Catching a glimpse of God or descending into hell

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Johanna Prader: Der gnostische Wahn. Eric Voegelin und die Zerstörung menschlicher Ordnung in der Moderne ISBN 978-3-85165-725-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Michael Henkel: Eric Voegelin. Eine Einführung. ISBN 978-3-88506-976-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The rise of autocratic politicians to power, the mobilization of masses for openly xenophobic or racist ideas, the radicalization of young people through extremism – this is something that deeply troubles me. My country was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940. Jews started to disappear soon afterwards. A few Luxembourg citizen openly supported the Nazi party. Some helped to implement the antisemitic ideology simply by turning a blind eye to what was happening. Few had the courage to actually do something about it. For me it is clear where the rise of autocratic and discriminating ideologies can lead to. We have been there before. In Germany, in the Soviet Union. In South Africa. In Ruanda.

But what are the mechanisms behind the mobilization of masses for extremist ideas? Why doesn’t mankind learn from history? I found answers in the works of a philosopher and political scientist who stood at the very beginning of the scientific institute where I studied political science: Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), the founder of the Institut für Politische Wissenschaften at the University of Munich. Voegelin’s works focus on the parallels between religion – creed would be the better word – and political ideologies. He left Germany in 1938 after he had spoken out against any ideology, be it based on race biology or on the struggle of classes, and made himself an enemy of the Nazis. He moved to the United States and came back after World War II to found the said scientific institute where I spent many hours between 1989 and 1994.

“God is dead”

Voegelin has become known as a virulent critic of modernity. “God is dead”, Zarathustra says in Friedrich Nietzsche’s monumental work “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, and that is part of the problem. According to Voegelin, humanity has gradually weakened the link between its political reality and the transcendental element, the concept of God. Humanity has since the Enlightenment tried to put man in the center of its world and tried to ignore that rationality can not give an answer to existential questions like the purpose of life. According to Voegelin however, man always has a longing for a transcendental idea, a longing for a creed, and at the beginning of the 20th century it has found it in communism, fascism and – to some degree – in liberalism.

Voeglin’s world where religion, philosophy and political science become interdependent disciplines is a fascinating one, although his works request some background knowledge of Europe’s history of ideas and of Europe’s philosophy. And that’s why I wanted to present here two books that are a short-cut into Voegelin’s world. Michael Henkel’s book is as much a biography as it is an introduction to the different concepts that Voeglin explores in his books: Austria’s autocratic constitution of 1934, religion and politics, the need for a new type of political sciences, gnostic sects as precursors of modern extremist ideologies, themselves necessary and sufficient condition for political system resulting in the violent oppression of non-believers.

Johanna Prader’s book focuses on the one concept at the center of Voegelin’s thinking: the gnosis. This concept has its origin in sects that saw the light at the same time as Christianism started to spread. It is characterized by a dualistic view of the world, a world divided into good and bad. The bad world being the one we live it at a given moment in time, the good world is an ideal construction that adherents to gnostic ideas want to build. They believe in a necessary apocalypse that must occur before the good world becomes a reality and they see themselves as the driving force behind an evolution towards this final battle.

St John, Marx, Hitler

And if this seems familiar, you are right. Such views are expressed in the Gospel of St John. Such views are expressed in Karl Marx’ “Das Kapital”. Such views are expressed in Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. While the Bible acknowledges the existential link between Man and God, the later two ideologies are anthropocentric and have replaced God by an idealized and inflated concept of man’s abilities.

Voegelin’s works have captured my interest, and I will dig my way through some of his works over the next months, without bothering the readers of this blog however. It is interesting to speculate about what Voegelin would think about political Islam, the rise to power of Donald Trump, a person – not even a politician – standing exclusively for his own, personal interests. Philosophy takes an ironic twist here. Voegelin assessed the British and the American society as the only modern societies having maintained the link to the transcendental element. If Voegelin could study Theresa May’s Not-so-United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s Even-less-United States, he would probably have been terrorized and scraped parts of his theory.

It’s all rather depressive, isn’t it? Relief is at hand. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially his Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, allows me to catch a glimpse of God (if he exists!) and keep the spectre of apocalypse at bay:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry