, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 237–252

Reason and Religion in Rawls: Voegelin’s Challenge


    • Department of International RelationsThe American University of Rome

DOI: 10.1007/s11406-011-9351-4

Cite this article as:
Thomassen, B. Philosophia (2012) 40: 237. doi:10.1007/s11406-011-9351-4


This article argues that we must abandon the still predominant view of modernity as based upon a separation between the secular and the religious - a “separation” which is allegedly now brought into question again in “postsecularity”. It is more meaningful to start from the premise that religion and politics have always co-existed in various fields of tension and will continue to do so. The question then concerns the natures and modalities of this tension, and how one can articulate a publically grounded reason with reference to it. It will first be argued that this question cannot be articulated, let alone fully answered, from the position developed by John Rawls. A different approach will then be developed, building on the writings of Eric Voegelin. This involves a much more serious engagement with the classical tradition in thought and philosophy than found in Rawls. It also implies much more than a “pragmatic” recognition of religion as a possible source for overlapping consensus, since for Voegelin a true, balanced rationality can only depart from an experientially grounded encounter with the transcendent.


RawlsEric VoegelinMetaxyModernityPolitical religionTranscendental reason

The Question remains the same but the modes of asking the Question change.

Eric Voegelin, Order and History, IV, 331.

Addressing the question

It is becoming increasingly accepted that we live in a world of “post-secularity”. The term has during the last decade or so become increasingly invoked in philosophy and sociology across the Atlantic, and argued as a diagnostic term by flagship figures such as Habermas. While the term itself can be interpreted differently, the main denominator behind the different usages is quite simply that “secularity” did not triumph in the way that mainstream modernization theories had predicted during most of the 20th century. Modernization can no longer be taken to equal secularization. Religion has made a comeback. We need to account for this, empirically, theoretically, and normatively. Social developments, some of them very surprising to most observers, force us to rethink our theories and concepts we used to invoke to explain modernizing societies and the direction in which they are going and should be going in the future. The stress is therefore on the “post”: what is happening now that we are no longer secularizing as we thought we would? In a very general sense, this way of posing the question somehow, or to some degree, accepts that secularization as a multifaceted process (see Riesebrodt 2008) did in fact take place and has been a real historical force, at least in Western societies—only that it is now taking new and surprising turns. A main aspect of the debate involves how we can retain modern notions of reason and rationality, while at the same time accepting or at least recognizing the persistence of religious views and perspectives. The position developed by John Rawls is often seen as a viable answer.

While there are indeed some good reasons to invoke the term post-secularity, in this chapter I propose a slightly different framing of the question, building mostly on a perspective derived from the approach by political theorist, Eric Voegelin. There are four main reasons why I think Voegelin or a Voegelin-inspired framework is relevant to our current debates over politics, religion and (public) reason. First, Voegelin was perhaps the thinker in the 20th century who most radically sought to question our understanding of “secularity” itself, arguing that secular thought at its heart was in fact a kind of “derailed” religiosity, and a very dangerous one at that. “Secularity” was never what it used to be! Second, Voegelin insisted on experiences of transcendence as a reality from which we cannot or should not escape, but rather recognize as a “ground” of existence and as a ground of our notions of public reason and tolerance. Third, and more specifically, Voegelin focused his analysis on modern politics, and sought to bring to light what he saw as the “hidden” connections between religion and politics in the modern world. Fourth, during his life-work, Voegelin started to move his time horizon further and further back in time, dedicating the major part of his late career to the study of antiquity and the “axial age” (Thomassen 2010). Voegelin came to recognize that what he saw as the modern “derailment” of politics—indeed Western history itself—had to be understood but perhaps also corrected from within an axial age perspective. Voegelin insisted on the deep and permanent values relating to both Christianity and Classical philosophy as “differentiating experiences”, and he worried about the extent to which politics (also in its liberal forms) was emptying itself of meaning as it pretended to constitute itself without this anchoring. And this loss of meaning is, perhaps, the real problem we are facing today.

In short, this chapter will argue that the modern state and the modern world were never really “secular” in the first place. Rather than “abandoning religion” early modern thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes introduced a new “secularity” through a reorganization of Christian theology in the worldly realm of politics and thought. As Schmitt (2006) put it, all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts. The secular view of an unbridgeable gap between religion and politics is forgetful of its own origins. This means very fundamentally that we must abandon the still predominant view of modernity as based upon a separation between secular and religious - a “separation” which is now, allegedly, brought into question “again”. It is more meaningful to start from the premise that religion and politics have always co-existed in various fields of tension and will continue to do so. The question then concerns the natures and modalities of this tension, and how one can articulate a publically grounded reason with reference to it. We need to ask how these areas can co-exist: not just religion and politics, but religion, politics and philosophy? And how and where are we to place our own scientific questioning, our sapientia, facing these immense questions? I make this premise: It is not possible to debate the religion/politics nexus philosophically while holding philosophy itself outside this field of tensions. Philosophy, after all, is a love of wisdom, and it is a wisdom oriented towards how human beings can live together in a polis, in a concrete political community. For Socrates this love was a sacred path. And Plato, the founder of Western epistemology, agreed.

