The Church Father Who Cut off His Junk
Every other Friday in D-List Saints, Luke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.
As a culture, we’re basically down the sexual rabbit hole, which is (frustratingly) less fun than it sounds.
We seem to have reached a turning point where we will no longer tolerate sexual harassment and assault from men in positions of authority, which is good, but we also have a proud sexual predator as the president of the United States, which is bad. We also seem to be in general agreement that men ought not to abuse their power to take sexual advantage of the women around them, which is good, but we’re more than willing to make exceptions for men who advance our policy goals in government, which is bad.
As it happens, we also can’t seem to agree on how to prevent men from abusing women in the first place.Jesus’ solution to your own sinful tendencies isn’t presented as inconveniencing, insulting, or harming the people around you — it’s presented as handicapping yourself.
I know I’m wading out into the weeds here, and as white male, I especially need to watch my step, but we all remember earlier this year, when there was an apparent scandal over the so-called “Mike Pence rule” (which used to be the so-called “Billy Graham rule“), right? Mike Pence refuses to eat alone or meet alone with any woman who isn’t his wife, which presumably is fine with his immediate superior since that leaves more vulnerable women for him, but is absolutely not fine with Twitter, which spent multiple days after the scandalous revelation wringing its hands over the women alienated by Pence’s attempts not to victimize them.
No, but I get it. The concern is that the Pence rule, just like our (hopefully former) habit of ignoring and/or shaming the women who speak out about abuse, puts the burden of men’s indiscretions on women instead of on the men themselves. Treating every woman as a potential threat is inherently dehumanizing, and possibly also professionally crippling, to the woman. So I get the objection. But, that being said, since we know everyone experiences temptation, and (let’s be honest) frequently gives in to it, what other solution is there?
Well, I mean, there is one — but it ain’t pretty.
Let me tell you about Origen, one of the earliest Church Fathers. Though many of his ideas (such as the pre-existence of souls) were condemned as heretical by later generations of Christians, he was still arguably the first important Christian theologian to come along after the Apostles and was directly responsible for the present entanglement of Christian theology and classical philosophy — for good or for ill. Oh, and he also cut off his junk.
Like most important early Christians, Origen hailed from Africa. Born in Alexandria to Christian parents, Origen made a point of studying under pagan philosopher Ammonius in order to better understand how to explain the faith to its critics. In A.D. 202, when Origen was 17, his father was martyred. Origen was determined to follow in his dad’s footsteps and get himself martyred as well, but his mother reportedly prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes, which I guess means Origen was either really committed to modesty or not all that committed to martyrdom.
In any case, she needed him around, since he was the oldest of seven children, because even then, the traditional Christian ban on birth control carried with it certain consequences. In any case, his mom apparently knew what she was doing by keeping him alive, because Origen didn’t just get a job, he went and got himself a professorship at the School of Alexandria, which may have been founded by St. Mark himself. He also taught elementary school, instructed catechumens, and copied texts by hand. Most notable among his works was probably the Hexapla, a running commentary on no less than six parallel translations of the Bible, which has since been lost to history, but was arguably the forerunner to DC Comics fanboys’ demanding every possible variation of the Justice League movie for no real reason.
Mainly, though, Origen distinguished himself as one of Christianity’s fiercest defenders during a time of intense persecution. His work Contra Celsum is considered one of the most important pieces of apologetics ever written; among other things, it defends early Christians’ refusal to serve in the military: “And as we by our prayers,” he wrote, “vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them.” Haha, can you imagine Christians who are against war and committed to prayer? That’d be something.
Anyway, you get it. Origen was super important to early Christian thought and writing. He had one problem, though: he really wanted to catechize not just men, but women as well. Educating women was controversial enough in ancient Rome, even without the whole “Christian” thing, so Origen needed to make sure he was absolutely above reproach when it came to his conduct around his female students. It’s not entirely clear whether the problem was that he didn’t trust himself to resist temptation or simply that he didn’t trust others not to invent stories, but either way, he needed to make sure accusations wouldn’t stick. But then he remembered Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
The way forward was evident, though not particularly pleasant. It was time to say goodbye to the ol’ frank and beans.
It’s not entirely clear that Origen literally castrated himself. Ancient historian Eusebius says that he did, though, and there’s no real evidence that calls his account into question. Modern historians who doubt Eusebius’s account are quick to point out that it seems pretty uncharacteristic of Origen, given his general preference for spiritualizing biblical passages instead of taking them literally — but, if you’ll allow me a tiny bit of sermonizing, maybe this is one area where we could use a bit more literalism than most of us are comfortable with.
