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Eric Voegelin on the Incarnate Christ

Eric Voegelin On The Incarnate Christ

In his 1965 Ingersoll Lecture “Immortality: Experience and Symbol” Eric Voegelin declared that “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.”1Despite the fact that the Incarnation was a subject to which Voegelin devoted relatively little space in his extensive writings, as this statement indicates it does play a critical role in his philosophy. Nevertheless, as Mark Mitchell observed at the beginning of an essay critical of Voegelin, “Eric Voegelin’s treatment of Christianity is notoriously problematic”2 in the sense that it demands at the very least a revaluation of the meaning of core Christian beliefs, particularly, as some critics have pointed out, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection. Gerhart Niemeyer, for example, who deeply admired and was greatly influenced by Voegelin’s work, nonetheless expressed disappointment at Voegelin’s inadequate treatment of the historical person of Christ in The Ecumenic Age.3 Mitchell argues that because Voegelin’s philosophy cannot account for fallen human nature and salvation it is “simply inadequate.”4 David Walsh characterized Voegelin’s treatment of Christianity as incomplete and unsatisfactory, Bruce Douglass argued that Voegelin lacks “a sense of the Gospel as salvation in the specifically Christian sense,” and others such as John Gueguen and Frederick Wilhelmsen have also pointed out what they see as significant problems in Voegelin’s understanding of Christianity.5 Ultimately all of these criticisms raise a question about Voegelin’s understanding of Christ and the Incarnation.

Despite their serious reservations about the implications of Voegelin’s philosophy for Christian belief, these same critics do not reject Voegelin’s philosophy out of hand because they find too much common ground with Ellis Sandoz who “never doubted that Voegelin was profoundly Christian” (although not a “Christian philosopher” because of his desire to maintain an impartial stance) since “the whole of his discourse was luminous with devotion to the truth of divine reality.”6 That is, Voegelin’s philosophy resonates so powerfully with the soul’s hunger for God that it cannot be simply dismissed. This creates a dilemma for Christians who believe in traditional Christianity but also find profound truth in Voegelin. I shall argue that despite the insights by which Voegelin enhances our understanding of Scripture and Christianity there remains a fundamental incongruity between his philosophical analysis of the Incarnation and traditional Christian belief.

To be sure, Voegelin did not claim to be an apologist for Christian doctrines. What he did, implicitly, claim was that he had grasped better than anyone in modern times the true pre-dogmatic meaning of Christianity, not as a theologian but as a philosopher who began to reflect on Christianity in order to understand its effects on political phenomena (although his meditations eventually took him far beyond this). In his New Year’s Day, 1953 letter to Alfred Schutz he explained that his interest in Christianity was not based on religion but on the impossibility, for a serious “theoretician of politics,” of simply ignoring “1500 years of Christian thought and Christian politics.” The rational and responsible philosopher’s requirement to attend to Christian thought means that he must concede the clearer insight into, and articulations of, experiences of reality wherever they occur, for example in Christianity’s reinterpreting the philosopher’s forced removal from the cave in Plato’s parable as the new understanding of “the experienced intrusion of transcendence into human life which can break in from outside so overwhelmingly that it may call human freedom into question.” 7 The nature and history of Christianity compel the objective “theoretician of politics” not to “throw Christianity overboard” but to analyze its symbolization of transcendence experiences along with all of the historical consequences of this articulation, just as he would have to analyze every other phenomenon that has had political ramifications. Sandoz was certainly right in his observation that Voegelin was not a “Christian philosopher” because of his desire to maintain a “dispassionate even fiercely independent stance of impartiality.”8

That Voegelin’s objective philosophical approach to understanding Christ and Christianity resulted in the rejection of traditional theology as a distinct form of inquiry is apparent in his 1970 comment in response to a question at a panel discussion at the Thomas More Institute that “If you were to speak of theology in the Christian sense, we would get into problems, because there is no theology in the Christian sense which is not at the same time philosophy, also.”9 What he meant is somewhat ambiguous, for his comment could mean either that Christian doctrine is formulated using the concepts developed in Greek philosophy, formulations that succeeded only in deforming and burying the symbolism of the Gospel under “two thousand years’ accretion,” or that philosophy in the true sense is the only way to approach Christian theology. For Voegelin it could and probably did mean both. To understand Jesus Voegelin said that he had to “go back of theology and work directly on the sources of the time [of the Gospels].”10 In a response to a question at a panel discussion Voegelin deplored the use, at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century, of inadequate substantive terms (terms which Voegelin said he himself would never use) to “solve a problem, which is an entirely ridiculous problem in theology, on the basis of the depositum fidei,11 by defining Christ as one person who is a hypostatic union of human nature and divine nature, meaning that Christ is, mysteriously, truly and fully God and truly and fully man.

