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grounding of this early and persistent perspective in Augustinian mysticism is persuasively suggested by his previously unpublished meditations on Saint Augustine and on T. S. Eliot from the early 1930s and 1940s.1 It vivified his early and persistent insight that the individual man is the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
Voegelin was baptized and buried a Christian, the latter by process of long-deliberated choice of whose details our colleague Paul Caringella was intimately an eyewitness. Even the philosopher must face the ineluctable facts of the human condition and of his own mortality when dying and death loom as more than abstract metaphors. For his Lutheran form of interment service Voegelin asked that two passages from the New Testament be read:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die, it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (Jn. 12:24-25);
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of God abides forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).
When Eric’s wife, Lissy, asked him why he would want that second passage read, he is said to have replied, “for repentance.” 6
Does this then mean Voegelin was a Christian philosopher? While he took the fact and rich contents of revelation with utmost seriousness in all of his work, repeatedly dealing with it over the decades, the answer seems to be no. As is well-known he was no party man but sought to maintain the dispassionate, even fiercely independent stance of impartiality that he considered indispensable to the integrity of the scientific work to which he devoted his life:
“I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology. I have in my files documents labeling me a Communist, a Fascist, a National Socialist, an old Liberal, a new Liberal, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Platonist, a neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, and of course a Hegelian—not to forget that I was supposedly strongly influenced by Huey Long.”7
Keeping People at a Certain Distance
In a related vein Voegelin wrote professor (later U.S. Senator from North Carolina) John East as follows:
“The ‘pre-Reformation Christian’ [label you mention] is a joke. I never have written any such thing. These canards arise because I frequently have to ward off people who want to ‘classify’ me. When somebody wants me to be a Catholic or a Protestant, I tell him that I am a ‘pre-Reformation Christian.’ If he wants to nail me down as a Thomist or Augustinian, I tell him I am a ‘pre-Nicene Christian.’ And if he wants to nail me down earlier, I tell him that even Mary the Virgin was not a member of the Catholic Church. I have quite a number of such stock answers for people who pester me after a lecture; and then they get talked around as authentic information on my ‘position.'”8
Since there is no wrath like a dogmatist scorned, however, Voegelin was excoriated and calumniated by religious, ideological, and secularist zealots of all shades–and still is.
The Primary Philosophical Problem
But he accepted self-designation as a mystic-philosopher, perhaps to distinguish himself from the odd personalities sometimes inhabiting academic philosophy departments, and to identify his work as palpably like that (by his analysis) of the Hellenic philosophers of antiquity. As we read in The World of the Polis:
“The [ancient] mystic-philosophers break with the myth because they have discovered a new source of truth in their souls. The ‘unseemly’ gods of Homer and Hesiod must pale before the invisible harmony of the transcendental realissimum; and the magnificent Homeric epic that was enacted on the two planes of gods and men must sink to the level of ‘poetry’ when the drama of the soul with its intangible, silent movements of love, hope, and faith toward the sophon is discovered [by Heraclitus].”9
If the exploration of the human relationship to the transcendent divine Ground of being is the cardinal problem of philosophy, as Voegelin thought, and if he devoted his life to the task in its manifest diversity over time from prehistory into the present, the designation seems appropriate enough. As he explained to Alfred Schütz on one occasion:
“Philosophizing seems to me to be in essence the interpretation of experiences of transcendence . . . . There are degrees in the differentiation of experiences. I would take it as a principle of philosophizing that the philosopher must include in his interpretation the maximally differentiated experiences . . . . Now with Christianity a decisive differentiation has occurred.”10
If in the course of his work of a lifetime he concluded that the open exploration of Man’s tension toward transcendent divine being (while the universal attribute of mankind experienced-symbolized in many modes) is most optimally conducted in the light of the revelatory experiences of prophets and apostles, and the pneumatic-noetic exegesis by Greek philosophers of equivalent experiences, it is not too surprising that he should especially admire these
The Superior Anselmian Technique
But more than this: In the confluence of these currents with medieval Christian mystic-philosophy, the fides quaerens intellectum of Anselm, Aquinas, and Eckhart, Voegelin saw a form of meditative technical philosophizing never surpassed, one that remains paradigmatic into the present. In that specific sense Voegelin may, after all, be a Christian philosopher: not by partisanship or creedal profession but by discerning and validating experientially the superiority found in perfecting the contemplative life, a superiority implicit from distant antiquity and one that he sought in his own life.11
In this practice of meditative philosophy, he pushed well beyond conventional understanding to insist that Reason (nous in Plato and Aristotle) is itself a revelation (not merely “natural”) and that the contemplative activity of rational inquiry emerges as a divine-human participation from questions that arise in the first place “because you have that divine kinesis in you that moves you to be interested.”
