Every religious tradition offers a soteriology – its own version of salvation called by whatever name – perhaps spiritual liberation as in the Hindu moksha or enlightenment as in the Buddhist samadhi. It claims to have exclusive possession of the one true “solution” to the human predicament, with the implicit premise that there is a single fundamental problem, such as sin or the wheel of karma or suffering. The remedies offered by other traditions are seen as examples of the problem – the sin of idolatry, the illusion of being a person apart from the Brahman, and so forth. According to the Buddhists, if there are gods, they too need to seek enlightenment.
Philosophies often make the same sorts of claims, sometimes explicitly – witness the Stoics and the Cynics, Spinoza and Sartre – sometimes implicitly – witness Marx, Freud, B. F. Skinner, and Richard Rorty. The result is, of course, unresolved and probably unresolvable conflict between competing single-problem single-solution viewpoints – the sort of debate in which, as Jean Bodin had noted, “all refute each.”
Eric Voegelin agrees with Bodin, and offers what might be called a “meta-soteriology” that overarches this debate and provides a framework for evaluating any comprehensive orientation. Worldviews are assessed by the extent to which they open human life to truth or distract it into the “second realities” of untruth.1 This approach rises above the shadow-boxing of contending religions and ideologies.
In spite of this overarching standpoint, Voegelin rejects the Kantian and Husserlian idea that an adequate philosophy can be based on the transcendental conditions of all experience or the eidetic structures of consciousness uberhaupt. All experience is personal – the experience of a single individual – and so the philosopher must begin with his own experience – with “I, Eric Voegelin …” This discovery led to what he called “anamnesis,” the recovery of his own earliest memories of pregnant (in the sense of world-shaping) experiences.2
Voegelin’s insight is useful for soteriology as well. The human predicament is not merely generic. In the life of a particular individual, there is no single human predicament and hence no single solution. Each of us has his or her own pilgrim’s progress. This is clearest perhaps in novels.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, hyper-competent Andre, lethargic Pierre, pious Marie, irresponsible Nikolai, and jeune-fille Natasha have quite different challenges. And as do George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, who is in quest of his origins, the self-centered Gwendolen, and Deronda’s long-lost mother.
To cloak all these characters in sin and salvation, or ignorance and liberation, or samsara and enlightenment is to read without nuance. And, if we do that to our own lives, we live without nuance. Nuance, in this context, requires paying attention to the details, the contours, the lights and shadows of our lives. The crucial task becomes spiritual discernment, which involves living in truth in one’s own life. It is easy to say that the drunk needs to become sober or the embezzler needs to come clean. But it is not so easy to trace our own right spiritual path, which may not have to do with solving any particular problem at all, but be more a matter of what we are called to do. This takes nuance as well, because we have to learn to hear the divine whisper, sense the inner prompting, and read signs written in invisible ink.
Let me follow Voegelin’s example and start with “I, Jerry Martin …” and speak from my own experience. As a lifelong agnostic, I spent decades developing a philosophy that was essentially naturalistic. However, when I had the surprising experience of hearing a Voice that announced itself as divine, it seemed better to let my experience, fallible though it might be, trump my theory, which was also fallible. If one studies the record of people who have heard a credible divine voice – Socrates, George Fox, Joan of Arc, Ramakrishna, St. Paul, Moses, to name a few – it is striking that they did not all receive the same message. They were given remarkably diverse tasks. I asked in prayer whether I should become a Christian or perhaps a Jew, but was not guided to affiliate in any way. I was led instead to read the foundational scriptures of diverse traditions and to ask about them in prayer. When I received answers in words, I recorded them.3
When I turned to India, I read the Rig Veda and the Upanishads and was guided to read the Mahabharata – the epic of the Great Bharata War – as well, surpringly so, since it is a text on the third tier of the Hindu canon, barely scripture at all.4
The epic tells of a dynastic struggle between the rightful king, Yudhisthira, and his wicked cousin. As the kingdom teeters, Yudi (as I call him) loves spending his days conversing with holy men. He is chided by Krishna, who reminds him that his job is to be a king, not a saint. When I prayed about this, I was told,
“The point of life … is to ‘engage the demons’ – to confront the real challenge of ‘sin,’ adverse forces, material difficulties, mortality, suffering, and so forth – not escape (through yoga) or conventional conformism (dharma). These can be elements of a spiritually fulfilled life, but are not the whole story.” [Words in parentheses indicate my sense at the time of what was being referred to.]
