Roland, Rebirth, and Resurrection: A Comparative Eschatology of Paramahansa Yogananda and Origen of Alexandria

by David Armstrong

The last century has seen a lot of great scholarship on a variety of interrelated topics in biblical studies, with some helpful new starting points for doing critical work on Jewish and Christian antiquity. On the one hand, scholars of Early Judaism now take it for granted that all Judaism after the time of Alexander the Great was thoroughly Hellenized. The question in analyzing Jewish individuals, documents, and archaeology after 323 BCE is not whether they were Hellenized, but how much, in what ways, and with how much comfortable per­me­ability of the boundaries of social institutions and cultural participa­tion. The Jews at Qum­ran and the Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt were both Hellenized, but they had very different relationships to that fact, and it may even be fair to say that the latter group was more explicitly conscious of that fact than the former. All varieties of Early Judaism are thus forms of Greco-Roman religion: Hellenistic and Imperial species of ethnically specific behavior dealing with ancestral customs and cultural norms for inter­actions with divinity and the worshiping community. On the other hand, scholars of Early Christianity now universally recognize that the nascent Jesus Movement of the first century was fully within the cultic, social, and institutional boundaries of what we would identify as “Judaism,” and did not constitute an explicitly separate, wholly distinct religious phenomenon—“Christian­ity”—for some time afterwards.

That is to say, Jesus, his apostles, their disciples, and the authors of the literature later compiled as the New Testament were all Jews existing within the wider matrix of Early Jewish diversity, and thus within the cultural mosaic of Hellenism. Within this group, which contained internal Jewish diversity, were also already diverse approaches to relationship with Hellenic religion, philosophy, and culture; and thus these Christ-following assemblies of Jews and gentiles, too, constituted examples of Greco-Roman religion. The only conclu­sion that can follow from these premises is thus that to talk about the earliest “Christianity” as a species of Early Judaism and to talk about it from within the framework of Hellenic religion, philosophy, myth, and literary culture are not and cannot be mutually exclusive.

This foundation has been partly assumed, and partly laid, by scholars like M. David Litwa, whose excellent work demonstrates the sheer Hellenism of the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus in the terms of what ancient Greeks and Romans expected from their gods, includ­ing their human gods (“demigods” or “heroes”). As he argues in Iesus Deus,1 Jesus’ literary portrait in the canonical and non-canonical Gospels is clearly shaped by such expectations. Luke’s account of Jesus’ pneumatic conception, for example, while certainly drawing on what he deemed tradition concerning Jesus’ conception and birth and making use of explicitly Jewish imagery, language, and themes (particularly surrounding haaron habrit, the ark of the covenant), no less engages in a theory of the genesis of divine humans that was also advocated by his pagan contemporary Plutarch (Moralia 7173-718b).2 Likewise, as Litwa later points out, contra N.T. Wright and pro the growing consensus of scholars who work on ancient theories of resurrection (or what Litwa calls “corporeal immortaliza­tion”), Jesus’ restoration to physical life (the Gospels do not leave a corpse in the tomb) is the same preliminary to divine glorification or bodily deification that heroes like Askle­pios, Herakles, and Romulus had received.3 Again, the point is not anything so crude as to say that the Gospel writers simply “borrowed” something from the pagan imaginary and slapped it onto Jesus; but it is rather to point out that for Early Christian language about Jesus, as a species of Early Jewish ethnoreligious language, itself just part of the broader Greco-Roman cultural web, to have any kind of positive content for the people to whom that language was addressed, then what happened to Jesus had to have had some kind of parallel point of reference in wider religious discourse. Jesus can, and does, for the Gospel writers, surpass all other possible rivals, but figures like St. Justin Martyr had no problem, as Litwa points out, simply admitting that what Christians claim to have happened in, through, to, and for Jesus is “nothing at all new” or out of the ordinary beyond what was ordinarily predicated of the demigods in Greek religion (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 21.1-3).4

The basic principle here is that the mystery of Christ is unintelligible if it is wholly dissimilar to everything else culturally. If Christ has no parallel in world mythology, philosophy, and religion, then one has only succeeded in making Jesus perfectly inaccessible to all human conceptualization.

More recently, Roland Hart says much the same thing in the gita or canon of suttas that his ward David Bentley encapsulated in Roland in Moonlight.5 In the conversation that emerges from within Roland’s scholarly studio,6 Roland asks (rhetorically) of his human disciple:

I mean, is there truly a gulf of difference between Buddhism’s sambhogakaya and St. Paul’s absolutely fleshless soma pneumatikon? Or between the transfigured, radiant body of the risen Christ, or at least the resplendent bodies of the hesychasts, and the radiant flesh of Swami Premananda walking through the marketplace in an ecstasy of love for God’s beauty? And who’s to say Swami Ramalingam didn’t in fact experience full bodily transfiguration and divinization in this life, growing constantly physically more luminous and translucent as his fleshly body changed first into the suddha deha, the pure body, and then into the pranava deha, the body of the primordial OM, and then into the jnana deha, the body of perfect divine grace, or that he didn’t finally vanish away one day in 1874 into pure, immaterial, spiritual corporeality, and didn’t thereafter appear to his disciples in this … resurrected form? (324-325)

Roland and Hart’s dialogue on Asian religions may be obscure to some, so it is worth des­crib­­ing these references. The sambhogakaya is a Mahayana doctrine about the second of the three bodies of the Buddha (and it might be worth noting as an aside here that both Harts seem to have a definitive preference for Mahayana over Theravada). The sambhoga­kaya is the “enjoyment-body” or celestial body of the Buddha, which is usually available to sight only in the various forms of the “pure land” in which the Buddha’s devotees dwell, but which particularly adept spiritual masters might also gain vision of through advanced meditative practices. If I understand rightly, Premananda is a reference to Premanand Swami (1784-1855), one of the Paramahansas of Swaminarayan Sampraday, not to the more infamous Prem Kumar (1951-2011) who died in prison on several counts of accused rape, some of them involving molestation of minors. Assuming he is the former, the Swaminara­yan tradition of Hinduism aligns more with Ramanuja than with Sankara, the former of whom maintains a qualified (Vishishtadvaita) as opposed to the radical (Advaita) nondualism of the latter. This is to say, for Ramanuja and Swaminarayan Hindus, as well as for Sankara, the ultimate goal of liberation is the experience of the underlying, infinitely nondual unity of atman (the innermost spiritual “Self”) and Brahman (the All, “God” with a capital G, to put it in crude English terms). But where in Advaita, saguna Brahman—Brahman with qualities, including the qualitative world of manifestation—is ultimately illusory, and part of maya (“illusion”), and therefore the liberation involves to some extent the obliteration of any notion of self apart from Brahman nirguna, Brahman without qualities, Ramanuja’s school maintains that saguna Brahman is the body to nirguna Brahman‘s soul, that one and the same Brahman exists both beyond quality and in theophany as the created world. Atman, therefore, retains its existence in the bliss of devotional communion with Brahman rather than by simple or crude absorption into Brahman. Atman is still Brahman in this scheme, and realization of this truth is the key to moksha, but atman is a manifestation of Brahman whose signifi­cance can be neither mitigated nor absolved: each individual jiva, or finite act of being and consciousness, is in its true atman an eternal participation in the sat, citt, and ananda that is God; but maya obscures this eternal reality and binds the jiva to samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. Swami Ramalinga, or Ramalingam Swamigal (1823-1874) was a Tamil saint who, according to his hagiography, was assumed into a higher state of existence from within a locked room on January 30th, 1874, leaving behind no traces or evidence of escape.

A more recent and more famous Hindu saint in the West would serve as a better explicator of the three bodies doctrine Roland articulates from within that particular fold, namely, Mukunda Lal Ghosh, better known as Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952). Yogananda, a teacher of Kriya Yoga and founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, belonged to a monastic and yogic tradition whose practitioners understand it to go back to Mahavatar Babaji, a mys­terious figure about whom we only receive tantalizing information in the form of meetings and recounted experiences between 1861 and 1935. From Babaji to Lahiri Mahasaya, and from Mahasaya to Yogananda, Kriya Yoga was, so taught Yoga­nanda, the form of yoga taught by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and known, also, to many of the world’s saints, prophets, and avatars, including Jesus, in whom Yogananda took a direct and personal interest for much of his life and public career. (It should be noted, as an aside, that in the belief of many connected to Yogananda’s movement in the 21st century, Mahavatar Babji is still alive somewhere, utilizing yogic prowess to stave off physical death.) The popularization of Kriya Yoga by Yogananda in his famous and much republished book, Autobiography of a Yogi,7 came hand in hand with a spiritual memoir of Yogananda’s monastic development and his encounters with several deified humans and divine beings, including his resurrected master, Sri Yukteswar.

In Chapter 43 of Autobiography, aptly titled “The Resurrection of Sri Yukteswar,” Yoga­nanda begins by recounting an “ineffable vision” of Krishna himself (473), which is one week later followed by the “beatific light” and “rapture” in the sight of “the flesh and blood form of Sri Yukteswar,” his recently deceased teacher. Yogananda embraces Yukteswar, and inquires as to why the latter left the former and permitted him to be away at the time of his death; in not unfamiliar language, Yukteswar replies that, although parted “only for a little while,” he is now “with [him] again.”8 Yogananda is astounded: “But is it you, Master,” he asks, “the same Lion of God? Are you wearing a body like the one I buried beneath the cruel Puri sands?” “Yes, my child,” Yukteswar replies,

I am the same. This is a flesh and blood body. Though I see it as ethereal, to your sight it is physical. From cosmic atoms I created an entirely new body, exactly like that cosmic-dream physical body which you laid beneath the dream-sands at Puri in your dream-world. I am in truth resurrected—not on earth but on an astral planet. Its inhabitants are better able than earthly humanity to meet my lofty standards. There you and your exalted loved ones shall someday come to be with me.9

Yukteswar goes on to explain at length the postmortem world he has entered upon. He now “serve[s] on an astral planet as a savior,” where the inhabitants are already fairly spiritually advanced, but there remains “astral karma” which they must resolve on this world.10 Yoga­nanda begins to receive word-pictures as Yukteswar begins to remind him of the scriptural teachings of “the idea, or causal, body; the subtle astral body, seat of man’s mental and emotional natures; and the gross physical body.” This astral body, Yukteswar says, is made of prana (more or less the Sanskrit equivalent to the Greek pneuma), and he is preparing the beings there to enter the more purely noetic “causal world.”11 At Yoganan­da’s request, he describes at length that “[t]here are many astral planets, teeming with astral beings,” an “astral universe, made of various subtle vibrations of light and color … hundreds of times larger than the material cosmos,” in which “[t]he entire physical creation hangs like a little solid basket under the huge luminous balloon of the astral sphere.” On this astral plane are “millions of astral beings who have come, more or less recently, from the earth, and also with myriads of fairies, mermaids, fishes, animals, goblins, gnomes, demigods and spirits, all residing on different astral planets in accordance with karmic qualifications.”12 While there is a dark part to the astral universe, full of “fallen dark angels, expelled from other worlds,” locked in war, “[i]n the vast realms above the dark astral prison, all is shining and beautiful. The astral cosmos is more naturally attuned than the earth to the divine will and plan of perfection.” There is fluidity: “Astral beings dematerialize or materialize their forms at will. Flowers or fish or animals can metamorphose themselves, for a time, into astral men. All astral beings are free to assume any form, and can easily commune together…. Everything is vibrant with God’s creative light.”13 There is no sarkic birth: “No one is born of woman” (Maximian scholars take note), but astral children are begotten from recently disembodied souls invited into that realm by their prospective astral parents.