I’m not (necessarily) advocating self-mutilation here, but I think it is important to take note of Jesus’ phrasing in the passage. The solution to your own sinful tendencies isn’t presented as inconveniencing, insulting, or harming the people around you — it’s presented as handicapping yourself. It’s not, “If your eye causes you to sin, demand that the women around you dress differently.” Following Christ is a burden — a “cross to bear,” if you will (hmm, that’s catchy) — but it is a burden that the follower must bear for himself.
So, I dunno, maybe cut off your junk. Call it “the Origen rule,” if you want. As a reminder, though, this column constitutes neither legal nor medical advice.
I just do not get all the hand-wringing about the so-called “Pence Rule.” We have taken a simple statement meant to express the highest standard of personal and professional integrity and read into it every violation of our swiftly evolving cultural values, and derived from it every offense we can possibly conjure. It would be absolutely embarrassing if the consequences for internalizing this kind of faulty, narcissistic, and chronically critical reality-processing weren’t leading us down such an intellectually totalitarian road.
Once again, as with every action and every deed of the 21st century male (and those preceding him), what Pence offered was a subtle backhand to all women – if you had “ears to hear.” According to our author, what Pence actually did was “put the burden of men’s indiscretions on women instead of on the men themselves.” You don’t have to work hard to come to these sorts of conclusions. You only need to be susceptible to the prevailing narratives currently dominating the cultural conversation. The author’s assessment is not particularly perceptive. It is just a regurgitation of what he has been told to say and how he has been told to think.
Moreover, it’s wrong.
How about this for an interpretation of the Pence Rule:
1. It honors his wife. I think that is the primary motivation behind the rule. Of course, the cultural zeitgeist will say that he is calling her weak and insecure. That he is assuming that she “needs” this from him. How about this: sometimes we honor people and institutions that are worthy of such honor for that reason alone – that they are actually worthy. Not because they need some special concession. How about the less cynical assumption that this is a very valid and legitimate way of expressing his absolute devotion to his wife, and to the sacred covenant he made with her? Not because she is suspicious or insecure. But because his wife, as well as their marriage covenant, is worthy of such an expression of complete dedication.
2. It demonstrates the intent to shield any woman in his sphere of work from getting embroiled in unfounded accusation. I mean, it’s not like Facebook, Twitter, and the mainstream media aren’t looking for any and every reason to accuse anyone associated with the Trump administration of anything they can get their hands on, even if they have to utterly violate reality to do it. Not that they always twisting the facts as it pertains to this administration, but they are more than happy to invent and fabricate if the simple facts aren’t enough to manufacture the desired suspicion and outrage.
3. It keeps Pence himself free from accusation. From whom? The woman in question? That is possible, and it’s not like public figures (especially those associated with this administration) don’t have reason to fear it. But it probably has far less to do with the woman he is dining with than the aforementioned parties (see #2) using it as yet another launching pad for accusation and slander.
4. As a Christian, maybe Pence actually takes Paul’s example of showing the highest integrity in his relations and interactions with others seriously (2 Corinthians 1:12), and especially those that might be the most susceptible to skepticism and negative speculations. Maybe he is trying to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2), knowing that his opponents and enemies will be looking for any and every reason to call his integrity into question.
The opening of this article is just another tired reiteration of the never-ending effort of so many in this country to apply these weird templates to their interpretation of every statement and every action of those they are predisposed to dislike – particularly if they dislike them primarily on the grounds that they have been told to dislike them. It is childish, predictable, and played out. One’s mind has to be pretty co-opted in order to turn a story about Origen’s alleged self-castration into a conversation seeking to affirm all of our worst cultural suspicions. Typical. Predictable.
Did you read the whole article?
I did read the whole article. Two times. And once you got to main point, I thought it was excellent and well worth the read. If you said anything in the latter half of the article to mitigate the first 1/4 of the article, though, I am afraid I missed it. Which may be on me. But having said that, I wasn’t lambasting your whole piece. Just some of the parroting of the culture at the beginning. Also, I wrote my response at 5am and was working to get my thoughts out before I had to start getting ready for work. In re-reading my own post, it came across a LOT harsher than I ever meant for it to, and for that I apologize. I stand by the points, but hope you’ll forgive me for sounding so mad about it.
Ok…I read it a third time. MY BAD. I see where you are going with things this time. As they say, “Third time’s a charm.” I guess I am the kind of reader that needs an explicit tie back to the point. Once I got past the first 1/4, my mind went into another subject and another mode. SORRY.
Comments are now closed for this article.