Sounding like Donald Rumsfeld avant la lettre, the German political scientist Michael Henkel referred to Eric Voegelin in the late ‘nineties as an “unknown known” thinker. This is still about right: while most modern intellectual historians are familiar with the oracular Austrian-German émigré, few find him worth a close read. Though the two are different in crucial respects, it’s tempting to think of Voegelin as a kind of Leo Strauss whom history left behind: hailed by American neoconservatives like Russell Kirk and William Buckley in the 50s and 60s, Voegelin’s writings were too eccentric, too abstruse, or maybe just too opaque, to be taken—or mistaken—as blueprints for political action. But he deserves a look today, because his work anticipates our own dissatisfaction with the religious/secular distinction. In fact, you could say that one of his main concerns was to show that, instead of differentiating religion and secularism, we ought to distinguish between ways of thinking that recognize transcendence—i.e. that locate the necessarily partial, incomplete reach of human experience and comprehension in relation to some beyond—and ways that don’t.
The later group Voegelin dubbed Gnostic. This was an unfortunate decision, not only because it led him to lump a great number of diverse traditions and ideas under the same, dismissive rubric—Marxists, Puritans, positivists, Nazis, and liberals were all, in different ways, “Gnostics” to Voegelin—but because his notion of Gnosticism seems to bear little resemblance to what second-century Gnostics thought they were up to. But he’s more interesting on the varieties of transcendence. In stark contrast to Strauss, Voeglin sees philosophy and theology as necessarily interpenetrating: early Christians like Augustine and classical philosophy along the lines of Plato and Aristotle are equally, he thinks, “interpretation[s] of experiences of transcendence.” He doesn’t put it this way, but he basically thinks that we’ve been duped by Christianity’s view of itself; what the Church announced as a major break masks more fundamental similarities with classical antiquity on the level of experience—a continuity that only broke down with modernity, when Gnosticism (apparently) got the upper hand.
Voegelin’s central, surprisingly Kantian thesis is that some recognition of transcendence is the precondition of open, self-reflexive inquiry. Founded on this recognition, he seeks to build “a new science of politics and history” capable of overcoming the dogmatic tendencies in “scientism.” He’s after, I think, something very similar to what Edward Said—and Vincent Pecora in his recent post—meant by the term “secular criticism.” If this is right, it raises the question of whether the “infinite” process Pecora recommends should be called “secularization” at all. Maybe God is less worth barring from the public realm than forms of dogmatic faith. It’s worth remembering that theology has its own resources for the fight against what Said calls “pseudo-religion.”