Voegelin and Christianity

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The Incarnation is not an event in History; it’s an event in the Metaxy.

This statement lies at the core of the problem between Voegelin and many Christian students of his work. Had Voegelin been more aware of and appreciative of (Eastern) Orthodox theology he would have been able to cite numerous references to support this claim. The equivalences would have been obvious.

First let us look at Biblical sources, since Orthodox theology is an ongoing dialogue with Scripture. Mary Magdelene is at the tomb, turns around, and sees a man who she assumes is the gardener. “She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.” Why wouldn’t she have immediately recognized Him?  On the shore of the Sea of Tiberius, Jesus speaks to several of the disciples and “two others,” who do not recognize Him. Surely they would at least have recognized His voice, not to mention his bodily posture. On the road to Emmaus, two men encounter Jesus, one unnamed and one named Cleopus, “but they were kept from recognizing Him.” What’s that all about?

To be sure, Christianity argues that many witnesses saw Jesus in His resurrected body. And the Biblical accounts of these encounters are there for a reason: perhaps to dispute any potential claim that the Resurrection is a mythology, craftily devised to create a new religious movement. But how do we account for these strange instances of the people closest to Jesus not recognizing Him. To the point in one instance that they were “kept from recognizing Him.” This is not filler. The Bible does not contain filler.  Everything contained in the Bible is there for a spiritual purpose. The authors don’t throw material in there to fill up space.

I’m reminded of the two Greeks who appear when Jesus is preaching to a crowd. When Philip and Andrew approach Jesus to tell Him that Greeks have arrived wishing to see Him, what does He say? Oh, great! Bring them to me? No, He says now is the time for His glorification. So what does that have to do with the Greeks? Can we at least not resort to contorted explanations or flippancy and agree that their appearance has something vital to do with Jesus’ next statement? What seems to be so obvious is that with the arrival of the Greeks, Jesus is aware that his ministry to the Jews is complete, and now is the time for His Glorification, which will result in His ministry to the Gentiles, and it would be the Greek speaking world that would rapidly spread the Gospel to all nations and not the Jews. How many times has He departed saying, in effect, now is not the time?  And now all of a sudden it’s the time. What has changed? The Greeks have arrived on the scene.

So these accounts of the people closest to Jesus who could not at first recognize Him are there for a purpose: to tell us something about the nature of the Incarnation. It’s not about historical facts. It’s about – consciousness. The Orthodox Church teaches this. One cannot understand the theological teachings of the Church without first being illumined – without having one’s consciousness altered, if we were to use the pop vernacular. This is one reason why John’s Gospel – the one Gospel account which is also theological in nature – is only read beginning on Pascha; because Pascha was the time of year especially reserved for baptisms. You cannot in principle understand the Church’s theology unless you have first been illumined. And you cannot be illumined in Baptism until you have first been purified of your passions. And one cannot recognize Christ in the eucharist without being purified and illumined. That is why the Orthodox Church does not offer communion to non-Orthodox Christians. It’s why our priest warns us that we should all be properly prepared prior to receiving communion.

In Orthodox Christianity, knowing is not understanding. It is seeing. It is the result of a change or transformation of consciousness in which our intellect (nous) is no longer distorted by a dysfunctional relationship to the body, and can now act in harmony with the body. As a result, our spiritual senses are activated and we can see that which we could not see before. Nothing absolutely new here. Heraclitus knew this. He says most people go through life asleep. He has probably noticed this in himself until something happened to awakened his consciousness as a participant in transcendent reality.

This transformation of sense perception and the capacity, in a very few, to see God, not in His Essence, but in His Divine Energies, lies at the core of the Orthodox doctrine of salvation. So these reports of not being able to recognize Christ at first are perfectly understandable, according to Orthodox anthropology, and do not require strained explanations. Seeing Christ in his Resurrected body are events in the Metaxy, not events in History. They are the participatory events of consciousness as it participates in the in-between realm.

Unfortunately, perhaps catastrophically, over time many Christians have claimed that all of these eyewitness accounts prove that Jesus is objectively, historically the Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, when there is no Biblical support for this. On the contrary, the one statement in the New Testament that directly bears on the question of proof states that it is faith which is the proof. Many such Christians argue that any suggestion that the Incarnation is not an objective fact completely undermines the entirety of Christian belief. One is reminded of C.S. Lewis’ dictum that the Incarnation is myth become fact.

But as Voegelin the Christian apologist once wrote, with certitude who needs faith? The striving for proof, especially historical proof, is evidence of a thinning out of the faith over time. It’s one thing to say that Christianity is historical in a common sense manner. It is another thing entirely to say that history proves Christianity.

So what about this metaxy business? The idea of man being an “intermediate being,” while not pervasive in Orthodox theological treatises, is the predicate behind everything that is written about man’s true nature. It is explicit in some treatises, but implicit in all of them.  It’s important to note that this “intermediate” condition is not referring to an intermediate state of the soul (and body) after falling asleep, but refers to the very definition of what it means to be human. The human is unique among creatures, including the animal kingdom and the bodiless powers in that it is in-between the two and comprises characteristics of both. “Man is a little lower than the angels.”

Furthermore, this intermediate nature is what enables mankind to enter into and exist in an intermediate realm, in between mortality and immortality, in between world and Heaven, in between chronological time (kronos) and eternal time (Kairos). It is uniquely in the liturgy that the Orthodox believer enters into this intermediate realm, in which the worship of the community participates in Heavenly realities, by being “partakers of the Divine Nature.”  The liturgy states this is on behalf of all and for all, i.e. all of mankind.

