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The Role of Dogma in History from Conversations

The Role Of Dogma In History From Conversations

The following is a transcript of a discussion held at the Thomas More Institute on November 9, 1970. Participants were Eric Voegelin, Erin O’Connor, Charlottee Tansey, and Cathleen Going.


cathleen going: I wonder if the formulators of dogma are not really stating that which we would understand if we understood.

eric voegelin: No, they are quite clear about the solution of a philosophical problem, but the philosophical problem itself is fal­laciously constructed.

I don’t have that philosophical problem, therefore the answer is of comparatively little interest except as a historical phenomenon. If you have two natures you have to get them together in one person. But if you don’t make assumptions about two natures it’s no problem.

going: But also if you have God and man–and the man is monogenes theos–and if you’re going to say one more thing and not just repeat that, what are you going to say?

voegelin: Nothing. Anything more you say is fallacious mis­construction.

eric o’connor: Well, you mean it will be when it’s passed to some­one else? Or do you mean your thinking about that is fallacious? I’m just trying to see what you’re saying, because you obviously have thought about it and come to a conclusion.

voegelin: No. The Father-and-Son symbolism is an old Egyp­tian symbolism. Every pharaoh is the son of God. You can trace historically that only the cultic representative of social order is the son of God–only the pharaoh, nobody else.

Then you get, in the Exodus story, the transfer of the son of God from the pharaoh to the Chosen People: “my son, my first-born” is Israel. In the Gospel you get the further transfer: “This is my Son, my first-born in whom I have my pleasure” (in the John the Baptist scene).

So you can trace that, and what it amounts to is the realization that the existential presence of God is experienced in existence in consciousness. And if you go beyond that, well, then you do one of these misconstructions.

The Origin of Dogma: Minimizing Harm

Of course when there is a social environment of misconstruction, you have to do something about it. That is the origin of dogma.

o’connor: I follow what you are saying.

voegelin: You see, the dogma has a very important social func­tion: to avoid certain misconstructions and show, if the miscon­structions are socially dominant, how at least to handle them so as to avoid the worst consequences. But if you don’t live in the particular environment of, say, the fourth century, and therefore do not think in Hellenistic categories of these natures–

going: But what do you say to Madame Guyon? If you are not completely imbedded in the cultural context of Madame Guyon, what do you say to her?

voegelin: What [Msgr.Ronald] Knox would say. Look at the chapter on Ma­dame Guyon or the chapter on Wesley in Knox’s Enthusiasm. You will see what you have to say. I think he is right in his criticism of that kind of mysticism.

going: In others words, there is a tradition against which you check.

Voegelin: Oh, yes. The tradition is always the structure of consciousness. That is reality. And in many respects, it is better worked out in the classic philosophy then anywhere in Christian­ity. The Platonic analyses are frequently better. One doesn’t see these things in context because they have become so compart­mentalized.

When you look, say, at the parable of the cave in the Politeia–where the man is turned toward the wall and then is forced to turn around and walk up toward the light in order to see the light–that is obviously a description of an experience of overcoming a resistance to turn around, being overcome by that pull of new force (by Divine Grace, or intervention, or whatever you wish to call it).

Now what is the difference between this force compelling you to turn around, in Plato, and the vision of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus? I don’t know what the difference is.

going: And what about the subsequent attempts to say how the being-turned-around relates to the turning-around–the whole history of relating grace and freedom?

voegelin: The existential experience is that there is an element of human searching (the zetesis, in the classical sense) and an element of being drawn by God (the helkein). These are the two experiences you have. There’s a dynamics in your existence. The tension is that of being drawn not only by a force of which you have never heard anything but by a force which you are seeking that is God. This is the mutuality in the searching and the being-drawn.

If you make out of that a question of Pelagianism (only man’s will is of importance) or anti-Pelagianism (only grace is im­portant) then you have already hypostatized the real experience, the mutuality of the tension, into two entities called free human will and divine will.

going: So the inability of imagination to work at the coales­cence of divine and human action has to be corrected by some theoretical effort–

voegelin: –always coming back to the structure of experience as analyzed by those few select individuals who knew what they were talking about, like Plato or Socrates or Jesus. That’s where you get some analysis.

One Must Fall Back on Experience Itself

o’connor: I’m seeing another example of what you’re saying. Gilkey, in his book Creator of Heaven and Earth, stresses that “creation out of nothing” meant creation out of nothing (there was only God) and not “everything I do is somehow God so it doesn’t matter.” The problem wouldn’t have arisen if I hadn’t said “created out of nothing.” On the other hand, one said it to get away from the notion–

voegelin: –that there is a material existing before God.

o’connor: You’re really saying that these are ploys of human thought and should be kept alive as ploys.

On the other hand, you’re talking within a very firm Christian consciousness, though one that has done a lot of exploring that not everybody has done. As persons get older, their approach to God gets simpler–I think there is just no question of that–but I don’t know whether I could help people if I hadn’t gone through very many of the ploys one gets within a tradition. One has the safeties, at least, of the best judgment there is in a tradition; on the ordinary levels there’s a common sense handed through.

voegelin: What one has to fall back on is always the structure of the experience itself, and you find that only the people who have the experience have analyzed that.

going: I’m trying to make sure that there’s room for “analysis” as an important step–for trying to reflect upon the experience and say something about it, rather than just repeating I have had the experience.”

voegelin: Experience alone doesn’t get you anywhere. But you have to describe it anyway when you talk about it, and the vocab­ulary has been developed; it’s there, though one usually doesn’t take cognizance of that fact.

going: And not only the descriptive vocabulary is valuable but the attempt to give an explanatory, a theoretical account?

voegelin: I cannot quite imagine what theoretical account beyond the analysis of experience is needed. You might say that when you have an existential experience like Plato’s (which you just hinted at) you will, then, having that experience, break with the Cosmological myth of the intra-cosmic gods and find a new symbolism for explaining the structure of the world: It’s not the polytheistic gods who determine the structure of the world and the underworld; it is the idea.

