The Novelty of Early Modern Immanentization

Voegelin is controversial to some Christians in that he locates some of the sources of the immanentizing reinterpretations in the New Testament itself, notably in some passages of St Paul and in the Revelation of St John. He points to Augustine as the one who saved the differentiational insights through his rejection of literalistic interpretations and the applications of the Biblical prophecies and visions to the course of worldly history which had been practiced by some of the earlier Fathers: the prophecies and visions must be considered mysteries, man cannot know precisely what they mean, they refer rather to events in relation to transcendence than to worldly history, and knowledge of the future course of the latter is beyond man.

Yet there can of course be no doubt about the novelty of the early modern immanentizers’ interpretive ingenuity. Francis Bacon and the British radical Puritans and their European advisors set about fulfilling the prophecies through scientific discovery, technical inventions, social engineering, and military conquest. The new elements were so prominent that the description of the new heavens and the new earth with the help of the Biblical texts was soon no longer credible. In the course of secularization, the apocalyptic disruptivity of divine intervention and the establishment of the Kingdom of God was replaced by a peaceful and gradual providential guidance of the individual, not to salvation through Christ but, through the use of the new worldly instruments, towards the realization of a secular, materialistic kingdom of human happiness defined in terms of sensual pleasure. Calculating, unaided human reason on the one hand, and increasingly sentimental human emotion on the other, could reach predictive knowledge of the providential plan, of God’s will.

The role of the esoteric tradition in the rise of modern science has become a commonplace in the history of science; during the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment it was to a considerable extent magic modes of thought, not least their impetus towards exploitative power and control, that came to dominate Western culture through official, political sanction and institutional embodiment. But other aspects of the influence of esotericism on Western modernity have only recently been better understood. The precise connections between the various strands of modern thought and the underlying, impersonalistic, pantheistic revolution have become much more easily visible.

It has become clearer, for instance, how in decisive respects the radical Enlightenment started already in the seventeenth century, mainly inspired by Spinoza. [See Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (2001).] With a better understanding of Spinoza’s esoteric connection, it has become possible to some extent to see him, like Hegel, as a link between Western esotericism and a secular modernity characterized by closed immanentism and moral relativism. In the emergence of the radical Enlightenment, the proclamations of atheism both alternate with and are prepared by a process of ingenious hermeneutic compromise, ambiguity, and dissimulation. Before the triumph of Newtonianism, Hobbes was forced to devote much of his Leviathan to scriptural exegesis, thus becoming a pioneer of the characteristic strategic devices of liberal Christian scriptural interpretation. And also more generally, the rejection of the differentiational framework took place through reinterpretation and not through a clean break with the concepts of the past. Yet the rejection was none the less radical for being gradual and deceptively roundabout in its method. [This account of early modern developments is found also, with more references to and discussion of recent scholarship of the esoteric tradition in modernity, in my ‘Idealism and the Pantheistic Revolution: The “Big Picture” and Why it is Needed’, in James Connelly and Stamatoula Panagakou, eds, Anglo-American Idealism: Thinkers and Ideas (2010).]

From the perspective of personality and differentiation, Spinoza, who carried on Hobbes’ project not least with regard to the understanding of scripture, must certainy be seen as a key thinker of modernity, since in him so many of the decisive early modern developments converged and culminated, and since his influence was quite as strong on the romantic wing of modernity as on the subsequent development of the rationalism which he himself represented. He is one of the prime releasers of the metaxical tension, one of the master closers of the differentiational gap. With the new, fashionable esprit de géométrie that his wild forerunners had lacked, Spinoza sought to show that God and nature are identical and spirit and matter strictly nothing but two aspects of the same thing. This was the consummate pantheistic synthesis of the Gnostic and Hermetic currents with Descartes’ rationalism and Hobbes’ irrational-mechanistic anthropology and reinterpretive scriptural exegesis.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi