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 Germans ((Hitler and the Germans, by Eric Voegelin, translated by Detlev Clemens, 1964)), 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purpose now to test his historical analysis, but I hope that we may be able to free elements of his thought from their outdated Cold War Era quarantine, for the sake of our inquiry into belief and disbelief.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. ((Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?)): 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” ((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)) 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). ((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.”)) 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.” ((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.)) 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. ((…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)) 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)