Sunday, April 20, 2008

Origen Prayer Series- Part 1

Welcome to the opening of the Origen Prayer series. This week's text is here. Follow along with Origen, if you like, but, whatever you do, I hope that my readers will find today's installment helpful.

I had originally intended to focus on the first four chapters of On Prayer, but, as I was reviewing the first chapter or two, I decided that there was really enough here to spend time with. As I noted in my introduction, I'm not interested in merely summarizing or focusing only on the theological aspects of Origen's treatise, I want to consider carefully what is going on spiritually.

Origen's opening is what primarily interests me today. In fact, the first lines are useful to quote:
Things in themselves so supremely great, so far above man, so utterly above our perishable nature, as to be impossible for the race of rational mortals to grasp, as the will of God became possible in the immeasurable abundance of the Divine grace which streams forth from God upon men, through Jesus Christ the minister of His unsurpassable grace toward us, and through the cooperation of the Spirit. Thus, though it is a standing impossibility for human nature to acquire Wisdom, by which all things have been established—for all things, according to David, God made in wisdom—from being impossible it becomes possible through our Lord Jesus Christ, who was made for us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

Sit and reflect on this comment for a bit. Part of what Origen is saying here is that we are incapable of understanding the things of God on our own abilities. This is an essential starting point from a mystical point of view. We do have to realize that God is so much greater than us that we really can't fathom what He is or even what He does.

So often, we want to put God in a box and assume that He is or is not what we say he is. In a sense, this is a way that we can assert control over God, if we can define Him and contain Him in our own intellectual system where He'll act in the way that we expect Him to act, but not in ways that we don't want Him to. It really doesn't matter which intellectual system we're talking about here - both conservatives and liberals do the same thing. The impulse is the same. We want to know about God, so we can have power over him.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), we don't have that luxury. God is much more complicated, mysterious and mystifying than we really want to admit. How could He not be? He created the universe, the world and us, after all. How can we compete with that? How can we expect to contain all that God is about, when we are the created, not the Creator? Like Job, what can we answer when God answers our complaints with
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid the cornerstone-while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted with joy" Job, 38, 2-7. NIV
And on and on, as God asks Job (and us) the mysteries of the universe, knowing we can't answer. And we still can't answer most of these questions.

God's questions to Job lead us admitting our place in the universe and help us learn humility. We are not the masters of this or any universe. We don't really understand God, who is the source of our being, so how can we say that we control him or that we can speak for him. We can't - on our own resources and powers. We can, as Origen points out, barely understand or forecast what is happening here on Earth. How can we do it in heaven?

This is where the second half of Origen's comment comes in: that, despite our incapacity to know the truth about God, we can know about God only by God's own grace. That is, God's own free gift of grace includes within it the gift of wisdom, of discerning the things of God. What is impossible for us as men, God can and does give by grace.

Now, let's be very careful here. The possibility of self-delusion is so incredibly likely from so many different directions that we need God's grace to escape it. What Origen is driving at is that, while we are incapable of reasoning our way to understanding God, God will, by his grace, help us to understand Him. I think we have to understand this comment in a couple ways.

First, Origen does not separate the spiritual and the theological in the way that we do in the West or in modernity. We want to see theology as a merely intellectual endeavor. If we are clever enough, we will figure out what God is like and the various other theological/doctrinal conundra which plague us after twenty centuries of trying to figure God out. Origen would disagree with this because he believed firmly that we could not do theology - God-talk, if you like - without both actively praying to God and actually acting as his disciple in a holy life (that is, a life consistent with our Christian calling). Theology, prayer and service are not separate things in Origen, or in any of the Fathers. They are merely what we do as Christians. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, in a sense, what Origen is saying is that we cannot talk about prayer in a theological way without engaging in it and without seeking God's grace to help us understand it. If we do not pray, we have to ask how we think we can tell other people how to pray. If we do not pray to God, if we do not develop a relationship with a personal God, how can we talk about Him as we know all about Him? If God didn't relate back to us as a personal God, how can we understand him at all? We can't. He has already made that clear.

This brings me to my second point: Origen believes we can relate to God and that this relationship is and should be a major concern of a Christian. He dismisses the argument that God is so beyond us that we cannot relate to Him, not by denying that God is greater than us, but by emphasizing that God wants to relate to us. His grace is given to enable us to pray and to learn about Him. Our understanding of God, therefore, is not objective or scientific, but rather personal and relational. It is personal and relational because God gives us the grace to learn about Him through our minds and our hearts and our spirits.

I have been reflecting on this a bit over the last few days and I've realized that the reason why I'm a Christian is that God is a Person to whom I can and do relate. I really can't try to have a relationship with an abstract concept, with an Idea of God. I'm really not Platonic enough to do it and I can't deal with the abstraction. I need a personal God because I can only relate to a God to whom I can go to in prayer and in learning, so that I can learn more about the universe and more about how to turn my own capacity for self-delusion and 'kingdom' building' (all kingdoms of petty varieties like 'office politics' or wherever we feel the pull of dominating others) into serving others. I can't do it, but God can. A friend once commented that, at one point in his life, he spent all his time trying to be people's savior, until he finally realized Someone else had the job. And that is okay - and better than okay: it is perfect.

So, let's end in prayer:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.



Jim said...


This is a great beginning. I hope that you draw a fair number of readers.

I am also intrigued by the way we separate what Origen as well as a number of the Scriptural authors linked prayer, thought and action. I appreciate your thoughts on it.


Tim A. Troutman said...

Excellent. I'm very excited to read the rest. This is the type of study we don't see often enough in patristics. Studying the wisdom of the Church on our knees instead of at a desk!