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Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order

Eric Voegelin And The Problem Of Christian Political Order

Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order. Jeffrey C. Herndon. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007.


Jeffrey Herndon notes in his introduction to Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order that his “study was prompted by the perception that in the Western democracies, and the United States in particular, the community substance, as defined by shared values and a common understanding of the ends of human existence that make community life possible, are becoming increasingly problematic.” (3) He continues a few lines later, “It is my hope that an analysis of the breakdown of Pauline homonoia might contribute to a more complete understanding of our own predicament.” (3-4) Mingled with this impetus and hope is the intended exegetical purpose of achieving a “clarification of Voegelin’s theory of civilizational foundation, of the meaning of Christianity politically, and of Voegelin’s philosophy of history with regard to Christianity and Western political order.” (1)

Herndon notes that to achieve this result he will “focus upon a variety of issues germane to studies of Voegelin in particular as well as to the peculiar problem of modernity and the rise of ideological mass movements” (1). In the process, “The study will illuminate Voegelin’s position regarding the person of Jesus himself.” (1) All this will transpire through a careful synthesis and analysis of “Eric Voegelin’s examination of the problem of Christian political order” as found in Voegelin’s History of Political Ideas (History for short) which undergirds the sparser formulations found in his later works, especially Order and History, The New Science of Politics, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. (1-2)

This is an ambitious project to say the least. The attempt to address the critical themes inherent in this important topic within a mere 164 pages of prose proves problematic, even as Herndon does accomplish much of what he sets out to achieve. It is not a mere act of alliterative whimsy to argue that while Herndon’s work does admirably address problems in Voegelinian scholarship related to formulating a comprehensive treatment of Voegelin’s conceptions of a Christian political order, it proves to be itself problematic in its limited, critical engagement with, and all too ready acceptance of, Voegelin’s exegesis of such an order.

Consequently, Herndon’s work prepares the way for further study of unresolved problems with respect to Voegelin’s conception of a Christian political order, some of which Herndon intimates and others which arise from pursuing precisely such a critical engagement. Indeed, under this tripartite rubric of “problems” (and we all understand, as Herndon reminds us, of the cosmic significance of having a tripartite division in the tradition of Joachim of Fiore’s three realms), we shall conduct our review of Herndon’s commendable project.

The problem Herndon addresses with significant insights involves his expressly stated purpose of weaving together Voegelin’s understanding of the historic development of the Christian political order with particular focus on the “Pauline compromises with the world.” (2) In so doing, Herndon highlights the inherent tension in Voegelin’s conception of the Pauline compromise, which at once makes a Christian political order possible but which also sows the seeds for its own undoing.

As Voegelin states in the first volume of Order and History, “The truth of order has to be gained and regained in the perpetual struggle against the fall from it; and the movement toward truth starts from a man’s awareness of his existence in untruth.” (CW 14: 24)1 Here Herndon’s work shines. Culling the History, he unfolds Voegelin’s narrative of a political order formed by Christianity through the Pauline compromise, which gives rise to the sacrum imperium. The imperium in turn succumbs to the forces of dissolution inherent in the tension between the temporal desire to incarnate a timeless order in the world and the realization that this timeless order will only come at the end of time.

The Christian as an individual and the church of Christ as the community of believers are called to be in but not of this world. (5) However, the realm of the spirit and the realm of politics are both susceptible to the forces of disorder and to the revolutionary zeal of reformers, who despair of reforming from within and who engage in a revolution from without. In Herndon’s exegesis of Voegelin, the Tyconian spirit of doctrinal and dogmatic purity undergirds the schismatic forces of the Great Reformation, which ends the dream of the imperium and exiles “the life of the spirit from the institutional order of the new nation-states.” (163) As Herndon concludes, “The carriers of the spirit would be the new creeds of sectarianism in the gnostic ideological mass movements.” (164)

What I have here cursorily summarized is developed with great verve and detail in the bulk of Herndon’s book, beginning in chapter two. Drawing extensively on Voegelin’s own words interspersed with insightful analysis, Herndon has taken a solid step forward in addressing the inherent problems of a Christian political order as understood by Voegelin. Specifically, he illuminates the seeds of disorder, which, as Herndon notes, undergird Voegelin’s later reflections on “revelation of order in history.” (29) The History, “especially in its consideration of the problems specifically related to Christian political order, focuses upon the sources of disorder.” (29)

What then proves problematic?  The first problem has to do with Voegelin’s self-understanding regarding the nature of his project and the narrative he unfolds, which itself is reflected in the second problem, specifically Voegelin’s thoughts regarding the breaks in his project. Let us first turn to the latter problem, namely the locus of the conceptual breaks in Voegelin’s project.

