Voegelin’s Gnosis, Part 1: The Self-Evident Divine

What does it mean to exist as constituted by reason and spirit? The experiences of reason and spirit agree on the point that man experiences himself as a being who does not exist from himself. He exists in an already given world. This world itself exists by reason of a mystery, and the name for the mystery, for the cause of this being of the world, of which man is a component, is referred to as “God.”

The passage above comes from one of a series of lectures, published as Hitler and the Germans1, by the 20th Century classicist and political philosopher Eric Voegelin, who is at this point in his presentation providing a working definition, not embarking upon a rigorous theological inquiry. I want to focus on this somewhat offhand or informal theological utterance of a serious thinker precisely because it may be somewhat offhand or informal, an offering to an interested but not specialized audience, to diverse students and other members of a liberal democratic public as adult citizens, not as expert colleagues and even less as fellow partisans in some theo-political dispute. I am not prepared to confront Voegelin’s work more intimately than at that level, nor is my purpose now to test his historical analysis, but I hope that we may be able to free elements of his thought from their outdated Cold War Era quarantine, for the sake of our inquiry into belief and disbelief.

A German exile to America during the Nazi period, Voegelin has been typically associated with the conservative right in his adopted nation. Along with numerous other-than-left intellectual luminaries of the mid-20th Century, including his fellow exile Leo Strauss, he was published in Did You Ever See A Dream Walking, the epoch-defining 1970 anthology of conservative writing edited by William F. Buckley, Jr.2: That Voegelin would turn up forty years later in a blog post by a far right American critic of Barack Obama is typical for the use of his work: He was an implacable critic of the revolutionary left, as of anyone else who sought, in his famous phrase, “to immanentize the eschaton” – translated into everyday speech as “to try to create Heaven on Earth.” The demise of left-revolutionary “gnosis”3 makes it easier to address his thinking on its own terms.

We can note one key aspect of Voegelin’s definition of the word “God” as name of the mysterious cause of the being of this world, a definition offered to characterize a moment of unity between ancient Greek and Israelite, respectively rational-philosophical and religious-spiritual, “experiences,” not “concepts,” of the divine: This “God” is not, or not yet, anthropomorphized, intentionalized, or even thought. The proper noun does not, or does not yet, stand for a being like a human being or directly or actively connected to human beings. The word does not, or does not yet, name a living or life-like being, much less a “He.” Nor is any human being nor are human beings like, or yet like, this mysterious pre-condition named by the word. Even its “it-ness,” its existence at all, may be in question: The proper noun stands for a mysterious pre-condition of existence at all, or as knowable to any human being or to human beings generally or ideally (i.e., “man,” as we used to say).4 Nor is this pre-condition called “God” a pantheism: It precedes and relates to human beings and the natural universe, but it is not identical to them, nor does it share, nor can we assume that it shares, their substance or being or mode of being.

The contemporary atheist or ardent “New Atheist” (whose type, as Voegelin happens to demonstrate in other connections, is nothing new at all) would presumably have less difficulty with such a vague god concept, or concept of an experience, than with more richly detailed or, as it were, fleshed-out deities. This God (or “God”) has not yet taken on any mythological or narrative attributes, and does not at this point exhibit any connections to particular religious or anti-religious political interests. The word functions as a label for an uncertainty rather than as the name of the lord of the universe, and most atheists will, presumably, admit at least to uncertainties. Nor does the word necessarily impinge on non-theistic religions, since this god would be – if “be” is even the right word for its relationship to being and beings – much different from any of the lifelike supernatural figures of the world’s diverse mythologies.

Yet what makes this concept potentially acceptable at least as a starting point for atheists and others makes it less interesting to faithful or would-be faithful believers. This “God,” to the extent He or She or It is at all, neither possesses nor offers motivation. Or: Lacking motion or motive, “it” neither motivates nor generates emotions. As the title of an abstract, seemingly useless puzzle, such a “‘God'” has little to offer anyone. For “Him” to be able to offer any “thing” for or to anyone, or for us to imagine Him doing so, we seem to need to imagine Him as a being, not, as in idealized and mystical monotheism, a “being like no other,” “ground of being,” or “superessential nothingness.”5 To enter into a relationship of vital and meaningful exchange, we want such a mystery of being, or even a “cosmic monist” equivalent of all being, to show forth in, or at least to be conceivable as, a being or beings. He or she or it or they must “do” as well as “be.” Whether or not this desire of ours for the mystery of possibility to be and become, to act and touch, not just to cause causation but to cause things to happen, is a need, whether it is a reasonable desire if merely a desire, and whether “God” for better or for worse becomes a name for unreasonable desires or unmet needs are all separate matters. The simple requirement remains, and suggests a logical or mathematical necessity, not merely an emotional one: Real numbers and imaginary or complex ones combine to produce complex and imaginary equations, not simply real sums for simply living, breathing, fearing, and suffering human beings.

