The Bad Faith of Eric Voegelin
by Jefferson White
One of the more interesting debates among those scholars who study the works of Eric Voegelin concerns the relationship of his philosophy to Christian belief.
The missing voice in this debate is Eric Voegelin himself, who seems never to have directly addressed this issue. Or rather, Voegelin does address it, but in such an oblique way that he causes his interlocutors to pair off in radical opposition on the question. And it seems clear that it was Voegelin's intent that this should be so.
My considered view is that Voegelin deliberately acted in bad faith. Of course, one man's bad faith can be another's intellectual probity. It was Christ, after all, who said that we should not give our pearls to swine or our holy things to dogs, because they would only turn and devour us. Voegelin’s deliberate reticence about his relationship to Christian belief is strategic in precisely that sense.
Voegelin apparently believed that those who genuinely understood his philosophy would never need an answer to the question of whether he was a Christian, while those who did not understand him would never be persuaded in any case. In Voegelin’s view, this would be because they would be the captives to a deformed or, as Voegelin put it, a doctrinal understanding of reality.
At the very least, then, Voegelin was guilty of the minor sin of intellectual condescension. But I would argue that his guilt goes far beyond that. Having studied him closely, although not exhaustively – is anyone capable of that? – my view is that his philosophical enterprise is not just incompatible with the Christian faith, at least as that faith has always been understood, but was intentionally incompatible.
Indeed, anyone who fully grasps the essential character of Voegelin’s work does not need to wait until volume four of Order and History, “The Ecumenic Age,” the volume that ignited the controversy over his relationship to Christian belief, to discover this. Once one understands Voegelin’s underlying system, which is present from the first volume of Order and History, it becomes obvious that his view of Christianity was always sub-Christian.
The only real question is: why would anyone still think that Voegelin’s philosophy was compatible with Christian belief to begin with? Putting the question that way is probably the best entrance to understanding just what it was that Voegelin was all about. And it leads to a second question: why do so many otherwise intelligent scholars continue to argue that Voegelin was a Christian philosopher?
And here we come back to a very old question: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” And the problem is that this question is generally thought to have been answered, indeed centuries ago. One of the singular achievements of Eric Voegelin is not only that he reopens the question, but that he reverses the accepted Christian understanding.
For the accepted understanding is that Greek philosophy was safely assimilated to the requirements of the Christian faith. It is thought that the Christian scholars of the earliest centuries had effectively reduced Greek philosophy to those requirements. But was this objective ever really achieved? Voegelin’s remarkable achievement is to have, within a single lifetime, completely reversed this ancient Christian project, by reducing Judaism and Christianity to philosophy.
What is remarkable is that Voegelin accomplished this without ever raising the suspicions of some really smart people. But then, he could rely on the centuries-old confusion concerning the compatibility of Greek philosophy with the Christian faith. It helped that Voegelin deliberately never spelled out this underlying thesis, although he indirectly reveals it to those with “eyes to see.” Those scholars who consider Voegelin to be a “Christian philosopher” are simply opaque to what he was really up to.
Of course, the controversy that began with the fourth volume brought the cat out of the bag for most of Voegelin’s orthodox Christian followers. But many of those who objected to the implications of his thesis, as spelled out in that volume, still tried to pigeon-hole him into the centuries-old slot that had been arranged for the heterodox, or even the heretical, Christian scholar who was attempting to reconcile philosophy with faith.
But Voegelin was precisely neither heterodox nor heretical. He was a latter-day prophet of the ancient philosophical faith. Just as the ancient Christian scholars thought that they had assimilated the Greek philosophical tradition to the Christian faith, Voegelin thought that he had assimilated the Christian faith to the philosophical tradition.
And this is why Voegelin deliberately kept his mouth shut on the critical issue of his Christian faith, except when he talked about the “deformations” that he considered to be inherent in what he called “doctrinal” understandings of reality. According to Voegelin, doctrines as such are de facto deformations of reality. Reality can only be discovered, or made luminous, through experiential philosophy.
The first volume of the series, Israel and Revelation, turns out only to be first chronologically. The Hebrews precede the Greeks in history and achieve experiential insights into the nature of divine reality that can only later be properly explicated by philosophy. Once one understands that this is Voegelin’s to the Hebrew conception of revelation, it is becomes to see that the “experiential truths” of the prophets are simply being reinterpreted through the lens of the “real revelation” that is philosophy. Greek philosophy itself then chronologically appears in the second and third volumes. Again, most Voegelin scholars initially missed this – as did I for a long time – simply because Voegelin’s intellectual project is misunderstood as just one more reconciliation of “faith and philosophy,” rather than what it actually was: a philosophical assimilation of Judaism and Christianity.
