Question and answer are held together, and related to one another, by the event of the search

READINGS: Matthew 15:1-10

From ‘The Gospel and Culture’ (1971) by Eric Voegelin (‘The Eric Voegelin Reader’, ed. Charles R. Embry and Glenn Hughes, University of Missouri Press, 2017, pp. 247-248)

This book . . . begins by asking what is the meaning of the fact that we exist. 
This does not mean that we begin by taking up a non-Christian attitude. 
It simply means that we, too, as Christians, are men with enquiring minds. 
We must always be ready and able to explain how our faith is the answer to 
the question of our existence” (De Nieuwe Katechismus, 1966). 

Th[is] passage [from the Dutch Catechism], though wanting in polish, is philosophically very much to the point. Its well-intentioned clumsiness sheds a flood of light on the difficulties in which the churches find themselves today. Note above all the difficulty the church has with its own believers who want to be Christians at the price of their humanity. Justin [the Martyr (d. ca. 165)] started as an inquiring mind and let his search, after it had tried the philosophical schools of the time, come to rest in the truth of the gospel. Today the situation is reversed. The believers are at rest in an uninquiring state of faith; their intellectual metabolism must be stirred by the reminder that man is supposed to be a questioner, that a believer who is unable to explain how his faith is an answer to the enigma of existence may be a “good Christian” but is a questionable man. And we may supplement the reminder by gently recalling that neither Jesus nor his fellowmen to whom he spoke his word did yet know that they were Christians—the gospel held out its promise, not to Christians, but to the poor in spirit, that is, to minds inquiring, even though on a culturally less sophisticated level than Justin’s. Behind the passage there lurks the conflict, not between gospel and philosophy, but rather between the gospel and its uninquiring possession as doctrine. The authors of the Catechism do not take this conflict lightly; they anticipate resistance to their attempt at finding the common humanity of men in their being the questioners about the meaning of existence; and they protect themselves against all too ready misunderstandings by assuring the reader they do not mean “to take up a non-Christian attitude.” Assuming them to have weighed carefully every sentence they wrote, this defensive clause reveals an environment where it is not customary to ask questions, where the character of the gospel as an answer has been so badly obscured by its hardening into self-contained doctrine that the raising of the question to which it is meant as an answer can be suspect as “a non-Christian attitude.” If that, however, is the situation, the authors have good reason to be worried indeed. For the gospel as a doctrine which you can take and be saved, or leave and be condemned, is a dead letter; it will encounter indifference, if not contempt, among inquiring minds outside the church, as well as the restlessness of the believer inside who is un-Christian enough to be man the questioner.  

From Letters to a young poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (pp. 34-35)

. . . I want to beg you, as much as I can dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions them­selves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Per­haps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it—but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.


Question and answer are  held together, and related to one another, by the event of the search

Eric Voegelin (1901-1985)
For Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) ‘question and answer are held together, and related to one another, by the event of the search’ (‘The Gospel and Culture’ in ‘The Eric Voegelin Reader’, ed. Charles R. Embry and Glenn Hughes, University of Missouri Press, 2017, p. 249). The search for an answer to ‘the enigma of existence’ was central to his life as it is to the lives of most of us here. Naturally, any search requires us to ask questions and this is why, for Voegelin ‘man . . . is a questioner.’ However, despite this, Voegelin is clear that ‘man . . .

‘. . . can also deform his humanity by refusing to ask the questions, or by loading them with premises devised to make the search impossible. The gospel, to be heard, requires ears that can hear; philosophy is not the life of reason if the questioner’s reason is depraved (Romans 1:28). The answer will not help the man who has lost the question; and the predicament of the present age is characterised by the loss of the question rather than of the answer, as the authors of the Catechism have seen rightly’ (ibid p. 249).

Given this predicament one of Voegelin’s aims was to recover the lost question because without the question to which the gospel was perceived to be the answer we simply have no chance of knowing what the gospel might actually have been and, perhaps, still is, or can be, for us today.

As we proceed it is vitally important to fully to appreciate the point I made a moment ago that, in Voegelin’s mind, the question and the answer are not things that can be pulled apart as if one could exist independently of the other. For him neither an answer which put a final end to questioning, nor a questioning which couldn’t at least hold out the reasonable promise of delivering up some kind of practical answer to the enigma of existence’ could ever be seen as satisfactory or sufficient for us.

Now, every search requires the existence of some kind of ‘pull’. To keep to the language of the gospels, two everyday examples of this pull are the valuable lost coin you know you mislaid in the house or the single sheep lost from your flock (Luke 15:1-10). Their loss are events which insist we ask all kinds of questions and which, in turn, we hope will help us successfully to search out and find the coin, the sheep or whatever. In the case of coins and sheep there is, of course, always the possibility that the questions will lead to disappointment because they fail to help us find these very specific known and knowable things or, if the questions do help us find these things then, in general and all things being being equal, the pressing need for further questions about the matter quickly begin to fade.

But with ‘the enigma of existence’ this is not the case. There is by now many hundreds of thousands of years of evidence which strongly suggests that we’ll never find a final answer to this enigma and so there will always be the need for us to ask questions about it. But, and it’s a vital but, Voegelin thought that despite this we could still find appropriate ways of living with the endless questions about the enigma that, in a special, existential way, do come to constitute a certain kind of practical and satisfactory enough ‘answer.’ In other words the tension experienced in the event of the search becomes itself the very place where an answer to the enigma of life is gifted to us. The existential answer about which I’m talking is found in the movement — the tensional push and pull — that takes place in between the question and answer; it is there that ‘we live, move, and are’ (Acts 17:28).

