Saturday, July 16, 2016

Origen on the power of Christianity over philosophy

For many people, Christianity and philosophy present opposing ways of life, between which a person must choose. Philosophy affords a life of reason and dedicated search for the truth, while at the same time refusing any pretense to have arrived definitively and finally at that which philosophers seek. Christianity, on the other hand, demands faith and commitment to this man Jesus of Nazareth, and to his teachings and those of his apostles and of his church after him, a faith and commitment which refuse everything that can't be reconciled with these. The philosopher searches after the truth without arriving, at least so acts the philosopher worthy of the name. The Christian, however, is better defined as a sage-in-training who has arrived at the truth and now commits to living it out.

Some persons prefer philosophy to Christianity, even if they might at the same time claim to be Christians themselves. They show this by sticking to what is acceptable to their reason above everything else, rather than being fundamentally committed to Christ as such. Much less are non-Christian philosophers interested or committed to Christ's person and teaching. They prefer the life of reason, or at least what they pretend is the life of reason (enough philosophers are significantly lacking in λόγος to warrant this qualification). But there is one thing philosophy can't claim to have, compared to Christianity.

Origen compares the power of philosophy to convert people from vice and sin to righteousness to that of Christianity as follows:
Now among the Greeks there was only one Phædo, I know not if there were a second, and one Polemo, who betook themselves to philosophy, after a licentious and most wicked life; while with Jesus there were not only at the time we speak of, the twelve disciples, but many more at all times, who, becoming a band of temperate men, speak in the following terms of their former lives: For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour towards man appeared, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed upon us richly, we became such as we are. (Contra Celsum I:64)
This is the unique strength of Christianity which makes it superior to philosophy: it can make the sinful man righteous, and the vicious man virtuous. Philosophy cannot do that, as even recent studies have found that ethicists tend to be less ethical than other persons. There is the example of Thomas Pogge, a world-famous ethicist who seems capable of getting away with repeated instances of sexual harassment. Then there is Peter Singer, who values the life of a pig over that of a mentally retarded human child, who justifies "consensual" sex with animals, and any number of different immoralities that go unmentioned in polite company.

There is one thing which diminishes the strength of Origen's point. In the olden days, the philosophers of most schools were distinguished by a concern for righteous living, and they preached virtue and self-control and the rest. These days, on the contrary, you will find "philosophers" who argue that right and wrong don't exist or are relative to culture or personal preference, or whatever other theories can be invented to justify a morally lazy life. So whereas he gives some credit to philosophy insofar as it deserved it in those days, not much at all can be given in our times. Philosophers are not morally outstanding in any way, and many philosophers I had to deal with during my studies were morally inferior to the average uneducated Christians I know.

Not that there aren't morally lacking Christians, the existence of which everyone is quick to point out as if it meant something. But the number of Christians who have turned their lives from vice and evil to righteousness, even though they are far from perfect, is greater than those who have changed because of philosophy. So if a person wants to become good, if a person is concerned to become better than she already is and to embody that goodness which she senses is real and is in some mysterious way drawing her to itself—well, such a person ought to become a Christian rather than a philosopher. Christianity's power to change a person demonstrates its true connection with God, whereas the moral cesspools that are some philosophy departments show that they have nothing whatsoever to do with a power for good.

1 comment:

Cisco said...

Steven, please take time to consider a (non-scholarly) essay at The Evangelical Universalist titled, “Is God Violent, Or Nonviolent?” at

In the “References” section of that essay is a link to an article titled, “SATAN: Old Testament Servant Angel or New Testament Cosmic Rebel?” at the Clarion Journal, which I strongly believe would be worth your time.