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Eric Voegelin on the Ecumene and the Ecumenic Age

Via Jack Elliot and Bill McClain:


"The term ecumene, which refers to the humanly inhabited globe, signals an important breakthrough in the self-understanding of people living in this time [the ecumenic age]. The term appears in two separate contexts. It means first of all, the pragmatic ecumene which refers to the unification of all people, actual or potential, by imperial conquest, as in Polybius. It also can refer to the spiritual ecumene which refers to the unification of all humankind under one spiritual force [OH4: on the pragmatic ecumene see pp. 117-133, on the spiritual ecumene see pp. 134-144]. For example. spreading the gospel throughout the world was for Paul the spiritual equivalent of the pragmatic expansion of empires effected by their conquering armies. It led to the rise of Christianity as a new ecumenic religion in the West. In the third century in the East, Mani attempted to found another ecumenic religion based on his eclectic teachings which would have no regional limitations. And in the seventh century Mohammed attempted to combine religion with imperialism in the quest for the true ecumenic religion. The struggle for ecumenic truth, both spiritual and political, began its long course of human affliction on the battlefields of imperial expansion." [Morrissey 1994:98]

"The `ecumene' may be seen as a cosmological symbol that was redefined under the impact of the changes that occurred in the Ecumenic Age. The original term oikoumene, found in the Homeric epics, was part of a symbolism that linked it as a twin to the term okeanos. Oikoumene meant the inhabited world, the earth on which humanity dwells and from which it draws sustenance, while okeanos referred to a `horizon' marking the boundary between human habitation and the world beyond. Okeanos symbolized the penumbra of mystery separating life on earth from death and the gods. As the presuppositions on which this symbolism rested were destroyed, the concept of the ecumene was retained, but its meaning altered; a fragmentation of symbolism corresponded to the alienation of power and spirit we have previously seen. To Polybius, for example, writing in the second century B.C.E., the ecumene is the power field that is the scene of imperial conquest. It is simply a territory, the known inhabited area that can be made the object of imperial organization. In this pragmatic conception, what okeanos symbolized is completely eliminated, and the ecumene is reduced to a geographical expanse. The ecumenic religions, however, also possessed a concept of the ecumene, which reinvested it with a transcendent horizon. The religious ecumene was the potential range of converts (all of those currently living), and the assumption was that conversion would unify the ecumene regardless of what other differences remained. [OH 4:207-209]

"Both concepts had their deficiencies, but the pragmatic ecumene was particularly defective. The unity provided by conquest was, as we have seen, only a spurious one, and the conquest never succeeded in attaining its goal... In establishing an order transcending empire, the ecumenic religions solved this dilemma in principle, but the solution was compromised by their own ecumenic ambitions, which also were frustrated. They, too, found the ecumene a larger field than any one of them was able successfully to penetrate, and they encountered the further problem that ecumenicity is not identical with universality. Those man and women who inhabit the earth at any one time do not comprise the entirety of the human race; their predecessors and successors must also be taken into account...

"Ultimately the development of the ecumenical symbolism converges with historical consciousness. History becomes the substitute to take the place of okeanos. The combination of universal humanity and the process of reality become an equivalent to the obsolete oikoumene/okeanos [OH 4:308]." [Keulman 1990:149-150]

Ecumenic age

"According to Voegelin, the distinguishing feature of the Ecumenic Age is the fundamental division that emerged during this time between the temporal and the spiritual poles of existence. Under the pressures of imperial conquest the compact society of the cosmological empires differentiated into a society ordered by pragmatic and spiritual domains. With the attempt to encompass human reality under one umbrella... the essence of humanity is called into question by those who reflect on the new events. The emphasis of the question of order shifts from the political realm to the spiritual realm. This is so because 'the carriers of spiritual order tend to separate from the societies of their origin because they sense the unsuitability of the concrete society as a vessel for the universality of the spirit.' [OH4: 117] The new events require a new interpretation of the meaning of order and the meaning of the human being. From the disintegration of whole societies, explains Voegelin, 'new experiences of order, new symbolisms for their articulation, and new enterprises for their institutionalization were developed.' [OH4:134] In inchoate form, church and state began to emerge...

