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A Revisit to the Voegelin Essay: “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History”

A Revisit To The Voegelin Essay: “Equivalences Of Experience And Symbolization In History”

Part I: A Short Summary

Voegelin’s essay on equivalences was written 50 years ago in 1970; it has been an essay with continued popular interest to Voegelin scholars throughout its history. It is included among the published essays in Volume 12 of the Voegelin Collected Works.  Voegelin writes that the search for the constants of human order in society and history is enabled by a study of the symbols that the experiences of order have engendered.  While there have been comparative studies which work on symbols, values, equivalent cults and myths, Voegelin continues, there has always been the awareness that the sameness “which justifies the language” of constants extends to the experiences which have engendered the symbols. These experiences represent “what is permanent” in human history.

There are three parts to this essay. In Part I Voegelin explains that the equivalents are human insights into our own humanity. They carry the truth of existence revealed in the symbolized experiences of our human predecessors. Moreover, Voegelin insists, the constants cannot be observed by means of objective outside observation.  Rather, inherited constants of order are accessible only through the conscious tension of one’s “participation in reality”. They are singly gained when recognized by those whose own existence “has been formed through intellectual discipline in openness to reality”.  Secondly, and unfortunately, such openness on the part of individual human beings has been severely hampered “by the survival of the general deformation of experiential symbols into doctrines”.[1]  Both noetic and pneumatic symbols have become extinct. “A new fundamentalism” exists which is a belief “that existential truth is doctrine”.  The “secondary reality” of doctrine (hence, without the experiences and their symbols), closes the soul to the constants of experiential insights into who and what we are as human beings, as created in his Image by the Divine.

What can be done? Voegelin answers the question in Parts II and III of this essay. He writes that the motivation for his excursus into ‘equivalents’ is his concern for the full realization of humanity.  In Part II, Voegelin explains the realization of our humanity can only be gained through a life consciously lived in the tension that has the structure of the “In-Between”.  He provides several examples of the latter:  between time and timelessness, order and disorder, truth and untruth, the open and the closed soul. The goal is that persons live in the tension of conscious participation in reality, with lives enhanced by experiences of the “constants” of order.  Voegelin’s own carefully retrieved symbols, the “Beginning and the Beyond” exemplify a simple form of existence in the In-Between.  These symbols facilitate the continued realization of humanity by individual persons. As symbols of human order the Beginning and the Beyond clarify what Voegelin means by the phrase, “life lived in the In-Between”. These symbols materialize the perennial experiences proper to animate spirits.  In sum, reality itself is to be interpreted and embraced only in this manner:  it becomes luminous to itself within persons’ consciously experienced participation in the tension of In-Between existence.

In Part III of his essay, Voegelin provides an attentive analysis that reveals a further search beyond the level of experience and engendered symbols is necessary. A new, ultimate symbol is required to Veogelin’s investigation. First, Voegelin intends to avoid a hypostasis of experience, a Hegelian system to end all systems.  Secondly, there is the contemporary deformation of experiences through ‘dogmatomachy’.  There are thus few if any socially effective guides that can instigate humanity’s participation in Reality within its contemporary social environments.  Wherefore Voegelin directs us to an exploration of the “depth of the soul” to mine insights from the dynamic Reality there, out of which equivalents emerge.   The human psyche is the matrix of experiences of order; its depth is below human consciousness.  The ‘depth’ itself is the symbol which preserves the apprehension of the fundamental site inherent in the human soul “that surrounds and comprehends the area of conscious experience”. The depth is unbounded. A kinship to the primordial field of the depth of the cosmos emerges within it.   The “Substance of the Beyond” is encountered there.

Hence, each human person can and must descend into and explore this depth.  It is fisterra, the “journey’s end”.  The equivalent experiences of primordial order arise from it; authoritative consciousness is “in continuity with its own depth”.    Continued efforts to plumb this nexus of the constants of experience by human beings in history will renew and rescue human nature. Each generation must regain the truth carried in these equivalent experiences in history’s constants.  Such efforts are called for especially in times of deformation.  Voegelin uses the symbol of death and resurrection to speak of the renewal of humanity, and the rescue from its deformation, achieved in the ascent from the experiences of the depth of the psyche and the encounter with Reality beyond consciousness ‘there’.

