Voegelinian Vagaries

“Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” 1907-1918. Henry Ossawa Tanner

In last week’s column, I mentioned that Eric Voegelin is a political philosopher whom I approach – in advance and in principle – with a high degree of respect. Unlike most contemporary thinkers about life at the political level, he is not afraid to find Providential footprints even there. This despite his enormous erudition, relentless productivity and finely honed mind.

Voegelin credits Biblical Israel with a breakthrough insight: that “history” is a plane on which human players like you and me can meet the Providential Player. So it was with a lot of hopeful interest that I started reading Vol. I, Israel and Revelation, the first of the five volumes of his Order and History

Before I go on, I might explain my own sense of how to live on the plane of history. The approach I favor has two aspects. First, respect for chronology, for a life that keeps track of the “before” and “after.” If you have to give testimony under oath, as I’ve done, you’ll be asked, who said or did what first, and what was the response after that.

We live and learn, it is said — but not always and not necessarily. I keep a journal, which records events and acts, along with the question of what I made of them. And I try to keep track of the views I’ve held earlier as well as the later changes, sometimes dramatic and sudden, often subtle and almost imperceptible. This is living in time.

History — the more encompassing category — comes into my life when I too hold views that are held commonly in the culture I live in. The culture encounters challenges, it changes in response, or does not, and I change with it, or do not.

So history is bigger than personal life, but personal life is a piece of history. Each of us is a player in the human story.

Where does divine Providence come into the story? Well, in many ways and many times, but I’ll just replay one incident from my own life.

Some years ago, I was giving a talk at the Center for Process Studies at Claremont University in California. It drew from my book, A Good Look at Evil, specifically the chapter called “Spoiling One’s Story: The Case of Hannah Arendt.” At the Q & A, a dapper gentleman, older than the grad students, seated in the front row, raised his hand. When called on, he began to voice a view, (not pertaining to my paper) that the Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves in a series of ways that he proceeded to list!

Meanwhile Jerry, also seated in the front row but over to the side, was wondering (as he told me later) what on earth Abigail would say.

As it happens, I had a certain pertinent background. In the course of researching A Good Look at Evil, I’d read a whole lot of Nazi materials: trial testimony, memoirs, minutes of meetings with the Fuhrer. So, without necessarily wanting to be, I’ve become something of an expert on Nazi rhetoric. I knew what I was hearing. No more than Jerry had I the slightest idea “what Abigail would say.” So I looked upward to see or hear Guidance.  It was unexpected, not very academic, but unmistakable:

Don’t interact.

Just denounce.

That’s all.

So I responded, “I denounce you from the floor to the ceiling! I will not enter a discussion on any of these points. These are not ‘facts.’ They are Nazi canards!” He tried to quibble but I refused to pretend that this was an issue to be debated. And we went back to ordinary Q & A.

Is this an exemplary case of divine Providence coming into the plotline of somebody’s life? What worked in my case might not work in a similar case if circumstances were even slightly different. The only thing exemplary about it is that I prayed for guidance and followed the guidance I got. Normally, if there’s time, I don’t just pray for direct guidance. I get human advice too.

To recap: my sense of how to live in history involves keeping track of the before and after of one’s experience and being wholesomely (but not exclusively) open to prayer guidance.

Given these terms, how do I see Voegelin’s account of Biblical life in history? I’ve not finished Vol. I and my view of what he’s doing keeps changing from chapter to chapter, at times from page to page. At certain junctures, I think he completely – disastrously! — misunderstands what he’s reading. At other points, he seems to regather the main inspired threads and put it all rightly together.

For an example of his misreading, take his overview of Deuteronomy. Because it puts the Exodus story into the mouth of Moses, rather than telling it from the vantage point of an omniscient narrator (presumably God), Voegelin says, the “word of God had become the Book of the Torah, written by a Moses who had become a Pharaonic mummy” (p. 365). From this purported downward step, Voegelin traces further decline moments: the canonization of scripture (which he deems “an obstacle to its free unfolding” and — get this — “a sacred incubus”) that will “prevent further reforms,” later produce the “formidable ‘conflicts between science and religion,'” and, still later, “various Gnostic creed movements, as for instance in the [Auguste] Comptean creation of a Torah for the religion de l’humanite, or the formation of a Marxist Torah in the communist movement” (p. 367). Hey, give me a break!

These accusations, bearing a not-so-faint anti-semitic tinge, is what Voegelin manages to get out of Deuteronomy? What he fails to get is one lesson clear to me from my journal keeping. The past keeps changing as it is reintegrated into the present. It’s not the previous events that change. But their focus, meaning or aim gets reconceived. This is what it means to live in history! Despite Voegelin, it’s not a perversion or embalming; it’s the work of keeping the past relevant and alive. It’s how you live and learn!

That said, this is far from the whole story of Voegelin’s wrestlings with the Biblical text. He can pass suddenly from agenda-driven Source Criticism (where anything can symbolize syncretism, Canaanite or other) to inspired respect for the narrative unfolding on the page. Here’s his description of Moses when given his commission at the burning bush: “The command could be rejected only by a man who could never hear it; the man who can hear cannot reject, because he has ontologically entered the will of God, as the will of God has entered him” (p. 407). Quite so: inspiration in action.

What’s going on here? I really don’t know. What I suspect is an unresolved collision between — on the one hand, a culturally inherited, supersessionist assumption that the covenantal torch has been passed to Christian successors, self-anointed as the Only True Israel — and on the other hand, an acknowledgment that the gift of living with God in real time and actual situations is, and continues to be, the gift of the Jews.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Voegelinian Vagaries

  1. Judy Dornstreich says:

    Thank you!
    For the reminder, especially in moments of unexpected challenges which produce a “STOP!” in one’s ordinary flow, to turn inward and upward (so to speak) for Direction in how to go forward,

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