Turn on the evening news. Look at the craziness of American politics or, for that matter, the dysfunctional politics of so many nations. Look at the lies and deceptions of people in power. Look at the state of the world with its violence, it rising authoritarianism, its threat of nuclear war, its patriarchy. Consider the plight of other animals, too, and of life on Earth. Don't forget global climate change.
Place yourself in the situation of someone who, in a moment of honesty and despair, feels within the depths of her bones that there is no place to retreat to: no heaven, no inner self, no harmony of harmonies, no future utopia. There is no resting place: past present, or future. Heaven has been lost. What there is, and all there is, is the moment-to-moment reality of living and dying in a world that feels, and perhaps is, insane.
Imagine further that this moment of honesty and despair, is not simply a passing mood to get over, but rather a revelation, a disclosure, of the way things really are, in light of current historical realities. There may have been a time when, culturally speaking, there was a resting place. But now that resting place, if it ever existed, no longer exists. Think of God as a kind of anchor for life. Speak of this cultural-historical reality as "the death of God."
Of course you know that, even now, people still use the word "God" and go to worship services; they still act as if the universe rests within a stable order or within the heart of a divine Orderer who is in control of things. But the truth of the matter is that there is no one in control, just as there is no place of retreat. There is only the bottomless flux of life itself, in its beauty and violence, its tenderness and hatred.
What to do?
You can, if you wish, hide from the bottomlessness and return to images of a center, a still point, around which the world turns. You can will yourself back into belief in God. Indeed, if the idea that no one is in control rings true to you, you might turn to ways of thinking about God that emphasize God's not being in control: for example, Thomas Oord's The Uncontrolling Love of God, or the many examples that come from open and relational and process theology, all of which point in this direction. You might then focus on how this uncontrolling God is present throughout the flux as a lure for creative becoming, and how this God is likewise an eternal companion to the world's joys and sufferings.
But it seems to you that this turning toward a new image of God bypasses and misses the existential point that, God or no God. nothing is in control. There is no pre-written script and no guarantee of a final outcome. The focus, you believe, should be on this point. You need to live deeply into this strange new world, which seems true to the dynamics of history.
You then step forward into a strange kind of faith that refuses to cling to false certainties and securities, and refuses to cling to any images of God. You have become a Christian atheist.
Yours is a faith without foundations that is honest to the present and through its honesty, makes space for something new to emerge in life and in history. Your honesty, your refusal to hide in false certainties and securities, instantiates a spirit of creative transformation, seen also in Jesus: precisely because it is open to the new. In Christ in a Pluralistic Age, John Cobb speaks of this spirit of creative transformation as Christ. As a Christian atheist you say: "I don't believe anything is in control of things; I don't believe in God; but I want to be open to Christ as a spirit of creative transformation at work in the world. I believe that, if we are honest to the apocalypse we are now undergoing, without crossing our fingers with the expectation that something better is coming, we are walking with Christ."
John Cobb on Thomas Altizer 
"Altizer’s theological convictions show not only passionate faith, but incomparable spiritual strength and courage as well. The theological program to which Altizer enjoins us is a task that only a few people have attempted or accomplished. First, we must unequivocally renounce one’s individual selfhood as the center and ground of consciousness and experience. This proposal in itself is exceedingly difficult for many of us to comprehend, let alone instigate; for, in order to combat the onslaught of modern alienation, many of us have withdrawn to the refuge of the inner "self." The irony, however, is that once there, we discover that we have only intensified our alienation.
Second, we must give up completely any hope of heaven or utopia, the womb or the Garden. In essence, we are called to reject all concepts of a primordial homeostasis; for, according to Altizer, all such yearnings contradict the fundamental movement of the sacred and what Blake called the great "Humanity Divine." Again such a demand threatens our security and our deepest desires for a lost paradise. We must realize that this applies not only to the most fundamentalistic Christian but also to the most doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist. Perhaps we will come to realize, despite the passionate convictions of a Blake, a Nietzsche, or an Altizer, that only a few people have had the strength or the courage to will the "final and total loss of Heaven"; that most of us will inevitably cling to visions of utopia and will persistently deny the dialectical movement of the sacred and the New Jerusalem that Altizer claims is dawning in our midst and in our flesh."
In an attempt to understand Altizer, it is misleading to say that the death of God refers to a cultural phenomenon. Of course it does, but to state matters in that way implies that there is something else with which cultural phenomena could be contrasted, such as a metaphysical reality. For Altizer, what happens in culture, most fundamentally understood, is the metaphysical reality. This identity of history and metaphysics is what unites him with Hegel.
* Whether God is now alive or dead is not a function of my private opinion on the subject. As individuals, we are caught up in a movement of history about which we do not personally decide. It is given to us. And at its deepest level it is constituted by a concretely experienced reality. That reality is obscured by our inherited beliefs and habits. It is laid bare for us by the spiritual giants of our time. In retrospect, we can often these visionaries with some accuracy. To judge our own time is always a risk. Altizer is convinced, however, that the judgment of the death of God is now overwhelmingly evident. On the other hand, and with far less obvious justification, he believes that Christ is very much alive; that, indeed, he constitutes the life of our history. The fact that this is not widely recognized is no evidence of its falsity. 
For the Christian atheist the "death of God" refers to an existential reality in which there is no possibility of retreating or taking refuge in an ultimate standpoint. If we take the "death of God" seriously, we must relinquish any sense of an 'inner self' as the measure of all things and we must give up any sense of returning to a lost paradise or arriving at an as-yet-unrealized utopia. Indeed, so Altizer proposes, we must will the "final and total loss of Heaven." We cannot retreat to a place of return or arrival, and we cannot retreat to inwardness either. We can only walk in radical faith.
My own faith is not atheistic in this sense. I am among those who believe in, and am at home with, a loving God who is not in control of current historical events. In truth, I think there is a harmony of harmonies in which all things are folded. I think I still believe in Heaven.
But, like Cobb, I see myself as lacking a certain kind of courage that is worth appreciating and learning from. There is, and needs to be, a shock at the heart of faith: a shock that there is no final script, save the decisions we make, moment by moment, to live honestly and lovingly, as best we can, without crossing our fingers and secretly saying to ourselves "everything is OK." There is an openness in Altizer's atheism that is, arguably, much more Christian than my own theism. In that openness we find a gospel of Christian atheism. In that openness, says John Cobb, Christ is present in God's absence.
- Jay McDaniel
 The paragraphs above are from John Cobb's introduction to The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response. The essay is reprinted in full below. In the above, I have taken the liberty to replace his masculine pronouns with what I hope is a more gender-inclusive "people." He wrote the essay in the mid-1960's; his language is now quite different. But the points Cobb makes are as telling today as they were then.
Thomas Altizer and the Death of God
John Cobb's Appreciation
The essay by John Cobb below is his introduction (co-authored with Nicholas Gier) to a book of essays Cobb edited called The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response. The book consists of essays from a wide range of scholars in a thoughtful attempt to understand and clarify Thomas Altizer’s “Death of God” theology. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1970. it is used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock and is reposted from Religion Online.