Herndon rightly asserts that touchstones of continuity remain throughout Voegelin’s works, though Herndon focuses on explaining the continuity between the History and the subsequent reworking of the material in Order and History. However, the conceptual break in Voegelin’s project is not primarily between the History and his subsequent analytical reformulation as articulated in Order and History but between the publication of the first three volumes of Order and History and volume four, The Ecumenic Age.

Central to this break is Voegelin’s understanding of the often achronological nature of the unfolding–indeed irruption–of Order. This finds expression in his assertion at the outset of The Ecumenic Age that order is a “movement through a web of meaning with a plurality of nodal points,” in which, nevertheless, “certain dominant lines of meaning became visible.” (CW 17: 13-14) True spiritual irruptions are not necessarily, even primarily, a matter of chronology but scattered throughout history (the spirit blows where it will). Herndon’s retelling of Voegelin’s story of the Christian political order, following the narrative found in the History, is by and large a chronological tale of divine irruption, the constitution of order, and the decay brought on by disorder.

This is not to say, as Herndon rightly notes, citing David Walsh, that the break in Voegelin’s project between the History and Order and History negates the insight that the History is “one of the best points of entry into the theoretical depth of the later Voegelin,” for both efforts come from the same mind. (28) Rather, the problem of the meaning of the conceptual “breaks” has much more to do with Voegelin’s understanding of Christianity. This brings us back to the first problem regarding the nature of Voegelin’s project reflected in his narrative and which itself has two elements in need of clarification: first his own, personal relationship to Christianity, specifically the incarnated Christ; and second the nature of the Christian revelation, the irruption of which complicates both a primarily chronological analysis as reflected in the History, as well as Voegelin’s more sophisticated insights into “a web of meaning,” which undergird his later works.

The first element may never be solvable, namely Voegelin’s relationship to Christ. Herndon revisits the debate of Voegelin’s relationship to Christ and Christianity at the outset of chapter one without breaking much new ground. Indeed, the purpose of Herndon’s volume is not Voegelin and the Problem of Christianity but the “Christian political order.” Here Herndon notes that the relative paucity of Voegelin’s overt treatment of Christianity in Order and History may have more to do with the fact that he “had already explored the Christian experience in the History of Political Ideas, and it may well be that he was simply loath to return to the beginning.” (19) Herndon therefore focuses on the History, noting that a “more complete analysis” thereof combined with “Voegelin’s reflections upon the problems of Christian political order may help to answer Voegelin’s critics and open up new ground for further inquiry.” (19)

With respect to the purpose of answering the critics, Herndon’s success remains tenuous and may well reflect the intractability of the problem, similar to the one symbolized in the confrontation between Kuyuk Khan and Pope Innocent IV: when rival truth claims, each with an exclusive claim to “establishing the one true order of mankind,” confront each other, rapprochement is not likely. (CW 5: 132-35). Nevertheless, the question of Voegelin’s relationship to Christianity deserves a truly comprehensive treatment, drawing on the best of both Catholic and Protestant exegesis (if not Orthodox thought) with an acute awareness and nuanced treatment of orthodox and heterodox strains as understood by the dominant confessions. Such an analysis, however, is not to be found in Herndon’s book nor, it should be noted, is that the primary purpose of his work.

That having been said, it would seem to be a necessary prerequisite to properly evaluating Voegelin’s contribution to a Christian political order. If Voegelin’s understanding of Christianity is amiss, or, an example of a “more or less brilliant error,” then his development, analysis, and defense of such an order will be hampered to the same extent. As Herndon states, “The current work is not directed toward the discipline of political science but instead attempts to explicate the problem alluded to as part of the justification Voegelin offered for his proposed reorientation of political science.” (3)

If then the foundations of Voegelin’s justification are problematic, the reorientation will prove to be no less problematic. This then brings us to the second element: the nature of the Christian revelation and Voegelin’s understanding thereof. Here we need to confront not necessarily Voegelin’s personal relationship to Christianity but Voegelin’s very conception of a Christian order as it accords with reality. In other words (and to illustrate but one facet of the problem), one may well find oneself questioning as one closes Herndon’s analysis whether Voegelin’s understanding of the Pauline Compromise was really a compromise Paul intended, or whether St. Francis of Assisi really intended to “construct the third age of Joachim’s historical speculation,” (91) or whether Voegelin’s “vitriolic reflections upon Luther and Calvin” really grasp the essence of the solas of the Reformation such that, for instance, “justification by faith” alone is not the teaching of one beholden to the libido dominandi or an antinomian heresy. (136)

