Was Origen the Caitlyn Jenner of the Transabled?
I’m afraid I’m going to re-enter the fray. Rod Dreher has a piece today wondering whether the next step in our cultural development (or decline) will be the normalization of trans-ablism – that is, the normalization of people who deliberately make themselves (or have themselves made) disabled. If, after all, people who suffer from gender dysphoria have the right to address that psychic hurt through gender-reassignment surgery – nay, should be applauded for having the courage to do so – then why shouldn’t people who suffer from a profound sense of alienation from one of their limbs have the right to lop it off?
It’s not at all a ridiculous question. It is indeed difficult, if you start from the (true) proposition that such people are suffering from great psychic distress, and proceed to the (more debatable) proposition that absent strong evidence to the contrary we should assume that people know what is best for themselves, to conclude that self-mutilation is self-evidently wrong in all cases.
The only thing I find strange is the assumption that there’s something profoundly un-Christian about self mutilation. After all:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
That’s Matthew 5:29-30, in the King James version.
But of course, Jesus was speaking metaphorically. Nobody would ever have actually done such a foolish thing as to mutilate himself for the sake of salvation.
1. At this time while Origen was conducting catechetical instruction at Alexandria, a deed was done by him which evidenced an immature and youthful mind, but at the same time gave the highest proof of faith and continence. For he took the words,There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,Matthew 19:12 in too literal and extreme a sense. And in order to fulfill the Saviour’s word, and at the same time to take away from the unbelievers all opportunity for scandal,— for, although young, he met for the study of divine things with women as well as men,— he carried out in action the word of the Saviour.
2. He thought that this would not be known by many of his acquaintances. But it was impossible for him, though desiring to do so, to keep such an action secret.
3. When Demetrius, who presided over that parish, at last learned of this, he admired greatly the daring nature of the act, and as he perceived his zeal and the genuineness of his faith, he immediately exhorted him to courage, and urged him the more to continue his work of catechetical instruction.
4. Such was he at that time. But soon afterward, seeing that he was prospering, and becoming great and distinguished among all men, the same Demetrius, overcome by human weakness, wrote of his deed as most foolish to the bishops throughout the world. But the bishops of Cesareaand Jerusalem, who were especially notable and distinguished among the bishops of Palestine, considering Origen worthy in the highest degree of the honor, ordained him a presbyter.
That’s from Eusebius, talking about Origen Adamantus, an important 3rd-century theologian. But of course, this was in the early days of the church, and Origen’s self-castration (and other errors) were subsequently rejected. Indeed, Origen was never canonized because of those errors. Now that those errors have been corrected, it’s impossible that anyone could see self-mutilation in a godly light.
‘Listen! Help me! I don’t know what is the matter with me. Oh!
Oh!’ She unfastened her dress, exposing her breast, and lifted
her arms, bare to the elbow. ‘Oh! Oh!’
All this time he stood on the other side of the partition and
prayed. Having finished all the evening prayers, he now stood
motionless, his eyes looking at the end of his nose, and mentally
repeated with all his soul: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have
mercy upon me!’
But he had heard everything. He had heard how the silk rustled
when she took off her dress, how she stepped with bare feet on
the floor, and had heard how she rubbed her feet with her hand.
He felt his own weakness, and that he might be lost at any
moment. That was why he prayed unceasingly. He felt rather as
the hero in the fairy-tale must have felt when he had to go on
and on without looking round. So Sergius heard and felt that
danger and destruction were there, hovering above and around him,
and that he could only save himself by not looking in that
direction for an instant. But suddenly the desire to look seized
him. At the same instant she said:
‘This is inhuman. I may die. . . .’
‘Yes, I will go to her, but like the Saint who laid one hand on
the adulteress and thrust his other into the brazier. But there
is no brazier here.’ He looked round. The lamp! He put his
finger over the flame and frowned, preparing himself to suffer.
And for a rather long time, as it seemed to him, there was no
sensation, but suddenly–he had not yet decided whether it was
painful enough–he writhed all over, jerked his hand away, and
waved it in the air. ‘No, I can’t stand that!’
‘For God’s sake come to me! I am dying! Oh!’
‘Well–shall I perish? No, not so!’
‘I will come to you directly,’ he said, and having opened his
door, he went without looking at her through the cell into the
porch where he used to chop wood. There he felt for the block
and for an axe which leant against the wall.
