Christian Hierarchy

Note 2: Origen: Superior Qualities of the Soul. 5/28/99

The idea that Christians are somehow better, more advanced morally, than other people are, and therefore, should be more esteemed, even privileged, is one that has a long, complex, even tortured, history in Western ideology. This history is complicated by the fact that notions of superiority, of hierarchical structures in general, especially when they are essentially groundless, give rise to a dialectics of desire, so to speak, that drives the so-called superior person to prove and justify the validity of that designation in the face of other people who are just as determined to demonstrate that it is, for any particular other claimant, a groundless and delusional obsession--for "them"--but perfectly true and verifiable, on the other hand--for "us." As often as not, people determined to establish and maintain their claim to a superior status are willing to engage almost any idea and perform almost any act that is perceived as capable of bringing them to their desired goal of having and exercising their superiority over the other.

The idea of Christian superiority can be traced back to the writing of the early church fathers. Several different historical circumstances contributed to the fact that the notion became fixed in Christian ideology as a kind of militant assertion. Since the Jews were always characterized as the Chosen People in the literature of the Old Testament, and because Christians always believed that Christ's essential mission, as the Jewish Messiah, was to fulfill the prophecies of that Biblical literature, the idea of Christian superiority was a natural assumption drawn from those traditions. When both the Jewish and Greek communities, at the time of Christianity's emergence, rejected the claims of Christ's divinity, the early church became defensive, and consequently militant, about the veracity of the claims it was making. There are a number of Christian disputations against both Jewish and Greek thinking, and thinkers, that appeared in the first several centuries of the new faith's existence, disputations which attempted to prove the validity of the various claims Christianity was compelled to make in the face of its numerous detractors. As Christians became more militantly insistent about the truth of their assertions, the opposition to those claims became more and more rigid and intractable. Eventually, and as the dispute became more intense, the opposition, Jewish and Roman especially, which certainly held the upper hand in terms of being the dominant ideology at the time, began to employ its coercive power against the heresy of Christian belief. That coercive power, of course, was often lethal.

Origen, an early church father who was born in Alexandria around 185 A. D., characterizes the conspiracy against Christianity in these terms:

"in the case of the Christians, the Roman Senate, and the princes of the time, and the soldiery, and the people, and the relatives of those who had become converts to the faith, made war upon their doctrine, and would have prevented (its progress), overcoming it by a confederacy of so powerful a nature, had it not, by the help of God, escaped the danger, and risen above it, so as (finally) to defeat the whole world in its conspiracy against it." (Against Celsus, Chapter 3)

The sense expressed here that the early church was literally ringed around by enemies who only sought to destroy it evolved ultimately into a militant and aggressive counter-offensive that knew and observed few restraints in its efforts to convert the other to its prescriptions. Origen also articulated a denial of Jewish and Greek ideology named for the person who epitomized a collection of ideas and concepts which were considered by the early church to be heretical. Against Celsus is a long denunciation of the fallacies involved in anti-Christian thinking at the time. Origen, in Chapter 32 of his response to Celsus, and drawing from several different Greek traditions about the nature of the soul, takes up the notion that the soul a person has depends on the kind of life its previous "owner" lived, that the soul, as Plato argues in the Timaeus, either rises or falls in its essential worth according to whether the person possessed by it lived righteously or unrighteously. At the same time, the person who is possessed by a particular soul is less significant, as an entity, than the soul itself is. In other words, every person is shaped in who he/she is by the soul which possesses them. Other forces and powers may influence the course of an individual's life but the soul one has determines how well or badly that person is likely to live. In early Christian ideology, as it were, soul determines who you are and not the other way around. Origen puts it this way:

"is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions? It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say "all"), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities."

The idea underlying this rather convoluted statement, going back to Pythagoras, Plato, and Empedocles, as Origen himself does here, even if the philosophy of these particular Greek thinkers was universally condemned by good Christians and true (see Tertullian's Treatise on the Soul) prior to, or at about the same time as, Origen appropriates their arguments, concerns the idea that the human soul is fitted, as a perfect match so to speak, to the body in which it finds itself. Tertullian, in his disputation against the notion of the transmigration of souls, an idea held by Pythagoras, argues that the human soul is a corporeal substance which defuses itself into its "host's"(?) body and fills the whole of that body's interior space. The soul cannot migrate to another animal, an elephant say, because it would not be large enough to fill the interior space of the new host. Origen seems to elevate that essential idea to include, if not exclusively express, the notion that qualities of behavior are more significant in the relationship between soul and body than more material concepts are. Tertullian tended to concentrate on physical characteristics to get his point across and here Origen seems to lift the discourse from a material to a more spiritual level of consideration.

