Regaining the balance: an Augustinian response to Eric Voegelin.

Author:Mitchell, Mark


Eric Voegelin's treatment of Christianity is notoriously problematic. David Walsh writes that "a problem within Voegelin's ... work ... is the problem of Voegelin's understanding of Christianity, and more broadly, of revelation." He goes on to note the "incompleteness and unsatisfactory quality of Voegelin's treatment of Christianity." (1) Three areas of concern emerge in the literature on Voegelin. First, there are those who find him to be inattentive to--or even unconcerned about--the historical person of Christ. Reflecting on Voegelin's treatment of Christianity in The Ecumenic Age, Gerhart Niemeyer notes that Christianity

was born from amazement about a particular person Jesus, his deeds, teachings, and such claims as that men in order to gain their lives must lose them for his sake, that it will be he whom men will face in the ultimate judgment, that there will be a new covenant with God in his blood, that he would die to free humanity from sin, that he alone had full knowledge of the Father. Christian theology ... stems ... from the question which Jesus himself put: 'Who do you say I am?' (2)

But Voegelin, Niemeyer goes on to say, does not consider the historicity of Christ a relevant question. In fact "Voegelin's exegesis of St. Paul would not have to be changed if one removed Jesus Christ from it altogether." (3)

Expressing the same concern but in a somewhat more caustic tone, Frederick Wilhelmsen writes:

Reality does not count for Professor Voegelin. The very question, hence, of the historicity of Christ and of His resurrection, of the Easter we Christians celebrate as the central feast of our Faith, annoys Voegelin: he finds it vulgar. In fact only fundamentalists, for Voegelin, are worried about whether the empty tomb on the third day was really empty after all. Whether Christ arose in deed or arose from the dead only in Paul's experience of a deed that occurred only in Paul is an irrelevant distinction for the German professor.... But, Dr. Voegelin, 'if Christ be not risen'--in the words of the same Paul-then I for one don't give a damn about Paul's experience of him. (4)

The second area of concern focuses upon what some take to be Voegelin's inadequate treatment of Christian soteriology. Bruce Douglass does not believe that Voegelin "neglects the historical Jesus in the way Niemeyer suggests." (5) His concern, though, centers on Voegelin's understanding of salvation. "[W]hat is missing is the sense of the Gospel in the specifically Christian sense. " (6) Voegelin's view of salvation is "more the attainment of meaning than the restoration of a broken relationship with God or the creation of a 'new man."' This, Douglass believes, represents a serious distortion of the Gospel, for "if the Gospel means anything in the New Testament, it is that a new power is at work in the life of the believer." (7)

In commenting on Voegelin's letter to Alfred Schutz, in which Voegelin explains "why I as a philosopher am not inclined to throw Christianity overboard," Walsh notes that [t]aken together Voegelin's reasons for not jettisoning Christianity provide an impressive justification of the Christian spiritual and intellectual tradition. They include everything with the single exception of what is most important: the story of Christ's representative suffering and death to redeem fallen humanity." (8) While puzzled with the obvious "incompleteness" of Voegelin's treatment of Christianity, Walsh is reluctant to accuse Voegelin, a thinker of "evident spiritual sensitivity," of failing "to grasp the full implications of the Christian experience." (9) Instead he elects to leave the question open for further study with the hope that further insight can eventually be gained.

Third, where Douglass and Walsh find Voegelin's Christology in large part unobjectionable, Michael Morrissey believes that Voegelin's Christ is quite other than the Incarnate God of orthodox Christianity. Regarding the identity of Christ, he writes: "Voegelin rejects the orthodox interpretation of Christ as the eternally preexistent Son of God incarnated only in Jesus ... [instead] ... Voegelin's view is based on the notion of Jesus' union with God as unique in degree but not in kind." (10) I will suggest that these three areas of concern--historicity, soteriology, and Christology--are fundamentally related. This connection will become obvious as we proceed.