The history of purported solutions to this problem, of the meaning of that which by definition would precede or transcend the realm of human meanings, may be the history of religions, or the history of a search for truth, or, for a certain type of atheist, an utter irrelevancy, with the degree of its having been left behind proposed as the measure of our advance as a species.6 Voegelin reverses the progressive historical concept in either form: He characterizes this history of a search largely as a falling away or flight from the self-evident, even if how the evidence reveals itself to the undimmed eye will be different at one time and place than at another. He views the consequences of this progressive occlusion as profoundly destructive. It is his base explanation, for instance, for the German crimes.

In respect to this extreme pessimism regarding the modern, Voegelin does qualify as conservative, but at a radical level, reactive but not reactionary and not easily integrated within the modern left-right spectrum or in reference to everyday political issues and agendas. Yet in other possibly informal moments his reaction to a spectacle of civilizational decline and degeneration drives him to self-contradiction: The enemy of “gnosis” gives the appearance of aligning himself with a social-political project to immanentize if not the eschaton, then its double. We cannot blame him, since he merely shows our own weaknesses, if they are weaknesses, but all the same his thought seems to indict him for us, and we may have to look to other thinkers, even to his chosen intellectual adversaries, to answer the charges.

(next: The Crossing)

Notes:

  1. Hitler and the Germans, by Eric Voegelin, translated by Detlev Clemens, 1964 []
  2. Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? []
  3. another of Voegelin’s borrowings from theological Greek, deployed to associate modern political movements with the gnostic cults and sects of the early Christian era []
  4. This pre-conditional God-concept is emergent for “man” in relation to a particular perplexity and therefore not quite entirely undefined (if defined as undefinable, then undefinable in relation to a particular format of undefinability); in a way as to whose significance we have yet no basis for prejudice, it suggests that human being as generic possibility or generic consciousness gives rise to or pre-supposes the possibility of the questioning of the mystery, in a parallel but not yet similar way to the pre-condition’s “caus[ation]” of this “being of the world.” []
  5. Cohen, Tillich, Eckhart, the latter two as cited in post and comments at A Thinking Reed; for prefatory discussion on Cohen’s Jewish theology, see my prior post in this series. []
  6. …even though the being of the atheist is the first immediate contradiction of the notion that a mystery, not necessarily a being, must be irrelevant to being []

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22 comments on “Voegelin’s Gnosis, Part 1: The Self-Evident Divine

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    • Hardly even warmed up, but until we know “what god would be,” we don’t know what any of the other terms mean, or whether “level” – or altitude – isn’t an inadequate and misleading metaphor for the relationship we want to describe, since even at a “higher” level this being like no other would be a physical thing, brought to “our” ontological level or the ontological level of objects.

    • This is pretty much Pope John Paul II’s reasoning in Veritas Splendor in includng torture as an intrinsically evil act. Secction 80 gets to the heart of it. Affirming the Second Vatican Council, he lists torture as one of the “intrinsically evil” acts.

      With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general”.133

      In section 92 he recomends martyrdom as the the correct response rather than doing an “intrinsically evil”
      act.

      Benedict XVI reaffirmed this in 2007: “In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances””.

      • I’m kinda wondering what led you to this connection. My first reaction was to wonder if you meant the comment for a different thread. Not saying there is no connection to this form of Catholic thinking or legislation and Voegelin’s theologically informed political philosophy, though getting to it might take some work.

        It will be difficult for many to get their minds around the notion that torture and contraception are somehow on the same level or similar in being “intrinsically evil,” and both different in the same way from whatever lesser evils that may be “lawful”-ly tolerated for greater purposes. You may have to be a Pope legislating to understand why any evil tolerated for whatever reason doesn’t remain intrinsically evil to the extent it is evil at all.

        Think about the vast difference between the two phenomena as commonly understood. Torture and contraception occur in completely different and separate spheres of life. For most anti-torture activists attempting to change or strengthen anti-torture opinion in the U.S., the comparison to contraception would be ridiculously useless or worse. The torture they’re worried about directly involved a handful of people. If I’m not mistaken, contraception is used frequently by the majority of adults, and the vast majority of “sexually active” adults. …You could write a book trying to explain why torture and contraception don’t belong in the same book, yet somehow can be seen to.

  1. Well torture does have a bad rep, consider what happened to Machiavelli when Soderini was deposed by the Medicis and Pope Julius (former Cardinal Della Rovere), and the Inquisition in general, OT, have you read George Eliot’s Romola, which covers some of the preceding era.