In both Voegelin’s and Herndon’s analysis, one is left wondering if this is all quite right and whether an error or excess in one area of Voegelin’s analysis does not itself indicate an error or excess in another area and, consequently, whether there is not a measure of error and excess throughout. What must then transpire is not merely a piecing together of Voegelin’s understanding of the history of the Christian political order, which is so central to the history of Western Civilization. In this regard, Herndon has done a truly fine job with respect to the discussion of the Christian political order found in the History. What must also transpire is a reconsideration of whether the arguments in defense of this order in the History accords with history and the self-understanding and reflective consciousness of those thinkers whose symbolic formulations are the focus of Voegelin’s study.

In other words, using Voegelin’s own methodology undergirding the “theory of noetic and pneumatic differentiation of consciousness,” 2 we may be forced to revisit Voegelin’s assumption that though “History is Christ written large,”3 this Christ, following Michael Morrissey, “is not the grand ‘metaphysical exception’ in history, but the ‘chief exemplification’ of divine incarnate presence in history.”4 Indeed, with reference to Morrissey’s fine study of Voegelin’s theology entitled Consciousness and Transcendence: The Theology of Eric Voegelin, Herndon’s research on the History and his analysis of the Christian political order is an important addition to the scholarship concerned with the general topic of Voegelin and Christianity.  A careful integration of the two works, combined with a critical revisitation of the issues as outlined herein, would prove illuminating to say the least.

This thought also brings us to our third point, namely addressing some unresolved problems in Voegelinian scholarship to which Herndon explicitly and implicitly draws our attention. This step is critical as we consider the work entailed in reconstituting order at the dawn of the 21st century.  Indeed, the touchstones of “where to next?” have already been outlined in the foregoing discussion of “problems.” By way of conclusion, let us elaborate upon them a bit more.

As mentioned in the introduction, Herndon’s work arises out of an awareness of a crisis of order. Citing Ellis Sandoz, Herndon reminds us, with respect to Western democracies and the United States in particular, that this crisis is “the crisis of civic consciousness.” (19) Undergirding the spirit of Herndon’s work is the sense that, “An examination of Voegelin’s analysis of the problem of Christian order would be a contribution to ‘how, past Nietzsche’s nihilism, we can regain reality without dogma’.” (28)

In this respect there are strong similarities to David Walsh’s project articulated in the last volume of his trilogy, The Modern Philosophic Revolution: the Luminosity of Existence. Both works are indebted to the ground breaking research of Voegelin’s nondogmatic, experiential unfolding of order. It is precisely for this reason that a careful study of Voegelin and the problem of Christian political order should not end with the fine beginning Herndon offers in his book but lead to a critical engagement with Voegelin’s presuppositions and his expansive analysis and exegesis of order and history.

At the very end of Herndon’s work, he states that “a modicum of hope remains” with respect to overcoming “the closure of the realm of the spirit and the failure of the institutions of the ‘state’ to recognize it as legitimate.” (164) Drawing on a footnote of Voegelin’s in volume IV of the History in which Voegelin notes that the “peculiarity of Western civilization” in a time of decline is that at once unparalleled disorders are possible but so are “recuperative forces without parallel,” Herndon concludes that he hopes his study “can be a small contribution to the recuperation of civilization.” (164)

I share his hope but also realize that this might require revisiting issues and topics that have already seemingly been covered and covered again. They nevertheless might need to be revisited–literally recovered. Such scholarly labor may well reveal insights for the first time or recover insights that have been forgotten or lost, even as Herndon’s fine study reveals new insights with respect to problems related to Christian political order that are still with us and reminds us of the need to think carefully and deeply as we strive to recover timeless truths. We should be thankful for Herndon’s analysis and hope that it is not the end of our reflections on the prospects and problems of a Christian political order but a new beginning . . . or maybe it is best to say a beginning once more.



1. CW refers to the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin published by the University of Missouri Press.

2. John Kirby, “On Reading Eric Voegelin: A Note on the Critical Literature,” in Voegelin and the Theologian: Ten Studies in Interpretation, ed. John Kirby and William Thompson (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), 24-60; cited in fn. 13 in Michael Morrissey, Consciousness and Transcendence: The Theology of Eric Voegelin (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 311-12.

3. CW 12: 78; cited in Morrissey, 239.

4. Morrissey, 240. Cf. also CW 17: 337 and CW 12: 184-85.

Rouven J. SteevesRouven J. Steeves

Rouven J. Steeves

Rouven J. Steeves is Assistant Professor of Political Science and German at the United States Air Force Academy.

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