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Sandoz – Our Western Predicament A Voegelinian Perspective on Modernity

Our Western Predicament

A Voegelinian Perspective on Modernity

By

Ellis Sandoz

Moyse Distinguished Professor Political Science & Director, Eric Voegelin
Institute
, Louisiana State University

Prepared for Delivery at the Annual Meeting of the Philadelphia Society,
April 24, 1999, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Introduction

The "iron curtain of the future" (as Arnold J. Toynbee called it) that
absolutely bars specific understanding of the human future blocks any
attempt to forecast the twenty-first century. In fact, one of the
principles of Eric Voegelin’s thought, and distinguishing marks of a
philosophy of history and politics-as opposed to an ideological
deformation of historical reality-, is a recognition of the deepening
mystery of human existence as it opens toward the horizon of the unknown
and unknowable future. Not only don’t we know what may happen in the next
hundred years, we don’t even know what may happen next week or this
afternoon. Moreover, to ask a philosopher’s appraisal of a question is to
risk transformation of the debate.

Thus, to declare (or to pretend to know) what the future holds is a
speculative derailment into ideology or modern gnosticism–the very Gnosis
itself. The sole exception is genuine eschatological visions of the
eternal human destiny known in faith, hope, and love, and imparted through
revelatory experiences, a destiny to be achieved in a transcendental
beyond of present existence. The attempt to effectuate fulfillment in the
here and now of history, through the transformation of man and the world
in time, lies at the very heart of radical modern rebellion, deformation
of reality, and our Western predicament-and not the West’s only!

On the other hand, as some of you may remember since he participated in
Philadelphia Society meetings himself on at least three occasions and
wrote widely on the subject, much of Voegelin’s work as a philosopher and
political scientist addressed the plight of contemporary mankind. Thus,
his analysis of the present predicament of Western civilization and of
humanity more generally may shed its flickering light on the future. A
great part of this work of decades revolved around Voegelin’s attempt (a)
to understand the present crisis of the West, (b) to diagnose its most
virulent aspects, and (c) to find remedies for present conditions before
the rampant epidemic of radical modernity and social amnesia proved lethal
for civilization. I shall limit my remarks this morning mainly to these
themes, then conclude with some comments on the human prospect. In
general, I should say that Voegelin’s outlook is often rather like that of
physician facing a gravely ill patient, one whose chances of full recovery
are dim at best. I, of course, want to be more hopeful and so remind you
that it was a famous economist (representative of the dismal science) who
remarked that in the long run we’re all dead! More than once, Voegelin
explicitly called for personal resistance to present evils, and he sounded
the alarm with life and death urgency that action based on understanding
is needed if catastrophe is to be averted. On one occasion, he went so far
as to evoke the words of the Watchman in Ezekiel in giving warning of
impending disaster. Thus, while the situation is dire, our human liberty
is meaningful and the propaganda of historical determinism is just that
and is flatly to be rejected.

I. Advancing and Declining at the Same Time: the Modern Crisis

In his best known book, The New Science of Politics (1952), Voegelin
ponders the question of how it is possible for society to advance and
decline at one and the same time. The experience of progress is all around
us, yet there is the pervasive sense that all is not well: why? His answer
is to notice that human reality is not monolithic but highly complex and,
like the single human personality, a mixed bag-a stratified reality that
ranges from the material, sentient, and biological through a consciousness
that is uniquely intellectual and spiritual. Somewhat like the
stereotypical football player who is a physical specimen of breathtaking
perfection but can’t read, modern society excels in science, technology,
and the abundant life but has allowed its philosophical and spiritual life
to atrophy. The nub of the disorder is a crisis of the mind and spirit.
Its cardinal attribute is a closure against the divine ground of being, a
forgetfulness of the God of our fathers, one assuaged only by the hollow
men who cry up Autonomous Man and beckon us to bow down before this Golden
Calf of radical modernity. This set of circumstances Voegelin analyzes
with an array of terms as a affliction of the soul, or pneumopathology,
that includes spiritual amnesia, intramundane religiousness, diseased
metastatic faith (magic)-thus as a cancer in the souls of contemporary
human beings and our deculturated societies. While far from being some
kind of monistic explanation of the crisis in which we live, the
despiritualization of existence on one side– and the dogmatomachy or
warfare among contending dogmatic religions and ideologies on the other
side-are leading symptoms of the present crisis. It so disorients and
degrades the splendor of civilizational achievement by natural science as
to make, not the conquest of nature through human ingenuity for the good
of all, but the enormity of the Gulag and of Auschwitz the great monument
of our epoch.