    • Haven’t read Romola, but, since it’s available for free for Kindle, have just downloaded it, and will take a look at it sometime soonish.

      There is an argument I recently encountered that even the Inquisition wasn’t for the most part the Inquisition as we think of it today. We remember the parts that shock the senses and were commemorated in Gothic novels or the Gothic moments of historical adventures, and we vaguely associate it with other historical evils, but some argue that, over the course of most of its existence, it was “the most humane court in Europe.”

  2. He forgets he was at the forefront of the suppression of liberation theology, as head of the Congregation of the Faith,
    which often involved dealing with some not so nice regimes, in South America, for instance, I was thinking what a minor eclessiastical figure of another faith, Effendi Al Arifi, the chaplain of the Saudi Naval Academy said about the Vatican, what inspired Silva’s the Messenger.

  3. Saudi Sheikh Muhammad bin Abd Al-Rahman Al-‘Arifi, Imam of the mosque of King Fahd Defense Academy, discussed the coming Muslim conquest of the Vatican. Citing a Hadith in an article posted on the Kalemat website in 2002, he stated: “… We will control the land of the Vatican; we will control Rome and introduce Islam in it. Yes, the Christians, who carve crosses on the breasts of the Muslims … will yet pay us the Jiziya [poll tax paid by non-Muslims under Muslim rule], in humiliation, or they will convert to Islam…”

  4. Anyway…ths discussion does illustrate the dflliculty not “to immanentize the eschaton”. The pope’s response to intrinsic evil that can not be dealt with another intrinsc evil is to accept martydom. That is, the one person the Christian bible authorizes to bind on earth and Heaven (thaat this can change from time to time really is irrelevant), says pay attention to your own shit – doing evil with good intention is still evil. Dying is better. This is a tall order – it’s much easier to pont out the immanentizing of others.

    I think this position thoough accords with the idea of God as mystery. The problem is who has the authority to designate good and evil. With no authority we’re thrown back into relativism. Giving it to one guy, we’ve seen some inconsistent results, giving it to everyone and we end up with the last Republican primary field.

    • Exactly, or anyway: I think we’re in the same chapter approaching the same page.

      Simon Critchley handles this question very delicately and usefully in his most recent book, where he advances the idea of non-violent violence, the violence undertaken with full recognition of responsibility and acceptance of consequences in the interest of the good. He happens to suggest that “Thou shalt not kill” strongly implies a silent “but you will,” as borne out by history. That he handles the problem delicately and usefully in my opinion doesn’t mean that I would call it satisfactory or, a different thing, easy to explicate. I don’t think you can move in a straight line from it to a handbook for interrogators of bad guys, a right-sized defense budget, and intrinsically good rules of sexual conduct, too.

      • Found as essay where he develops some of these themes. I love Zezek but he is really a horse’s ass, so that Critchley had a thing going with him recommends him to me. At any rate, the pope, at least rhetorically, meets the question of intrinscally evil violence with recommending martyrdom. This avoids Critchley’s assertion that Christ knew the Sermon On the Mount was a “rediculous demand”.

        I’m not so sure this is fair. Christ preached the kingdom of God was at hand. In a real sense, early Chrstiananity was an end of the world cult.

        • Agreed on Zizek. That essay is largely (possibly entirely, haven’t checked) reproduced in FAITH OF THE FAITHLESS, which also includes an excellent discussion of Rousseau and “civic religion.” The whole book is political theology for anarchic and academic leftists, and I don’t like the way that he seems to presume where he’s going to end before he’s gotten there, nor the very un-serious way that he deals with certain players on the designated other team, like Schmitt and Strauss, but it’s still useful. It’s nice to have a fine upstanding academic like Critchley also hitting Zizek for his “overproduction” and calling it symptomatic of what Zizek is taken to stand against, or wants to be taken to stand against, or that his fans want him to be taken to stand against, but which he comes to exemplify, and with his own attention-grabbing statements often seems to be encouraging.

  5. No, Bob that is not what he said, he came to cleanse us of our sins, and allow us to enter the Kingdom of God,

4 Pings/Trackbacks for "Voegelin’s Gnosis, Part 1: The Self-Evident Divine"
  1. […] whatever names, flags, or notions, just as it simply was before and as afterward it remains a world under the question of the cause of being. As some Muslims might put it, we do not undergo conversion, but become aware of the truth and […]

  2. […] precisely, in the career of his Nazi comrades and a nation of abettors including him – as the parallel and supplementary analysis by Schmitt’s contemporary, the dissenter rather than collaborator Eric Voegelin, also […]

  3. […] your support!The anti-ideologue or anismist, or in Voegelin’s usage the realist – who, as we have seen, must be a monotheist according to Voegelin, as a believer at least in the or a god of the […]

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