John Rawls: politics, public reason and religion, and “how to control and rid the world of sin”

I am well aware that it is difficult to criticize John Rawls, and in a way I do not wish to do so from within his theoretical construct. I do, however, want to make some observations about his overall approach before spelling out why I see it as both problematic and limited, even if one must remain largely sympathetic to his pragmatic understanding of the role of religion to underpin communities and thus to enhance justice. I state my reservations with a series of question marks that I will return to in the conclusion.

Rawls’ Liberal thought made him quite predictably insist on the importance of a separation between religion and politics. With his famous book, A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls established himself as perhaps the leading “secular” Liberal, who engaged with the moral question of justice, but without departing from a morally grounded epistemology: the “right”, Rawls, argued, cannot be deduced from the “good”. It would, however, certainly be wrong to set up Rawls as someone “opposed” to religion. Religion was not a main theme in Theory of Justice, but religion had been much more present in Rawls’ life and thinking much earlier in his life, and religion did become a main theme in his later work. Rawls was himself not brought up in a secular academic environment, and he was rarely hostile to religion in any general way: such positions are perhaps more typical for European social theorists. It is also clear that while Theory of Justice made few references to religion, later books like Political Liberalism (Rawls 1996) became more and more concerned with the fact of religion.

However, while Political Liberalism was an attempt to incorporate criticisms of his earlier book, and quite differently argued, it arguably did not fundamentally change Rawls’ views on religion and reason, but rather made them more accommodating towards religion: religion can be a crucial force in bringing people together in an “overlapping consensus”. As long as either religious or secular arguments are directed towards “public reason” we can incorporate them. Rawls’ proviso says quite simply that citizens and policy makers should feel free to make reference to religion as the basis of their argument as long as their views and policies can be contained within a discourse of public concepts. Positions or policies may derive from religious views but agreement/disagreement on positions must refer to publicly recognized concepts such as equality or liberty. Put differently, positions can be argued for on “comprehensive”, religious or secular, grounds in the political realm as long as they can also be argued for on “public” grounds. The “overlapping consensus” thus refers to the willingness to provide those “public” grounds, if required, to assure others of one’s commitment to the collective good and to public reason.

It also turned out that religion had played a larger role in Rawls’ formative experiences than readers and friends had realized. One of the writings that were discovered after Rawls died in 2002 was a text called “On My Religion”, where Rawls described his own encounters with religion, including his deep concern with theology as an undergraduate student at Princeton in the early 1940s (1941–1942). Rawls in that period seriously considered attending a seminary to study for the Episcopal priesthood. “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An interpretation based on the concept of community” was in fact the title of Rawls’s senior thesis, submitted to the philosophy department in December 1942, during some of the most dramatic moments of 20th century history and coinciding with Rawls’ own coming to maturity (and, legally speaking, his first adult year). On the basis of this thesis, it seems reasonable to argue that Rawls’ philosophy was indeed based on a certain religions reading of the concept of community, so crucial to his entire work (Rawls 2009; some important continuities in Rawls’ thought are highlighted in the review by Weithman 2009).

In his thesis Rawls wrote that in theology, ethics and politics alike, the problem is “one of controlling and ridding the world of sin” (2009: 128). It is perhaps unfair to use a statement made by a 21-year-old student to debate an immense and dynamic authorship like that of Rawls, and had there been no connection to Rawls’ later philosophy, such a suggestion would indeed be out of place. However, to some extent this statement is reflected in Rawls’ larger and mature attempt to establish a system of justice, of right and wrong, in both domestic and international politics. The desire to rid the world of evil was perhaps most explicitly re-stated in The Law of Peoples: Rawls here says (1993: 6–7) that his Liberal construct also serves to eliminate the “great evils” of history (wars, genocide, religious persecution). For Rawls the role of politics is to eliminate, as far as possible, injustice and human suffering. This, however correct and “human” it may sound, is not a starting point I think we should easily accept. Does that position not come dangerously close to various historically recurrent forms of political Puritanism, which start from that very same premise? (I am emphatically not saying they are simply “the same”). A project that starts off from “eliminating” something undesirable (“evil”, or “injustice”) will always work from the problematic premise of a double negation.

In the same thesis, Rawls also argued against a goal-oriented ethical structure, which clearly foreshadowed his later opposition to teleological conceptions of morality (as in utilitarian positions). Rawls would always claim that “the right is prior to the good”. This can be identified as a neo-Kantian conception of morality based on relations among persons living within a given community, rather than on the relation of action to an end. The “right” is not what maximizes the good, but what manifests an equal respect for all persons as separate individuals—and here Rawls overlaps in significant ways with the position developed by Habermas and his notion of “communicative rationality”. This also means that Rawls’ philosophy can be identified as being primarily concerned with means rather than ends. This, however, is another position that needs questioning. Is it really possible to construct an ethical theory for the public realm in complete abstraction from any conception of the good life?

