All Flesh Must Once Again Become Fire: Origen’s Untamed Thinking

Charles M. Stang

Fire illustration

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj


Origen was born in Alexandria in the late second century to Christian parents who gave him a pagan name: Ôrigenês, “child of Horus,” the falcon-headed sky god of the Egyptian pantheon. His was a life bookended by persecution: his father, killed for his faith when Origen was only sixteen years old, and Origen himself died from tortures suffered under the persecution of the emperor Decius in the year 253 or 254. His tormenters wanted him to yield so that they would have a prominent apostate with which to embarrass the church. That he did not yield, or die in their custody, but expired only later from his wounds meant that he was not, strictly speaking, like his father, a “martyr”—a witness to his faith unto death—but only a “confessor.”

Nicknamed “Adamantius,” he was the first “man of steel”—although it is perhaps better to think of the etymology of this title, “untamable” (adamas), for there is indeed something wild about his thinking.

Between these violent bookends, Origen led a life of learning. Nicknamed “Adamantius,” he was the first “man of steel”—although it is perhaps better to think of the etymology of this title, “untamable” (adamas), for there is indeed something wild about his thinking. He was a scholar, a teacher, and a daring thinker. Was he also a philosopher? If philosophy is the loving pursuit of wisdom, then yes, unquestionably. The wisdom he pursued, however, was divine Wisdom: the personified Wisdom in the book of Proverbs; that “Wisdom” which, along with the “Word,” is the preeminent title of the second person of the Trinity, God the Son.

To worldly wisdom Origen had a more complicated relationship—as have all Christians after the apostle Paul. He had, as it were, dual degrees in secular and religious education: a deep immersion in the traditional subjects of Hellenic paideia and, among his contemporaries, an unrivaled knowledge of the scriptures, Old and New Testaments. When as a young man he was entrusted by his bishop with teaching the faithful at a catechetical school, he renounced his secular education and teaching career and sold his library. But his ancient biographer Eusebius of Caesarea describes this very abandonment of secular learning as itself a “philosophic way of life,” that is, a life of renunciation (of sex, food, sleep, wealth, comfort, and status).1 This serves as a reminder that, in the third and fourth centuries at least, a life of philosophy was just as much, if not more, about what you did (or did not do) with your body as with your mind.

Later, Origen split the school in two, entrusting the introductory students to a former pupil, now colleague, and reserving his own efforts for the education of the advanced students. With this move he reversed his earlier abandonment of secular studies and taught philosophy to worthy students. If, according to Eusebius, he had all along been living as a philosopher, now he returned to teaching as one. The study of philosophy promised to help inoculate his students against teachers who would lead them astray, but, more importantly, it gave them tools to dive ever deeper into the mysteries contained in the scriptures.

In order to appreciate what Origen offers us today, we must first enter the landscape of his mind, and it is in many ways alien territory. A good place to begin is the book of Genesis, and its first two chapters. Origen was not the first ancient reader to notice that Genesis seemed to have two creation stories, not one: in the first, God creates the world and all that is in it, including humankind, over the course of six days; in the second, God creates Adam “from the dust of the ground,” then Eve from Adam’s rib, and then the two of them run afoul of a serpent in the garden and are banished by God from this Eden. Origen noticed that the two verbs used to describe the creation of humankind in each story are different. In the first story, God is said to have “made” humankind—the verb is poieô, from whence we get “poetry.” In the second story, God “formed” the first human from the dust of the earth—the verb is plassô, from whence we get “plastic.”

Certain that every detail and difference in the scriptures is significant, Origen insisted that these two verbs, and these two stories, tell us of two distinct creations. God first made minds or intellects whose sole purpose was to contemplate their creator. Something distracted them, however, some movement within themselves, some force eating away at their powers of attention. All of the minds, except one, turned away from God to varying degrees, and God formed these fallen minds into angels, humans, and demons, depending on the degree of their distraction. Around them all he formed a world in which to house them, to heal them, to restore them.