Part II: A Conversation with The Essay

The conversation I would like to instigate addresses Voegelin’s explicit connection between a human person’s conscious participation in Reality with the actual realization of his or her humanity.[2]  As Ellis Sandoz has written, Voegelin’s analysis of the discovery of the depth within the psyche and the Beyond encounter ‘there’ is the basis for defining human beings as spiritual.  Spirit, as a conscious openness of human beings to the Divine Ground of existence, is essential to the conformation of the human being into the image of God[3].  Voegelin contended that the historical events of the Self-disclosure of the Divine through encounters with graced individuals occasioned the full actualization of the common essence of man as “theomorphic.[4] My discussion proposes a hopeful theory for the practicality of a universal model that opens “everyman” to share in these experiences.   It should be noted that I will include insights from the “pneumatic differentiation of consciousness to complement Voegelin noetic vocabulary in “Equivalences”.[5]  From both perspectives, the constants in experience are “leaps in being through a differentiation of consciousness” that beget insights into the human species itself. The revelatory encounters of graced individuals with the Divine that have occurred as unique historical experiences (“hierophanies”) have fostered the spiritual realization by the collective human race of its unique nature as imago Dei.[6]

From a contemporary perspective my conversation with this essay concerns Voegelin’s theological/philosophical anthropology.  Of course, Voegelin would reject the designation of his work as an anthropology as already fatally corrupted by “doctrinaire ideologies”.[7]  Rather he articulates the creation of the human species in history as God’s own image dynamically, with symbolisms of Divine/human engagement.  Voegelin’s thesis is that humanity is formed as the Imago Dei in history.  This occurs through the opening of the soul in the meditative act.[8] “Thus Voegelin wrote, “the human being “become[s] conscious of divine reality as moving his humanity . . . through a presence reaching into his soul from the Beyond in which the his response become[s] luminous as the immortalizing countermovement toward the Beyond.”[9]  Voegelin contended, as he does in the present essay, that the suppression of the symbols of the human being by anthropological doctrines would obstruct the relationship proper to personhood  molded in openness to the “presence of God at the borders of the soul”.[10]  The “Equivalences” essay’s premise is that the realization of human nature itself rests upon the existential faith nurtured by the  undeformed engendered symbols. Hence, one can sense a tone of urgency in this essay.

Ellis Sandoz relates that Voegelin had persistently questioned the dichotomy in the Thomistic theological tradition between nature/supernatural grace.[11]  The tradition’s dual perspective has produced a static notion of human nature—i.e. human beings are “rational animals”.  Boethius’s definition is open to the study of human nature as a ‘given’ without relationship to the Divine.  When the Creator is put in parenthesis in the study of human nature, analysis of what is human can produce the closed soul as well the secularization of consciousness that has invaded modern humanity.  For example, university students study anthropology and sociology with no reference to the Divine Creator. Experiences of the Divine within are supererogatory.  Because one is already fully human, a religious bond with God can become a matter of personal choice.   In contrast, Voegelin explains the human being as essentially in relationship to the Divine; the essence of being human rests upon our unique mystic capacity.  Thus for Voegelin, the constituents of humanness include our consciousness of the Divine within as constitutive of human nature.  Thus, the loss of the participatory experience in the structure of reality within contemporary humanity for Voegelin is a wound,[12] a fatal deformation of the ‘theomorphic’ character of human nature.

I contend that Voegelin is writing about indispensable but nonetheless common human experiences in his essay.[13]  Because no one can teach or induce participatory experience in another, the experiences essential to being human must be personal to each one of us.   In short, because ‘everyman’ has Augustine’s restless heart, each human person is being Divinely called to open his/her soul to the Beyond encountered in faith within the “depths”.    There is a phrase I first encountered in the EVForum: “the common mysticism of humanity” that I will utilize in my dialogue with Voegelin on these prerequisite experiences integral to being human. What is “the common mysticism of humanity”? The word, mysticism, fits into the larger category of the religious. By definition, religion is the nascent questing for the Divine, itself being informed through Divine responsive ‘Spirit” gifts.  The characteristics of religion emerge early in life. Humanity’s religious propensities are initially birthed in childhood wonder.  The wonder arises from our nature’s transcendental orientation[14],  imperatives that reveal a dynamic transcendence operating deep within each human being. The essentials of the virtue named religion lie in these inner movements of the soul.[15] Mysticism represents a success in this quest in that the yearning for the Divine is answered with an experience of union with God informing human questing.[16] It arises within the faith that is born of religious love.[17]