‘Immediately!’ he said, and taking up the axe with his right hand
he laid the forefinger of his left hand on the block, swung the
axe, and struck with it below the second joint. The finger flew
off more lightly than a stick of similar thickness, and bounding
up, turned over on the edge of the block and then fell to the
He heard it fall before he felt any pain, but before he had time
to be surprised he felt a burning pain and the warmth of flowing
blood. He hastily wrapped the stump in the skirt of his cassock,
and pressing it to his hip went back into the room, and standing
in front of the woman, lowered his eyes and asked in a low voice:
‘What do you want?’
She looked at his pale face and his quivering left cheek, and
suddenly felt ashamed. She jumped up, seized her fur cloak, and
throwing it round her shoulders, wrapped herself up in it.
‘I was in pain . . . I have caught cold . . . I . . . Father
Sergius . . . I . . .’
He let his eyes, shining with a quiet light of joy, rest upon
her, and said:
‘Dear sister, why did you wish to ruin your immortal soul?
Temptations must come into the world, but woe to him by whom
temptation comes. Pray that God may forgive us!’
She listened and looked at him. Suddenly she heard the sound of
something dripping. She looked down and saw that blood was
flowing from his hand and down his cassock.
‘What have you done to your hand?’ She remembered the sound she
had heard, and seizing the little lamp ran out into the porch.
There on the floor she saw the bloody finger. She returned with
her face paler than his and was about to speak to him, but he
silently passed into the back cell and fastened the door.
‘Forgive me!’ she said. ‘How can I atone for my sin?’
‘Let me tie up your hand.’
‘Go away from here.’
She dressed hurriedly and silently, and when ready sat waiting in
her furs. The sledge-bells were heard outside.
‘Father Sergius, forgive me!’
‘Go away. God will forgive.’
‘Father Sergius! I will change my life. Do not forsake me!’
‘Forgive me–and give me your blessing!’
‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy
Ghost!’–she heard his voice from behind the partition. ‘Go!’
She burst into sobs and left the cell. The lawyer came forward
to meet her.
‘Well, I see I have lost the bet. It can’t be helped. Where will
‘It is all the same to me.’
She took a seat in the sledge, and did not utter a word all the
A year later she entered a convent as a novice, and lived a
strict life under the direction of the hermit Arseny, who wrote
letters to her at long intervals.
That’s from Tolstoy’s haunting novella, Father Sergius, written in 1890.
Now, again, this isn’t the end of the story – Tolstoy ultimately leads us to the conclusion that Father Sergius was mistaken in thinking he could solve the problem of temptation by cutting off his finger in a moment of crisis. But that’s part of a larger argument Tolstoy is making that asceticism is just another form of self-involvement, while true Christianity consists in an achieved emptying out of self, leaving only a love of God expressed through a love of other people.
Which doesn’t undermine my fundamental point at all – it may strengthen it. It is perfectly possible within the context of a Christian worldview to conclude that self-castration and cutting off fingers – actions Dreher finds diabolical in a secular context – are reasonable ways to achieve harmony between soul and body – harmony between signifier and signified being the characteristic of “symbolic” relationships according to Dreher, in contrast to “diabolical” ones (and I note that such harmony is precisely the goal of those Dreher diabolizes). I wouldn’t expect many Christians to go there, of course. But I wouldn’t expect many secularists to castrate themselves or cut off their arms either!
Meanwhile, within the context of a modern secular worldview, it’s perfectly possible to conclude that self-mutilation is harmful, full-stop. All you need is some theory of mental health and the willingness to defend it in the face of individuals saying that they know what is best for themselves. Which we do all the time: addiction is a concept that secular people can understand; manic-depression and schizophrenia are concepts that secular people can understand; etc. It is entirely plausible to me that in a generation we’ll have a different view of gender dysphoria than we do today – or that we’ll have a very similar view. Predicting the fitful progress of science and medicine is a mug’s game. All I will say is that it’s hard for me to believe that the best way to advance science or medicine is to assert that you know what is best without listening to those you claim to want to understand, and help.
One may still ask why we would need to make culture heroes or villains out of people seeking to alleviate their own suffering. But that’s a different question. For myself, I think we should be skeptical of all such culture heroes – and villains. We should find our own heroes, our own villains, the ones that hold distinct meaning for ourselves. That’s true for those of us who are active participants in the general culture. It should be doubly true for those who proclaim the need to keep a distance from same.