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.
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.
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.
In the late twentieth century there was considerable debate among philosophers of religion over the issue of the universality of religious experience. The debate, of course, may not have taken place in other eras, when it was not deemed important enough to treat religion in terms of experience. The influence of Schleiermacher, romanticism, and phenomenology was evident. Voegelin, too, participated in the conversation. There were two extreme, but dominate, “schools” in the debate.3
On the one hand, perennialists insisted that there was a common core to religious experience that was prior to any interpretations and that the danger lurked that interpretations might distort, if not contaminate, the experiences. Voegelin thus warned about the dangers of “dogmatism”–cutting off the expressions from the engendering experiences.4
On the other hand, the constructionists, frequently appealing to the later Wittgenstein’s language theory or to the phenomenology of the horizon, objected to the claim that there was any pure experience outside the framework of interpretations. So Voegelin could spend volumes detailing the concrete historical expressions of religious meaning, ranging from compactness to differentiation.
Both the perennialists and the constructionists, however, shared a common premise–namely, that religious experience would be some kind of perception (or “intuitive knowledge”). With this premise determining the ground rules for the debate each side could point to the inevitable weaknesses of the other.
The constructionists could ask for instances of this “pure experience” and always find the experiences embedded in interpretations. There was, then, no evidence of this religious perception.
The perennialists could counter that the constructivist position would reduce religion to mere interpretations, leading inexorable to historical relativism. Moreover, the only way for constructionists to avoid historicism would be to deduce religious experience as some Kantian “thing-in-itself”. But–to cite the Kantian problematic–how would it be meaningful to talk of that which was beyond the range of interpretations?
In his essay on “Experience and its Symbolization in History,” Voegelin introduces–perhaps surprisingly to the reader–the notion of the “depth,” which is, in a sense, “unconscious” or “beyond” consciousness. Why does he introduce the notion of this “depth” if he is appealing to engendering experience?
What Voegelin is trying to do here, at least in part, is to avoid treating experience as a perception. He will not therefore play the game according to the rules of the perennialist-constructionist debate.
We seek here to illuminate Voegelin’s contention that behind the diversity and multiplicity of religious symbols (and symbols of order) is an equivalence of “experience” that is not perception.
If one could affirm the equivalence of experience in the way Voegelin proposes, one could embrace historicity without succumbing to historicism.
Obvious questions arise:
What is meant by experience?
What are its prominent features and structures?
What is religious experience?
How can it be a constant compatible with, and perhaps demanding, historicity?
The illumination, so we contend, will come from Bernard Lonergan’s philosophy of consciousness and what we consider his absolutely crucial distinction between consciousness and knowledge, a distinction largely overlooked in the literature on the subject matter–with its attendant confusions.
Lonergan breaks completely with the idea of consciousness as perception and articulates as an alternative a comprehensive philosophy of consciousness.
Indeed, to use Voegelin’s term, Lonergan’s philosophy will provide an example of equivalence in relation to that of Voegelin.5
The decisive issue is whether religious experience is a constant in history. If it is, and, as the secularists argue, if it is pernicious, then there must be a perpetual battle against it.
If, on the other hand, as Voegelin alleges, it is intrinsically linked to the normative dimension of human nature and thus the source of order in human society and human history, then to repress it, even if by cultural warfare, would be to repress human nature.
If indeed the yearnings associated with religious experience are constant, then to repress them, or to deny them, or even to ignore them in a fit of cultural control could block their genuine expression and deflect them into divertissements, as classically identified by Pascal and Kierkegaard, or, worse yet, facilitate their migration into diabolic political activities.
The energies of religious experience, dealing, as they are, with matters of ultimate concern, are so potent that negotiating the religious dimension of existence may require the utmost care and the most delicate and nuanced understanding of religious experience. Such has been the advice of spiritual directors throughout the ages in all the religious traditions.
What, then, is religious experience? Clearly, this is an extremely complicated and philosophically controversial topic, and we can only deal with in a summary fashion here.
What we can do at this stage is to eliminate for serious consideration the notion that the experience is like that of sensation, ordinarily the meaning of experience for an empiricist.