The late ‘60s in this country will be remembered in theology chiefly for the remarkable public attention directed to radical theology and especially to the idea of the death of God. Paul van Buren, William Hamilton, Gabriel Vahanian, and others shared the spotlight of national attention, but Thomas J. J. Altizer was the most prominent figure. In these last few years he has been the most widely and most heatedly discussed American theologian. Not only has Altizer’s theology been the most widely discussed, it has also been the most influential. The furor over the "death of God" has altered the theological climate in America irreversibly. As late as the early ‘60s, some form of Biblical theology or neo-orthodoxy was the point of departure for most theological discussion. As the decade closed, these movements appeared to have chiefly historical interest. Even those whose present positions have developed from them -- such as Langdon Gilkey, Gordon Kaufman, Dietrich Ritschl, Thomas Oden, and Peter Berger -- now address themselves in a quite different way to what they recognize as a quite different situation. Much of this change was already incipiently occurring, of course, or the response to Altizer’s challenge would not have been so dramatic. Nevertheless, it required public discussion to bring into dominance the mood of radicalism. For that public discussion, Altizer has major responsibility.
The claim that Altizer has been the most influential American theologian in the past few years would collapse if it meant that he was the most widely followed or even read! Although he has rejoiced to lead in the shattering of the apparent consensus of the past generation, there remains a gulf between his vast influence in negation and the limited response to his constructive solution of theological problems. Many have agreed that in our time honesty requires that we be atheists, but few have had any appreciation for the remarkable form of "atheism" Altizer actually proposes. His influence has encouraged the emergence of an ethical Christian humanism that is poles removed from his own theology.
A third claim is more subjective than the first two, but still widely acceptable: Altizer is also the most original and creative American theologian of this period. For this reason the lack of understanding of his constructive theological position is particularly unfortunate. His theological assertions differ so profoundly from the dominant theological radicalism of our time, as well as from the neo-orthodoxy and liberalism of the recent past, that some have tried to write him off as an irresponsible eccentric. But few who have studied him seriously, and even fewer who have known him well, have found it possible to dismiss his thought in this way. Whether one agrees with him or not, one discovers in his writings a coherent vision of great power. In addition, one finds that this vision has been arrived at, not by personal whim, but by an approach to Christian theology in the context of the history of religions, an approach that is widely approved but rarely attempted. Indeed, Altizer is the first major theologian since World War I to think theologically from the perspective of the study of the history of religions conceived on a world scale. This point needs explanation. Other theologians, of course, have approached the study of the history of religions from a theological point of view, and their theology has been influenced by what they have learned. Some have studied Christianity as one of the world’s religions from the point of view of the historian of religions. Others have thought theologically from a perspective shaped by study of the Near Eastern religions of Biblical times. But these are quite different matters. Altizer is not first a Christian theologian who then is affected by studying other religions, and he is not a historian of religions who wants to place Christianity in the total context. He is a theologian whose categories and questions are shaped by profound immersion in the study of the planetary history of religions. Among past theologians, Troeltsch andOtto come closest to this theological method, but today, approximation to their approach leads to quite different results.
Whereas the first three claimsfor Altizer’s importance may be widely admitted, the fourth may appear strange and even perverse. Of all the American theological writing of this period, it is Altizer’s that embodies the most vigorous and passionate faith. The widely assumed contrary view has two major causes. First, the initial impact of Altizer has been upsetting to the faith of others. His negations have come across more effectively than his affirmations, and Altizer, convinced that what is being uprooted is in fact already dead, has done little to soften this destructive consequence of his thought. Second, many associate "faith" indissolubly with "God" and hence cannot understand the denial of God as an act of faith.
Nevertheless, a careful and open reading of Altizer will convince one that he is encountering a profound expression of faith of a sort rare in current theology. Altizer does not understand himself as a man who, because of holding certain traditional values, still calls himself a Christian. That point of view is easy to find in our times. It expresses a situation in which a man’s fundamental self-definition is ethical, or humanistic, or scholarly, or secular, but in which he secondarily accepts the designation of himself as Christian also. In contrast, Altizer is first and foremost a Christian. Like many passionate Christians before him (Luther and Kierkegaard, to mention just two examples), he is intensely critical of the Christianity he finds about him. But such criticism has no other basis than faith itself.
Furthermore, this faith is not a name arbitrarily given to some aspect of his existence. It is faith in the Word, in Christ, in the Incarnation of God, in the Kingdom of God. True, these terms take on new meanings in Altizer’s thought, but they are not unrecognizable meanings. On the contrary, they are traditional meanings taken with such radical seriousness as to transform them. Even the "death of God" is affirmed, not as a concession to modern skepticism, but as the deepest Christian meaning of Incarnation and Crucifixion. Furthermore, Altizer’s faith enables him to discern in the present world what other Christians anxiously miss -- the real presence of Christ. He is "persuaded that everyone who lives in what we know as history participates at bottom in the life of Christ" and "that the task of theology is to unveil and make manifest the universal presence and reality of Christ." (Quoted from a letter to me, July 7, 1969.)
These statements make clear that Altizer is also the boldest evangelical theologian of our time. While most American theologians seek to provide some justification for Christians to remain Christian, to overcome some misunderstanding of faith, or to guide the church in the responsible direction of its energies, Altizer addresses the "cultured despisers" with the word that they live by participation in Christ, How successful he will be in reaching his public cannot be foretold. It would be idle to suppose that those whom he persuades will hurry to the local church to share in its worship and cultural activities! But the evangelical purpose is clear.
In the light of these judgments about Altizer, this volume is an attempt to shift the focus of attention from his negations to his affirmations. If Altizer’s sharp critique of Christian habits of mind has made manifest and accentuated the theological sickness of the church, perhaps the study of the theology in which he expresses his own powerful faith will be a source of healing. But our attitude toward this theology cannot be shaped only by respect for the creativity and faith that it embodies. Once we respect it and recognize its importance, we must approach it with critical care, seeking to evaluate it with whatever norms we have available. The essays that follow embody this attitude. All take Altizer seriously. All offer specific and sharply focused criticism.
The remainder of this Introduction is intended to prepare the reader for a clearer understanding of Altizer’s thought and of the issues between him and his critics. To this end, the rest of the Introduction is divided into three parts. Section II offers some comments about the general cast of Altizer’s thought and its fundamental assumptions. Section III describes the development of his thought through three important stages. Section IV relates Altizer’s thought to the early Barth and to contemporary secular theology.
Altizer is not and has never been an ontological realist. A realist conceives entities as existing in some definite and discriminable way quite apart from human experience. For example, a realistic interpretation of the sentence, "The stone is gray, is that there exists independent of human experience an entity called a "stone" qualified in a distinctive way such that the term "gray" is appropriate to it. The realist need not suppose that grayness as a humanly experienced color exactly characterizes what the stone is in and of itself, but he believes that there is a correlation between what is objectively occurring in the stone and the human experience of perceiving gray, such that the former is an independent and prior cause of the latter. The sentence, "The stone is gray," is thus taken as referring to a reality outside of human experience and responsible for the human experience of the grayness of the stone.
Altizer, in contrast, has never been interested in what things are in and for themselves apart from human experience. Indeed, he has not recognized this as a possible question. The reality with which he has concerned himself is humanly experienced reality and that alone. This could be indicated by pointing to his enthusiasm for Hegel, but identification of reality with humanly experienced reality is much more widespread in the modern world than is Hegelianism. Idealists share this identification with empiricists, positivists, historicists, and phenomenalists.