Of course, the cat came fully out of the bag in The Ecumenic Age when he simply ignored Christ, the chief figure of that age, and instead deal with the “experiential” relationship of the Apostle Paul to Christ.
Voegelin dropped other hints as well. He once privately admitted that, of all those who attempted to intellectually categorize him, the only person to have succeeded had called him a mystic philosopher.
So was Voegelin guilty of bad faith by never honestly stating that he was not a Christian?
The problem is not quite that simple. For we are faced with the reality that Voegelin probably thought that he was a Christian and indeed the only kind of Christian that it was rationally possible to be in the modern age. Again, Voegelin, like his hero Plato, did not believe in doctrine. Philosophy exists to capture the mind of the person that you are addressing through a revelation of reality found in the luminosity of the philosophical teaching, and never by arguments about doctrinal correctness. Nor does the philosopher prematurely teach a full understanding of ideas to the student, since such an understanding is possible only to those ready to receive the teaching.
And this is why Voegelin’s bad faith, with regard to doctrinal Christianity, can be thought of as intellectual probity. It is only the few who are fully prepared to recognize that the Christian experience must be assimilated to philosophy who are ready to receive that teaching.
Voegelin has been labeled a Platonist, but that would be like calling Jonathan Edwards an “Isaiahist.” The prophet Isaiah would no more have understood Edward’s theology, or have approved of it, than Plato would have understood, or approved, Voegelin’s philosophy. The grain of truth in calling Voegelin a Platonist is that his philosophy is in a direct spiritual descent from Plato.
What is amazing about Voegelin’s singular achievement is his reconstitution of philosophy as a primarily spiritual enterprise. And the key to understanding that spiritual enterprise is that it must necessarily assimilate Christian belief to itself.
Indeed, Voegelin’s philosophy would be a genuine spiritual threat to the Christian faith if large numbers of people were actually capable of understanding it or if the few intellectuals who understand it were able to initiate some kind of mass spiritual revolution. But both of these things seem quite impossible.
The reader should understand that the present writer regards Voegelin’s intellectual achievement with awe. When I first read Voegelin, in my early twenties, I discovered a vast intellectual cathedral, erected by a single mind, which dwarfed in size and in complexity most other such cathedrals. Here was the achievement of a single man who, in one lifetime, not only had created this vast edifice, but who carefully placed every minor pendant within the total work. It was truly amazing. And it is a remarkable achievement. Also, there is much to be learned from Voegelin’s achievement, since he plumbed analytical depths where few or none had trod before.
But this still does not answer the question: why do so many otherwise intelligent people continue to believe that Voegelin was a “Christian philosopher”?
My view is that the primary reason for this is due to the general decline of Christian belief in the West, particularly among intellectuals. Plausible spiritual replacements are therefore in vogue, including something as esoteric as a reconstitution of the Christian faith as a philosophical belief.
I also think that Western Christians have been trying to fool themselves about relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophy since the very beginning. Christians too easily believe that they can intellectually delineate their faith in philosophical terms, when the philosophical faith of the Greeks, as is clearly demonstrated by Voegelin, is a different kind of faith.
Thus there is no real mystery. Voegelin was engaged in an assimilation of the Christian faith to the “true religion” of philosophy. Voegelin clearly states, from the beginning, that the Greek intellectual experience of the divine and the Judaic-Christian experience of the divine are equivalent spiritual experiences. This is a notion that, from the Christian standpoint, is heretical. But Voegelin goes beyond even that. He argues that the Judaic-Christian experience of the divine can only be fully understood by its de-doctrinalization. For Voegelin, it is the experience of the divine that is real, while doctrinal statements are a deformation of that experience.
To put it mildly: this is not the Judaic or Christian understanding of revelation.
Voegelin, before his death, directed that he should be buried as a Lutheran. But then, Socrates had directed his followers to offer a cock to Asclepius following his death. This was an act of conscious piety by Socrates to the god, but it was also Socrates’ way of asserting the spiritual superiority of the philosophical understanding of piety over any particular belief about the gods.