Juana Inés de la Cruz vs. Origen

Welcome to the final battle of the week AND the (actual) penultimate battle of the Saintly Sixteen.

Yesterday in the Saintly Smackdown, José Gregorio Hernández defeated Emma of Hawaii 55% to 45%.

On Tuesday next week we kick off the Elate Eight. In the meantime, on Monday, prepare for Oscar vs. Thomas Aquinas. Hang onto your halos!

Juana Inés de la Cruz

Juana Ines de la Cruz is most well known for her writing, but this was not all she could do.  When she left her family at age 16, to live in Mexico City, she became a lady-in-waiting to the wife of the viceroy of New Spain.  The viceroy was so amused by his wife’s new companion’s smarts that he made a game of “Stump Juana”.  He would invite the most prominent lawyers, philosophers, and theologians of the day to a meeting, make Juana stand in the center of the assembly, and then ask his guests to fire questions at her.  This very odd parlor game led to Juana becoming the hip new sensation in the royal court.  (It also led to several besotted young men offering to whisk Juana away from all this, but she always declined.)

She seemed to be a little obsessive about learning—after joining the abbey in order to have more time to study, she made a habit of cutting off a lock of hair each time she failed to memorize a Latin grammar lesson properly. “It didn’t seem right to me that a head so naked of knowledge should be so dressed up with hair, for knowledge is a more desirable adornment.”

And she didn’t only know Latin, Greek, and Spanish—she also taught herself Nahuatl—the indigenous language spoken in the central Mexican highlands. In 1570, King Phillip II of Spain had actually decreed that Nahuatl would the official language of the settlements of New Spain throughout Mexico and Central America, so she was taking part in a flowering of literature being written in this language at the time, that then died out by 1696, when King Charles outlawed the speaking of all indigenous languages.

In the convent, she accrued musical instruments, her own laboratory for conducting experiments, and over 4,000 books.  She would receive visits from the greatest thinkers and writers of her day.  “I do not study in order to write, nor far less in order to teach (which would be boundless arrogance in me), but simply to see whether by studying I may become less ignorant.  This is my answer, and these are my feelings”, she said.

But this didn’t last forever—after her patrons (the viceroy and his wife) were recalled to Spain, she lost much of the social protection she had relied on for her writing.  The new archbishop of Mexico City was much more conservative, and railed against Juana’s writing and study.  She replied, “Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies?  Have they not a rational soul as men do?…I have this inclination to study, and if it is evil, I am not the one who formed me thus—I was born with it and with it I shall die.”

Megan Castellan


Origen is considered the father of systematic theology for the Church.  By name, systematic means to peel the nature of God through a step-by-step process to elicit understanding.  Origen believed that through systematic study of God, we grow in our faith and understanding of our maker, and a deeper closeness with the mystery.  Origen was a mathematician with words about God, but unafraid of the unknown.  His thoughts, process, and depth of understanding God were precise, carefully tested, and documented so that others may see the beauty and awe of God. And yet, Origen also understood that even with the most rigorous of study, we can never fully fathom the great I AM:

“Having refuted, then, as well as we could, every notion which might suggest that we were to think of God as in any degree corporeal, we go on to say that, according to strict truth, God is incomprehensible, and incapable of being measured. For whatever be the knowledge which we are able to obtain of God, either by perception or reflection, we must of necessity believe that He is by many degrees far better than what we perceive Him to be.”

In a scathing rebuke to those who interpret God through a solely legalistic interpretation of scripture and not taking the time to reflect on the spirit of the Word, Origen is said to have replied:

The reason why all those we have mentioned hold false opinions and make impious or ignorant assertions about God appears to be nothing else but this, that scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.”

Origen is also credited with a sound interpretation of why we only need one Christ:

“There was no need that there should everywhere exist many bodies, and many spirits like Jesus, in order that the whole world of men might be enlightened by the Word of God. For the one Word was enough, having arisen as the "Sun of righteousness (Malachi chpt. 3)," to send forth from Judea His coming rays into the soul of all who were willing to receive Him.”

Origen challenges to understand God through his Word, and that one Word is enough, that all we need for a holy life is found in Jesus Christ.

