Thursday, 14 March 2013

Heaven is a classroom: Origen's pedagogical theology


Of all the things I like about Origen, what I like best is that he is a teacher

We have the testimony of Eusebius that Origen was a distinctive and charismatic teacher. Eager students flocked to him. He taught them the whole sweep of Greek intellectual culture, allowing them to explore everything and anything. Nothing was off limits. "We took our fill of everything and enjoyed the good things of the soul", writes one student. By stages Origen would lead them through Greek philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, literature – until finally they came to the pinnacle of all learning, the interpretation of scripture. 

Origen's students loved him. He was called "philosophy's guide", a "divine man". Numbered among his pupils were not only bishops and scholars but also ascetics, saints, martyrs. 

In an infamous passage, Eusebius relates that Origen castrated himself in order to secure the trust of his female pupils and to ensure that his relationship with them was not misunderstood by others. The castration story (generally presumed to be apocryphal: let us hope so) would be shocking enough as a tale of heroic asceticism. But actually the point of the story, as Eusebius tells it, is not ascetic triumph over the body but simply a teacher's total commitment to pedagogy, to teaching and learning at any cost. Origen wants his female pupils to trust him implicitly; he is unwilling to let any obstacle get in the way.

To read Origen today is to follow the mind of a great teacher, boundless in curiosity, alert to difficulties, always on the lookout for opportunities to learn something new, always ready with an apt illustration to ease the burden of heavy concepts. Whatever he happens to be thinking about, you find him thinking like a teacher. His approach to exegesis, theology, prayer, the spiritual life – it is pedagogical through and through. And some of his most charming eccentricities come from his teacherly habit of mind.

If you take a group of people and ask them what they find most striking about the Gospel accounts of Jesus, I expect they'll mention his miracles, his supernatural powers, his return from death, perhaps his uncommon attentiveness and human warmth. But what amazes Origen most of all is Jesus' accomplishment as a teacher. Origen is stunned that Jesus could teach so well, and could fill the world with his teaching, in an educational career that lasted little more than a year. Good teaching requires constant improvement and growth; it takes years of practice to make a great teacher. How could anyone have been so good a teacher – the best teacher who ever lived – in just one year? Jesus is a pedagogical miracle: that's how Origen sees it.

And then there's heaven. If I ask you what heaven will be like, you'll perhaps mention light or harmony or happiness or feasting or some sort of über-erotic fulfillment. But when Origen tries to imagine the life of eternal blessedness, all he can think of is an everlasting classroom. We will sit down at heavenly desks in heavenly lecture rooms and Someone will lecture to us. In this manner our minds will be constantly enlarged, our hearts purified, as we spend eternal ages penetrating more and more deeply into the mysteries of divine Wisdom. To live eternally is to grow eternally: and you grow by learning. So, Origen reassures us warmly, heaven will be one long never-ending education.

Throw away your spurious monographs on "Eastern" and "Western" views of personhood; forget all those trite textbook distinctions between "Greek" and "Latin" doctrines of the Trinity. If you want to know the real substantive difference between the Greek and Latin theological traditions, here it is: St Augustine thinks of school as one of the most lamentable effects of the fall – school as hell on earth – whereas Origen thinks heaven will be school writ large. Now there's a division worth arguing about.

Even the most controversial part of Origen's theology – his universalism – is really just another byproduct of his pedagogical mindset. When Origen suggests that all the wicked, including the fallen angels, will eventually be saved and reconciled to God, it's not because he has a soft view of divine justice, or because he failed to notice all those biblical texts about fire and judgment. It's just that he can't believe anyone could suffer all those fiery torments without eventually learning something from the experience. Sure, you might start off in hell; but eventually that's got to teach you something – right? And so by learning you'll be purified, until eventually you make it up to heaven – that is, to the heavenly classroom where the "process of instruction and rational training" begins (First Principles, 2.3.1).

"A process of instruction and rational training": if that sounds dull to you it is only because you don't love learning the way Origen loves it. When our author wrote those words his body quivered with excitement. 

Origen knew scripture and the mysteries of the faith better than anyone. Yet he knew that all the learning of this life is only preparation for the life to come. Even the profoundest scholars are like children learning the alphabet; but one day we shall step through the doorway, and in that big bright classroom in the sky we will finally learn to read.

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