Saturday, September 22, 2007

Origen and Living Tradition

I've started reading the Philocalia of Origen, a compilation, presumably made by St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, of some of the better bits of Origen's theological works. Origen, of course, has an ambiguous reputation in the history of the Church. It is impossible to deny his influence on the development of Christian doctrine (both good and bad) in the East. It is impossible to deny his genuinely helpful insights into Scripture, informed both by his extensive understanding of the Bible and by his richly intellectually curious mind. Many of the answers to the various conundra of the Old and New Testaments can be traced right back to Origen's careful exegetical work on almost every book of the Bible.

Yet, Origen's reputation was badly sullied in the third century, when anti-Origenist theologians attacked the great thinker. What was more, many of these attacks were entirely warranted because there are times when one wants to ask Origen if he is a Platonist or a Christian. His universalism, his fondness of the language of the Platonic Ideas and his belief in the pre-existence crossed the line for the Church and, along with is self-castration, cost Origen a good deal of his reputation and, incidently, any chance at canonization as a saint.

This ambiguity can be seen in an ancient preface to the Philocalia which is clearly influenced by this later anti-Origen feeling in Christian thinking. This preface (whose authorship I don't know, but would love it if someone could tell me) clearly dislikes Origen and is, as a result, uncomfortable with the attestation of this collection to the efforts of St. Basil and St. Gregory; those two stalwart defenders of orthodoxy in the later 4th century. The problem, in the eyes of this early preface, was that this attribution seems supported by a letter by Gregory the Theologian (I think this is Gregory Thaumaturgus) which explicitly states that St. Basil and Gregory made this collection). This letter is found in the old manuscript of the Philocalia from which the current manuscript tradition is copied. The editor of this preface doesn't dispute that this letter was written or that this is the collection which was made. What he does claim is that pro-Origenists have inserted clearly heretical passages into this otherwise 'orthodox' and doctrinally pristine collection by the two Cappadocians.

This particular example of textual criticism strikes me as a little forced. It is entirely based on the fact of the two Cappadocians exemplary orthodoxy and the insistence it must agree with the concept of the orthodoxy of the editor's day. Many today would find nothing remarkable in this insistence and would be disturbed by any suggestion that St. Basil and St. Gregory liked Origen too much. I suspect that behind this disturbance of the Christian tradition as static and closed. This conception of tradition, comforting to conservatives and maddening to liberals, is a mistaken one.

The conception I'm referring to is the idea that tradition is, by nature, static, a checklist of propositions which have always been in force and much be checked off in their entirety to satisfy one's place in the tradition. This particular modernist caricature has had a long life and it continues to impose upon any discussion of what tradition is. Conservatives are eager to 'prove' the doctrinal purity of an earlier time (just as this ancient editor did) and, thus, to defend it in the present. Liberals, rightly, see these attempts as forced and they spend their time proving the 'deviations' from the norm of the tradition which just goes to prove that there was no precedent for the tradition as it exists. Whether one is seeking to prove the truth of a tradition or disprove it, what these two approaches have in common is a tendency to see tradition as static.

I've already discussed my view of tradition here. I will take the liberty of quoting myself, so I don't have to go over the same ground:
A tradition, in my view, is a relatively coherent body of thought which is characterized both by a narrative featuring a coherent group of people and how they believe they fit in the world and by a running conversation or commentary over time about how this narrative should be interpreted and appropriated by the individuals in that community. It is not calcified belief, but rather must be dynamic as it encounters both internal and external challenges to its status as a truthful narrative. Indeed, the moment that it becomes calcified tradition, with little relation to what is going on in the world or with its followers, it loses it coherence and its ability to explain the world. What follows is that this tradition rapidly loses its appeal and, ultimately, its following.

How does this apply to Origen and the Philocalia? What we have to recognize is that no tradition emerges fully formed from the head of a creator, but rather it forms and develops over time. In its early stages, a tradition is fuzzier and less defined than it would become. That means there was more latitude for deviation, but that, as the implications of individual deviations become clear, they may be accepted as more or less acceptable. This leads to great definition of the tradition and the retrospective judgement of earlier figures, who could not be expected to have known how the tradition has developed or will develop fully. If a tradition is living, it is forced to deal with both its internal debates and its encounters with other worldviews. Part of that process is refinement, but it can lead to a splintering of the tradition, if the narrative which underlies the tradition should seem to be inadequate to the task of explaining the world. It can also lead to the very ambiguities that Christians face in dealing with Origen.

In his day, Origen was extremely controversial, but there were few who did not reckon him as inside the orthodox tradition. They might challenge him on many of his assumptions and his Platonism, but there seems to have been a general recognition that, deep down, Origen recognized the Bible as the basic authority in Scripture (not Plato) and that his resort to Plato was an effort to engage the wider culture.
Origen had his share of detractors and enemies, but, in his day, he was not considered heretical, so much as problematic.