There is a dramatic moment in the epic when the war of good against evil is almost lost. An apparently invincible warrior on the enemy side can only be defeated by a lie. He must be deprived of the will to fight by being told falsely that his son, fighting on a distant part of the battlefield, has been killed. But he will not believe it unless he hears it from the always-truthful Yudi. But the lofty Yudi refuses to lie. It is Krishna himself who must persuade him that, in this case, lying is necessary. Finally, Yudi gives in, tells the lie, and saves the day. About this passage, I was told,
“Yudi has to deal with people who are themselves embodiments of particular desires. Among these desires are evil purposes. And they can be defeated only by using their set of embodied beliefs and desires. This is what Yudi does. It is the only way to prevent evil in this case. So what is morally imperfect is morally required.”
There is, however, a cost. Before the lie, Yudi’s chariot glides over the earth, its wheels never quite touching. Now they sink to the ground. I was told,
“When you commit a moral imperfection, it is important that you know it. You are left somewhat compromised, and it is important to know that also. But you also need to understand the necessity of this morally imperfect act.”
The threat to divine truth in India, I was told, was “the loss of grip on reality,” and that the Mahabharata is “a corrective to the high-flying tendencies of Hindu thought, the tendency to lose contact with the ground through yoga or asceticism or various doctrines (such as monistic idealism). The discovery of the Atman and the Brahman … was so heady that was natural of them to skip a beat and try to leap right into (the) Brahman. But, while the discoveries of (the) Atman (and the) Brahman are valid, that escape is not the purpose of life.”
I was also guided to read the Gathas of Zoroaster, revelations that go back to the precosmogonic beginning.5 It is written: “Truly there are two primal Spirits, twins, Ahura Mazda [literally, the Lord Wisdom] and Angra Mainyu [the Hostile Spirit], renowned to be in conflict. In thought and word and act they are two, the good and the bad,” righteousness and falsehood. There was not yet a world, just an ideal realm that lacked full reality. The Lord Wisdom foresaw that, if he were to create the world, the Hostile Spirit would attack it precisely because it was good, and the world would become a battleground.
And so it came to pass. As soon as the world was created, the Hostile Spirit prepared to attack. The Lord Wisdom offered an era of peace, but the evil one responded with defiance: “I shall destroy you and persuade all your creatures to hate you and to love me.” At that, “he crawled back to darkness” and recruited Daevas, devils, “frightful and putrid and evil,” to fight on his side. And, having rallied the Daevas, he “rose for battle.”
The Lord Wisdom sees what is to come. The strife created by the Hostile Spirit will create a new era, called “a state of Mixture.” He foresees that, “in the Mixture, [the Hostile Spirit] will be able to lead my creatures astray and make them his own.” So he consults with human beings or, more precisely, with their fravahrs, their souls. He shows them what is to come, gives them a preview of the war of good against evil, and then asks them to decide. They can continue an ideal non-material existence or enter the world, risking all in order to defeat evil. They understand what is at stake. They choose to fight. And, as it is written, “we too must choose sides.”
The Hebrew Testament can be read as one record of the progress of that fight. In Creation and the Persistence of Evil, Jewish scholar Jon Levenson gives an arresting account of a central theme in the Hebrew Testament that one does not readily notice: the ongoing struggle for order to triumph over chaos.6 By separating the waters from the earth in Genesis 1, God confines disorder but does not eliminate it.