Altizer was immersed in this perspective long before he seized on its Hegelian formulation. Probably it grew naturally out of his study of the history of religions. To understand a Buddhist or a Hindu, one does not ask how his vision of reality corresponds with what is "really" there. One takes that vision as constituting his reality. If that vision differs from the Christian one, then one recognizes that his reality differs from Christian reality. To judge the two realities by a supposed knowledge of what is "really" real, gained by some means alien to both, is to abandon the perspective of the history of religions. Furthermore, it may well be an illusion, for it presupposes some access to "reality" more basic or more reliable than that of Buddhist and Christian. That presupposition can express only a third perspective, different from both, but not for that reason truer.
Many who think that they agree with such judgments and methods still suppose that if God exists for one he exists for all whether they recognize him or not, or that if God does not now exist he never existed. Such views express the power of commonsense realism even when it is avowedly abandoned. Altizer is more consistent. God is real actual, and existent where and when he is present in human experience as real, actual, and existent. But where God plays no vital role in human experience and vision, he is either nonexistent, as for the Buddhist, or dead, as for the modern Christian.
Similarly, many who hold to phenomenalist theories nevertheless seek to test contemporary beliefs about the past against the way the past really was. Altizer is again more consistent. For him, there is no meaning to the question of what the past was in and for itself. Our question is what the past is for us, in our reality. Viewed in this way, the past is also changing as the shape of existence in the present changes.
These paragraphs might seem to imply an extreme subjectivism. It might seem that "reality" is whatever one believes it to be. This is far from Altizer’s intention. We all experience reality as much more objective than that. Whether God is now alive or dead is not a function of my private opinion on the subject. As individuals, we are caught up in a movement of history about which we do not personally decide. It is given to us. And at its deepest level it is constituted by a concretely experienced reality. That reality is obscured by our inherited beliefs and habits. It is laid bare for us by the spiritual giants of our time. In retrospect, we can often these visionaries with some accuracy. To judge our own time is always a risk. Altizer is convinced, however, that the judgment of the death of God is now overwhelmingly evident. On the other hand, and with far less obvious justification, he believes that Christ is very much alive; that, indeed, he constitutes the life of our history. The fact that this is not widely recognized is no evidence of its falsity.
In an attempt to understand Altizer, it is misleading to say that the death of God refers to a cultural phenomenon. Of course it does, but to state matters in that way implies that there is something else with which cultural phenomena could be contrasted, such as a metaphysical reality. For Altizer, what happens in culture, most fundamentally understood, is the metaphysical reality. This identity of history and metaphysics is what unites him with Hegel. This understanding of the situation has consistent consequences in Altizer’s appraisal of the work of others. He does not ask whether what they say corresponds to some nonhistorical reality, for the historical reality is all there is. Fundamentally, the question is whether the argument or thought is somehow in tune with the existent historical reality, whether it illumines this reality or participates in shaping it. This can be judged partly by the kind of reception a man’s work enjoys. If those who have most deeply entered into the contemporary situation find what is said dull or vacuous, it is not saved by the amount of evidence amassed for its conclusions or the tightness of its logical arguments. The question is not so much whether an idea can be "proved" as whether it rings true.
Once again, this could easily be misunderstood in a subjectivist way. But Altizer has no patience with the lazy thinker who accepts ideas according to their emotional appeal or the force of the rhetoric with which they are presented. Value is not judged by mass acceptance. Yet any thinking is fundamentally irrelevant if it does not begin with the present situation as it is really felt and known in sensitive and informed experience.
On the basis of this account of Altizer’s Hegelian idealism, we can now see why he moves as he does on specific points of special importance for theology. Of these we will consider three: first, Altizer’s view of the normative relation of faith and theology to the dominant cultural movement of the time; second, Altizer’s approach to Christology; and third, the style of Altizer’s thought and argument.
1. There is little doubt that Christian morale is currently at a low ebb. Historic Christian beliefs appear either incredible or irrelevant. Those who are most sensitive and perceptive have abandoned them, sometimes because they wished to do so, more often because traditional faith has simply lost the power to shape vision and experience and to guide action. The great artists have developed new categories. Christians are widely perceived as a rear guard composed of those who do not trust reason, experience, and enlightened sensibility.
One response to this situation is to understand Christianity as the creation in history of a new and in some sense final mode of human existence. Elsewhere, I have characterized this Christian existence as self-transcending selfhood expressing itself in concern for the other as an other. This mode of being is the fundamental ground of what has been most dynamic, most creative, and most redemptive in Western history and, more recently, in the Westernized history of the entire planet. It has freed men personally and intellectually to raise radical questions and to develop whole new disciplines of thought.
Ironically, the thinking for which men have been freed by Christian existence has increasingly undercut the beliefs that are bound up with that existence. Such existence involves effort, tension, the bearing of burdens, and the postponement of rewards. These have been endurable and even enriching in the context of the historic Christian understanding of man as living from God and for God. But in the absence of some such vision, men are empty, and Christian existence cannot long endure. It will be destroyed by its own fruits.
The alternative to the disappearance of Christian existence is the emergence of a new vision capable of sustaining intentional communities whose vitality would enable them to revivify part of the remains of the institutional church. A church in which credible and relevant conviction expressed itself in consistent and appropriate disciplined action would not have to be large to be redemptively effective.
This view defines Christian faith in terms of continuity in a mode of existence, while recognizing the constantly new intellectual task of articulating doctrines required and supported by it. It can acknowledge the powerful attraction of competing ideas and visions without therefore accepting them. Thus the Christian differentiates himself and his faith from the dominant cultural currents of his time, not by ignoring them, but by discriminating appraisal, selective appropriation, and constructive reconceptualization.
This response presupposes that Christian faith has its fundamental existence in some isolation from the fundamental movement of history. For Altizer, precisely this isolation from the movement of vision and spirit is faithlessness.. We have, in his view, no static essence of Christian faith or existence in terms of which to evaluate other modes of belief and existence. Where authentic creativity is to be found, there is the reality with which faith has to do. Thus true Christianity can and must reverse itself in the most fundamental ways in order to be true to itself. Since all that we have known as Christian existence, or personhood, or even humanity is swept away in the new visions of our time, faith requires that we affirm their death. The Christian is not to plan strategies for salvaging or reviving what is dying, but rather to learn to see the new as the dialectical continuation, through transformation, of the old. In the deepest sense, faith is the affirmation of what will be rather than the attempt to shape an indeterminate future.
The task of theology is to articulate the teaching of the church only to the extent that the church’s teaching grasps and expresses the reality of our historical situation. Altizer understandably judges that this extent is currently very slight. If Christian theology is to escape from the ghetto in which it has imprisoned itself, it must enter the arena in which man’s reality is being creatively discerned and shaped, and today that is far from the church. Yet Altizer enters that arena convinced that the reality in question, however it is now being named, is truly Christ. Indeed, for him the very essence of faith is this conviction, and it is this faith which frees the Christian for total openness to the reality of his time, however dark and empty it may appear.
2. Altizer’s approach to Christology is consistent with this understanding of the nature of theology. It is to be understood as a renewal and transformation of the Hegelian Christology of the last century in the setting of our time. Christian orthodoxy in its Christological dogma has held two concerns in tension. One concern is transpersonal, sacred, or divine reality. The other is the particular, contingent, historical figure -- Jesus of Nazareth. Much traditional theological debate focused on the nature of the relation of the absolutely transcendent to the relative and immanent aspects of God with only incidental reference to Jesus. This is sometimes called "Christology from above." Some of the discussion was about Jesus and in what way he embodied or presented deity. This is sometimes called "Christology from below."
