Carrying Coals to Newcastle
–Voegelin and Christianity
by Ellis Sandoz
Professor Sandoz is the Editor of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. He has written many books and published many essays on the significance of Eric Voegelin’s thought as well as on the political and spiritual foundations of the United States. This essay is taken from his Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America, available from the University of Missouri Press.
What was Eric Voegelin’s relationship
to Christianity? Was Voegelin a Christian? Is his philosophy a Christian philosophy? These complicated personal and scholarly questions must be divided and subdivided so that the reader may appreciate the hints that follow.
From the time I first heard him lecture, when I was a young undergraduate student in 1949, I never doubted that Voegelin was profoundly Christian, whatever the ambiguities of his formal church affiliation.
It never dawned on me at the time to think otherwise, since the whole of his discourse was luminous with devotion to the truth of divine reality that plainly formed the horizon of his analytical expositions in class and of his scholarly writings as well, as I later found out.
Voegelin made existential faith intellectually respectable, to put it bluntly–not something scientifically untenable and living off of obscurantism and polemical rearguard actions. That youthful judgment was valid then and, with appropriate qualification, remains so long years later.
His faith formed the bedrock of his personal resistance to National Socialism and strengthened his interpretation of philosophy as itself an act of resistance (from Socrates onward) against debilitating untruth.
The signals are clear enough. Beginning each of his 1933 race books in a cold fury masked by matter-of-fact rhetorical understatement, Voegelin juxtaposed Max Scheler’s personalistic philosophical anthropology, and then Thomas à Kempis’s evocation of imago dei with Christ the exemplar of everyone’s true humanity, to the Nazis’ corrupt pseudoscientific reductionist account. This he acidly derided as a “system of scientific superstition” that had brought the “knowledge of man to grief.”
He ended Political Religions in 1938 (whose epigraph was Dante’s incantation of hell: “Through me the way is to the City of Woe”) with a grim, benedictory condemnation of fatuous superbia in words from the anonymous fourteenth-century mystic called the Frankfurter.
Many years later, after returning to Europe, he assumed the mantle of charismatic authority in concluding his lecture on the Nazis and the German university with an electrifying evocation of Ezekiel’s Watchman.
Grounded in St. Augustine
The grounding of this early and persistent perspective in Augustinian mysticism is persuasively suggested by his previously unpublished meditations on Saint Augustine and on T. S. Eliot from the early 1930s and 1940s.1 It vivified his early and persistent insight that the individual man is the intersection of time and eternity 2 and that human nature is a process-structure that is distinctively spiritual, as he stressed more than three decades later:
Through spirit man actualizes his potential to partake of the divine. He rises thereby to the imago Dei which it is his destiny to be.3
The integrity of the individual human person thus conceived and affirmed, with its reflective consciousness, is the spring of resistance to evil and the responsive source of the love of truth–the very core of participatory (metaxy or In-Between) reality, never to be sacrificed to any collectivity of any kind whatever.4 At the concrete level of political action, Voegelin’s “identification of the Nazis as a Satanic force for evil was sufficiently unambiguous even for the most dull-witted employee of the Gestapo to realize that the author [of The Political Religions] was not on [their] side.” 5