"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Guide to the Perplexing Origen

I have frequently noted on here new works about the great, if still sometimes somewhat controverted, Origen of Alexandria. Late in this new year, we will have a new introductory volume to him and his writings: Paul R. Kolbet, Origen: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, October 2014).

About this book we are told:
Origen was the first Christian to relate fundamental theological and philosophical commitments systematically to a coherent reading of the whole Christian Bible. His prodigious writings evidence an outstanding education in Greek and Christian literature, classical philosophy, and even Jewish traditions. Under Roman persecution (at times intense), he formulated an intellectually daring spirituality emphasizing existential freedom, moral rigor, and a personally transformative spiritual reading of the Bible. Writing many of the first verse-by-verse biblical commentaries, Origen is without peer in shaping the Christian reading of Old Testament books. Finding profound wisdom in such ancient Jewish texts, Origen’s thought would prove to be a steady, comprehensive, thoroughly intellectual rejection of both Gnostic and simplistic forms of Christianity.
We are also provided with a detailed table of contents:

This chapter provides Origen’s essential biographical information and outlines the largest obstacles to understanding his writings. This includes a discussion of his massive influence upon later centuries that included among other things: repeated condemnations of his writings, ongoing efforts to preserve his work, and continual rethinking both of the theological problems he raised and his proposed strategies to meet them.

1. Finitude and Philosophy
Origen’s sense of human finitude, ignorance, and death is profound and largely determines the shape of his intellectual project. His understanding of the indeterminacy afflicting human knowledge of ultimate things leads him to engage in daring modes of intellectual activity that readers can find unsettling. The all-too-human efforts we call philosophy and theology were not distinct fields for him. Their purpose and value were not primarily to provide answers or generate doctrines, but were essentially a particular kind of human activity or practice that is deeply transforming. When (later) readers read Origen for right “doctrine,” they gravely distorted his project.

2. The Bible in Three Dimensions
Origen’s understanding of scripture is so complex that it was difficult even for his contemporaries to follow his reasoning. Rather than seeking conclusions simply to be believed, Origen ordinarily approached biblical texts as exercises in interpreting the text, oneself, society, and the universe. These exercises had a progressive quality where one began with the biblical surface (or narrative meaning) only to delve more deeply into matters of the soul and eventually into the Spirit itself. By learning to read scripture in all its dimensions, one learns how superficial one’s ordinary perception of everything else truly is. This chapter also addresses the vexed question of what Origen means by “literal” and “allegorical” ways of reading and their relationship to the practices of ancient grammarians.

3. The Triune God and the Cosmos
A chapter devoted to Origen’s God in relationship to the world including the problem of how the “Incorporeal” relates to matter, various solutions to that problem proposed by Origen’s contemporaries involving ideas of mediation, and Origen’s notion of “incarnation.” This chapter also addresses Origen’s convictions about the relationship between divine providence, human freedom, and evil.

4. Abraham and the Moral Life
The first of three programmatic chapters explaining the notion of human development (or spiritual progress) that informs everything Origen wrote. For the sake of presentation, I will emphasize one of Origen’s preferred modes of understanding this progression, namely, by means of the lives of the biblical patriarchs. Each stage has both theoretical and practical content. The first stage, therefore, has to do with the process of moral conversion as each of us undertakes Abraham’s migration (with our minds rather than our feet). By conforming our desires to divine law, our emotions and cognitive perception stabilize which promotes our physical flourishing.

5. Isaac and Knowledge
The moral ordering of one’s inner life makes possible a truly intellectual inquiry that seeks to understand the causes and nature of the created order. This inquiry produces in us a keen awareness of creation’s goodness, limits, and contingency. According to Origen, when one joins Isaac in “digging wells of vision” and pushes one’s five senses and rational capacity to their limits, one not only acquires knowledge of oneself and the world, but also discovers a longing to understand more than created things.

6. Jacob and the Dynamics of Love
In the third stage, vision rises beyond visible things, their weakness and finitude, to the divine itself. Rather than being a new desire for us, Origen boldly insists that this yearning “to see God” is continuous with innate human “eros.” It is the completion of human nature and not its abolition. The vision of God in this life, however, is not the direct experience of the divine presence, but the mature love of those chastened by knowledge. In this case, perfection looks more like the longing of the lovers in the Song of Songs, or like the patriarch Jacob who was drawn by love of his family into Egypt even as he yearned to abide in the land of Israel.

7. Christ’s Body and the Travails of Political Life This chapter examines Origen’s highly speculative, even other-worldly, thought in relationship to the exigencies of the society in which he lived. It is shown to be deeply implicated in the life of his Christian community, the Roman Empire, the pressing issues of torture, martyrdom, Roman citizenship, and the nature of Christian hope.

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