Beauty and festivity are attached in the astral plane to spiritual advancement.14 On these occasions, God the Father and the highest saints are capable of materializing on the astral plane to celebrate with those who rejoice in the ascension of their own. What this means in the eyes of the viewer changes dependent on the viewer: “In order to please His beloved devotee, the Lord takes any desired form. If the devotee worshiped through devotion, he sees God as the Divine Mother. To Jesus, the Father-aspect of the Infinite One was appealing beyond other conceptions.” Astral beings participate in cosmic government.15 Sustained by “cosmic light,” they communicate by “telepathy and television” (the latter in a psychic, rather than a technological, sense).16 So lovely as the astral universe is, it is still a lesser reality than the causal world, where “one perceives all created things—solids, liquids, gases, electricity, energy, all beings, gods, men, animals, plants, bacteria—as forms of conscious­ness.”17 But even this existence, too, is a kind of imprisonment from the infinite, and it is only once the soul is “merged in the One Cosmic Ocean” of God, “with all its waves—eternal laughter, thrills, throbs.”18 But this does not mean that the soul is done with the causal, astral, and material realms: “[a] master who achieves this final freedom”—like, Yukteswar says, Jesus—”may elect to return to earth as a prophet to bring other human beings back to God, or like myself he may choose to reside in the astral cosmos.”19 That is, the liberated Self has every ability to manifest in whatever reality it desires; in becoming one with God through realization of its unity with God, its “personal” or “individual” qualities have not ceased to be vehicles of divine grace.

Yogananda realizes, at Yukteswar’s instruction, that what he has buried was not Yukteswar’s real body, but only his “dream-body.”20 “Now,” says Yukteswar, “my finer fleshly body—which you behold and are even now embracing rather closely!—is resurrected on another finer dream-planet of God.”21 It too will eventually die, though not in the sense that death is usually met with in the physical world, as Yukteswar continues his cosmic ascent.

As Yogananda would go on to argue in his posthumous mammoth commentary on the Gos­pels, The Second Coming of Christ,22 it is precisely this that took place in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ complete realization of his unity with God enabled and undergirded the paschal mystery of his humiliation and exaltation, and specifically his resurrection of his flesh body. “In the resurrection of Jesus,” writes Yogananda, “we have the assurance of our Creator that God-realized devotees, if they wish, can find not only immortality of the soul but also of the body.”23 For Yogananda, what Jesus manifested was “the resurrection of the soul into one­ness with Spirit—the soul’s ascension from delusory confinement of body consciousness into its native immortality and everlasting freedom,” from which vantage he “infused his Spirit-expanded soul back into his crucified body, immortalizing it, and returned to his bereft disciples in physical form.24 There were “definite steps” to this process, specifically, Jesus’ liberation of “his soul … from physical, astral, and causal limitations by three distinct efforts,” that he might “reunite it with the omniscience and omnipotence of the Spirit.”25 So “[w]hen after death Jesus had neutralized the mechanism of the three gunas, and had burnt all karmic seeds resulting from his incarnate cause-effect actions, he ascended from the three bodies straightway into the bosom of God. Then he had power even as God has. From that supreme state, Jesus put on his body again or cast it off at will.”26 As this sort of bodily manifestation is simply a property of such infinite ascent, “Jesus after crucifixion could appear among his disciples for forty days, materializing and dematerializing his form before their eyes.”27 So “the resurrected Jesus—having ascended from the confinement of his physical, astral, and causal bodies into the Infinite-bodied Cosmic Consciousness—manifes­ted his Jesus form not apart from Spirit but as the Infinite who has become Jesus, all individualized souls, and all manifestation.”28 Therefore, Jesus “immortalized his body as well as his spirit. Any true devotee can see him as Jesus Christ or know him as one with the Infinite Christ.”29 Yogananda himself claimed to have been the witness of personal manifestation of Christ in bodily form several times, and from these to have received the very revelatory knowledge of the New Testament that fills his immense commentary.

Roland and Yogananda’s confidence in the parallel comparability of Jesus’ resurrection to the physical glorification of other spiritual masters may strike us for the specific juxtapo­sition of South Asian religion to Christianity. Apart from figures like Bede Griffiths (1906-1993) and Raimon Pannikar (1918-2020), relatively few contemporary theologians have traversed so far in comparative theology between Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism as to produce anything like a creative synthesis or articulation of Christian theology in the native categories of Indian thought. But in reality, to do so is not doing anything different from what the Evangelists or Justin Martyr were already doing with what tropes were available to them to describe the mystery of Christ in the Greco-Roman culture in the first century; it is simply to do so with South Asian source material, and so our tolerance and receptivity to it are functions of our appreciation for that particular human world.

That is not to say that this particular construct of comparative theology (understanding the resurrection through the three bodies doctrine) is immutably true, or that one must agree to the particular fusion by Roland or Yogananda, etc. It is just to point out that all theology is, really, comparative theology, especially if it has any pretense to some sort of universal take on the nature of God. That is why most localized religions do not bother with a real theology, if we mean by that what the Greek word really means, a rational account (λόγος) about God or gods (θεός). It is one thing for the early Indo-European societies that would become the Greeks, or even the archaic Greeks committing Homeric poetry to textualized form, to tell myths about their gods, in a context of limited discursive reflection on myth and cultural interaction beyond the pale of their own wider people groups. It is another thing for preclas­sical, classical, and Hellenistic philosophers to have to find a way to make use of myth to construct an internationally relevant conception of divinity.

Comparative theologies are usually driven by contact and necessity. Paul makes use of Hellenistic physics and the Evangelists of Hellenistic portraits of divine humans because those are the cultural resources that were at the disposal of Early Jews like Paul and the Evangelists. (Traditionally Luke is thought a gentile, but there’s some movement in the opposite direction on that question just now in the academy.) These resources were drawn on to articulate the mystery of Christ—his incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement—because they were the best tools available to explain the content of the apostolic kerygma to a world, Jewish and gentile, well-versed in Hellenic cultural norms. But what can the resurrection of Christ mean to a culture like, for example, India, where the significance of a particular material corpus is dwarfed by the samsaric odyssey of every individual soul? Here, Roland and Yogananda show us not just that something like the three bodies doctrine could successfully convey the paschal mystery in that context, but even that something of catholic significance about the resurrection might be conveyed through its articulation in that cultural matrix, something that then might be taken in to the great benefit of a Jewish apocalyptic sect that, from its infancy, was bilingual, working in the already entangled Semitic and Greek linguistic thought-worlds. In none of this is the historical origin of Christianity as a form of first century Judaism in the Hellenic and Roman worlds, or the indelible mark that lineage has left on its essential scriptural, liturgical, and dogmatic content, displaced or relativized.

So a comparative work of the sort I’ve described only really succeeds insofar as it gestures to an underlying logic always already there in the paschal mystery itself. In that sense, it is never really alien to Christianity, but the exposition of something native and implicit within it. This is borne out rather obviously if one pauses to consider the picture of resurrection that one gets from Origen of Alexandria (184-253) in his De Principiis in comparison to the Swaminarayan and Yoganandan pictures outlined above. We only have a few fragments from Methodios of Olympos and Pamphilos preserving Origen’s once larger treatise De Resur­rec­tione, sadly, but Origen gives us enough of his own eschato­log­ical system in the De Principiis that we can piece together something of what that text may have taught. While Origen seems to deny that the mind (mens) and the soul (anima) are corporeal in themselves (De Princi­piis I.1.7), potentially problematizing the notion of three simultaneously extant corpora, Origen nevertheless lays the groundwork or something rather like the three bodies doctrine throughout De Principiis. First, he establishes that “every rational being is able, passing from one order to another, to go from each order to all and from all to each, while it continues, through its faculty of free will, susceptible of promotions and demotions according to its own actions and efforts” (I.6.3).30 These “orders” are, to be clear, those of angels, humans, and demons, and the nature of their progression is a kind of cosmic pedagogy, healing rational beings committed to wickedness (humans and demons) of their error:

both in these seen and temporal ages and in those that are unseen and eternal, all those beings are arranged in order, by reason, according to the measure and dignity of their merits, so that some at first, others second, some even in the last times and through heavier and severer punishments endured for long duration and, so to speak, for many ages, are renewed by these harsh correctives and restored, at first by the instruction of the angels, and then by the powers of a higher rank, that, advancing thus through each stage to better things, they arrive even at those things which are unseen and eternal, having traversed, by some form of instruction, every single office of the heavenly powers (I.6.3).

Origen moves directly from this observation into a meditation on the character of change, asking “how those things which are seen are transient—whether because there will be nothing at all after this [world], in all those periods or ages to come in which the dispersion and division from the one beginning is restored to one and the same end and likeness, or because while the form of the things that are seen passes away, their substance, however, is in no way corrupted” (I.6.4). Origen, following Paul, opts for the latter view, saying that “if the form of the world passes away, it is not, by any means, an annihilation or destruction of the material substance that is indicated, but a kind of change of quality and transformation of form that takes place.” So “this renewal of heaven and earth, and the transmutation of the form of this world, and the changing of the heavens will undoubtedly be prepared for those who, travelling along the way which we have indicated above, are stretching out towards that end of blessedness, to which even the enemies themselves are said to be subjected, in which end God is said to be all and in all.” And yet, Origen is clear, this does not mean that “material, that is, bodily, nature will perish utterly,” since “beings so numerous and powerful are” in no way “able to live and exist without bodies, since it is thought to be a property of God alone … to exist without any material substance and apart from any association of a bodily addition.” He proposes instead that “perhaps … in that end every bodily substance will be so pure and refined that it must be thought of as the aether, in a way, and of a heavenly purity and clearness.”

