Thomas J.J. Altizer and the Death of God

I recently finished reading a book that left my head spinning: the late radical theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer's Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir (SUNY Press, 2006). Altizer is one of those thinkers I've had a hard time grasping, but relatively recently I've come to understand him a bit more readily. If you prefer, I recommend reading this brief summary of much of Altizer’s works: “The Curious Theology of Thomas J.J. Altizer,” by Frederick B. Krieger.

It's probably not controversial to say that I think the 1960's "death of God" theological movement likely suffered from bad marketing; though, according to Altizer, journalists and even some church laity grasped the death of God better than theologians, it still seems a hard sell for the unconvinced. However, while many shake their heads at Altizer's "atheism," they seem to do so without ever fully grasping what his "atheism" really amounted to, what constituted it, what it was. In their defense, Altizer was less of an analytic philosopher and more of a Southern preacher. In other words, he cared more for sheer declaration, the kind of preaching that changes a person internally, than he did for rational argumentation. Perhaps an influence from his Buddhist affinities, he seems to have had a kind of "skillful means" in mind, wherein he would say what was pertinent, not necessarily what was logical or internally consistent. More precisely, he would say what needed to be heard by a particular audience, in order to curry them closer to the truth, than he would simply parrot hermetically-sealed logic or rational arguments. He was better that way, I believe.

Altizer proudly declared what he called the "death of God"—but I wonder how many who were terribly offended by that phrase actually stopped to ask what it meant. Friedrich Nietzsche received the same treatment, and I wonder even more fervently if it wasn't for the same reason: hubris or laziness. The best I can do is try to grasp what he meant, which is hard enough.

Altizer proudly borrowed from Nietzsche, and it seems Nietzsche's amor fati or "absolute-Yes" plays a prominent role in Altizer's protean theology. An absolute Yes to all things we said No to before. Typically we divide life into Yes and No: yes to these, no to those; half is good and attracts, half is bad and repulses. Yes to life, no to death; yes to fulfillment, no to meaninglessness; yes to pleasure, no to pain. This relationship between Yes and No is an opposition. Altizer instead sees that relationship, at least in Christianity, as a Hegelian dialectic—not an opposition or a synthesis, but something else. He agrees with Karl Barth that damnation is absolutely critical to Christian thought, though for radically different reasons. Salvation and damnation, eternal life and eternal death, relate in a coincidentia oppositorum, not opposition wherein one must overcome the other, nor in union where both peacefully co-exist, but more like as two modes of the same substance.

Borrowing from another theology: so far as I understand, Jehovah's Witnesses see this world, this life, as the biblical hell, which is fairly close to Altizer. Yet this theology sees hell-heaven as an opposition, not a dialectic; thus hell is that from which you are rescued, from which you are removed, to salvation of some kind. With Altizer's Hegelian edit, existence altogether, all there is, is in fact initially experienced as damnation. For Altizer, there is no afterlife per se, nor a realm "beyond" pulling the strings of "this world"—there is only the world. The salvation which Jesus affects is not an escape, nor is it a change thereto, like a revolutionary destabilization of a government or state; it is, rather, what might be called a transubstantiation by way of the absolute Yes. Altizer sees this as fully actualized by Jesus upon the cross in his cry of abandonment.

"My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?"—a moment of pure solitude, even loneliness, for Jesus in the depths of his most profound suffering. Christian theology goes so far as to expand this suffering on the cross, declaring it the symbol of human suffering as such, in toto and individually. For Altizer, this is the moment of absolute meaninglessness for Jesus. He is dying in the most horrific way possible and God is not with him. Jesus is absolutely alone. As G.K. Chesterton noted in his Orthodoxy, this was the moment when, for at least an instant, God himself was an atheist.

