The True History of Wisdom

Throughout May and June we will be having a series of reflections shared by Michael Petrow. Michael is a scholar of Origen, who was a brilliant early Christian theologian from the second century. Even though Origen’s name has been tarnished with the label of heresy, his writing has had as much impact on Christianity as Augustine and Aquinas. In this series (every Wednesday for the next couple months) Michael is going to share with us some of Origen’s timeless wisdom and relate it to our complicated modern day lives.

Michael is also a spiritual director and a scholar of early Christian mysticism and depth psychology. He currently lives in New Mexico where he works with The Center for Action and Contemplation as well as The Guild for Spiritual Guidance.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!


As we discussed last week, when we realize that we always enter the story in the middle, it helps us proceed with a little bit of humility: We realize that none of us has the whole story.

So many of us invest so much time in trying to get our stories straight, to understand what happened in a given situation, who was right, who was at fault, how something might have been prevented or how a benevolent outcome might be replicated. Have you done that? Are you trying to sort out a story or determine a direction or a decision right now?

On an even larger scale, so many of us invest so much energy trying to get to the true story— we go round and round and round trying to figure out who has the “right” take on religion, spirituality, or Christianity. Some say it’s all about the Bible—but if so, which Bible?

Some say we need to get back to the Jewish roots of Christianity, before the corrupting influence of Greek philosophy. Some say we need to get back to the historical Jesus. Some say we need to just get in touch with pure Christ consciousness and trust our own experience.

Hell, for some people the “true” story is spiral dynamics or the enneagram. (I hate to say it, but I’ve met as many fundamentalists in contemplative circles as I have in Evangelical circles. We just get precious and dogmatic about different stories and systems.)
I’ve had friends get frustratingly fundamental with me about the right way to understand there is no right way to understand. Think about that for a minute. Let’s be honest, do you still find yourself wanting to feel like you really understand the big picture? Do you find yourself wanting to correct or instruct others? I know I do.

Certainty is a singularly sneaky sin when it comes to sorting out our stories.
Now Origen was as Christian as they come. But he considered himself a part of an ancient Wisdom lineage. He believed that wisdom was best exemplified in Solomon’s court, and that Hebrew Wisdom literature had actually influenced the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. He’s not necessarily saying the hellenists were hacks, like a good hipster who wants only the vintage Hebrew home-brew!

Because acknowledging the value of Greek thought, he also insisted this lineage could be traced even further back to Egyptian origins, and back further still into the unknown shadows of ancient history. Now historians might argue that his notion that wisdom and divine revelation moves between cultures, traditions, and religions is distinctly Alexandrian for sure, but we should also notice that it’s a distinctly Biblical idea.

The Biblical scriptures are filled with deliberate references to other mythic, philosophical, literary, and religious systems. Sadly we are no longer educated enough to see these allusions and references—not even in most of our seminaries—and as such we think the Bible claims to be some closed system of absolute truth, instead of a shining light in a broader inter-cultural tapestry of exploration and revelation.

(Or worse, some scholars cry scandal claiming the secret conspiracy of Biblical authors stealing ideas even as they suppress them. Again we are ever trying to get back to that vintage truth.)

Like the sacred text he devoted himself to, Origen seems to have understood his work as a deeply crucial and fascinating chapter in a much larger story, to which he recognizes he does not have full access or comprehension.

Is this how you were taught to understand scripture?

This is the reason that Origen was so good at engaging in “discussion over definition” and exploration over explanation. It’s the reason he thought the study of scripture was best supported by the study of literature in general. It’s the reason after extensive literary studies he also studied with the same Greek teacher who taught Plotinus. It’s the reason he later studied with a mysterious Hebrew teacher. It’s the reason he was willing to entertain an idea, explore it to the fullest and then change his mind. It’s the reason he was willing to put a theory out and say, maybe. Let the reader examine and decide for herself.

And it’s the reason that he took as his personal motto “Hopou Logos agei”—a saying which itself has a multiplicity of meanings. Essentially it tells us to seek the Logos where we may find it. It’s fitting that Logos—which might mean meaning—is a term so pregnant with a multiplicity of meanings and therefore so hard to translate. Thus this statement can mean any and all of the following:

Seek Divine Reason wherever you may find it.

Find Divine Wisdom where it presents itself.

Read the Word in everything.

Follow the Divine Story where it takes you.

Seek Christ everywhere.

As Justin Martyr said there are logos spermatikos in every time and place and culture—seeds of truth and meaning everywhere we look.

Bottom line, don’t run yourself ragged trying to convince yourself that you have the whole story. Have a little humility, but for God’s sake, do enjoy what it is yours to explore, and the pieces of the story that reveal themselves for you to read. From here, maybe we can learn to appreciate and celebrate those who have parts of the story that we do not.

Finally, maybe we can relax from feeling like we need to have it all figured out. Curiosity is a gift, but it is ever applied to an incomprehensible ever expanding mystery.

What do you think? Helpful or heretical? How do you balance curiosity, confidence, and comfort knowing we only have a part of the story? Where do you find yourself struggling for certainty? How does this help us think about practitioners of “other” religions or spiritual systems?


If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or sign up for our email list to receive weekly reflections. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.

2 thoughts on “The True History of Wisdom

  1. I totally agree. There is great freedom in not having to know THE truth. To come from a place of paradox and “and” is quite freeing and learning to sit in that space allows new possibilities to enter in. Thank you for the reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes as a catholic priest of 75 years old, now laicised, I agree in general with this article. If we study the mystics and people like Meister Eckhart we see much paradox to keep us on our toes! One modern mystic who stands out for me is Joel Goldsmith and his ‘Infinite Way’. His contribution to understanding and interpreting sacred scripture for me personally has been remarkable. I don’t know why he is so unknown.

    Like

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