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Voegelin and Christ’s “Finality”: Some Thoughts

I have placed “finality” in quotation marks, since I am not sure it is part of Voegelin’s lexicon. Still I believe it is roughly equivalent to the word “climactic,” for example, which he does use with respect to the “revelation in Christ.” This is found in his relatively later essay “The Gospel and Culture,” along with some other finality-like language when referring to Jesus Christ. For example, Matthew 16:21-23 articulates the “full realization of what it means to be the Son of God”; “. . . the Christ is revealed . . . in the fullness of passion and resurrection”; the “process of revelation in history [is] a millennial Movement culminating in the epiphany of the Son of God.” In fact, this climactic and culminating epiphany in Christ is nothing less than “the full differentiation of the truth of existence.” The “whole fullness (pan to pleroma) [of] divine reality is present only in Christ,” referring to Colossians 2:9, while “all other men have no more than their ordinary share of this fullness (pepleromenoi) through accepting the truth of its full presence in the Christ . . .”[1]

In his also relatively late “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme” Voegelin writes that “when reading the Gospel texts one is always astonished by the noetic astuteness of the pneumatic visions.” And again referring to Colossians 2:9-10, he features the Pauline language of God’s “pleromatic [full] presence in a man [Jesus],” of the “pleromatic metaxy seen in the Christ,” going on in commenting on 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 to write of “the pneuma that is pleromatically present in Christ and less fully in the men who can see the Christ.”[2]

Finally, to take another important reference, this time to his essay “The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected,” in his The Ecumenic Age, Voegelin places Jesus “above all” when it comes to revealing reality’s transfigurational structure, and he holds that Paul “validly expresses the telos [end/goal] of the movement” of reality, even if he wrongly “anticipates its concrete realization.” And Voegelin returns to his somewhat favorite Colossians 2:9 in this volume’s final essay, “Universal Humanity”: “The transfiguring exodus within reality achieves the full consciousness of itself when it becomes historically conscious as the Incarnation of God in Man.”[3]

This is a significant number of references to Voegelin’s relatively “late” position with respect to the Incarnation. In rereading them, I am even somewhat “amazed” by their articulate formulation and careful nuance. Not only the Gospels, but Voegelin himself displays a certain “noetic astuteness” as he exegetes the Christian “pneumatic visions.”

One might wonder whether Voegelin is expressing his view of the Christ, or the Gospels’ or Paul’s. Readers will naturally have to decide, but I believe he is doing both. His typical approach is to meditatively exegete and hearken to the engendering experiences and symbols of philosophy and revelation, and when he thinks he finds something problematic therein, he says so. So, for example, he writes of “the possibility of the Gnostic derailment [as] inherent to the [Gospel] Movement from its beginning,” given the elements of apocalyptic in the gospel message of Jesus.[4]

How does one arrive at such conclusions? And how might one legitimate them? For Voegelin it would seem to be a matter of a proper exegesis of theophanic experiences in history. In other words, one is led to these insights by the pull of reality. It is “grace,” that is to say. Church father Irenaeus, for example, taught that only God can reveal God: “For the Lord taught us that no man is capable of knowing God, unless he be taught of God; that is, that God cannot be known without God: but that this is the express will of the Father, that God should be known.” In revisiting Voegelin’s “Quod Deus dicitur,” I was struck in a way I had not been before by  how he stressed the role of prayerful openness to the Divine, not only in Anselm, but also in Plato. Voegelin begins the essay by writing, like someone in prayer: “We are not facing God as a thing but as the partner in a questing search …” In Anselm, for example, “the noetic quest assumes the form of a prayer”; it has “the character of an appeal, and even of a counsel and promise.” Voegelin goes on: “One cannot prove reality by a syllogism; one can only point to it and invite the doubter to look.” When he turns to Plato’s Timaeus, 27c, Voegelin finds something analogous, as Plato begins his exploration of divinity, albeit in a more cosmocentric mode: “That the imaginative analysis is to be a prayer is presupposed.”[5] As I say, I had not so forcefully noticed this stress upon prayer before in this essay.

