These Things Figuratively


as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 7, 2021

This Sunday we are starting two entwined sermon series. We are beginning a cycle on the second source of the Unitarian Universalist Association: “Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Since this is Black History Month we are celebrating our second source with a series of sketches portraying the life and teachings of important Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist thinkers from Africa or of African descent. 

We begin with a figure who is not often thought of as African, the early Christian theologian Origen. He taught that the Christian New Testament and Hebrew Bible should be read, in his words, in a “figurative manner” so that the “mystical truths” within the texts could be properly understood. He offered a vision of universal salvation that was sufficiently radical that the scholar Elaine Pagels has summarized it as envisioning “animals, stars, and stones, as well as humans, demons, and angels, sharing a common destiny.” His theological generosity meant that centuries after his death much of his teaching was branded as heretical. 

I will get to Origen’s life and teachings a bit later in the sermon. But before I do, I want to suggest that Origen’s Africanness is of primary importance. White supremacist culture erases Black History. Reconstructing Black History is a central task in deconstructing white supremacy. White supremacy tries to trick us into imagining the world in Black and White. It is a two-dimensional vision which attempts to render much of Blackness unseen or irrelevant. 

The pathbreaking theologian Katie Cannon observed that the pattern of describing Africa as “a so-called depraved, savage, heathen world” was foundational to the creation of chattel slavery. This white supremacist portrait of Africa has been so false that it has required the bleaching of history and the transmutation of many foundational figures in the Christian tradition and what we might more broadly call the Western canon. In the white supremacist imagination, African people have often been turned White so that they could be incorporated into the intellectual history of religion, philosophy, and theology without threatening the racist narrative that Africans and other people of color are somehow less than White people.

There was a rather infamous instance of this a number of years back when the former Fox News host Megyn Kelly felt a need to state on air that both Jesus and Santa Claus were White. Since this is not the Christmas season, I will leave the discussion of Mr. Claus for a later time–though when it gets to December, I do recommend that you take a listen to Akim and Teddy Vann’s excellent soul classic, “Santa Claus is a Black Man.” As for Jesus, if he was a historical person, he was definitely not a European. He was a Jewish man who shared his ethnicity with the rest of the Judean population of the era. He probably had black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin.

I had my own perception around this shocked when I first started studying theology in seminary. I took systematic theology with the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka, who Rev. Scott will be talking with you about next Sunday. Her course at Meadville Lombard was a year-long and somewhat legendary for its rigor. She did not suffer fools gladly and constantly challenged her students to clarify their thinking and improve their scholarship. She required us to be able to back-up our positions with citations from whatever text we were studying. It was never enough to say well, such-and-such theologian thought this-or-that. We had to be able to point to the page in whichever text we were reading and show what and where they had written whatever it was we claimed they had written. I learned to make statements like, “on page 328 of G. W. Butterworth’s translation of Origen’s On First Principles we find the statement, there will be a ‘time when all things are restored and become one and when “God shall be all in all.”’” 

At the time, it felt like an exceptionally pedantic exercise. I have never been sure how well it prepared me for the parish ministry–though I suspect that if you were here in the sanctuary with me we could have somehow turned my last paragraph into something with a laugh line–but it was excellent training for my doctoral studies and life as a scholar.

Nonetheless, it is sufficient to say that some of my fellow students hated Thandeka’s theology class. They thought it was irrelevant to their preparation for a career in the ministry. 

The course was organized chronologically. Over the year we moved from ancient thinkers like Origen to contemporary ones such as Laurel Hallman, then serving as the senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas. 

Near the start the first semester, I witnessed a conversation between Thandeka and another student in the class that I will never forget. I was not a participant in the exchange, just a witness to it, but it radically shifted the way in which I approach the world. Have you ever had a classroom experience like that? One in which the teacher disrupts, shakes, upends, or otherwise causes you to reconsider the way in which you understand the world? Well, this discussion was one of those.

It began slightly before the seminar started. The student in question came into the room loudly complaining to one of their friends, “I am so sick of studying all these old White men. I feel like they are the only people we study in this class.” Even though the class had not begun Thandeka looked up at the student and said, “Excuse, which old White men are you talking about?” 

We were reading Augustine’s Confessions that week, so the student stated, “Well, Augustine, obviously, for one.” 

Thandeka replied, “Did you read the text? Where did Augustine say he was from?”

