Immortality: Experience and Symbol (1967)
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Immortality: Experience and Symbol (1967) 147 From Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 12: Published Essays, 1966– 1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 52–95. [Voegelin opens this essay, which originated as his Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality delivered at Harvard Divinity School in January 1965, with the identification of “immortality” as one of the language symbols deriving from “varieties of religious experience,” a symbol specifically intending to convey an experienced truth “about nonexistent [i.e., real but non-­ thinglike] reality.” His principal concern in the essay is to explain that “immortality” is one of a large complex of symbols having their origin in the fact that human beings, while existing in time, experience themselves as also “participating in the timeless”; and that the meaning of such symbols is lost when they become cut off from their “engendering experiences,” with the result of this loss being both stale doctrinalism and the latter’s understandable dismissal by a “resistant skepticism.” Voegelin’s analysis demonstrates the vicissitudes that such language symbols have undergone historically, both in the ancient and in the modern era. Voegelin anchors his lengthy analysis in an anonymous Egyptian text from ca. 2000 B.C.E.—­ allowing him to show the persistent relevance both of experiences of the timeless and of alienation from a society disordered by unsuccessful mediation of divine truth—­ and amplifies it with material drawn from Plato, St. Augustine, and T. S. Eliot.—Eds.] 148 part three | philosophizing in modernity I Immortality is one of the language symbols engendered by a class of experiences to which we refer as the varieties of religious experience . This term is perhaps no longer the technically best one but it has the advantage of a great precedent, especially here at Harvard. Hence, its use will be convenient to secure, I hope, a common and immediate understanding about the subject matter of inquiry. The symbols in question intend to convey a truth experienced. Regarding this intent, however, they suffer from a peculiar disability . For, in the first place, the symbols are not concepts referring to objects existing in time and space but carriers of a truth about nonexistent reality. Moreover, the mode of nonexistence pertains also to the experience itself, inasmuch as it is nothing but a consciousness of participation in nonexistent reality. As Heb. 11:1 has it: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things unseen.” And finally, the same mode also pertains to the meaning of the symbols, as they convey no other truth than that of the engendering consciousness. We have spoken, therefore, of a truth experienced rather than of a truth attaching to the symbols. As a consequence, when the experience engendering the symbols ceases to be a presence located in the man who has it, the reality from which the symbols derive their meaning has disappeared. The symbols in the sense of a spoken or written word, it is true, are left as traces in the world of sense perception, but their meaning can be understood only if they evoke, and through evocation reconstitute, the engendering reality in the listener or reader. The symbols exist in the world, but their truth belongs to the nonexistent experience which by their means articulates itself. The intangibility of the experience just adumbrated exposes the symbols and their truth to strange vicissitudes of history. Because of the vanishing substratum, even the most adequate exegesis and articulation of an experience can achieve no more than symbols which remain as the exterior residue of an original full truth comprising both the experience and its articulation. As soon, however, as the symbols have separated from this fullness and acquired the status of a literary account, the intimate tension between a reality engendering and symbols engendered, holding in balance the 149 immortality: experience and symbol identity and difference of the two poles, is liable to dissociate into a piece of information and its subject matter. There is no guarantee whatsoever that the reader of the account will be moved to a meditative reconstitution of the engendering reality; one may even say the chances are slim, as meditation requires more energy and discipline than most people are able to invest. The truth conveyed by the symbols, however, is the source of right order in human existence; we cannot dispense with it; and as a consequence, the pressure is great to restate the exegetic account discursively for the purpose of communication. It may be translated, for...