Thus religious action begins the journey to the union of mysticism. But what is a “common mysticism?”  The philosopher Henri Bergson defined mysticism as the achievement by history’s religious geniuses of contact “with the creative effort which life itself manifests—“of God then, if not God himself”.[18]  The mystic, he writes (echoing Voegelin) “is illuminated by the presence of God in the soul”.  Such individuals transcend the limits of our species imposed by matter. This form of experience is accompanied by great joy and light.  Bergson writes that mysticism is very rare.  Eventually these mystic experiences generate religion’s unique symbolizations. When these symbols are engaged by ordinary human beings “there is in the innermost being of most men the whisper of an echo,” Bergson writes.[19] That echo, carried in religious symbols present in our common lives together, and fertile in the souls of ordinary human beings, can spawn “a common mysticism of humanity”.  That echo I believe, when deliberately heard and embraced in faith, hope, and love through this common mysticism, will open persons to the experiences of the Divine within the depths of the soul.  Hence, the “echo’s” active presence is able to uphold the human being as imago Dei. It can serve also as a common or universal origin for the dynamic realization of human nature.[20]

What experiences would “a common mysticism of humanity” entail? The Voegelian symbols—the “Beginning and the Beyond” are intended by him to express common human experiences.   Voegelin identified several In-Between experiences that arise from consciousness of the process of reality in his essay on “Equivalences”.   I have provided several examples already. The Beginning and the Beyond as symbols initially may only provoke a “cosmological consciousness” of the existence of a Superior Reality who creates and sustains the world.   Yet human mystic yearning never remains static; it is a progress to union with the Divine by its very definition.[21]  The records of mystics’ writings, who have successfully plumbed the depths of psyche and experienced the Divine “presence or flow of presence” there,  reveal how abnegating and dedicated one who yearns for the mystic experience must live and why it is rare. However, if it is to be designated as common, experiences of the depths in the “common mysticism” will be generated within conventual activities for those majority of human beings living out secular callings.  My theory is that “everyman’s” encounter of the depth is more likely to occur in experiences of human conscience.  Except for the sociopath, conscience is a universally experienced and familiar symbol.

There is a long history of the study of conscience by scholars.  Past studies of conscience have their own problematics.  In fact, the historical field of research into conscience provides several examples of what Voegelin detailed as the deformation of symbols by propositional doctrines to establish dogmatic truth.  Nonetheless, I believe that the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, which  offers two very different summary definitions of conscience, one experiential and the other doctrinal, has explained what conscience is without deforming its reality. The first definition is experiential: “Conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (#1795).   The second definition is systematized but it conveys the work of conscience in an active manner: “Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (#1796).[22]  Conscience is a presence, a judge, a provider of common moral sensibility in these definitions.  And with effort and humility, one can hear God speaking to us in it.

St. Thomas Aquinas has written at length on conscience; he is the source of the second definition above.  In comparison to the first definition which is from John Henry Newman’s “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”, Aquinas does reify and “thin out” what conscience is. He explains its acts as arising from the habit or power of understanding moral principles.   And in doing so he managed to secure the inviolable freedom of conscience based upon human intellectual ability to know the natural law apart from ecclesial Inquisitional rulers. Moreover, Aquinas situates conscience in the “hexis” of synderesis which in theological tradition is rooted in mysticism.[23]  First, Aristotle’s hexis becomes the Latin habitus for Thomas, which is the active formal cause that creates the essence of  human nature[24].  Secondly, and more importantly, the provenance of synderesis lies in mystic experiences; it includes the views of St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and others, who held to the belief that a part of the human soul exists in openness to God.[25]

The Catechism descriptions that attempt to explain the experiences of conscience, whether it is its mystical genesis or the constancy of its experiences, reveal its essential role for establishing the common mysticism of humanity. The late Cardinal Newman defined conscience both as common and as mystic activity.   As mentioned above, Newman is the writer who pinpointed conscience as “the voice of God” within human souls: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, . . Its voice ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at just the right moment.”  This quote from Newman’s on conscience ‘as speaking’ indicates a Divine illuminating reality inhabiting the depths within the soul “at man’s most secret core”[26].   This Reality is fully alive, a loving guide, and habitually a mystic presence.  And it is also an universal human experience.  Remembrance of the prodding of conscience is an everyday phenomenon—who has not seen pictures representing conscience through an angel and a devil speaking into human ears?  Thus conscience is both a spiritual presence and it is pertinent to everyday reality. And it is personal, in that its voice arises from within oneself, sometimes with nagging insistence that will not cease.