II. Stages in Disintegration of the West: Virulent Modernity

How did all of this come about, one may ask? Voegelin always stresses that
the radical epidemic of ideological or Gnostic modernity is a growth
within modern human existence and not by any means the whole of it; that
there are reserves of opposition and resistance to the ideological
perversion of reality that continue in train with the foundations of our
civilization in the homonoia or like-mindedness of the biblical faith
institutionalized in the Mediterranean world of Judaism, Christianity,
Greek philosophy, Roman law, and nurtured in the great medieval synthesis.
These civilizing forces were brought together as a triumph of mind and
spirit that glorified the truth of being enduringly institutionalized as a
community of church and empire before forces of dissolution powerfully
emerged, and it began to unravel. To be sure, the unraveling remains a
work in progress, one incomplete to this day. Voegelin identifies the
principal historical stages of crisis in terms of the Reformation, the
French Revolution, and the radical third wave of especially the German
(Nazi), Russian (Bolshevik), and Italian (fascist) revolutions of this
century. Islands of opposition to nihilism and virulent destructiveness
persist and continue to exert influence into the present-the Philadelphia
Society among them-and especially the British and American institutional
orders, founded in comparatively sound philosophical ground and
traditionally ingrained political habits, are identified as stabilizing
forces in modern existence. One is reminded of Edmund Burke’s observation
in surveying the French Revolution that two things are essential for a
politics of moderation: religion and gentlemen.

What of the forces of virulent modernity? Even the most effective agents
of destruction ape the truth and forms of sound existence. Thus, everyone
will remember the catchy cry "Don’t let them immanentize the Eschaton!"
Some of you may still own campaign buttons and sweatshirts with this
defiant slogan emblemized thereon. The eschaton (meaning the end of the
world) designates the congeries of Christian faith symbols of final things
such as Christ’s Second Coming, Last Judgment, Eternal salvation or
Beatitude and punishment, end of the age, and the Millennium. Behind the
slogan lies Voegelin’s argument that the various ideologies (or Gnostic
variants, in his words) are ersatz religions for persons too weak for
faith. Such dogmatic creeds seize upon one or another aspect of the
Christian eschatological faith symbolism and apply it to the desired goal
of revolutionary transformation of the world so as to achieve, in one form
or another, perfection in the here and now. They run the gamut from the
fairly benign secularism of the liberals to the radical immanentism of
Marx. The life of faith-experienced in loving response to divine grace, as
the pilgrim’s progress toward beatitude, union with God, and the hope for
fulfillment of life in the bliss of eternal salvation-, is replaced by the
ideologue’s desire for worldly fulfillment in some sort of heaven on
earth: the transformation of men and the world through revolutionary
action is embraced and assumed to lie within the scope of human control.
Voegelin identifies progressivism, utopianism, and revolutionary activism
as the three basic types: the first stresses the movement toward
perfection without clarity about the goal itself; the second stresses the
goal without a clear notion of how it might be attained; and the third (as
in Marxism) combines both the teleological and axiological elements into a
comprehensive assault on reality that evokes the superman and so-called
Realm of Freedom. (NSP, 119-21) As Ludwig Feuerbach had exclaimed, the
highest being for man is Man himself; to which Marx himself added, all I
need is new men! Henri de Lubac wrote of this in terms of "the drama of
atheist humanism."

At the end of the Gnostic-ideological century one would suppose human
beings would by now have had quite enough of this sort of thing. After
all, Voegelin gave the detailed diagnosis nearly a half-century ago, and
even Time magazine was sufficiently impressed as to devote its thirtieth
anniversary issue to it in an essay by Max Ways entitled "Journalism and
Joachim’s Children." Since then the powerful voices of Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel have reiterated and elaborated in their
inimitable ways much the same diagnosis of the age Voegelin had presented
philosophically. Truth derails into the Lie systematically elaborated:
philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is
to change it (Marx)! The one true reality is deformed into Second
Realities of dreamworld fascination, and the dream becomes reality by
definition through psychological mass management and socially enforced
coercion of the comprehensive kind we call totalitarian. The great
historical theophanies are eclipsed by the egophany of the libidinous
self. Mein Kampf supplants the Bible on the altar, the Word of Marx and of
Lenin forms the new Koran of the party faithful, and the spiritually
hungry file endlessly past the mummified remains of the great vozhd Lenin.
I use the present tense. To the warfare or dogmatomachy among partisans of
contending ideologies must be added the ancient but persistent old-style
fundamentalist dogmatomachy of ethnic-religious fanatics that continues as
a curse to day to day existence in the Middle East, Balkans, Northern
Ireland, China, Africa, and India.