And Origen calls us to study.  As God works tirelessly in our lives to transform us, we too should work tirelessly to find a glimmer of God in all things:

“In this way, then, by the renewal of the ceaseless working of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in us, in its various stages of progress, shall we be able at some future time perhaps, although with difficulty, to behold the holy and the blessed life, in which (as it is only after many struggles that we are able to reach it) we ought so to continue, that no satiety of that blessedness should ever seize us; but the more we perceive its blessedness, the more should be increased and intensified within us the longing for the same, while we ever more eagerly and freely receive and hold fast the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Origen teaches us to never think we know enough of God, that we should always thirst for more.

Anna Fitch Courie


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71 comments on “Juana Inés de la Cruz vs. Origen”

  1. I must vote for the educated and intellectual Juana. I'm most impressed that she studied Nahuatl.

  2. I have taught world and Latin American history for 25 years. Almost no one inspires Latina students more than Sor Juana. When they read her letter to her bishop defending her right to think, when those your women realize they can claim Sor Juana as their own, the empowerment is palpable. For my students, Sor Juana!

    1. I voted for Origen, but had I read your comment before voting, I believe I would have changed my vote.

  3. If I were having someone over to dinner, I’d invite Juana. But for contributions to the Church, I’ll go with Origen.

  4. Oh yes, “Hold fast the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Origen has my vote for these 3 words alone. Nancy

  5. If Juana wins today, we're guaranteed a Battle of the Sexes for the Golden Halo. All men on the right side of the bracket, all women on the left. How did that happen?

  6. Juana today. “I am not the one who formed me thus” is a line that needs to be remembered today!

    1. That comment is contemporary on so many levels. I voted for her, and hope it was not as it usually is, a vote for the loser.

  7. Origen has my heart and my vote but he has never been canonized. I believe his writings more than qualify him and he died a martyr, but no part of the church has called him saint.

    1. Yes, I think because he was interpreted as a subordinist; Jesus not coequal with the Father...maybe an over interpretation, but that is probably why.

  8. Come on Ladies, we need to win one!!
    Vote for Juana today on intelligence &
    education alone Origen was boring!

  9. Origen is without doubt a towering figure in the church and I am thankful for his contribution to our understanding. However, I am voting for Juana, who knew that God had made her thus, and sought to honour God in using her gifts. My vote is for all the women whose gifts were/are not allowed to flourish in the church, and because their voices were/are not heard, the church has been impoverished.

  10. I am casting my vote for Juana. She, as noted by others here, has served as a powerful inspiration for young women. Her efforts to learn the native language I think is uncommon among the ruling classes. It is so sad that the church shut her down for expressing her intelligence and feelings about equality. There is much more we could have learned from her.

  11. I'm dreaming of a Bible written in Nahuatl. What a loss to the world. I wish Sor Juana had undertaken and completed that labor. I felt it as a blow to read that indigenous languages had been suppressed; the extinction of a language is an act of cultural genocide. But it is a logical step for any would-be empire, and I predict that should Putin win in Europe (may God and the saints forbid) he will suppress Ukrainian as a language the better to argue that that land mass is culturally seamless. Empire needs conformity; it must crush variation. I hate to vote against a smart and cultured woman, but Sor Juana's conventual "cell" (filled with musical instruments and a complete library) sounds more like a private study than a place of prayer. I do not begrudge a woman in a patriarchal culture her own inner sanctum and her freedom to choose. But Origen is so foundational that today I must vote for him. I like the phrase "unafraid of the unknown." The entire gospels can be summed up as "Do not fear."

      1. If you are interested in seeing the Scriptures in Náhuatl, you don't need to give Amazon a penny. The PDF is online and free . . . https://www.scriptureearth.org/00i-Scripture_Index.php?sortby=lang&name=nhw&ISO_ROD_index=118

        [I'm still upset I was forced to get a textbook from Amazon in college because it was new, out of stock everywhere else, and not on reserve in the university library. Amazon's mistreatment of employees is out of alignment with my ethics.]

    1. I am not sure I agree with your assessment of Juana's "cell." First, we can pray and contemplate anywhere. So that she has a room filled with musical instruments and books would be a good place for learning and using the tools available to her to contemplate and to learn more about God. Second, is it possible that she had two separate places -- one for her studies and growth and another for her sleep and prayers?