"So the pragmatic and the spiritual ecumenes, though distinct, were closely intertwined. The process by which these two ecumenic orders arose can be more clearly depicted in the following developments:

"1. There was the rise and fall of successive empires... which transformed the political landscape of the ethnic societies they overran into a sea of 'senseless misery...' Furthermore, there was a dearth of spiritual substance to unify the new social form because of the absence of a coherent cultural base.

"2. ...Out of this groundswell of turmoil a new realm emerged in which order was experienced. Since it could no longer be found in society, spiritual order was pursued independently from the political realm in personal existence. This contraction provided the fertile soil for the spiritual outbursts and the growth of religions. The one feature these spiritual outbursts held in common was the symbol of a universal humankind, conceived initially by prophets, mystics, and philosophers...

"3. This bifurcation of the pragmatic and the spiritual realms also promoted the alienation of consciousness from reality, as exemplified by gnosticism and apocalypticism. Given the meaninglessness and misery of history, it was easy to conclude that history itself is evil and needs to be overcome by escaping into another world away from this world...

"4. As ecumenic self-understanding developed, there emerged a missionary impulse among the philosophers and religious leaders who saw themselves as representatives of a truth valid for all humankind. What followed was a convergence of their aspirations with the pragmatic aspirations of the empire builders. The coincidence seemed providential. The purpose of an empire was to facilitate the spread of philosophical and religious truth to humankind. This is seen in the Stoic and Christian attitude toward the Roman Empire, which eventually reciprocated the embrace by adopting Stoicism as its philosophy and Christianity as its ecumenic religion. However, as already intimated, this reconciliation between pragmatic and spiritual order, which once again gave history a meaning, was won at a price. Because scripture and doctrine tended toward the objectification of truth they were liable to sever it from its experiential ground. For now the resulting dangers need only be recalled by name: hypostatization, dogmatization, relativization, secularization, egophanic revolt." [Morrissey 1994:97-99]

"[The Ecumenic Age] commences with the conquest of Media by the Persian Cyrus in 550 B.C.E. and extends to the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the sixth century C.E. The era thus begins and ends with imperialism, and empire-building is the central theme of its history. One after another, a succession of empires rise and fall, transforming the political landscape almost beyond recognition. In each instance, the imperial impulse appears, and a small, previously inconsequential society expands, mainly by force, into a huge multicivilizational structure. In the process, the traditional forms of political order are shattered...

"The perplexing factor about these empires was not merely their destructiveness; they also possessed little of an affirmative character to substitute for the societies they annihilated. In this sense, they were not societies at all. They lacked ethical substance because they had not coherent cultural basis... The only authentic purpose that was to be found in them was expansion, but expansion per se is hardly an adequate basis for a society. A certain dynamic in imperial expansion provided an answer of sorts to the problem of meaning, but it was not actually satisfactory. In every instance the expansion eventually came up against insurmountable natural limits, fell short of unifying the known world, and retracted. Eventually, therefore, the problem of meaning had to be confronted.

"The impact of this confrontation was profound. Entire societies were cast into the void. Not only did individual empires have little clearly defined identity and purpose, but the process of imperialism, the longer it continued, seemed pointless. The victims were increasingly left with a sense that history is a succession of events that lead nowhere. The result, typically, was that the realm in which order was sought contracted sharply. Since it could not be discovered in society, it was pursued independently of politics in personal life. This provided a fertile soil for the growth of religion, and explains why the Ecumenic Age was so extraordinarily fertile as the birthplace of religions. But it also promoted the alienation of many from reality, as exemplified by gnosticism and apocalypticism. From the meaninglessness of history it was not a major step to the conclusion that life itself is evil and must be overcome, and this was a step that more than a few were inclined to take.

