A Voegelin Tidbit– Disoriented Human Beings

Eric Voegelin

I’m always on the lookout for original thinking on the larger patterns of history, as a way to get a reading on where we are, and as a way to tell what time it is. Voegelin satisfies.

Here is a brief summary of one note I jotted while listening to an early-1970s recording of Voegelin himself, speaking on the meaning of history:

He says that history moves in three steps. First there is an era of order, which then invariably disintegrates, leading to (and this is the part I love) the “disordered construction of reality by disoriented human beings.” It’s as though the periods of disintegration create societies that suffer from a kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder, preventing them from returning to a (new) state of order. Voegelin’s metaphor for such a troubled society is the metaphor of “dis-orientation,” of aimlessness. To this apt metaphor he adds the insight that lost human beings construct realities that are distorted and disordered. We do this as a way to soothe, or to mask, or perhaps even as a futile attempt to annihilate, this nagging sense of lostness.

We 21st-century Americans are disoriented, and have constructed a disordered reality. That’s not to say that everything is going to hell in a handbasket tomorrow. It just means that general distrust– of others and of institutions– is growing; that our fetish for seeking security through state-sponsored violence and through unrestrained acquisitiveness is eroding our humanity; and that, despite historically unprecedented widespread material abundance, we rank strangely high in measures of unhappiness, like suicide rates and addictions.

In order to be healthy today, people must, to some degree, resist some (not all) of the attractions of the distorted reality in which we live and move.

.: The Eric Voegelin Institute :..

The Omnipotent Killjoy

Eric Voegelin, Political Philosopher and Historian

I had a conversation yesterday with the guy who washes dishes in the kitchen at the local high school. He told me about the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Intrigued– but not knowing much about him– I subsequently found the Eric Voegelin Institute website. If you want to hear thickly German-accented English, the website has mp3 files of cassette recordings that were made of Voegelin, in the early 1970s.

I listened for an hour. Although the recordings were made 40 years ago, Voegelin has something to say about the predicament we are in today. He characterizes the pathology of modernity as our turning away from God: not away from the god of Church or from the god of Religion, but away from God as the Ground of Being. Turned away from the Transcendent Source in this manner, we live in a state of  perpetual alienation, and are cut off from our own humanity. Some people believe we are most human when we leave God out of the picture; Voegelin is precisely the opposite. We find our full humanity when connected to the Ground of Being.

I’ll say it again: for Voegelin, a pinching or narrowing of our humanity happens when we are dis-connected from God. I love this, because he’s standing Freud on his head: the by-now popular view is that God is an overdeveloped moralistic superego, a kind of prissy prude shaking an accusatory finger at the life-force alive in us all. In short, per Freud, God is the Omnipotent Killjoy. Voegelin’s theological anthropology flips this: connection to God frees us to embrace all parts of our humanity, including the shamed parts. In this theology, God is a nurturing parent/wise mentor/passionate lover– not a scold.

via .: The Eric Voegelin Institute :..

The Discarded Image

CS Lewis is the subject of Carol  Zaleski’s  recent piece “Our Augustine” in The Christian Century. The occasion is the upcoming 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death, which will coincide with the dedication of a memorial to Lewis in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Most widely known as the creator of Narnia, Lewis was a smart convert to Christianity. In an age such as ours, when an individual must claim the intellectual basis for religious faith in a willful protest against the fundamental materialist assumptions of the wider culture, Lewis’s achievement endures. He thinks through religious disbelief, revealing its thinness and its holes, and emerges on the side of mystery. He comes out this way not through fuzzy thinking or gauzy sentiments, but through the clear light of reason.

Zaleski refers to a lesser-known collection of Lewis essays entitled The Discarded Image.  Her characterization of the “image” is this: it’s a “comprehensive vision of the universe as an ordered whole filled with meaning, knit together by an inner telos, and of the human person as a rational creature made in the image and likeness of God, fallen and redeemed.”

Much can be said about the meaning of this image, and the cosmos it describes. Among other things, the human being belongs in this cosmos, and has a special role to play in the working out of God’s purpose. Human life has meaning as part of the larger whole—a whole which, in Dante’s vision of heaven, is held by divine Love and unfolds as a Rose.

 We do not hold this image today—it has been, as the title of Lewis’s essays suggests, discarded; it has been replaced—at least in Western consumer culture— by the image of the human being as a bundle of appetites to be satisfied. Do not despair, however: it has always been this way. We have made idols since before the time of Moses. Every age needs a Lewis to remind us of the image in which we are made, and the life for which we are worthy.

Boston Marathon– Lost Innocence?

