One of the themes that my readers of this blog may have recognized in my writing recently is that growing sense among evangelicals that going back to the Fathers is important. That, I think, is a good development and something that all of us who are interested in patristics and trust in tradition to some degree-Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox- should encourage. The Fathers bring important resources to understanding the Bible, our faith and our tradition, so I firmly believe that Christians of all persuasions should be interested in what they say (even if most will not specialize in the same way as, say, I do).
Yet, one of my worries about this evangelical/Protestant ressourcement is that it is still far too centred in the academic/intellectual sphere. That is, many of the early proponents of this ressourcement have been professors of church history and their students. This is fair enough, but what I worry about is that the application of this ressourcement has tended to be in challenging modernist biblical hermeneutics or Protestant historical amnesia or other such theological abstractions. Now, I'm not saying these theological issues are unimportant for being somewhat abstract, but rather that they aren't the only thing that is important. Nor am I saying that patristic writers are only interested in or interesting because of their theological abstractions. In fact, I'm saying rather the opposite: the patristic writers are interesting because of their theology transcends the merely abstract propositionalism which, all too often, passes for theology these days.
So, what I'm proposing to do over the next few weeks is to consider the spiritual aspects of the Fathers through that consummate intellectual and noted mystic, Origen. Origen, of course, has something of an ambiguous position in the history of the Fathers. He is one of the few patristic writers who isn't a saint because of his occasional lapses into heresy. The problem, of course, with Origen was that he was brilliant. Most of the time he is brilliantly right, but when he goes wrong, he goes brilliantly wrong. Yet, it is hard not to take him seriously as a committed Christian, so his comments about the spiritual life are worth reading; even if one has to scan his comments with a heresiometer.
My proposal is that, after this introduction, I will work my way through Origen's tract, On Prayer. In this essay, Origen discusses what prayer is and how to do it in rather a systematic way. Normally, I should say, I fall asleep with this kind of approach, but Origen is so relentlessly biblical and so concerned with the spiritual reality that he is worth reading. I do want to note that I'm indebted to Jim (a frequent commenter on this blog) for this idea because, on the Orthodox Episcopal bulletin board, he proposed a discussion on this tract as a way to uncover what prayer should be (in the context of a rather arcane discussion). Unfortunately, busyness made it impossible for me to contribute as many comments as I'd like, so, in a sense, this post is an effort to make good my promises.
Well, the first part of these unfulfilled promises is to give an introduction to Origen, so here we go.
Origen was born to a Christian family, likely, in the 180s in Alexandria. He received a good education- the necessary elements of the mainstream, pagan learning, but also considerable Christian learning. His father, Leonidas, was martyred during a persecution and Origen was only just prevented from following his father in martyrdom because his mother hid the teenaged boy's clothes. Once peace was restored, it was necessary for Origen to earn a living to help his family, so he became the head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria; a post which he was to hold for the next 28 years. He was the perfect man for the post because he was immensely talented in philosophy, philology and had an exceptional understanding of Christian theology. He wrote an immense amount on these subjects-most of which has been lost. At first, Origen's relationship with his bishop(s) was good, but he increasingly found himself at odds with Bishop Demetrias. The fact that he preached as a lay person in Caesarea (Palestine) and, later, was ordained there (against the canon against eunuchs- a youthful ascetic excess which Origen later regretted) created a firestorm, so he left Alexandria with his library in 230 to set up a school in Caesarea. He continued his literary and preaching activities there, but was caught up in the Decian persecutions in 250. He died in prison from ill
Origen was revered by the next few generations of theologians as an intellectual pioneer, especially in his synthesis of Middle Platonism and the Bible. Christian leaders such as Athanasius and the Cappadocians and heretics like Arius were influenced by Origen. However, beginning in the fourth century, a reaction began against the dodgier bits of Origen's legacy. Much of this reaction was justified, considering Origen's views on the pre-existence on souls were not supported by Biblical evidence. The result of this re-assessment is that much of Origen's writings were destroyed. Yet, he was so influential and so important to the theological development of many orthodox writers that he could not be totally discounted.
Origen's On Prayer is an theological treatise dealing with the confusions about prayer in the Christian community and Origen's answers. I'm really not sure about the dating of this work, but I suspect it is Alexandrian. What I like about the treatise is that it isn't a dry theological reflection, but shows an interest in developing an active prayer life. That is what appeals to me in discussing it.
Well, that is our introduction to the series. Next week, I will deal with the introductory part of Origen's treatise.