Origen

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


ORIGEN


We ought not to suppose that historical events are types of other historical events and material things of other material things; rather, material things are types of spiritual things and historical events of intelligible realities.

Commentary on John
ORIGEN

Only the eye of the Adept can pierce the deceptive veil of phenomenal events and perceive the noumenal causes at work. There were powerful hidden forces operating in the embryonic early church, forces that propelled a Palestinian religious movement into Mediterranean prominence and eventual diffusion over an entire continent. The esoteric gospel of the Christos, focussed in and through that luminous 'Man of Sorrows' known as Jesus, proclaimed the eternal message of immortality in a land of such historic confusion that Apollonius of Tyana declined an invitation to visit Palestine because of its extreme pollution. Jesus had warned, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword", intimating that he was giving a chance to souls in extremis, a chance that necessarily precipitated a desperate, largely invisible, war within and between souls. The spiritual message touched many of the people to whom it was given, but as it spread from the initial circle of simple devotees who expressed it according to their enthusiastic though flawed understanding, the spiritual freedom taught by Jesus was shadowed by the narrow dogmatism resulting from the translation of transcendental experience into concretized imagery. The universality of the Sermon on the Mount was soon obscured by prevailing tendencies in Judaea to reduce religion to ritualistic law, and in the Diaspora to a host of syncretistic sects. The former emasculated the teaching of the Galilean, while the latter exposed it to the competing psychism and nebulous mysticism found in decaying centres of learning – Tarsus and Ephesus, Athens and Alexandria.

The pervasive Roman influence upon eroding cultures of the eastern Mediterranean world, oppressive in different ways to Greek, Palestinian and Egyptian, provoked strong reactions based upon religious loyalties laden with social and political motivations. Nascent Christianity was vulnerable to external tinctures of every kind, from amoral defiance and psychic excess to institutional hierarchy. Out of this turba of warring forces, groups arose which emphasized individual responsibility and gnosis, spiritual knowledge through transcendent insight, aiming at a brotherhood whose communion is found in shared goals and mutual effort, coupled with a profound respect for the solitary sojourn of each human being. Other groups emerged around a concern to forge a community through uniformity of belief and of action. Gnosis was delivered by a faith moulded by sacrosanct authority. Despite the danger of spiritual deflection into intellectual and psychic distractions, the Gnostic movement quickened the spiritual core of the teaching of Jesus, while the votaries of blind faith subordinated spiritual life to organizational expediency. By the beginning of the third century, these profoundly different attitudes had precipitated sufficiently to have located themselves geographically, the Gnostic perspective drawing strong support from the Eastern churches and the authoritarian standpoint finding favour in Rome, the seat of the empire. It was perhaps inevitable that the escalating conflict between them would become most intense in Alexandria, the city of polarities.

Origen, whose name may be derived from Horus, was born in AD. 185 or 186, perhaps on the god's anniversary day, and very likely in Alexandria. His parents were probably pagans who converted to Christianity in his youth. Marcus Aurelius had died in 180, and Commodus, his son and successor, proved an unworthy heir. A series of imperial intrigues and murders aggravated the calamitous course of the Roman Empire. Tyranny and chaos marked successive reigns throughout Origen's lifetime, mitigated only by Septimius Severus and Alexander Severus, both of whom persecuted Christians as enemies of the social and political order. Within a few years of Origen's death, Gaul had its own emperor, a large region of the Eastern Empire had passed to Odenathus and Zenobia of Palmyra, and in 160 the emperor Valerian was taken prisoner by the Persians. Thus Origen's life was lived within the compelling context of moral corruption and social corrosion. Little is known of his childhood or youth until the age of seventeen. His father Leonides recognized his exceptional mind and profound devotion at an early age. When Septimius Severus enacted a law forbidding Jews and Christians to seek converts and a general persecution broke out in Alexandria in 202, Leonides was arrested and martyred. Legend says that Origen would have followed him had not his mother hidden his clothes so that he could not leave his house. Whether strictly true or not, this moment marked Origen's entrance into public life, for it fell to him to head the Catechetical School at Alexandria.