“Umm… Hippo, I think, wherever that is,” came the response. 

“Hippo was in North Africa. It is in an area now called Algeria. He was born there and he was most definitely not European, or what we now call White. Who else do you object to us reading as an old White man?”

“Uh, Arius,” Arius was an early Christian theologian who opposed the doctrine which became known as the Trinity. He influenced the development of Unitarian Christianity. 

“Nope, he was a North African, like Augustine,” came the retort. “Tell me another one,” Thandeka continued.

By this time, I suspect that my fellow student anticipated that they had fallen into a trap of their own making. One by one they listed the thinkers who we had been studying in that course. Each one of them, it turned out, was from either the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa or Turkey. Not a single one was an old White man–though it is notable that with exception of the desert mothers, early Christian ascetics about whom I have spoken with you before, they were all male. 

When the student, by that point greatly exasperated, reached the end of their list, Thandeka told them, “You should think about why you assumed that everyone we are reading in this course is White.” And then she commenced the day’s seminar and had turn us to our assigned reading.

Origen was one of the figures in that list. He was probably born in Alexandria, Egypt, in about 184 Common Era. Egypt, it should be remembered, is part of Africa. He died around 253 in what is now Lebanon. During his roughly seventy years he gained a reputation for his piety and scholarship. He wrote as many as two thousand texts, many of them homilies, most of them now lost, and is sometimes described as the greatest thinker of the early Christian tradition. 

His religious devotion was legendary. He came from a Christian family. When his father was executed by the Roman authorities for his beliefs, Origen so wanted to follow his father’s example that his mother hide all of his clothes. He seemed to feel it would be shameful to leave the house naked. So, he did not go to the authorities to confess Christianity and meet a martyr’s death. 

A lot of scholars doubt the accuracy of this story. It appears to have been fabricated by his admirers about fifty years after his death. Another story has him engaging in self-castration, taking the statement in Matthew “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” literally. I am inclined to agree with those who also doubt on the validity this part of Origen’s biography. He taught, after all, that sacred texts should not be read literally. 

At the age of eighteen he became a catechist, a person entrusted with teaching others about the doctrine of the church, in the great school of Alexandria. It was an institution that was arguably the center of early Christian intellectual life and produced several of tradition’s greatest ancient thinkers–almost all of whom, I might remark again, were of African origin. He was ordained sometime in his thirties and shortly thereafter it appears that he had some sort of dispute with the Bishop of Alexandria. It resulted in his expulsion from the bishop’s school. So, he traveled to the city of Caesarea in what is now Israel to join the church and school there. While in Caesarea, he compiled the Hexapla, one of the most comprehensive early critical editions of the Hebrew Bible. It contained two versions of the Hebrew text alongside four different Greek translations.

The sermons he gave in Caesarea are said to have been so beautiful, and his delivery so passionate, that a contemporary witness described his preaching as, “like a spark falling in our deepest soul, setting it on fire, making it burst into flame within us.” It is hard to imagine better praise for a preacher. 

At the end of his life, he was imprisoned and tortured during one of the Roman government’s frequent persecutions of Christians. He was released after about a year and spent the last few years of his life suffering from the wounds he received while in prison. He died at the age of seventy, a revered teacher.

Like many early Christian teachers, it is hard to know how much of his biography is fiction and how much of it mirrors the life he actually let. Whatever the case, it is certain that Origen was very faithful to his vision of Christianity. He described this vision most fully in his text On First Principles. Commonly regarded as the first effort at a Christian systematic theology, it is a thick volume that set much of the standard for the ensuing genre. In it, he attempts to describe the genesis and purpose of the universe, the nature of the human soul, and the ultimate destiny of all things. 

On First Principles is rich and challenging. If you have the patience for that kind of thing, it is well worth the read. Exploring the text you might be struck, as I have been, with the complexity of Origen’s theology and the diversity of early Christian thought. Much of it bears little resemblance to the so-called Christian fundamentalism that dominates much of contemporary religion in the United States. Instead of rigidity there is subtly. Instead of an emphasis on human depravity there is a trust in the fundamental goodness of the universe. 

Though the text is ancient, there are a number of theological teachings or spiritual positions in it that you might find inspiring. In what remains of this sermon, I want to lift up three, all of which have connections with Unitarian Universalism today. The first is Origen’s trust in the power of reason. The second is his faith in the goodness of the universe. And the third is his hope for universal salvation. 

