For as a result of the loss of reality, human action turns into a phenomenon that can no longer be understood by means of such reality-charged categories as “destiny.” Even the term action misses its mark, since action in the sense of classical ethics is oriented by means of the existential tension towards the ground, while action minus this orientation becomes nonaction. The social advancement of symbols like “activism,” “decisionism,” “terrorism,” and “behavior” is symptomatic for the need to find adequate words for the experience of reality-forsaken, world-immanent conduct in its active and passive varieties. Insofar as political events drop down to the level of unhistorical “nonsense” (madness), it can indeed no longer be interpreted by symbols that have originated in consciousness’ center of order and its exegesis; new terms are required in order adequately to describe the pneumopathological phenomena of the “loss of reality,” which we prefer to the accurate, but fuzzy, “nonsense” (madness). ~Eric Voegelin, “The Consciousness of the Ground,” Anamnesis
Voegelin tells us that action without orientation and purpose is not really action. This can help remind us why so much human activity for strictly immanent ends is not fully efficacious and never properly expresses the nature of the person who acts. In this sense, anyone who ‘acts’ for immanent ends only not only fails to act as he should but indeed fails to act all together. I would add that the most frenetically busy and ‘active’ societies thus tend to be spiritually and morally the most shallow and hollow, and they, in fact, betray their fundamental inactivity in this sense because of the lack of natural purpose according to which they do so much. Such societies are aware at some level of their own hollowness and continue to ‘act’ as they do to escape the dreariness, ennui and spiritual boredom that threaten to settle upon them at every moment, and the pursuit of distraction and entertainment finds these societies attempting to find refuge from useless activity in still more useless activity.
The reason is not simply that action not directed towards the transcendent is ethically misguided, but that it is ethically misguided because it is ontologically impoverishing. Thus it comes to the point where action even ceases to be action properly called because it is not directed to the expression or fulfillment of nature and does not seek the divine. As Voegelin understands it, by way of the classical philosophers, nothing that exists is ever really only immanent, and ideologues who believe this to be so deny the fundamental roots of their being, what Voegelin refers to as the “divine ground” (as it is rendered in the English translation). The tension between the “dedivinized world” and the “divine ground” always exists, and our participation in the divine is also constant (not least because it is ontologically necessary).
Participation in Being as the source of our being is a well-worn theme in philosophy, though its finds relatively little favour in modern philosophy or post-Carolingian Western theology. The last prominent Latin theologian to grapple seriously with the idea of this sort of participation in Being was, I believe, Eriugena, and in the following centuries there was the conflict between defining God as essentia and positing created participation in esse. This is why, as much influence as Pseudo-Dionysios possessed in many ecclesiastical structures, administrative and physical, orders of Being in their totality as Neoplatonists and their Christian adapters imagined them had less and less influence on Western thought. This rejection of participation works to sever our essential connection to Being in our consciousness, and it would purport to limit our participation in Being. It is to reduce God to Cause only, without retaining the possibility of participation in His Being. This would be to encourage a false impression that such participation does not occur, and that man does not participate, and is not capable of participating directly, in the transcendent, which we might also call the uncreated (as there could be, in theological systems, incorporeal realms that would still be created and thus in some sense immanent).
That move away from participation in Being is also why Western theologians for the longest time, even till today, have been somewhat baffled by or disdainful of the ontology of Orthodox mystical theology with its distinction between divine essence and divine energy, even as this distinction preserves the possibility of understanding that we are ontologically rooted in the existence of God without any risk of pantheism and its attendant confusion of uncreated and created. If I understand Voegelin aright, his ontology and that of the Orthodox Fathers are quite compatible, albeit perhaps not perfectly so, and his conception of the “loss of reality” is in substantial agreement with the Orthodox understanding of the Fall as alienation from our proper nature and a falling away from Life and Being. This would not be to make the outlandish claim that Voegelin’s thought is Orthodox, or that there are not be conflicts between Orthodoxy and Voegelin’s ideas (there would almost have to be), but that the Orthodox consideration of the human predicament in existential terms as well as the understanding of our ontological rootedness in Divine Being and our direct participation in God finds unexpected, but not necessarily surprising, support and corroboration, so to speak, from one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century.