Unless we try to explain religious experience as a projection of human fears and wants onto the contents of sensations, as was the case for Lucretius and Hume (or in the more sophisticated version of Freud), we cannot maintain the integrity and sui generis character of religious experience by reducing it to sensations.
This position is hardly new. It has been fought for the last century against positivism by scholars in the fields of the phenomenology of religion, the comparative study of religion, and the history of religion, as Voegelin readily acknowledges.6
But, more shockingly, as we shall argue, we cannot even use the analogy of sensation. This is indeed a radical position. Thus we should not anticipate “spiritual sensations”–some spiritual look at spiritual contents “out there.”
To be sure, we need not rule out of court the possibility of content-bearing spiritual revelations in the forms of words, images, meanings, and judgments as parts of a prophetic tradition. Nor can we deny the frequent use of the metaphor of “vision” in the writings of mystics. Still, in both instances, that of the tradition and that of the individual mystics, our argument will be that we are dealing with interpretations of religious experience not religious experience itself.
As we proceed to investigate religious experience, we shall follow Voegelin’s insistence–in his own version of empiricism (and that of Lonergan)–that we focus on the concrete consciousness of a concrete person and thus neither on deduced a priori structures nor on any purely theoretical construct. But this brings into focus the dimension of history.
Voegelin insists that the flow of consciousness itself has an internal time structure.7 The concreteness of the consciousness and of the person, participating in the “process of reality,” is embedded in the concreteness of the historical situation and its challenges. Voegelin at the beginning of his Order and History describes this as the “drama of history.”8
Voegelin is aware that his more explicit and thematic treatment of the historical dimension of human existence is to expand the empirical range of analysis beyond that of the classical Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.9 This means that Voegelin embraces the historicity of human existence.
This does not, however, lead to historicism, to the view that would reduce all of human thought and action solely to the relativity of historical circumstance. For Voegelin, there are lines of meaning in history that do not run along lines of time.10 The constant of religious experience is not an abstraction.
Adopting the language of phenomenology, we can say that there is a transcultural basic horizon that does not exist by itself as a freely floating field of consciousness but is always present, in varying degrees, in relative horizons. We need to explore the dynamics of this interaction of basic horizon and relative horizons and how religious experience is constitutive of basic horizon.
We need, then, first to establish precisely what consciousness is. Indeed this determination will be decisive for our whole effort.
As already mentioned, Lonergan’s contribution is seminal. Applying Lonergan’s analysis of consciousness as self-presence to religious consciousness, divorcing it entirely from any analogy of seeing, we shall detail how it illuminates and substantiates Voegelin’s treatment of experiences and their symbolization.
This, in turn, will allow us to account for the dynamics of both identity and diversity in religious history and history in general.
[This is part 1 of a four part article. Part 2 will appear in two weeks.]
1. The author was present at the discussion.
2. Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed., H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, pt. 1. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 128..
3. In his nuanced treatment of religious experience, Louis Roy locates the decisive issues in this debate. Louis Roy, Transcendent Experiences: Phenomenology and Critique (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), pp. 166-75. As an alternative, he seeks a third way, influenced much by Lonergan (172) .
4. Eric Voegelin, Published Essays, 1966-1985, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), chaps. 3, 5.
5. For broader treatment of the equivalence, see Thomas J. McPartland, Lonergan and the Philosophy of Historical Existence (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), chaps. 9-11.
6. Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, trans. Gerhart Niemeyer (Notre Dame: Notre University Press, 1978), pp. 7-9. In personal conversations, Voegelin often put it this way: “After all there is science.” He meant Wissenschaft, a broad concept of “science” that does not arbitrarily reduce human reality to fit the model of the natural sciences.
7. Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, vol. 6 of Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. David Walsh and trans. M. J. Hanak based on trans. by Gerhart Niemeyer (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), p. 68.
8. Eric Voegelin, Order and History, vol. 1, Israel and Revelation, vol. 14 of Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. M. P. Hogan (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), p. 39.
9. Eric Voegelin, Published Essays, 1966-1985, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), p. 268.
10. Eric Voegelin, Order and History vol. 4, The Ecumenic Age. vol. 17 of Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Michael Franz (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), pp. 2-6.