Minds were made of fire. Or perhaps they were like irons in the great fire of God: as long as they were plunged into the fire, they were aflame. But just like irons, when they removed themselves from God’s fire, they cooled and became ever more solid and slow. This is “The Fall” for Origen: minds falling into this world like lava cooling into black rock.

As therefore God is “fire” and the angels “a flame of fire” and the saints are all “fervent in spirit,” so on the contrary those who have fallen away from the love of God must undoubtedly be said to have cooled in their affection for him and to have become cold. . . . we must ask whether perhaps even the word soul, which in Greek is psyche, was not formed from psychesthai, with the idea of growing cold after having been in a diviner and better state, and whether it was not derived from thence because the soul seems to have grown cold by the loss of its first and natural divine warmth and on that account to have been placed in its present state with its present designation.2

We are not minds trapped in our souls and our bodies; rather, our souls and bodies are simply our fiery minds in different states.

We are not minds trapped in our souls and our bodies; rather, our souls and bodies are simply our fiery minds in different states. Just as water exists as a solid, liquid, and gas, so too do we. The goal, then, is not escape, but transformation. We began as God’s poetry and have descended into plasticity; all flesh must once again become fire.

For Origen, this is of God’s design. Our fall into flesh is in fact our opportunity for rehabilitation. The fiery mind moves quickly, too quickly, and so is easily distracted. The descent into this world slows the mind down, now encumbered by a soul and a body, and trains it over many lifetimes to pay steady attention. Whenever we successfully pay steady attention to this or that, we inch closer to contemplation, and we blaze just a little brighter.

Rehabilitation is a goal we share with angels and demons. They too are fire; they too have fallen. Angels help us along the way, and demons hinder us. The transformation from flesh to fire must be free, and thus it will take a long, long time. In order that “God may be all in all,” as the apostle Paul promises God will be (1 Corinthians 15:28), Origen insisted that all the fallen minds must eventually be restored. He believed the apostle Peter foretold of this when he spoke in the Acts of the Apostles of a “restoration of all things” (apokatastasis pantôn).3 Origen took Peter at his word: all things, all the fallen minds, including Satan, must be restored. That will take an especially long time, of course, because Satan is the name we give to the mind that fell furthest, and the one most stubbornly entrenched in his sin and ignorance.

Not everyone in his day, or since, has appreciated Origen’s insistence on universal salvation, that God will not cease until all the fallen minds are gathered once again around their creator. If pressed, Origen could even acknowledge that, strictly speaking, “Satan” will never be saved, because by the time that fallen mind we now call “Satan” is slowly and painfully rehabilitated, it will no longer bear that name. Clever as it is, this move has never seemed to satisfy those critics who are certain that God intends eternal torment for the damned, that divine punishment is without end.

Remember that, according to Origen, one of the minds did not fall: we know this mind by the name “Christ.” Although it is the only mind that did not deserve to descend into a soul and body, it freely did so, out of love for us, its lost siblings. This is why the apostle Paul calls the Incarnation an act of philanthrôpia, or “love of humanity.”4 The mind of Christ took on our human condition, not in the abstract but in the concrete: it became Jesus of Nazareth. Burdened and buffeted in a Jewish body living under brutal oppression, Jesus still managed to model loving contemplation of the creator. His death on the cross was not some substitutionary sacrifice that expiated our primordial sins; rather, it was a servant showing the way of obedience to God “even unto death,” modelling such obedience to fallen minds who are defined and differentiated by their disobedience.

As the only unfallen mind, Christ is fully open to the Word of God: he receives it as any mind was created to do. The Gospel according to John says of God’s Word: “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”5 All of creation, then, is in, of, and through God’s Word; creation is Worded. And the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the mind we name “Christ,” taught us then and teaches us now how to read that worded world. We read creation for signs of God’s providence, which is also working in and around us to restore us. And we read the scriptures, the two testaments, old and new. For Origen, they provide all that we will ever need to know, and they heal every spiritual ailment from which we will ever suffer.