Then, on the other hand, Rawls does set up his values, although he claims that they just follow deductively or “naturally” from what is “right”. The issue at stake here may also be that Rawls employed a rather technical view of the term “merits” or “goods” and a very legal-rational, formal, procedural (and democratic-egalitarian) notion of “distribution” of social resources. In his 1971 work, Rawls listed what he saw as the “primary goods” that all citizens must be guaranteed: rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth (self-respect is added later). Rawls has on this point been criticized for smuggling in culture-specific notions of “goods” which are far from universal; in fact, they can rather safely be placed in a Republican, achievement-oriented, capitalist country with private ownership and an emphatic individual-oriented set of values. Rawls has tried to reply that these are all “common sense” notions, therefore somehow pragmatically axiomatic and non-problematic (at least in democratic cultures). I imagine that many social scientists will find it hard to accept such procedural arguments. I am not the first to raise the question: on the basis of what (pre-political) values can Rawls’ system actually be brought to function? In fact, the same question can be raised about Rawls’ notion of “community”: does it not end up as an equally “abstract” and faceless construct?

I would like to end my short discussion of Rawls with three general comments. First, Rawls’ theory of justice belongs to a philosophical tradition of creating “theories” as internally congruent and then politically viable models. It is hence not a theory, strictly speaking, in the causal sense: causality is not established as a relationship in the empirical world, or between events and ideas; causality is imposed as a relationship between a model as imagined and a world as imagined. The model is created while imagining an ideal scenario, and from that situation the model is abstracted and applied, as a second order, to the “real world” and its concrete ethical problems (be they abortion or unemployment benefits). I am of course not arguing that Rawls was unconcerned with practical dimensions and politics as enacted: he indeed liked to insist in the “here and now”. I am arguing that as a “construct theorist”, however pragmatic in orientation, Rawls stays well within the modern tradition of speculative philosophy, which seeks an order of the world from a self-created universe (“ideal theory”) which is then matched against “reality”. This mytho-autopoeitic procedure has indeed been reproduced since the 17th century, from Descartes and Hobbes to Kant and Hegel and into our days in almost every single of the most dominant political and philosophical -isms. It is a procedure that is radically different from the classical political philosophical tradition; and it is not the only one possible—at least that must be said.

Second, and strictly related, at the level of inquiry Rawls bases his theory of justice as well as his considerations of religion on a rather a-historical analysis. Or, rather, historical examples are taken into the discussion when needed: the analysis does not depart from them. This is not unusual in mainstream political philosophy, and it would be wrong to target Rawls on this account more than so many others. However, to seriously approach the question of morality, as Nietzsche (1994) argued (however sketchily), we do need to understand its genealogy. It is also significant how Rawls’ historical horizon is dominated by his reference to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries as the almost only relevant historical reference point for discussing the role of religion in public life today. It is of course from such a horizon that the introduction of the secular state seems the “right answer”, if not the only one possible (as Habermas, together with almost every other “defender of modernity” sees it). The period that followed the collapse of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance project, and the explosive nature of religious wars that marked Europe for a century and half until the peace of Westphalia is indeed a formative period of our modern world; but it is not at all the only one. Furthermore, the dynamics of the period—which Voegelin (1998) called the “age of confusion”—can also be interpreted in several directions; as indicated below, rather than looking at the institutional settlement that occurred with Westphalia as a necessary answer to the crisis, we need to understand the critical (and far from given) terms of “problematization” on the basis of which those solutions were eventually established.

Third, the reason why it is so impossible to go up against Rawls is that he somehow manages to combine the two most opposed yet most fundamental approaches to the question of justice—namely, “liberalism” and “socialism”, or individual choice and care for the “weak”—and he manages to combine these two “-isms” in what is certainly a perfect system, in the best Kantian tradition. His approach is based upon the individual’s pursuit of happiness, and yet it is equally tuned towards providing resources for the “worst off” and towards the elimination of suffering. Put very simply, Rawls combines the best of Liberalism (individual freedom) and Socialism (a social sense of justice and the stress on community) into one coherent and indeed convincing framework. Rawls argues that the basic standard against which any public policy should be measured is the benefit it brings to the well-being of the least-advantaged members of society; this is all in concordance with our basic values of justice, pity, and charity. Again: Who can be against such ideas?

