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Origen - from Chile to England

At the University of Reading, ESRs Ilaria and Sara as well as other lucky PhD fellows were treated with a three-day full immersion into Origen, when Professor Samuel Fernández from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile came to visit in mid-February. Sara Contini has shared her experiences with us in this report.

2018.03.22 | Birgitte Bøgh

A Chilean Origenist in Reading

Professor Fernández is a devoted Origenist – who, moreover, speaks perfect Italian, since he got his Th.M. and Ph.D. in my hometown, Rome – and we greatly benefited from his expertise in matters of Trinitarian theology and anthropology.

He arrived in Reading on Tuesday, February 13, just in time for lunch. Ilaria and I did not waste a single second and as soon as we sat down at the diner located in one of the most beautiful buildings on campus, Palmer House, we launched our large-scale attack: “How do you understand the relationship between freedom and communion?”; “What about Origen’s use of Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians?”; “Should I get the chicken or the meat pie?”.

But, alas, time flies when you are having fun, and soon enough it was time for Professor Fernández’ first lesson, which took us through Origen’s systematic treatise, De Principiis (written in Alexandria in the second decade of the 3rd century), with a specific focus on Christ’s soul and his humanity. This topic is extremely relevant to our research, as according to Origen it is through his soul – identical in nature to ours but, thanks to free will, uniquely united with the divine Logos – that Christ fulfils the role of Saviour by leading us to the communion with God, which, in Origen’s thought, is the highest dignity and freedom for humans.

Until the creation returns in joy to its creator, we must find beatitude where we can: for that night, some PhDs students, including us, our supervisor Professor Pollmann and Professor Fernández, decided that the Indian restaurant close to campus was a good place to start.

The next day, Professor Fernández gave another very interesting lecture, complementary to the previous one: he provided us with an overview of the history of the text of De Principiis, in itself an important piece of reception. He argued that the very first witnesses of the text – the Philocalia, a Greek anthology of extracts from Origen’s works collated by the Cappadocian Fathers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus in 358; the Latin translation by Rufinus of Aquileia in 399 and the contemporary discussion of the text in Jerome, culminating in his Epistle 124 to Avitus (410) – show a tendency to approach Origen’s controversial treatise trough the lens of the specific doctrinal views and objectives held by whoever read the text, a tendency that is confirmed by subsequent witnesses of De Principiis, such as the Emperor Justinian’s Epistle to Mena (553).

After a quick snack on campus, Professor Fernández soldiered through a solid three hours of further questioning, carried out by Ilaria and me: I must say that they were worth every minute, as the insight I received was invaluable for my research. With Ilaria, Professor Fernández discussed mostly the difference between freedom and free will and with me the notion of subjection as the “crowning glory” of our being. But what we appreciated perhaps the most about these conversations was that, as our topics complement each other, we were able to have a very productive debate. It emerged from these encounters (including the one we had the next morning on campus before Professor Fernández left) that our project topics were not a series of questions and answers on two marginally related subjects, but rather deep and far-ranging analysis of a core aspect of Origen’s theology.

At the end of the second day of Professor Fernández’ visit, February 14<font size="2">th</font>, we all deserved some rest and a good dinner. But then we were faced with a challenge and a rather unexpected one for people looking to have dinner at the very Catholic hour of 8:30 pm in the UK, and on a Wednesday night, no less. Caught in this Origenian whirlwind, we forgot all about that pesky “Valentine” thing, thus perfectly falling into the stereotype of the distracted scholar who has no time for such non-sense as commercial holidays. Apparently, it is customary for the outside world to celebrate St Valentine’s Day by going out for dinner, as I discovered by the time I called in vain the seventh fully booked restaurant.

Luckily, in the end, we managed to book a table for four in an English restaurant in the center of the city, but as soon as we entered the room, we realized that we were manifestly out of place, as the entirety of the clientele besides us consisted of couples celebrating their love. Surprisingly (or maybe not!) we found out that the dim light of the candles, the enticing, soft-spoken ballads, the sweet nothings whispered by hand-holding, tenderly-gazing lovebirds, do encourage vigorous discussions on the pre-existence of the souls. And the fish pie was top-notch.

Sara Contini

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Revised 18.05.2018