For Origen, then, the connaturality of all rational beings and their common destiny of return to God means both that (a) the transience of corporeal reality cannot be taken to imply its ultimate destruction and (b) bodily life in the consummation of the world will nevertheless be quite different than it is now. These two themes recur throughout the work when Origen returns to this subject. For Origen, for whom “clearly the end of this world is the beginning of the one to come” (II.1.3), it is also the case that “it is impossible for this point in any way to be maintained, that is, that any other being, apart from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, can live without a body,” and so, therefore, “rational beings were created, yet that material substance is to be separated from them only in thought and understanding … but that they never have lived nor live without it; for a bodiless life will rightly be considered only of the Trinity” (II.2.2). And since this is true, “that material substance of this world, as we have said above, having such a nature that accepts every kind of transformation, when it is dragged down to lower beings is moulded into the denser and more solid condition of body, so as to distinguish those visible and various forms of the world; but when it serves the more perfect and blessed beings, it shines in the splendour of celestial bodies and adorns either the angels of God or the sons of the resurrection with the garment of a spiritual body, from all of which is composed the diverse and various conditions of the one world.” The resurrection, according to Origen, is nothing other than that “this matter of the body, which is now corruptible, shall put on incorruptibility, when a perfected soul, instructed with the teachings of incorruptibility, shall have begun to use it,” and thus “when this body, which someday we shall have in a more glorious state, shall have become a partaker in life, it then accedes to what is immortal, such that it also becomes incorruptible” (II.3.2).

Bamberg-Eichstätt Psalter

Notice Origen’s subtlety here: the soul al­ways makes use of the same matter for its body, but the nature of that body is a reflec­tion of the soul’s own state of education concerning divine truth. The grossness and opacity of materiality, the principle of life (psychic or pneumatic, animated or spir­itual) and the quality of life (corruptible, incorruptible), are all functions of the soul’s knowledge of God. Since the body is the principle of the rational being’s differen­tiation from God and from other rational beings, Origen thus rejects the idea that the ulti­mate consummation of subjection to Christ and God’s universal indwell­ing is bodiless, saying that even in such a scenario, rational beings would need to be subject to the move­ments bodies allow to know the reality of God’s grace, and thus “the world will [n]ever be able to exist except from variety and diversity, which can in no way be effected without bodily matter.”

A key corollary to all this for Origen is that this is not the only world (in Rufinus’ Latin, mundus, but surely, in the original Greek, κόσμος). It is important to keep in mind that for Origen, “world” has multivalent meanings, and there is no simple, linear path from Origen’s use of this word to our contemporary uses.31 This is Origen’s only explanation for the stand­ing diversity of rational beings and their respective bodily characteristics, all conditioned by the noetic movements of rational beings towards or away from God. This is also why Origen rejects the Stoic infinity of identical universes for an infinite succession of differing universes according to the free arbitration of rational beings in each one.32 Temporally speaking, then, each world or “age” (saeculum in Rufinus’ translation; certainly αἴων in Greek) finds its one consummation in the divine pleroma, which exists, in some sense, in a metaphysical posi­tion above all the ages. Here, Origen’s quotation of John 17:24 and 21 directly states his belief that this state of God’s being “all in all” is “that of course when all things are not still in an age, but when God is all in all” (II.3.5).33 Note the progression of logic: a “world” is an “age”; there have been and will be an infinite succession of “worlds” or “ages”; the state, however, in which the Savior, Jesus, desires us to be is where he is with the Father, which is not where all things still exist in an age, a temporally distinct world, but where God is all in all. The eschatological horizon is thus not horizontal, as though at the end or in the near future of a timeline, but vertical, in a spatially analogous supratemporal realm.

Origen then turns from considering time to considering space, with a detailed look at the cosmographical language of Scripture and its relationship to eschatology. He admits his preference for talk about “a certain other world” in Scripture, superior to the one we are familiar with, as indicating not a bodiless world of forms, but a world “superior in glory and quality but confined within the limits of this world” (II.3.6). Indeed, “it might be supposed that the entire universe of things that exist, celestial and super-celestial, earthly and infernal, is called, generally, a single and perfect ‘world’, within which, or by which, other worlds, if there are any, must be supposed to be contained.” And so Origen offers three options for understanding the trans­formed world of the eschaton:

It has been said that it must be supposed either that it is possible to lead a bodiless life, after all things have become subject to Christ and through Christ to the God and Father, when God will be all in all. Or that when all things have been made subject to Christ, and through Christ to God, with whom they become one spirit, by virtue of the fact that rational beings are spirits, then the bodily substance itself, being united to the best and most pure spirits and being changed, according to the quality or merits of those who assume it, into an ethereal character—as the Apostle says, and we shall be changed—and will shine with light. Or else that when the form of those things which are seen passes away, and all corruptibility has been shaken off and cleansed away, and the entire condition of this world, in which the spheres of the planets are said to be, has been superseded or transcended, there is established the abode, above that sphere which is called ‘non-wandering’, of the pious and the blessed, as it were, in a good land and the land of the living, which will be inherited by the meek and the gentle, to which belongs that heaven (which, with its more magnificent circumfer­ence, surrounds and contains that land itself) which is truly and principally called heaven; in this heaven and earth, the end and perfection of all things can safely and most surely take place, where, that is to say, those who, after the rebuke of punishments which they have endured, by way of purgation, for their offences, fulfilling and discharging every obligation, may deserve a habitation in that land; wile those who have been obedient to the Word of God and, being compliant, have proved themselves already capable of receiving his Wisdom, are said to be deserving of the kingdom of that heaven or heavens, and thus the saying is more worthily fulfilled, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, and Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven, and what is said in the Psalm, He shall exalt you and you shall inherit the land. For it is called a descent to this earth, but an exaltation to that which is on high. In this way, therefore, a sort of road seems to be opened up for the progress of the saints, from that earth to those heavens, so that they would appear not so much to remain in that land but to dwell there, that is, to pass on, when they will have made progress in it, to the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven. (II.3.7)

Origen’s third option encompasses the other two, and has his clear dialectical preference, setting up his account of the movements, judgment, punishments, and promises by which rational beings return to God. Here, it is important to keep in mind the relativity Origen has already established between the temporal and the spatial. Different abodes in the one “world” which encompasses all cosmic realms entail different kinds of embodiment appropriate to their station (II.9.3); because their created souls are all intrinsically good by virtue of their good Creator, their diversity of stations can only be attributed to their actions in previous temporal worlds (II.9.4-7), established by some previous “day of judgment” (II.9.8). The “judgment to come,” “the retribution and punishment of sinners” themselves are dependent on the facticity of the resurrection (II.10.1). But the resurrected body is “spiritual,” not animated, and therefore, as in Paul, not fleshly (1 Cor 15:50; De Principiis II.10.3). The “transformation” of the body in the resurrection is one in which “those who shall deserve to attain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, that principle of the body’s refashioning, which we have mentioned before, by the command of God refashions out of the earthly and animated body a spiritual body, able to inhabit the heavens; while to those who may be of inferior merit or more abject still, or even those of the lowest condition and thrust aside, will be given a body of glory and dignity correspond­ing to the dignity of the life and soul of each, in such a way, however, that even for those who are destined to eternal fire or to punishments, the body which rises again is, through the very transformation of the resurrection, so incorruptible that it cannot be corrupted and dissolved even by punish­ments” (II.10.3). For that reason, the threats of punishment admit of spiritual interpre­ta­tions, and “are produced from the hurtful affections of the sins themselves,” not from divine retribution (II.10.4). These punishments are really “the [soul’s] chastisement and torment of its own dissension,” but they produce the benefit that “the soul, thus dissolved and rent asunder … is undoubtedly reinforced in the consolidation and re-establishment of its structure” (II.10.5).

All of this leads to Origen’s description of the divine promises of reward (II.11.1-7). He makes an immediate and decisive move away from a literalist reading of Old Testament and New Testament prophecy for the terrestrial restoration of Israel as a cultic and political entity, thus somewhat strangely becoming the first true ante-Nicene Father not to subscribe to a strongly chiliastic reading of the New Testament. “Certain persons,” he says, “rejecting the labour of thinking and following the superficial letter of the law, or yielding, rather, in some way to their own desires and lusts, being disciples of the letter alone, reckon that the prom­ises of the future are to be looked for in the pleasure and luxury of the body; and especially because of this they have the desire to have again, after the resurrection, flesh of such a kind that never lacks the ability to eat and drink and to do all things that pertain to flesh and blood, not following the teaching of the Apostle Paul regarding the resurrection of a spiritual body” (II.11.2; cf. II.10.3). So food and drink, marriage and sex and children, and an earthly Jerusalem are the objects of their desire in the resurrection, presuming a restoration to the same animated quality of life as one now experiences in flesh. The most obvious objects of Origen’s scorn here would be figures like Papias, the apostolic Father whose fragments are preserved by other millenarian thinkers like Origen’s older contemporary, Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202; Irenaeus, Adversus Haeresos V.34.4-35.2).34 Origen’s account of the “life of the world to come,” by contrast, is fitted to his doctrine of the resurrection body (one which Irenaeus explicitly rejected). Accepting “the interpretation of Scriptures in accordance with the sense of the apostles” (II.11.3) look for education “in things divine” as the feast of the future world, an ongoing pedagogy in divine truth combined with a cosmic ascent. It is here, too, that Origen shows his hand that the resurrection is an immediate postmortem reality: it is the “desire” for this education that Origen thinks to have been referenced by Paul when he writes that “I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better, knowing that when he should have returned to Christ he would know more clearly the reasons for all things which are done upon earth” (II.11.5). The logic is subtle but clear: in II.10-11 Origen’s three interconnected subjects are on the resurrection, punishment, and promises, resurrection being the necessary preliminary to talking about the latter two topics, and therefore the discourse here is about what the resurrected saints are promised to receive. So Origen’s quotation here of Philippians 1:23, where Paul is talking about the distinction between life in the body and departure to be with Christ, strongly implies that he reads Paul here as saying that resurrection follows immediately upon death.

This likely helps to explain why it is that Origen is so dismissive of the stream of apocalyptic thought resident within his chiliast predecessors. Using Outi Lehtipuu’s rubric, Origen clearly dismisses the notion of a resurrectio carnis in favor of a pneumatic or spiritual resurrection, which comes with a clear commitment to a chronology that favors a vertical, spatially oriented horizon of eschatological becoming as opposed to a horizontal, futurist, and temporally oriented one.35 That is to say, the nature of Origen’s resurrection body not only sidesteps the necessity of a historical parousia, but actually actively undermines it: Jesus is already with the Father in the superior kosmos to which the faithful are headed, and it is by continual education of the soul, and thus continual spiritualization of the body in the soul’s cosmic ascent, that the eschaton is attained. This is not any less apocalyptic an option than chiliasm, but it is an apocalypticism of a different sort, boasting of an eschatology that is currently realized on a different plane of reality, and conceptualizing the spiritual life as the attempt to ascend to that plane of reality. But even so, what binds Origen together with the earlier chiliasts is precisely that Origen’s eschatology retains the necessity of a gradualist, immeasurable temporal scope for its realization. There will never stop being new “worlds” or “ages” in which the providence of God arranges for the salvation of rational beings, and so it is not merely a Sabbath of the world upon the return of Christ that acts as pedagogy for eternity, but it is all of temporal reality itself, experienced in the animated or in the spiritual body, which provides the necessary education for supratemporal existence with God in the time (and therefore also the place) where God is “all in all.”36

What conditioned Origen’s preference for an apocalyptic eschatology of cosmic ascent over one predicated on a historicist and futurist parousia is difficult to pinpoint in any simple terms: his Hellenistic context in Alexandria, in the third century, likely has something to do with it, but then again, Paul himself was an intensely apocalyptic thinker in a mold familiar to Palestinian Jews of his day, and he was nevertheless a Hellenized Jewish author from Tarsus clearly familiar with Greek philosophy and culture. And perhaps, too, his work might be characterized within a broader trajectory of apocalypticism’s transfor­mation into mysticism, of the internalization of radical apocalyptic hopes for a trans­formed world in the future that one encounters in other early Jewish and Christian literature.37 Where Paul’s eschatology may have allowed for both imminent futurism as well as a cosmic ascent, later Christian writers seem to bifurcate the two, in conjunction with their bifurcated notions of resurrection more generally. Perhaps this is unfair to Origen, since it is perfectly possible that in De Resurrectione or in some other tractate which we now lack, he laid out more concretely his understanding of the parousia; but in what remains from the present work, it seems that the De Principiis favors ascent more than return.