Rawls has, quite predictably, been critiqued from both Right and Left, and indeed also from Liberal communitarians. Critics like the theologian Neuhaus and liberal communitarians like Sandel argue that Rawls’ version of liberalism in effect excludes from politics what gives many people’s lives purpose and shape: the language of rights so consistently used by Rawls serves to abstract individuals and ignores the real values proper to concretely existing persons and communities. I do subscribe to some of these views, but would also add something more. Liberalism and Socialism do have their own limits, and it is far from evident that to combine them we get beyond those limits: the bringing together of two extremes rarely create a harmony. At the same time, they may also be “opposites” with a shared origin, emerging as solutions in moments of crisis: socialism argues for complete state control of society, Liberalism is, very fundamentally, a reaction to too much (state) control, leaving matters to private initiative from the “good” of self-achievement. More to the point: If we accept that politics is basically about letting individuals pursue their own ideas of perfection and self-interest while equally being about helping the least well off members of society and hence enable them to also pursue their own happiness under “fair conditions”, then politics becomes deprived of any positive value; it has lost meaning (Szakolczai 2010: 6; Horvath 2008). There is no common good, no concrete community, no meaning, no pursuit of beauty at the level of the whole, except the promotion of the “interests” of individuals mixed with a concern for the weak and an emphatic stress on seeking “inclusion” of the “excluded” (perhaps the most used words in politics and policy making over the last two decades). I think this is the dead-end we have driven ourselves into, and all one can do is to ask how this happened, and then of course to pose alternatives. The rest of this chapter will have to concentrate mostly on the first question, and, granted the stakes at play, only very partially so. But from here on I must move beyond the boundaries set by a discussion of Rawls and instead introduce the approach by Eric Voegelin.

Eric Voegelin: human existence in the metaxy

Born in Germany in January 1901, and raised in an Austrian environment, Voegelin belongs to a group of authors who lived through both World Wars. His worldviews were shattered from early youth. This “shaking” had a direct impact on Voegelin’s experience: the age in which he was living was an age where the ordering structures of society were collapsing. And this collapse of order—or rather, this experience of a dissolution of order, became a leitmotif in his entire work (Szakolczai 2000: 153).

The main aim of Voegelin’s early work was to find the roots of the modern political mass ideologies. Voegelin witnessed the rise of Nazism, and just barely escaped the Nazis before the Anschluss of Austria in 1938. He eventually settled in America, where he lived for the rest of his life. Some of Voegelin’s early writings were about the roots of Nazism. However, for Voegelin the problem turned out to be much broader. He identified a “gnostic tendency” in modern political movements, but under the term “gnosticism” he very provocatively put other—isms such as scientism, Marxism and positivism (Voegelin 2000, 2004). In other words, for Voegelin it was somehow the very modern worldview and its strive for “inner-worldly fulfilment” which was problematic.

Voegelin called for a restoration of political science through a recovery of classical philosophy. Voegelin (1957) sided with Plato that there must be a connection between order in the soul, order in the city and order in the cosmos. This “order” is not man-made, but something we as humans should recognize and tune in towards. For Voegelin this was only possible via participation in what he called “the divine ground”. Man is not a self-created autonomous being and we do not carry the origin and meaning of our existence within ourselves. This cannot be stressed enough: as Voegelin read Plato (correctly in my view), man can only come to serve as the model as long as he remains grounded in the divine ground:

“Man thus can be the model of paradigmatic order in society only when he himself has been ordered by divine being… The theomorphism of the soul, we may say, is the supreme principle of the conception of order that originates in the experience of transcendence and leads to the discovery of history” (Voegelin quoted in Morrisey 1999: 25, italics added).

We do not create the world, but we can seek participation in the mystery of being. What Voegelin called the “existential truth” of man is not an abstract notion but the concrete person’s recognition of his own finitude (see Webb 1981 for a more extensive discussion of this aspect of Voegelin’s work). Voegelin saw the human being as “framed” by a series of tensions between the “beyond and the below”, the finite and the infinite, time and eternity, the human and the divine, which is why Plato’s term of metaxy and existence in metaxy became so central to his thinking. The metaxy is Plato’s symbol (developed in the Symposium and Philebus) for the in-between plane of human existence, the place of our participation in reality and became a central symbol for Voegelin’s own philosophy of history (Voegelin 1974, 1978). To try to move outside the metaxy, attracted by the divine pole, equals for Voegelin a loss of balance, a human hubris (duly signaled in Greek mythology as such), a “deformation” of both thought and consciousness, with deadly consequences.

“Transcendental realism” as the grounding of public discourse

It can be argued that such a position requires faith; that Voegelin’s philosophy of history and his entire political theory becomes acceptable only once faith is accepted as a fact—which many modern human beings cannot do. There is some truth to this view, but I would like to insist that nobody can easily dismiss Voegelin: his perspective is relevant to our current discussions no matter what one may happen to believe in. For Voegelin this divine ground is something very real (the unreal is to deny it), although here we have to be extremely careful concerning that “reality”. Reality is tied to experience; the “poles” that identity the tension of the metaxy indicate a kind of structural boundary to lived experience. “But if the poles of tension are hypostatized as independent entities—if the partners to the encounter are torn asunder and converted into subjects and objects of experience that exist apart from the experiential relation—then the true understanding of reality is lost and the vision of our humanity deformed” (Morrissey 1999: 24). In other words, “reality” is itself an existential tension, and is therefore not directly accessible and cannot (must not!) be objectified. “Unreality” is the human error of detaching the poles of the tension from the experience of participation in reality, inevitably resulting in spiritual disorder. The claim can be made that any ideology or approach which calls itself “realist” in its dismissal of transcendence, indeed perhaps any philosophy of detranscendentalization, is itself not real: that in the name of “realism” it dismisses the ground of reality.