The brilliant Gnostic Basilides taught in Alexandria in the early second century, to be followed by the even greater Gnostic Valentinus, who moved to Rome and almost succeeded in becoming its bishop. By the time Origen's teacher and predecessor had journeyed to Alexandria, Pentaenus headed the Catechetical School. A Stoic who had visited India, Pentaenus appreciated the spiritual vitality of the teachings of Jesus without sacrificing the philosophical rigour of his own intellectual training. Clement, himself the student of teachers from Ionia, Italy, Syria and Egypt, met Pentaenus in about 180 and soon succeeded him as master of the school. The circumspection of his public teaching veiled the precious secrets he guarded. While his published writings would bear the label 'orthodox' throughout the subsequent history of the church, the sole surviving fragment of his personal correspondence, a letter to an unknown Theodore, reveals his veneration for the secret traditions of Jesus. According to Clement, Mark, the apostle and first bishop of Alexandria, had composed two versions of the gospel of his name, one for public use and the other for advanced students mature enough to meditate upon initiation. The secret gospel described the esoteric teachings and initiatory activities of Jesus. The Alexandrian church preserved this Gnostic tradition within its inmost sanctum for those who were ready. All evidence suggests that Origen was such a person, for when Clement fled Alexandria in the persecution that overtook Origen's father, Demetrius, then bishop of the city, appointed Origen to lead the school.

Origen was only seventeen years old when he was called upon to head the school and set the standards for Christian converts in a city of philosophical sophistication, scientific creativity and spiritual intensity. He pursued the task with insight and immense energy. Organizing courses of systematic instruction, he soon saw the necessity of understanding the core of the Greek philosophical impulse if the teachings of Jesus were to have a broad appeal among the educated classes. Sometime during this period he renewed his considerable learning in the classics by attending the lectures of Ammonius Saccas, whose eclectic philosophy and universalist standpoint came to be known as Theosophy, Divine Wisdom. He imparted modes of understanding to his disciples that would allow them to uncover the essence of every philosophical system and spiritual teaching. Together with Plotinus, the founder of neo-Platonic thought, and Longinus, who became an important counsellor to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, Origen pledged never to reveal the secret doctrines of his Teacher. It is impossible to reconstruct those doctrines from the available writings of Origen the Christian and Plotinus the neo-Platonist, individually or together. Nevertheless, their expansive philosophies breathe with a universality and spiritual depth that surpassed the Academy and the Church of the time.

When fully prepared, Origen embarked upon two courses of action that would make him famous. The first was his voluntary self-castration, initially praised by Demetrius as an act of supreme devotion, but later condemned as a sign of zealotry by those anxious to diminish Origen's influence within the church. Origen's proclivity to martyrdom may have been a factor, but he insisted that the school be accessible to young women as well as men and that he could avoid any suspicion of scandal by this gesture. The second was his decision to establish an 'advanced' school for Christian study, which required him to write the first systematic theology in the history of Christianity, to produce a critical edition of the Old and New Testaments and to compose a commentary on each book in the Bible. He delegated the everyday affairs of the Catechetical School to his disciple Heraclas and pursued the deepest truths and inner message of his religion. When he chose to use an old but detailed attack by Celsus upon the Christian religion as a vehicle for a philosophical defence, he did not strain to make Christian teaching unique but rather sought to demonstrate that it preserved the essence of all previous systems, especially those in danger of perishing in the gradual decay of the classical and Hellenistic worlds. To the charge that Christians held secret doctrines, he agreed in Contra Celsum:

The existence of certain doctrines, which are beyond those which are exoteric and do not reach the multitude, is not a peculiarity of Christian doctrine only, but is shared by the philosophers. For they had some doctrines which were exoteric and some esoteric. Some hearers of Pythagoras only learnt of the master's 'ipse dixit'; but others were taught the secret doctrines which could not deservedly reach ears that were uninitiated and not yet purified. None of the mysteries in any place, in Greece and in barbarian lands, has been attacked for being secret. . . . But on these subjects much, and that of a mystical kind, might be said in keeping with which is the following: 'It is good to keep close to the secret of a king', in order that the entrance of souls into bodies may not be thrown into the common understanding.