Voegelin did not, however, consider the use of Greek philosophy by Christian theologians entirely unfortunate. In “The Gospel and Culture” he points out that Christianity had no choice but to enter “the life of reason in the form of Hellenistic philosophy”12 in order to avoid failure as an obscure sect, that is, Christianity needed to adopt the philosophical language understood by the educated people of the time to articulate its insights into transcendence. But Voegelin saw this as more than just the expedient of adopting an already comprehensible and familiar vocabulary, for he mentions, as “an early statement of the issue,” Justin Martyr’s “conception” that “the Logos of the gospel is rather the same Word of the same God as the logos spermatikosof philosophy, but at a later stage of its manifestation in history” and therefore “Christianity is philosophy itself in its state of perfection.”13 The problem he found in the alliance of Christianity with Hellenistic philosophy is that even though philosophical concepts were initially necessary to preserve the insights gained through experiences of transcendence from those who failed to understand, philosophically formulated doctrines and dogmas inevitably ossified into verbal propositions that themselves became disconnected from the originating experiences and, as a result, distorted the meaning and lost the reality.

One of the few labels Voegelin would accept was “mystic philosopher,” by which he meant that he searched for the meaning of the dynamism of human consciousness as it searches for and is illuminated by experiences of the ground of its existence, experiences it endeavors to express in symbols rather than in the propositional, factual statements of doctrine and dogma.14 This, of course, created a frame of reference so broad that Christianity became one articulation of transcendent experiences among many others. Voegelin rejected the distinction between revealed truth and truth attained by “natural reason,” as he rejected the distinction between philosophy and faith, for he understood all truth to emerge from a divine-human encounter that is universal in man, who is the imago Dei, and he regarded faith as the philosophical attitude of trusting openness to transcendence. His conviction that the truth of divine reality is universal and varies only in the adequacy, or “differentiation” of its symbolization along a continuum of theoretical insights15 is the reason why he often lists Christianity in the midst of other, more or less equivalent, symbolizations of such experiences—Platonic philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc.—and he frequently compares Christianity with Platonic philosophy, finding it in some ways superior to Plato but in other ways inferior. For Voegelin Christianity is really better understood in terms of the more differentiated philosophy that he was able to develop because of his deeper insight into the originating experiences, rather than by the dogmatic theology based on traditional concepts and categories with an inferior articulation of reality. It is on the basis of this philosophical analysis of universal encounters with the divine that he said that “one has to recognize, and make intelligible, the presence of Christ in a Babylonian hymn, or a Taoist speculation, or a Platonic dialogue, just as much as in a Gospel.”16 What, then, did Christ and Christianity mean to Voegelin and how did he philosophically arrive at the conclusion that history is specifically Christ written large?

An explanation of the meaning of Christ and the Incarnation for Voegelin must begin from one of his fundamental assumptions, that the “nature” of our experience of ultimate reality is the flowing or flux of divine presence.17 It is on the basis of this assumption about flux that Voegelin can make the initially startling assertion that “existence is not a fact.” Since the word “fact” comes from the Latin verb facio and means something done, finished, accomplished, and since for Voegelin human existence is best understood as movement, process, flux, because it is illuminated by the flowing divine presence in consciousness, “existence is the nonfact of a disturbing movement in the In-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness, of imperfection and perfection, of hope and fulfillment, and ultimately of life and death. From the experience of this movement, from the anxiety of losing the right direction in this In-Between of darkness and light, arises the inquiry concerning the meaning of life. But it does arise only because life is experienced as man’s participation in a movement with a direction to be found or missed. If man’s existence were not a movement but a fact, it not only would have no meaning but the question of meaning could not even arise”18 because in a world of facticity life has no direction but is only a “wasteland” of sterile “things.” This “inquiry concerning the meaning of life” is philosophy.

Voegelin’s understanding of philosophy, which embraces his understanding of Christianity, flows from this sense of conscious human existence located in an unfathomable region that can only be described, somewhat apophatically, as neither this nor that, because as soon as one attempts to gain certainty by declaring precisely what it is in terms of our worldly concepts, we lose it. To refer to it as flux really means that it defies any attempt to confine it within humanly generated categories. For this enigmatic region of experience he adopted the Platonic symbol of the metaxy, the “In-Between,” the region of reality where human consciousness searches for, is drawn by, and encounters the awesomely mysterious transcendent flux of divine presence. In his essay “Eternal Being in Time” he says that “in the philosophical experience, neither does eternal being become an object in time nor is temporal being transposed into eternity. We remain in the ‘in between’, in a temporal flow of experience in which eternity is present. This flow cannot be dissected into past, present, and future of the world’s time, for at every point of the flow there is the tension toward the transcending eternal being. This characteristic of the presence of eternal being in temporal flow may be best represented by the term flowing presence.19 “Transcendence” and “immanence” denote not places but directions in the structure of reality encountered in the experience. Plato first used this symbol of the In-Between in The Symposium when Socrates asks Diotima whether Eros, the psychic force that drives the soul to seek the divine, is a mortal or an immortal, and she replies, using the preposition metaxy, that Eros is neither but instead is in tension “between” them, partaking of both but not fully identifiable with either. This is the ground of the experiences of transcendence that cannot be described or defined but only symbolized. Major problems arise, Voegelin believed, if the loss or obscuring of the original experience causes the symbol to harden into a literal truth or dogma that has the effect of eliminating the tension by creating the illusion of a certain grasp of Truth. I use the word “hardens” deliberately, because Voegelin thinks of metaxic experiences as steeped in the tension of the fluidity and unpredictability of divine presence. 20

