The Gospel and Culture (1971)
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The Gospel and Culture (1971) 245 From Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 12: Published Essays, 1966–1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 172–213. [“To save the honor of philosophy” Voegelin accepted an invitation to lecture, as a contemporary philosopher, on “The Gospel and Culture ,” the result being this lengthy essay on the heart of the Christian message. From a philosopher’s perspective, he addresses the problem of “the Word’s difficulty to make itself heard in our time and, if heard at all, to make itself intelligible to those who are willing to listen.” In order to place the problem in a historical context, he describes the problems that affect the human search for the ground of existence due to the twin processes of deculturation and doctrinalization. He explains that the Word of the Gospel is not mere “information” to be considered as if it were a proposition about historical events, but rather an answering response to the human search about the meaning of life and death, a response arising from “a movement of divine presence” both in Jesus and in anyone who recognizes this “saving tale” as speaking to his or her tension of existential seeking. Finally, he analyzes the “equivalence” of the experiences of the Unknown God symbolized by the Gospel and its “saving tale” with the corresponding experiences and symbols of classic philosophy . He emphasizes the “noetic core” that is common to their experiential “movements of search and discovery,” while also carefully delineating their differences—­ in the end, explaining that the Unknown God revealed through Christ is the conclusion of a long “historical drama of revelation” beginning in cosmological cultures 246 part four | philosophy and the open soul and radically advanced through the differentiating symbolizations of classical philosophy.—Eds.] The Steering Committee has honored me with the invitation to give a lecture on “The Gospel and Culture.” If I have understood the intention of the committee correctly, they wanted to hear what a philosopher has to say about the Word’s difficulty to make itself heard in our time and, if heard at all, to make itself intelligible to those who are willing to listen. Why could the gospel be victorious in the Hellenistic-­ Roman environment of its origin? Why did it attract an intellectual elite who restated the meaning of the gospel in terms of philosophy and, by this procedure, created a Christian doctrine? Why could this doctrine become the state religion of the Roman Empire? How could the church, having gone through this process of acculturation, survive the Roman Empire and become the chrysalis, as Toynbee has called it, of Western civilization?—­ And what has blighted this triumphant cultural force, so that today the churches are on the defensive against the dominant intellectual movements of the time, and shaken by rising unrest from within? Quite an order, I must say. Still, I have accepted it—­ for what use is philosophy if it has nothing to say about the great questions which the men of the time rightly may ask of it? But if you consider the magnitude of the challenge, you will understand that I can promise no more than an humble attempt to justify the committee ’s confidence and to save the honor of philosophy. I I have pointed the initial questions toward the issue of gospel and philosophy, and I shall begin by presenting an early and a recent instance in which the issue has become thematic. By absorbing the life of reason in the form of Hellenistic philosophy , the gospel of the early ekklesia tou theou has become the Christianity of the church. If the community of the gospel had not entered the culture of the time by entering its life of reason, it would have remained an obscure sect and probably disappeared from history; we know the fate of Judaeo-­ Christianity. The culture of reason, in its turn, had arrived at a state that was sensed by eager young men as an impasse in which the gospel appeared to offer 247 the gospel and culture the answer to the philosopher’s search for truth; the introduction to Justin’s Dialogue documents the situation. In the conception of Justin the Martyr (d. ca. 165), gospel and philosophy do not face the thinker with a choice of alternatives, nor are they complementary aspects of truth which the thinker would have to weld into the complete truth; in his conception, the Logos of the gospel is rather...