A postscript to ‘Of course there is no God. But we must believe in Him’

Eric Voegelin (1901-1985)
In response to my last post, Of course there is no God. But we must believe in Him, an always insightful and helpful correspondant of mine, DK, asked a pertinent question: 

That was very interesting. Something really bugs me about it though. If Voegelin stands up for his civil theology in the face of the truth, what is the hope underlying that stance? I mean, it seems that in proposing a more moral alternative to the truth, even if its a fiction, he trusts, or at least hopes, that it can lead to something real.

Does that make sense?

In the (admittedly, unlikely) event that it will prove useful/interesting to anyone else, here’s my immediate response.


It does make sense.

It seems to me—which does not mean this is the case!—that, because Voegelin doesn’t believe we are able to transcend our subject consciousness in our quest to know the real and the true we cannot, therefore, make contact ‘in some sense with what is real, i.e., with what is as it exists independently of their subject consciousness’ (see n.7 in Poirier’s essay).

In short, Voegelin doesn’t believe that we can talk about anything ‘underlying’ anything. He is clear that for him there is no independently existing real Ground. As Poirier says,

‘It (the Ground) existed only as an expression of the existential consciousness of that experiencing subject. It had existence only as a subjectivity for Voegelin, a shared one perhaps—shared with all other human beings—but still only a subjectivity.’

The following passage from Poirier’s essay seems vitally important here:

‘So important was this that he himself chose knowingly to live by a standard that he knew to be no standard at all, that is, he chose to live his life by placing all of the emphasis and focus on his experience of a Ground that, for him, did not exist independently of his experiencing consciousness.’

Voegelin’s hope is not, therefore, of a metaphysical kind but of an existential, wagering kind. And his wager is simply that whenever we live by the truth that ‘there is no God’ the repercussions for us ‘were just too horrendous . . . for any of us who are decent, to contemplate.’ As Poirier notes, ‘he had the Twentieth Century to prove it’ and that, therefore,

‘Man must acknowledge God, not because there is a God, but because our consciousness, and the concomitant experiential life that arises therefrom, is structured that way, and also because if we were not to acknowledge this Subjectivity, this Ground, and instead live by the truth, we would become savages of the worst sort, of which there are a large number of examples in modern times.’

Consequently, it seems to me that his hope (or lack of) is all on the surface in our existential situation and not in any kind of underlying metaphysics. One way of putting this might be to paraphrase the example concerning friendship and love I sent to you a while ago from Michel Onfray’s book ‘A Hedonist Manifesto’ and say that, for Voegelin there is no such thing as ‘truth’, but only existential proofs of ‘truth’: no ‘underlying hope’, but only existential proofs of ‘underlying hope’.

When you say that Voegelin has hopes that it ‘can lead to something real’ I think you’re onto what is going on. Voegelin is simply wagering that in the practical business of going on together we do this best—most civilly—by living frankly by an untruth. To borrow from Wallace Stevens in order to put this more palatably, we might say we go on together best of all when we have available some kind of shared, ‘supreme fiction.’

All of this reminds me of a passage from Nietzsche’s ‘The Gay Science’:

‘We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live — by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody could now endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error’ (§.121, trans Walter Kaufmann).

The conditions of life—human life anyway—do seem to me (and I think to Voegelin), inevitably and irrevocably, to contain error and untruth and we simply have to learn to live with this massive limitation—and learn to live with it in civil ways. This recognition (the ‘terrain on which I cannot comfortably travel’) is why I have recently been concerned to re-examine and explore some of the implications of John Keat’s ’negative capability’. Keats, remember, did not use the word ‘negative’ in a pejorative sense but, instead, to help us see that our potential as human beings is far from being completely defined by what we possess (eg ‘truth’) because we are clearly defined as much by what we do not—and perhaps never can—possess. Keats saw that, despite our strong determination to work everything out we continue to need to develop and nurture a very specific kind of active passivity that is a willingness to allow whatever is mysterious or doubtful to us to remain just that. Of course, one can and should at times and in the appropriate contexts probe these things—some of which will, in time, yield to our probing—but the likelihood is that there will always remain things which continue stubbornly to resist rational understanding and with which we will always need to live, humbly and patiently.

But, to repeat, this is all to engage in an existential wager in a ‘supreme fiction’ and it is not to act based on firm belief (hope) that what we do is, somehow, underlain by any actually existing (metaphysical) Ground.