For me, no one has put this thought more beautifully and succinctly than the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) in one of his famous letters (written 1902-1908, pub. 1929) to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus (1883–1966). You will recall that Rilke encouraged Kappus to ’love the questions them­selves’ and to proceed, not so much by seeking final answers right here and right now (which we couldn’t yet understand anyway) but, instead, by learning how to ‘live the questions now.’ For Rilke the hope was that by doing this he might ‘gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

Now, one of the many great tragedies about Christianity as it developed into a formal Imperial, and then State, religion was that instead of always-already being prepared to enourage people to ask genuine questions about ‘the enigma of our existence’ and then enabling them freely to work towards some provisional answers which were, in turn, ever open to further questions and inquiry, it became, instead, a religion which insisted people rested wholly content in, ’an uninquiring state of faith’. I hope it is clear that this was to create a religion which believed it could eliminate the need for questions and, therefore, eliminate any need for ‘man the questioner.’ Indeed, all too often, as the writers of the ‘Dutch Catechism’ realised (for us, astonishingly and depressingly) it has become the case that to ask questions is believed by many Christians ‘to take up a non-Christian attitude.’

Speaking personally, this is one of the major reasons I simply had to leave behind any form of traditional Christianity. From individual conversations with you I know that this is the case for many of you too.

In short, traditional Christianity tried to make the pole of ‘the answer’ supreme and to separate it from the question and the movement of the search. It attempted to do this by making the answer — its ‘gospel’ — via various theological doctrines elucidating God’s attributes and actions etc., into something knowable, fixed and final. In turn, this meant that once a person came to know the doctrines and possessed their eternal truth then the need for them to ask any further questions ceases. That person believes they have found the answer to ‘the enigma of existence’ in this known thing called the ‘gospel’ just as they might find their lost coin or sheep. Job done, questions over, all tension resolved, all movement stopped.

In passing today, but importantly nonetheless, it’s worth being aware that what is true in such Christian circles is as true in other doctrinal, ideological settings such as those found in certain kinds of political circles.

Anyway, it is no surprise that, basing itself on the supremacy of ‘man . . . the questioner’ (especially in his or her role as scientist or philosopher), as our modern, Renaissance and Enlightenment, humanist inspired culture has developed it came ever more to reject such a ‘gospel’ because it was clearly so often being used to shut down the need for any further questions.

This was an intolerable situation and so there was much that was right and proper about this humanist move. But Voegelin recognised there was a real danger here because it tempted us into thinking that because the answer couldn’t be found in a dogmatic and fixed gospel the ‘Church’ it now had to be found wholly in a known and knowable humanity and, of course, in the natural world of which we are so integral a part.

Much more needs to be said about all this but, for now, let me just sum-up by saying that Christianity came to believe the answer to the enigma of existence was to be found only in a dogmatic gospel about a known and knowable God, whilst the secular, humanist world came to believe the answer to the enigma of existence was to be found only in a known and knowable humanity and natural world.

Voegelin’s great insight was to see how wrong-headed this is. This is because what it is for us to exist as the kinds of being we are is always-already to feel ourselves in what Plato called metaxy — the In-Between; it is always-already to be inextricably situated, pushed and pulled, in-between the poles of question and answer, in between what for us is a never fully known and knowable humanity and natural world on the one hand, and what we feel to be an unknown and unknowable transcendent (or divine) reality on the other.

The mistake we often commit is to make the human and divine poles the only really-real or truly-true things and to forget that the only thing that we can assuredly say is real or true for us is the movement, the push and pull, that is set up between those felt poles. Our whole existence always-already takes place completely inside the movement of the event of the search and the only answer to the enigma of existence which will ever satisfy us (and have half a chance of being as true as anything can be) is one that remains consciously in the metaxy — the In-Between.

As Voegelin writes:

‘The search itself is the evidence of existential unrest; in the act of questioning, man’s experience of his tension (tasis) toward the divine ground breaks forth in the word of inquiry as a prayer for the Word of the answer. Question and answer are intimately related toward the other; the search moves in metaxy, . . . in the In-Between of poverty and wealth, of human and divine, the question is knowing, but its knowledge is yet the trembling of a question that may reach the true answer or miss it. This luminous search in which the finding of the true answer depends on asking the true question, and asking the true question on the spiritual apprehension of the true answer, is the life of reason’ (pp. 248-249).

With these words I’m now able to bring this address to a tentative and provisional close because I think we’re now in a position see reasonably well the lost question Voegelin thought he had recovered to which the gospel was perceived to be the answer.

It is the life of reason understood as the learning how  to how to live, well and fruitfully, in the always ultimately unresolvable tension of the metaxy, in the searching movement of the In-Between; in-between the push and pull of questions and answers which must always be held together without one of them ever winning over the other. This is surely something akin Rilke’s advice to the young poet.

For Voegelin, the only religions and philosophies that are truly worth their salt are those which offer people practical ways to live well and fruitfully in the metaxy, the In-Between and not to seek fixed and final answers from either the gods or humanity/nature alone. The moment a religion or philosophy believes it has found the answer to the enigma of existence by absolutising either the divine on the one hand or the human/natural on the other they have become religions and philosophies which have lost sight of what it is to be human and threaten to introduce tyranny into our lives.

Voegelin felt that the ‘gospel’ — which centrally involves the idea of a life of seeking which involves giving up one’s life to gain it — did, in fact, offer just such a practical answer to this question.

But today what, in detail, Voegelin the atheist thought consisted in the gospel is something I might endeavour to explore some other time. All I wish to do today is place before you the question to which Voegelin thought the ‘gospel’ was one possible ‘answer’: How do we live well in the metaxy — the In-Between? In-between the question and answer; in-between the gods and humanity?