There are several conclusions that arise from Newman’s comprehensive definitions of conscience pertinent to the present conversation.  First, the guidance of conscience, while not strictly meditative, is a process opening the soul to a voice in its depths.  Second, because conscience involves considerations of goodness versus evil, persons consciously experience Voegelin’s In-Between.  Conscience thus provokes experiences of the inescapable tension of existence. Its activity is a participation in concrete In-Between moments of existence provoked by its engagement with the truths of Good and Evil, right and wrong choices.  Experiences that conscience entails carry the truth of the In-Between:  one can never fully get it right; we perpetually are “missing the mark”.  Third, conscience opens the human being up to the attraction of the Good, eventually, if not deliberately hindered, to a love of its Divine Source. Fourth, its mysterious voice represents not only an In-Between experience, but also Bergson’s echoes of mystic contact with God.  Finally, as a common source of moral guidance for “everyman”, conscience reveals what is “common” to being human.  It has the power to assist in the realization of our shared humanity.

In sum, conscience is experienced as personal, persistent, and reliable.  One has to work hard to ignore it; it is there, deep within one.  For the purposes of a common mysticism of humanity, the Divine within is demonstrated as discoverable for those who are sufficiently attuned to its soliloquies within their consciences.  Hence while it is more usual in Christian tradition to speak of  “the Gift of the Spirit” who guides our thinking from within the soul as a baptismal effect, the tradition has also held that conscience as the voice of God is a universal and unique endowment of all human beings.  The experience of the Divine light within to guide moral reasoning is thus a gift included in the creation of human nature. It is integrally formative of that nature.

If the common mysticism of humanity has been enabled by experiences of conscience to plumb the “depths” of the soul, the symbols of the experience of conscience for human beings attentive enough to it can work an initial consciousness of participation in the tension of Reality that is the Goodness of God called for in Voegelin’s essay.  Furthermore, conscience as experiences of moral imperatives promote a progress towards the mystical encounter with the Divine for human persons.  The Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan, S.J., has demonstrated that fidelity to the voice of conscience will lead to religious embrace of the perfectly good. I write this due to the fact that he has explained in detail about “this ascent” in his work on the transcendental imperatives that are inherent spiritual attributes of human beings.  The four imperatives—operating on the levels of experience, understanding, judgment of truth, and moral responsibility—are precepts that allow the human being to progress from ignorance to truth. They culminate in a moral self-transcendence that Lonergan identifies as religious conversion.[27]  In each stage of transcendence the question of God arises, Lonergan writes, but in the moral realm, when self-transcendence becomes an unrestricted desire for the Good Itself, which in conscience is encountered from the depths of one’s being, the virtue of religion as “eros” towards God creates a dynamic state of consciousness which creates the receptivity in human nature for the Divine creative grace of faith. This faith creates the actual relationality with the Divine which in turn forms one into the imago Dei.[28]

In sum, unlimited moral transcendence is not only a key to the possibilities of “a common mysticism of humanity” based upon the fact of conscience, it is also the realization in time of one’s humanness according to Voegelin’s mandates.  This is because unlimited moral transcendence, “a being-in-love” also is the defining moment of religious conversion.  Lonergan has defined faith as “knowledge born of religious love”.  This knowing, existential and experiential, can be aptly described as an event of the luminosity irrupting within reality from the secret core forming human conscience.  I can sum up this conversation’s thesis at this point. When a person follows the secret voice speaking in conscience, he can live out a common mysticism that actualizes human beings as Imago Dei.  Human nature is simply not a “given”.  This point is central to Voegelin’s essay that concludes with the necessity of the discovery of the Substance of the Beyond within the depths of the psyche for the realization of humanity.  And it is central to the Judeo/Christian “pneumatic” tradition. “To be an image of God implies relationality.  It is the dynamic in motion towards the totally Other. . .. Human beings are most profoundly themselves when they discover their relationship with the Creator”.[29]



[1] Voegelin has written often about the deformation caused by attempts to re-articulate the “experiences of the truth of existence” in terms of doctrines, propositions, and systems.  This quote is from EA, Volume 4, of Order and History, p. 48.

[2] Voegelin articulates his thesis eruditely and often.  For example, in his study of the early Greek philosophers he quotes Heraclitus: “The Logos is what men have in common”, (OH,2, p. 232).

[3] Ellis Sandoz, Give Me Liberty (S. Bend, Indiana:  St. Augustine Press, 2013), p. 87.

[4] Sandoz, p. 87.

[5] Volumes 1-3 of Order & History define these two differentiations of human consciousness—of mind and spirit—comprehensively.

[6] The words are in quotation marks because they are the exact words Voegelin uses in his explanation of the thrust of order into human history.  The first three volumes of Order and History are a study  of the leaps in being through the Divine Intervention in history to work foundational differentiations of consciousness through uniquely chosen persons for the sake of the realization of the potentials inherent in human nature. They are the differentiations of Truth and of Spirit, or in Voegelin’s words, noetic and pneumatic.

