Religious Experience and Historicity
Part 1 Religious Experience as a Constant
by Thomas J. McPartland
Thomas McPartland is Professor and Chairman of the Whitney Young School of Honors and Liberal Studies at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. This paper was prepared for delivery at the September 2012 meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society in New Orleans. Professor McPartland is the author of, among other works, the recent Lonergan and Historiography: The Epistemological Philosophy of History. This paper is presented in four parts.
A Dramatic Encounter
In the spring of 1976 at the University of Washington, Eric Voegelin presented a series of lectures and discussions on the topic of “Dogmatism and Religious Experience.”
During one such session in the upper floor of the Victorian building housing the Classics Department, Voegelin was expounding upon the crucial notion of a “theophanic event” to the utter astonishment of a world-renowned Weberian scholar in the audience.
After all, as the professor remarked, how could Voegelin talk of such things in an age that Weber described as one of “disenchantment.” What could Voegelin possibly mean?
Voegelin’s response to the professor must have seemed even more bizarre. Voegelin asked whether the professor was indeed serious about his question and really wanted to know what Voegelin meant. Or was he an “intellectual crook”?
The professor, of course, vehemently denied the latter possibility and affirmed that he truly wanted to know. “Well,” responded Voegelin, “that is a theophanic event!”1
Behind the question of the professor were assumptions representative of a “climate of opinion” clinging to the progressivist view of history, wherein science has replaced myth and metaphysics.
But the professor was also possibly disturbed, if not shocked, at the depiction of human history by objective scientific analysis as a multiplicity of apparently irreconcilable worldviews. This had led Weber himself to fear that the future might be “a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.”2
Notwithstanding the ultimate contradiction between progressivism and historicism, what is most noteworthy in this context is how dogmatically the professor adhered to these convictions. It was simply beyond his horizon that a respectable professor such as Voegelin (who, after all, had been invited by the university to deliver the lectures) could speak of religious experience in a positive tone, as having contemporary relevance and as being integral with the very pursuit of truth itself.
Voegelin violated contemporary intellectual dogmas by not reducing religious experience to pathology or to a manifestation of Urdumheit (primitive stupidity). At the same time, Voegelin refused to counter the professor’s dogmas by recourse to religious dogmas, perhaps the expected response.
Voegelin’s appeal to religious experience implied there was something normative about it. Amid the historical diversity and variety of religious dogmas, expressions, and interpretations was the constant–the experience. This further implied there is a human nature at least related to the constant in some fashion.
Secularists Identify Religion with Fanaticism
These claims are of paramount importance in contemporary politics. At least in the Western liberal democracies the state has, for the most part, relegated religion to the private sphere. And certain secularist political ideologies would even seek to diminish or to eliminate its influence in the political culture.
These forces of secularism would identify religion and its “experiences” with fanaticism. And who could deny evidence of such religious fanaticism? We could, of course, point to the atrocities of the Crusades or the Wars of the Reformation. But we have more immediate contemporary examples in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the rise of so-called “fundamentalism” in the Muslim world, both Shiite and Sunni.