Chapter 4: Catholic Theology and the Death of God: A Response by Eric C. Meyer
Note: Eric C. Meyer is engaged in advanced studies at the University of Münster, Germany.
This essay is an effort to reflect on some of the problems raised by Dr. Thomas J. J. Altizer’s serious attempt to show that a Catholic death-of-God theology is possible. Dr. Altizer explored this possibility in a paper that he read in the summer of 1967 at the Catholic University workshop on the problem of God m contemporary thought. The paper was printed in the 1967 summer issue of Cross Currents but mistakenly entitled "Catholic Philosophy and the Death of God."1 My intention is to show why Altizer’s careful arguments in favor of the possibility of a Catholic death-of-God theology are inconclusive. This essay does not purport to be a fully adequate encounter with Altizer’s radical theology; but however small, I hope it will be a genuine contribution to the ongoing task of responsible theological reaction to the earnest questions and challenges put to the Catholic faith by members of the death-of-God movement.
I shall begin by underlining some of the most important things Dr. Altizer has said in addressing himself directly to Catholic theology. I will follow this by a critique of his understanding of the category of analogy in Catholic theology and of his arguments to show the evolutionary nature of God. After that, I will recall the central thesis of his paper and then summarize and respond to each of his efforts to answer the three objections he himself considers against his project of showing that a Catholic death-of-God theology is possible.
Altizer’s probe of the possibility of a Catholic death-of-God theology is a real venture in creative ecumenical thinking. It is perhaps the most important attempt to date to bring death-of-God theology out of a purely Protestant theological world into the center of Catholic reflection as a Catholic program and not just a Protestant curio requiring at the most an occasional Catholic commentary. There is a firm and practical acceptance of the unity of Christian theology in that Altizer concedes that if death-of-God theology is not a possible option for Catholic theology, then he must reluctantly admit that no Christian death-of-God theology is possible and that atheistic theology is a "destructive aberration." This serious confrontation with Catholic theology, which he explicitly recognizes as a Church theology, is also an ecumenical breakthrough for Altizer’s own radical theology, because it means that Altizer has relented somewhat from his very negative attitude toward the Christian Churches and Church theologies, which in The Gospel of Christian Atheism he pronounced thoroughly demonic because of their alleged efforts to return to or cling to past forms of God’s revelation of himself.2 He now grants that it might be possible that it is atheistic theology which is demonic. Beyond this initiation of direct discussion between Catholic theology and death-of-God theology, Altizer calls on all Catholics and Protestants to occupy a common theological frontier with regard to atheism -- examining together if it be a genuine possibility that atheism might be the final stage in the development of Christian faith. Altizer doubts that real ecumenicity with the modern secular world is possible until Christianity can see how atheism might be accepted theologically.
The most important concern in Altizer’s thought is the significance of the problem of atheism. He does not simply take note, as so many have, of the pervasive and seemingly irreversible rise of atheism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in everyday life, in literature, philosophy and, indeed, all throughout our culture. He emphasizes the Christian and theological character of the rise of atheism. Modern atheism is a Christian problem in part because it has evolved quite specifically in the Christian West and because it often bears the Christian characteristics of humanism, optimism, and a hopeful forward-orientation. The negative efforts of traditional Christian apology against atheism have only further removed Christian faith from the secular world. Even within the Christian Churches there is growing admission that it is more and more difficult to call on the name of God and that the experience of God’s absence is overpowering. Altizer rejects many of the more recent positions toward the problem of atheism: that we need a long moratorium of God-talk, that God is somehow eclipsed for a time but will return, that what God is in himself is eternally unnameable, that what has died is some idolatrous idea of God, that there never was a God and now he is unthinkable because any need for such an idea has passed. Altizer contends that an in-depth examination of the nature and evolution of Christian faith will show that atheism can be a final stage in the development of Christian faith and theology. He argues that it is possible to reconcile Christianity and atheism because something really happens in God which explains his demise in our consciousness. In his view this happening is that the transcendent God becomes incarnate as Christ and dies once and for all to his transcendence with the death of Christ to become universally immanent in man and cosmos. As God’s immanence in man continues to evolve toward a final apocalyptic goal of the complete identification of everything, so that God eventually will be all in all, the memory of the transcendent God becomes ever more distant and alien.
