to come to a firm grasp of it, nor to come to any settled conclusions.

I was digging into Orthodoxy for well over a decade before I made the plunge (I first encountered Fr. Schmemann in 1985, and was christmated in 2000). Truth isn’t going anywhere, but we somehow seem to think that first and facile readings of it give us an exhaustive understanding.

The great questions have taken decades to resolve at least. Thus, I am happy, on this point, to rest on the wisdom of Michel de Montaigne, that the new and shiny is the most dangerous of things.

Back to my students. They show up at university, meet some ideaologue of a professor, and go running off to believe whatever clever thing that prof teaches simply because the novelty of a new idea gives all the appearance of having overcome ignorance, and knowing more than all the past combined. I have seen one student after another, looking for some sort of identity or “authentic self” clamp onto some clever insight or witty phrase, and then, having no root in critical thinking, lurch into some paradigm shift. (In truth, they actually have no paradigms, just myraid malformed thoughts striving to coherence, and this witticism has given them the first seeming foundation on which to build.)

This is the great temptation of “science”. But science, science as practised before the age of mass media and its politicization (as everything has now become politicized) never knew any such category as “settled science” since science by definition was always open to revision.

Montaigne saw this, all the way back in the 16th century. Certitude on the human level was a trap. How much blood had been spilled, asked Montaigne in his Apology of Raimond Sebond, over the syllable “hoc” (from the sentence “Hoc est corpus meum”)?

This is not an invitation to some full-blown embrace of Pyrrhonism, that is, a wild-eyed rejection of all truth.

Instead, it is an invitation to embrace what we have received from the past (what Montaigne was arguing in his Apology). The deposit of Faith left to us is given us by Christ speaking in His Church. It is not something come to us haphazardly, without decades of thought behind it.

If we are to reject this past, we do so at our peril. Origen’s musings are just that. He told no one they were bound to them, unlike what the Church clearly taught. These items were put out, as he himself said, as an academic exercise, a way to discuss things he thought the Church had yet to settle.

And so, let us get to today’s texts for the Podcast.

How Difference Arises due to Freewill in Eternity

Some of the beings in the world,” he says, “are called supercelestial, because they live in the dwellings of the blessed and have luminous heavenly bodies. They differ from one another in many ways. As the Apostle himself says, the sun has its own beauty, the moon has hers, the stars have theirs; one star even differs from another in its beauty [i Cor. xv. 41]. There are other beings called terrestrial. These are men, and they too differ from one another to no slight extent. Some are barbarians, others are Greeks, some are civilized, others are savages. Some are born of low rank and, as they belong to the slave class from birth, are given a slave’s education and put under masters, princes or tyrants, while others are educated like free men. Some have good health, others are weak from childhood. In addition, there are the invisible powers who have been entrusted with the task of directing events on earth. They also are different from one another to no small degree. There is no point in raising the question with respect to dumb animals, birds or fishes, since they must all be regarded not as ends in themselves but as relative.

The Anti-Gnostic Nature of Origen’s Doctrine of Freedom

With regard to conditions on earth, the Gnostics also object that some men are favored by being born in happier circumstances than others. Abraham’s son, for example, was born in fulfillment of a divine promise, and the son of Isaac and Rebecca supplanted his brother while they were still in the womb and, we are told, was loved by God even before he was born. In the same way, some men are born Hebrews and so receive instruction in God’s Law, and some are born Greeks, members of a highly cultivated race devoted to the pursuit of wisdom. But others belong by birth to Negro tribes who feed on human flesh, or to the Scythians, who make parricide their Law, or to the people who live in the Taurus and put strangers to death.
{The gnostic conclusion was that} liberty has nothing to do with the diversity in things or the variety in human circumstances : no one can choose for himself the country or station he wants to be born in. The diversity must therefore be due to diversities in the natures of souls themselves. If souls are born into an evil nation, it can only be because they are evil souls; if they are born into a good nation, it must be because they are good souls. Otherwise, what alternative is there but to conclude that these things are determined by chance and fortune?

Origen’s “Existentialism” in “Created” Beings

they did not derive their essence from themselves but had it as a gift from God. Things given may be also taken away and withdrawn. When such withdrawal occurs, it is because the soul has turned in the wrong direction, away from its goal. The Creator gave the spirits he created the power to move their wills freely: they were to make the good their own and to keep it by an effort of will. But they were lazy and grew weary of the effort they had to make to keep the good; the good was far away and they neglected it. That was what gave rise to its withdrawal. Forsaking the good amounts to settling down in evil. It follows that rational creatures do so settle down to the extent to which they turn away from the good.

The Origenistic Libertarian Hierarchy

All spirits neglected the good to a greater or lesser degree, according to the use they made of their freedom, and then they were swept away towards the contrary of the good, which is evil. This seems to be the source from which the Creator took the principles and causes of variety and diversity: he varied and diversified the world as he created it, in accordance with the diversity existing among spirits, i.e., among rational creatures.

Give Me Platonism, or Give Me Death: My End is My Beginning

Ends, are always like beginnings. All creatures have the same end and it must be concluded that they all had the same beginning. Just as the many have only one end, so a single beginning gave rise to them in all their diversity and differentiation—gave rise, that is, to the diversity of creatures in heaven, on earth and below the earth. Through the goodness of God, the unity of the Holy Spirit and surrender to Christ, they will all be brought to a single term, which will be like their beginning.


About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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