Thoughts on Israel and Revelation

An Important Book:  Israel and History by Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin, philosopher and historian,is not considered a religious thinker; as a result he may receive less attention from religious students than he merits.

The basic argument of Eric Voegelin’s entire Order and History series, of which this volume was the first, is simply stated elsewhere by him:

““The life of people in a political community cannot be defined as a profane realm, in which we are concerned only with legal questions and the organization of power.  A community is also a realm of religious order.” (“The Political Religions)

He identifies Israel as the first civilization to develop a conscious sense of its existence in relation to both time and a God acting through time.   This was a breakthrough, a “leap in being” for a world with generally cosmological perspectives: eternal earth and sky, universe and kingdoms, all revolving around a central sun or king-god, with time moving (if at all) in great cycles.

EV has a reputation as a difficult read, and there is something in that.  He uses terms that I have to look up, and certain terms that he uses in a unique way.  Best known of these is “immanentizing the eschaton,” by which he means hurrying up the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the apocalyptic transformation of the world.  Most insightful for me is his use of “gnosticism” to describe modern political ideologies, especially Marxism.

His great summation of the modern/modernist crisis is contained in The New Science of Politics:

“The death of the spirit is the price of progress.  Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered.  This Gnostic [ideological] murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization.  The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit.  And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline…Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization”

In Israel and Revelation he sees the Hebrew Exodus from cosmological Egypt as the beginning of the discovery of history.

“When the spirit bloweth, society in cosmological form becomes Sheol, the realm of death; but when we undertake the Exodus and wander into the world, we discover the world as the Desert. The flight leads nowhere, until we stop in order to find our bearings beyond the world. When the world has become Desert, man is at last in the solitude in which he can hear thunderingly the voice of the spirit that with its urgent whispering has already driven and rescued him from Sheol.”

Thus Israel began its journey with God, a journey that would reach its anticlimax in the Prophets:

“On its pragmatic wandering through the centuries Israel did not escape the realm of the dead.  In a symbolic countermovement to the Exodus under the leadership of Moses, the last defenders of Jerusalem, carrying Jeremiah with them against his will, returned to the Sheol of Egypt to die.  The promised land can be reached only by moving through history, but it cannot be conquered within history.  The Kingdom of God lives in men who live in the world, but it is not of this world.”

“And the climax of the Exodus, the actual establishment of the new dispensation through the Berith [covenant], is not at all a happy ending but the very beginning of the perpetual rhythm of defection from, and return to, the order of human existence in the present under God.”

He goes on to analyze Israel’s schizophrenia over the issue of monarchy.  “The relationship between the life of the spirit and life in the world is the problem that lies unresolved at the bottom of the Israelite difficulties.” (And our own difficulties as well.)

He compares the Israelite difficulty with the Christian inverse problem.

“In Christianity the logia [words, teachings]of Jesus, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, had effectively disengaged the meaning of faith, as well as the life of the spirit, from the conditions of a particular civilizational order. The separation was so effective indeed that the loss of understanding for the importance of civilizational order was a serious danger to many Christians.  While the Prophets had to struggle for an understanding of Yahwism [Judaism] in opposition to the concrete social order of Israel, a long series of Christian statesmen, from St. Paul to St. Augustine, had to struggle for an understanding of the exigencies of world-immanent social and political order…The Prophets had to explain that social success was not a proof of righteousness before God; the Christian thinkers had to explain that the Gospel was no social gospel, redemption no social remedy, and Christianity in general no insurance for individual or collective prosperity.”

EV’s consideration of the 10 Commandments was for me an eye-opener.

“The author of the Decalogue has discerned the human desire to create a manageable God,” and yet the Decalogue is “animated by the insight that right order will somehow grow in a community when the attunement to the hidden divine being is not disturbed by human self-assertion.  Since it does not issue positive rules, either cultic or moral, the field remains wide open, in both respects, for civilizational growth.  Nevertheless, the Decalogue restrains and directs the growth by its injunctions against rebellious existence.”

My review of this book was sparked by a recent reading on, a great source of inspiration.  On Feb. 1 they re-printed an essay by Dennis Praeger first published 25 years ago in Crisis magazine.  (Link here.)“Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality” got me thinking about the revolutionary uniqueness of Israel’s contribution to human thinking and history.  And that reminded me of Voegelin.


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