Voegelin engaged from such a position in the debates we are facing today concerning pluralism, religion, political morality and the “public sphere”. His contribution to the debates has been discussed in various conferences and publications (see for example the excellent discussion by Ranieri 1999), and is perhaps best known via his correspondence with Arendt. While Voegelin was sympathetic to many aspects of a liberal position, and agreed on the need to embrace religious and political plurality, he quite fundamentally questioned liberal appeals to “reason” as grounding public discourse. In Ranieri’s words, Voegelin “feared that the prevalent modern conception of rationality as coordination of means and ends threatened to lose sight of those goods that were the source of rational order” (1999: 35). To Voegelin it was reason itself that needed to be recovered, and the public realm could only be revitalized via such a recovery. But here of course Voegelin insisted that reason is inseparable from our orientation to the transcendent, from our experiential relation to the divine ground. This, for Voegelin, constituted a deeper ground from where tolerance could thrive.

Voegelin argued that beneath the pluralism of opinion and belief which should guarantee peaceful advances towards truth lie the unresolved religious and ideological wars as the “hidden” baggage of the liberal order—and that liberal tolerance therefore could easily revert to cultural wars. Reason itself was a symbol arising from an existential openness, and Voegelin argued that liberal society itself was trying to provide foundations for rational discourse and public order by employing an impoverished language that had become disengaged from its experiential roots (ibid.: 51). And his quite astonishing claim was that the liberal order on this note shared problematic affinities with totalitarian regimes (Voegelin condensed this argument in his review (1953) of Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism). Therefore, if reason was to serve as the basis of public discourse, it must be rooted in experiences accessible to everyone. To Voegelin, again, these experiences were something very real, and his empirical work very directly traced their various forms and their symbolization.

To be “rational” to Voegelin therefore implied a relationship of openness, an existential tension, something very different from adherence to “principles” and utterly incompatible with ideologies. In this openness Voegelin saw the grounding of commonness. From a Voegelian perspective, Rawls’ pragmatic incorporation of religion as a possible source of public morality avoided the deeper question concerning the ground of public reason.

Voegelin’s political science and the search for order: the importance of the classical tradition

Philosophy (and political science) was to Voegelin not about creating system in the world: our role is rather to interpret experiences of transcendence as such “differentiating experiences” become symbolized in thought. The discovery of the metaxy in is itself such a differentiating event in history; and so is the symbol of reason (logos). Voegelin was quite conservative here, of course. As he said in his New Science of Politics, “since the maximum of differentiation was achieved through Greek philosophy and Christianity, this means specifically that theory is bound to move within the historical horizon of classic and Christian experiences. To recede from the maximum of differentiation is a theoretical retrogression; it will result in various types of derailment which Plato has characterized as doxa” (Voegelin 1987: 9).

For a doxic thinker truth is an answer that settles the questioning and then concentrates on turning the truth into system. Voegelin contrasted this attitude (perhaps epitomized most clearly in the Cartesian thought system) with the Socratic notion of “living in truth”, or the “philosophical mind”, or “open existence”, where truth is not a formula, nor even a veridical relationship between words/propositions and the external world, but rather a mode of existence where the mystery of reality becomes luminous from within.1 Truth is personal; it is at this level not something that can be pursued by collectivities. The philosophical mind realizes that there are truths that lie beyond the reach of finite human knowledge, and seek knowledge with and from that consciousness. We do not know where we come from, and we do not know where we will go. We think in that tension between absolute ignorance and absolute knowledge, in a “tension toward the ground”. And, as Plato kept telling the Sophists, that ground cannot be ourselves.

In terms of methodological approach, and without going into great detail, Voegelin recognized that political thought had to be understood as symbolizations of real human experiences (see Voegelin 1974, 1990a). Voegelin also recognized that thoughts are not simply second-order reflections of “reality”, but are themselves part of a historical process. Voegelin was particularly interested in human experiences during crisis periods or “liminal moments” (Thomassen 2009), when the taken-for-granted order of the world ceased to exist. He therefore focused upon the ways in which individual thinkers lived through a certain period, attempting to make sense of their experiences, searching for ways out of the crisis; and the symbols and myths used to represent these experiences of order and disorder. Grounding his idea of political communities in representations of transcendental experiences, Voegelin insisted that truth cannot be directly represented: this must happen in myth and symbols. The question of a political theorist, for Voegelin, concerns the modes of symbolization.

Voegelin was particularly interested in two types of experience: experiences of dissolution and chaos, and the opposite experiences of order. It was these “experiences of order” against a world of decay or chaos that Voegelin diagnosed as Gnostic, to the extent that human beings “artificially” sought to create order out of disorder through their own ordering devices, claiming participation is some “mystery of being” (Voegelin’s oft used expression), or some “primary source of truth”. Voegelin also argued that this amounted to an intellectual hubris that was deeply nihilistic in nature, hopelessly emptying the world of meaning exactly as it was searched for. Voegelin recognized this tendency as underpinning both modern science and politics.

Religion and political modernity from the 17th century

One of the landmarks of the modernity that developed from the 17th century was the introduction of secular principles in both thought and political organization. It has often been said that modernity is an ideational and institutional unfolding of that very separation between religion and the secular world, eventually allowing for a whole new type of social dynamics and progression in science, arts and politics. Even if this is somehow evidently true, I would now, with Voegelin’s framework in mind, like to qualify and also question that common view both normatively and theoretically, with implications for today’s discussion.

Normatively, the historical “separation” of the Christian church from politics can be seen as a historical sidestep with serious consequences in terms of new possibilities for the development of political extremism and radicalism. From the moment of Westphalia, religion was indeed subordinated to the new European states and their rulers. Both Pope and Emperor disappeared as safeguards of temporal and spiritual power with the peace accords of Westphalia. They were not even invited to the meetings, and their protest was futile. This was much more than a mere “neglect”: religion (and its political abuse) was widely seen as the cause of the Thirty Years’ War, so it had to be kept out. European political modernity is institutionally built on that diagnosis, which thinkers like Rawls and Habermas take for granted. The Westphalian system quite simply contains religion within a secular state system, leading to a new international configuration of power, largely the one we live with today. The Christian church protested, arguing that such a new system would only lead to ever more dangerous abuses of power. I am well aware that it is practically impossible to take such a position today, as we do live in a modern world based on the celebration of a “liberated” secular sphere in both politics and science. But according to Voegelin that liberation came with a danger. The elimination of Pope and Emperor from the overall European political setting did not do away with such ambitions: it just meant that anyone could crown himself Emperor, as Napoleon did in 1806. And Napoleon was in that moment involving the entire European continent in a war which almost destroyed Western civilization. The new secular system of course also meant that anyone could declare himself the new Messiah in the various forms of political theology that have plagued modern history for at least two centuries now. The “chosen people” motive has in modernity via nationalism been dangerously brought into secularity; and fatally imbued with universalistic ambitions (Szakolczai 2008). And even the countries with the strongest and also most celebrated liberal and Republican revolutionary traditions, France and America, certainly cannot claim to be historically unaffected by at least some of these problematic tendencies.

In seeking out a new ground, 17th century philosophers discovered a new type of principle which could supersede and replace religion and its dangerous divisive tendencies that had shattered Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. In this sense, the development of thought in the mid 17th century is—rightly I think—considered a forerunner to the Enlightenment, which is often seen to identify a “mature” modernity. In his analysis of what he called the “Gnostic nature of modernity”, Voegelin kept insisting that the modern world view as it crystallized from the 17th century does not represent a separation of politics from a religious context. It is rather “the elimination of the life of the spirit from public representation and the corresponding contraction of politics to a secular nucleus” (Voegelin 1998: 23, italics added). To Voegelin, the transition to modernity never really implied a process of secularization, as mainstream social theory always claimed. Shmul Eisenstadt in several writings followed up on this perspective, confirming Voegelin’s vision of the Gnostic nature of modernity. In Eisenstadt’s view, the political revolutions the came to characterize political modernity in the West from the 17th century onwards represented “the most dramatic and possibly the most successful attempt in the history of mankind to implement on a macro-social scale utopian visions with strong Gnostic components” (Eisenstadt 2005: 156).

Religion, politics and our search for reason: concluding remarks

First remark: secularity and religion, religion and politics

There are reasons to challenge the oft imagined chronology of pre-modern/ religious world → early modern semi-religious/semi-scientific world → fully secular/ “mature modern world” → postmodern/ post-secular world. It is equally dubious whether religion and “spirituality” have actually “returned”. It may perhaps be more meaningful to argue that religious ideas and practices throughout history have taken new forms, interrelating dynamically with political ideas and practices; that the nexus between religion and politics was never really broken. To some extent, I would therefore also accept that secularization as a social process is certainly still unfolding—only that we need to ask more carefully what such a process actually implies and what it means. This requires a historical/genealogical analysis of how “secularity” developed out of, and yet in tension with, the world religions and classical philosophical traditions, well within a Weberian frame of analysis.

