Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Monstrous Restoration

In the context of yesterday’s post on a verse in Genesis, it is sometimes instructive to contemplate the vast process by means of which ancient writings have been raised to the rank of revelation and how orthodox doctrines are formed by a process that functions exactly like legislation—thus hammered out, voted in or voted out. How this observation fits the general thematic of the last few posts, the Fall of Man, will become plain as we proceed. The Genesis view is that the Fall was occasioned by sin and brought death as its consequence. (Paul: “The wages of sin is death,” Romans 6:23). One of the very prominent early Christian theologians, Origen (c. 185-254), held a view that is at least mildly conformant to this doctrine, at the abstract level, anyway, if not in detail. Whenever the Church Fathers are mentioned, there you will find a mention of Origen—but invariably followed by the annotation that, well, technically, he was not a Church Father because he had heretical views. Of that in a moment.

Origen’s fascinating view was that souls pre-exist their incarnation, thus that they were created at the very beginnings of Reality. The very fact that we are material bodies was proof for Origen of the Fall, but the disobedience took place before such objects as bodies existed. You might say that humanity’s disobedience took place in a higher realm and that all those here were personally disobedient. The problems associated with “inherited” original sin therefore go away. The disobedience produced a degree of nonbeing in those who disobeyed, and a consequence of disobedience was, is, bodily existence. Origen, therefore, believed in reincarnation, metempsychosis. “Every soul comes into this world strengthened by the victories and weakened by the defeats of its previous life,” Origen wrote. A source I found for that is here—on page 42 of the referenced book. Origen’s scholarly labor involved work in discerning the origins of the New Testament, thus he participated in the process that turns old writings into revelation. But some of his own theological ideas were later condemned as anathema by a legislative body, the Second Council of Constantinople, in 533. He thus exemplifies in person the processes by which doctrines evolve.

The Council declared the “fabulous pre-existence of souls” anathema and condemned those who believed in “the monstrous restoration which follows from it.” The use of those energetic adjectives pleases me—none of the usual bland-talk in the sixth century. The monstrous restoration, of course, is reincarnation. Well, perhaps it is monstrous—if seen from a much, much higher perch in the order of creation.

Two observations. First, it is interesting to note that a very broad hermeneutical interpretation of Genesis’ Chapter 3—viewed as a poetical take on a real state of affairs—could result in so enlarging the picture that Origen’s view becomes credible. Second, that view is widely held in Hinduism, not least the eternal nature of souls and the fact that their capture by Wheel of Karma is the consequence of desire for the low. In that context the death of someone who has become purified is, indeed, a blessing, devoutly to be wished.

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