As Levenson puts it, “the survival of ordered reality hangs only upon God’s vigilance in ensuring that those cosmic dikes do not fail.” “Life,” he writes, “is a continual war against the Evil Impulse” – the unruly erotic, darker, aggressive side of our nature – “a war that does not see a definitive victory in present reality, but in which battles can be won.” There is both an “optimistic element in this theology,” says Levenson, “which is the faith of God’s ultimate triumph,” and a “pessimistic element, which is the tacit acknowledgement that God is not yet God.” “God,” he says, “will not be truly one until the great victory.” Nevertheless, God’s ultimate triumph is in some ways “present today.” As I was told in prayer, “Oddly enough, the victory is now and the struggle is now, and yet the victory depends on the ‘outcome’ of the struggle.”
What is the victory? The trajectory of Hebrew thought reaches succinct expression in the opening lines of the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come.” As Catholic scholar John P. Meyer explains, in the Hebrew Testament, while the sanctification of God’s name sometimes refers to our trusting and praising God and living by his commands, more frequently, it is God who “sanctifies himself or his name” by “manifesting” himself “in the blazing light of a theophany.” 7 In the ancient Jewish prayer known as the Qaddish, “hallowed be his great name” is a way of asking God “to manifest himself in all his world-creating … power ….” About this section, I was told in prayer, “My loving presence is authoritative.” If so, “Thy kingdom come” refers to the reign, the active presence, of God’s authoritative love.
When then is the victory? Right now. God is actively present, manifesting himself, right now. When Jesus says “the kingdom of God has drawn near” (Mark 1:15), he uses the perfect tense. It is like saying, “The train is arriving.” What does this mean for us now? Meyer puts it well: according to Jesus, human beings are “not basically neutral territories.” Rather, “human existence [is] a battlefield dominated by one or the other … force, God or Satan.” A person will live in such a way that one or the other “field of force” will dominate his or her life. No one can choose to be exempt.
There is something puzzling here. These texts suggest epic, eschatological struggles. The soteriological implication is for us to join the right side in that great division of forces. But most of our lives do not resemble dramatic conflict. In War and Peace, Pierre’s mistake is to seek great causes – Masonic secrets, social reform, numerological destiny, the assassination of Napoleon – as his “salvation.” Other characters seek heroic levels of piety or military success or romantic fascination.
What they find is not what they were seeking. The homely Princess Marie, walled up in her piety, encounters a dashing cavalry officer who is dazzled by the loving kindness in her luminous eyes. Nicholai breaks with the pattern of profligate living and spends years redeeming his and his family’s honor. Natasha learns to give up girlish delight in the attention of handsome suitors. Pierre, in his desire to be at the center of the great battle, finds daily life with the soldiers a source of insight into life’s non-heroic meanings. After well over a thousand pages, Tolstoy fast forwards several years and what do we see? Ordinary marital life – wives, kids, middle-aged girth, and occasional spats – and so life goes on.8
Daniel Deronda learns his destiny from the dying Morcedai and his Jewish origins from his long-lost mother, whom he meets in Genoa. Deronda’s destiny is to embrace his Jewish mission. Hers was to escape its confines. Instead of her father’s “endless discoursing about Our People,” she says, “I cared for the wide world ….” “… you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out – ‘this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be … a woman’s heart must be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small, like Chinese feet ….” Meanwhile, Deronda himself is the better angel of Gwendolen’s nature. His example raised in her “a self-discontent which could be satisfied only by genuine change.” “… she had learned to see all her acts through the impression they would make on Deronda.” “She had a root of conscience in her, and the process of purgatory has begun for her on the green earth .…” However, as the novelist explains, “Our consciences are not all of the same pattern, an inner deliverance of fixed laws; they are the voice of sensibilities as various as our memories….” 9 Each of these characters, and each of us, has different “human predicaments” and opportunities and callings.
Put in simple terms that reflect my own experience, the challenge of existential soteriology is to do whatever it is that life requires of you, to heed the divine call which may come simply as the voice of conscience or an impulse from our inner ground or signs put in our path or the sense that, as my wife once put it, “this fight has my name on it.” This involves not just a single divine call such as one may have in becoming a priest or minister but the daily, minute-by-minute promptings that may tell you sometimes to step up and sometimes to stand down, sometimes to attend to your work or sometimes to take your wife on a date, sometimes to watch your kids play or, as an old-timer once told me, “sometimes I sits and thinks, sometimes I jes sits.” When I am frustrated by my lack of progress in one project or another, I am told in prayer, “Remember that your only job is to do each day what I tell you, even if it is to just sit there.”