All human beings, by virtue of having human consciousness, exist in the metaxy, although to varying degrees and with different levels of tolerance for the tension and uncertainty in the experience of flow, change, appeal and response, movements and countermovements, and questioning that cannot be translated into propositions, all of which can be only inadequately articulated as symbols that are really meant to point others to their own metaxic experiences. The greater the awareness of the “structure” of this process the greater the degree of what Voegelin calls the “differentiation of consciousness.” When the emphasis of the symbolization falls on the human quest for the divine and the anxiety of losing the right direction he uses the term “noetic.” When the emphasis is on the other pole of this tension, the divine presence and the “pull” that draws the soul beyond itself, the term is “pneumatic.”21 For Voegelin either term points to the same uncontrollable and unpredictable flux that cannot be captured or communicated in the concepts developed to describe the “things” in the world of our sense experience. He follows Plato and Aristotle in using the term “psyche” for the sensorium of divine reality, the site of “divine- human mutual participation, as the metaleptic [participatory] reality,” and the “site in which the comprehensive reality becomes luminous to itself.”22

As Voegelin put it, “the specific area of reality in which the process occurs…is neither divine nor human, neither transcendent nor immanent, but rather has the character of an In-Between reality.” This means that the partners, or poles, in the metaxy cannot be “reified” into independent entities. Therefore, “neither must the divine partner be hypostatized into an object, nor the human partner into a subject, of cognition.” Consciousness in the metaxy is not one of subject-object, of human cognizance of an objective thing. Rather it is a “process” in which divine mystery becomes “cognitively luminous” as the divine movement of “revelatory appeal” and the human counter-movement of “apperceptive and imaginative response.” It is simply not the case that human beings acquire conceptual knowledge of God as the object of knowledge in the metaxy. Furthermore, because the metaxy cannot be dichotomized into God and man, and because the appeal and the response “belong to the one reality that becomes luminous in the experience” the language that erupts in the experience “is as much divine as it is human,” 23 that is, the divine and the human expressions of the experiences of this inbetween encounter are indistinguishable.

Now, the question that Voegelin says “Christian visionaries” must ask is “‘Who is this Son of God?’—who is this Messiah, this Christ, this vessel of divinely immortal presence, this living Word of the truth.”24 The basic assumption in Voegelin’s Christology is that Christ can be spoken of as “the representative human being,…the Son of God incarnate in his full perfection” because he dwelled in the metaxy more fully and intensely than other human beings.25 Rejecting all of the hypostatic terms of person, substance, and nature as distortions or loss of the flowing divine presence, Voegelin found it much truer to reality to understand the impenetrable mystery of the identity of Christ as one who was able to endure the highest possible tension of living fully in the metaxy, in the flux of divine presence, while other human beings have a lesser experience of metaxic tension and reality.

Although Voegelin refers to Christ by the traditional term “Son of God” he did not mean that Christ was the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, or that Christ naturally had a divine nature. The term “Son of God” he traced to Ancient Egypt where “every pharaoh [was] the son of God.”26 In the Exodus story this symbol was transferred to the Chosen people and was later transferred to Christ when he was baptized by John. There is, therefore, according to Voegelin, nothing unique or unprecedented in bestowing on Christ the title “Son of God” or even the “only-begotten Son,” for the history of the terms amounts to “the realization that the existential presence of God is experienced in existence in consciousness.”27 While in Israel and Revelation he does refer to “the Christian revelation that only God can be the Son of God—the mystery expressed in Trinitarian theology and the Christology,”28 it is not at all clear that he meant to say that Christ was truly God, because in his comments on the dogma of the Trinity in his letter to Schutz he says that the achievement of this symbol is to combine the experiences of the radical transcendence of God (the Father) with the experiences of divine power over nature (the Son) and the Christian community’s participation in the spirit (the Holy Spirit). If the Trinity symbolizes human experiences of the divine but not what God is in himself, then Trinitarian theology cannot say that Christ is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

To explain the meaning of “the Son of God incarnate in his full perfection” Voegelin frequently turned to the Epistle to the Colossians29 where he found the critical passage explaining what is meant by “incarnation” in the second chapter in which Paul says that in Christ “katoikei pan to pleroma tes theotetos,” that is, “dwells all the fullness of divine reality,” as Voegelin preferred to translate the neologism theotes. “And if you read only Colossians and not [any other text], you would assume that Christ is to be defined […] as the optimal presence—the pleroma of parousia—of the divine in a human being, while all other human beings have lesser presences of the divine, and are only aware that there is one person, the Christ, in whom there is the pleroma of presence. And thetheotes is not identified as a personal god, but as…the presence of divine reality experienced in reality by the people who stand around and hear the Christ talk.”30 This is the core of Voegelin’s Christology, that while everyone has some degree of participation in divine reality, in the metaxy, simply because we all have human consciousness, Christ is the optimal Presence that is the fullness of the flowing divine presence “from the beginning of the world to its end.”

