Christian Hierarchy

Note 4: Origen: A Man of Great Powers. 6/2/99

A consistent theme in these notes, and one which will occupy our attention again and again, because it is a central issue in logocentric discourse, is the idea that hierarchical structures are somehow indispensable to a proper understanding of the nature of created reality. That Western ideology depends upon such structures for its essential identity goes without saying since they are everywhere apparent in the two thousand year history of Eurocentric civilization. The fact that Christianity is largely responsible for the spread of the notion that hierarchical structures are necessary, not only for the well-being of people, but also for the existence of effective governance, is yet another fact that seems too obvious to require specific acknowledgment. A problem with taking that view, however, that one does not need to trace out the existence of a fundamental aspect of a dominant ideology in its cultural evolution because everyone is already aware of its origin and meaning, invites the continuation of an error in judgment about the nature of reality that has caused great harm in the past and continues to undermine the stability of social structures in the present simply because the error has never been subjected to critical scrutiny. The idea that hierarchical structures are a necessary component of proper governance to insure the well-being of individuals in society is preeminently an issue of that kind.

Since creationism itself underlies the notion of hierarchy, an essential fact in the philosophical arguments that support its necessity, whether acknowledged or not, and an aspect of its ideology always already verified by the concept that (wo)man was created from a handful of dirt by an all-powerful God, it is necessary to begin any discussion of hierarchical structures in Western ideology at the source of the concept in the Biblical account of human creation in Genesis. Since God, as Creator, is clearly more than, greater than, any aspect of His creation, it follows that (wo)man, as creature, is necessarily less than, and hence, subordinate to, her/his Creator. The simplicity of this logic makes the point unarguable. Only a fool would deny its validity. One problem that remains hidden in this conceptualization, as long as one limits the discussion to Old Testament accounts, concerns the fact that a strictly held differentiation between God and (wo)man does not necessarily translate into a similar hierarchical structure in human society because no one human being can claim to be the creator of all other people on the earth. Jewish philosophy got around this problem in several different ways, not the least of which is the notion that one should always honor her/his mother and father, since they are the ones who "created" the subject/object of their domination. Another idea, and one which spread this concept beyond the strict limitations of the family structure, was the notion that God chose certain individuals from the ranks of ordinary souls to act as His prophet. That individual, by virtue of his divine selection, of course, was necessarily perceived as being better than, more powerful than, the common people he/she left behind through the act of God's choice.

A important aspect of this complex of ideas is the notion that the chosen one was as much "created" as he/she was simply selected. One must always keep in mind the basic distinction that exists in this philosophical point of view that the voice of God, which the prophet most certainly hears and understands, differs from ordinary human speech by being able to create reality through the power and action of the divine Logos. When one is called to be a prophet of God, that person is lifted up, exalted by the power inherent in the voice that creates his/her distinction among other people. The concept of the priest having authority and even dominion over his flock of followers (women, of course, are excluded from this category except on rare occasions) has its ground in the idea that only the most capable people, only the special ones, can be chosen by God to perform this necessary function both for His divine purposes and for the benefit of the common good. The chosen one, for these reasons, has an elevated status in society in general.

With the emergence of Christianity most of these basic concepts were altered considerably and probably not for the better. The idea that God became flesh, in the body of Jesus Christ, as it were, and for a time dwelled among ordinary human beings, created the notion of a kind of super-human entity who could demand compliance with virtually any concept, and action, conceivable with all the force and authority of God Himself. In the act of choosing followers and disciples the God-Man also conferred a kind of divine right on certain ordinary fallible human beings as well. St. Peter, for instance, and perhaps only in retrospect, became the first Pope of the Roman church and confers, through the concept of apostolic succession, an authority on individuals who may or may not deserve it far in excess of any reasonable kind that should be given up to any other person. Even a cursory examination of the history of Papal dignity suggests that some had a little but most were either non-descript in their persons or were so lacking in admirable human qualities that they became positive scandals in the church before their terms of office were fulfilled in death.

Origen, writing in the early decades of the third century, was called upon to defend the reputation of the Savior from the scandalous charges leveled against his memory by Celsus, who argued among other things that Christ was not born of a virgin but of a woman taken in adultery whose husband divorced her when he discovered her deception and she, being essentially homeless, was forced to give birth in a manger among the other animals who inhabited it. After that unmiraculous beginning, Jesus, because he was a bastard, was forced to sell himself as a slave into Egypt, where he acquired a collection of magical formulas or knowledge which enabled him to perform certain kinds of tricks that others called miracles. Origen uses this description to argue that Christ must have been a true Savior from God because he was able to overcome the humility of his origins and rise to a level recognized by all as the most superior human being who has ever lived on the face of the earth. Origen, in Chapter 30 of Against Celsus, puts it in these terms:

"For one man is admired on account of his wisdom, another for his military skill, and some of the Barbarians for their marvelous powers of incantation, and some for one quality, and others for another; but not many have been admired and acquired a reputation for many things at the same time; whereas this man, in addition to his other merits, is an object of admiration both for his wisdom, and for his miracles, and for his powers of government."

