“Of course there is no God. But we must believe in Him”—Eric Voegelin (1901-1985)

One of the shady benches where I sat and read today
Back in January I posted a short piece connected with the work of Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) to whom I had just been introduced by a fine and (to me) inspiring essay by Franziska Hoppen called “A Reflection on Mystical Anarchism in the works of Gustav Landauer and Eric Voegelin” (available freely at this link: https://doi.org/10.16993/bak.f). Over the past couple of years I've begun properly to explore Landauer's work but, until January, I did not know anything about Eric Voegelin's (1901-1985) and, since then, I've been slowly working through the various pieces in "The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness" (eds. Charles R. Embry, Glenn Hughes, University of Missouri Press, 2017). Today, a day off, I decided to walk over to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, find some shade under the trees and reread Voegelin's lecture called "The Gospel and Culture" (1971) as well as a paper I had not read before by Maben Walter Poirier called "Eric Voegelin’s Immanentism: A Man At Odds With The Transcendent?".

Ducks in the shade
This latter piece turned out to be extraordinarily helpful in identifying better why I have been responding so favourably to Voegelin's work. It's because, contrary to the reading of many Voegelin scholars, he is clearly a kind of atheist. As a kind of Christian atheist myself this, naturally, was of great interest to me. As Poirier notes:

In a memoir entitled The Professor and the Profession, recently published by the University of Missouri Press, Professor Heilman reported that Voegelin, on one memorable occasion, said to him: “Of course there is no God. But we must believe in Him” (p.8).

Despite this a majority of Voegelin's supporters still seem to hold that he was a Christian. As Poirier says it is, therefore, interesting to note that

His atheist opponents also think this to have been the case, despite the fact that Voegelin is much more in accord with them than they realise. The fact is that he differs from his “atheist opponents” only to the extent that he wishes to draw on his immanentised understanding of Christianity—read solely as a civil theology—to mitigate what he sees as the disastrous effects of the civil theology that is modern millenarianism. In short, he is more prudential than they, but he is not less an atheist (n. 8, p. 6)

I found myself also responding positively to Poirier's point that "the motive behind Voegelin’s advocacy of an immanentised Christianity [was to have] “his” Christianity act as the basis on which to erect a new civil theology, a civil theology that would be less millenarian than were the civil theologies that issued out of the Enlightenment" (n. 12, p. 7). This practical pragmatic approach to Christianity seems very close to the position I have adopted in my own thinking and teaching here at the Memorial (Unitarian) Church in Cambridge and so the following paragraph also resonated strongly with me.

A general view of the trees
Parenthetically, one of the implications of Voegelin’s prudential approach to this most important of issues is that it forces us to conclude that Voegelin was primarily not a philosopher, if, by “philosopher,” we mean someone who devotes himself to speaking candidly about as much of the truth as is available to him regarding the human condition, and damn the consequences. Voegelin never damned the consequences. Voegelin was a social and political thinker who deeply wanted his fellow human beings to experience civility in their relations with one another (a far from unworthy goal in these modern and violent times) more than he wanted them to know the truth, and unfortunately ["unfortunately" only in Poirier's opinion, of course, not mine or, presumably, Voegelin's] this civility, in Voegelin's estimation, could only be purchased by their knowingly pretending to credit what he, and they, conceived to be an untruth. This is the cost of civility, for Voegelin, and we have no choice but to pay the price if we mean to be decent and moral. Simply put, the origin of civility is in the lie that we knowingly tell ourselves about this most important matter, namely, “there is no God, but we must believe in him” even if there is no God, for the alternative is too terrible to live through. And so, in a subtle way, Voegelin was a specifically modern variant of Aristotle's “continent man” (spoudaios) more than he was a philosopher. He was someone who believed that under current conditions, which may be the norm at all times, it is not appropriate to dwell solely on speaking the truth. In fact, it may be reckless for us to do so, which is something that one ought never to be. It would almost seem as if Voegelin’s sense of morality demanded that the horrendous consequences of speaking the truth be brought to the attention of those who may be inclined to be irresponsible and improvident enough to want to speak it, and this alone should suffice to induce them to be prudent where speaking the truth is concerned. Evidently, Voegelin saw a conflict between being moral and being truthful, which is something that no classicist or scholastic would acknowledge (p. 10, my emphasis).

All in all, then, a very challenging but exceptionally interesting and fruitful day which was only added to by the lovely, hot and shady surroundings in which I continued my exploration of Vogelin's thought.