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Eric Voegelin and Christianity

Eric Voegelin and Christianity

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24T
HE
I
NTERCOLLEGIATE
R
EVIEW
Fall/Winter 2004
Eric Voegelin and Christianity
Glenn Hughes
T
o be a beneficiary and proponent of themodern Western democratic tradition,founded on constitutional liberalism,means to affirm a distinct set of politicalprinciples and related values. These includethe rule of law, government based on freeand fair elections and the consent of thegoverned, toleration, freedoms of religion,speech, and assembly, and the recognitionand protection of human rights. The politi-cal culture of democratic participation andrespect for individual liberties, often con-sidered in Western societies to be the out-come of Enlightenment, emerged, of course,from the crucible of the Christiancivilizational tradition, historically en-riched by philosophical wisdom and byscientific, technological, and economictransformations. But is Christianity stillcentral to the modern political traditionthat grew from its civilizational soil? Whatdo the vision and horizon of Christianityhave to say, today, to the political cultureof late-modern liberal democracy?Providing substantive answers to suchquestions would require a deep understand-ing of civilizational developments from clas-sical times to the present, a solid grasp of thehistory of Western political ideas, and apenetrating familiarity with the meaningand history of Christian experience andtradition. Few thinkers possess such broad-ranging expertise, but among those few theone who perhaps deserves our closest atten-tion is the philosopher of history EricVoegelin (1901-1985). Often identified as apolitical philosopher, Voegelin’s accom-plishment was on a much vaster scale thanthat label implies, entailing the workingout of a fully developed philosophy of his-tory, together with a detailed philosophi-cal anthropology and philosophy of con-sciousness upon which to ground it. Thefourteen books and over one hundred ar-ticles that he published during his lifetimepresent a unique case of a historian of mag-isterial erudition gifted with rare philo-sophical acumen. And because his work focuses on both the origins and develop-ment of modern political ideas and on theirreligious and philosophical background, itoffers us not only a discerning analysis of the nature of Christian experience, but alsoa historically sensitive analysis of Chris-tianity’s pertinence to the emergence of democratic respect for individual dignityand liberty.
Glenn Hughes
is Associate Professor of Philosophy atSt. Mary’s University in Texas. He is the author of 
 Mystery and Myth in the Philosophy of Eric Voegelin
(1993),
Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity
(2003)and editor of 
The Politics of the Soul
(1999).
 
Eric Voegelin and Christianity
by Glenn Hughes
T
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NTERCOLLEGIATE
R
EVIEW
Fall/Winter 2004
25
I
I
t should be noted at once that Voegelin’streatment of Christianity, and the signifi-cance of Christianity for his philosophy of existence and history, has provoked a cer-tain amount of controversy. Non-Chris-tian philosophers and political theoristsoften regard him as a kind of Christianapologist, as inappropriately imposing aChristianized perspective onto his studiesof philosophy, world history, and politicalorder. Christian scholars, on the otherhand, are often critical of his interpretationof Christian faith and institutions, and areparticularly suspicious of his frequent criti-cisms of doctrines and dogmas. The formergroup tends to see his philosophy as tooChristian; the latter group tends to see it asnot Christian enough. The relationship of Voegelin to Christianity is thus a somewhatvexed issue.Voegelin himself would say—indeed didsay in various contexts—that the analysesof Christianity, of Jesus and Saint Paul, andof the Gospel teachings that are scatteredthroughout his work are those of an impar-tial political philosopher. As a philoso-pher, he would assert, his devotion is to
truth
, not to this or that tradition or reli-gion or institution. But the fact is, he wouldcontinue, that an impartial and discerningphilosopher will discover that it is in theorbit of Christian experiences, insights, vi-sions, theology, and philosophy that hu-man beings have attained the most pro-found, the most critically differentiated,understanding of the human situation inrelation to divine ultimacy and to histori-cal meaning. Christianity is of central con-cern to Voegelin the philosopher, not be-cause of some fideistic or partisan loyaltybut, first, because it constitutes a high pointof philosophical and historical self-inter-pretation, and second, because it has pro-vided the foundational Western anthro-pology and vision of the cosmos.What is crucial for a sound philosophi-cal assessment of Christianity, Voegelinwould argue, is to approach it initially, notin terms of its institutional history, nor itsdoctrinal pronouncements and proposi-tions, but in terms of its founding and guid-ing
experiences
. We must begin by first ask-ing: What is common to the human experi-ence of reality? We must then ask: How didthe
Christian
experiences, and their sym-bolic articulations, clarify and advance thehuman understanding of our situation inreality? These are the essential questions,and I will use them to examine a few featuresof Voegelin’s account of Christianity.For Voegelin, the most elementary factof human existence is that it is a
 participation
in reality, a participation that has the spe-cific form of a
conscious search for meaning
.Consciousness, with its capacity for grow-ing understanding and self-guidance, is nota
thing
like objects perceived by the externalsenses, but a
tension
of awareness struc-tured by its desire to know. That desire is,overridingly, a search for meaningful exist-ence and for the meaning of one’s existence;and since no one’s existence is the cause of itself, ultimately it is a desire for a full un-derstanding of one’s true origin or“ground.” Human consciousness, Voegelinconcludes, can therefore be describedontologically as a “tension toward theground” of existence, the “ground” being atonce the reality from which consciousnessemerges and toward which its searchingtends.Now, consciousness gained explicit rec-ognition of itself as such a “tension” of searching awareness only on the occasionof its discerning its own ground and theground of all reality to be transcendent. Inthe West, it was the Greek philosopherswho first carefully articulated the struc-tural peculiarities of transcendence-ori-
 