I believe it is true and important to maintain that the experience of the absence of God is today our principal problem, a Christian problem and a theological problem that requires a positive theological answer. Nonetheless we will see that the manner in which Altizer attempts to open up the possibility to his kind of death-of-God theology for Catholicism must be judged inconclusive.
In his paper Dr. Altizer appeals for a systematic theological assimilation of cosmic evolution and the developmental character of historical consciousness. He insists on a general revelation in nature (and that therefore its character must be evolutionary) and that the Church’s unity with the world be thought out. Most importantly, Dr. Altizer places the Incarnation at the center of any theological consideration of atheism, maintaining, orthodoxly enough, that Christian theology must be Christology. The concreteness, fullness, and irreversibility of God’s Incarnation and death in Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most striking elements of Altizer’s Christology and an important departure from the merely moral rendition of the Incarnation’s meaning that one seems to encounter in so much of modern Protestant systematic reflection on the Incarnation. For Altizer, God quite actually and historically became Jesus and died in Jesus’ death to any transcendent separateness. The Incarnate Word now is not a resurrected Jesus as in any way distinct or individual or personal. The Incarnate Word is present as having become universally and immanently one with all cosmic and human energy and life, and this entire dialectically evolving process of energy and life is gradually moving forward beyond all past and present forms to a Final Totality or coincidence of opposites that will be in its ultimate condition a perfect identity of oneness. An important aspect of Altizer’s Christological thinking is systematically to unify Incarnation and Eschatology by way of his theory of the dialectical movement of transcendence into immanence and on to a final apocalyptical identity. This last aspect of Altizer’s eschatology is not clearly developed in his essay; however, it must not be lost sight of if we are to avoid the error of thinking that he proposes that the present immanence of the Incarnation process is the final condition of God’s dying to transcendence so as to be all in all.
Altizer is correct when he says that Catholic theology is attempting to go beyond relating God and world in a merely negative way by its use of analogy. The analogous relation of God and world does claim to express a relation with positive content. It tries to bridge over absolute dichotomy. It does not affirm a mere dualism. The analogous relation is even "integral," at least from the side of the world in its complete dependence on God. But in Catholic theology "analogy" fully intends to preserve the polarity of that relation and even to include the negative as well as the positive aspects of the polar relationship of God and world. What is commonly attributed to God and man is said of God in a manner essentially different from the way in which it is said of man. Even if we might speak of both analogues as in process with relationship to one another, such a process is only similar in the analogues, not essentially the same or identical. Analogy is not the kind of a dialectical relation that terminates in complete coincidence or identification. Analogy is necessarily relational, but relation is eventually destroyed in identification, in becoming an identical one. The concept of analogy cannot be manipulated to overcome relation between God and world. It presumes and strives to cope with distinction and relation. In view of his supposed rejection of any static logic of identity and contradiction, it is not without interest that Altizer cannot acknowledge a dialectical relationship that comes to terms with a coincidence of real opposites but only with such an understanding of dialectics as will lead to its own destruction by the annihilation of the polarity in a final, posthistorical, permanent identity. In Altizer’s concept of cosmic and historical process, an initial monism (the Original Totality) falls into the related parts of God and world, which slowly merge again by the entire and gradual process of Incarnation into a final monism (the Final Totality). Now, as we have said, analogy within Catholic theology is at base relational. It is not inimical to process and transformation and unification, but it is opposed to monism.
In his essay Altizer uses various arguments to contend that God’s nature is dialectically evolving process, the progressive process of the transformation of transcendence into immanence. I believe that these arguments may be summarized in three syllogistic forms for purposes of a tidy discussion. Proceeding in this manner does some injustice to Dr. Altizer’s fluidity of thought, but I think this injustice is neither major nor completely avoidable. Of that we will let the reader who has the industry to reread Altizer’s paper as well as this critique be the final judge.