Soon his fame as a teacher, commentator and philosophical theologian spread throughout the Christian community. He visited Rome and was invited to preach in Caesarea. Julia Mamaea, the mother of the emperor Alexander Severus, received him in the imperial court at Antioch and heard him expound his teaching. He began to arbitrate disputes of doctrine in numerous churches, stressing the need for agreement on essentials and freedom of thought and application in their elaboration. A close friend and convert, Ambrosius, supplied funds to free Origen to publish his writings. Secretaries were hired and Origen wrote prodigiously, eventually producing more than a thousand works, according to some sources, and almost six thousand, according to Epiphanius. While many of these were no doubt scholia or brief notes, his systematic theology On First Principles and the rebuttal known as Contra Celsum are massive, and his essays On Prayer and On Martyrdom are lengthy. In 230 he returned to Caesarea, won the admiration of the congregation and was ordained. Demetrius, already jealous of Origen and unappreciative of his subtle philosophical understanding, called a synod of local bishops in Egypt to condemn Origen not for heresy but for misconduct. Stunned, Origen took refuge in his adopted home, where he was much respected until his death. He taught, wrote and preached until he was arrested in a general persecution launched by the emperor Decius in 250. He suffered severe torture, but survived to take up his work again, though his broken health led to his death in 253. To his followers he was a martyr, but his philosophical perspective, rooted in the teachings of Plato and Ammonius, encouraged a vitality of thought which became increasingly offensive to the church dominated by Rome and represented by Demetrius in Egypt. The desire to reach agreement on doctrine was supplanted in favour of the simpliciores, those who insisted that one need only believe and who feared creative thought in any form, culminating in Tertullian's famous Credo qui absurdum est, "I believe because it is absurd." The esoteric dimension, essential to the church of Clement, was quickly starved out and, surviving only in Origen's teaching, was attacked in public.

Methodius, bishop of Patara in Lycia, fought the philosophy of the First Principles. Later in the fourth century Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, took up the cudgels, preaching in Jerusalem against 'Origenism'. Two friends, Rufinus and Jerome, both devotees of Origen's writings, were present. Jerome was terrified and backed away from his stand, eventually attacking the very passages in Origen that he had once praised without qualification. Rufinus went to Rome and began translating Origen into Latin so that he might receive a fair hearing. Jerome tended to quote Origen out of context and Rufinus tended to paraphrase passages that might offend an increasingly narrow-minded church. Most of what survives of Origen's work is, unfortunately, doctored and obscured. Rome declared Origen a heretic, shutting the door on the gnostic Mysteries of Jesus, but many of the Eastern churches boldly dissented. Although Origen was eventually anathematized and his works destroyed in 532 by the Council of Constantinople under the direction of the emperor-theologian Justinian, the numinous insight of his thought continued to influence what later emerged as the Eastern Orthodox Church and can be found there even today.

Peri Archon, De Principiis (On First Principles) in Latin, sought to expound "a single body of doctrine", a framework for growth in spiritual thought and practice. Beginning with the concept of Deity, Origen argued that the Mosaic phrase found in Deuteronomy, "Our God is a consuming fire", the gnostic axiom of the First Book of John, "God is light and in him is no darkness", and the psalmist's affirmation, "In thy light shall we see light", together indicate three fundamental characteristics of Deity. First of all, Deity is wholly incorporeal and spiritual; secondly, human beings draw near and participate in Deity through the mind, for spiritual consciousness is the manifestation of Deity; and thirdly, the fiery light of God consumes not matter but "the evil thoughts of the mind, shameful deeds and longings".

We assert that in truth God is incomprehensible and immeasurable. . . . The works of divine providence and the plan of the universe are as it were rays of God's nature in contrast to his real substance and being, and because our mind is of itself unable to behold God as he is, it understands the parent of the universe from the beauty of his works and the comeliness of his creatures. God therefore must not be thought to be any kind of body, nor to exist in a body, but to be a simple intellectual existence . . . a Monas (unity) or Henas (oneness) throughout, and the mind and fount from which originates all intellectual existence or mind.