That ascent itself is rather glorious. The ascending soul learns first about the rudimentary elements of human nature, and then about the reason (ratio) and explanatory principles (causae) of the scriptural types entextualized in the Torah (II.11.5). Moving on from this, “he will come to know, moreover, about the good powers, what they are, their greatness and qualities, and of those also of the opposite kind, and what is the affection of the former towards human beings and the contentious jealousy of the latter,” the “intention of the Creator … concealed in each individual thing,” the powers of herbs (i.e., medicinal pharmaceuticals), the fall of the angels, and the character of divine providence generally conceived (II.11.5). The worthy, “after their departure from this life” (II.11.6), may well spend a great deal of time learning these things before beginning their ascent through the various cosmic levels, learning first about “the abode of the air,” and then about the others. So Origen speculates that “the saints who depart from this life will remain in some place situated upon the earth, which the divine Scripture calls paradise, as if in some place of instruction and, so to speak, an auditorium or school for souls, in which they may be instructed regarding all things which they had seen on earth and may also receive some information regarding things that are to follow in the future, just as when placed in this life they had received some indications of future events, through a mirror, in enigmas, indeed, yet comprehended in part, which are revealed more clearly and luminously to the saints in their proper place and time.” From here, those who are “pure in heart and more clear in intellect and more practised in understanding … will make quicker progress and speedily ascend to a place of the air, and will reach the kingdom of heaven, through each of those stages, so to speak, which the Greeks have termed ‘spheres’, that is, ‘globes’, but which the divine Scripture calls heavens; in each of these he will first observe the things that are done there, and, second, he will come to know the reason why they are done: and thus he will pass in order through each stage following him who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, who has said, I will that where I am, they may also be with me.” Origen’s quotation of John 14:2 with his reference to “stages” (μοναί; mansiones),38 combined now here with his second reference to John 17:24 which we saw above, shows that his understanding of this ascent is precisely the progress of the saints through the various aeonic levels of cosmic reality to the superaeonic realm where God’s plenitude resides. For Origen, this is Jesus’ own teaching: “He also alludes to this diversity of places, when he says, There are many stages with my Father. He is himself everywhere, however, and traverses all things; we are no longer to understand him in those narrow limits, in which he came to amongst us for our sake, that is, not in that circumscribed condition which he had when placed among human beings upon earth in our body, by which he might be thought of as enclosed in some one place.”

In their ascent, the saints will come to know the true natures and activities of the stars, and progressing from there, God will reveal “to them, as to sons, the causes of things and the power of his creation,” following which “they will come to those things which are unseen or to those whose names alone we have as yet heard, and to things which are invisible” (II.11.7). “And so,” Origen writes, “the rational being, growing through each step, not as it grew in this life in flesh and body and soul but enlarged in intelligence and understanding, is advanced as an intellect already perfected to perfect knowledge,” and then still further on it will subsist on “the contemplation and understanding of God, having measures appropriate and suitable to this nature, which was made and created;” and so indeed, “it is appropriate that every one of those beginning to see God, that is, to understand him through purity of heart, observe these measures.”

The bulk of Bk. III is then devoted to the nature of the soul’s free will, not in a digressional manner, but precisely so as to identify the mechanism of choice, cause, and effect by which the soul’s participation in punishment or promise enables its cosmic ascent to God in the resurrection. It is not accidental that this discourse transitions, in III.5-6, to the world’s beginning, end, and consummation, since it is precisely the choices of rational creatures which condition the cosmic drama. Again, the diversity of statuses for rational beings requires for Origen that “just as after its dissolution there will be another world, so also we believe others to have existed before this one was” (III.5.3). The common destiny of the saints is therefore also their common origin: “I am of the opinion,” he writes, “that as the end and the consummation of the saints will be in those [worlds] that are not seen and eternal, it must be supposed, from a contemplation of that very end, as we have frequently pointed out above, that rational creatures have also had a similar beginning” (III.5.4). But not all came to be in their present status in the same manner: some souls have so descended because they deserve it, and “because of their excessive spiritual defects needed these denser and more solid bodies, and because of those for whom this was necessary, this visible world was founded,” while others descended precisely “to serve the whole world.” And the whole creation therefore has an expectation of freedom, a hope for liberation, the servants through the fulfillment of their mission, and the fallen through their reeducation in this world. Christ is, as in all things, the exemplar here, since it is through his subjection of all things to himself that restoration is effected, and that both the administrative rule of the angelic servants and the obedience of the human race are restored (III.5.7).

Origen finally comes to his account of the consummation itself, which is when God becomes all in all, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:28 (III.6.2-3). In that divine indwelling, “bodily nature in no way at all prevents” the union of all things with God (III.6.3). So the pneumatic or spiritual body of the resurrection which Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5:1 is, for Origen, resident in the very cosmic stages that he has otherwise identified as the future destiny of the saints: “Regarding this body,” he writes,

the Apostle has also said that We have a house not made by hand, eternal in the heavens, that is, in the mansions of the blessed. From this statement, then, we can form a conjecture of what great purity, of what great refinement, and of what great glory is the quality of that body, if we make a comparison of it with those which now, although they are bodies celestial and most splendid, are yet made by hand and visible. But of that body it is said that it is a house not made with hands but eternal in the heavens…. From this comparison, it may be conjectured how great is the beauty, how great the splendour, and how great the brilliance of a spiritual body, and how true is that saying, that eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has it entered into the heart of a human being what God has prepared for those who love him. It ought not to be doubted, however, that the nature of this body of ours may, by the will of God who made it such, be brought, by the Creator, to that quality characterizing the exceptionally refined and pure and splendid body, according as the condition of things shall require and the merits of the rational being shall demand. (III.6.4)

In the final account, all bodies shall admit of no diversity of glory, and “[i]t is on this account, moreover, that the last enemy, who is called death, is said to be destroyed, that there may no longer be any sadness when there is death, nor diversity when there is no enemy” (III.6.5). But Origen has something quite specific in mind by death’s destruction. “The destruction of the last enemy, indeed,” he says “is to be understood in this way, not that its substance, which was made by God, shall perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded not from God but from itself shall disappear. It is destroyed, therefore, not in the sense that it shall not be, but that it shall not be an enemy and death.” Origen clarifies for us that this means that death will cease to be a principle of dissolution and destruction of the substance of creatures which God creates “that they might exist” (a reference to Wisdom 1:14), but instead become a principle of “change and variation, so as to occupy a better or worse position in accordance with their merits.” The best example of precisely this change is what happens to the flesh itself in resurrection: its substance endures, though its quality as flesh disappears when it is restored to life. “[A]ll things will be restored,” he writes,

when they shall be one, and when God shall be all in all. It must be under­stood, however, that this shall happen not suddenly, but gradually and by degrees, during the passing of infinite and immeasurable ages, with the improvement and correction being accomplished slowly and by degrees, some hastening on in advance and tending towards perfection by a quicker route, and others following behind at a close distance, with others far behind: and so, through the many and innumerable ranks of those making progress and being reconciled, from enmity, to God, until the last enemy, which is called death, is reached, so that it too may be destroyed and no longer be an enemy. (III.6.6)

It is at that point of universal restoration, he now says, that the glory of the spiritual body is attained. But recall, for Origen, it is at death that the soul begins to progress through the cos­mic spheres precisely to that heavenly destiny, to where the spiritual body of glory resides. It is “by means of instruction” that the human being “comes to be rendered spiritual,” and so, too, “this very body which now, because of its service to the soul, is called animated, will, through a certain progress—when the soul, united to God, shall have been made one spirit with him, the body then serving, as it were, the spirit—attain a spiritual state and quality.” And so, “in the consummation and restoration of all things,” he says, “those gradually making progress and ascending in order and measure shall arrive first at that other earth and the training that is in it,” and thereon Christ “will himself assume the kingdom,” by which Origen means that “he himself will instruct those who are capable of receiving him in respect of his being Wisdom, reigning in them until he subjects them to the Father, who has subjected all things to himself; that is, when they shall have been rendered capable of God, then God will be to them all in all” (III.6.9).

Astute readers may already see the clear parallels between Origen’s eschatology and that proposed by Yukteswar to Yogananda. In their particular brand of yogic philosophy, the illumined yogi, upon death, may be reborn on the astral plane, not beginning an entirely new life in a body of flesh, but assuming an astral or spiritual form of pure prana (the Sanskrit equivalent to the Greek pneuma or Latin spiritus) appropriate to one’s karmic status, on a world in the astral universe. From their station, they may advance within the astral realm, or they may decline back again to the grossly material realm, dependent on their relative merits and karmic needs. The astral realm also hosts the demonic, where the darkened intellects are reborn in torturous forms and undergo a kind of punishment for their ignorance of the unity between atman and Brahman and their consequent sins. To this existence, it seems, rebirth on the Earth or in the simply material universe is in fact superior. But the more spiritually advanced in the astral plane go on to be reborn once more in the causal realm, which is to say, to ascend into their causal body, where they are face to face with the fundamental noetic superstructure (or substructure) of reality; just as astral beings have the freedom to manifest in physical form on earth, so causal beings can manifest in astral and material form, such that this is not a reduction in being but a true expansion, even if the body assumed is too subtle or fine for lower beings to perceive on its own. And from this there is an even higher ascent, from which, Yogananda adds in his Second Coming, the atman that has overcome the illusion of its separation or difference from Brahman may, still, identify with each of its bodies, in all three planes of reality, and manifest however, whenever, and to whomever he or she likes. The point is that realization of one’s intrinsic unity with God does not amount to an obliteration of the particular manifestation of God that is one’s own personal embodiment, presence, and accessibility in the cosmos, but actually full mastery thereof.