What we witness today is not a new challenge to secularity; what we witness (and in a sense positively so) is perhaps the demise of utopian, eschatological visions in politics. Perhaps there is even an extent to which the “return of religion” has to do with a return to axiality (Lambert 1999), and represents a far from irrational answer to the current global age and the immense problems that go with it. In such a situation, “religion” is not something to be feared as a threat to secularity (and its institutional corollaries); nor is religion simply a private affair; nor is religion simply, in a Liberal sense, e person’s right to believe and practice a faith as long as this does not interfere with or limit the freedom of others to do likewise. Nor is religion simply a useful tool for establishing overlapping consensus. Religion does have a role in politics and in a certain sense makes the political possible. As Lefort (1988: 222) expressed it, “Every religion states in its own way that human society can only open on to itself by being held in an opening it did not create.”

I am not arguing for a religious view of the world over and above a secular view; nor do I find it plausible to argue for, for example, any Christian “theory” of society. The very idea of delegating mutually respecting spaces for politics and religion in Europe can be safely located within a Christian tradition. Throughout the 20th century we saw the development of notions like Christian democracy and Christian socialism (“as if the gospels ever discussed the order of society”, as Voegelin once said). As Voegelin insisted, there is no “Christian theory” of social and political order. And there should be no such theory. Christianity cannot be a priori for or against a particular form of political regime, be it “monarchy”, “aristocracy”, “democracy” or “socialism”. This, however, does not mean that Christianity or religion more broadly has “no relevance for politics”. I think it has, but more in the form of a reflection on the limits of human reasoning and human existence: it is there, as a dimension, not only of morality, of imagining the “good”, but even more basically, as a dimension as experienced truth, of contemplative trembling before the order of the world that we as humans must recognise and “tune in” towards. If any church (or member thereof) becomes forgetful of its firm humbleness in such matters, we can hold it up against its own conditions of emergence. And so we should.

Second remark: Defending Rawls against the collectivists

Rawls has been strongly criticized by “theocons”, communitarians, and left-wing thinkers for defending what is ultimately an individualistic and materialistic view of society, a social contract signed by self-interested individuals who have no concern for the collective level. I would like to take some distance to these critiques as well. The respect for the single person, in all his concreteness and reality, is indeed a liberal value to defend. But it should be remembered that this insistence on the person, the category of the concrete human being facing serious choices in a moment of crisis, was also one of the most important ideas of Socrates and Plato; it was widely recognized that the Greek polis could only preserve its strength if that order built upon the values and lived ethics of the single person (see Horvath 2008). The dignity of the person is in several passages of the Bible held above the rules, ethics and norms of society: the dignity—or perhaps better, the integrity—of a human being is something sacred, and something that each living soul possesses inherently; and this is a central message in many religions. The question is indeed, as Max Weber said in Politics as a Vocation: what is a human being? What does it take to be a meaningful, acting human being? How do we face our destiny, to live and to act, in this place, in this time, in this world, as single individualities2—here and now, as Rawls said. I am not arguing against Liberalism from a collectivist standpoint.

However, Voegelin would insist that the dignity of the single person is not easily perceived without a recognition of experiences of truth in transcendence. This insistence on transcendence is not a contrast to concreteness. To Voegelin it was exactly in the recognition of a “beyond” and a “below” that human existence, in the metaxy, could come to concrete, balanced fulfillment. Furthermore, the “personal” here should not be conflated with the Liberal/modern notion of the “private” citizen, who enters the public realm whenever it pleases him (or not) with his readymade set of ideas detached from what Voegelin saw, following the Classical tradition, as the personal and shared constitutive orientation towards reality. The Greeks called such private persons idiotes.

Third remark: Why Rawls is not a starting point

We find ourselves in a slippery terrain, and we find ourselves debating from various perspectives. We want to understand, empirically as well as normatively, the religion/politics nexus and we want to do so from the perspectives of history, social science and philosophy. It may here be worth bearing in mind that philosophy as a “foundational discipline” was in fact itself targeted by exactly the same historical/social forces of secularity and humanism that brushed away religion from its dominant role in grounding legitimacy. The religion/politics division (or, as I argued, contraction) was accompanied by a second “contraction” with equally serious consequences: that between philosophy and politics. This happened with most brutality in Protestant, Calvinist and Pietist Northern Europe, that corner of the World where modernity unfolded and then imploded. At more or less the same time, during the 17th century, the two sources of authority—revelation and philosophy—lost their public status. Already Erasmus argued how useless Aristotle was for us modern human beings, and while this critique was initially directed mostly towards classical thought (especially as interpreted in the scholastic traditions) it quickly developed into that more general anti-philosophical attitude so visible in the North still today. What we got instead—what the modern world is, or helplessly tries to cling onto—was a system of political power where authority was no longer to be guided by revelation or philosophy but jointly by scientific empiricism and ideology, by natural science and political ideology, while neither of these are themselves guided by philosophy or by religion. For Voegelin, philosophy and religion are not the same of course, but they both represent an opening toward truth as experience. We should at least ask what we may loose by closing the door on them.