The first summary may be phrased in this way: God is "analogously or integrally" related to the cosmos. But the cosmos is in evolution and undergoes transformation. Therefore, God evolves or undergoes transformation.3 We have already argued that the Catholic understanding and use of analogy cannot be put in service of Dr. Altizer’s position because he miscalculates the Catholic stance on analogy. The Catholic theologian would conclude no more than that God may be said to evolve from the side of the cosmos’ relation to God, but that evolution in God would be essentially different from what is in the cosmos. Further, since Altizer already holds that everything (God included) arises by way of the fall of creation from an Original Totality without distinctions before that fall, his argument does not proceed with the Catholic idea of the analogous relation of God and the cosmos.
The second summary may be made in the following manner: Faith bears such an essential, necessary, and integral relation to its object (God) that God cannot properly be said to exist independently of what faith apprehends him to be. But what the faith is has undergone and continues to undergo historical and evolutionary transformation. Therefore, God has undergone and continues to undergo historical and evolutionary transformation.4 The evolutionary movement of faith is a consequence of the evolutionary movement of God.
Can we assert of anything we know (that is not purely a logical construct) that it has no existence independent from what we apprehend it to be? To say so would require that we know it with an exhaustive intuition of its total presence. This would appear to dispense with faith in the sense of evidence of things unseen. Besides, if we cannot validly conclude with Anselm to the real existence of God even though our idea of him as perfect being includes existence, how can we validly conclude with Altizer to the evolutionary nature of God because our current idea of him as living includes process and transformation? Still further, one must recognize that if God exists in no other way than what our faith apprehends him to be, then, because there are today simultaneously many different and conflicting faith apprehensions of God (even among Christians), God would be nothing other than many different and conflicting things at one and the same time. It was with this problem in mind that the German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa tried to elaborate the principle of coincidence of opposites. God in himself exists as an identity that somehow reconciles all of the many conflicting ways in which we know him, but we do not grasp that identification itself. Altizer uses this idea, but only as the ultimate goal of a dialectical process that has already emptied the transcendent God into man and cosmos and will eventually pour every opposite into a final identity. However, if God really has no existence independent of what our faith apprehends him to be and if the evolution of faith is a consequence of the evolutionary movement of God himself, it would seem more logical to conclude that at the present time God is moving in many different and opposed directions. On the basis of these two ifs, a return to polytheism would have the edge over pantheism or atheism.
I think one must grant that God’s revelation of himself, his saving presence for us, has truly evolved -- at least in the Incarnation. But one cannot argue that because God is one, therefore this presence is all there is to God (and then accuse dissenters of having to posit two natures in God -- one really revealed and one still "other"). Revelation is the way in which God is present to us and for us. Catholic faith and theology see world, Scripture, Church, and Christ (the sacrament) as sacraments of God -- as body in which, by which, and through which man (because man is body) receives God’s presence and returns his love. God remains himself even in his increasing presence or immanence. The tension of this dialectic is intellectually agonizing (as is faith), but it does not stumble into the nonencounter of a deistic dualism or a pantheistic monism. It would seem to me that Altizer’s position is perilously close to being the equivalent of the latter, at least in his concept of origin, of the Incarnation and the apocalypse. Panentheists of the Whiteheadian and Hartshornean variety have much to offer at this junction (since a very explicit effort is made to reconcile classical theism and pantheism), but considering that position would be a digression from our purpose here.