The Christos, brilliantly manifest in Jesus, is "the only-begotten Son of the Father", and this means that "the only-begotten Son of God is God's wisdom hypostatically existing", having no material or corporeal characteristics. "Wisdom is also called an unspotted mirror of the energy of God", being the manifestation or image of goodness, but not the absolute Good, which is Deity. The human being is made in the image of God, for each individual can manifest in his or her life the good which is the Christos, just as the Christos intimates the absolute and unknowable Good. This is possible because an innumerably vast but limited number of souls appear as the result of the tremendous but restricted power of Deity in manifestation.

Whole nations of souls are stored away somewhere in a realm of their own, with an existence comparable to our corporeal life, but in consequence of the fineness and mobility of their nature they are carried round with the whirl of the universe. There the representations of evil and of virtue are set before them; and so long as a soul continues to abide in the good, it has no experience of union with a body. . . . That which is by nature fine and mobile, the soul, first becomes heavy and weighted down, and because of its perversity comes to dwell in a human body. . . . From this condition it rises again through the same stages and is restored to its heavenly place.

In essence, souls are identical and therefore equal, but through the exercise of that power which appears as free will in the incarnated human being, they set themselves on the course which carries them into matter and darkness, and their spiritual struggles guide them back into a realm of spiritual existence, all according to the merits and demerits of the series of lives lived. Angels, men and demons are one kind of being, but with different wills. The doctrine of salvation, therefore, is universal. Every soul whose will turns towards the Christos reascends towards the incorporeal state, casting off the dark, material bodies of earth for transparent forms like those of the stars, eventually to be clothed with the Spiritual Sun itself. Even Satan, if such an arch-demon literally exists, can pursue the course of salvation. Nothing is excluded from the light of Christos save through the exercise of its own will. Annihilation is a terrible possibility, but not a necessity. Choice determines all.

This universal and compassionate standpoint, as well as its profound ethical and intellectual corollaries, is predicated upon a profound understanding of sacred scriptures. To facilitate scriptural interpretation, Origen compiled the Hexapla, the Old Testament in every known version set out in parallel columns. First of all, he put down the Hebrew text. (Origen learnt Hebrew in order to read the original and discuss religious philosophy with Jews in terms of their own scripture.) Then he added a transliteration of the Hebrew text into Greek script. Next he placed the rather literal Greek version of Aquila, and then the less literal Greek versions of Symmachus, the revised Septuagint, and of Theodotion. He searched out less known versions, including one he found at Nicopolis and another from a jar discovered near Jericho. The completed Hexapla covered over six thousand pages, was never recopied in full and so was lost in the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the seventh century. Origen's meticulous study of the texts reinforced his conviction that scripture is divinely inspired, but the limitations of the overbrooded authors appear in their products. He saw no need for a strict New Testament canon, being willing for certain purposes to include the gospel according to the Hebrews as well as the Second Book of Peter, the Second and Third Books of John, and Hebrews (even though he doubted their claims of authorship), and the epistles of Clement and Barnabas.

The fact that sacred writing is inspired, though its transmission may be obscured from the beginning, means that it has an inner meaning which must be discovered. In general, sacred texts have a threefold meaning, as Proverbs suggests in saying, "Describe these things in a threefold way." The literal meaning is only the vehicle for the allegorical or symbolic meaning, itself the basis for a purely spiritual significance. Sometimes the apparent literal meaning is actually absent or even false, as is indicated in the story of the marriage feast of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. Wine, Origen knew from his study of Middle Eastern symbology, meant wisdom, and the water jars were said to contain two or three firkins each, suggesting that wisdom may sometimes be found at two levels, and sometimes at three. There is no literal meaning in The Song of Songs, for its vulgar eroticism is unworthy of Deity. In his Commentary on John, Origen argued that the story of Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple is literally false, for a Galilean of humble origins would not be permitted to engage in such behaviour by sacerdotal authority. When the temple is understood as a symbol for the human body, the story is both significant and true. Taken at the literal level, the laws of Moses do not match in elegance and logic those of Athens and Sparta.