With the breakdown of creedal orthodoxy, Hegel and his followers developed a new form of Christology from above. It differed from the old in that the "above" in question was now that "Spirit" which is the subject of the total historical process undergoing transformation in and through it. But Hegelian Christology is similar to the old Christology in that the contingent particularities of the person of Jesus are of merely incidental interest. The doctrine of Incarnation is far more crucial for the Hegelian than is the historical reconstruction of the authentic sayings of Jesus. Although Hegel has had profound influence on the course of modern thought, most of what we call liberal Christology has followed the second course. It has been concerned first and foremost with the recovery of the real Jesus and only secondarily with creedal affirmation. Hence, it has motivated the quest of the historical Jesus and the attempt to formulate Christology to conform with what is known of him.
In the years after World War I, Christians felt keenly the difference between both of these modern forms of Christology on the one hand and the historic faith of the church on the other. Karl Barth gave voice to the concern of a generation to recover lost elements of traditional belief. Against the Hegelian tendency to identify God with man and to see the doctrine of Incarnation as expressing this unity, Barth stressed with new force the transcendent otherness of God. Against the liberal tendency to dwell upon the personality and teaching of Jesus, he stressed the sheer fact of Incarnation. Thus he reaffirmed and intensified the orthodox claim that in Jesus the transcendent God became man for our redemption without thereby losing his transcendence.
The collapse of neo-orthodoxy has rapidly returned us to the alternatives against which it was proclaimed. The choice is now posed more harshly than ever. Most radicals have accentuated the liberal approach. They have simply lost interest in metaphysical claims about Jesus, viewing him as a "man for others" or a "free man" in relation to whom we can become free. Altizer, in contrast, has only incidental interest in the historical Jesus. For him, "Christ" names the central reality of the Christian imagination and hence of the Christian’s history. Since "Christ" is bound up with the pictures of Jesus that have succeeded each other in our history, and since those pictures are bound up with the judgments of historians, Altizer does not ignore the work of the great New Testament scholars. But he interests himself in their vision of the past rather than in the question of the conformity of their vision to an objective past event. Thus Altizer identifies himself with the Hegelian tradition, carrying forward with greater radicality than ever its version of Christology from above.
3. An important feature of the style of Altizer’s thought is suggested by the word "Totality." Altizer thinks in terms of wholes. He seeks the essence of an idea, a doctrine, a point of view; and when he finds it, he discards all the qualifications with which it is surrounded in order to elicit its pure and radical meaning. This is the reason for much of the exasperation sometimes felt by his critics. In the course of time, many doctrines have been hammered out cautiously, replete with qualifications that adjust them to the various difficulties that have been encountered. Altizer ignores everything but what the doctrine in its purest essence communicates in our situation. Obviously the judgment here is somewhat subjective, and those who have been articulating the doctrine resent the neglect of their careful formulations.
At the same time, this is the reason for much of Altizer’s power. He avoids involvement in the subtle and sophisticated arguments in which much academic theology bogs down. By going to what he sees as the heart of the matter and capturing it in pure and extreme form, he breaks open the broader question and forces total reconsideration. His own intellectual development illustrates this violent refusal of qualification and moderate formulation. As late as the early ‘60s, Altizer believed Christianity to require of us a total rejection of all that the modern world understands as reality and creativity. Apocalyptic was for him the pure manifestation of Biblical faith, and apocalyptic was the rejection of this world in the name of a Kingdom of God that is wholly alien to it. The error of historic Christianity was that it compromised by coming to terms with the world and by affirming its value.
Altizer found that this position put him in an extremely painful situation existentially. He was forced to reject all that he admired most in art, literature, and scholarship. Furthermore, he recognized that although Biblical eschatology resembled Oriental mysticism in its negation of the given reality, it was a different sort of negation, which somehow also affirmed the forward movement of time and history.
Another man might have responded to this situation by cautiously modifying some of the extreme elements in his earlier position, but not Altizer. Instead, he reversed himself totally. Christian eschatology and Incarnation now are seen to mean a total affirmation of the world, a total identification of the sacred with historical reality. Christianity, instead of being at bottom identical with Oriental religion, is juxtaposed as its opposite. Historic Christianity is condemned for clinging to the symbols of a transcendent other.
The pattern of negation and reversal of which Altizer writes so much is here embodied in his own development. This can also be illustrated in his view of the traditional Christian doctrine of Creation. At one level this doctrine may be seen as a theory of the origin of the universe, but at this level it interests neither Altizer nor his critics. Fundamentally, the doctrine expresses a particular view of the reality and worth of the world and thus of human life. This view has a twofold movement of thought.
First, he who understands the world and himself as created perceives both as real and valuable. All being is affirmed as good because it is the product of God’s purposeful intention and activity. In spite of all the horrors of suffering and sin, human life and its entire historical and natural context must be affirmed, and one must devote his energies to serving his fellowman in the concreteness of his bodily existence rather than seeking escape from these given conditions. Because the doctrine of Creation is thus an affirmation of the world, the early Altizer rejected it as a perversion of the apocalyptic negation of the world that was for him then the heart of faith.
Second, he who understands the world and himself as created perceives nature, history, and his own being as radically contingent, radically dependent upon God, radically subordinate to the Creator in both worth and reality. The meaning of life is not found, finally, in life itself as empirically given. Goodness, value, and meaning are found unqualifiedly, independently, or intrinsically only in God himself. The meaning of human existence is derivative. Because the doctrine of Creation thus subordinates the world to God, the later Altizer rejects it as a perversion of the incarnational affirmation of the world that is for him now the heart of faith.
In this way Altizer’s thought has exemplified something of the coincidence of opposites that is so important to him. There is an affinity between total negation and total affirmation that separates them both from all qualified forms of affirmation and negation. Both total affirmation and total negation repudiate any discrimination between degrees or levels of truth and falsity or of good and evil. Both thus exclude the sphere of the ethical, the weighing of particular values against one another. They exclude in a profound sense positive concern for the individual in his separated individuality. They demand a solution of the human problem that is unequivocal, absolute, total. Thus the forward movement of history must be toward an end in which that movement will come to absolute rest, or at least to total moments in which all past and future are abolished.
The most thoroughgoing and disturbing result to which Altizer’s program has come thus far is to be found in The Descent Into Hell. Here the totality toward which we are borne is identified insistently with hell and death. Not only has transcendence emptied itself into immanence, and the sacred into the profane, but heaven empties itself into hell, and life now empties itself into death. In this way, Altizer seeks to claim as an epiphany of Christ even the hell and death to which the modern spirit is drawn in fascinated horror.
In this section we will trace the development of Altizer’s thought since the publication of his first book, Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology, in 1961. Three periods may be distinguished in this development. First, there is the mythico-mystical orientation of Oriental Mysticism and Altizer’s journal articles of this time. Second, there is the historico-existentialist orientation of Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred (1963) and articles of that time. Third, there is the cosmico-metaphysical orientation of The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966), The New Apocalypse (1967), and The Descent Into Hell (1970). The evolution of Altizer’s thought through these three periods shows an ever-increasing awareness of the full implications of the dialectical method.