Eric Voegelin and Christianity
by Glenn Hughes
26T
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ented consciousness, of the soul (
 psyche
)informed by intellect (
nous
) as a facultythat grasps intelligibilities, deliberates, andguides action in relation to a non-perish-ing, transcendent ground and standard.Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle portrayedhuman consciousness as neither purelymortal nor immortal, but as somehow shar-ing in both modes of being. In Voegelin’sreading of the Platonic-Aristotelian analy-sis of consciousness, which he essentiallyapproves, what is human about conscious-ness includes essentially its involvement inthat which transcends mere mortality, mereperishability, through participation in theinvisible, eternal Thinking or Intelligencethat grounds all of reality. This makes con-sciousness a kind of “in-between” reality, ameeting-place of time and timelessness, of the world and the divine “beyond.” Adopt-ing one of Plato’s terms, Voegelin refers toconsciousness as a
metaxy
(“in-between”),and to human existence as having a“metaxic,” or intermediary, character. Theessence of being human is therefore, heoften states, human-divine participation.Why does all this sound so odd to con-temporary ears? Voegelin’s answer is thatwe have grown accustomed to reducing theco-constituting elements of the “tension” of consciousness into thing-like objects—thinking of “human” and “divine,” “man”and “God,” as entities rather than as ex-planatory notations for the two dimen-sions or directional “poles” of the in-be-tween reality of consciousness. Likewise, wemistake human consciousness itself forsomething of a physical entity rather thana relational tension. His efforts to clarifythe nature of consciousness require Voegelinto return time and again in his writings toone of his most persistent themes, the hu-man tendency to “reify” or “hypostatize”symbols such as “human” and “divine,”“immanence” and “transcendence,” so thatthey are mistakenly thought to refer tospatio-temporal objects or places. It is hard,Voegelin explains, to avoid this objectifica-tion of the transcendent and immanentdimensions of conscious experience, turn-ing them into two distinct
imaginable ob- jects
in space-time. Nevertheless, conscious-ness as explained by Plato and Aristotle,and later by Christian thinkers, is in fact anon-image-able “tension of existence,” alocation-based participation in timelessmeaning, the personal outcome of whichremains, from the human perspective, fun-damentally a mystery. What is not a mys-tery is the constant structure of conscious-ness as a metaxy, or “in-between.”Now let us consider how Voegelin devel-ops this analysis of human consciousness toinform his view of the Christian break-throughs.Voegelin’s metaxy of consciousness is atension of existence in which the desire formeaning, whether one knows it or not,longs for and normatively moves towardfuller participation in, and deepening un-derstanding of, the source of all meaning—the transcendent divinity in which it par-ticipates. But “divinity” here is not someinert object of cognition, which conscious-ness on its own pure volition reaches outtoward. The tension is the
relation
 
between
the searching of human intention and thedivine completeness of meaning that luresit on, between what Voegelin calls “thehuman partner and the divine partner” inthe search for meaning, with the divinepartner always present in the dynamics of consciousness from its beginnings.So the human seeking is simultaneouslya divine “drawing,” and the “tension” of human consciousness is both a seeking anda being-drawn as one united movement.“In the one movement [of consciousness],”Voegelin writes, “there is experienced a seek-ing from the human, a being drawn fromthe divine pole.
1
In this view, the searchingof human reason is always being guided by

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