At the same time, however, Origen labors to make his point by falling back into a comparison between purely physical characteristics of the body and the spiritual content of the soul which possesses it. He says, for instance, in Chapter 33, that

"if a particular soul, for certain mysterious reasons, is not deserving of being placed in the body of a wholly irrational being, nor yet in that of one purely rational, but is clothed with a monstrous body, so that reason cannot discharge its functions in one so fashioned, which has the head disproportioned to the other parts, and altogether too short; and another receives such a body that the soul is a little more rational than the other; and another still more so, the nature of the body counteracting to a greater or less degree the reception of the reasoning principle; why should there not be also some soul which receives an altogether miraculous body, possessing some qualities common to those of other men, so that it may be able to pass through life with them, but possessing also some quality of superiority, so that the soul may be able to remain untainted by sin?"

The force and direction of this statement clearly indicates the fact that early Christian thinkers perceived a connection between the body and the soul that allowed one to judge the nature of a particular human subject solely on the basis of physical appearance. Since both classical philosophy and Christian theologians both held that the soul was the seat of human reason, and Christianity promoted the idea that the soul's essential qualities of good and evil were mirrored by the physical characteristics of the body possessed by it, it was possible to argue, as Origen does here, that a person who possessed an "altogether miraculous body" might be such a one who could "remain untainted by sin." This argument, of course, is meant as a reference to Christ, whose body was so perfectly formed that it was capable of resurrection from the dead. The converse of this argument, at the same time, and also clearly expressed here, is that a person who possesses a body that can be seen to be less than perfect, even one that is "monstrous," can be said to have a soul that cannot resist the taint of sin at all. In other words, people who are perceived as imperfect in their physical characteristics are assumed to be imperfect in their spiritual ones as well.

Native Americans, on the other hand, perceive spirit, which possesses everyone and everything, as a collection of attributes that a person acquires over time. Initially, a person has a spirit which is derived from the clan affiliations he/she has from his/her parents. The clan spirit, however, is not more or less perfect according to some arbitrary collection of physical characteristics and there is no presupposed hierarchy that makes one spirit more valuable than another. During a person's lifetime other spirits can be brought into the complex of a person's spiritual identity. A person's spirit, as other people know and experience it, is understood as a manifestation of how that person behaves in the tribal structure of his/her social relationships. No one can be prejudged according to what spirits one is given at birth or acquires during life.

The connection Origen makes here between the soul, human reason, and the body possessed by them, has always been used by Christians to establish the terms of social hierarchy. Since the superior soul possesses only the best, most perfect body, and since it is possible for everyone to agree on a list of characteristics that comprise that perfection, it is a relatively simple matter to build a sense of inclusion and exclusion from the company of the elect on the basis of purely physical characteristics. African- Americans, for instance, because their skin is not white, are possessed by a soul that is inferior to the one that possesses people with white skin. Since reason is tied to the soul, one can argue from this that people of color, while they may and can profess to be Christian, cannot rise to the same level of faith that is shared by and among a purely white race of believers because the "soul" of black, brown, red, yellow people lacks the necessary qualities of perfection that are required by a truly perfect and God-inspired and -ordained faith. Hence, white Christians can always exclude people of color from the privileged class and have done so in the past, do so in the present moment, and will do so in the future. The point here is that this excuse for excluding the other--often to concentration camps and less subtle forms of death--is perfectly justifiable on the basis of Christian orthodoxy. This has been true from the beginning, and because God is incapable of lying or misleading the true believer, it will always remain true.

In the long history of Christian genocide against the other, ideas like this one, which may well have been originated in a relatively innocent way, have nevertheless been used whenever necessary to justify the extermination of people who are considered to be less than perfectly Christian. Ideas like this one have become so deeply ingrained in Christian ideological consciousness that they always already pass the tests of orthodoxy and truth whenever they happen to be challenged by someone who has suffered the effects of their utilization, by anyone who lives outside the blessed circle of the perfect Christian soul.

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