In order properly to situate this inquiry, it is necessary first briefly to discuss Voegelin's notion of metaxy, the In-Between in which the unfolding of human consciousness occurs, for a proper understanding of Voegelin's thought--and thus his understanding of Christianity--must begin with this all-important symbol. Taking his cue from the Anaximandrian fragment and several Platonic dialogues (especially the Symposium and the Philebus), Voegelin envisions human conscious existence as a participatory (metaleptic) event that differentiates within the questing of human nous toward the divine ground of being. But this movement is not unidirectional, for the "reality of existence, as experienced in the movement, is a mutual participation (methexis, metalepsis) of human and divine ..." (11) Furthermore, and creating an extraordinary philosophical complexity, "the language symbols expressing the movement are not invented by an observer who does not participate in the movement but are engendered in the event of part icipation itself." (12) Thus, there exists, by virtue of human conscious existence, an epistemological uncertainty that makes indubitable noetic foundations unattainable. (13) The fact that human existence is uncertain, though, is surprisingly revealing, for the fact of uncertainty implies an awareness of the possibility of ignorance, which in turn opens the door to the possibility of truth. In other words, the fact that human minds are capable of identifying the categories of ignorance and knowledge implies a certain degree of knowledge, but the fact that ignorance is a live possibility also implies the tenuous and uncertain stance human consciousness takes toward knowledge. This In-Between characteristic of human existence pertains to those elements most fundamental to reality: knowledge, time, perfection, and life itself. Thus, metaxic existence is "in the In-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness, of imperfection and perfection, of hope and fulfillment, and ultimately of life and dea th." (14) Human existence, for Voegelin, lies between these opposing nodes; thus, the "metaxy is the domain of human knowledge. The proper method of its investigation that remains aware of the In-Between status of things is called 'dialectics'; while the improper hypostasis of In-Between things into the One or the Unlimited is the characteristic defect of the speculative method that is called 'eristics'." (15)

For those not content with the painstaking noetic gains achieved through dialectics, the uncertainty of existence in the metaxy is disconcerting and can produce abortive attempts to consummate the metaxy by forcing the transcendent node into the realm of the immanent, for only if reality is so reduced can human understanding pretend to know reality with certainty. This rebellion against metaxic existence is driven by an (understandable) desire for "a stronger certainty about the meaning of existence." (16) But, ironically, in an attempt to dominate reality by immanentizing it, this "pneumopathological" movement in actuality so distorts reality that the pseudo-knowledge gained from the deformation is not of reality at all but a metastatic counterfeit that ultimately produces disorder in the souls of those who stage such revolts against reality.

In his Ecumenic Age Voegelin accuses St. Paul of moving into such a deformation when, in the wake of his vision of the resurrected Christ, he "moves from participation in divine reality to the anticipation of a state of perfection." (17) Was St. Paul guilty of such a perversion? Was he overcome with such enthusiasm for the parousia that he upset the delicate metaxic balance? In what follows I will attempt to respond to Voegelin from an Augustinian point of view. In so doing, I will argue that (1) Voegelin downplays the central symbol of the Anaximander fragment, which is cosmic justice, and (2) fails to appreciate how the Fall fundamentally shifted the balance within the metaxy; and thus, (3) for him, restriking the balance of consciousness is not nearly as radical an undertaking as described by Augustine (and St. Paul), which (4) leads to his unsatisfactory treatments of the historicity of Christ, soteriology, and Christology. I will argue that, ultimately, Voegelin fails to recognize the possibilities of me taxic consummation opened up by the incarnation and resurrection.

  1. Anaximander's Fragment and Cosmic Justice

    Voegelin looks back to the sixth century B.C. philosopher Anaximander of Miletus for an early description of the concept of metaxy. He gives his rendition of Anaximander's understanding of reality as follows:

    The origin (arche) of things is the Apeiron .... It is necessary for things to perish into that from which they were born; for they pay one another penalty for their injustice (adikia) according to the ordinance of Time. (18)

    This version of Anaximander's thought is a combination from two sources. The first clause is from Theophrastus, who paraphrases Anaximander's views. The rest is Voegelin's translation of the only surviving fragment of Anaximander's writing. McKirahan translates the fragment as follows:

    The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time, as he says in rather poetical language. (19)

    Obviously the final clause indicates that the fragment is not entirely comprised of Anaximander's words, and there is some controversy regarding the proper distinction...

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