Later anti-Origenists, after having seen the effect that Platonized Christianity had on the great heresies of the 4th century like Arianism and the Christological heresies, felt that Origen's allegiance to Plato was in conflict with his allegiance to Christ. The central differences is the degree to which Origen complied with the rules of the tradition as defined or re-defined by the Church. As a result, we have the problem faced by this ancient editor, who retrojects the developed orthodoxy after these conflicts and cannot see why Origen had such an influence on his theological heroes, St. Basil and St. Gregory. Yet, what we have seen happen is the movement towards greater definition on the question of how much Platonism is too much Platonism in theology. Origen, by this time, crosses the line, but there is enough of his work which does not, but he is left in a very ambiguous position.

This means that, for us, the problem posed by Origen is how much did he stay faithful to the narrative of Christianity in its traditional form and to what degree does he continue to do so, given his Platonic departures. I'm not sure to what degree I can answer that, largely because I haven't even finished the Philocalia, much less read as much of Origen as I could. Even if I had, given the massive amounts of his writing that haven't survived, I doubt I could come up with a conclusive statement.

Yet, the test I would propose is the same one I would propose for any other theological writer, Church Father or not: how well does he stay faithful to what the Bible teaches. That is, of course, opening a whole new can of worms, given the differences of opinion on what the Bible teaches or even whether it teaches anything coherently. Personally, I think both questions can be answered more or less concretely, partly because, otherwise, we Christians would be unable to claim to have a coherent tradition and partly because I think that tradition is still the best explanation of how the world works. This last comment, I think, is the subject of a whole new set of post and, given that my nine and a half month old son is happily tearing our den apart as I write, I must end this discussion here.



Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

St Gregory the Theologian is Gregory Nazianzen, for future reference. St Gregory Thaumaturgus lived about a century earlier.

Also, the situation wasn't quite as simple as described. Origen was certainly very well-respected in his lifetime as a great thinker and writer, and died without being accused of heresy. A number of people took his work and ran with it, which folks were generally termed Origenists. It's these who were, unlike Origen, adamant on some of Origen's positions, placing them in a position of heresy during the course of the fourth century. From what we can tell, they very likely did interpolate passages into Origen's writings, as this is universally said to have occurred by contemporary writers, thus the need for the Philokalia ("best of") of Origen by SS Basil and Gregory. Remember that much the same is in evidence with Rufinus and Jerome, the latter of which accused the former of too much cleaning up of Origen in his translation work. Origen was a great thinker, a great hypothetical theologian, speaking in the vernacular of the Academy (quite literally!) of his day: neo-Platonism. But it was all just talk, suggestion and theory, not intended for dogma. Dogmatizing these writings, interpolated or not, by the Origenists led to their condemnation. Origen's writings survived, likely even autograph copies, along with the rest of his library at Caesarea Maritima, until that library and all its treasures (including Origen's immense Hexapla!) was burned by the Muslims. After that, Rufinus' translations have been the primary source, unfortunately.

Phil Snider said...

I take your point on the complexity of the issue with Origen and thank you for the correction (there are so many Gregorys!). Origen is not an easy person to place, so I was contracting my account considerably to get to my main point. Perhaps I contracted to much.


Jim said...

Hi Phil,

I have been thinking about miracles. I find myself conflicted. If I don't accept St. Martin's for some reason, can I accept St. Peter's? If so is my basis an appeal to authority, "The Bible Tells Me So?" Hmm....

And yet, unless we consider an occaisional slip into honesty by a politician, I do not see any miracles now. If the answer to why is that we do not expect them, then there are issues with the expectations in the saint's era.

Not a simple question by any means.


D. J. King said...

Hi Jim,

One of the Desert Fathers (not sure which one... I don't have the cite in front of me at the moment), when asked by one of his disciples whether anyone would ever be able to perform miracles such as that brotherhood could perform said, "There will come a time when simply to utter the name "Jesus" in faith will be a greater miracle than any we have performed, seen, or even heard of."

It might be that, rather than a dearth of miracles, we may simply not have the spiritual vision to see them.


Phil Snider said...

I think I'm with dj on this. There is a degree to which we in the West have been trained out of seeing miracles, rather seeking 'plausible' explanations better. There is a long tradition of demythologizing and rationalizing miracle stories, but there is always assumed the proposition that miracles don't happen. That rather skews the results, doesn't it?


Maureen said...

It seems to me that miracles, while not everyday occurrences, certainly happen more often than, say, a meteorite falls on somebody's house. It's also well-attested in modern times that certain people, as part of their holiness of life, seem to shed miracles like I shed hair. One thinks of Padre Pio, or Solanus Casey in Detroit.

Amusingly, these miracles are often de-emphasized in modern retellings. For example, one hears a great deal of St. Martin de Porres the servant of the poor, and of his mulatto heritage. But in Peru, one would hear a great deal more about his incidental miracle-working, which included the teleportation of an entire class of novices home to the monastery from a picnic, so as not to get them in trouble for being late. (Supported by actual testimony by the teleported guys.)So the age of miracles is certainly not over for certain people!

But a good many people have witnessed miracles at least once in their lives; the most practical people will occasionally come out with the most startling stories. But it's not something our culture thinks is normal, so we don't normally talk about it.