The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 21, 2017

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Eric Voegelin and Christianity
Lee Trepanier - 12/08/08
hand on religious book

When Eric Voegelin published Order and History: I-III in the 1950s, Christian philosophers and theologians claimed him as one of their own. These first three volumes were devoted to the study of order through the study of history, as he stated in the opening pages of his first volume, “The order of history emerges from the history of order.” As humans partake in the process of history, the order of reality becomes illuminated to us: our understanding of the primordial field of God, humans, the world, and society moves from an elemental and rudimentary “compact” understanding to a more complex and “differentiated” one. As this order of reality becomes further elucidated to us through our study of history, Voegelin had hoped that we may be able to understand the process of history itself.

It is important to note that the order of reality for Voegelin could not be studied as an object of the external world or from some point where a person could survey the whole of reality. Because humans are participatory creatures in the process of history, they will never be able to step outside of this role and therefore will never be able to survey the whole of reality. Given this continual blind spot in our knowledge, we become engaged in a process of symbolization that tries to make the mystery of reality as intelligible as possible. These symbols interpret the ultimate unknowable of reality with a partial knowledge of our experience from the primordial field of God, humans, the world, and society.

However, Voegelin declared that humans were not able to discern all the complex relationships of the primordial field at once. The activity of making reality intelligible unfolds progressively from compact blocks of knowledge that become differentiated into their component parts. Thus, the history of symbolization is a progression from compact experiences and symbols to differentiated ones that takes place within the process of history. In other words, the “order of history” is the articulation of the “history of order” from compact symbols and experiences to differentiated ones which culminate in the experience of the human soul’s attunement with the invisible divine being that transcends all reality in the world.

Voegelin adopted this project of compactness and differentiation in the first three volumes of Order and History, with the human soul’s attunement to the indivisible divine being as the final reference point from where civilizations would advance or recede. The details of this project was filled with an analysis of the historical succession of the Ancient Near East with its cosmological myth, the chosen people of Israel with their prophets, the polis and its Hellenic Myth, and the development of philosophy by Plato and Aristotle as symbols of order. Although Voegelin created controversy when he asserted that Isaiah had indulged in metastatic faith—a belief that one can change the fundamental nature of reality, which Voegelin did not think was possible—he appeared that he would finish his work with Christianity as the ultimate differentiated experience and symbol of order.

When the fourth volume of Order and History was published in 1974, scholars expected Voegelin to complete the ascending branch of his project’s great cycle with a study of Christianity and then proceed down the slope with an exploration of modernity. To everyone’s surprise, Voegelin broke with his initial program, revising his theory of history so as to drop many of the Christian elements, ignoring Christian civilization after Paul, and admitting that he himself had been engaged in a project of “historiogenesis”: a unilinear and progressive construction of history where material is rearranged to allow only one line of meaning to emerge. The cause of this break was Voegelin’s discovery of the symbol of historiogenesis not in the Israelite-Christian experience but from the empires of the Ancient Near East at the end of the third millennium B.C. and thence passed down to Sumerian, Egyptian, Israelite, Christian, and even Enlightenment civilizations. The omnipresence of the symbol of historiogenesis therefore raised doubts for Voegelin about the experiential sources of Christianity’s differentiating events and its philosophy of history. It was not from revelation but from previous civilizations where the Christian conceptions of time, history, and salvation had originated.

Voegelin also had recognized that he himself had been engaged in historiogenetic speculation with Christianity as the ultimate differentiated experience and symbol of order. One can suspect that Voegelin became convinced that his project of “the order of history emerges from the history of order” with Christianity as its ultimate reference point was incompatible with a philosophy that rejected any claim to a finality of meaning in history. The arrival at a completeness in meaning in the unfinished process of history was impossible for Voegelin, as a philosopher, to accept. All we had was the search itself: the only absolute truth that humans could obtain is the search for the histories of order with no finality of meaning ever possible. Voegelin’s new project would not construct a narrative of meaningful events arranged on a timeline but rather analyze a web of meaning with a plurality of nodal points and patterns. Although this new approach was open to tracing genuine Christian strands of significance, it precluded any effort to interpret history in terms of a single, Christian meaning.

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