Spiritual and intellectual disintegration proceeds not only through the
destruction of transcendentalism in religion but also through the
destruction of philosophy, in a process Voegelin sees beginning as early
as the generation after Aristotle. To be succinct and mindful of recent
times, Voegelin argues that all good philosophy is based on common sense:
Aristotle is a good philosopher and Hegel is not, and one must be very
highly educated indeed to misunderstand (and deform) reality as thoroughly
as did Marx and Nietzsche. Ideology (modern gnosticism in its several
variants) operates with the truncated "reason" of the Enlightenment,
rather than with the differentiated Nous of Plato and Aristotle. It is
intrinsically irrational because of that: as Alfred North Whitehead
remarked the philosophes were not philosophers! Philosophers start from
common sense and seek to illuminate reality through noetic inquiry into
the truth of being, unto its origins in the eminent Being of the divine
Ground. The philosophes (and their soul-mates: the sophists in antiquity,
the ideologues today) so deploy instrumental reason as to obscure rather
than illuminate reality and ruthlessly decapitate eminent Being, in
intentional closure against truth. Only the outlines can be sketched.

Closure is effected by several means, including: (1) the reduction of
"reason" to analysis or its instrumental, calculative aspect thereby
leaving out as irrational the decisive noetic (intuitive) aspect through
which first principles are grasped; (2) the procedure or trick of
philosophizing in closed "systems" where the errors can be concealed in
premises that routinely go unexamined as postulates or assumptions; and
(3) in expressly or implicitly prohibiting the asking of questions. The
system blinds the mind to any inquiry into the truth of reality not
analytically comprehended in the premises of the system itself; and the
prohibition against asking pertinent questions about these basic premises
(regarding the nature of man and source of being itself, for instance)
slams the door shut: Denke nicht frage mich nicht! Marx’s formulation can
hardly be improved upon: Don’t think, don’t ask me! If you insist on
questioning anyway, bad things may happen to you-especially if you should
live in some politically correct paradise.

I hope my drift at least is clear. Suppression is ongoing and did not die
out with Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. This "cold war" seems to be very
far from over. One particularly poignant trait of ideological deformation
of reality is this: at least the leading protagonists know that and why
their systems are flawed-but they stick to their positions anyway.
Voegelin oddly argues that a person of common sense would say that if a
doctrine is false (say Marx’s account of the human condition, or Auguste
Comte’s of history-this is a multicultural enterprise), if it purposely
and systematically falsifies the facts as experienced and truth of
reality, and if the advocate of such a false doctrine knows this-then
anybody with common sense would suspect that the advocate is a fraud. But
common sense is not the hallmark of the academy nor of our age, it seems.
Marx wrote: "Don’t think, don’t ask me!… A rational man does not ask
such questions!" How does Voegelin respond to these statements by this
famous mover and shaker of the modern world? He writes:

[Marx’s] prohibition now induces us to ask, Was Marx an intellectual
swindler? Such a question will perhaps give rise to objections. Can one
seriously entertain the idea that the lifework of a thinker of
considerable rank is based on an intellectual swindle? Could it have
attracted a mass following and become a political world power if it rested
on a swindle? But we today are inured to such scruples: we have seen too
many improbable and incredible things that were nonetheless real.
Therefore, we hesitate neither to ask the question that the evidence
presses upon us, nor to answer [it:] Yes, Marx was an intellectual
swindler. (SPG, 19)

And why ever might any man, even a Marx, do such a thing? The answer is
found in Nietzsche: because of his lust for power-libido dominandi-, the
will to secure and maintain domination whatever the cost.