How many of the worshipers actually sense this?  Or is it an objective fact?  Fortunately, nobody in Orthodoxy wastes his time arguing the ontological proof of this, any more than a priest or bishop would permit a chemist to test the Divine Elements! But for those few who have been glorified, it is possible to actually see the Divine Energy present in the Eucharist, or perhaps even in some other circumstance.  Like when those closest to Jesus finally recognized Him.

Which brings us to the question of Truth. “What is truth?,” as poor Pilot asked. We have become used to the idea of truth as a set of provable propositions, utilizing either logic or measurements or statistics, and we all know from watching TV that witness accounts are the least reliable evidence. For Orthodox Christians, truth is not a set of demonstrable facts. It is a realm. It is a realm in-between that which is lasting and that which is passing away, in which the faithful dwell. It is a spatial metaphor for the Christian life. Every Orthodox theologian knows this apodictically; every member of the faithful knows it in his bones, if he hasn’t been totally corrupted by Cartesian categories that dominate the intellectual environment. The only proof that Christianity is the Truth lies in how Christians live their lives, and in how they have been transfigured.

Here is where the oddity I find in Voegelin appears.  For a mystic philosopher who seemed to have read virtually everything, it is odd that he seems so unfamiliar with Orthodox sources, apart from a few kind words reserved for Origen’s speculative theological treatises, or St. Justin Martyr’s conviction that Christianity represents “the perfection of philosophy.” In point of fact, there seems to be no acknowledgement of Orthodoxy’s philosophical anthropology that is grounded in the metaxy-reality. And why, for example, would Voegelin avoid commenting on the works of St. Maximos the Confessor, arguably the height of Christian iconic theology, whose meditations on the Eighth Day symbolize the metaxy-reality of Christian existence?

One can only assume that Voegelin’s primary motive was to uncover the roots of ideology which he explored as the consequence of certain deformations of theological symbolisms within the Church over time. And as a “Western” phenomenon, such deformations are largely confined to Western Church sources. But again, as a philosopher cum scientist who continually goes back to the “beginning” to uncover the sources of symbolism, one would think that pre-Schism Orthodox sources would have been an important field of research for him. He complained, of course, about people who complained to him that he had not pursued this or that avenue of research. He couldn’t do it all.  Still . . .

The other puzzling factor for a philosopher of history who evolves, so to speak, into a philosopher of consciousness, is why he would be so dismissive of the arguments presented by St. Gregory Palamas in the Hesychast Controversy, vs. the very westernized theological method of Barlaam. “Navel-gazing” I think he called it. Another way of putting it would be to question why the world’s foremost classical scholar in at least the last 500 years, who recovered the philosophical experience of Heraclitus and the Pre-Socratics and Plato would, when push comes to shove, side with Aristotle when it came to the Hesychast Controversy. Not that he took much interest in it at all. But in hindsight, one could argue that the last of the great theological controversies, and the Orthodox Council that resolved it, was also the most important. It brought to a level of explicitness what had been implicit in Christian theology all along, that Christianity is not an intellectual exercise of ascent of the mind, it is not a seeking after truth, but an experience of participation that changes the participant. As St. Ignatius of Antioch put it, God became Man so that men could become god.

Perhaps it’s totally extraneous, but I am reminded at this point of a comment made by a student that Voegelin once said that people don’t change after the age of twenty. But could it be that in his critique of the demono-maniacal ideologies that preach transfiguration of history and who behave themselves like “petty paracletes,” he may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and that anything that smacks of theosis is dangerous nonsense? Had Voegelin been willing to do just a little more research into some critical Orthodox distinctions:  e.g. the absolute distinction between the created and the Uncreated, and the distinction between Essence and Energies, he might have found an exit from certain philosophical cul de sacs that were constructed in the post-Schism West, and are largely the consequence of a lack of knowledge of Christian heresies and how the Church dealt with them.

A good example would be Blessed Augustine’s somewhat bizarre theory that Grace is a created substance and the havoc that would create problems in Western Church history. But the best example would be how the Church dealt with the Iconoclastic Controversy. Christian theology is first and foremost iconic. So you have to understand what an icon is, and isn’t, before you can truly understand what it means to be human.

Consciousness is always a participatory event in the metaxy-reality. That’s Voegelin’s core principle. Far from an obscure line from just one of Plato’s many dialogues, if stated slightly differently it is also at the core of Orthodox Christianity’s philosophical anthropology. It is the core of its ascetical theology, as explicated by numerous saints. Through obedience to the commandments and living in a continual state of repentance, one is not just restored to a proper relationship with God, and certainly not just in the legal sense, but one is deified, to the extent that is possible while still living in the World. That modern man has inverted the Christian doctrine of deification does not negate the doctrine, but only serves to remind us of the story of the Tower of Babel. Despite a notable gap in Voegelin’s knowledge of Christian sources, we can be grateful to him for exposing the fraudulent nature of the progressivist enterprise, and find solace in his expectation that a true spiritual revival will inevitably come.

Owen Jones

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Owen Jones is founder and executive vice-president of Argus Reservoir Monitoring, LLC. He has developed a Christian and classical curriculum and institution of higher learning and a state-wide coordinator for school reform.