In Origen, the resurrection, because it is pneumatic, follows on death; the body assumes a form of glory appropriate to the spiritual illumination or darkening of its soul and a relative status in the universe appropriate to both. The wicked experience punishments after this life—in the very form of their demonification (II.10.8)—appropriate to their sinful behavior that corrects and purifies them of their evil, sometimes at the cost of the very soul-body complex their rational spirits have assumed so as to ensure the salvation of the core of their being, leading, perhaps, to its inhabitation of a new psychosomatic unity (though Origen never says this). But the righteous experience an ascent through the cosmos as though through a divine school-house (Origen’s lifetime as a didaskalos is on display here), attaining their spiritual bodies in a gradated way as they ascend, ultimately, to the divine pleroma beyond the aeons in the eternal and future heavens and earth from which all of the infinite worlds are, in fact, just so many slips. For the wicked, death is punishment, but once purified, death gradually becomes not a punishment or an enemy but simply that principle of change by which we are able to return to God, all through the regal lordship and tutoring Wisdom that is Christ, the mediator of the divine providence by which all rational beings find their end in reconcilia­tion with God, who is “all in all,” that is, everything to everyone, in the final analysis.

In both systems, “rebirth” is a kind of resurrection, and resurrection a kind of “rebirth,” though in only one such system are both terms invoked; in both systems, the goal is not the dissolution of personal identity but the cessation of personal identification with something other than God, such that the resumption of bodily presence in the cosmos becomes theo­phany rather than a cause of separation between self and all. True, for Yogananda and Yuk­teswar, Jesus is who Jesus is because he understood and mastered Kriya Yoga, whereas for Origen, Jesus is who Jesus is because he is the eternal Son of God, the Father’s agent of universal lordship and providential creative activity. Despite frequently being accused of such, Origen never explicitly articulates metempsychosis of souls between different flesh bodies; he always asserts the unity of soul and body as the one body for the one soul under­goes a change of qualities appropriate to the change in the soul’s intellectual comprehension of ultimate reality.39 Roland is not wrong to make the comparison: it’s really already there, just waiting to be highlighted. This does not denigrate the Christian proclamation of the resurrection, but again, testifies to its fundamental intelligibility.

As a closing thought, too, it is obvious that both systems are conditioned by the particular times and places in which their authors found themselves, and by the communal and indi­vi­dual experiences that constructed their understanding of the world. This is because, at the end of the day, while we do theology in order to interpret our experience of and encounter with ultimate, absolute reality—God—we necessarily do so from within the conditioned finitude of our rational existence. Finite reality is its own theophany, to be sure, but access to the infinite and, from the infinite, a vantage on the meaning and course of finitude is a more particular grace of illumination than our ordinary consciousness allows. In Origen’s case in particular, Origen’s theological exposition of the apostolic and ecclesiastical preaching, which together with his hermeneutical method for reading scripture is the De Principiis, is in many ways quite different from that preaching in its earliest modes as enshrined in the New Testament text itself. Origen, for example, saw a problem with “Judaic” readings of Scripture that would not have occurred to the Apostle Paul to whose theology he otherwise skewed so closely; and Origen lived in a historical context where the apocalyptic fervor of the first Christians for an imminent parousia and a transformation of the world in accordance with apocalyptic streams of Jewish hope had already gone numerous mutations with subsequent generations and demographic shifts within the movement. We rightly find him a masterful link in the chain of transmission for the kerygma of Christ. But following his own example, it is up to us, again and again, to resynthesize the meaning of the apostolic proclamation of Christ, crucified and risen, both in continuity with those who have come before us and in the specificity of our own temporal and spatial situation. Perhaps counterintuitively to the decidedly modernist values of many contemporary Christian apologists and evangelists, epistemic humility about the culturally conditioned character of our theology may enable more successful communication of the mystery of Christ than it inhibits.

 

Footnotes

[1] M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014). 
[2] Litwa, Iesus Deus, 37-68. 
[3] Litwa, Iesus Deus, 141-180. 
[4] Litwa, Iesus Deus, 1-2. 
[5] David Bentley Hart, Roland in Moonlight (New York: Angelico Press, 2021). 
[6] Hart, Roland in Moonlight, 314-334. 
[7] Parahamansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, 13th ed. (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1998). It was first published in 1946. 
[8] Yogananda, Autobiography, 476. 
[9] Yogananda, Autobiography, 476. 
[10] Yogananda, Autobiography, 477. 
[11] Yogananda, Autobiography, 478. 
[12] Yogananda, Autobiography, 479. 
[13] Yogananda, Autobiography, 480. 
[14] Yogananda, Autobiography, 481. 
[15] Yogananda, Autobiography, 482. 
[16] Yogananda, Autobiography, 482-483. 
[17] Yogananda, Autobiography, 488. 
[18] Yogananda, Autobiography, 489. 
[19] Yogananda, Autobiography, 490. 
[20] Yogananda, Autobiography, 493. 
[21] Yogananda, Autobiography, 494. 
[22] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 2004). 
[23] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1637. 
[24] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1637. 
[25] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1638. 
[26] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1642. 
[27] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1643. 
[28] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1648. 
[29] Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ, 1660. 
[30] The translation is John Behr’s, which is the new standard for this text. See Origen, On First Principles, 2 vols., ed. and trans. John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 115. Throughout, it is his translation I use unless otherwise noted. 
[31] This is a point that I have happily taken from Behr. For a good overview of the evolution of talk about “world” as an all-encompassing catalogue or interconnected whole of contingent reality, see Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), and her follow-up, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018). Rubenstein talks about Origen’s understanding of the world in Worlds Without End, 62-64, 66, 68. 
[32] See Rubenstein, Worlds Without End, 63. Rubenstein rightly points out that Origen’s “ages of ages” is “incompatible with the spatial riot of the Epicureans,” yet “fit perfectly with the temporal multiplicity of the Stoics,” mutatis mutandis for Origen’s understanding of free will. It is true that Origen proposes an infinite succession of kosmoi which follow on one another temporally, which can be designated as “ages,” rather than spatially parallel kosmoi resident within a void, as did the Epicureans. Yet it must be stressed that for Origen, the beginnings of a relativity between time and space are already beginning to be seen. As we will see, Origen does not think that the eschatological destiny of the saints is to be found at the end of the ages in temporal sequence, but rather beyond their ontological horizon in a supratemporal realm; vertical ascent takes the place of a horizontal arrival, as though on a timeline. And so in this sense, for God, who is the metaphysical summit toward which that ascent reaches, all of the infinite kosmoi are always present, and so from God’s perspective, all possible worlds are thus actual. Origen does not directly say this, but it is the only logical outcome of his system. 
[33] Here I slightly dissent from Behr’s translation. Behr has: “And see if that which the Saviour says, I desire that where I am these also may be with me, and, as I and you are one, so also these may be one in us, does not seem to point to something more than an age or ages, perhaps even more than the ages of ages, that is to say, that period when all things are no longer in an age, but when God is all in all” (Origen, On First Principles, trans. Behr, 169). It seems clear even in Behr’s translation, though, that Origen is drawing a distinction between temporally conditioned existence defined by living in an “age,” even a superior future age, and being in the divine pleroma, such that to identify this state of affairs as a “period” seems contradictory. 
[34] Behr identifies these in Origen, On First Principles, trans. Behr 269 fns 3-4, but of course, millenarianism was a broader tradition in the early centuries. 
[35] See Outi Lehtipuu, Debates Over the Resurrection of the Dead: Constructing Early Christian Identity, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 159-200. 
[36] This is a point that has emerged in private correspondence between Behr and myself, which he was charitable to remind me of in response to a draft of this piece. It is true that Origen distances himself from the literalist chiliasm represented by someone like Irenaeus, where a historical return of Christ results in a literal fulfillment of biblical prophecies which then, in turn, bleed into the eternal state. But what Origen shares with that tradition is a gradualist eschatology, where full attainment of divine plenitude requires more time than this life allows, both for individual rational beings and for the universe as a considered whole. 
[37] My friend David Burnett, an excellent Paul scholar, once outlined this dynamic for me in a most instructive way. 
[38] See Origen, On First Principles, ed. and trans. Behr, 279 fn 47. 
[39] I might wonder out loud here, at the very end, if this does not absolve the whole problem about metempsychosis for contemporary Christian theology, though that likely requires a wholly separate paper.

* * *

David Armstrong is a Byzantine Catholic. He has an MA in Religious Studies from Missouri State University and an MA in Classics from Washington University in St. Louis. His proudest accomplishment is being married to Bethany. His puppy, Daisy, is something more of an Epicurean than Roland.

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51 Responses to Roland, Rebirth, and Resurrection: A Comparative Eschatology of Paramahansa Yogananda and Origen of Alexandria

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    David, your stimulating piece reminded me of a remark by Lesslie Newbigin, longtime missionary to India, of the difficulty in preaching Christ to Hindus: inevitably Jesus is assimilated into the pantheon of deities and demigods. The Christian confession of both his theological uniqueness and his historical particularity remains a stumbling block. Unfortunately, my library remains in boxes in the garage and cannot hunt for the remark.

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidarmstrong says:

      It’s an interesting point, Fr. Al. Certainly, Yogananda integrates Jesus as simply another avatar–though, uniquely, an avatar that elected incarnation in the kali yuga–but he does so within a familiar Vedantic/Trinitarian context to what DBH writes about in, say, The Experience of God.

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    • DBH says:

      An avatara, of course, is not a deity or demigod, but an incarnation of the one transcendent God. So Hindus who regard Jesus as an avatara—Ramakrishna, Yogananda, etc.—already concede that Jesus is not one god among others. They are not inducting him into the pantheon; they are interpreting him in terms of Hindu monotheism (usually Vaishnava). The issue is whether he is one incarnation among others. That’s a different discussion, one that concerns the nature of history and myth, as well as degrees or modes of divine manifestation.

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      • davidarmstrong says:

        Which would mean that the real question for Christian theology, at least, is whether, in identifying Jesus as the ultimate avatar of God, there is room for any other avatars. But of course, ancient Israelite and Early Jewish texts already assume that there had been. That’s why the chrismation and coronation of the king in the Tanakh clearly identifies him as becoming an epiphanic, divine being attached to YHWH, and why Moses et al. are deified in the apocalypses, etc. Can we not apply the same logic to Rama and Krsna?

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        • rephinia says:

          Brahmabandhav Upadyay believed that other gods were avatars of Brahman whilst holding onto the incarnation of the Logos as Jesus. Tbh I don’t see a contradiction here.

          Perhaps some sort of ‘Trinitarian idealism’ would be helpful to work this out. If creation was made through the Logos, and if creation itself is incarnation, and all things are the manifestation of God (who is eternally manifest in his Image), I can begin to see how in Jesus the divine and human perfectly perfectly meet in one person, but all creation also participates in the Logos and has its being from him and some divine beings may be said to be an incarnation of Brahman (to a ‘lesser’ extent)

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          • DBH says:

            I am in agreement with the both of you.

            By the way, Jordan Wood’s forthcoming book on Maximus is apposite here.

            Liked by 1 person

          • davidarmstrong says:

            I’ll bring this up to him next time he comes over for beer; we discussed making a go of some Vedantic lit on our ride back from Great and Holy Friday service.

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      • rephinia says:

        DBH, when you refer to the nature of history and myth – are you referring to ideas similar to the ‘mundus imaginalis’?

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  2. DBH says:

    https://belurmath.org/holy-lives/swami-premananda/

    Definitely the original SP. Not Kumar.