However, while we are called to respond prayerfully in noesis to the theophanic revelations, we also have our noetic role to play. So let us return to our questions: How might we arrive at such conclusions as that the revelation of the Incarnation is climactic, pleromatic, and indeed the telos of human history? How might this be possible without lapsing into a gnostic-like comprehension of the mystery of existence? Or, to refer to another text of Irenaeus of which Voegelin was fond, how can we avoid pretending “to read God as in a book”?[6]

A first suggestion would be to appeal to Voegelin’s analogous experience-exegesis of all theophanic experiences. How does one know, for example, that the Divine Beyond is truly the Beyond in the fully transcendental sense, the “that than which nothing greater can be experienced-symbolized”? I am assuming here Voegelin’s view that we do not occupy a perch outside of the in-between of eternity and time, transcendence and immanence (= the metaxy). We are within this, in varying modes of participation. In any case, how would one ever occupy a position beyond and outside of full transcendence? How could we ever be beyond what has no boundaries? This would seem to indicate that the virtue of humility among other virtues is being presupposed, as we proceed. We are back to prayerful meditation as a kind of context within which our noetic inquiry must proceed.

But presupposing that, we might “borrow” with certain qualifications the terminology of transcendental philosophy, and speak of “performing” a “transcendental reduction” and “deduction.”[7]  These “operations” passed into philosophy of religion and philosophical theology partly through the work of the German Jesuit Karl Rahner and his followers (where I encountered it), but it represented a response to and modification of Kant’s and post-Kantian German “Idealism” (a not too happy term). What is meant is that one “goes back” to the engendering experiences-symbolizations of the theophanies  (= the “reduction”), and seeks to “deduce” from them their conditions of possibility (= the “deduction”).  A “that than which nothing greater can be experienced/thought,” so to speak, implies various characteristics, such as eternal, unlimited, the ungrounded “ground,” etc. Of course, the nature of the theophanic experience, as for example, that of the burning bush event in Exodus 3, implies other features too, such as a God of dialogue and liberation in the case of Exodus 3.

The modification I would note, with Voegelin, is that this is not a “proof” in the typical sense of that word, as if one were “forced” to certain conclusions. It has more of the character of a theophanic appeal and prayerful response. It is noesis grounded in fidelity to the pull of reality. In fact, one might add that the very nature of a personal, dialogical Divine Beyond would exclude any force or compulsion. The kind of “surrender” involved in responding to a divine appeal might have something of an “I cannot do otherwise” dimension, but somehow freedom is enhanced rather than curtailed or violated. Thus Moses and his people find themselves on the road of freedom as they respond to the divine appeal of the “I Am” of the burning bush.

Something analogous to all of this might be said of the Gautama Buddha’s nirvana experience and symbolization in the four noble truths as the “final” or “ultimate” form of decentering of the ego. A “that than which no greater decentering could be experienced-imagined and expressed,” a “letting go” which in principle is unlimited – such are possible ways of articulating the meaning of nirvana. As the various traditions meditatively thought through the implications or conditions of the possibility of Gautama’s engendering experience-symbolization, in Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan or other trajectories, so their respective philosophies/theologies developed the features of nirvana. And likewise for the Tao in the Chinese (theo-)philosophical traditions, or for Allah in Islam, and certainly for much of the mystical tradition worldwide.

Particularly in the mystical traditions (in their written forms), we can see the transcendental reduction, or analogous movement into (return to) the depths of the engendering theophanic or sapiential experience-symbolizations, and the illuminative and growing awareness of its implications or “conditions of possibility” as they emerge in the mystic along the mystical path. Voegelin’s own highly positive estimation of the mystical differentiation is well known, and I believe it has much to do with the mystics’ analogous participation in the theophanic engendering experiences-symbolizations. In other words, the mystical “inscape,” the dearest freshness deep down things” (Gerard Manly Hopkins) quality is key.[8]

Likewise, then, we suggest that a similar “transcendental reduction and deduction” is applicable to the Incarnation of the Christian faith, the Jesus Christ theophanic engendering experience-symbolization. “Incarnation” needs to be taken in its amplitude, not being narrowed down to the “birth” of Jesus, but embracing the entirety of the Jesus Christ phenomenon, the divine reality, along with the full human reality from beginning to resurrected existence. What Voegelin can be thought to be doing is performing a transcendental reduction and deduction, so to speak, in noesis guided by faith.

