The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

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Eric Voegelin and Christianity
Lee Trepanier - 12/08/08

The publication of Order and History: IV brought anguished and reflective responses from an array of scholars that Michael P. Federici accounts for in his book, Eric Voegelin (which is part of ISI’s Library of Modern Thinkers series). Criticisms about Voegelin’s new approach ranged from underestimating the effects of Christian revelation on the structure of reality to overestimating the relationship between Christianity and modern Gnostic movements; from focusing on Paul as the central experience of Christianity rather than Christ and His Incarnation to placing primary emphasis on Greek philosophy over Christian faith, dogma, and doctrine. These criticisms are not merely quibbles over Voegelin’s interpretation of Christianity but are a challenge to his new-founded philosophical project: is completeness of meaning in the unfinished process of history possible in principle, as Christians claim in Christ’s revelation, or is Voegelin correct that any finality of meaning in history would be impossible for the philosopher to accept?

When Voegelin discovered that his great project had to be revised, he started by refining his philosophy of consciousness and history. Affirming his belief that human consciousness was conditioned by our experience of transcendent reality, Voegelin created new concepts of metaxy, noesis, and pneumatic vision which together comprise a theory of revelation. In articles, such as “Reason: The Classical Experience,” Voegelin committed himself to a metaphysics where a transcendent deity achieved illumination in human experience because this philosophy was the only one that made the divine intelligible as an analogue of human consciousness. However, the human encounter with transcendence did not occur in the history of world events but in the internal working of human consciousness. The task of philosophy was to discover what occurred in the soul and its efforts to translate this encounter into an existential order. It would not attempt to discover anything insightful in the sequence of world affairs that would go on aimlessly forever.

This experience of human consciousness’ encounter with transcendent reality Voegelin called the metaxy, a term which he borrowed from Plato’s Symposium and Philebus. The metaxy is where humans participate with the divine in the realm of their consciousnesses. Retracing the history of symbolization of his previous three volumes, Voegelin asserted in Order and History: IV that cosmological myths, Greek philosophy, and Judaic-Christian revelation were experiential equivalents in the sense that these modes of awareness were manifestations of the same process of humans encountering the transcendent in their consciousness. Although shaped by the same process, these manifestations were different in their emphasis in our encounter with transcendence: philosophy sought to understand the divine via reason and therefore accented the human aspect of our participation, while revelation highlighted God’s participation in human mortality with its “pneumatic vision” of the prophets and Christ’s Incarnation.

Needless to say, Voegelin’s new theory of revelation gave Christian scholars pause in their consideration of Order and History: IV. According to Voegelin, Christ’s life became akin to something like a Platonic myth which speculated about an unknown transcendent god that was apprehended in human consciousness. For Voegelin, what was significant about Christ’s news and deeds were their effect on Peter’s and Paul’s minds and not the feats themselves. Voegelin’s statement in Order and History: IV, “If any event in all reality has constituted meaning in history, it is Paul’s vision of the Resurrected,” is consistent with his revised philosophy of consciousness and history but strikes Christians as missing the point of Christ’s life. If any event in all of reality constituted meaning in history, is it not the Resurrection itself? This raises a second question about Voegelin’s revised philosophical project: does the history of order only emerge from the metaxy of human consciousness? Can there not be another history of order that comes from outside human consciousness, such as the actual birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?

How one resolve these two questions—whether finality of meaning in the unfinished process of history is possible and whether a history of order can emerge from outside the metaxy—is a tall order to say the least (not to mention the numerous other questions about Christianity, such as Gnosticism and dogma, that Order and History: IV raises). Appeals to religious authorities and scripture may provide some guidance in these matters, but only after one has been able to figure out what the church or Bible would say. Perhaps a better approach would be to continue the inquiry into these matters on their own terms and see how they will develop over time, with the understanding that there may be ultimately no resolutions to them. In either case, this obviously would be a tremendous undertaking that would be worthy of another dissertation.

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