On that note, Rawls’ work did indeed signal a return of philosophy to the heart of debates over public ethics and the normative grounding of political communities. But the problem with his position can now be pinned down with some precision: instead of returning to the origins of the problematic rejection of philosophy and revelation, and the horizons opened up to human beings via the religions of the book and ancient philosophy, Rawls’ thought, also in its mature formulation, re-positioned philosophy as a foundational discourse via a continuation of exactly those rationalist parameters, those “mechanical” 17th century abstracting models of human beings and society that almost nearly did away with both revelation and classical philosophy as a legitimate reference point. Rawls position, put briefly, stays within the horizon of modernity, departing from the tradition laid by the contract theorists (who paved the way by making the Covenant a secular “deal” among citizens and their rulers), building on the Kantian tradition of thought (in both form and substance), blending the political traditions of Liberalism, Republicanism and Socialism (themselves critical products of the Enlightenment) and of course taking up the strongly pragmatic tendencies that have characterized American philosophy, also in its embracing of religious and cultural pluralism. That is why I don’t think we can use Rawls as a starting point.

Eric Voegelin argued that the contemporary period was characterized by a “spiritual disorder” and a subsequent loss of a meaningful language. Voegelin’s call for a restoration of political science was likewise a recovery of classical philosophy. At the same time, the foundation upon which a public discourse and social order can be established cannot rest upon universal “principles” or timeless “propositions”, but must, as Voegelin argued in Anamnesis, be brought to bear on a philosophical anthropology which finds “the ordering centre of human personality in the experience of man’s relation to transcendent reality” (Voegelin as quoted in Ranieri 1999: 44). For Voegelin the disorder of the day could ultimately only be contrasted by types of symbolic representation of the world that preserved a vision of the world as ordered and meaningful—a cosmos and not a chaos; and such a vision can only flow from an openness toward the ground, an openness that according to Voegelin enables rational discussion and ethical behaviour.

Such an openness does not belong to any specific ideology or position, and it was not an invention of Voegelin. But Voegelin argued that its foundational importance had been recognized with the utmost clarity in the Classic experience. Alongside this recognition went an equally lucid diagnostic attempt to identify its opposite, namely the Promethean revolt against the divine ground, invariably leading to existential disorientation and alienation. In Reason: The Classic Experience (1990b: 7) Voegelin provided this overview of the situation:

“Heraclitus had distinguished between the men who live in the one and common world (koinos kosmos) of the logos which is the common bond of humanity (homologia) and the men who live in the several private worlds (idios kosmos) of their passion and imagination, between the men who lead a waking life and the sleepwalkers who take their dreams for reality (B 89); and Aeschylus had diagnosed the Promethean revolt against the divine ground as a disease or madness (nosos, nosema). In the Republic then, Plato used both the Heraclitian and Aeschylean symbols to characterize the states of attunement and closure to the ground as states of existential order and disorder. Still, it took the shattering experiences of ecumenic imperialism and, in its wake, existential disorientation as a mass phenomenon, to let the bond between reason and existential order arrive at conceptual fixation. Only the Stoics created the terms oikeiosis and allotriosis, translated by the Latins as conciliation and alienation, to distinguish between the two states of existence which respectively make the life of reason possible or condition disorders of the psyche”.

Voegelin’s position represents an alternative starting point to that of Rawls, one that perhaps merits more attention in our contemporary discussions. Voegelin’s insistence on transcendental experience was not a move toward supernaturalism but, quite the contrary, a way to be able to deal with reality. The idea of a good society implies to maintain, search and strive for the realization of inseparable ethical and aesthetical values in the concreteness of our life-worlds. And this striving cannot be reduced to procedural arguments or to a search for means to satisfy given ends, but must incorporate a discussion of the very ends of social and human life, the shared ideals and values toward which we as human beings direct our action and in so doing constitute our common life: politics, in the Socratic sense of the word, resting in the life of reason. In this sense, the problems with contemporary social and political thought, of which Machiavelli and Hobbes were simply early symptoms, started with the idea that the aim of politics is simply to establish a stable order, without any concern with meaning (Szakolczai 2010 with reference to Voegelin 1999: 153–5). The existential disorientation that follows cannot be dealt with unless it is recognized for what it is. Hence the relevance of Voegelin, and hence the relevance of reason in the classical experience.


There are very close parallels to Foucault’s focus, in the last years before his death, on parrhesia as a practice and way of life in ancient Greece and early Christianity; and this was taken up by Hadot in his understanding of philosophy as a way of life.


As Weber put it (2004: 92), “it is immensely moving when a mature man—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.'” In the same passage Weber argues that en ethics of ends and an ethics of responsibility stand in no contrast but supplement each other.



The author wishes to thank Tom Bailey for precious comments on earlier versions of this article.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012