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A Critique of Eric Voegelin’s Christianity

A Critique Of Eric Voegelin’s Christianity

When Eric Voegelin published Order and History: I-III in the 1950s, Christian philosophers and theologians claimed him as one of their own. These first three volumes were devoted to the study of order through the study of history. As he stated in the opening pages of his first volume, “The order of history emerges from the history of order.” As humans partake in the process of history, the order of reality becomes illuminated to us: our understanding of the primordial field of God, humans, the world, and society moves from an elemental and rudimentary “compact” understanding to a more complex and “differentiated” one. As this order of reality becomes further elucidate to us through our study of history, Voegelin had hoped that we might be able to understand the process of history itself.

It is important to note that the order of reality for Voegelin could not be studied as an object of the external world or from some point where a person could survey the whole of reality. Because humans are participatory creatures in the process of history, they will never be able to step outside of this role and therefore will never be able to survey the whole of reality. Given this continual blind spot in our knowledge, we become engaged in a process of symbolization that tries to make the mystery of reality as intelligible as possible. These symbols interpret the ultimate unknowable of reality with a partial knowledge of our experience from the primordial field of God, humans, the world, and society.

However, Voegelin declared that humans were not able to discern all the complex relationships of the primordial field at once. The activity of making reality intelligible unfolds progressively from compact blocks of knowledge that become differentiated into their component parts. Thus, the history of symbolization is a progression from compact experiences and symbols to differentiated ones that takes place within the process of history. In other words, the “order of history” is the articulation of the “history of order” from compact symbols and experiences to differentiated ones which culminate in the experience of the human soul’s attunement with the invisible divine being that transcends all reality in the world.

Voegelin adopted this project of compactness and differentiation in the first three volumes of Order and History, with the human soul’s attunement to the indivisible divine being as the final reference point from which civilizations would advance or recede. The details of this project was filled with an analysis of the historical succession of the Ancient Near East with its cosmological myth, the chosen people of Israel with their prophets, the polis and its Hellenic Myth, and the development of philosophy by Plato and Aristotle as symbols of order. Although Voegelin created controversy when he asserted that Isaiah had indulged in metastatic faith – a belief that one can change the fundamental nature of reality, which Voegelin did not think was possible – it appeared that he would finish his work with Christianity as the ultimate differentiated experience and symbol of order.

When the fourth volume of Order and History was published in 1974, scholars expected Voegelin to complete the ascending branch of his project’s great cycle with a study of Christianity and then proceed down the slope with an exploration of modernity. To everyone’s surprise, Voegelin broke with his initial program, revising his theory of history so as to drop many of the Christian elements, ignoring Christian civilization after Paul, and admitting that he himself had been engaged in a project of “historiogenesis”: a unilinear and progressive construction of history where material is rearranged to allow only one line of meaning to emerge. The cause of this break was Voegelin’s discovery of the symbol of historiogenesis not in the Israelite-Christian experience but from the empires of the Ancient Near East at the end of the third millennium B.C. and then had been passed down to Sumerian, Egyptian, Israelite, Christian, and even Enlightenment civilizations. The omnipresence of the symbol of historiogenesis therefore raised doubts for Voegelin about the experiential sources of Christianity’s differentiating events and its philosophy of history. It was not from revelation but from previous civilizations where the Christian conceptions of time, history, and salvation had originated.

Voegelin also had recognized that he himself had been engaged in historiogenetic speculation with Christianity as the ultimate differentiated experience and symbol of order. One can suspect that Voegelin became convinced that his assertion that “the order of history emerges from the history of order” culminates with Christianity as its ultimate reference point was incompatible with a philosophy that rejected any claim to a finality of meaning in history. The arrival at a complete meaning in the unfinished process of history was impossible for Voegelin, as a philosopher, to accept. All we had was the search itself: the only absolute truth that humans could obtain is the search for the histories of order with no finality of meaning ever possible. Voegelin’s new project would not construct a narrative of meaningful events arranged on a timeline but rather analyze a web of meaning with a plurality of nodal points and patterns. Although this new approach was open to tracing genuine Christian strands of significance, it precluded any effort to interpret history in terms of a single, Christian meaning.

The publication of Order and History: IV brought anguished and reflective responses from an array of scholars whom Michael P. Federici’s discusses in his book, Eric Voegelin (which is part of ISI’s Library of Modern Thinkers Series). Criticisms about Voegelin’s new approach ranged from underestimating the effects of Christian revelation on the structure of reality to overestimating the relationship between Christianity and modern Gnostic movements; from focusing on Paul as the central experience of Christianity rather than Christ and His Incarnation to placing primary on Greek philosophy over Christian faith, dogma, and doctrine. These criticisms are not merely quibbles over Voegelin’s interpretation of Christianity but are a challenge to his new-founded philosophical project: is completeness of meaning in the unfinished process of history possible in principle, as Christians claim in Christ’s revelation, or is Voegelin correct that any finality of meaning in history would be impossible for the philosopher to accept?