And to come to the Mosaic legislation, many of the laws, so far as their literal observance is concerned, are clearly irrational, while others are impossible.

One must search for the inner meaning of injunctions which are irrational at the literal level while distinguishing those ethical precepts that are useful without further interpretation. Stories should be understood in the way Chrysippus interpreted Greek myths. Broadly speaking, there is a correlation between the three levels of scriptural meaning and Paul's tripartite division of man into body (literal), soul (allegorical) and spirit. The direction Origen pointed led others to more elaborate levels of interpretation, including Christological, ecclesiological, mystical and eschatological meanings, culminating in the Heptaplus of Pico della Mirandola, a sevenfold commentary on Genesis.

The tendency towards literalism found in the pure-hearted and devoted is quite tolerable, for it arises from genuine simplicity, but the ideological literalism which is a standpoint on interpretation, or a Judaizing tendency to reduce the gospel to a set of ritual laws of purity, is wholly unacceptable. When sacred teaching is reduced to bare historical fact and moral regulation, it loses its significance. Human beings should embody the spiritual and moral message of scripture, themselves becoming living facts and self-regulators, "the Word made flesh". In Contra Celsum, Origen says:

The truth of the events recorded to have happened to Jesus cannot be fully seen in the mere text and historical narrative, for each event to those who read the Bible more intelligently is clearly a symbol of something as well. Thus in this way his crucifixion contains the truth indicated by the words, 'I have been crucified with Christ' and by the sense of the words 'Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.' His death was necessary because 'the death he died, he died to sin once for all', and because the righteous man says that he is 'becoming like him in his death' and 'if we have died with him, we shall also live with him'.

The drama of the New Testament is for Origen the image of eternal truth, the truth of cosmology and cosmogony, of what is and what can be. To understand this truth, the Christos must be allowed to take up its abode in the human mind and soul, just as Jesus who spoke in parables publicly took his disciples into a private house and expounded their meaning. But just as spiritual illumination cannot avail without creative thought and study, so careful scholarship is useless without practice. For Origen there is a fundamental unity of mind, will and spirit. The true Christian must be willing to die to the world, and this may mean literal martyrdom. The tendency to self-righteous and self-glorifying suicide must, however, be resisted. Martyrdom is the willingness to suffer and die for principle based on understanding, the refusal to compromise one's witness to truth before social and political pressure, a possibility gladly accepted but not provoked. At the same time, the true Christian must engage in prayer frequently, if not constantly. There are four forms of prayer: "supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings". Intercessions and thanksgivings may be addressed to any human being, and supplications may be made for assistance from the 'saints', those on the same spiritual path as oneself. True prayer asks for nothing and ascribes nothing; it is the soul's aspiration towards Deity, which is beyond even wisdom and light and eternal life. Since the kingdom of heaven is immanent and spiritual, true prayer is for the soul's increasing awareness of its presence within and its more complete manifestation in the life of the disciple.

If spiritual things are present to us and we are being enlightened by God in the complete possession of what is truly good, we shall not waste words about the paltry thing which is the shadow, for all material and bodily things, of whatever kind they may be, have the value of an unsubstantial and feeble shadow. . . . For prayer concerning spiritual and mystical blessings is always and in every case brought to good effect.

Origen lived his teachings, bringing together in harmonious unity great spiritual and intellectual insight, both reflected in his writings, unwavering compassion, seen in his Homilies or sermons, none of which he allowed to be recorded for posterity until he was sixty-two years old, and generous friendship, as the letters of his disciple Gregory testify. More than any other thinker in the early church, Origen heeded his own teaching that, above all, "we must make it our endeavour that the soul be not childless or barren, but that we listen to the spiritual laws with spiritual ears", for he wholeheartedly believed that humanity chooses its own destiny individually and collectively within a universe of intelligent and divine law.

That it is our own task to live a good life, and that God asks this of us not as his work nor as a thing which comes to us from somebody else, nor, as some think, from fate, but as our own task, the prophet Micah bears witness when he says, 'It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk wisely before Deity.'


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