Natural Reason as a Gift of God
So-called “‘natural reason’ is due to God’s grace,” and it lies at the very heart of philosophy itself. The movement in reality, which has become luminous to itself in noetic consciousness, has indeed unfolded its full meaning in the Pauline vision [citing esp. Col. 2:9 and Rom. 8:22—23] and its exegesis through myth:
“The symbolism of the man who can achieve freedom from cosmic Ananke, who can enter into the freedom of God, redeemed by the loving grace of the God who is himself free of the cosmos, consistently differentiates the truth of existence that has become visible in the philosophers’ experience of athanatizein [immortalizing], as in Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1177b35.”12
This settled analytical conclusion of the late Voegelin, with its far- reaching implications, gives cold comfort to radical secularists, naturalists, materialists, and sundry relativists for whom separation of “religion” from “philosophy” in experience and rational inquiry may be fervently axiomatic–if anything is!
The Tolerance of a Mystic
Finally, the insistent exclusivity of putative “Christian” (doctrinal) truth Voegelin tempered with the mystic’s tolerance as expressed by Jean Bodin, who wrote: “Do not allow conflicting opinions about religion to carry you away; only bear in mind this fact: genuine religion is nothing other than the sincere direction of a cleansed mind toward God.”13 And the universality of Christ Voegelin grandly understood in accord with Thomas Aquinas, who:
“asks ‘whether Christ be the head of all men’ (ST [Summa theologiae] III.8.2), and [who] answers unequivocally that he is the head of all men, indeed, and that consequently the Mystical Body of the Church consists of all men who have, and will have, existed from the beginning of the world to its end . . . . [Thus] the symbolism of Incarnation would express the experience, with a date in history, of God reaching into man and revealing Him as the Presence that is the flow of Presence from the beginning of the world to its end. History is Christ written large.”14
Elsewhere Voegelin writes:
“The Christ is the mystery of God in reality; in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; for in him the divine reality, the theotes, is present in its whole fulness (pan to pleroma); and by responding to this maximal fulness through faith, all men will achieve the fulness of their own existence (pepleromenoi).”15
Therefore, the real question may not be whether Voegelin was Christian, but whether Christianity is sufficiently Voegelinian to hold its place intellectually and spiritually in the unfolding reality experienced in modern human existence. Or is he, too, to be passed over and shunted aside like some of his great predecessors, beginning with Meister Eckhart?
A Postscript: Mysticism in Voegelin’s Philosophy
Already in his 1928 book On the Form of the American Mind, the 27-year old Voegelin found the key to Jonathan Edwards’ thought in his departure from Calvinist dogma and the open embrace of a pantheistic mysticism, especially in his late work. Voegelin sympathetically and powerfully related Edwards’ philosophizing to the subsequent thought of Charles Peirce, to William James’ pure experience and pluralistic universe, and even to George Santayana’s metaphysics, finding it uniquely and representatively American. Thus, Voegelin wrote:”In the United States . . . ideas did not follow any skeptical tradition but worked with the ‘openness’ of the self; the naive juxtaposition of God and man remains intact.” (CW 1, 140-42, italics added)
Five years later in confronting Nazi race theory and its reductionist biologism he declared that the knowledge of man has come to grief and looked to Thomas à Kempis for succor. The primal image is evoked in Jesus:
“Man must live according to the example of Christ and follow him. Every day is to be lived as if it were the last, and the soul should always be anxious for the world beyond the senses. Perfect calm of the soul can be found only in the eternal gaze upon God.” (CW 3, History of the Race Idea, 4)
Another five years on he concluded his little Political Religions book with a Jeremiah-like evocation of spiritual fervor by quoting the admonitions of the anonymous 14th century mystic known only as the Frankfurter and his German Theology condemning as satanic the new Nazi religiosity (along with similar movements):
“The inner-worldly religiosity experienced by the collective body–be it humanity, the people, the class, the race, or the state–as the realissimum is abandonment of God . . . [it] is anti-Christian renunciation.” (CW 5, Modernity Without Restraint, 71).
Many other examples come to mind, of course. The very opening line of Order and History (written in 1956) glows with the insight of the mystic philosopher and is unintelligible apart from its illumination: “God, man, world, and society form a primordial community of being.” In the preface to the book occurs a definition indicative of the meditative scope of the enterprise: “Philosophy is the love of being through the love of divine Being as the source of its order.” (OH 1 [1956 edn], pp. 1 & xiv).