  12. This is the hardest choice yet. I strongly identify with Juana and her love of learning, but my vote has to go with Origen who is the spiritual bedrock on which such study stands.

    “The reason why all those we have mentioned hold false opinions and make impious or ignorant assertions about God appears to be nothing else but this, that scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.”

  13. I have read that Origen took the Bible very seriously, but did not deny the contradictions. Rather, he asked why God put them there, asking what we are to learn from them.

    BTW, is that picture actually of Gregory, not Origen? That seems to me what the Greek is saying.

  14. I love Origen and his depth of thought, but as I read Juana's bio today I thought of the women and girls in Afghanistan. I am sure no one in authority ever told Origen to stop writing because of his gender. Beneath the surface, little in our world has changed since Juana's time. Overall, women--especially women in the church--are more valued for their volunteer work, and as wives, and mothers than for their intellect, so Juana gets my vote. It is a sad indictment of our world that women are still facing the same discrimination that Juana faced.

  15. When I was studying early (Western) philosophy, we thought of Origen as the champion opponent of rational thinking & rational explanations. It's interesting that this characteristic never appears in the Lent Madness discussions. Of course, he was significant the development of early Christian theology, & that fact remains.

    1. You don't think the discussion here is rational? In general, I find people's accounts of their decisions very considered and thoughtful. That's why it's always worth reading the comments. This isn't about the voting; it's about the weighing and assessing. I think LM is a genuine Lenten discipline. Is it a contemplative practice? Well, that's worth discussing.

    2. Irrationalism is certainly a core element in right-wing religious circles, what I would term "pagan christianism." It is very dismaying, and I think it behooves us to be aware of this disturbing trend that wishes to pass under the rubric "Christian." It's anti-intellectual and anti-Christian. And it's dangerous. I think what we do here is important, and, yes, rational. For an example of a deeply troubling, and I think highly toxic, appropriation of the message of Christianity, here is an article that demonstrates how certain currents in contemporary U.S. culture are actively militating against Jesus' "little ones." Someone never read about beating swords into plowshares. But of course that's in the Bible, which for all I know is one of the books being thrown into that fire. And Isaiah sounds like a "furrin" name.

  16. No contest today. A can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees theologian, vs a woman fighting for intellectual freedom. Juana!

  17. I sort of flipped a mental coin and voted for Juana, though I won't get mad if Origen wins. As of 7:25 Pacific Daylight Time, the two were only 201 votes apart.

  18. Origen represents the Church patriarchy that ultimately silenced Juana, so . . .

  19. I may have voted for the underdog today, but a woman who so eagerly and passionately seeks knowledge in all its forms, and refuses to take a back seat due to gender deserves some acknowledgement. Certainly God gave us brains to use to seek knowledge and understanding, and I believe God is also found everywhere and in all things, even knowledge. Origen, of course, has his strengths, but I will stand with the woman today.

  20. I voted for Juana. While they were both intellectuals, Juana had a harder road to travel, since she was a woman. And with Origen, I just don't have the time to sift through his quotes and try to understand what he's saying.

  21. "she also taught herself Nahuatl"

    This got to me. Though I deeply respect and love Origen and will not be sad if he prevails, my heart goes out to the lady who used her privileged position to understand, support and talk the language of the people among whom she lived. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz still speaks for all women struggling to be respected for what they study, write, and say! She has my vote.

  22. This was a really tough decision. I admire Origen for his insistence on the spiritual significance of the Bible, and Juana for standing up for her God-given ability to reason. In the end I voted for Juana as an example for women even today - God gave us minds to think and reason and we should go out and do so!

  23. Two intellects. One applied his wisdom and learning to arguing fine details of orthodoxy at a time when orthodoxy was very much unsettled. The other who had to fight for the right to be educated and heard. If they had met, I'd like to think that Juana would give Origen a lively debate, just for the intellectual challenge of it. But would Origen have even listened to her?

  24. And again! I find myself much more endeared to Origen (whom I've "known" since my own theology classes) today from this second write-up than I was with the first round write-up. But, also again, I'm voting for the other one... for Juana whom I connected with and voted for the first round and am compelled to do so again.

  25. I love how much Juana Ines de la Cruz liked learning!
    Even though shes losing, I have to vote for her!
    By the way, Happy April Fools Day!