One-Sided Differentiation and Spurious Re-Divinization

The process of differentiation established the anthropological, political, philosophical, and theological insights upon which structured order was founded in Western civilization: with the distinction – or the new kind of distinction – between immanence and transcendence, there followed not only a clearer awareness of the higher and lower potentialities of man, but, as we have seen, a number of other distinctions, dualities, opposites, and polar tensions which accounted for much of the spiritual, moral, and intellectual creativity of the West.

The various forms of modern pantheism, the mystical, the rationalistic, the romantic, the idealistic, and the materialistic, besides intermixing and engendering each other, have in common not only the loss of the metaxical status of the individual person but also a more general blurring of distinctions, a loss of hierarchy, structure, discernment, vertical dynamism. While the transcendence and the ontic logos of differentiated culture lay hidden in compact form in what, in the absence of full access to and comprehension of the great Eastern systems of thought could be perceived from what came to be the Western point of view as early pantheism, they were denied and rejected in the new pantheism of modernity. With them was denied the objective moral and axiological order which compact civilization too, in its own way, had affirmed, and which ultimately, in its differentiated apprehension, alone safeguards the moral space of the person.

The medieval tension of faith and reason was destroyed through the impact of the radical nominalism and the radical voluntarism which went far beyond the emphasis on individuality and will required by the insights regarding the person as the focus of differentiated existence. For the latter also required a synthesis with universality and rationality. Per definition, personhood united individuality with an element of universality. Radically separating the irrational transcendence of the deus absconditus from the immanent sphere and confining man to the latter, these late medieval currents, while correctly objecting to the onesidedly rationalist tendencies of scholasticism, led indirectly, in their extremism, rather to a new exclusive turning of man’s intellectual curiosity to the empirical manifold of sensual existence, and to the metaphysical scepticism that shaped the Renaissance. [The several different scholarly accounts of the nature and meaning of the transition from the ‘late medieval’ to the ‘early modern’ period that are discussed today are not always mutually contradictory.]

Modern rationalism was born as a response to or way out of this scepticism, and in stark opposition to late medieval and Reformation fideism. From the outset, it had the character of a voluntaristic reaction on the part of man to the new situation of radical uncertainty: human logical rationality was asserted as the standard and the organizing principle of a system of knowledge through which man was to control nature and his own worldly destiny. In Descartes’ system, God tended to be reduced to the role of guarantor of the validity of this system. And the rational, epistemological human subject that came to dominate modern philosophy was not as such or in itself the person; although some aspects of its focus on self-consciousness could be taken up by modern personalism, it normally represented, in exaggerated and distorted fashion, only one side of the rationality of personhood.

It is quite clear that nature de-divinized both by onesided or problematically elaborated differentiation and by the mentioned specific developments of early modernity was perceived to be open to the exploitation of modern science, and that this is one of the causes of the rise of the latter. But this analysis easily obscures the re-divinization that also entered as a decisive factor into the development of early modernity. Renaissance Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism was in many respects an important rediscovery or introduction in the West of traditional spirituality of the kind that ultimately has its roots in the Eastern tradition that remains imperfectly understood in the Voegelinian analysis of differentiation. Yet there was also often the tendency towards an affirmation of a too simple, and in some cases also a new kind of identification of God with nature and towards the unification of nature and man with the impersonal Godhead in these currents, as they sprang from traditions of onesided, more or less radical monistic mysticism. With regard to this, reinterpretation both of orthodox Christianity along the ancient Gnostic lines and of ancient Gnosticism itself was going on not only in the millenarian mass movements but also among the learned humanists.

By the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the divergence from orthodoxy was clearly perceived by both sides in what became a sharp conflict. But then, the pantheistic revolution was unstoppable. The differentiational structure was increasingly difficult to preserve for the learned idealists, as men like Agrippa, Bruno, Campanella, and Bacon endorsed the scientific revolution as an essential part of the realization of their interpretations of Hermetic teachings of the deification of man and of their ideas of utopian immanent perfectibility and nature’s paradisical instauration.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


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