Voegelin’s Late Insights
Nearly a decade later (1964) in his lectures introducing political science to students in Munich, Voegelin stressed the ontological perspective controlling the discourse and the ambiguity of the term present which can mean a point lying between past and future and the:
“other meaning of the present, in which the present is always related to the existence of man in his presence under God. [Thus], while existing and acting in immanent time–man [also] exists under God, he has presence [so that everyman lives not only] within the immanent process [but also] under the judgment of the Presence.” (CW 31, 71)
Voegelin stressed that this abiding dimension of reality is sturdy enough to withstand all human rebellion: “Even if Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche thoroughly murder God and explain him away as dead, divine Being remains eternal and man must still get on with living his life sealed by his creatureliness and by death.” (Ibid., 262)
Finally the old mystic philosopher twenty years later in his deathbed meditation “Quod deus dicitur” (1985) found in Anselm’s Proslogion the optimal form of philosophizing itself whereby the open inquiry into the heights and depths of reality arrives at the pinnacle moment as the meditative consciousness prayerfully attains the limit of the soul’s noetic ascent: “O Lord, you are not only that than which a greater cannot be conceived, but you are also greater than what can be conceived.” Voegelin comments:
“The noetic quest of Anselm thus assumes the form of a prayer for an understanding of the symbols of faith through the human intellect . . . . The true source of the Anselmian effort [is] the living desire of the soul to move toward the divine light. The divine reality lets the light of its perfection fall into the soul; the illumination of the soul arouses the awareness of man’s existence in a state of imperfection; and this awareness provokes the human movement in response to the divine appeal.” (CW 12, 383)
1. See Eric Voegelin, CW 2:8-10 (Max Scheler); CW 3:3-5 (Thomas à Kempis and Christ); Political Religions, in CW 5:71, 73; “The German University and the Order of German Society: A Reconsideration of the Nazi Era ,” in CW 12:1-35 ad fin, quoting Ezek. 33:7-9; “Notes on Augustine: Time and Memory,” in CW 32: 483-501, dated ca. 1931-32 by the editors; “Notes on T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets ” in CW 33:33-40, dated in the early 1940s by the editors. The Dante epigraph (per me si va ne la citta dolente) is from the Divine Comedy; Inferno, Canto 3, line 1, printed in CW 5:20. For related discussion see below herein, chap. 8.
2. Eric Voegelin, “Herrschaftslehre,” MS chap. 1, p. 7 (ca. 1931); full citation in Sandoz, VR, 275n31; given below herein in chap. 8. The Herrschaftslehre is translated as chap. 4, “The Theory of Governance,” in CW 32:224-372.
3. Voegelin, “The German University,” in CW 12:7.
4. Eric Voegelin, “Reason: The Classic Experience,” ibid., 265-91, at 290: “All ‘philosophies of history’ which hypostatize society or history as an absolute, eclipsing personal existence and its meaning, are excluded as false.”
5. Barry Cooper, Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 10. Cf. Voegelin, The Political Religions, in CW 5:19-73, at 24.
6. Personal communication from Paul Caringella by e-mail on Jan. 23, 2000.
7. Eric Voegelin, AR, 46.
8. Eric Voegelin to John P. East, July 18, 1977, in Hoover Institution Archives, Eric Voegelin Papers, microfilm reel 10.23. This letter was kindly called to my attention by Professor Timothy Hoye. Cf. William M. Thompson, “Eric Voegelin: A Pre-Nicene Christian?” The Ecumenist 38 (2001): 10-13; also see Ellis Sandoz, “Eric Voegelin a Conservative?” in The Politics of Truth and Other Untimely Essays: The Crisis of Civic Consciousness (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), chap. 9.
9. Eric Voegelin, OH II, The World of the Polis, CW 15:311.
10. Eric Voegelin to Alfred Schütz, Jan. 1, 1953, in The Philosophy of Order. Essays on History; Consciousness, and Politics: For Eric Voegelin on His 80th Birthday, January 3, 1981, ed. Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981), 450.
11. Cf. Eric Voegelin, “Quod Deus Dicitur,” in CW 12:376-94, and the analysis in Sandoz, VR, 258-63; see herein chap. 8.
12. Conversations with Eric Voegelin, ed. R. Eric O’Connor, Thomas More Institute Papers vol. 76 (Montreal: Thomas More Institute, 980), 138-40; reprinted in CW 33:243—343. Cf. Eric Voegelin, “The Beginning and the Beyond;.A Meditation on Truth,” in CW 28:209-32. On Nous as revelatory, see “noetic pneumatic theophany” in Eric Voegelin, OH IV, The Ecumenic Age, CW 17:96-97, 305-308, 315- 17, 324-25, 337, 375. Quoted extract from 316.
13. Jean Bodin’s 1563 letter to Jean Bautru, as quoted in Sandoz, VR, 268, 276n37. See herein chap. 8 at n4l.
14. Eric Voegelin “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” in CW 12:78. The symbolism of the divine experienced as “flowing presence” is fully developed in Eric Voegelin, “Eternal Being in Time,” in CW 6:312-37, esp. 329-30. Cf. Paul Caringella, “Voegelin: Philosopher of Divine Presence,” in Eric Voegelin’s Significance for the Modern Mind, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 174-205. Voegelin routinely referred to Jesus as “the Savior” and “the Messiah” in the first volume of History of Political Ideas, written in the early 1940s; e.g., Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, vol. I, Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity, CW 19:108, 109, 119, 15If, 153, 162 f., 182 f. Among important late writings reflecting upon the meaning of Christ as revealed in scripture see esp. “The Gospel and Culture,” in CW 12:172-212, with particular attention to the analysis of Col. 2:9 at 192 ff.; see also Hitler and the Germans, CW 31:204-209.
15. “The Beginning and the Beyond,” in CW 28:173-232, at 183.
This excerpt is from Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America (University of Missouri Press, 2006) and notes from a talk delivered by Ellis Sandoz at the redux meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society held at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge on October 20, 2012.