It is no exaggeration to say that Origen spent his life reading, teaching, and preaching. What survives of his enormous corpus is mostly commentaries and homilies. Reading the scriptures was no pastime for Origen. To read the scriptures was to be slowly restored, to inch closer to the apokatastasis. He insisted that just as we are made up of body, soul, and spirit (which was for him equivalent to mind), so is scripture: the body of scripture is its literal meaning; the soul and the spirit are its deeper meanings. Clunky applications of Origen’s interpretive lens tend to try to identify three discrete meanings: a bodily, a soulful, and a spiritual. But Origen insisted that some passages in scripture have no bodily sense, no literal meaning. Since the scriptures are not really authored by humans but by the Holy Spirit, every detail—every word, phrase, and seeming infelicity—has spiritual meaning.

The literal meaning of the scriptures is like a smooth surface over which we glide.

The saving significance of the scriptures lies in these spiritual meanings, and, crucially, there is no end to them, at least no end until the end of all ends, the “restoration of all things.” Until then, there is no end to our understanding of the scriptures, and so no end to our reading and rereading the scriptures. The literal meaning of the scriptures is like a smooth surface over which we glide. We read along, and then suddenly we trip over an oddity, an infelicity, or an absurdity in the narrative. If we are lucky, we do not regain our footing, but we fall flat on our faces, and we examine up close whatever it was that broke our stride. But when we do so, we see that the bulging crack reveals an infinite depth beneath our feet, an abyss of meaning over which we have been skating with false confidence. For Origen, to read the scriptures is to be initiated into that abyss, to begin to spelunk ever deeper.

Christ has taught us to read the scriptures and, by his coming, has transformed the whole of scripture into gospel, or “good news.” But even this gospel is but a “shadow of the mysteries of Christ.”6 Lest we come to worship the words on the page as we would a false god, Origen directs our eyes to the gospel in order to direct them beyond the gospel, or to another gospel. If our gospel is the text whose words we can read on a page, then there is another “spiritual” or “eternal” gospel always on the horizon of our reading. He writes, “our task is to change the sensible gospel into the spiritual gospel.”7 The task is to transform the bodily sense to the spiritual sense, the flesh of the word to the fire of the word. We can set each letter of a book aflame. The gospel of fire always exists out in front of us, leading us through many dark nights, like a fiery pillar in the desert. As we follow it, as we change the word’s flesh to fire, so too are we changed.

Our individual rehabilitation is imagined as a single step in the long and communal choreography of universal salvation, the restoration of all things, human and nonhuman.

What does Origen offer us today? With him, we enter a Christian imaginary where every detail of our incarnation, our becoming flesh, is an opportunity for progress toward rehabilitation. Our individual rehabilitation is imagined as a single step in the long and communal choreography of universal salvation, the restoration of all things, human and nonhuman. With Origen, we understand our body not as the mind’s antagonist, but as the mind’s longing to be once again an iron in the fire of God. He teaches us to see ourselves reflected on the page of the scriptures as if in a mirror: just as letters long to be spirit, so flesh longs to burn. To free the letter is to free ourselves: all flesh must once again become fire. And to stare into the mirror of the scriptures is to stare at a mise en abyme: there will be an end to our many transformations, our many, ever deeper, readings of the scriptures, but thankfully—mercifully—that end is not yet in sight. What does Origen offer us today? Time, and longing: time in which to long, and long more.

 

Notes:

  1. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.3.9.
  2. Origen, Peri Archôn, 2.8.2.
  3. Acts 3:19–21 (NRSV): “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”
  4. For example, Titus 3:4: “But when the goodness and loving kindness [philanthrôpia] of God our Savior appeared” (NRSV); strictly speaking, Titus is a “deutero-Pauline” epistle, but Origen believed it to be authored by the apostle himself.
  5. John 1:2–3 (NRSV).
  6. Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1.39.
  7. Ibid., 1.45.
 

Charles M. Stang is Professor of Early Christian Thought and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His most recent book, Our Divine Double, was published in 2016 by Harvard University Press.

 

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