Thursday 6 June 2013

Origen and the problem of writing

Origen was the church's first professional writer; but in his day Christianity was not yet a literary religion. Jerome lists 800 books by Origen, but a more accurate list by Eusebius details 2,000 books (most of them now lost). Origen's patron Ambrose of Alexandria commissioned most of these books and put a huge staff of scribes and copyists at Origen's disposal.

When Origen was asked to respond to Celsus, a pagan writer who had attacked Christianity in a book called True Doctrine, Origen observed that a written response was not really appropriate for the Christian faith. "Now Jesus is always being falsely accused," Origen says in the preface to Contra Celsum. "He is still silent in face of this and does not answer with his voice; but he makes his defence in the lives of his genuine disciples, for their lives cry out the real facts and defeat all false charges." The only real apologetics is the life of Christ's followers, not written arguments. Indeed Origen suggests that producing a written defence of the faith might actually diminish the vitality of the Christian community: "I would therefore go so far as to say that the defence which you ask me to compose will weaken the force of the defence that is in the mere facts, and detract from the power of Jesus."

He goes on to write the book anyway, a big doorstopper of a book, 500 pages in the English translation. But his bad conscience – his need to apologise for the act of writing – is revealing.

When he got to the fifth book of his massive Commentary on the Gospel of John – he had completed four books so far, and had only got through a few verses – Origen paused to reflect on the words of Ecclesiastes: "My son, beware of making many books" (Ecclesiastes 12.12). He admits that he seems to have transgressed this command, and he explores this problem at length before resuming the commentary.

In the first place, Origen notes that "none of the saints has produced numerous compositions and set out his understanding in many books." Even Moses left only five books, and Paul was content to dash off a few lines when the occasion demanded. As for John, Origen poignantly observes that he "has left one Gospel while confessing that he could compose so many that the world could not contain them."

Origen is distressed by the sheer quantity of all that he has written compared to the prophets, apostles, and saints. "I get dizzy as though I were suffering vertigo, lest perhaps by obeying you [Ambrose] I have disobeyed God and have not imitated the saints." And he quotes another seemingly damning Wisdom saying: "In a multitude of words you will not escape sin" (Proverbs 10.19).

Yet Origen ventures a defence of his prodigious literary output. He notes that the perfect Word of God is not "a multitude of words" but one single Word. A person who contradicts this Word is being loquacious; he says too much, and sins in what he says. But a person who speaks truthfully always speaks the one simple Word, "even if he says everything so as to leave out nothing." You could talk forever and still be saying just one Word; and you could speak a pithy falsehood and be condemned for multiplying words. Truth is simple, falsehoods are multiple. As an example of the simplicity of truth, Origen notes that there are not four Gospels in scripture; rather "there is truly one gospel through the four."

The conclusion is that it's quality that counts, not quantity. If Origen can set forth the truth in his many writings then he will be speaking only one word. But if he speaks contrary to the truth in even one place, he will have written "many books."

The whole procedure is a striking example of Origen's spiritual exegesis, an attempt to press beneath the literal sense of the prohibition against "making many books" and to yield up its theological meaning. Only after securing this exegetical conclusion does Origen also mention the obvious practical exigency: the heretics are busy writing "many books" (literally, and in a spiritual sense!), and somebody has to answer them "on behalf of the teaching of the church." Otherwise the inquisitive and the vulnerable will be led astray.

Origen says that he has offered this defence "for myself" as well as "for those who are able to speak and write." He is assuaging his own troubled conscience, but he is also spelling out an exegetical rationale for a literary Christian culture, a culture in which writers can "make many books" while cleaving to the one simple Word.

By the late fourth century such a literary Christian culture could be taken for granted. Nothing could more vividly illustrate the changes Christianity had undergone than a remark from Athanasius, an Egyptian theologian writing around the middle of the fourth century. In a letter written during one of his many exiles (if only Athanasius had a dollar for every time he was exiled!) he apologises for the brevity of his previous 50-page letter. "I thought what I wrote was ever so brief, and I accused myself of great lethargy for not being able to write as much as is humanly possible against those who are impious toward the Holy Spirit" (Letters to Serapion, 2.1.1).

"I accused myself of great lethargy": Athanasius has a guilty conscience too. He feels bad for not having written enough.

By the fifth century Christianity has produced a writer like Augustine. One finds him in a provincial town in North Africa, an ageing bishop carefully overseeing the maintenance of the vast library of his own works. Augustine devotes the end of his life to itemising each book chronologically; he makes revisions and corrections; he collaborates with his librarian Possidius, taking every pain to ensure the preservation of his works for posterity. If some earlier Christians had happened to be writers, Augustine is an author. He writes not simply to refute heresy or to respond to this or that local problem; he writes because he is an author. He writes for his contemporaries, and for those not yet born. He thinks of himself essentially as a man of letters. His identity is bound up with the production of literature. In a letter of 412, Augustine had remarked: "I try to be one of those who write by making progress and make progress by writing" (Epistle 143.2). And in his De Trinitate Augustine describes writing as a path of discovery, a way of seeking the face of God.

In the same period, one finds an author like the Roman poet Prudentius, for whom writing is not a tactical necessity but a spiritual vocation in its own right. In the preface to his collection of poems, Prudentius writes:

When I write or speak of these things,
how I wish to break free from the chains of my body
to the place where my nimble tongue's last sound carries me!

[Haec dum scribo vel eloquor
vinclis o utinam corporis emicem
liber quo tulerit lingua sono mobilia ultimo!]

Augustine writes to make progress; he writes to seek God. Prudentius writes to transcend the world of the flesh; he writes to be saved. Writing has become something quite different here, something Origen could never have imagined. It has become part of the apparatus of spiritual life, a means of purgation and transformation. Writing has become a vocation and a spiritual discipline. Writers have become authors. With Prudentius and Augustine, the transformation of Christianity into a literary culture is complete.

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