When Voegelin analyzes the passage in Matthew (16:13-20) in which Jesus puts to his disciples the question of who they believe he is, he finds in the Gospel a careful distinction between the past experiences of divine presence in individuals called “prophets,” experiences open to ordinary people who have accordingly concluded that Christ is one of the prophets, the disciples’ greater awareness that Christ is in some obscure way different from the prophets, and Peter’s even greater internal experience of divine presence that enables him to discern “the even fuller presence of ‘the living God’ in Jesus.” Peter “recognizes” him as “the Son of the living God,” which is another symbol for the fullness of divine reality, theotes. Voegelin then comments that “the God of whom the pneumatic visions are true has to be the anonymous theotes, the immortal Beyond that can save from the struggle by its suffering participation in human existence. The apostolic visionaries were better philosophers than some of the doctrinaire theologians of our own time.”31

Voegelin, of course, understands theotes to refer to the presence within the metaxy of a nameless but immortal divine reality Beyond our world and consciousness, one that constitutes consciousness by reaching into it, rather than to a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, Voegelin understands theotes in a more Platonic than Christian sense. He explains that he prefers the translation “divine reality” to others such as “godhead,” “divinity,” or “deity,” because they imply a personal God, but “divine reality” “renders best the author’s intention to denote a nonpersonal reality which allows for a degree of participation in its fullness while remaining the God beyond the In-Between of existence.”32 But, assuming that the divine presence in the metaxy is, in fact, an anonymous theotes, rather than a particular and personal theos, why does this mean that God cannot also reveal Himself in his personal existence? Why is God necessarily anonymous? The abstract noun theotes does seem to refer to God in impersonal terms,33 but why should that one word used only once in the entire New Testament be the pivot on which all of Christian belief must turn?34 Christians have never believed that Christ was filled only with an impersonal and anonymous divine reality, although Voegelin seems to consider this an error, for when he says that “the Unknown God whose theotes was present in the existence of Jesus has been eclipsed by the revealed God of Christian doctrine,”35 he means that the true God of mystical philosophy has been obscured by Christian dogma.

Still, why didn’t Paul say that in Christ dwells all the fullness of God (to pleroma toutheou)? In that particular passage he is referring to the dangers of a purely philosophical (non-metaxic) worldview, arguing that what makes the divine what it is can be found fully only in Christ and not in the elements (ta stoicheia) of the cosmos. He continues, “And you, having been made full [pepleromenoi], are in Him who is the head of all rule and authority.” That is, because Paul is emphasizing the union between Christ and those who believe in him, through being circumcised, buried, and raised from the dead with him, he speaks of the dynamic source of life that all share with Christ, which he names not bios or zoe or theos but theotes, “divineness” or divine presence. Christ is the locus of indwelling divine “fullness” while we are the “having-been-made-fullness” of divine reality, to the limits of our own capacity, through an intense transforming union with Christ. In terms of Christian doctrine, we participate in the divine presence in Christ who is fully God, but we are not fully God ourselves.

Voegelin does not interpret either the Caesarea Philippi or Colossians passage to mean that either Peter or the Evangelist believed that Christ was anything as static or thing-like as a hypostatic union of divine and human natures, or God and man. What he believes these writings were attempting to communicate was the experience of the intensity of divine presence, since, Voegelin said, what we experience is a dynamic presence, not a static “nature.” This is almost certainly correct as far as it goes, but it ignores the meaning of tradition, of the belief that the long-term reflection on the meaning of this intense encounter with divine presence, which concluded that it was an encounter with God himself, was just as divinely inspired as Scripture. After discussing the Caesarea Philippi question in the essay “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme” Voegelin goes on to raise for himself the vital question who this person of the Christ really is. “He is neither a man, moving in the struggle of the metaxy toward immortality, nor the divine reality beyond the metaxy. The [pneumatic] visions see in the Christ the historical event of God’s pleromatic presence in a man, revealing the suffering presence of the God in every man as the transfiguring force that will let mortal reality rise with the God to his immortality. The pleromatic metaxy seen in the Christ reveals mortal suffering as participation in the divine suffering.” 36 This is in accordance with Christian belief in the sense that Christ was not anxiously searching for the ground of existence, nor was he merely an apparition of the unincarnated God. But it contradicts Christian belief if it means that Christ was neither fully God nor fully man.

Voegelin considers the phrase “pleromatic metaxy” to be the most exact possible expression of Chalcedon’s textual summary, arrived at after several centuries of complex struggle to define Christ. According to the Council’s definition Christ is “the same perfect in godhead [theotes], the same perfect in manhood [anthropotes], truly God and truly man [theos alethos kai anthropos alethos], the same of a reasonable soul and body; homoousios with the Father in godhead [theotes], and the same homoousios with us in manhood [anthropotes], like us in all things except sin; begotten before ages of the Father in godhead [theotes]…acknowledged in two natures…the difference of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union.”37 Despite the complexities and ambiguities of this definition, it is quite clear that Christ is understood to be both theos and anthropos, as well as both theotes and anthropotes (human reality).This text, with its alternation between Christ as theos and theotes, conveys the sense of a groping to find adequate expression for something that defies verbal formulation, since the mystery of the Incarnation is indeed, as Voegelin said, “impenetrable” by human understanding. Nonetheless, despite its inadequacy, it does go beyond theotes to say that Christ is “truly theos and truly anthropos,” which Voegelin interprets as an attempt to convey “the visionary truth of the Christ’s existence in a metaxy that is distinguished from the noetic metaxy by the pleromatic presence of divine reality.”38 What he meant is that unlike the philosophical noetic experience of searching for what loves to hide (to borrow from Heraclitus), the experience of Christ is one of overwhelming divine presence, or “unconcealedness” (to borrow from Heidegger).