If you want, a personal and personalizing love of such a nature that no love greater can be experienced or symbolized-thought is a way of articulating the Incarnation, a way of expressing its nature. Such is what the Gospels or St. Paul were experiencing and in faith symbolizing in varying ways. Theirs is a movement from within the engendering christophany, not from the outside (which is impossible in any case). The conditions of possibility – and a rough understanding of these would seem to be unending – emerge by way of implication from within that through consciousness. This is a way of expressing or exegeting the pleromatic aspect of the christophany.

It is important to underscore that Voegelin seems to make a distinction between the pleroma as it occurs in Jesus, and our own participation in a “less full” or “ordinary” manner. He does not explore this more fully, but he seems to be concerned about an unending multiplication of Messiah figures or “new Christs,” such as those “in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries which repeats the pattern of the ‘sons of god’ who aroused the wrath of Irenaeus and Plotinus.”[9]

At any rate, it seems clear here – at least more clear to me upon this revisiting especially – that Voegelin dos not deindividualize or depersonalize Jesus the Christ in his thought, simply arguing, as many often do, that Jesus is one instance of many other Christs. That would be a sort of potentially infinite multiplication of Incarnations, so to speak. Jesus is not simply one of potentially many, but the personally unique one through whom we experience and participate in the Divine Beyond’s becoming fully personal and transfiguring (saving) for us. From a trinitarian perspective, and there are some texts in Voegelin which point to this, this might be thought of as a way of expressing the distinction between the Son and the Spirit. The Spirit evokes creations’ participation in the Son, the way in which the divine Sonship reaches out to all. But it would seem clear that Voegelin does not swallow up the Son into the Spirit.

A further and perhaps important question is why Voegelin privileges the Gospels’ articulation of the Incarnation, giving a negative response to “gnostic” expressions of the gospel, following Irenaeus, and certainly rejecting the “many Christs” he finds in Hegel and others. To a great extent this seems to have to do with the “egophanic” or hubristic dimensions he seems to notice therein, the dangerously apocalyptic aspects found there. It may also have to do – but this is not so clear – with the very nature of the Incarnation, when one thinks of its conditions of possibility as we have sought to do. That is, there would seem to be something irreducibly uniquely personal and pesonalizing about it. To depersonalize it would be to rob it of its saving value as God’s personal offer of love to us. The Word has become “flesh” in the biblical sense of “flesh,” echoing John 1:14: an embodied, personal presence for us within history, if I might put it thus. “Flesh” is a common Hebrew way of speaking of the whole person, and especially in the prologue of the Gospel of John.[10]

Likewise, we should notice that Voegelin writes of the climactic nature of the Incarnation. He makes a distinction, but not a separation, between Jesus the Christ and Christianity. Christianity is not revelation’s climax, but rather the historical witness to the climax. And we know well Voegelins’ many criticisms of the lapse into dogmatomachy in Christianity’s history. Here and there, however, he will write more positively of the role of doctrine as a kind of protective device, at its best, as long as the doctrine serves the engendering experience-symbolization, and not vice versa.[11] But this takes us beyond this essay’s purpose. Still, this brings up the point that what Voegelin writes about the Incarnation is quite limited, and probably bound to diappoint the Christian theologian, always and properly in search of more. Perhaps one of Voegelin’s greatest gifts to the theologian, however, is to keep theology rooted in its engendering events. In a way, Voegelin’s various articulations of aspects of the Incarnation, apart perhaps from his very early observations in his History of Political Ideas, reminds me of a kind of overture or prologue to the fuller narrative of the Gospels. We do not so much find the narrative of the Gospel Movement, nor even a commentary, but an announcement of key themes to come in the actual Gospel story, such as we find it in the prologue of the Gospel of John.[12]