III. Therapy? Is there a Jonas Salk in the house?

Marx is a representative case, especially if the academy is considered,
and will serve our purposes of illustrative analysis of the wider problem.
Solzhenitsyn’s earthy, commonsensical, comment at Harvard comes to mind:
Western intellectuals believe Marx to be a living lion (the Soviets just
didn’t do it right!), but we know he is a dead dog! The ideological
perversion of philosophizing is not merely a question of "ideas" but of
actions with lethal consequences. Thus, in the same lecture where he
pronounced Marx to be a swindler, to the accompaniment of gasps from the
audience and headlines in the newspapers the next day, Voegelin provoked
further indignation by drawing a further comparison. He said:

Whoever asks questions about the nature, calling, and destiny of man may
be temporarily ignored; later, after the system of positivism has
prevailed in society, such persons will have to be silenced by appropriate
measures [Comte]. And the prohibition of questions is not harmless, for it
has attained great social effectiveness among men who forbid themselves to
ask questions in critical situations. One thinks of the observation of
Rudolf Höss, the [Nazi] commandant of the extermination camp at Auschwitz.
When asked why he did not refuse to obey the order to organize the mass
executions, he replied: "At the time I did not indulge in deliberation: I
had received an order, and I had to carry it out…I do not believe that
even one of the thousands of SS leaders could have permitted such a
thought to occur to him. Something like that was just completely
impossible." This is very close to the wording of Marx’s declaration [in
the 1844 Paris Manuscripts] that for "socialist man" such a question
[about the Ground of being, the divine source of order in reality]
"becomes a practical impossibility." Thus, we see delineated three major
types for whom a human inquiry has become a practical impossibility:
socialist man (in the Marxian sense), positivist man (in the Comtean
sense), and national-socialist man. (SPG, 18)

In what I have said to this point we have been looking at past and present
evidence. What of the future, you may still want to know? Is there no
encouraging word, prudent counsel, or only disheartening reports on a dead
end? Are we dead men walking after all?

The starting points for any answers one finds in Voegelin throw us back on
the intellectual and spiritual resources of our tattered and beleaguered
traditions. If we are to resist, the means must be found there and
revived. One need not expect from him novelties in principle, only in
detail, as he stressed in the words: "The test of truth, to put it
pointedly, will be the lack of originality in the propositions." (CW12,
122)
His scholarly life consisted of a long meditation on our predicament
and the vivifying illumination of it, and of the human condition more
generally to be found (if it is to be found at all), through an open quest
of truth. Voegelin, by his own admission a mystic philosopher, is equally
a philosopher of common sense, as I have tried to stress: from this
perspective it is rudimentary that, if you know death and disaster lie in
one direction, then you must turn around and go in the opposite direction
as fast as you can. This is recognizably not only common sense but, also,
the principle of Plato’s periagoge and of the Christian’s metanoia. It is
the conversion of the whole man away from the shadows on the wall, the
conventions of the world and its spiritually lethal climate of opinion,
toward the truth of being within the limits of one’s capacities in
cooperatively following the attractive pull of the Beyond. Dream and
reality must be separated. The uncertain truth we know must be embraced in
preference to the certain untruth of ideology socially enforced and run
amuck. (SPG, 75) "No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis
of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this folly and
live his life in order." (SPG, 15)

The spiritual crisis of the West and eclipse of transcendent divine
Reality lie at the heart of the problem of recovering truth in the lives
of persons and for the order of society, by Voegelin’s reading. That truth
and the ways to it–whatever their imperfections as imposed by human
perspectives and limitations-remain the fruits of philosophy as ever the
love of wisdom (not its definitive possession) and of faith as ever the
substance of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen (not the
embrace of an exclusive and unreflecting dogma).

Voegelin’s favorite prophet was Jeremiah, he said, and there is something
of the jeremiad about his work. But when it came time to conclude his
Munich lecture on the "The German University and German Society" he
invoked the persona of the Watchman from Ezekiel (33:7-9):

So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel;
whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from
me.

If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die; and you do not
speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die
in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.

But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from
his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your soul.
(CW12, 35)

Epilogue

If one inquires about Voegelin’s more explicit understanding of the
Western predicament and human prospect, then something like the following
might be added to the foregoing comments.