This is also the moment when Jesus can make his most authentically personal choice. Rather than a big Other constantly watching or even determining his actions, he may bring forth what is most authentically within himself. For Altizer, what Jesus brings forth is a holy Yes. "Into your hands I commend my spirit"—Jesus hands himself over to the reality of his situation, and as a result he is set free. For Altizer, this climax upon the cross is the pinnacle of Jesus' resurrection. In the midst of the profoundest suffering a human can undergo, immersed in all that to which a person may say No, even if symbolically, Jesus shouts a holy Yes. Altizer's theology is of a human Jesus who shouts Yes at the very center of the world's suffering, as well as his own, as if he himself had willed it—and thus he integrates it. In a fiercely Buddhist sense, he does not change the experience or escape it, but transubstantiates it in himself. To disciples contemplating him after, he is resurrected to true life, saying, "In the world you will suffer, but cheer up: I have overcome the world"—and you can, too.

For Altizer, Jesus is human insofar as he represents you and me and every human being who ever was, is, or ever will be; and he is divine insofar as he demonstrates the latent capacity within each of us to find freedom in crying Yes to that to which we most assuredly say No. For Altizer, this isn't a surrender of some other, better world in the beyond; it's not the giving up of a possible utopia in "this world," either; it's learning to fall in love with existence, the only world you've got, in the most genuine and sincere way you can.

A radical theology indeed, but one that seems to me a version of Christus Victor—the earliest-known interpretation Christians offered of the historical Jesus' death—by turning it 359 degrees around, rather than a tawdry 180. Altizer says this begins with Christianity, but culminates in modernity. The God whose death Altizer declares is the God of "beyond," the one who "pulls the strings of the universe," yet allows, as Harold Bloom notes, Holocausts and schizophrenia. Altizer's is a God who descends with humanity into the only world there is, and gifts it unearned grace.

I'll confess I'm a sucker for radicals and underdogs, those who can't help but see things otherwise, but I can't fault anyone for disliking or distrusting Altizer's work; there are a few (albeit unnecessary) boundaries between his oeuvre and the public. I'm also not entirely sure about surrendering a world beyond, though not necessarily in a supernatural sense. But if I've managed to encapsulate his theology at all in the above, I can wholeheartedly say he's influenced me for the better, and I can insist that anyone interested in theology—not only as a philosopher but a "preacher," so to speak—must encounter Altizer and have a chat.

While I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with him in his belief in the absolute death of God, I strongly empathize with the sentiment. Perhaps oddly, I see Altizer in the same spirit as I see Nietzsche and Mormonism's founder Joseph Smith. All three men responded in no uncertain terms to the theological mess which normative theism had delivered the world: a god so entirely transcendent and Other-Than that he could not possibly redeem us, let alone sustain himself.

A common motif of Western theology/philosophy is the absolute ontological chasm between humanity and God; neither is comparable to the other, and thus one cannot ultimately explain the latter with any precision using the terms, concepts, and realities of the former. Hence apophatic theology, negation in the sense that one can only meaningfully say what God is not, rather than what God is. Additionally, being wholly other than the world, yet somehow its creator, God is inevitably said to have created existence out of nothing (an idea that didn't appear until the late-first, early-second century). Thereafter enter the "omni's" humanity has laid upon this wholly-transcendent God: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and, of course, omnibenevolent. Never mind that few, if any of these terms can be teased out of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, and maybe even the Quran. At once so remote yet at the very bottom of existence, God is not merely the most moral being, but the being who creates morality from scratch. And having created all things from absolutely nothing, wholesale, he is thus wholly responsible for all things—for better or worse.

Numerous Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers began to see the chinks in the armor, however: a universe purported to exist and operate only because of divine fiat seemed to exist and operate quite readily on its own; science picked up where this omni-theology failed. Furthermore, Nietzsche spotted at the end of the nineteenth century the inability of contemporary European Christianity to affirm life, unlike Jesus; instead, he said, normative Christianity is a religion of resentment and a vicious denial of life itself: this world is seen as cruel, dark, sinful, so our only real shot is to escape this world, abandon it, for a vague "hereafter". Life itself is demoted to "this life" or "mortal life" in the shadow of a heaven which is always as out of reach as the wholly-other God of normative theism. Thus Nietzsche attacked the Christianity of his day, juxtaposing "the Crucified," who had been so disfigured from his original in Jesus of Nazareth, with a life-affirming Dionysus, a pagan god who embraced existence, from every suffering to every last pleasure. This sentiment was only further cemented by the twentieth century and its numerous atrocities.

Thinkers like Altizer (Christian), Richard Rubenstein (Jewish), and Slavoj Zizek (atheist) have the benefit of hindsight on the innumerable complex horrors of the last century to further articulate this revolt against the wholly-other God of normative theism. The tension is found in the all-powerful, all-knowing God who created existence itself from nothing, who is thus made accountable for Holocausts and gulags and killing fields; for Spanish influenza and polio; for schizophrenia and the dementia that eventually took Nietzsche's life. Forced to bear the weight of existence itself, the wholly-other God of normative theism, as an intellectual concept, buckles and crumbles. This is the God whom Nietzsche (rightly) declares dead, the consequences of whose death thinkers like Altizer tried to think through and respond to. William Blake saw this death for himself: this God of absolute transcendence had failed so thoroughly that he must in fact be Satan. So who is the true God, if that which normative theism considered to be God is either dead or at least demonic?

In the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph Smith articulated a God who was embodied in flesh and bone, time and space, who was not always God but was once mortal, and who occupies a position no more unattainable for humanity than the position of adulthood is to children. Like the the image of Jesus the Great High Priest of Margaret Barker's temple theology, Smith described Jesus not as one who momentarily dips his toe into "this world" like a stone skipping over water, but who immerses himself as deeply as possible into existence as a human being. Jesus' atonement is thus not an abstract calculus, repaying an infinitely distant and infinitely dishonored God, but a cosmic reunion, a renewal or restoration of a primordial "covenant" that once held together the now-fragmented cosmos itself, including the human condition, in perfect unity. Moreover, this work is not undertaken as a mere gesture to the wholly-transcendent God of normative theism, thus having nothing much to do with the concrete suffering of human beings; it is rather an absorption of that suffering, Jesus making it his responsibility, and a call to others to do the very same in their own particular times and places—a herculean restoration of the primordial ties that bind, rather than an abandonment of existence for an entirely different heaven.

According to the Aramaic scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz, the Israelite concept of heaven could never countenance such a divide. The Israelite temple, itself a microcosmic symbol or model of the world, located heaven not on an upper-level or outside the temple grounds, but at its very center. For Israelites, and thus for the historical Jesus, God/heaven are not that which is entirely other than our existence; rather, if the world is a tuning-fork, then God/heaven are the vibration which suffuses that fork; if the world is a body, God/heaven are the very breath and blood which animate it.

In part due to these thinkers, largely by way of Altizer, I find myself entirely unfazed when biblical scholars reveal that Jesus never claimed to be divine, because by "divine" or "God" they refer to normative theism, the Nietzschean God who is dead, the Blakean God who is Satan. Yet this does not rule out divinity as such. Jesus was divine in being most engaged in his own here-and-now; in being totally human, Jesus was also divine. In the Israelite worldview, and even that of Altizer, to separate from heaven or God was to dissociate from reality, from our original nature, even when we may think we are being ostensibly religious.

I value thinkers like Joseph Smith and more contemporary scholars—Barker, Zizek, Douglas-Klotz, among others—for their work in clearing away the theological debris of normative theism. Thomas J.J. Altizer most assuredly deserves his own place in this pantheon of theological and philosophical thinkers, having endured tremendous misunderstanding and even death threats, to do for the West what many others seemed entirely incapable of doing: to help us learn how to live meaningfully after the death of "God," and thus to find God.

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