[7] William Petropulos, “The Person as Imago Dei: Augustine and Max Scheler in Eric Voegelin’s Herrschaftslehre and Political Religions” in Glenn Hughes, ed., The Politics of the Soul, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, Publishers, Inc., 1999), pp. 108-109.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Eric Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, O&H, Vol. 4 (Baton Rouge & London:  LSU Press, 1974), “Introduction”, See p. 16.

[10] The quote is from St. Augustine.  See Note 22.

[11] Sandoz, p. 90.  The authentic portrayal of human nature is in line with Voegelin’s writings on the subject.  We could point to Scholasticism as reifying Aquinas’ writings on human nature.  See Benedict XVI, In the Beginning (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), pp. 44-49).  “The image of God implies relationality”.

[12] Voegelin sometimes uses the phrase, “a spiritual disease”.

[13] Voegelin’s thesis is that there have been special human carriers of spiritual outburst who have experienced Divine “hierophanies” with revelatory insights into humanity’s relationship to the Divine. The result for the human species has been the gain of a differentiated consciousness for humanity, which can be characterized as “leaps in being” for the human species itself.  See Voegelin’s “Introduction” in Volume 4 of Order and History, The Ecumenic Age. The point being made in the text is that all human beings must share in the unforgoable God/human relations revealed to these individuals.

[14] Bernard Lonergan, S. J., Method in Theology (The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 3 – 20.

[15] See Voegelin’s writings on the virtue of religion and the Stoics, EA, pp. 43-48.

[16] Max, Scheler, On the Eternal in Man (New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers, 2010), p. 65.  “Love stirred within us.  At first we thought it our love—love of God—our love of Him.  We came to know it for His love—the love of God.  His love for us.”

[17] Bernard Lonergan, S.J., MIT, p. “Faith is knowledge born of religious love”.  p. 115.

[18] Henre Bergson, Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1977,1978,1986), Chapter 3, “Dynamic Religion”, pp. 209-

[19] Ibid., p. 214.

[20] Voegelin’s writings on Heraclitus are very helpful for explanations of what human beings share in “common” that in turn constitutes a common humanity. It is the “wisdom” of in Logos in the depths of the psyche.   Order & History, 2, pp. 229-240.

[21] For example, see St. Bonaventure, The Journey to the Mind of God, Bonaventure divides this mystical journey into 7 stages which the aspiring mystic must follow (purgative, illuminative, unitive categories are explained in more detail).

[22] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Double Day:  An Image Book, 1995), pp. 490-495.

[23] Many theological writers have claimed that the “habitus”, (properly designated as hexis or the form of humanity) named synderesis is the source of conscience.  Synderesis names that dynamic at “the center of the soul” formed by the very presence of God.  Synderesis will be presented in this paper as the technical source of the common mysticism of humanity.  It is the proper theological term for the irrepressible moral capacity of  human beings, and their erotic impulsion for the Good.  Conscience, which is a universal and common experience of human beings is rooted in this created center of the soul filled and illuminated by the Indwelling Trinity. The discussion of synderesis is however a separate topic.  For an excellent summary of writings in the Christian tradition on conscience and synderesis, see Timothy Potts, Conscience in Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge, London, New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[24] In Aristotle’s psychology, which Aquinas utilizes in his explanations, a thing comes into real beingness in 3 phases—potency, form, actuality.  Hexis is the formal cause which answers the questions, “What is it?”  See D.W. Hamlyn, Aristotle De Anima, Books II and III, Clarendon Aristotle Series (Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 82ff.

[25] See Note 22.

[26] John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”, Section V., “Conscience”.

[27] Lonergan, MIT, pp. 104-107.

[28]Although this has not been written about as far as I know, we could credit Lonergan as providing an initial phenomenology of “the baptism of desire” in his writings on religion as moral self-transcendence and faith.

[29] See note 11, Pope Benedict XVI, In the Beginning, pp. 47-48.

Macon BoczekMacon Boczek

Macon Boczek

Macon Boczek is a Board Member of VoegelinView and has been an active member of the Eric Voegelin Society since 2001, after she earned a doctorate in Roman Catholic Systematic Theology from Duquesne University. She has a B.S. in Education and M.A. in both Religious Studies and Philosophy. She has taught at John Carroll University in Ohio and Kent State University, where she is currently on the faculty of the Religious Studies Department.

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