The Apostle Paul called himself a person born out of time (1 Corinthians 15:8). He wished that he had been born earlier and come to maturity during the time of Jesus' ministry; he longed to know his master intimately and firsthand. Conversely, Origen of Alexandria seems to have been born precisely at the right time for his world. His genius came slamming into world history five years after Commodus (of Gladiator movie fame), the reprobate son of Marcus Aurelius, began his infamous reign that led to the destruction of Rome. Edward Gibbon, the famous historian, said that the century proceeding Commodus' reign was the longest time of peace and prosperity that the world had ever known. It was followed by years of tyranny and decline with only short breaths of peace.
The poet William Butler Yeats described the character of time
when the center no longer holds:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Origen's perception provided a vision of a center that would hold firm in such sad times. His spiritual tool kit consisted of an unqualified commitment to God, a hope that all would return, fulfilled and restored, to their Origin, and a contemplative practice where Scripture, interpreted allegorically, would reveal the deepest and most profound words of the Logos of God for troubled people.
Origen's early life was stained by Yeats' blood dimmed tide. His father Leonides was a Christian martyr. Far from avoiding suffering Origen urged his father to be faithful to death. In his adolescent enthusiasm to join Leonides' cross-imitating demise, Origen contrived to join his father but was prevented by his mother, who wisely hid his clothing and averted his impulsive rush to premature glory. In time a more balanced perspective on martyrdom and self-discipline would prevail. Origen would one day guide others toward longsuffering witness, and die of wounds received during torture in Decius' persecution of 250.
He had much to do in this world before arriving in the next.
He wrote, what some estimate to be, two thousand works; most were dictated
to secretaries provided by his Christian patron Ambrose. He expressed
his convictions using not only his Christian tradition but the legacy
of Greece and Rome. He not only studied under the same tutor, Ammonius
Saccas, as Plotinus, the originator of Neo-Platonism, but professionally
taught the classics to young Alexandrians. He gave this career up and
sold his pagan library when a wealthy woman provided for his position
as the chief catechist at the Christian school. In the introduction to
the Classics of Western Spirituality Rowan Greer writes:
He saw that the Christian hope was not an alternative to the
Roman world, but the catalyst that would rescue and transform what was
best in it. His theology was an attempt to translate the gospel into
a language intelligible to the pagan, especially the thoughtful and
educated pagan. (2)
While others moderated their thoughts and commitments out of consideration of the danger, Origen never did. He stayed on as a catechetical teacher in Alexandria during one of the most ferocious persecutions. He matched the passionate intensity of his adversaries both in the world and in the corrupt, monarchial church.
His fitness for the ministry was questioned, because of his status as a eunuch, the result of early excess and scriptural misinterpretation (ironically taking Matthew too literally), by a jealous bishop in Alexandria. Origen was however accepted in Palestine and became a popular, well-loved teacher and biblical commentator, training monks and laity alike.
An early Eastern Church Father who trained with Origen in Palestine
wrote the following praise regarding Origen's effect on his students,
instilling in them a love for the Word:
And thus, like some spark lighting upon my innermost soul,
love was kindled and burst into flame within us - a love at once to
the Holy Word (Christ), the most lovely object of all, which attracts
all irresistibly toward himself by his unutterable beauty, and to this
man (Origen), his friend and advocate... and in my estimation there
arose but one object dear and worth desire- to wit, philosophy, and
that master of philosophy, that divine man (Origen).
- Gregory Thaumaturgos, The Wonderworker
Origen's greatest achievement was the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, an exegetical method which while accommodating each reader's stage of faith, nonetheless, pushed all students forward to a more advanced knowledge and comprehensive understanding of faith.
In spite of Origen's desire that he would be remembered as a servant of the church, he was eventually condemned as a heretic at the Fifth General Council of 553. The reasons for the church's decision to consider him outside the pale of orthodoxy are both political and theological. It was based more on the teachings of his followers than on his own writings. The attribution of being orthodox or unorthodox in positions that the church had not already discussed seems rather unfair. From the standards of a later day, Origen was undoubtedly not among mainstream theologians. His deep appreciation for Platonism and even for the contribution of some Christian Gnostics made him suspect, as did his belief in universal salvation and the pre-existence of human souls.
Regardless of the metaphysic through which he sought to express the Christian message, it is hard to see Origen is anything but a great innovator and an advocate for Christian spirituality. It is difficult not to compare Origen with a modern theologian like Paul Tillich who also freely used philosophy to deepen, understand and communicate the gospel in modern times. But even before we get to Paul Tillich and others, Origen seems to have influenced some of the greatest church leaders such as Augustine, Jerome, and most of the Eastern fathers, and provided an image of ascent spirituality, which is the mainstay of Western mystical spirituality to this day. More important is his example, for the most part neglected and ridiculed, of how to interpret and hear Scripture symbolically as a living, transformative Word.