The Boston Marathon

I love the Boston Marathon. The spirit of the event is a resonant harmony of the freshness of the first warm days, the hope of early-season baseball, the perseverance of the runners, the lift of the cheering crowd, the helpfulness of the marathon volunteers, and the silliness of the soused– all of it wrapped into a ball of  joyful camaraderie that is fully lovely because widely shared. People come together on Marathon Monday in a way that calls forth our better nature: we cheer for each other, instead of harboring hidden envy. Your success is my success; my success is yours. Ubuntu.

Is the bombing really an end of innocence for the Marathon? I remember being in Hopkinton for the start of the race in April 2002, and I remember being on the lookout for suspicious bags and suspicious people. I wasn’t overanxious, afraid, or edgy– I was just aware of my surroundings, having had past trauma re-awakened the previous September. And while I am not a reporter and therefore don’t know this to be true, I imagine that Marathon and city officials rehearse for emergencies. In this era, it would be naive– even negligent– not to prepare for scenarios similar to what happened Monday.

I believe innocence is recoverable; I believe that there always exists the possibility of a second innocence rising up as a green shoot from dead earth. A second innocence will never be as pure as original innocence, but it might be richer: richer because a second innocence knows, and has some kind of working agreement with, the darkness and corruption in life. On the far side of injury, we re-open ourselves to love. We can, and do, begin again.

Perhaps Monday’s bombing was the end of a naivete about the Marathon, rather than the end of innocence. Naivete says: it can never happen here. Naivete says: I can guarantee 100% safety, all the time. Naivete says: there is a plane of existence that is exempt from the outrageously unfair. It’s right to grieve the loss of this naivete, even as we grieve for those who died, and for those who were injured in body, mind, and spirit.

On Marathon Monday next year it will be spring again, after a long winter. 25,000 runners will gather in Hopkinton, and half a million will line the route. The spirit of good will and mutual care will come alive again; again my success will be yours, and yours will be mine. What is this, if it is not innocence reborn: the willingness to share again a day that is beautiful and good, despite the memory of fear and grief; the willingness to come together again to celebrate the best of the human spirit, despite having experienced the worst? The spirit of the Marathon will have a shadow, and that shadow will add a dimension of sadness. Still– even with that sadness, and maybe perhaps even because of it– the spirit of the Marathon will be more abundantly filled with all the fullness of life.

Below is an excerpt and link to Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy’s column on the bombing:

More end to more innocence. One of our best days is forever tainted. The 117-year-old Boston Marathon will never be the same. The journey from Hopkinton to Boylston Street is now a 26.2-mile stretch of yellow police tape.

via Dan Shaughnessy: Patriots Day a sacred tradition taken away – Sports – The Boston Globe.

Go Pope!

Pope Francis Washing Feet on Maundy Thursday

“Love one another,” said Jesus on the night of the Last Supper, and as a sign of that love he washed the feet of his disciples. Pope Francis broke tradition and washed the feet of women last night. Given the great commandment of love, how could Jesus be displeased?

Go Pope!

HuffPost Religion’s report follows here:

ROME — In his most significant break with tradition yet, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of two young women at a juvenile detention center – a surprising departure from church rules that restrict the Holy Thursday ritual to men.

No pope has ever washed the feet of a woman before, and Francis’ gesture sparked a debate among some conservatives and liturgical purists, who lamented he had set a “questionable example.” Liberals welcomed the move as a sign of greater inclusiveness in the church.

Speaking to the young offenders, including Muslims and Orthodox Christians, Francis said that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion in a gesture of love and service.

“This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service,” Francis told the group, aged 14 to 21, at the Casal del Marmo detention facility in Rome.

“Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us,” the pope said. “This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty. As a priest and bishop, I must be at your service.”

via Pope Francis Offers Holy Thursday Foot Washing To Inmates In Casal Del Marmo Jail PHOTOS VIDEO.

Ash Wednesday and a Billy Collins Poem

To remember that we are ashes, and to ashes we will return, is a call back to our human life. It seems a little odd to be called back to the only kind of life we can have– that is, a human one– but the Ash Wednesday reminder addresses a beautiful (and sometimes very dangerous) silliness that is part of human nature: our tendency to forget that we’re not the center of the universe; to forget that we’re not gods; to forget that our time on earth is but a breath.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remembering in this way sounds, initially, like a death sentence. What it is, really, is a life sentence. Remembering that we are dust opens the door into fully inhabiting the lives we’ve been given, into living more completely into this place and time. We don’t have forever.

And so I offer Billy Collins’ poem “Nightclub.” I like it for Ash Wednesday because, like Ash Wednesday, it is a poem that reminds us who we are , and invites us to embrace our human foolishness as the doorway into a fully human kind of beauty.


You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don’t hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else’s can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o’clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.

Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.

Billy Collins

Pronouncing Blessings

Pronouncing blessings is a sign that our humanity is present. There is nothing religious– overtly or implicitly– about the following video (by Improv Everywhere, in New York); but in another way it is nothing but deeply religious, as people offer spontaneous benedictions on one another. Enjoy.