Here, consistent with his understanding of the metaxy, Voegelin interprets Christ as neither fully God nor fully man, in the sense that we normally mean by the term “man,” rather than fully both. Because He is the fullness of divine presence as it can dwell in and be perceived by consciousness within the limits of human reality, he is more than a man, but because He is filled, according to Voegelin’s reading of Colossians, withtheotes rather than theos, it is not accurate to say simply that He is God. When Voegelin says that Christ was not “a man, moving in the struggle of the metaxy toward immortality” he means that, “as far as consciousness is the site of participation, its reality partakes of both the divine and the human without being wholly the one or the other,”39 which would entail that Christ could not be “true God and true man” but rather something ineffable inbetween “mundane humanity and something transmundane.”40 A man in this “not quite human,…not quite divine” tension is neither the “mortal man” in the Homeric sense, nor an immortal god, but “a new kind of man,” that Plato calls thedaimonios aner, which Voegelin translates as a “spiritual man,” the man who dwells fully in the metaxy as he is filled with divine presence. But how much difference there is between Plato’s daimonios aner, of whom a prime example is Socrates, and Voegelin’s Christ is not entirely clear.

Voegelin says that in John’s Gospel “there is no doctrine to be taught but only the story to be told of God’s pull becoming effective in the world through Christ, the Saving Tale.”41 Christ is the exemplar, the man transparent for the presence of the Unknown God, a revelation that is “in conscious continuity with the millennial process of revelation” that Voegelin found constituting human history. 42 This God encountered in the metaxy is an unknown God whom, Voegelin believed, Plato knew “just as much as Jesus,” although Plato did not differentiate God in a man but instead regarded the “son of God” (or the monogenes theos) as the cosmos rather than a human being.43Nevertheless, Voegelin determined that, despite Plato’s equal knowledge of the unknown God and the noetic superiority of Platonic philosophy to Christianity on some points, “the full differentiation comes only through Jesus, not through Plato.”44 For Voegelin the whole point of the New Testament is the experiential revelation of the fullness of divine presence in Christ, who is, on the whole, more pneumatically but less noetically differentiated than Platonic philosophy. The real mingling of divine and human is not so much in Christ as in the metaxy. Christ, as the Mediator, is the metaxy made visible.

Therefore, the drama of revelation in Christ is also the drama of history, a subject that Voegelin often discussed. He believed, and said that Plato and Paul believed, that history and its meaning as the movement of consciousness toward greater differentiation and luminosity45 are constituted by theophanic events in the metaxy of which one of the most important is Paul’s Vision of the Resurrected. In other words the meaning of history is “transfiguring incarnation [which] does not begin with Christ, as Paul assumed, but becomes conscious through Christ and Paul’s vision as the eschatological telos of the transfiguring process that goes on in history before and after Christ and constitutes its meaning.”46 Therefore, history for Voegelin is the process by which man participates more and more fully in divine presence and becomes, in effect, more Christ. Just as revelation is a process in which divine reality becomes luminous to itself in humanity, so history is a process in which humanity becomes the incarnation of God, a process that becomes conscious not in a philosopher but in Christ, although we must also draw the inference that after a period of obscurity this process has returned to awareness in the consciousness of the philosopher Voegelin.

Therefore, for Voegelin, what constitutes history and is therefore important is not the abstract question whether Christ was truly God and truly man but the theophanic event, the metaxic vision of divine reality in Christ that motivated the disciples to preach the revelation of God in Him. Hence, Voegelin often refers to “the Christ event” rather than simply to Christ. Similarly, since the Resurrection is an essential Christian belief it should be noted that Voegelin apparently did not accept the actual physical resurrection of Christ, but thought of resurrection in terms of the metaxic “vision of the Resurrected.”47 The historically significant event is the vision in the metaxy, not the empty tomb in the physical world. But what happens to Christianity if Christ is not reallyphysically risen from the dead, but is only “resurrected” in visions?

All of this leaves Christians with a significant problem. We might attempt to read Voegelin as saying that the understanding of Christ as theotes but not theos, a human consciousness living fully in the metaxy but not actually God, is a purely philosophical exegesis of Christ, and further illumination of who he is must be left to the theologians. However, Voegelin has precluded this reading by his stance on dogma and theology. If theology is merely a deformation of philosophy, which is the true science, then his philosophical interpretation of Christ must become all of the truth of Christ that we can ever know. This significantly changes the Christian sense of who Christ is, for, hypothetically, if Voegelin’s understanding is the accurate one, then much of Christian belief is false. Christ is not, as the Nicene Creed has it, “deum verum de deo vero” or “consubstantialem patri,” since these are dogmatic propositions that according to Voegelin have deteriorated into verbal formalities that have lost the original living experiences of mysterious, ineffable reality. Who is he then? In Voegelin’s mind, how much difference is there between Christ and Plato as avatars of divine presence? If Christ was not really God but was only a Jewish version of the daimonios aner, and if the knowledge of the unknown God is in Plato just as much as in Jesus, only less differentiated, then why should anyone be a Christian? If William Thompson is right in saying that “Jesus’ death as that of Socrates is representative because it expresses this pull” by which God “draws” the soul,48 then how is Christ significantly more central to history than was Socrates? If Christ is most adequately understood as the man who lived more intensely in the metaxy than anyone else, then what does it mean to worship or pray to Christ? If the advantage of Christianity over Platonic philosophy is only that of greater “differentiation,” then to what degree is it better to be a Christian than a philosopher?

Voegelin’s philosophical analysis seems to undermine completely the Christian belief in the radical uniqueness of Christ, for if He is merely the fullness of the metaxic theotesand not God himself, then how do we know that he has been the only such person in history, particularly if Plato “knew just as much?” How do we know that other itinerant preachers did not have the same fullness of divine reality but lacked a literate Paul and evangelists with the necessary symbols to articulate the experience, insight, and vision? How do we know that there will not be future “Christs” who will have just as muchtheotes? Why should Jesus be the only or the last instance of the fullness of divine presence manifested in a human being? Glenn Hughes in his commentary on Voegelin’s Christianity asserts that Jesus’ uniqueness is not in his consciousness shaped by divine-human encounter and his share in divine presence, for these are true to some degree of all human beings, but it is rather in the fact that, for those with the ability to experience it, “there is in him such a fullness of revelation, such a fullness of imaging-forth of the unseen, transcendent divine reality, that it must be affirmed to be unsurpassable.”49 We must ask if he was experienced as unsurpassable as God or as metaxic theotes.50 Christ as God is indeed unique and unsurpassable, but Christ experienced as fullness of presence of an Unknown God is another matter. In short, Christ defined as fullness of divine presence does not seem as necessarily and radically unique as Christians have always believed.

The implications of this for Christianity are profound. As Eugene Webb put it, “To digest the implications of Voegelin’s thought for Christian theology will require the efforts of a generation of theologians, and it will have to involve radical reconsideration of the traditional claims of Christianity to exclusive validity as a religion,” something that Webb admits would be both difficult and dangerous because “the question of the relative truth of various religions cannot be solved by giving up all doctrinal claims.”51 Some seem to think the radical reconsideration is indeed warranted by the doctrinalization that distorted the original meaning, such as Michael Morrissey who commented that “Voegelin challenges Christian theology to break from its doxic conception of truth,”52and to recognize that the traditional identification of Jesus with God was “a development authorized by some later, enthusiastic but flawed Church theologizing that overlooked the explicit and implicit nuances of Nicea and Chalcedon, not to mention the Gospel sources themselves.”53 However, a theologian of the stature of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, while acknowledging the mysterious nature of revelation and the symbolic character of doctrine, nonetheless bluntly insists “it has always been a basic tenet of the Christian faith that Jesus is completely God and completely man.”54

If the traditional belief in the Incarnation as the mysterious union of true divinity and true humanity in Christ is correct, then there must be an error in Voegelin’s philosophy. In my view the questionable assumption that Voegelin makes is that regarding knowledge of God we are limited to symbols that articulate the experience of consciousness in the “In-Between” and that God cannot or does not communicate anything to us about what he is in himself, beyond the metaxy. The Nicaean and Chalcedonian formulations of doctrine grew out of centuries of struggling to refine and clarify what the Scriptural accounts of Christ were telling us and to reject false or inadequate interpretations. The similarity or even continuity between philosophy and Christianity does not necessarily mean that Christ is Socrates raised to a higher power but rather that philosophy grasped the nature of human participation in metaxic divine reality without being able to foresee that the ultimate gift of God would be to cross over the metaxy and actually become man. The substance of Christianity, after all, is not the metaxy but the Incarnation, and while Voegelin’s thought can certainly enrich Christianity, its interpretation of the Incarnation as the metaxy excludes much that is vitally important in traditional Christian theology. Consider, for example, the following theological statement of Christian belief that opens a book by a contemporary theologian: “The Christian doctrine of God is to be understood from within the unique, definitive, and final self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ his only-begotten Son, that is, from within the self-revelation of God as God become man for us and our salvation….[and] it is in the Lord Jesus, the very Word and Mind of God incarnate in our humanity, that the eternal God ‘defines’ and identifies himself for us as he really is. Only in Christ is God’s self-revelation identical with himself, and only in Christ, God for us, does he communicate his self-revelation to us in such a way that authentic knowledge of God is embodied in our humanity….”55 For all of the welcome richness and profundity of Voegelin’s philosophy, and for all that the metaxy has added to our understanding of the depths of consciousness, I believe there are far greater depths of wisdom and mystery here that are simply invisible within the range of the spectrum of truth to which Voegelin’s philosophical assumptions restrict him.



1. Eric Voegelin, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, [CW] Vol. 12:Published Essays 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 78.