You might call idea a theoretical development out of a mystical experience which explains that the cosmos has form. There you have a theoretical extrapolation from a mystical position.

o’connor: You’re not saying that history was wrong–history is fact–but that the role of theology is to keep this point clarified somehow?

voegelin: Yes, it’s very important. But that is also the reason why a certain amount of dogma cannot be understood by the average man today. He hasn’t the problems that forced the dogma to come into existence.

charlotte tansey: The problems he does have not been identified enough that any talking back has happened.

voegelin: He is really talking about his existential problems. The dogma has already moved one step away from the existential problem.

going: Might dogma help with recurrence? There seem to be recurrent traps or problems for imagination.

voegelin: Oh, yes–for instance, the question of Pelagianism: concentrating all the dynamics of existence into man alone, with­out the Divine.

going: Then there will be recurrent need of correctives to imagination, which is not adequate to the reality but insists on handling it in some kind of picture. So correctives will recur.

voegelin: Yes, but, after all, there is history, as you just said. We know now a lot about dogma that one didn’t know two hundred years ago, in the Enlightenment period. Because one can under­stand dogma as an extrapolation in order to preserve intact the real existential problem of man’s relation to God, one can now speak directly of man’s relation to God.

Existence is Not a Fact: Jean-Paul Sartre

o’connor: Perhaps another formulation of what you are saying is B. Lonergan’s suggestion: “If you want to see what a person means, try to find out what question he’s answering.”

voegelin: Yes. Take the case of Sartre’s existentialism. He speaks of la facticité de l’existence. To analyze Sartre, I would start from that point: Whether in classic philosophy or in Chris­tianity, existence is not a fact but always a tension in the openness toward something that is more than the fact of existence.

Reality is always something else than the reality that is a fact. So with “Existence is a fact” we have made a fundamentally fallacious interpretation of existence.

To know what existence means in classic philosophy or in the Gospel, you have to go back to the sources and see how existence is described. It’s a questioning, tending toward an answer–the “saving answer” in the Platonic sense. If you eliminate that an­swer (and because of the question-and-answer relation) you get into the problem: Here is a fact that has no meaning (facts have no meaning).

If it has to get a meaning, where does Sartre get it? By producing an imaginative meaning out of his moi (he realizes that, of course); e.g., “condemned to be free” finds meaning that existence doesn’t have. Then he tries to get arrested for being the editor of a Maoist journal. It’s grotesque.

You can make this analysis only if you are clear that existence is not a fact but a process. Once that is clear, the criticism of Sartre is very simple; it’s practically all one has to say.

o’connor: I understand why you are talking mostly about reli­gious doctrine; that is what many people take over without having lived through the experience of the question. They don’t know what the dogma is answering, but because it’s religious it has a lot of importance to them. But on every level of understanding there are doctrines that are just accepted statements.

The Dutch Catechism

voegelin: The first page of the Dutch Catholic Catechism quite sensibly tackles the problem: The questions are missing so the dogma is senseless. That is the best analysis.

tansey: What is the role of raising the question? It’s not theo­logical; it’s not poetry–

voegelin: It is because reason started. The tension of existence toward the Divine nous–that’s the definition of nous or geist or spirit or reason.

o’connor: By definition you mean Plato’s definition?

voegelin: In the sense that he has created the vocabulary for a human activity of searching for God. He calls it “philoso­phy.” And the type of consciousness which on that occasion is analyzed–that is what he calls nous (and Aristotle too). If you relax the tension, or make it disappear, or pretend there is no such tension–well, then, you’re out of it; you’re sunk.

Always Returning to the Question

o’connor: And suppose, just taking a simple stand, a person says, “I don’t think that’s a tension at all. I’ve never felt any ten­sion in that direction. When I’m well fed I don’t feel a tension”–?

voegelin: You realize, of course, that that isn’t so. You can always point to his worrying about it. He knows quite well what he’s talking about when he says he has not experienced the ten­sion.

o’connor: You are saying that more conceptualization has happened in the theology than ideas behind it.

tansey: So the only important thing into the future is to sniff out the question?

voegelin: Always go back to the question. That one can do today because we have a historical knowledge of the problem that even fifty years ago we did not have. One should use that historical knowledge!

tansey: In a course this week we were attempting to write haiku. One can’t ask a question in haiku because doing that is too unsubtle. One must suggest the area of concern, not ask the question.

o’connor: There are difficulties with asking questions. Dur­ing the Lonergan conference this spring, I realized that there can be an attitude of suspicion toward what questions imply. One professor said he insists that his students make a statement to which he can then respond, not ask him a question.

tansey: Is the function of ritual to obliterate any question one might have?

voegelin: That is the inheritance of Christian dogma. Dogma separated from questioning is the style of ideologizing statements. If you look at those completely ridiculous attacks by Voltaire and Diderot on Christianity, you see that they always criticize state­ments; they are never aware that behind a statement there is a question to be answered by it. And so they replace one statement by another statement.

That style of degenerative doctrinism in Christianity of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is con­tinued today.


This excerpt is from The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers: 1939-1985 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 33) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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