At the beginning of Plato’s Euthydemus, Socrates relates to his friend Crito what happened the previous day at the Lyceum: “It was according to some god that I chanced to be sitting alone there. I had intended to get up, but as I was getting up, the usual sign came to me, the divine sign. And so I sat down again.” He just sits there. After a while, young Clinias comes in, pursued by two sophists who, Socrates fears, “might destroy and ruin him,” and the argument begins.10
Socrates was modeling, you might say, existential soteriology.
1 The term is from Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities [Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften] (Knopf, 1996). In volume I, p. 311, Ulrich says, “Everyone wants what is hard to get, and despises the attainable. What I mean is this: within reality there is a senseless craving for unreality.” Voegelin explains: “I frequently use the term ‘Second Reality,’ created by Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer, to denote the imaginative constructs of ideological thinkers who want to eclipse the reality of existential consciousness.” Collected Works, Vol. 18 [Order and History, Vol. 5], p. 61.
2 Here is the gist of Voegelin’s argument: “If the abstract statements about the structure of consciousness were to be accepted as true, they had first to be recognized as true in the concrete. Their truth rested on the concrete experiences of reality by concrete human beings. … The reasons had to be sought, not in a theory of consciousness, but concretely in the constitution of the responding and verifying consciousness. And that concrete consciousness was my own.” (12) Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, tr. & ed. Gerhart Niemeyer (University of Missouri Press, 1978), “Remembrance of Things Past,” pp. 11-12
3 The quotes from what I was told in prayer are contained in the completed MSS., God: An Autobiography, as Told to a Philosopher.
4 No Western scholar has ever survived the attempt to translate the whole of this sprawling epic, which is eight times the length of the Odyssey and Iliad combined. The most recent, excellent attempt, completed by younger scholars, is The Mahabharata, tr. J. A. G. van Buitenen et al., (University of Chicago Press, 1975).
5 The Gathas and other ancient scriptures were decimated by Alexander’s conquest and more severely by the Islamic conquest. Fortunately, some documents survived and much had been committed to memory by priests. Parts that have been saved may well include some written by Zoroaster himself. Translations are not readily available. The Gathas of Zarathushtra: Hymns in Praise of Wisdom, tr. Piloo Nanavutty, (Mapin Publishing, 1999), includes those Yathas or Hymns useful for devotion and spiritual guidance. The translations used here are from Mary Boyce, ed., Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism (University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 34-37, and her Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), pp. 19-27.
6 Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton University Press, 1988), esp. Ch. 2, “The Survival of Chaos After the Victory of God,” pp. 14-25, and Ch. 3, “The Futurity and the Presence of the Cosmogonic Victory,” pp. 26-46.
7 Meyer’s multi-volume study is currently the most authoritative work on the historical Jesus. He regards the Kingdom of God as Jesus’s central message. John P. Meyer, A Marginal Jew: Re-thinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday, 1994, Vol. II, “Mentor, Message, and Miracles,” esp. 289-301, 336-351, 303-319, 430-454.
8 I have used the highly-regarded Constance Garnett translation: Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (The Modern Library, 1994). The “fast-forward” occurs in the Epilogue, Part One, which, in this edition, doesn’t begin until p. 1285.
9 George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (Oxford University Press, 1984). On Deronda’s accepting his duty, see esp. p. 688. When asked, “What are you going to do?”, he answered, “I am going to the East to become better acquainted with the condition of my race in various countries there …. The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a national again, giving them a national centre, such as the English have, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe. … I am resolved to devote my life to it.” His mother’s extraordinary speech extends through pp. 539-541. For Gwendolyn, see p. 573. Deronda later (p. 599) responds to her confession: “No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from. You have made efforts – and you will go on making them.” The novelist’s comment quoted here is on p. 437.