During the first period of his development, Altizer’s primary emphasis is the Oriental tradition and how it relates to an understanding of Christianity. In the original formulations of both Buddhism and Christianity he sees a radical distinction between faith and philosophy. In both views there is an infinite qualitative difference between faith and being. For both, the demands of faith compel one to give up his ontological security in the world. In Oriental Mysticism, Altizer maintains that the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha exhort one to suspend "the quest for religious ontology and mystical knowledge."1 The believer is called to reject everything he knows as reality -- everything that has "being" for him. For in essence, being is man-made; it was created when man came into the world as a self-conscious being.
In Oriental Mysticism, Altizer observes that Heidegger, also, maintains that being is not an eternal reality equitable with the sacred or God; rather, it is a historical event involved in the establishment of Dasein, human existence.2 Heidegger comments: "If I were to write a theology, which I am sometimes tempted to do, the word being would not be allowed to appear in it. Faith does not need the thought of being, and if it needs it it is no longer faith."3 Altizer agrees by stating that "faith can never accept the ultimate reality of being. . . . The high moments of religion are those in which there is no awareness of being."4 Affirmation of being in the form of the Promethean spirit is a rebellion against the sacred, for the sacred reality can be known only as wholly other than the man-made world of being.
In his essay "The Religious Meaning of Myth and Symbol," Altizer continues this same theme: "The sacred can be actualized only by means of a dissolution of profane existence."5 Modern man, however, is faced with a much greater problem than archaic man with respect to apprehending the sacred reality. The primitive does not give ontological weight to his day-to-day mundane experience; this to him is unreal and illusory. For archaic man the only reality is the sacred reality of which he becomes a part through myth and ritual. As Mircea Eliade states, "For on the archaic levels of culture, the real -- that is, the powerful, the meaningful, the living -- is equivalent to the sacred." 6For modern fallen man the situation is quite different: "Modern man experiences both an alienation of himself from the cosmos, and an alienation of the sacred from reality."7What is real for modern man is the profane, not the sacred. Altizer’s thought at this stage remains in mystical and mythical categories; furthermore, he sees no real difference among the higher religions of the world.
The essay "Nirvana and Kingdom of God" is a transitional piece. It contains evidence of both his mythico-mystical orientation and the existentialist posture that is fully rehearsed in Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred. Christianity, which Altizer comes to hold as unique in his later writings, has not yet gained that status. He suggests that the Buddhist categories of faith that end in the experience of Nirvana can be used "as a mode of entry into the original form of Christianity."8 He states that modern Christian theology is cut off from the sacred; we must now approach the sacred through non-Western religious forms. Following the theme of his earlier book, Altizer holds that all desire to be a being in the world must be annihilated; all history, nature, and being must be brought to an end. Near the end of the article, however, we sense a reversal of his former position. Earlier, Altizer was advocating a leap of faith to the sacred from illusory being; but now he says that the Kingdom of God "will never dawn in us if we refuse our existence in the here and now." Being is not destroyed, as in the earlier view, but it is transfigured.
It is this very reality in its sheer actuality and immediateness which is being transfigured by the dawning of the Kingdom; God appears here and not in a beyond. Therefore, the Christian must live this life, sharing all its fullness and emptiness, its joy and its horror, knowing that his destiny is to live here and now, allowing his life to be the metal which God’s fire will transform into his Kingdom. And if we are to live now, we cannot escape the anguish of the human condition; if we are to live here, we cannot flee this condition by a leap of faith.9
We have now reached the period in Altizer’s development that I have termed the historico-existentialist. While Altizer had earlier affirmed Heidegger’s radical distinction between faith and being, he now denies it. Central to Altizer’s new vision is Nietzsche, who said, "Being begins in every Now." Now we must say Yes to the being of the immediate moment, for it is the only reality we know. We cannot and should not return to the primordial totality of myth and mysticism. Hence, at this stage Altizer responds negatively to Heidegger: "Perhaps nowhere else does Heidegger so clearly reveal how his attachment to a traditional mystical form of the holy so deeply sets him against the historical destiny of our time, and so likewise does it set him against Nietzsche." 10A Buddhist No-saying to the world is supplanted by a Dionysian Yes-saying to the world. Earlier, Jesus was compared to the Buddha; now, Christ and Dionysus are one. Earlier, to "cling to being" was to close oneself to the sacred; now, the dialectical affirmation of being in the immediate moment is an epiphany of the sacred. Later, in The Descent Into Hell, Altizer attempts to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory views.
In this second period of Altizer’s development, the modern man of faith is called to meet his destiny in history, and he must meet it in the immediate moment. Altizer’s position at this point is primarily existentialist; he will not affirm as yet a metaphysical approach to theology. Even though Altizer’s faith has now entered history and the profane, its essence cannot be grasped in intelligible categories. A faith totally committed to the profane is still a scandal, an "ontological scandal." Eschatological faith is directed against any cosmological or metaphysical view that would attempt to resolve the paradox or scandal of faith. A radical faith, according to Altizer, "can know no logos of things." 11Altizer contends that the modern man of faith must say Yes to the most illogical of all views of the world: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence. "Eternal Recurrence is neither a cosmology nor a metaphysical idea: it is Nietzsche’s symbol of the deepest affirmation of existence, of Yes-saying. Accordingly, Eternal Recurrence is a symbolic portrait of the truly contemporary man, the man who dares to live in our time, in our history, in our existence." 12
All reality, according to Nietzsche, is destroyed and re-created in every moment by an irreversible, ongoing dialectic of the sacred, which appears in our history and in our radically profane Existenz. The drama between old and new being, old and new man, is a continually recurrent one. In each moment, man lives in crisis and is placed in judgment. Each of his acts is an ontological crisis; in each act the ground of his being is destroyed. In the dialectic of the sacred there are no standpoints; there is only movement toward another and fuller experience of the sacred. To deny this dialectic is to lapse into the false security of a traditional ontology. Such an ontology formed the basis for the Enlightenment and now governs the completely profane mode of existence of modern scientific man. To affirm such an ontology and live such an existence is to live the horror that is the death of God. To affirm Eternal Recurrence and renounce autonomous selfhood is to live the Kingdom of God, which is in our midst.
These views are essentially an extension of the German crisis theology of the 1920’s. Although Altizer’s terminology is somewhat different, the dialectical method is ever present and strong; indeed, it is here more fully developed than it ever was in the German dialectic theology. Existence in faith involves a continual crisis between the sacred and the profane. One can choose to avoid the crisis that confronts one in each moment of his existence; he can choose instead an illusory but nonetheless secure form of nondialectical existence; he can choose to cling to the being of which his profane mode of existence seems to assure him.For Altizer, however, a nondialectical affirmation of the profane ends in despair and Godlessness, for the profane alone has no sacral or redemptive power. Only dialectical affirmation can break through this groundless "crust" of profane being and reveal the new sacred reality.