This essay’s readers will likely be aware of Voegelin’s essay “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History.” In our radically global and interreligious context I believe this essay will take on more and more importance as a sort of guide. I regard this essay as a forerunner in interreligious and interpolitical relations. It deserves attending to here, because the epochally engendering experiences-symbolizations need to be explored in a more self-consciously global, interreligious manner. This is part of what Voegelin was up to in his controversial The Ecumenic Age. That volume is actually quite remarkable and courageous, although scholars in individual areas will have, and do have, their demurs, which is not surprising. A “global” undertaking is of its very nature a collaborative enterprise, and by its very nature it exceeds the reach of any one person.

It seems, in the light of these writings, however, to be helpful to ask ourselves what it means to approach the Incarnation in a more self-consciously interreligious manner. Voegelin had a keen sense for this, and he went as far as his meditative exegeses carried him before his death. Of course, many others have been doing something similar in Christian theology for some time, and the literature is vast.[13]

A first observation: the equivalences essay is a subtle meditation, moving through various phases. In the end, which is really just a beginning, we learn that equivalences are accompanied by differences/differentiations not only on the level of symbolization, but on that of experience as well, the symbolizations always accompanying the experiences. So, for example, — and here I am offering my own observations – we might make the case that the encounters with God in the Semitic religions (Judaism (YHWH), Christianity (Abba, Trinity), and Islam (Allah) share regions of equivalence experientially and symbolically, but within dimensions of difference as well, on all these levels. This coheres with Voegelin’s well known view that we inhabit one community of being (God, cosmos, society/societies, persons), but we do so on a range varying from compactness to differentiation of various forms. We might make a similar observation with respect to the Tao of the Chinese traditions, the gods/Brahman of the Hindu traditions, and the “Mystery” dimensions of the various cosmological, primal traditions.

A second observation: in our global context we will be drawn to explore the Incarnation in a more globally responsible way. What might be some of Voegelin’s observations with respect to this, or did he offer much?

It seems clear that Voegelin gives the climactic primacy to Jesus Christ with respect to the revelatory transfigurational process in history. We have noted the texts above in this essay. Thus, there is something about the Incarnation, as Voegelin receives it, that is nonpareil. I have tried to give one expression of this, in terms of unlimited love. There are other ways of expressing it as well: the decisive victory over evil through resurrection, the eventual triumph of hope, the eschatologically positive goal of history, Christ as history’s telos, etc. But this does not separate Christ and Christians from others for Voegelin. As he expressed it, “St. Thomas has asked the question and sharpened it to its critical point: he asks ‘whether Christ be the head of all men’ (ST III.8.2), and answers unequivocally that he is the head of all men [sic!], indeed, and that consequently the mystical body of the church consists of all men who have, and will have, existed from the beginning of the world to its end . . . History is Christ written large.”[14] In other words, theologians would say that Voegelin holds a view of the “cosmic Christ”: reflecting Colossians 2:9-10, a text we have cited earlier (cf. also Col 1:15, 17; 1 Cor 3:3; John 1:3). And so far as I can tell, Voegelin does not separate Jesus from the Christ. The cosmic Christ includes Jesus and the whole mystical body, it would seem. The reader may wish to revisit the citations with which this essay began.