"Such a loss of balance, however, was not inevitable. Not everyone fell victim to it, and gradually devices were developed to protect against it... The process of creating such protection was central to the development of the ecumenic religions, especially Judaism and Christianity. It entailed, on the one hand, the creation of scripture as a fixed corpus of sacred literature and, on the other, the elaboration of dogma as the authoritative interpretation of religious truth. The assumption was that, together, scripture and dogma would stabilize the truth revealed in the unique events of revelation, and that it could be passed on in a relatively integral form to persons well removed from the original revelation. A similar process took place in philosophy... Philosophy as well became doctrine ... [OH 4:36-43]

"...An ecumenical self-understanding developed among both philosophers and religious leaders: They perceived themselves as representatives of a truth valid for all, and acquired a missionary impulse. As this developed, they became sensitive to the parallel between their aspirations and those of the empire-builders, and they were led to the conclusion that this convergence was more than coincidence. It was providential: The purpose of empire had been to prepare the ground for the spread of religious and philosophical truth... [OH 4:134-137

"This linkage of pragmatic and religious history, in turn, facilitated the embrace of philosophy and the ecumenic religions by the empires. The eventual result of the marriage was ecumenic society--an entirely new social form that represented at least a measure of reconciliation between secular and religious order. This achievement was won, however, at a price, as has been indicated. The devices developed in the Ecumenic Age to safeguard an understanding of the meaning of human nature had the capacity to play another role. Because they tended to objectify this understanding, they were liable to cut it off from its experiential foundations. This entailed the risk of reducing the understanding to the status of a mere opinion that could be accepted or rejected as a matter of personal preference. [OH 4:43-44]

"This risk has been fully realized in recent history, and goes a long way toward accounting for the intellectual confusion of modernity. Much of the history of the modern period consists of a revolt against the symbols inherited from the Ecumenic Age. The meaning of these symbols was deformed through theological and metaphysical dogmatism. By adding more doctrine, however, the modern revolt only succeeded in compounding the problem, so that contemporary errors were stacked on top of medieval ones. The net result is a great block of accumulated symbols that serve only to eclipse reality. [OH 4:58]" [Keulman 1990:144-146]

"In the age of the first ecumenical empires, the first politico-spiritual realms that thought of themselves as worldwide in principle, the cosmological myth moved from essentially local overtones to nearly universal overtones. The rise of civilizations had changed the connotations of reality from the prehistoric human beings' sense of the force field of nature, the system of plants-animals-humans-gods, as experienced in one's local geography, to the more political field of one's enlarged social context, one's urbanized and then imperialized land-and-group. The new ecumenical empires, whose impetus to expand and conquer had no natural limitation, considerably extended this politicization of reality. In their new horizon of the whole inhabited world, the system of plants, animals, human beings, and gods grew dramatically more vast. "The differentiation one can see takes the line from small tribe, dominating and naming a small patch of territory; to larger city unit, dominating more territory and developing a richer culture; to empire potentially universal, enlisting or conscripting very diverse lands and people, with their perhaps new species of plants, animals, and gods... What originally had been a compact little ball of meaning was in each case rolled out, extended, to serve many more instances...

"Despite this differentiation, Persia and the other ecumenic realms remained outside the perspectives of revelation, philosophy, and modernity, with the partial exception of Greece, where philosophy essentially broke the comprehensiveness of the natural cosmos. Designations at this point are not hard and fast, but in Persia, Rome, and much of Greece, nature or the physical world continued to appear as a single living whole..." [Carmody 1987:39-40]


"Voegelin's term for the tendency of an imperial order (one that embraces a number of particular societies) to seek to attain genuine `universality' by extending its political domination throughout the ecumene (the full range of territory available for such domination)." [Webb 1981:280]