Several aspects of this statement are interesting. From a purely rhetorical point of view the sentence is a bit confused in the sense that the attributes given to Christ are more implied than they are stated. This arises from the fact that the parallel structure one would expect from the first to the second part of the sentence is deliberately (?) broken by its author. The attributes of wisdom, military skill, and incantation are given in that order in the first half of the assertion but are both altered in meaning and disturbed in their sequence in the second half of the statement. Wisdom, of course, holds the first place in both parts of Origen's claim about the abilities Christ displays so one can assume he harbors no second thoughts over the possibility that someone might object to that aspect of his characterization. I put it that way because his second assertion, that Christ may have had "military skill," is so off-the-wall that I am at a loss to comprehend what he might mean by that. That the death-blow which ended the crucifixion was administered by a Roman soldier with a lance-thrust to the side of the completely passive lamb on the cross, is the only instance I can call to mind that puts Christ in a military context at all. Of course, since the parallel structure is broken, Origen can claim that he did not mean to suggest Christ had any military skill whatsoever and that his use of that terminology is just coincidental and not argumentative. "Military skill," at the same time, is an attribute one would naturally associate with the idea of the third term in the second half of the statement; that is, with the idea that Christ had and displayed certain "powers of government." Again, however, I cannot call to mind a Biblical context in which Jesus was shown to exercise "powers of government" at all. Another aspect of this same clause that seems rhetorically confused is the parallel between the use of the word "power" from the first to the second part of the statement. Origen implies a connection of some kind between the "power of incantation" and the "power of government" where the two terms are disassociated from each other by virtue of their sequence in the two halves of the claim.

The point I am making here is that Origen, and one simply has to believe he was well-versed in the techniques of classical rhetoric, deliberately confuses standard rhetorical practice in order to imply certain things about Christ's accomplishments that were value-laden in the third century, but were unanticipated by the authors of the Divinity's life in the first, and so had to be added by subsequent generations of writers if the power of his person was going to be transmitted in a context that remained meaningful and relevant in the changing structures of social reality. In other words, Origen's tendency to augment the nature of the image of Christ, while Biblically unsupportable, was nevertheless necessary to keep that image in direct contact with the emerging role of the church as a political power in the empire Rome was beginning to establish in Western Europe. Christ as a militant avenger of the wrongs suffered by the first generation or two of Christians at the hands of the heathen barbarians is here given a substance it never had in purely Biblical accounts. The fact that the church eventually turned that militant image into an excuse for practicing genocide against the other is only to be expected--where else could it go?

A final point one can raise here concerns Origen's equation of the barbaric practice of "incantation" with the "miracles" Christ was supposed to have performed. Here again, of course, a certain rhetorical confusion exists in arguing that Origen actually meant his readers to make a connection between one thing and the other but it seems obvious enough that these two things are somehow associated, if not by an equivalency, in his mind. As noted elsewhere in this document (see Origen 2), a tendency in early Christianity was to cast its own belief in terms similar to ones that existed in the dominant religious ideology of the times. The barbaric tribes of Western Europe, even north Africa for that matter, which Origen acknowledges here in his reference to the "marvelous powers of incantation" that they possess, as is the case with virtually all animistic people, including many native American tribes, the practice of incantation always plays an important role in various kinds of rituals that are common to tribal societies in general. The healing rituals practiced by medicine-men and shamans in various tribal contexts always employ incantations of one kind or another in the performance. While most Christians, and other "enlightened" people, tend to scoff at the activities of native medicine-men, even as they offer up prayers of their own to invisible saints and god(s), which they claim are effective as often as not, the fact remains that Origen, at least in this passage, seems to have some measure of respect for those activities because he does refer to the "marvelous powers" of barbaric incantation and risks associating Christ's ability to perform miracles with this aspect of animistic philosophy and practice.

In a purely Christian context, of course, Origen's strategy is aimed at transposing the concept of the divine Logos, as Christ is often named, with the similar practice Christians perceive as existing in tribal cultures where incantations are used by medicine-men to cure disease. Again, however, as is the case in all such attempts by Christians to find a common ground where the Christian perception can be shown to be superior to the native practice, since one is divine while the other is profane, even evil, these two concepts, while perhaps exhibiting a superficial similarity, have virtually nothing whatsoever in common. The Blessing Way chant of the Navajos, for instance, has been in existence in its present form for far longer than Christianity has existed as a half-coherent idea in the mind of any human collective. Were I on the point of death and had to choose between a Blessing Way ritual and a thousand Christian prayers, I would not even hesitate to choose the former.

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