Lest I am accused of meditating on things all together too theoretical and impractical, I will add a few remarks on how we can see this pathological condition, as Voegelin refers to it, of the “loss of reality” in the contemporary scene. We find it most clearly and pointedly expressed among the ideologues of our time, for whom the denial of reality is essential. Voegelin had an excellent observation on this phenomenon in particular:
At this point, however, the intellectual grotesque, which originates in the misunderstanding of Aristotle’s symbols, enters into a phase that materially must be recognized as its final phase, inasmuch as the reality of reality, about the truth of which man historically is concerned, is simply denied. The characteristic result is the appearance of symbols like “the end of history” and “the point of existence,” in which the experience of existence without reality is groping for an expression. The horrid consequences of the denial of reality for the order of society in the age of ideology are well known to everybody.
Since Voegelin wrote this essay in 1966, he could not, of course, have been referring to the “end of history” reference more familiar to younger readers, namely Francis Fukuyama’s laughable claim in a 1990 article that history had ended with the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism as the last possible conceivable alternatives for the organisation of human society. Voegelin was familiar, however, with Marxist, chiliastic and apocalyptic ends of history (which Voegelin famously described as attempts to “immanentize the eschaton”), from which neoconservatism assuredly has borrowed its bizarre notions, and among them all the mentality of the ideologue may be found. Most famous of all, I suppose, is the report from last year in which an administration official assured the reporter that “we make our own reality.”
I believe that, had Voegelin heard this comment, it would have had far more meaning for him than a simple expression of hubris and delusion, dangerous as that is in itself. This is a claim either that there is no transcendent reality, which allows them to believe they can manipulate things to exist as they wish them to (and that they, the ideologues, are masters of the immanent world), which is probably what was implied, or that they claim to be lords of transcendental reality as well, in which case we would need to have them locked up for genuine madness. Looked at slightly differently, it is a claim that there is no actual aletheia, which can mean both reality and truth, but that they construct aletheia. If Mr. Bush’s Christian supporters noted or could understand the implications of this view evidently held by members of his administration, and most likely by Mr. Bush himself, they might begin to grasp the profound impiety, blasphemy and falsehood of the ideology Mr. Bush has endorsed and the mentality about the transcendent and truth that this ideology fosters. It is, or ought to be, axiomatic for a Christian that such contempt for the truth is contempt for Christ, Who is the Truth. If they understood this, they might see that, in addition to the injustice and immorality of the war so many of them still reflexively endorse, the entire ‘intellectual’ position defending the interventionist project generally is rooted in an insane assault on transcendental reality, which in our terms would be to say it is nothing other than a war against God.
However, Voegelin’s remarks remind us that the ideologues among us are only the worst of those who deny reality, because this denial of reality is not simply the practical one of politically committed individuals ignoring contrary evidence that embarrasses or otherwise impedes their cause. That practical response to adverse consequences is surely a part of any power politics in any age, but it is exaggerated and intensified by ideological commitments that not only make adherents impervious to contradictory evidence but require a denial that there is a transcendent reality that is in no way mutable or within their control.
Committed ideologues are perfectly happy to find willing collaborators among self-styled religious people, even ‘religious conservatives’, as these help to conceal the ideologues’ hatred of transcendence, and they may even dress up their ideas in pseudo-religious language so long as it is useful. Some ideologues will occasionally create pseudo-transcendental states, such as a vague promise of “freedom” (“nur der Freiheit gehoert unser Leben…”) with which they hope to dupe the crowd, but even in their most extreme forms these substitutes presuppose that there is no actual transcendental reality and any ‘transcendence’ to be achieved is entirely man-made. Modern ideologies can only aspire to dominate a purely immanent universe, and the existence of the transcendent mocks the sheer absurdity and emptiness of that aspiration.
This is the real reason why, far more than eliminating rival centers of loyalty and power (although this is not irrelevant), committed ideologues hate any form of serious, traditional religion, because such religion is usually the representative of a transcendental reality that no modern ideologue can ever acknowledge or accept for two reasons: it is not part of his closed system, and therefore something he cannot alter or control as he sees fit, and its existence exposes his project in its ultimate finitude and futility. Nonetheless, to the extent that very many modern people accept a life largely of “reality-forsaken, world-immanent conduct” they have embraced the same fundamental denial of reality that is expressed to a higher degree in the truly reality-bereft ravings of neoconservatives.