At this point in his development, Altizer has not yet reconciled philosophy and theology. I would suggest, however, that the roots of a dialectic ontology are already implicit in this existentialist stage. This ontology, however, is certainly not of the traditional sort. While the traditional ontology of a theologian such as Tillich tends to resolve the paradox of Christian faith, Altizer’s dialectic intensifies it. In an article on Tillich’s theological method, Jacob Taubes states that Tillich eschatologizes ontology and ontologizes eschatology.13 I submit, to the contrary, that this interpretation does not apply at all to Tillich’s ontology as it is fully elaborated in his Systematic Theology. I believe that this can be more aptly applied to Nietzsche and to Altizer.
Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God brings to an end all concepts of unconditioned being and hence all traditional ontology. The death of God threatens our ontological security in the world. In short, it eschatologizes ontology. At the same time it gives ultimate reality to the very moment in which eschatological faith is realized. Eschatology, then, is ontologized. We are left with a dialectical inversion of all traditional thought about eschatology and ontology. In eschatological thinking, all being will be destroyed. In traditional ontology, being is grounded and sustained. In a dialectical vision, real being, i.e., the sacred, appears in the eschatological moment only after man’s ontological ground in the world has been destroyed. A truly radical faith, Altizer insists again and again, must be an ontological scandal.
Altizer’s book Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred is a curious work. As William Hamilton states: "In the book Altizer has not decided whether to do a book on Eliade (to whom he owes a profound debt) or an original piece of theological exposition. He comes up with a little of both, and the result is not structurally satisfactory." 14Criticism ranged from outright rejection because the book was not Biblical or Christian enough to recognition of the genius of the work -- with reservations concerning problems of coherence and intelligibility. As a consequence, Altizer, in the first book of his third period, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, "comes up with a little of both," and I believe the results are more satisfactory.
In this book, Altizer tries to move in two directions at once: toward a more Biblical theology on the one hand, and toward a philosophical theology on the other. His move toward a Biblical theology is brilliant but, according to some, unsuccessful. His attempt to build a radical doctrine of Incarnation on the kenosis hymn in Phil. 2:7 raises criticism from many New Testament scholars. Theodore Runyon claims that Altizer’s exegesis of the kenosis hymn is invalid and shows an ignorance of Paul’s doctrine of God.15
What Runyon has failed to see here is the fact that Altizer, in his own peculiar way, is much a part of the "new hermeneutic." In some respects, Altizer’s disdain for the historical-critical method is equal to that of Barth. Altizer would hold that the meaning of any text changes with the evolution of human consciousness. Therefore, what this passage meant for Paul is not necessarily what it should mean for man living in the modern age. Altizer is in full agreement with Owen Barfield’s, discussion of the historical-critical means of New Testament interpretation. In Saving the Appearances, Barfield claims that historical criticism and traditional exegesis will someday be unveiled as forms of idolatry.16 In a review article on Barfield, Altizer states: "Saving the Appearances may well point to a liberation of the Biblical scholar from an idolatrous understanding of the Bible as literal text."17
It is not surprising, then, that Altizer finds the dialectic and logic of Hegel so alluring. Altizer betrays his assumption of a metaphysics when he states, "Hegel’s central idea of kenosis, or the universal and dialectical process of the self-negation of being, provided me with a conceptual route to a consistently kenotic or self-emptying understanding of the Incarnation, an understanding which I believe has been given a full visionary expression in the work of William Blake." 18In other words, Blake supplies the poetic vision and Hegel supplies the philosophical constructs to interpret that vision.
Altizer’s second direction in this third phase is toward a more comprehensive overview; in other words, toward a cosmology. After attempting to find a Biblical base for a kenotic doctrine of Incarnation, he turns and finds a philosophical base for it in the metaphysics of Hegel. In the second stage of his development, Altizer achieved a dialectical resolution of faith and Existenz; it remains for him in the third stage to seek a grander synthesis with the world and the cosmic totality. The achievement of such a goal should be quite tenuous -- especially if Altizer intends to retain the radicalism of his previous work. Such an achievement was something a Kierkegaard or a Barth had thought impossible. In essence, Altizer attempts to reconcile philosophy and theology and still retain the paradox of faith. The third period of Altizer’s development is characterized by several definitive changes. First, there has been a redefinition of the death of God. The early Altizer claimed that the death of God happened in our history and our Existenz. Only when a fully profane consciousness had appeared in history could one affirm the death of God. It was an existential, not a universal, event. Those still living under the spell of myth were unaware that God was dead, since they had not yet fallen into existential despair. With the assumption of the dialectic of Hegel, however, the death of God is now universalized; it is not only an existential event but a cosmic one. The death of God now becomes, in terms of Hegel, the self-annihilation of Spirit. Spirit, primordial and deficient of actuality, pours itself into the world and becomes flesh. This self-annihilation of Spirit, as Altizer says, is "at once historical and ontological."19The death of God is now seen in ontological as well as existential terms.
With these developments Altizer is now allowed: (1) to affirm the uniqueness of Christianity; and (2) to develop a doctrine of grace. The self-emptying of God into the world is a forward-moving, nonreversible process. God, or better, the Christ of radical immanence, is here to stay in our flesh and in our midst. Never again will Christianity be identified with a priestly or mythical form of religion -- one that attempts to recapture a primordial beginning or totality. Because of this, Christianity, according to Altizer, is not only unique among the world’s religions; it is the truest revelation of the movement and reality of the sacred. Furthermore, a doctrine of a self-sacrificing God allows Altizer to develop a legitimate doctrine of grace. This would have been impossible within strictly Nietzschean categories.
It is significant to see how Altizer now deals with the existentialist posture that characterized his second period of development. The existential phase was described in terms of Hegel’s "Unhappy Consciousness," which is, as Altizer says, a necessary phase through which Spirit passes in its development in history." It serves now as a transitional period for a future cosmic fullness of the sacred, Altizer states: "We cannot understand the ‘Unhappy Consciousness’ unless we realize that it too, like the ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ is a transitional state between an individual and particular realization of the truth and the reality of Spirit, a realization whose very particularity demands a chasm between itself and Spirit, and a universal and total epiphany of Spirit which obliterates this chasm."20 Spirit finally overcomes alienation and otherness and reveals itself as Absolute Spirit or God as all in all.
We have now reached a point in Altizer’s third period that is crucial and distinctive, for it constitutes a radical break with his earlier positions. With his assumption of a Hegelian metaphysics to explain the self-annihilation of God, he has also adopted a finalism; in short, the dialectical process aims at an end: God as all in all. This is a cosmic end, and not just an existential crisis, as Altizer would have seen it during his second period of development. Earlier, Altizer would have said that there is no order, meaning, or direction in history or in the cosmos outside of the existential situation. Now Altizer does see direction: the self-annihilation of God has effected a dialectical process that aims and ends with God literally becoming all in all. God sacrifices himself to the world and, as a result, experiences the world fully. As a consequence of his being alienated and being faced with his "Other," God is able to realize himself in a far richer form. The God of innocence, after passing through self-annihilation, becomes the God of total experience and flesh. To draw an analogy between Hegel’s dialectic of Spirit and the evolution of Altizer’s own thought is too tempting to avoid. Altizer states in The New Apocalypse that the unfolding of Spirit corresponds to a similar evolution within the individual religious consciousness.21 In the Enzyklopädie Hegel states, "The same development of thought which is treated in the history of philosophy is being portrayed in every philosophy, yet emancipated from that historic externality, purely in the element of thinking." 22The early mythico-mystical view advocated a denial of the profane world and a return to a primordial Totality. This of course would correspond to the primordial Spirit, innocent and deficient of all actuality and experience.