We could say that this reflects the dimension of difference within the equivalence-difference dialectic. The cosmic Christ uniquely includes all, and in any case we would expect this to be the case on the basis of Voeglin’s view of the community of being. If we truly constitute one community of being, then it ought to be the case that the Incarnation complicates all in some way, all then in some way participating in it. Voegelin offers no further noetic exploration of how this might be elucidated. His unitive community of being is a kind of deep grammar here, and he finds some articulation of this in various biblical texts and in an authoritative thinker like St. Thomas Aquinas.[15]

If such be the element of difference/differentiation, are there elements of at least rough equivalence to be noted as well with respect to the Incarnation? Perhaps we might point to the general notion that God is a communicative God, reaching out to creation and all humans, a feature which reaches a kind of climax in Jesus, on Voegelin’s view, but which is found in the varying revelations and sapiential traditions. More dramatically we might think of Jewish mysticism’s “eternal Torah” disclosed to the mystic in mystical experience, or to a similar tradition in Islam’s “eternal Qur’an” (see surah 43:2, for example) disclosed to the believer, or to the Kabbalah’s divine emanations, or to Pure Land Buddhism’s loving bodhisattvas, or to the “manifestations” of Brahman in Hinduism. It does not seem to me that these ought to be regarded as fully equivalent to the Incarnation; the latter, especially when “framed” within the context of trinitarian experience-symbolization, has the element of the uniquely individuated and personal, which seems here to be the Christian distinctive, if I can put it that way. But this is controversial, I realize.

But if we truly constitute one community of being, then of course the various religious and sapiential traditions complicate one another, and thus challenge and enrich one another as well. The influence is mutual, equal at least in this regard of mutually enriching, if not necessarily always in the way each does so, and more controversially, each having its role in the drama of salvation. The Christ event, in other words, needs to be globally articulated in a way which brings this mutual enrichment within difference out more fully. From a Christian perspective this might be thought of as particularly related to the doctrine of the Spirit, the way in which God brings all into unity and enrichment.[16] If you want, the doctrine of the Trinity indicates that even while the Son is not “subordinate” to the Father and Spirit, neither are Father and Spirit subordinate to the Son. Each has one’s mutual gifts of enrichment. But we are a long way off from understanding this more adequately. In their particular respects the Son and the Spirit each have one’s mutual, distinct but not separate, contributions to make, a Christian might say.

Just how more precisely the “others” challenge and enrich one another will be the fruit of interreligious and interphilosophical dialogue. The prophetic dimension of Judaism; Islam’s sense of the radically transcendent One and our submission in Allah’s presence; Hinduism’s historical ability to view diversity as something which enriches unity; the powerful explorations of unitive consciousness within Hinduism and Buddhism; the rich attunement to the cosmic dimension of existence among the primal traditions and within the Chinese traditions; the sapiential noesis of the Greek Classical tradition and the Confucian tradition, for example, among others – all of these and more come to the fore in the various global dialogues.

These thoughts might be viewed as a “global”way of interpreting John 14:2: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” This seems like a fitting place to end.



[1] Eric Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” Published Essays 1966-1985, CW 12, ed. Ellis Sandoz, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press/Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990, 196, 203, 204, 210, 211, 192-93.

[2] Eric Voegelin, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” Published Essays 1966-1985, ed. Sandoz, 367, 368-69, 370.

[3] Eric Voegelin“The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected,” Order and History 4, The Ecumenic Age, CW 17, ed. Michael Franz, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000, 337-39; “Universal Humanity,” 373.

[4] Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” 211.

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.6.4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1: 468, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979; Eric Voegelin, “Quod Deus Dicitur,” Published Essays 1966-1985, ed. Sandoz, 376, 383, 388, 390.

[6] Eric Voegelin, Order and History 5, In Search of Order, CW 18, ed. Ellis Sandoz, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000, 78; see his Order and History 3, Plato and Aristotle, CW 16, ed. Dante Germino, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000, 247. The citation from Irenaeus is presumably from Against Heresies 2.28.7.

[7] See on this Otto Muck, The Transcendental Method, trans. William D. Seidensticker, with a foreword by Karl Rahner, New York: Herder and Herder, 1968. Some add that were one to deny these operations, one would be committing the performative fallacy; that is, the very acts of transcendental reduction and deduction imply the human ability to attain truth. These authors then speak of a “transcendental performance” as well. This method today needs much more fully to be set within the context of its historical site; it is a method within history, not above it. As such, noesis is grounded in a fundamental fidelity to/faith in the appeal of reality as its reaches us through participatory consciousness. This is why, I believe, Voegelin once remarked to me that he did not approve of the Kantian language of the a priori, as if the conditions of possibility were somehow outside or above history.

