It was in the spring of 1966 that radical death of God theology broke through the academic barrier and into the awareness of the general public in the United States. On the cover of what turned out to be its best-selling issue at the time, Time Magazine featured the controversial words, “Is God Dead?” The magazine article explored the challenges that modernity posed to faith and theology, including the rise of secularism and the natural sciences, which seemed to increasingly make God an unnecessary idea to make sense of the world. The leading death of God theologian, Thomas J.J. Altizer (b.1927) was also briefly mentioned in the article as proceeding to do theology without God. Altizer even received death threats in response to his theological claims, which are perhaps most clearly expressed in his 2002 book, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (a revision of his 1966 manifesto, The Gospel of Christian Atheism). As Altizer explains in the book’s preface, his goal is to explicate the “most radical ‘dogmatic’ theology, one that attempts to discover the death of God as the very essence of the Christian faith, and to do so by unveiling a uniquely Christian crucifixion as apocalypse itself” (viii). But despite the negativity that drives Altizer’s project (a concept that is indeed crucial for him), he argues that the apocalyptic negation of the transcendent God makes “possible an ultimate affirmation and an ultimate joy” in life (x, my emphases). Perhaps more surprising is that Altizer’s work is not only joyful, but profoundly Christocentric – and arguably just as much as Barth’s theology. For in Altizer’s thinking, the Crucified Christ is indeed the very center of history and the absolute Incarnation of the Godhead.
The central philosophical sources for Altizer’s theology are undoubtedly Hegel and Nietzsche, followed by Heidegger and Kierkegaard. He often draws on the poetry of William Blake, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Altizer also engages three of the most revolutionary Christian theologians: Augustine, Luther, and Barth. His radical theology is thus a critical synthesis of some of the most challenging thinkers in Western philosophy, literature, and theology. While this can make for difficult reading at times, if one can discern the basic narrative at the core of Altizer’s project – which is inspired by his radical interpretation of the bible – the essence of his death of God theology can be grasped.
It is important to note that Altizer does not oppose Christian faith, but rather “manifest” Christianity (i.e., “Christendom”). He is a radical theologian for the sake of a “new Christianity” that challenges the “old Christianity” of orthodoxy. For Altizer, orthodoxy is profoundly reactionary, and even anti-Christian in its efforts to cling to a primordial ground. It is thus a denial of the apocalyptic origins of Christianity, the very opposite of the orthodox desire to return to a primordial ground: it is the forward-moving affirmation of the radically new in history, the “absolute novum” (26). Focusing on the crucifixion, Altizer claims it reveals “death [as] absolute in Christianity…only the ending or death of the old creation makes possible the new creation, and Paul knows that ending as occurring in the Crucifixion, a crucifixion thereby manifest as apocalypse itself. This is the very apocalypse that is renewed in a new Christianity…but now death is total as it never is in…ancient Christianity, a totality of death inaugurated by the very advent of the modern world, and one only consummated in our world” (30). Despite the Christocentric particularity of this death, it is only with the birth of the modern world that the death of God becomes truly universal. Indeed, secular modernity is to be understood as “a repetition or renewal of the Crucifixion [that] universalizes the Crucifixion” (31). This points to the Hegelian-Nietzschean narrative of Altizer’s theology: in the Incarnation, the transcendent Godhead absolutely empties Godself (kenosis) into the human Jesus, and literally dies in the Crucifixion (contra the orthodox belief that only the human nature of Jesus suffered and died). God thus becomes absolutely immanent Spirit in the world after the negation of abstract “heavenly transcendence” in the Crucifixion (45, 54).
While this is a certain kind of “atheism”, Altizer specifically argues for the death of every “given or manifest God” (52, my emphases). Having become absolutely immanent, the resurrected Spirit is now “truly all in all” and “identified with actuality itself,” Altizer writes (53). His Christian atheism is thus difficult to distinguish from pantheism. Indeed, Altizer claims that Spinoza’s pantheism becomes truly “comprehensive” with Hegel’s Absolute Spirit (54, 77-78). Thus in Altizer’s reading of Hegel, the concept of Resurrection is rendered “unrecognizable” for Christian orthodoxy (56), because it is inseparable from Crucifixion and now signifies “an absolutely transfigured God, a God who is pure and total immanence as opposed to pure and total transcendence” (57). This is the final “ending [of] every beyond” (61), of every primordial ground: an absolute “No” to the nihilistic powers of transcendence and an absolute “Yes” to embodied life (66).
Barth’s “Christomonism” also prepared the way for Altizer’s Christian atheism. Barth made “impossible any Neoplatonic understanding of the Godhead” because he banished “every understanding of God that is not an understanding of Christ” (82). And yet Altizer believes that Barth did not go far enough, because he still remained partly Neo-Platonic with ancient Christianity in his view of “Godhead itself as absolutely primordial…whose primordial movement is understood as the movement of eternal return, as manifest in the Trinity itself.” By contrast, Altizer claims that it was Hegel who thought the Trinity most purely in terms of absolute apocalypse rather than primordial ground: “a death of the Father releasing the totality of the crucifixion of the Son, and one wherein the Father passes wholly into the Son, but whose culmination is that resurrection that is the advent of the final age of the Spirit…an absolutely immanent Spirit” (83-85). Following Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity as the reversal of the “life-giving” gospel of Jesus – because its logic produces extreme guilt and impotent passivity in humanity, rather than freedom and empowerment – Altizer argues that the self-annihilation of God releases the liberating gospel of Jesus from oppressive and alienating theistic transcendence, which Altizer identifies as “Satan” (following Blake, 94-96).
There is much to admire in Altizer’s radical theology, although I found myself struggling with his frequent use of words like “absolute,” “total”, “complete”, “purely”, “ultimate”, “comprehensive”, “wholly”, “final”, etc. To be sure, this totalizing style flows out of his Hegelian-apocalyptic thinking. But I do not share his confidence that history has “absolutely” moved toward secularism, or that modernity “finally” killed God. Not only are such teleological metanarratives difficult to maintain from a postmodern perspective, but religion is also a more complex phenomenon than Altizer acknowledges. Furthermore, the concepts of transcendence and immanence remain unclear in his work. I wonder: in what sense is God now immanent in the world? Why would the death of the transcendent God lead to pan/atheistic immanence rather than a finite God of some sort (as in William James or Henry Nelson Weiman)? Is it really the case that God must totally die for the sake of human liberation? Or is the problem less that God is transcendent (in some sense) than that God is often uncritically viewed as an all-determining, moralistic, and exclusively male despot? This continues to be the response to Altizer’s work from many process and feminist theologians, who are otherwise sympathetic with much of his thinking. As Catherine Keller has suggested, perhaps “God is not dead, but becoming.” With this in mind, perhaps “radical theology” – broadly defined – need not depend on the absolute death of God.