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  3. DBH says:

    A splendid article, incidentally.

    Liked by 2 people

    • davidarmstrong says:

      Many thanks. I have a lifelong fascination with Yogananda, who was a more familiar entry point for me than the figures that you mention, amateur that I am in South Asian religion.

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      • DBH says:

        One note I would add is that it is not really an established tenet of Advaita Vedanta that Brahman Saguna is simply an appearance of Maya. Sometimes the Vedanta Society people talk that way. But I recommend the work of Anatanand Rambachan, who is very good at showing that even for Adi Shankaracharya Brahman Nirguna is not simply the “higher” truth of God.

        Liked by 1 person

        • davidarmstrong says:

          Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll never stop kicking myself for selling my Hinduism 300 textbooks for gas money one semester I was desperate to get home.

          That’s a helpful clarification. So if Brahman nirguna is not, for Sankara and Advaita, the “higher” truth of Brahman, two questions follow (and they are questions, not challenges, since I’m interested in learning about this): 1.) If the atman is part of Brahman saguna, then does Advaita envision some enduring manifestation of Brahman as the atman post-moksha? and 2.) What then is the real difference between Vishishtadvaita and Advaita?

          I hope those make sense; if not, veniam da mihi.

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          • DBH says:

            The distinction is not false. Advaita does characterize full union with God as nondual. But in a sense so does Visistadvaita.

            Read Rambachan. I don’t want to try to summarize the argument in a comment box.

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          • davidarmstrong says:

            Book obtained!

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          • davidarmstrong says:

            And book read! Thanks for the recommendation. I continue to not see the real distinction between Advaita and Vishishtadvaita, at least if I’m understanding correctly that the latter insists that atman continues to manifest (or at least be capable of manifesting) as the particular person even in the attainment of brahman through moksa. That also seems to be what Rambachan says in his chapter on Liberation, when he points out that for Sankara, Liberation does not involve the dissolution of the mind, just its cleansing of avidya.

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  4. A very interesting article!

    Two points:

    1) I’m unclear on how Origen reconciles universal salvation with the view of a temporal infinity of universes. How can it be that, no matter how far you go into the future, there will always be kosmoi full of beings who haven’t yet achieved union with God?

    The only possibilities seem to be:

    A) Periodic creation of *new* souls to start the journey to salvation ab initio. This is by far the most appealing to me, and is essentially the Nizari Ismaili and Baha’i view.

    B) An infinity of souls greater than the infinity of time. In other words, while it’s true that for *each* soul a point will come in the future (unimaginably distant though it may be) when it will gain salvation, no time will come when *all* souls will have gained salvation. This is the dominant Buddhist and Hindu view—but it seems to me hopeless on a deep level. There will never come a time when *all* the beings that currently exist in the cosmos will be freed from torment.

    2) Origen seems to have a strongly ‘karmic’ answer to the Problem of Evil: earthly suffering is caused by the sins of pre-existent souls, which are being ‘medicinally’ punished by incarnation, and is therefore actually a necessary step in their spiritual improvement.

    I’d be extremely curious to know how DBH regards this aspect of Origen’s thought, given its seeming incompatibility with his strong insistence on the absolute pointlessness and absurdity of earthly evil in “The Doors of the Sea”. The potentially ‘victim-blaming’ and anti-egalitarian implications of ‘karmic’ theories do seem to have been accepted by Origen at times—as when he argues that members of culturally-inferior ‘barbarian’ ethnic groups are being punished for sins committed in the pre-existent state.

    (The Buddhist concept of karma—which sees it as a pure ‘brute fact’ about reality, no more just or beneficent than the law of gravity—seems far less morally-dangerous than Origen’s account of it as reflecting the medicinal will of a loving God. For Buddhism, it’s unambiguously *good* to help alleviate the (amoral) karmic consequences of people’s actions, whereas on Origen’s account it seems like it might well thwart their spiritual progress.)

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    • Grant says:

      DBH hasn’t replied to this yet, and I certainly am to ignorant about much to the topic to give any opinion on the first point you raise (only a sense that of think that it would seem to me that neverending universes or one in which this lower world isn’t in some way taken up altogether cannot yeild something in which God is all in all, though I might be dislaying my lack of understanding again).

      On the second point, I would personally disagree with St Origen’s view on say people in barbarian cultures outside the then Roman Empire were born into it as a result of sins in pervious state (you could of course argue the opposite, being born in the Roman Empire might be the punishment 😉 ). And of extending that principle (say is someone born into poverty there for prior sins worse than say someone born into wealth, or some disablity and so and so on. Not likely what he was getting at, but some might wrongly elaborate in that manner, and suggest as you’ve said that it might thwart their spiritual process to help them, or to justify current societial injustices (for example, arguments that it was correct that Westerners kept slaves as they had a duty to educate them in the Christian life through harsh slavery, you could see certain self interests evily deploying such arguments).

      I would suggest first myself Christ instructs us to behave differently and denies any legitimacy to that kind of behaviour or attitude. We are to help those that are in need, those that are suffering, hungry, in prison, suffering, the poor and so on, to do so is to help Christ, to see and know Him, to not is to deny Him and to be as ‘children of the devil’. You can also think of the parable of Lazurus and the Rich Man which alongside others (and for example Christ’s healing of the blind man at the pool of Siloam which addresses a view similar to this, that it was his or his parents sins that left him blind, or Luke 13:4 of those 18 dying in the fall of the tower, also in Siloam, that they were not more sinful). Now true this doesn’t directly (apart from the blind man) address that possiblity of sins from a prior stage, but it strongly counters against either judging or withholding charity based upon someone’s condition. You could also put forward the Beatitudes, where it is the poor that are blessed to suggest if anything it’s the other way around.

      If it were to be thought the case, then I would say looking at things through the prism of Christ as presented in the Gospel, is that to help and show love and unity is to be a part of God’s salvation and healing of another (and yourself), and therefore whatever reason they would be in such a state, to help them is to be part of Christ’s means of rescue, aid, salvation and healing, that is a agent of His love (to be Christ to each other in fact). So I would guess even were it the case, that would suggest the opposite action.

      I would perhaps also say that the fall into this state was a coperate one that all that are humans did in unity (if what distinguishes us from demons is perhaps a lesser extent of fall into ignorance or perhaps more repentance, so we turn back from the full insanity, assuming we weren’t always meant to have distinctiveness), and then fell under the chaotic tyranny of this lower state of corruptable flesh and death. And this gives evil the pointlessness seen around us, the universe/state coperately realized and fallen into, in which while providing the environment in which we can find be and find salvation and that God and work and bring about our healing, it still is one which we are subjected to by the randomness of that terrible tyranny. Perhaps seeing and knowing that (and that might have been part of what we misguidedly though we wanted and so descended coperately to find and experience (and in which God’s salvation is present and works out). And it affects some more than others not because they deserve it or because of prior sins but because this is what was unleashed or the nature of the state we all found ourselves in.

      I suppose you can think of the stories of Israel’s exile, many of those who suffered most, young children for example, had nothing or much less to do with what the narrative presents as that reason. But as they narrative presents them coperately moving away from God, and placing themselves under rebel powers and ways and so exile themselves coperately, so they fell under the full effects of that power of war and imperial power (and the random cruelty that is a part of it).

      Of course, that doesn’t really address things from a more Origenian or Buddist or Hindu perspective, or in that kind of language. But I would be just to out of my depth to even begin to attempt to answer in that kind of way, for me, these kind of articles are usually where I just sit back and listen and attempt to learn. But since no one else had said anything yet I thought I would give my very inadequate sense of an answer to the second question.

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      • brian says:

        Grant, I don’t think Origen contemplates that kind of “preexistent soul” at all. Behr’s introduction to his recent translation of First Principles is helpful on this point. The “preexistent” is the transcendent eschatological, so if you want to use temporal terms which are inevitably paradoxical in this context, the “end” is the founding origin.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Right. Also see Ramelli’s “Preexistence of Souls?.”

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        • Grant says:

          That may well be true Brian (I don’t really know enough personally so if Behr and Ramelli say so I’ll believe them on that point 🙂 ), but it’s rather trying answer the point pelagiavenatrix was making in his second point regarding our lives and state now in relation to possible pre-existing sins for another aneon, world, sphere or what have you and the fall of our form and body in that manner into the lower corruptable manner now (and in line with pelagiavenatrix reference to St Origen’s view concerning those born among ‘babarian’ peoples, assuming this is geninue to him).

          That’s pretty much what I’m responding to, to that view howver the body and person falls into the current state, and whether St Origen really taught any idea like that at all.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. David says:

    Thanks for this wonderful article.

    I have a few questions for anyone who will indulge me.

    Now this article identifies a number of closer-than-expected convergences between Christianity and ‘Eastern’ religions with respect to the future eschatological state. But does this rapprochement extend to the manner in which this eschatological state is acquired? For example, in DBH’s lovely musings that Swami Ramalingam may have experienced “full bodily transfiguration and divinization in this life” – perhaps I am misreading, but I am taking that to mean that the good gentleman was more or less perfected and transfigured into something like Jesus’ resurrection ‘body’ in this life.

    Now, I certainly believe that non-Christians can (indeed, if God is God, must) be ‘saved’, but I have tended to think that, while many might be on the ‘path to salvation’ in this life, in order to become fully sanctified and capable of eschatological perfection a soul will also find itself in need of at least some explicit awareness of Jesus as the ultimate incarnation of God. I guess I hold this belief because it seems to me that Jesus does not save persons through some purely extrinsic means – e.g. righting the scales of justice, allowing God to take a different view of our sins, or even by redeeming abstract human nature ‘in principle’ – but instead achieves this by some concrete revelation of the nature of God to each individual soul. Salvation is revelation, and revelation is incarnation.

    If that’s right, is it possible to hold that non-Christians have approached such perfected states? Do we have to say that, while non-Christians may experience some pretty cool things and various bodily/spiritual transformations, it is not possible to consider them to have become literally fully sanctified and perfected beings before some kind of explicit encounter with Christ? OR can we hold instead that they can indeed become fully sanctified though some kind of subliminal and implicit experience of Jesus instead?

    And on the related subject of ‘lesser’ incarnations, it is unclear to me whether these are conceived to occurs gradually and as a result of a particular soul happening to choose to deploy his or her deliberate liberty in a way conducive to the good over time – such that they are gradually perfected but who could in principle have failed to achieve this state on earth – or alternatively are such avatars the result only of God ‘imposing’ such a status on the soul from its conception that preserved it entirely from all tendency to sin? i.e. would Mary be such an avatar?