2. Mark Mitchell, “Regaining the Balance: An Augustinian Response to Eric Voegelin,”Humanitas, Vol. XV, No. 1 (2002), 4.

3. Gerhart Niemeyer, “Eric Voegelin’s Philosophy and the Drama of Mankind,” originally published in Modern Age, Winter, 1976 and reprinted in Gerhart Niemeyer, Aftersight and Foresight: Selected Essays(Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), 169- 189. Near the end of his life he devoted an essay to arguing that textual and anecdotal evidence supports the conclusion that Voegelin was at least favorably disposed to Christianity, and that Voegelin’s personal beliefs were a matter of his solitude with GodNiemeyer mentions in this essay that if he were writing his critique of TheEcumenic Age then, his criticism would have been “milder.” “Christian Faith, and Religion, in Eric Voegelin’s Work,” Within and Above Ourselves: Essays in Political Analysis, (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996), 126-142. Originally published in The Review of Politics, Vol. 57. No. 1 (Winter, 1995), 91-104.

4. Ibid., 31.

5. David Walsh, “Eric Voegelin and Our Disordered Spirit,” Review of Politics, Vol. 57, no. 1 (Winter 1995), 134; Bruce Douglass, “A Diminished Gospel: A Critique of Voegelin’s Interpretation of Christianity,” in EricVoegelin’s Search for Order in History, ed. Stephen A. McKnight (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), 146; Frederick Wilhelmsen, “Professor Voegelin and the Christian Tradition,” in Christianity andPolitical Philosophy (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1978), 193-200; John Gueguen, “Voegelin’s From Enlightenment to Revolution: A Review Article,” The Thomist 42:1 (January, 1978), 134.

6. Ellis Sandoz, “Carrying Coals to Newcastle,” Eric Voegelin Society panel on Voegelin and Christianity, 2002, 1. Available on the Eric Voegelin Society website.

7. “Letter from Eric Voegelin to Alfred Schutz,” The Philosophy of Order:Essays on History, Consciousness and Politics, ed. Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981), 449-450.

8. Sandoz, 2.

9. Eric Voegelin, “Responses at the Panel Discussion of “The Beginning and the Beyond,” CW, Vol. 33, 420.

10. Eric Voegelin, Conversations with Eric Voegelin at the Thomas More Institute for Adult Education in Montreal” CW, Vol. 33, TheDrama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1939-1085, ed. William Petropulos and Gilbert Weiss (Columbia: University of Missouri Press), 2004, 282.

11. Eric Voegelin, “Responses at the Panel Discussion of ‘The Beginning of the Beginning’,” CW, Vol. 33, 420. He also wrote that the creedal definition that the Father and the Son are homoousios, consubstantial, was “sublimely meaningless.”The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), 100.

12. Eric Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” CW, Vol. 12, 173.

13. Ibid., 173. This seems to reflect Justin’s own approach to Christianity by a kind of ascent of the soul through the successive study of Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and Platonism. Jaroslav Pelikan, TheChristian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine,Vol. I, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), 63.

14. As Sandoz put it, “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 [mystic philosopher] seems appropriate enough.” Sandoz, 2.

15. See Eugene Webb, “Eric Voegelin’s Theory of Revelation,” Eric Voegelin’s Thought:A Critical Appraisal, ed. by Ellis Sandoz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1982), 160.

16. Eric Voegelin, “Response to Professor Altizer’s ‘A New History and a New but Ancient God?’” CW, Vol. 12, 294. Voegelin makes this statement with reference to the belief of Aquinas that the Christ is “the head of the corpus mysticumthat embraces, not only Christians, but all mankind from the creation of the world to its end.”

17. Although this emphasis on flux would seem to put him in the Heraclitean camp, I believe a more apt modern comparison is with Bergson, who argued that the inner, metaphysical, absolute reality is not Being but becoming, flowing, time, and change that can be known only intuitively. .It was Bergson’s belief that the static, “scientific” concepts of ordinary language are the artifacts of an intellect that must analyze and use the world in order to survive, but all such concepts artificially stop the vital motion so that we might surround ourselves with a world of “things” that have constant and reliable properties that we find of use. To grasp reality, the constant flow, Bergson thought metaphysics “must transcend concepts to reach intuition” that could be expressed only in “supple, mobile, and almost fluid representations” that are “always ready to mold themselves on the fleeting forms of intuition” to convey the reality of constant change and are very close to what Voegelin meant by symbols. Henri Bergson, TheCreative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), 168. Voegelin frequently commented that the concepts that we use in propositions are inadequate to express the flux of reality because they were developed to deal with the material realm in which we must engage in practical action to preserve our physical existence.

18. “The Gospel and Culture,” 176.

19. Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, tr. and ed. by Gerhart Niemeyer (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), 133.

20. For an eloquent account of this metaxic experience, see Voegelin’s description of the uncertainty of Christianity in The New Science of Politics, 122.

21. Philosophy is characteristically noetic, while Scripture and visionary sources are predominantly pneumatic.

22. Ibid., 184. The metaxy has been well described as the psyche’s searching, uncertainty, and hope in TheCloud of Unknowing, a classic mystical work that Voegelin frequently mentioned as an example of his own approach to philosophy. The anonymous author speaks of God’s grace arousing the soul to enthusiasm and ultimately joy while bringing it to a deep experience of himself, but the soul must be willing to enter the darkness of “unknowing” with only “a naked intent toward God.” This meditative consciousness that is acutely experienced between the “cloud of forgetfulness” of everything in the world and the “cloud of unknowing” that obscures the vision of God is the metaxy. The Cloud of Unknowing andThe Book of Privy Counseling, ed. by William Johnston (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 48-49.