When Voegelin discovered that his great project had to be revised, he started by refining his philosophy of consciousness and history. Affirming his belief that human consciousness was conditioned by our experience of transcendent reality, Voegelin created new concepts of metaxy, noesis, and pneumatic vision that together comprise a theory of revelation. In articles such as “Reason: The Classical Experience,” Voegelin committed himself to a metaphysics in which a transcendent deity achieved illumination in human experience because this philosophy was the only one that made the divine intelligible as an analogue of human consciousness. However, the human encounter with transcendence did not occur in the history of world events but in the internal working of human consciousness. The task of philosophy was to discover what occurred in the soul and its efforts to translate this encounter into an existential order. It would not attempt to discover anything insightful in the sequence of world affairs that would go on aimlessly forever.

Voegelin called the experience of human consciousness’ encounter with transcendent reality the “metaxy,” a term which he borrowed from Plato’s Symposium and Philebus. The metaxy is where humans participate with the divine in the realm of their consciousness. Retracing the history of symbolization of his previous three volumes, Voegelin asserted in Order and History: IV that cosmological myths, Greek philosophy, and Judaic-Christian revelation were experiential equivalents in the sense that these modes of awareness were manifestations of the same process of humans encountering the transcendent in their consciousness. Although shaped by the same process, these manifestations were different in their emphasis in our encounter with transcendence: philosophy sought to understand the divine via reason and therefore accented the human aspect of our participation, while revelation highlighted God’s participation in human mortality with its “pneumatic vision” of the prophets and Christ’s Incarnation.

Needless to say, Voegelin’s new theory of revelation gave Christian scholars pause in their consideration of Order and History: IV. According to Voegelin, Christ’s life became akin to something like a Platonic myth, which speculated about an unknown transcendent god that was apprehended in human consciousness. For Voegelin, what was significant about Christ’s news and deeds were their effect on Peter and Paul’s minds and not the feats themselves. Voegelin’s statement in Order and History: IV, “If any event in all reality has constituted meaning in history, it is Paul’s vision of the Resurrected,” is consistent with his revised philosophy of consciousness and history but strikes Christians as missing the point of Christ’s life. If any event in all reality constituted meaning in history, is not the Resurrection itself? This raises a second question about Voegelin’s revised philosophical project: does the history of order emerge only from the metaxy of human consciousness? Can there not be another history of order that comes from outside human consciousness, such as the actual birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?

How one resolve these two questions – whether finality of meaning in the unfinished process of history is possible and whether a history of order can emerge from outside the metaxy – is a tall order to say the least (not to mention the numerous other questions about Christianity, such as Gnosticism and dogma, that Order and History: IV raises). Appeals to religious authorities and scripture may provide some guidance in these matters, but only after one has been able to figure out what the church or Bible would say. Perhaps a better approach would be to continue the inquiry into these matters on their own terms and see how they will develop over time, with the understanding that there may be ultimately no resolutions to them. In either case, this obviously would be a tremendous undertaking that would worthy of another dissertation.

For myself, I am inclined to agree with Voegelin on the first question and disagree with him on the second. Since we are participants in and not objective observers of reality, we are incapable to grasp any finality of meaning in the unfinished process of history. It would also seem that any human assertion about the finality of meaning in history would limit the omnipotence of a transcendent deity. But having rejected a finality of meaning in history does not equate to philosophical relativism, for some insights into the nature of being may seem to us more correct than others, e.g., revelation and philosophy are superior to myth in their understanding the primordial field. I suspect Voegelin himself subscribed to this view with his modified concepts of compactness and differentiation in the metaxy.

The second question – whether the history of order only emerges from the metaxy – raises more questions than it answers. It seems too restrictive that revelation only occurs within the metaxy. Certainly without dogmatizing our encounter with the divine, we should be able to sense whether the movement of divine reality has emanated from the beyond or the external world. Thus, someone like Peter may not have understood the entire essence of Jesus but, nonetheless, could respond existentially to the event of Christ’s Incarnation. If this were true, it would suggest that the divine could be intelligible to humans not just in their internal consciousness but also in the external history of world events. Of course, this would require Voegelin and his followers to revisit his philosophy of consciousness, history, and metaphysics – another daunting task to be sure. But it might be the proper beginning point to resolve these and other questions that Order and History: IV raises for philosophers and theologians.


This essay was originally published with the same title in First Principles, December 8, 2008.

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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