[8] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, CW 6, ed. David Walsh, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002, 393-98, on mysticism (“the phenomenon of mysticism enters on the scene as a new expression of the differentiated experience” [397]); Gerard Manley Hopkins, Journal, Dec. 12, 1872, and “God’s Grandeur,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 214, 128.

[9] Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” 211-212; see in the same volume, Published Essays 1966-1985, his essay on Hegel, “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery,” 213-55, esp. 229, where Voegelin opines that Hegel himslf “seems to have been God the Son” in some of his writings!

[10] See Kenneth Grayston, “Flesh, Fleshly, Carnal,” in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, ed. Alan Richardson, New York: Macmillan, 1950, 83-84.

[11] See Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 96, 105, for important comments on doctrine.

[12] I have tried to illustrate what I mean by John’s prologue as an overture in William Thompson[-Uberuaga], “When Christology is Sung: Christology and Trinity in John,” in The Struggle for Theology’s Soul: Contesting Scripture in Christology, New York: Crossroad, 1996, 106-52. For Voegelin’s early sketch of the New Testament in the History of Political Ideas 1, Hellenism, Rome, and Early Christianity, CW 19, ed. Athanasios Moulakis, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997, see Jeffrey C. Herndon, Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007, esp. 30-58.

[13] See Eric Voegelin, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” Published Essays 1966-1985, 115-33. The one approach to the world’s religions which I have found which is greatly indebted to Voegelin’s thought is John Carmody and Denise Lardner Carmody, Interpreting the Religious Experience: A Worldview, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987. This is a wonderful book, still very relevant. The Carmodys follow Voegelin in differentiating the pneumatic breakthroughs, where the accent falls upon the divine descent in revelation through grace, and the key figures are prophets, from the noetic differentiations, such as that of Plato, for example, where the accent falls upon the human ascent in noesis into the Mystery, and the key figure is the sage (or philosopher). These are not a contrast, for God and divine grace are found in both; it is a matter of accent as it is articulated in the texts. Others would refer to the noetic thinkers as the sapiential tradition. See the Carmodys, esp. 49 and all of chapters 4-6. Voegelin’s The Ecumenic Age is the key Voegelin text in this regard. The Semitic religions are more pneumatic; the Greek philosophers, the Upanishads, the Gautama Buddha, Confucius and Laotzu, for example, seem more sapiential/noetic. But there are mixes. The cosmological traditions seem quite mixed, but rather more prenoetically pneumatic, if I can put it that way.

[14] Eric Voegelin, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” Published Essays 1966-1985, ed. Sandoz, 78.

[15] Theologians have historically either come at this “from above,” following John 1:1, 3: “In the beginning was the Word . . . All things came into being through him …”; and/or “from below,” from the perspective of Jesus’ risen humanity, a humanity that has somehow become universal through the Spirit. See William Thompson[-Uberuaga], “Thomas Merton’s Transcultural Christ,” in Jesus, Lord and Savior: A Theopathic Christology and Soteriology, New York: Paulist Press, 1980, 250-76.

[16] Eric Voegelin, “Letter to Alfred Schütz on Christianity,” Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, CW 30, ed. Thomas A. Hollweck, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007, 122-31, although an early piece, is among Voegelin’s more sustained meditations on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; the relationship between the Son and our participation in the Son through the Spirit, is particularly noted. Herndon, Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order, 42-44, also analyzes some key texts on the Spirit and our participation in Christ and the building up of the community of Christ in the early Voegelin, concentrating on History of Political Ideas 1, ed. Moulakis.

William Thompson-UberuagaWilliam Thompson-Uberuaga

William Thompson-Uberuaga

William Thompson-Uberuaga is an Emeritus Professor of Theology at Duquesne University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He is author of eight books and a co-editor, with David L. Morse, of Eric Voegelin's Collected Works Volume 22: History of Political Ideas - Renaissance and Reformation.

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