1. Western civilization is in the late stages of disintegration. It
reached a climax in the thirteenth century and has endured a series of
increasingly damaging blows against its spiritual order and institutional
cohesion in the seven hundred years since the great efflorescence in the
Christian philosophy of man and society of Thomas Aquinas. This began
already with the authoritarian derailment of the church at the hands of
Boniface VIII a bare generation later, compounded in the next century by
the nominalist-fideist split in philosophy and religion; it was further
exacerbated by the "civilizational disaster" of the Reformation, and by
the waves of rebellion and onslaught against the spiritual integrity of
the West effected in complex ways already mentioned since the sixteenth
century. The rise of natural science in the seventeenth century imbalanced
the understanding of reality through a tilt and eventual radical closure
against the divine Ground of being. Science became the seed bed, not only
of great intellectual achievements, but also for destructive scientism,
phenomenalism, positivism, gnosticism, magic, alchemy, Heremeticism, and
other esoteric movements. These and other manifestations of reductionist
egophany have so deformed and afflicted the life of the mind and spirit as
to leave contemporaries with little more than a "hopeless hope" for some
renewal and revival that alone promises to stem the slid of civilizational
decline. A hopeful precedent is the Second Reformation of John and Charles
Wesley and the accompanying Great Awakening that revitalized Britain for a
time and laid the groundwork for the American founding in the eighteenth
century. To this otherwise stark appraisal we may attach the question: Is
any comparable renaissance presently underway?

2. The notion of the West facing other civilizations in a shootout at the
OK Corral for ecumenic hegemony is simplistic and overlooks the factual
situation.

(a) The West has significantly disintegrated already and (unless it again
recaptures its vitality through spiritual renewal) may cease to be a major
player in world affairs in the next millennium. Ever the spiritual
realist, Voegelin observes, invoking the Kohelet and Anaximander, that:
"What comes into being will have an end, and the mystery of this stream of
being is impenetrable." (NSP, 167; EA, 174; Ecclesiastes. 3:1-11)

(b) The disintegration of the West has been accompanied by a process of
"westernization" of the rest of the world to such a degree that all other
extant civilizational societies have absorbed through their dominant
elites many of the nonessential ideological and technological attributes
of the disintegrating West itself: one thinks of a Marxist-Leninist
quasi-Christian Orthodox Russia and a Marxist-Leninist quasi-Confucian and
Buddhist China as prominent illustrations, with the several Islamic,
Hindu, and other Buddhist societies yet to be accounted for at the level
of hegemonic power. Toynbee dealt with the generally subversive
communication of western influence in terms of "radiation" and the "law of
trivia," and Voegelin thought his account meritorious.

(c) Thus, as the West abandons its own distinctive intellectual and
spiritual identity to become more thoroughly relativistic and amorphous at
its core, it finds treacherous common ground with other progressive
societies in scorched earth positivism, scientism, antiphilosophical and
antireligious phenomenalism and nihilism. The Western dissolution radiates
a spiritual and intellectual epidemic infecting contemporary mankind.

3. Voegelin ultimately rejects, however, Toynbee’s dissolution of the
history of mankind into the rise and fall of civilizations as empirically
false; and he also rejects the notion (one that Toynbee also abandoned)
that a civilization is an intelligible unit or field of historical study.

(a) Civilizational societies are no more than secondary or tertiary
phenomena. They are products of religions (not religions of civilizations)
or more adequately of "spiritual outbursts," and of libidinous power
drives resulting in imperial conquests that tend to capture such events so
as to legitimize what otherwise would be naked exercises of power.
Religions, moreover, tend not only to constitute but to spill over
multiple civilizations; and empires, too, are often multi-civilizational.
In addition to the spiritual visions and concupiscential drives that
culminate in conquests in the creative process of societal formation,
Voegelin finds that a third factor of philosophical-theological
historiography typically emerges to evoke the raison d’être of empires as
political constellations organized for action in world affairs. Thus, a
triadic structure appears to be characteristic, if the ecumenic empires
are taken as paradigms.

(b) There still remains the spectacle of a universal mankind–strewn from
distant antiquity and, even, archeological prehistory down to the
present–whose commonality of shared humanity reaches beyond the unique
peculiarities of a pluralistic ethnic, cultural, or power field of any
particular civilization or any discrete religious entity. How explain the
apparent fact that underlying all the differences is a palpable unity of
mankind, past, present, and future? We readily acknowledge that the
ancient Egyptian, and less ancient Athenian, share common ground as human
beings with a contemporary American. This commonality is expressed
philosophically (Aristotle) in terms of a synthetic or composite nature
potentially present in every human being that is, thereby, the epitome of
being, crowned with what the old Greeks called Nous that is paradoxically
both essential nature and tensional participation in the divine Nous
experienced as Ground. The commonality is expressed pneumatically
(Genesis) by characterizing the human being as imago Dei, the Christ in
every man. After diligent search of what is universal about mankind,
Voegelin states that "mankind is not constituted through a survey of
phenomena by even the most erudite historian, but through the experience
of order in the present under God." (WP, 16) Later on he adds:

Universal mankind is not a society existing in the world, but a symbol
which indicates man’s consciousness of participating, in his earthly
existence, in the mystery of a reality that moves toward its
transfiguration. Universal mankind is an eschatological index. (EA, 305)

4. If we recur to Western categories to express ourselves it is because,
Voegelin argues, the differentiation of truth through faith and reason
achieved a reflective depth or differentiation not matched elsewhere in
history: if the language of philosophy were to be abandoned, there would
no other language of reflective discursive rationality that could take its
place. (WP, 22) The universal becomes articulate only in the concrete
divine-human events that occur as experiences in the concrete
consciousness of some particular person at some specific time and place.
All such experiences are inevitably conditioned by a particular language
and ethnic culture. "Man" or "human being" is strictly speaking no where
to be found except in specific individual human persons. Yet one reality
and one mankind are affirmed amidst these particularities; they are
discernible in equivalent symbolizations of man’s participation in
divine-human reality throughout history; and they are convincingly
traceable in an evidentiary trail of equivalent symbols back to the stone
age. Thus, Voegelin observes, what is true for one man also is true for
all men.

Behind every equivalent symbol in the historical field stands the man who
has engendered it in the course of his search as a representative of a
truth that is more than equivalent. The search that renders no more than
equivalent truth rests ultimately on the faith that, by engaging in it,
man participates representatively in the divine drama of truth becoming
luminous. (CW12, 132-33)

A further consequence is that faith and reason are not the opposites
generally assumed but equivalent symbolisms reflecting the truth of being
arising in the participatory experiences of spiritually sensitive men
lodged in the different ethnic horizons of Israel (prophets) and Hellas
(philosophers): Reason (as divine Nous, Plato’s third God in the Laws
713c-714b; EA, 227) is every bit as much a revelation as is the encounter
with Yahweh in faith by the prophets of Israel. There is, strictly
speaking, no such thing as merely "natural" Reason-contrary to the
Scholastics and their continuators.

Such reflections inform Voegelin’s admiration of Jean Bodin’s bold
meditative resolution in Colloquium heptaplomeres (1588-?) of the
murderous religious strife of France in favor of peace through the
mystic’s plea for toleration grounded in awareness of the essential
sameness of God experienced, whatever the creedal differences. The same
truth is expressed in different languages and symbols-each word, syllable,
and gesture of which may be precious to votaries of the respective creed,
nevertheless-the differences among them are not worth the life of a single
human being. The divine reality (the theotes of Col. 2:9) beyond all
dogmatic formulation is experienced as the universally true common
transcendent Ground nurturing by the divine-human encounter of the
In-Between (metaxy) the essential humanity of every person. It is above
all else this that is the source of our sense of universal mankind,
arising as it does out of the paradox of participation in the ineffable
that becomes effable in divine-human experiences in myriad modes, in all
times, and places. (OH5, 103) In Voegelin’s words:

The truth of existence…does not emerge from one single spiritual
event…but assumes the historical form of a plurality of movements
springing up in Persia and India, in Israel and Hellas. The
differentiation of the one truth of existence, thus, is broken in a
spectrum of spiritual eruptions each bearing the mark of the ethnic
culture in which it occurs….The human responses to the divine irruptions
rather tend to accentuate different aspects of the one truth of man’s
existence under God, such as the Greek noetic or the Israelite-Jewish
pneumatic revelations of divine reality.

This is "history" as it was experienced by the more sensitive participants
in the process down to the time of Paul. (EA, 301)

It is, after all, right that we should end on a hopeful note regarding the
Western predicament and the human prospect, even if it may not be exactly
the note we anticipated hearing when we first set out on our discussion.
It is also right to give Voegelin a last summarizing say in order to put
his great work into the Christian perspective he steadfastly claimed for
it, despite his sometimes intemperate and self-righteous critics. He
reminded one of these of the following:

There were always Christian thinkers who recognized the difference between
experiences of divine reality and the transformation of the insights
engendered by the insights into doctrinal propositions. The tension
between theologica mystica and theologica dogmatica goes as far back as
the patres. It dominates the work of Origen; and its dynamics is the
living force in such noteworthy successors as Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius,
Scotus Erigena, Anselm of Canterbury, and the mystics of the fourteen
century….I am equally conscious of not going beyond the orbit of
Christianity when I prefer the experiential symbol divine reality to the
God of the Creed, for divine reality translates the theotes of Colossians
2:9. The theotes, a neologism of the time, is a symbol arising from
experiential exegesis; its degree of generality is so high that it can be
applied, not only to the specific experience of divine reality becoming
incarnate in Christ and the Christian believers (the experiences analyzed
in Colossians 2), but to every instance of theotes experienced as present
in man and forming his insight into his nature and its relation to the
divine ground of his existence. Moreover, I am very much aware that my
inquiry into the history of experience and symbolization generalizes the
Anselmian fides quaerens intellectum so as to include every fides, not
only the Christian, in the quest for understanding by reason. Even this
expansion of the fides, however, to all the experiences of divine reality
in which history constitutes itself, cannot be said to go beyond
"Christianity." For it is the Christ of the Gospel of John who says of
himself: "Before Abraham was, I am" (8:58); and it is Thomas Aquinas who
considered the Christ to be the head of the corpus mysticum that embraces,
not only Christians, but all mankind from the creation of the world to its
end. In practice this means that one has to recognize, and make
intelligible, the presence of Christ in a Babylonian hymn, or a Taoist
speculation, or a Platonic dialogue, just as much as in a Gospel.

… It is the guilt of Christian thinkers and church leaders of having
allowed the dogma to separate in the public consciousness of Western
civilization from the experience of "the mystery" on which its truth
depends. The dogma develops as a socially and culturally necessary
protection of insights experientially gained against false propositions;
its development is secondary to the truth of experience. If its truth
[pretends] to be autonomous, its validity will come under attack in any
situation of social crisis, when alienation becomes a mass phenomenon; the
dogma will then be misunderstood as an "opinion" which one can believe or
not, and it will be opposed by counter opinions which dogmatize the
experience of alienated existence. The development [in the fourteenth
century] of a nominalist and fideist conception of Christianity is the
cultural disaster, with its origins in the late Middle Ages, that provokes
the reaction of alienated existence in the dogmatic form of the
ideologies, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The result is the
state of deculturation with which we are all too familiar from our daily
talks with students who are caught in the intellectual confusion of a
debate that proceeds, not by recourse to experience, but by position and
counter position of opinion. Once truth has degenerated to the level of
true doctrine, the return from orthodoxy to "the mystery" is a process
that appears to require as many centuries of effort as have gone into the
destruction of intellectual and spiritual culture….

…[Complaint is heard] that I neglect the thought and science of the
twentieth century…. I consider representative, by the side of the work
in theoretical physics, the magnificent work of the historians. They have
brought to light the background of modernity in gnosticism, hermeticism,
alchemy, and magic; they have restored our knowledge of ancient and
medieval philosophy; they have provided a solid basis for our
understanding of the Israelite-Judaic-Christian experiences; they have
extended our knowledge of the Indian, Chinese, pre-Columbian, and African
societies; and they have expanded our historical horizon by the
prehistoric millennia. [The cumulative effect is to demonstrate the
pitiful inadequacy of] the ideological systems of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, nothing to say of their epigonal aftermath [as]
obsolete interpretations of reality, for reasons both empirical and
theoretical. [However, this] marvelous advance of science which
characterizes the twentieth century has not yet affected the notorious
"climate of opinion" which [still today] dominates the public debate. But
I do not believe the end of the world has come, if it does not come to the
end the ideologists have projected for it. The world will go on, and the
restoration of the intellectual and spiritual culture in the sciences will
ultimately affect an ideological climate that by now has become a
reactionary force. To assist in this process in one of the motives of my
work. (CW12, 294-95, 302-303)

Abbreviations of Voegelin Sources Referenced

CW12 The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12, Published Essays
1966-85
, ed. Ellis Sandoz (1990; available Columbia: University of
Missouri Press, 1999)

EA Order and History, vol. 4, The Ecumenic Age (1974; available Columbia:
University of Missouri Press, 1999)

NSP The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, foreword by Dante
Germino (1952; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)

OH5 Order and History, vol. 5, The Search for Order, foreword by Lissy
Voegelin, intro. by Ellis Sandoz, epilogue by Jürgen Gebhardt (1987;
available Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

SPG Science, Politics and Gnosticism, trans. William J. Fitzpatrick,
intro. Ellis Sandoz (1958; Eng. 1968; rpr. & re-paged, Washington, D. C.:
Regnery Publishing, Inc., Gateway Editions, 1997)

WP Order and History, vol. 3, World of the Polis (1957; available
Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

 

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