    Finally, whether or not there are such lesser ‘avatars’, is there also room for multiple ‘ultimate’ avatars, i.e. multiple ‘personalities’ spread out across space and time which are literally identical with the one unique hypostasis of the Son? If that’s not possible, then if there really are literally infinite worlds (whether conceived to come into being over an infinite of time, or to exist ‘now’ in a kind of spatially infinite Epicurean multiverse), doesn’t that make the scandal of the particularity of the incarnation more of a problem? i.e. on this view, Earth must have won the 1 in infinity jackpot of hosting the actual ‘ultimate’ incarnation, while literally an infinity of beings never encounter this ultimate incarnation in their ‘earthly’ (sorry, Martian, Venusian, Parallel Universe 18938ian, etc.) lives and only encounter ‘lesser’ incarnations or none at all.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “if there really are literally infinite worlds (whether conceived to come into being over an infinite of time, or to exist ‘now’ in a kind of spatially infinite Epicurean multiverse), doesn’t that make the scandal of the particularity of the incarnation more of a problem?”

      It doesn’t make it more of a problem; it just makes it more scandalous (and I’m all for theological scandal). 😎

      In any case, given my understanding of the Trinity, I do not know how we can even speak of multiple incarnations. Do we begin our reflection with a logos asarkos (and then try to figure out how to unite this entity with Jesus) or with Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, whom the Church confesses as the Second Person of the Trinity (and then try to figure out how this man can be the Creator of the cosmos). Following Robert Jenson (and Herbert McCabe, as it turns out), I choose the latter.

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    • Grant says:

      I would imagine that it is exactly that they do know Christ, who by being incarnated in the particular is also therby incarnated throughout humanity and the Cosmos (the new Adam, being all humanity, Christ in His fullness is present in His Body, which will be all humanity and creation, think also the Eucharist), the Logos creates and is incarnated throughout creation, into all aeons and all realms. As it was put above by Yogananda: ‘Any true devotee can see him as Jesus Christ or know him as one with the Infinite Christ.’ Which could be to say one and the same, as Jew Jesus of Nazereth which is the Logos incarnated He is at the same time incarnated throughout creation and therefore is present to all and can be encountered by all. The OT avatars like Moses say are at least in Scripture avatars of Christ Himself, where he is present, the same would be the case here, I would think it is exactly that say Swami Ramalingam did know Christ, just like say the saints know Him. Sure fuller understanding awaits but that remains true for Christians too, we don’t really know what we proclaim, only through a glass darkly, when we see in full and as He is, in a real sense such categories will be get transcended and surpassed.

      Take for example a favourite Gospel qoute of many a evangelical, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.’ You can take this in a very restrictive sense (as many such do) or you can understand it in fully embracing sense, all who show the nature of Christ and follow Him, turning to the Him as the Life, and following the Way under whatever way they see in His incarnation transending all time, space and creation and revealed and understood in each distinct aspect, that if they are following Him (and being illumiated, freed from death) then they are by definition following Him. And of course, we ourselves will know more of Christ through knowing them, so they do know Christ. This has implications for evanglization, to illuminate Christ within someone’s culture and tradition (and be illumiated in term) to emphasis dialogue and service and love (as knowing) over domination, to see true conversion in them and ourselves (over seeing them necessarily tick a box to say they are Christians) rather to encourage the fruit and life of Christ and the victory over death. As He told us, He has many sheep in other folds that He is gathering.

      I always think that a good example in relating to Far Eastern Traditions that we could do well to learn from how the the Assayrian Church of the East (the one St Issac was a member of) related to the traditions they knew and encountered, from what I do know it shows very interesting intergration and dialogue with the traditions dominant in the than during the Tang Dynasty, particularly their expression of the Gospel, and their monuments showing incoperation of Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian thought and expression (gravestones that show mixtures of Christian and Buddhist thought).

      https://wiki2.org/en/Jesus_Sutras

      https://wiki2.org/en/Xi%27an_Stele

      A useful part of the Church to learn from at least I feel.

      Probably not the most comprehensive answer to you David, hopefully someone like well either other Davids 🙂 , there are allot Davids around here 🙂 can give better answers).

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      • Grant says:

        This view to me does not dimish the Eucharist say or Baptism for me, rather it makes such mysteries much more essential as one key duty of Christians is that we offer this not just on behalf of ourselves, but in fact for all that we are connected to, and all we conntected to in Christ. All are saved through the Church (again another point that can be understood either restrictively or inclusively), that all creation is brought before the Eucharist offering, that we are priests and kings (and so the vital importance of Baptism to partake and offer the Eucharist) for all our brothers and sisters. Taking the protrait of ancient Israel in the OT, we the Levites I guess, doesn’t make us better, in fact they were often the worst, but had a essential duty to play in which all are being drawn and participating in Christ.

        I also in this view don’t think it gives anything about the uniqueness of the Anointed, but rather sees just how fundemental that is, that He trully is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that none come to the Father but through Him.

        Anyway these are speculations I’ve had for a while (which given my lack of understanding on many other traditions might be a bit arrogant I realise but there it is). Hopefully DBH and David Armstrong (or anyone else, this site has allot of very well read and intelligent scholars and people who post here) have more indepth thoughts on these matters.

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    • David says:

      Haha. I too love a good theological scandal, and I certainly wouldn’t hold that multiple incarnations are necessary for all rational beings to be saved – whether human or Martian, a rational nature is a rational nature after all!

      However it does still strike me as a little implausible (if not literally impossible) to hold that we of all worlds just happened to end up with the incarnate one. Not a fatal problem but for me it does suggest that it’s likely that either the number of rational beings is finite, or that multiple ‘full’ incarnations are indeed possible and occur.

      I tend to agree with you that there are a lot of problems with the idea of multiple incarnations, although I’m not certain that they are completely insurmountable and I also wouldn’t hold that believing in their possibility requires a retreat to an unknown God behind the back of Jesus. This is because I think that a ‘second iincarnation’ – precisely because it would by definition be the self-same identical person as Jesus – would not be an unpredictable manifestation of some independent logos asarkos, but rather would just be another episode in the life of the one Jesus, consistent and in continuity with his earthly life. Maybe it would be better to think of multiple ‘incarnations’ as just one single ‘trans-temporal’ or ‘trans-somatic’ incarnation – multiple bodies and even ‘personalities’ but just one person as the metaphysical/hypostatical level. So if Jesus also lived as a little green man, that doesn’t invalidate the particularity of Jesus’ mission on Earth, it just means he also did some other cool stuff – albeit in another life or mode of existence – that we don’t know the details of. And don’t we recognise that already? That is, we have no idea what Jesus was up to as a twenty-year-old, or while working late in the carpenter’s studio, or while going through adolescence – or indeed all the details of his post-ascension life – but recognising that such events must have occurred (and still occur) does not constitute a return to the logos asarkos, but rather just marks the recognition that there is more to the person of Jesus than the words of the Gospel narratives.

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      • Grant says:

        In terms of our world, I think it might seem that way, though of course it also seems improbable that God should choose a small group of people seemingly insignifcant compared to the greater nations and empires to work through but they were and are His Chosen people, the Jews, to whom the Logos is incarnated in His particularity as Jesus of Nazareth (then a small, conquered peoplem and Jesus to a peasant family of no regard, choosing as His messagers fisherman, tax-collectors, the small and lowly). He seems to favour the small, the lowly, the dispossed and the sinners and lost to work His glory. So perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s within one of the more lowly worlds, that He should make the centre of His salvation work.

        But if I’m grasping what is said above then He transcends the different states in light of say ‘That is, the liberated Self has every ability to manifest in whatever reality it desires; in becoming one with God through realization of its unity with God, its “personal” or “individual” qualities have not ceased to be vehicles of divine grace.’ that Christ is indeed in His very particularly at once trans-temporal, trans-aeonal, trans-somatic, present throughout all creation and time (so as you say, even in our own aeon and reality, if there are other mortal alien life with bodies like ours, He would undoubtably be present in persumably many and diverse manners) and so certainly within the many and varied traditions we humans percieve.

        Anyway, I think that second concept is something of what I’m getting from the above, but not sure if I’m reading it correctly.

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        • Wow, a lot to think about.

          I think the question of multiple incarnations needs to be separated into at least two categories.

          1. Could God become incarnate as A HUMAN BEING ON EARTH multiple times through multiple people?

          2. Could God become incarnate on a different planet or universe to save an alien race?

          For the first one, I think the answer needs to be no. But! It’s important to understand that at least from the authors I have read (Keith Ward and Christine Mangala Frost), the Hindu understanding of incarnation is closest to docetism. This a different question then. Could God not be incarnate on earth multiple times in an orthodox sense of being truly human and divine? No, because this would seem to screw up the purpose of the incarnation which is to heal ALL OF HUMAN NATURE, and through humanity, the world. An extra incarnation would be superfluous. However, could God manifest himself in a docetic sense multiple times? Perhaps. This would be more like a theophany. So if we see the Hindu incarnations more as prophets or types or manifestations of God, this doesn’t seem to contradict orthodox dogma.

          What about the second question? Could God become incarnate to save, say, Klingon nature?

          I’ve seen C.S. Lewis and Karl Rahner listed as a “yes” to this question. Robin Collins has an in-depth “yes” article on this I’ve been meaning to read. Apparently, he says multiple incarnations on other planets are compatible with all traditional Christologies but a radically kenotic one. I lean towards a yes to this question as well. But I still have major questions.

          Thoughts?

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          • DBH says:

            Please, for God’s sake, don’t get your understanding of “Hinduism” from Keith Ward.

            As for Christine Mangala Frost, I have no idea who that is.

            Liked by 1 person

          • David says:

            I have often wondered whether docetic accounts of the incarnation – or indeed some of the more bare-bones Spirit Christologies – are functionally reducible to the doctrine of the immaculate conception, i.e. what you get is a human vessel that unfailingly manifests the divine glory but without being hypostatically identical to the divine.

            So in this sense we might hold that Mary is a secondary avatar of God – and if there can be one, why not more?

            One problem that I can see here (and also with Mariology in general really) is one of theodicy – if God can infallibly bring Mary into alignment with his will from the very first moment of her being, let alone do the same for a bunch of other avatars, why not do so for all souls?

            If there is an answer to this I’d guess that it is a good thing that all souls have different personalities, experiences, historical circumstances, etc. – and it just so happens that only a very, very limited number of personalities are capable of being infallibly preserved from sin, and that even then certain historical experiences are necessary such a secondary incarnation from going off the rails as it were and falling from proto-perfection into sin – hence why only Mary and perhaps a few others may have been infallibly preserved from sin.

            On top of such ‘infallibly guaranteed secondary incarnations’ there may be many others who, while not being infallibly preserved from sin and not attaining literal moral perfection in this life, nevertheless cooperate with the divine will to such a strong extent that they manage to progress considerably down the path of sanctification to the point of manifesting the divine glory to a significant degree.

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          • David, just based on what I’ve read around the shop (particularly from Robert Jenson), Mary’s sinlessless was not a miraculous intervention on the part of God, rather, it was the culimination of Israel’s obedience. God chose Israel, for the purpose of producing Mary. Mary’s sinlessness was actually the result of a long historical process. I’m not sure exactly how the metaphysics of it all works, but presumably the “karma” or “original and actual sin” had been communally “extinguished” or “expiated” in Mary’s parents by the time that they got to the point of conceiving her, and therefore she was born without original sin, and synergistically/freely maintained sinlessness that for her entire life, thus making her the perfect vessel to bring jesus himself into the world.

