Sunday, July 12, 2015

The misunderstood Origen

Origen is perhaps one of the most unjustly misunderstood and calumniated theologians of Christian history. His case is particularly tragic because, among those who had actually read his work in great detail, he was perhaps the most appreciated and widely praised thinkers of ancient Christianity. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and others sang his praises, and their thinking is deeply influenced by his works. Indeed, Jerome at one point said that Origen was the second teacher of the Church after the apostles. But at some point, certain heretical groups became inextricably associated with Origen's name, and he became a victim of this deadly association.

Sometimes Origen is denounced as an allegorizing Platonist who rejected the use of the literal sense of the Scriptures, believed in the transmigration of the soul, thought that human souls preexisted their embodiment, and so on. Panayiotis Tzamalikos, in his Origen: Philosophy of History & Eschatology (Brill, 2007), actually argues against these claims, which are quite easily disproved by reading Origen's works themselves. Tzamalikos insists, on the contrary, that Origen's thought is fundamentally and essentially anti-Platonic in numerous respects.

Take, for example, the question of the transmigration of the soul. The Platonists believed that the soul could exist disembodied, and that in went through a series of embodiments (or reincarnations) throughout an age, depending on its desert and merits. If the soul was wicked, perhaps it was reincarnated as an animal or some other creature, and so in this way souls would be purified of their sins.

Origen's thought is opposed to this. He refers on occasions to "the false doctrine of transmigration" (τῆς μετενσωματώσεως ψευδοδοξίαν) and "the heresy of transmigration," a notion that he flatly rejects (Tzamalikos 2007, 50). Indeed, Origen rejected that the soul could ever exist outside of the body, on its own; rather, everything existed in some embodied way except for the Godhead itself (ibid.).

Rather, for Origen, the human soul always exists embodied, although it may not always exist in this body. This current body, with which I am typing and eating and so on, will some day die, and though my soul will continue to exist, it does not exist entirely disembodied. Rather, it exists in a different sort of body, which likewise exists in this world of God's but on a different plane, perhaps. In any case, the principle holds true for Origen that a soul must always be in a body that is specially suited to the environment in which it exists. He writes: We know that when a soul, which in its nature is incorporeal and invisible, is in any material place, it is in need of a body, the nature of which is adapted to that place (Tzamalikos 2007, 57). So the soul, when the human person has died, occupies a body that is specially suited for the plane of existence in which the dead are located.

Interestingly, Origen argued for this view because he thought that the Scriptures taught it. Consider the example of the transfiguration of Jesus: there Moses and Elijah are present, apparently embodied and not disembodied, and in bodies of a different sort than Peter and James and John had (ibid.). This view makes a lot of good sense of the ways in which dead people are depicted in Scripture as being embodied: for example, Dives asks for a drop of water as he is tormented in Hades, and the souls of dead saints are given robes (Rev 6.9-11).

Origen thus denies the transmigration of the soul, denies that retribution for sins takes place through this transmigration, and denies that the human soul can (let alone should) exist disembodied. In these very important ways, his thinking is fundamentally opposed to Platonism and grounded in Scripture rather than in philosophy. (This is true even if you might disagree with his exegesis.)