Altizer’s historico-existentialist period was characterized by a dialectical affirmation of the world of experience, which maximized a radical thrust into the profane only to transfigure its present form. The Witness of modern literature and art to existential despair and alienation is central to this period. This stage would correspond to Hegel’s "Unhappy Consciousness," which is Spirit particularized and alienated. John N. Findlay, one of the best among Hegelian scholars, describes the "Unhappy Consciousness" in this penetrating and significant statement: This Unhappy Consciousness is aware only of its total loss of all that previously reassured and filled it: its anguish might find expression in the words of the Lutheran hymn ‘God is dead.’ " 23
In the third period of his development, the cosmico-metaphysical, Altizer discovers that it is not solely the historical and the existential with which we must deal, but the cosmic as well. The existential experience of God is but a symbol of what actually will happen atthe end of history on a cosmic level. Similarly, the death of God that occurred at the Crucifixion is but a particularized form of what is happening on a universal scale in our time. The vision of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit or Altizer’s Christ of radical immanence serves as an ideal aim for the dialectical process; it serves as an impetus for process and lures all process to its final end.
The Descent Into Hell, Altizer’s most recent book, is the most systematic statement of his theology. In this work he incorporates themes from all his previous works; he also attempts some radical reinterpretation of Christian doctrine. One significant feature of the book, which sets it apart from other books in the third period, is Altizer’s effort to reconcile his present thought with his early work on Buddhism. He returns to some of the early motifs and reinterprets them in the light of his second and third stages of development. To the unsuspecting reader, it might seem that Altizer has in fact returned to his first stage, but for those who view Altizer’s development as an ever-increasing awareness of the full implications of the dialectical method, Buddhism is now seen as the reversible (i.e., dialectical) ground on which a new radical Christianity can be founded.
The sharp dichotomy that Altizer drew between the Buddha and Christ in his second period and in The Gospel of Christian Atheism of his third period is now seen in a different light. He suggests that the Buddha is a "face or form" of Christ; in fact, he states that we must come to know the Buddha as the primordial identity of Christ. To recognize this fact is to be freed from everything past and primordial. Altizer states: "Nirvana is not ‘other’ than Kingdom of God, just as Buddha is not ‘other’ than Christ: Nirvana is the primordial ground of Kingdom of God, just as the New Jerusalem is the eschatological realization of Nirvana."24 Furthermore, Altizer now claims that Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence is identical with the Buddhist Void.25 Thus, his position in his second period was not dialectical enough; at that time he was not able to see the intimate connection between the primordial vision and the eschatological vision. The fully dialectical view sees that each needs the other for its own inherent fulfillment. In a similar way, the sacred needs the dialectical opposition of the profane for the fulfillment of its own intrinsic movement.
Far more pervasive, however, than this apparent reconciliation with Buddhism, are the principal themes of eternal death and Christ’s descent into hell. In a series of significant and revolutionary reinterpretations of orthodox doctrine, Altizer contends that the true image of Christ is not the exalted Christ of the Ascension, returning to the right hand of the transcendent creator God; but it is the Christ of the Passion, ever more humiliated, ever more in the flesh, ever more with the suffering of mankind. The Passion of Christ is the particular form and symbol of the passion of modern alienated man. The primary image of Christ in the time of the death of God should be one of self-negation and self-giving, descent and humiliation.
Contrary to the orthodox view that the Resurrection inevitably led to Christ’s ascension to transcendent glory, Altizer’s radical interpretation of the Resurrection sees it as just another point on the continuum of kenotic Incarnation: the dialectical movement from primordial, transcendent Spirit to radical immanence and flesh. For Altizer, pure transcendence is a symbolic image of primordial Spirit, while pure immanence is the symbolic equivalent of the Kingdom of God.26 Therefore, Altizer’s "eternal death" is not a literal death as fallen man knows it;rather, itis the same as pure immanence -- the totality of flesh.
According to Altizer’s kenotic view of Incarnation, Christ did not become flesh only to leave it, as orthodox theology would have it. Christ became flesh to remain flesh, to become a living symbol for the man of radical faith living in the time of the death of God. Therefore, the end result of Altizer’s reinterpretation of Crucifixion and Resurrection is, as he puts it himself, the "final and total loss of Heaven" and "the triumph of Hell."27The judgment of hell means the transformation of everything past and primordial, a necessary condition for the triumph of the Kingdom of God. As Altizer phrases it, only in the dialectical vision can we "be open to the actuality of our dark emptiness as a sign of the light of the apocalyptic Christ." 28 In another penetrating statement, Altizer makes the same point: "Is the dark negativity of our emptiness so overwhelming that no way is present to us of celebrating emptiness as a mask of total bliss?" 29 In our time, such a question separates those who would follow formal logic and resign themselves to a Godless world from those who would affirm dialectical logic and rejoice in the fact that Godlessness is a necessary precondition for a modern revelation of the sacred.
Most radical theology in our time seems to be moving toward a fully secular theology -- toward a virtual identification of faith and culture. This can be said of theologians such as William Hamilton, Harvey Cox, Paul van Buren, the "Mainz radical" Herbert Braun, the late Paul Tillich, and many of those who follow and comment on the works of Friedrich Gogarten and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hence, Altizer’s position among the radical theologians is a distinctive one -- so distinctive that in many respects he is to be seen over and against the others named above. The secular theologians mentioned above hold a Promethean theology, one that celebrates the hubristic, self-assertive, autonomous man in search for the "sacred" as a fulfillment of our present secular culture. Altizer, on the other hand, has a Dionysian, fully dialectic theology that, by radical affirmation of the profane, goes beyond mere secularism and its Godlessness and discovers the sacred via a nonhubristic apotheosis.
Altizer is closer than any other contemporary theologian to the first radical of twentieth-century theology: the early Barth of The Epistle to the Romans. It should be clear at once that Barth certainly did not approve of any secular expression of faith and rejected violently all theophilosophical attempts at capturing" God. For the early Barth, God is completely hidden; he is unsayable and unnameable. There lies an abyss between man and God, the secular and the sacred; and the step over that abyss, from old aeon to new aeon, is one that God alone can take. No human expression, philosophical or existential, can bridge that gap. Our relationship to God, according to the early Barth, is a completely indirect one. It can be conceptualized only within the inner tensions of the dialectical method. The meaning of Paul’s Romans "cannot be released save by a creative straining of the sinews, by a relentless, elastic application of the ‘dialectical’ method 30 I would suggest that Altizer’s method is continuous with, and a fulfillment of, the dialectical method of Barth’s Romans.
Barth attempted to reconcile the brute fact of a Godless world with such terms as God’s hiddenness, his incomprehensibility, and his complete otherness. In Romans, Barth said that the Word of God can be uttered only when the predicate Deus revelatus has as its subject Deus absconditus31The vast ocean of so-called reality that is the profane world of a completely autonomous mode of human existence has left the island of the sacred completely submerged. Barth thought that the reason modern man has no vision of the sacred is that he has inadvertently desacralized all reality in thinking that he is its center and creator. Barth’s theological efforts turned on his attempt to make faith completely autonomous -- free from human capability and manipulation, empty of all human content. The result was that faith became a complete vacuum to be filled by revelation -- by the power of the sacred alone. Barth states: "Genuine faith is a void, an obeisance before that which we can never be, or do, or possess; it is devotion to him who can never become the world or man, save in the dissolution and redemption and resurrection of everything we here and now call world and man."32
The parallels with Altizer, both in content and in style, are striking and significant. In Oriental Mysticism, Altizer describes faith as the "will to nothingness pronounced holy," 33 and in "Theology and the Death of God," he states that "eschatological faith is directed against the deepest reality of what we know as history and the cosmos."34 For both Altizer and Barth the sacred reality is seen as completely autonomous. For both, there is a hiatus between faith and being, faith and Weltanschauung, faith and the secular. Contrary to the secular theologians, both believe that the secular and the profane have no saving power.