            Mary’s sinlessness was not some strange miraculous intervention on God’s part: it was also very much a cummulative and progressive achievement of humanity, with a particular focus in the nation of Israel, and with an even more finegrained focus on the geneology of Mary. Those geneologies of Jesus in the gospels are literally salvation histories: Mary and Jesus could not have been the sinless Woman and Man that they were apart from the collective purifications and penances of their ancestors.

            In short, the immaculate conception was just as much the human achievement and victory of “humankind in the nation of Israel and through the family of Mary” as it was a miracle of God. So asking “if God could make mary free of sin, why doesn’t he just do it to everyone?” turns out to be sort of a silly question. People are only free of sin if they choose not to sin. For God to “miraculously” produce a single sinless baby required an entire chosen people (Israel) with a long and bloody history.

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    • David (not DBH),

      As far as Hindu saints doing the same things as Christian saints, in his chapter of a book on Eastern Christian comparison with Sufism, Kallistos Ware speaks of a “universalist” way of understanding the Logos, which is the light that “enlightens everyone who comes into the world,” but also the Christian particular way of understanding the Logos as fully present through the sacraments like baptism, etc. So perhaps one way of thinking of Hindu holy men (which is of course particularist) is that their holiness was so great that through the grace God gave them in their own religion, they far surpassed a level of theosis I could ever hope to reach in this life. However, by entering into The Church, they would have simply been given them MORE GRACE.

      On the subject of Hindu holy men, Christine Mangala Frost places the Hindu holy man Ramana Mararshi on the list of persons on par with Orthodox saints mostly because he didn’t practice his Advaitic Hinduism consistently and talked and behaved like a theist.

      She also tentatively identifies “the light” experienced in THEISTIC meditational Yoga with “the light” of “the purified nous,” perhaps with the Taboric light? However, she sees Tantric yoga as possibly opening the person up to “forces that a Christian might identify as demonic.” I’ve found her study incredibly helpful. https://www.amazon.com/Human-Icon-Comparative-Orthodox-Christian/dp/0227176359

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      • By David, I meant the “David” in the comments section up there, not DBH. But DBH, I did link to Frost’s book above.

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        • DBH says:

          Thanks. For the record, I object to the distinction between Advaitic and “Theistic” devotion. It is an opposition that misrepresents both Advaita and Bhakti. (And even Sankara was apparently a practicing Vaisnav.)

          Liked by 2 people

  6. John H says:

    This article, particularly Roland’s comments, brought to mind the following verse:

    Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
    Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
    And the green freedom of a cockatoo
    Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
    The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
    She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
    Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
    As a calm darkens among water-lights.
    The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
    Seem things in some procession of the dead,
    Winding across wide water, without sound.
    The day is like wide water, without sound,
    Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
    Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
    Dominion of the blood and sepulchre….

    She hears, upon that water without sound,
    A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
    Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
    It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”

    When “Sunday Morning” was first published in 1915, Wallace Stevens probably considered it to be both an unequivocal denial of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and an affirmation of his own pagan values. However, if indeed the glorified body of the risen Christ is more or less equivalent to the Samboghakaya, than the continued presence of Jesus’ bones within the tomb in Palestine is certainly no refutation of his “physical” resurrection. If a team of archeologists discovered Christ’s sepulcher with his remains buried therein, it would do nothing to attenuate my faith in His resurrection.

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  7. “That is to say, the nature of Origen’s resurrection body not only sidesteps the necessity of a historical parousia, but actually actively undermines it…”

    Why? What do you mean by historical? Why couldn’t we have both? I know of one Orthodox priest who thought that the appearances of some deceased saints are actually the saints appearing in their resurrection body, not as a disembodied soul. I would guess Fr Behr would probably take this position as would Dr. Peter Bouteneff. This would simply mean that for the departed saints, they already live in the eschaton, and the resurrection has already occurred for them. Unlike Jesus however, they could stare their at their corpse in the grave since for us, their resurrection is still to come. This may be what Origen is thinking of when he says that resurrection follows after death. As long as the B theory of time is presupposed, which Fr Behr certainly seems to presuppose in his understanding of prophecy, this would be compatible with a universal Parousia at the end of time which seems to be what the Nicene creed is talking about when it says “he shall come again in Glory to judge the living and the dead.” This could also mean that the “pre-incarnate” theophanies of Christ in the OT would not be “pre-incarnate” at all since Christ would already be crucified and resurrected. Maybe I’m not understanding what you mean by “historical.” Didn’t Bulgakov call the Parousia meta-historical sort of like his understanding of the fall? That sounds right.

    All that being said, I think the discussion of resurrection bodies makes a lot of sense here. I see no reason to think the resurrection body is a static entity that couldn’t undergo continuous changes as it moves perpetually forward in epektasis. There seems to be a genuine similarity here.

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  8. JBG says:

    This is a fantastic article and has whetted my appetite for DBH’s latest book.

    The mutual deepening engendered by a dialogical approach between East (Asian) and West (Abrahamic faiths) is profoundly encouraging and endlessly fascinating. It would seem like these parallels and correspondences can only be denied by someone possessing only a superficial acquaintance with other traditions.

    This makes the tendentious writings of someone like Seraphim Rose all the more confounding. Here was an individual that studied eastern religion at American Academy of Asian Studies and at Berkeley (with a focus on Taoism) under the scholar Gi-ming Shien. After his conversion to Orthodoxy, he would go on to become a zealous detractor of Asian teachings, fiercely opposed ecumenicism, and warned about the growing profusion of these beliefs into the Christian west—referring to Asian belief systems demonic “deceptions” and synonymous with “witchcraft”.

    He wrote that the “Bhagavad Gita…is the spiritual manual or ‘Bible’ of all Hindus, and one of the foundation blocks of monism or Advaita Vedanta. The Gita, it must be remembered, opposes almost every important teaching of Christianity.”

    This is just incredibly strange. Within religion, it seems that fundamentalism and exclusivism are the most pervasive and tenacious stumbling blocks, even with those that should know better. This hubristic and flagrantly ignorant conviction that other religions constitute a perilous “deception” leading to one’s doom is, ironically, probably the foremost deception to which religious believers are vulnerable.

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    • I tend to agree with everything you write here, but I do wonder if you would go so far as to apply the logic even to explicit Satanism? (Personally, I would, but very very very cautiously)

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      • JBG says:

        Good question.

        The founder of the church of satan, Anton Lavey, conceded that he was greatly inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand. In fact, some have remarked that his “satanic bible” was directly plagiarized from her writings.

        Rand’s objectivism (a philosophy of absolute selfishness) is openly praised as the preeminent guiding ideology of American Republicanism/Libertarianism and free-market capitalism. Thus, the philosophy that undergirds the politico-economic system so ardently embraced by conservative evangelical Christians is the same philosophy that undergirds modern satanism.

        So, the answer is yes. I am opposed to this worldview but I do not hold that it will be the eternal destruction of its adherents.

        Even conservative evangelical Christians will be saved….eventually.

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        • Grant says:

          Well as advocates repeating neo-liberalism (and admitting it’s essentially spiritual and scaramental nature upfront) and opening declaring and embracing it’s anti-Christ and anti-human (and anti-creation) nature they at least get points for honesty that seems lacking with those of the American religious right who have embraced it, there and where they have imported it (leading to likely impeding neo-Feudalism, if we are not already in the beginnings of that). In that way they also have that honesty over their more secular neo-liberal and Randian fellows, at least as Satanists their upfront about what their about and for, and that they aren’t claiming to follow Christ at all.

          Though I have to admit, calling yourself a Satanist always seemed silly to me, like someone stuck in their edgy teenage rebellion stage and out to shock (and then try to dress it up as a well thought through belief system, then one dependent on Christianity being around to have the shock value of the name, and sometimes the practices). I just can’t really take it seriously (similar in my mind to people claiming to be vampires, but perhaps I’m being unfair and not familiar enough with it, but if it’s plagiarized Rand I doubt I’m that off the mark ;)).

          But as I said, they are perhaps the most honest of that ideology (with themselves and others).

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          • JBG,

            I firmly reject Rose’s YECism, his anti-ecumenism, and his theology of pentecostalism as far too black and white (though he does point out some scary trends in the denomination).

            That being said, I’ve been told by people far to the left of myself that his follower’s book Christ the Eternal Tao is actually very good and it doesn’t sound anti-Taoist at all. Never read it myself.

            As a sidenote, my position is that if the Orthodox Church actually ever decides to canonize Fr Seraphim, then Fr Sergius Bulgakov should be canonized right alongside him. Do two controversial guys at once. Bulgakov was the one, after-all, who was seen to have the uncreated light shining from his face on his deathbed.

            Liked by 1 person

          • JBG says:

            Thanks Mark. I’ll take a look.

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          • arthurjaco says:

            The Uncreated Light shone on Fr Bulgakov’s face while he was dying?

            I’m not saying that this never happened, don’t get me wrong – I love Bulgakov so I would love it to be true – but how many people (and who exactly) attested to that and how reliable were these eyewitnesses, if anyone knows?

            Also, does the Uncreated Light ever manifest itself on “heterodox” (I don’t know whether that term is pejorative, I hope it isn’t) Christians as well?

            Thanks a lot in advance, God bless.

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          • DBH says:

            How could it not be true?

            Liked by 3 people

          • arthurjaco says:

            Very intriguing, quite interesting…
            Maybe there’s something to the story of Abba Macarius’ shining face after all, who knows…

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  9. John Carr says:

    One of my neighbors is a devotee of Yogananda and has a room-sized shrine dedicated to him. I had no idea there might be such points of contact between his teachings and those of someone like Origen. Many thanks to both of the Davids for opening my mind to the riches of Hindu-Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

    An observation on the question of divine avatara: it seems to me that Chalcedonian Christology, precisely by denying that Christ was a human hypostasis, opens up the possibility of his appearance in many forms. John’s Gospel tells us that “he was in the cosmos” which of course can be taken to apply only to his earthly sojourn in Palestine; but the first chapter as a whole resists such a restricted interpretation, and the early fathers did not interpret it this way. “It was the true light, which illuminates everyone.” The incarnation is a special mode of personal presence: “the logos was made flesh and encamped among us”; but one which does not rule out other modes of presence in other times and places. In orthodox theology this is usually taken for granted as true for the Old Testament theophanies, but what is the warrant for restricting it only to these particular times and places?

    Through your incredible work, Dr Hart, I am coming to see that Christian exclusivism (like infernalism), far from being an orthodox position, likely involves one in Christological heresy. I hope that in time to come more will see that a greater openness to other forms of divine presence and inspiration, across human history and culture, is actually an imperative of orthodoxy, too long resisted.

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  10. JBG says:

    Of course, we must not ignore the phenomenon of resurrection in Tibetan Buddhism:

    Rainbow Body and Resurrection: Spiritual Attainment, the Dissolution of the Material Body, and the Case of Khenpo A Chö

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