You might notice the my choice of language–the use of the words “trust,” “faith,” and “hope”–bespeaks a certain hesitancy or hedging. This lack of verbal firmness comes from Origen himself who frequently described his text as an “inquiry.” He did not believe that he saw fully and definitively into the mind of God. Instead, he thought that his text was an attempt to answer “rational questions” as best he could while admitting the divine “is not comprehended by the mind of any created being.”

The wod rational gets to the heart of Origen’s understanding of humanity and the world. He was a spiritually deep and prayerful man. He believed that the divine was best approached through reason and free inquiry. Indeed, he taught that human beings were created as “rational and intelligent beings” blessed with free will. This meant that we could “devote ourselves to the practice of good.” And we could be held to account “when we act in the opposite way.”

Now, such an account might lead to a belief that God rewards the righteousness and punishes the sinful. But for Origen it had another implication. He believed that the sinful and the righteous punished themselves by their choices writing, “the soul has gathered within itself a multitude of evil deeds and an abundance of sins, at the requisite time the whole mass of evil boils up into punishment and is kindled into penalties… the conscience is harassed and pricked by its own stings, and becomes an accuser and witness against itself.”

I find much truth in such an observation. What about you? I have a sense of what is right and what is wrong–a moral code by which I attempt to live. And yet, I am far far from perfect. More often than I like to admit I fail to live up to the expectations I set for myself–my expectations around parenting, friendship or the ministry, thoughts I have about what it means to work towards a better world or live with truth. This is not confession hour and I will spare you the details. But I will share that when I do something I know or fear is wrong, I sometimes find myself spending a sleeplessness night, worrying, having my conscience “pricked by its own stings” about what the wrong I think I have done. Does that experience seem familiar to you?

Origen would have us have faith. He thought that Jesus was “the physician of our souls” who could help us heal from such self-imposed torments. I appreciate Origen’s pointing to Jesus the healer and the teacher. And I appreciate how this pointing was linked to his belief in both the goodness of the divine and faith in the ultimate salvation of all being. 

His claim that we were born as “rational and intelligent beings” came from a belief that we were born not in original sin but, to quote the contemporary theologian Matthew Fox, as original blessings. Our life’s work, and possibly our afterlife’s work as well, he is not particularly clear on this point, was to open ourselves, to cleanse ourselves of our own foolishness, to such an extent that we might be “restored and become one when ‘God shall be all in all.’” For some, this restoration, this recognition of the spark of the divine within each of us, might “happen all of a sudden” and for others it would occur “during the lapse of infinite and immeasurable ages, seeing that the improvement and correction will be realized slowly and separately in each individual person.”

Given Origen’s emphasis on reading the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament figuratively, I admit that I am uncertain whether to interpret him literally or metaphorically. Did he mean that this was a process that happened after we died or did it occur during our lifetimes or throughout a mix of the two? Whatever the case, he believed that “even to the last enemy” all being shared a common fate and a common destiny and was imbued with the blessing of the divine. 

It is said by some that Origen’s reference to “the last enemy” was meant to include even Satan in his account of universal salvation. I am not an Origen scholar so I can only observe that such a claim requires faith in the goodness of the divine. It is the belief that God so loved the world that when she birthed it, she birthed it with the intention that all things would be reunited within the divine in the end. 

Universalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries imagined this as “The Gospel of God’s Success.” The late Gordon McKeeman said, “Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable… to resist the power and love of the Almighty.” It an expression of the belief, foundational to many contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologies, of the transformative power of love, of the radical strength of love, of the hope, the faith, that in end, whatever the end is, love will prove stronger than hate.

I bridge Origen to McKeeman to remind us of the principal two points of this sermon. First, the Unitarian Universalist tradition is connected to the most ancient of Christian beliefs–beliefs obscured by much of what is now called Christianity–the belief in the power of goodness and the faith in the common destiny of all. And second, that so many of the thinkers who Unitarian Universalists owe debts to and whom, offer the foundations of not only our theologies but the philosophy and theologies of all of this society were African.  This Black History Month, I encourage you to not only celebrate the Black History that is widely known–the history of Fannie Lou Hamer or Nina Simone–but also the history that white supremacists have attempted to bleach from the world: the Black History of Augustine, Arius, and Origen and many others. 

That it might be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be.

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