“Of course there is no God. But we must believe in Him”

Voegelin’s essay open in the Manse’s shady back-yard
Today, my last Sunday off before I rejoin the fray after my summer leave, I decided to reread a 1971 lecture called “The Gospel and Culture” by Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) as well as a 2009 paper by Maben Walter Poirier called “Eric Voegelin’s Immanentism: A Man At Odds With The Transcendent?”.

As a sceptic with a naturally religious mind I continue to find both the lecture and the essay interesting because, 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 statement a majority of Voegelin’s supporters still seem to hold that he was a Christian. As Poirier says it is interesting also 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)

A year after first reading it I find myself 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 motive seems not unconnected to the concerns I expressed in the piece I posted earlier this morning called Being an Umpire and not a Player

Here are a three more relevant paragraphs from Poirier’s essay which, to quote Poirer from elsewhere, leads Voegelin, Poirier, and me too, “onto a terrain on which I cannot comfortably travel”:

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 this civility, in Voegelins 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 Aristotles “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 Voegelins 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).

This is clearly terrain upon which it is not comfortable to travel but, given the current state of affairs I find all around me (both locally, nationally and globally), I have no choice but to continue to traverse it.

Time for an afternoon gin and tonic I think . . .

At this link you will find a postscript to this post prompted by a question sent to me by DK.