For Barth, however, the sacred reality remained wholly transcendent. At this juncture Altizer goes beyond Barth by recognizing the full implications of the dialectical method. Although the sacred must remain completely autonomous and incommensurable with the profane, it is nonetheless inevitably found in the midst of the profane and not in some transcendent realm. Altizer’s affirmation of the profane is a dialectical affirmation that seeks to destroy the profane in its present, all-too-pervasive form, in order that the sacred can be revealed in a new, immanent form. For both Barth and Altizer, the only true God is the revealed God; and for Altizer a new Christ of radical immanence is being revealed in this time of the death of God.
In essence, Altizer views the proposals of the secular theologians as forms of theological reductionism, a sellout of the sacred to the profane. The effort of these programs is to present theological terminology and formulations that will have "cash value" in terms of contemporary culture. This, of course, is quite alien to Altizer’s theological intentions. In an article entitled "Word and History," he observes that "a dangerous rhetoric underlies many of these joyous announcements of full secularity.35 Altizer’s view, again quite similar to Barth’s, is that everything man has created for himself in terms of culture has been at the expense of the abandonment or dissolution of faith. 36 A genuine form of faith is one that keeps culture continually in crisis and under judgment.
In an essay entitled "The Sacred and the Profane," Altizer makes it quite clear that he does not want to deny the full movement and form of the profane.37 He insists on avoiding the accusation of Gnosticism. He contends that his view is "non-Gnostic because a truly modern dialectical form of faith would meet the actual historical destiny of contemporary man while yet transforming his unique Existenz into the purity of eschatological faith."38 This does not mean, however, that there will be an identification of faith and culture. Radical faith is a faith that dares to encounter and affirm the death of God in modern culture, but does not entail an affirmation of culture for its own intrinsic spiritual worth. It is a dialectical affirmation that will transform the present structures of the profane world, and thus it is a form of faith that goes beyond mere secularism. It is Altizer’s conviction that a faith strong enough to affirm the death of God is strong enough to transform the radical profanity of a Godless world. He states, "Theology was born out of faith’s will to enter history; now theology must die at the hands of a faith that is strong enough to shatter history."39 According to Altizer, a dialectical affirmation will break through the Godless veil of the secular and reveal the new sacred reality: an immanent Christ in our time and in our flesh.
Altizer’s theological convictions show not only passionate faith, but incomparable spiritual strength and courage as well. The theological program to which Altizer enjoins us is a task that only a few men have attempted or accomplished. First, one must unequivocally renounce one’s individual selfhood as the center and ground of consciousness and experience. This proposal in itself is exceedingly difficult for modern man to comprehend, let alone instigate; for, in order to combat the onslaught of modern alienation, modern man has withdrawn to the refuge of his inner "self." The irony, however, is that once there, he discovers that he has only intensified his alienation. Second, one must give up completely any hope of heaven or utopia, the womb or the Garden. In essence, one is called to reject all concepts of a primordial homeostasis; for, according to Altizer, all such yearnings contradict the fundamental movement of the sacred and what Blake called the great "Humanity Divine." Again such a demand threatens modern man’s security and his deepest desires for a lost paradise. One must realize that this applies not only to the most fundamentalistic Christian but also to the most doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist. Perhaps we will come to realize, despite the passionate convictions of a Blake, a Nietzsche, or an Altizer, that only a few men have had the strength or the courage to will the "final and total loss of Heaven"; that most of us will inevitably cling to visions of utopia and will persistently deny the dialectical movement of the sacred and the New Jerusalem that Altizer claims is dawning in our midst and in our flesh.
1. Thomas J. J. Altizer, Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology (The Westminster Press, 1961), p. 166. 2. Ibid., p. 193. 3. Published for private circulation, Zurich, 1952. Quoted in Jacob Taubes, "On the Nature of the Theological Method," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XXXIV (Jan., 1954), p. 19. Reprinted in Thomas J. J. Altizer, ed., Toward a New Christianity (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1967), p. 231. 4. Altizer, Oriental Mysticism, p. 191. 5. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "The Religious Meaning of Myth and Symbol," in Thomas J. J. Altizer, William A. Beardslee, and J. Harvey Young, eds., Truth, Myth, and Symbol (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), p. 93. 6. Quoted in ibid., p. 88. 7. Ibid., p. 90. 8. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "Nirvana and Kingdom of God," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XLIII (April, 1963), p. 112. Reprinted in Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman, eds., New Theology No. 1 (The Macmillan Company, 1964), p. 162. 9. Ibid., p. 116 (166). 10. Thomas J. J. Altizer, Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred (The Westminster Press, 1963), p. 215. 11. Ibid., p. 189. 12. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "Theology and the Death of God," in Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, eds., Radical Theology and the Death of God (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1966), p. 99. 13. Taubes, "Theological Method," p. 19 (231). 14. William Hamilton, "The Death of God Theologies Today," in Altizer and Hamilton, eds., Radical Theology, p. 28. 15. See the essay by Theodore Runyon, Jr., in Section 1. 16. Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances (Faber & Faber, Ltd., 1957), p. 175. 17. Thomas J. J. Altizer, Review of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, in The Journal of Religion, Vol. XXXII (Oct., 1964), p. 385. 18. Thomas J. J. Altizer, Introduction to his "A Wager," in Altizer. ed., Toward a New Christianity, p. 301. 19. Thomas J. J. Altizer, The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (Michigan State University Press, 1967), p. 71. 20. Ibid., pp. 43-44. 21. Ibid., p. 47.
22. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Enzyklopädie, 6th ed. (Verlag von Felix Meiner, 1959), p. 47. 23. John N. Findlay, The Philosophy of He gel (Collier Books, 1962), p. 51. 24. Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Descent Into Hell (J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970), p. 192. 25. Ibid., p.211. 26. Ibid., p. 86. 27. Ibid., p.213. 28. Ibid., p.209. 29. Ibid., p.208. 30. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, tr. Hoskyns (Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 8. 31. Ibid., p.422. 32. Ibid., p. 88. 33. Altizer, Oriental Mysticism, p. 112. 34. Altizer, "Theology and the Death of God," p. 109. 35. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "Word and History," Theology Today, Vol. XXII (Oct., 1965), p. 383. Reprinted in Altizer and Hamilton, eds., Radical Theology, pp. 121-139. 36. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "The Challenge of Modern Gnosticism," The Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. XXX (Jan., 1962), P. 20. 37. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "The Sacred and the Profane: A Dialectical Understanding of Christianity," in Altizer and Hamilton, eds., Radical Theology, p. 146. 38. Altizer, "Theology and the Death of God," p. 100. 39. Ibid., p. 110.