23. Eric Voegelin, “The Beginning and the Beyond,” CW, Vol. 28, WhatIs History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings, ed. by Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990),178-180.

24. Eric Voegelin, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” CW, Vol. 12, 366.

25. Eric Voegelin, “Natural Law in Political Theory: Excerpts from the Discussion,” CW,Vol. 33, 119. The statement quoted is actually part of a question raised by one of the participants who described Christ “as far as faith is concerned” as quoted and asked Voegelin where the representative human being is to be found otherwise. Voegelin responded “Nowhere!” As Glenn Hughes put it, “Jesus existed in the metaxy like every other human being. But…his response to the divine appeal was of unparalleled completeness, in such a way that the divine partner in his existence was experienced, by himself and his followers, as what Voegelin calls ‘an extraordinary divine irruption.’” “Eric Voegelin and Christianity,” The IntercollegiateReview (Fall/Winter 2004), 28.

26. “Conversations,” 293.

27. Ibid., 293.

28. Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol.I, Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956), 467.

29. He says that this epistle is “of dubious origin but is certainly Pauline.” Eric Voegelin, “Structures of Consciousness,” CW, Vol 33, 372.

30. Ibid., 372-73.

31. “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” 368.

32. “The Gospel and Culture,” 190.

33. The Greek suffix –tet (-tes in the nominative) expresses the abstract notion of the adjective or substantive from which the word is derived, such as philotes, friendship, from philos, friend.

34. Romans 1:20 does use the word theiotes, which is similar. Voegelin comments, “If the author [of Colossians] belonged to the Pauline ‘school’, one can understand his symbol theotes as an attempt to overcome certain imperfections in Paul’s symboltheiotes.” “The Gospel and Culture,” 193.

35. “The Gospel and Culture,” 199.

36. “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” 369. Voegelin includes in these pneumatic visions not only those of disciples such as St. Paul but also visions attributed to Christ himself, such as in Matt. 3: 16-17.

37. The English is from Pelikan, 263- 264.

38. Ibid., 370.

39. “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” 90.

40. “Conversations,” 250.

41. “The Gospel and Culture,” 190.

42. Ibid., 198.

43. The Gospel of John uses the word monogenes, usually translated as “onlybegotten” to refer to Christ, such as in 3:16.

44. “Conversations,” 281.

45. Eric Voegelin, Order and History,Vol. IV, The Ecumenic Age, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), 242.

46. Ibid., 270.

47. One of Niemeyer’s criticisms of Voegelin is “the elimination of the Resurrection by reducing the resurrection experiences of the disciples to the type of Paul’s vision.” Gerhart Niemeyer, “Faith and Reason in Eric Voegelin,” Withinand Above Ourselves, 123.

48. William M. Thompson, “Voegelin on Jesus Christ,” Voegelin and the Theologian:Ten Studies in Interpretation, ed. by John Kirby and William M. Thompson. (Toronto Studies in Theology, Vol. 10. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), 183.

49. Hughes, 28.

50. As James Rhodes comments on the position of Gerhart Niemeyer, “he is challenging Voegelin on his own terms, contending that Jesus was experienced as the ‘only begotten Son’, not as the most perfect of many Sons.” James Rhodes, “Voegelin and Christian Faith,” Center Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Summer 1983), 91.

51. Eugene Webb, “Faith, Truth, and Persuasion in the Thought of Eric Voegelin,”Voegelin and theTheologian, 366.

52. Michael Morrissey, Consciousness andTranscendence: The Theology of Eric Voegelin (Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 249. Morrissey’s book contains an excellent analysis of Voegelin’s Christology with which I essentially agree, although I have serious reservations about his advocacy of creating a Voegelinian Christian theology (p. 249) because while I agree that “faith is not rooted in assent to dogmatic propositions” and that a Voegelinian Christian theology might well be in some sense a “more liberating, personal, and universal conception” of faith, such a theology would not quite be Christianity.

53. Ibid., 242.

54. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity,tr. J. R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 208. Ratzinger does hold some views about Christ that are not far from those of Voegelin, such as “Christian faith believes in Jesus as the exemplary man” (which he believes is the best way to translate the Pauline concept of the “last Adam”). “But precisely because he is the exemplary, the authoritative man, he oversteps the bounds of humanity; only thus and only thereby is he the truly exemplary man,” and “Jesus Christ is…the man who has truly come to himself.” “That man is most man, indeed the true man, who is most unlimited, who not only has contact with the infinite—the infinite being!— but is one with him: Jesus Christ. In him ‘hominization’ has truly reached its goal.” 175-76. Still, Ratzinger insists on the traditional doctrine that Jesus Christ is God and man, not simply a man filled with divine presence.

55. Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being, Three Persons(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 1.


This was originally published with the same title in the Fall 2008 issue of Modern Age.

Michael HenryMichael Henry

Michael Henry

Michael Henry is a Board Member of VoegelinView, Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York, and was editor of The Library of Conservative Thought series at Transaction Publishers (1998-2016). His latest book is The Loss and Recovery of Truth: Selected Writings of Gerhart Niemeyer (St. Augustine's, 2013).

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