The Origenian Option

What is the purpose of the Christian life when it comes to how the Church ought to engage with the world? What is our standard for success? Do we isolate ourselves from the world and change it through a pious ignorance, or do we change the world through informed intellectual engagement with it? If we were to take an honest and objective look at history, which of these approaches to the world could be considered successful? I think these are questions that need to be thoughtfully answered. I am only one opinion on the matter, but I will try to make the case that Christianity has only ever truly been successful with its engagement with the world when it followed the second approach, epitomized in the method of Origen of Alexandria (AD 184-253).

Origen’s approach focuses on the second option, that we should intellectually engage the world around us, rather than withdraw from it with isolationist escapism. However, there are multiple ways of engaging the world as well, so this position is by no means monolithic. Origen’s overall approach in the East represents an alternative to St. Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 130-202) in the West. For example, when it came to how Christianity ought to deal with the problem of the Gnostic cosmologists, both Irenaeus and Origen concluded that the Gnostics must be engaged, and they both agreed that the Gnostics had it wrong, they just differed slightly on how to approach the issue. Irenaeus chose to create a polemical work, and he simply attacked Gnostics wherever he found a weakness in their theological and cosmological formulations. Simply put, his only goal was to show everyone how stupid Gnosticism was for its formulations, and he was certainly successful in what he set out to do. Though, it must be said that he did (to his credit) restrain himself from being so hostile that it mutates into belittling. Irenaeus always has the restoration of the Gnostic in view and discourages his own readers from laughing at the absurdities, which is something we might tend to forget.

However, Orthodox Christianity was not universally hostile to the Gnostics like Irenaeus. Not long after Irenaeus (Irenaeus was alive for the first two decades of Origen’s life), Origen also engages with the Gnostic communities. However, instead of simply determining everything to be trash to wholesale reject them, Origen searched for things to salvage, that they might be rebuilt in such a way that leads Gnostics to the actual truth of Christ, rather than the Christ they invented. It is understood that the Gnostic theologian Heracleon (the greatest among the Valentinians) was the first to establish what we would now call the Christian genre of mystical theology through his allegorical commentary of Scripture. What did Origen do? He stole it and did a far better job. In Origen’s hands, the Church was no longer bound by fear to a wooden literalism. He showed the Church that she could use allegory and mystical interpretation without also falling into an erroneous cosmological myth. To put it another way, if Origen had not salvaged mystical theology from the Gnostics, we would not have the treasures of Pseudo-Dionysius, or the inner prayer of the Hesychasts, for example.

Though, none of this could really be seen as something entirely new. Origen was not inventing something out of thin air, he was merely perfecting what already was. This approach can be traced back to St Paul himself, standing in the Areopagus, telling the Athenians about their unknown god (Acts 17:23). Paul does not say Athens has it all wrong and they need to worship the Hebrew deity, he meets them where they are and strategically utilizes their own framework to build an image of Christ. St Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) would follow the same method. Justin lived in a period where the Church was very anti-Greek (in a very superstitious kind of way), and refused to acknowledge the place of philosophy within theology. Justin (known in Orthodoxy as “The Philosopher”) was responsible for speaking some sense into the paranoia, and the church has benefited ever since, becoming less fearful. St Justin Martyr and St Irenaeus played their part in the conversation, but the reconciling of the Biblical exegetes, Logos philosophy, and metaphysical cosmology was not truly brought into a syncretistic systematic artform until Origen. He was the one who brought Christianity to record-breaking heights and made the third century a landmark for the Church.

Origen was not relevant merely within the context of inter-Christian dialogue, however. Being the student of the famous Ammonius Saccas (who also taught Plotinus after him), Origen was well-known in the Neo-Platonist Philosophical world. Plotinus’ student Porphyry was constantly engaged in whatever Origen was currently saying, and Origen had nothing but positive things to say about his younger contemporary Plotinus. Origen also engaged in apologetics to refute, point by point, the pagan Celsus after generations of silence (which would be the ancient equivalent of refuting modern Atheist attacks on Christianity). Not only was Origen engaged with Gnostics, Philosophers and Pagans, but he was also engaged with Jews. There is a humorous section of Origen’s scholarly debate with Africanus (about the legitimacy of the Book of Susanna) where Origen, as if putting a scientific hypothesis to the test, physically brings his Jewish scholar friends in front of a specific type of tree in order to see what they call it in Hebrew.

This approach is not meant to be a jab at monasticism, however. Because the body of Christ is diverse, not everyone ought to be tasked with the same mission, simply because not everyone is equipped with the same abilities. Though, nothing I have said thus far would have been contrary to the philanthropic monastic vision of the great St Basil of Caesarea, who, coincidentally, was himself an admirer of Origen. This vision is primarily for the Christians who are intellectually minded but thought of no alternative to isolationism. No matter where Origen went, he took whatever he found and baptized it in order to reach the lost for Christ. It is a radical economia: a way to leave the ninety-nine in order to pursue the one. As St Justin guided, the seeds of the Logos are thrown throughout the world (including the Philosophical world, the Pagan world, the Gnostic world etc.) just waiting to be watered with the Gospel. When the Church saw people being led astray by the cult of Isis, they transformed the image of Isis with Horus on her lap to reflect the Theotokos with the Christ child. The result was the strategic monopolizing of Christianity and the bankrupting of Isis temples. St Cyril of Alexandria set up healing shrines and had people kiss holy relics to make the surrounding religions irrelevant, especially since one could not enter Isis temples if they had touched anything dead. When the Church saw the horrifying ritual practices of Cybele’s cult, she instituted certain feast days to uproot the pagan practices. This strategy has always been in the Church, but it has not always been utilized. The problem is, as Christ so aptly pointed out, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). It seems to me that it is high-time to get in the field.

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  • Miguel Ojeda
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