The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 12, 2018

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The Gist of Voegelin: His Two Late Essays on Constitutive Vision and Noetic Pathology
Thomas F. Bertonneau - 08/27/08


Voegelin wrote The Gospel and Culture in response to an invitation from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to address the issue of “what a philosopher has to say about the Word’s difficulty to make itself heard in our time and, if heard at all, to make itself intelligible to those who are willing to listen.” Voegelin promises in the essay’s opening remarks that it will also take up related matters, such as the questions: “Why could the gospel be victorious in the Hellenistic-Roman environment of its origin?” and “Why did it attract an intellectual elite who restated the meaning of the gospel in terms of philosophy?” and “How could the church . . . survive the Roman Empire and become the chrysalis . . . of Western Civilization?” These questions in their turn imply others equally important, most especially that concerning the tendency of truth—which for Voegelin always stems from a vatic encounter with reality—to shrink down to a mere doctrine in whose dogmatic validity the vital dimension of existence goes missing; and again that concerning the position of the gospel in the stream of revelation by which the specifically Western idea of existence has constituted, or in one of Voegelin’s favorite locutions, differentiated, itself. As to the latter, Voegelin insists, as did the Christian patres, that the Greek mind, from the Pre-Socratics to Plato and Aristotle, communicated with the same divine inspiration that later spoke through the evangelists; this theme works its way through The Gospel and Culture. To the extent that modern Western civilization remains orderly (its order runs nowadays to the severely defective), it has inherited its orderliness from specifiable discrete moments involving identifiable individuals, among whom figure chiefly poets, prophets, philosophers, and evangelists.

Indeed, the decaying away of the ordering “Vision” (Voegelin tends to capitalize the noun) until it becomes so many disconnected propositions, over the interpretation of which the dogmatists contend, belongs integrally to the reality that the visionary realist so powerfully intuits. Plato, a frequent critic of myth, nevertheless knew that myth at one time sufficiently symbolized the ordering experiences to which he wanted to give renewed expression in his own intellectually differentiated language. The myths had become topics for poetry. Plato found a way to restore their lost meaning from its merely literary declension. Reviewing Justin Martyr, Voegelin recognizes that, “The gospel and philosophy do not face the thinker with a choice of alternatives, nor are they complementary aspects of truth which the thinker would have to weld into the complete truth . . . the Logos of the gospel is rather the same word of the same God as the logos spermatikos of the philosophers, but at a later state of its manifestation in history.” As Voegelin says, Justin Martyr “started as an inquiring mind and let his search, after it had tried the philosophical schools of the time, come to rest in the truth of the gospel.” Philosophy and gospel coexist in fair compatibility because both are modes of participating in life as a flow of existence that moves (is in motion) from imperfection towards perfection, tugged in the direction of decay by base motives and in the direction of improvement by the gravity of a divine principle that penetrates into le monde without being contained by the worldly horizon.

As the inquiring subject seeks, among other goals, to become more fully human than he finds himself to be at the moment of his setting out, he must adopt the attitude of a questioner; he must take up the quest for his own witting nature as a participant in the ordered flow of existence even before he can take up the search for answers to the pressing inquiries about prevailing troubles that he begins arduously to articulate for himself and for his time.

As he anxiously but quietly takes stock of his situation, then, the seeker grows aware that his life has its stage in a realm in between the baseness of his low-grade social ego, with its vain appetites, and the attraction of the beyond where he senses the divine ordering principle to dwell. So as to name this place in between the tugging poles of experience, Voegelin borrows the Platonic term metaxy. The metaxy is the seat of awareness and the region that revelation illuminates, both in its defects and in its goodness; it is, to quote a construction from The Gospel and Culture that recurs many times, in many forms, in Voegelin, “the In-Between of poverty and wealth, of human and divine.” The metaxy, in its intermediateness and instability, gives ground for an inevitable and provocative experience of spiritual tension. The metaxy exerts on the seeker its conflict of movements and induces him to formulate his existential questions.

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By This Author
LeMay, Curtis

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