A third summary of Altizer’s argumentation is the following: The Christian must believe that the transcendent God emptied himself into Christ and became fully present in him. But Christ was fully flesh and really died on the cross. Therefore, in Christ’s life and death the Christian must believe that transcendence was fully transformed into immanence and finally died to itself.5 It is not at all clear why the Christian must accept so literal an interpretation of the kenosis doctrine. Exegetical options with regard to Philippians 2 and John 1 do not demand such extreme literalness. Certainly the great Christological Councils do not present the kind of kenosis Altizer says the Christian must believe. It would seem that by "Christian" here Altizer means the radical Christian atheist. But Altizer robs his own argument of strength when he says that the forward-moving process that is God "cannot fully and forever be identified with any one of His manifestations. . . ." 6 I would point out that he says "fully" as well as "forever." In another place he tries to say how God in some manner remains the same in that "as God moves forward his full life and energy are carried into new forms or expressions so that his energy remains itself even while undergoing transformation."7
Therefore, Altizer does have a kind of transcendence in his concept of God as forward-moving process, but that transcendence seems to have or be the very forms of cosmos and man now, even though the forms of cosmos and man are passing away as the energy moves on to a final identity of all opposites. Altizer’s literal interpretation of the Incarnation in this third argument seems ultimately even more self-destructive than Origen’s well-intentioned but much too literal interpretation of Christ’s words to his disciples about those who have courage to make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:12). Not only does God as the transcendent Christian God die to himself in Altizer’s thought, but Christ dies completely to any individual personality and continues only as the universally immanent dynamism (which Altizer names the Incarnate Word), which gradually converges everything dialectically toward apocalyptic identification. As for ourselves, every form or particle of ego or individuality or personal consciousness must be extinguished in that final absorption of every distinction. This would seem to be the castration of everything we know as self and cosmos.
The following quotation from Dr. Altizer’s article states its thesis. I have added the numbers and capitals.
I propose to examine . . . with the purpose of ascertaining whether or not it is closed to the Catholic thinker: the possibility of an atheistic or death-of-God theology. Many critics have charged: (1) THAT A DEATH-OF-GOD THEOLOGY CAN HAVE NO POSSIBLE GROUND IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH, (2) THAT IT IGNORES OR SIMPLY NEGATES THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION, AND (3) THAT IT COLLAPSES THEOLOGY INTO A NATURALISTIC OR HUMANISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY. Now if these charges are true I can see no possibility of a Catholic death-of-God theology, nor for that matter could I then see the possibility of any form of Christian atheism. But I believe them to be untrue, and I shall approach these Charges by way of taking up the question of the inherent possibility of a Catholic atheistic theology.8
Here we can raise three questions: (1) Can Altizer’s death-of-God theology have a possible ground in the life of the Church? (2) Does it ignore or simply negate Christian tradition? (3) Does it collapse theology into a merely naturalistic or humanistic anthropology? In the rest of this article we will comment on these questions.
1. In part, Altizer seems to be contending that God already is dead even within the life of the Churches. He would argue ab esse ad posse. He says that Catholic artists are no longer producing life-giving images of God, that Church people are themselves admitting that even in their rare moments of prayer they cannot evoke the image of God nor call on his name (because these are inextricably linked with transcendence) and that many of the Church’s own radical prophets and seers have witnessed to the death of God and to the fact that we can speak of God only when we speak of Christ.
Could one argue that God neither existed nor was known to Jews or Muslims because he was never pictured in their noniconic art? Besides, the state of Catholic art would not seem to be theologically very different from the past with regard to God-images. The old man and dove symbols were never very life-giving. Christian art has always found its real life-giving images in Christ. As to the second point, "Lex orandi est lex credendi" for the Catholic, and the Church has consistently prayed "through Jesus Christ, Your Son, Our Lord." Even the words of the "Our Father" were remembered as the words of Christ addressed to the Father Jesus reveals. Further, the liturgical revival, the growing interest in Scripture, in retreats, and in new forms of group prayer and apostolate would seem to indicate the opposite of what Altizer argues. It may be true that contemplative prayer is waning today. However, even if it were clear that contemplative prayer and God as transcendent must stand or fall together (and that is not clear), one would have to point out that it is strange that, if the transcendent God died fully and finally to his transcendence in Jesus of Nazareth, contemplative prayer should have flourished so vigorously in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not to mention the classical theistic theologies of the fourth and fifth centuries and the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Finally, is it a departure from the uncompromising Christocentrism of Pauline and Johannine theology for the Church’s latter-day prophets and seers to say that we truly speak the name of God only when we speak of Christ?
In his more important argument Altizer says that God’s dying to himself so as to become fully one with all men can have a ground in the very life of the Catholic Church in that the Church is not only not bound to any past images of herself, but her very goal and mission is to open up to and be incorporated into the entire world. The Church is to be the body of Christ. But the total body of Christ involves all the cosmos and all human life and energy and consciousness. Therefore, the Church is not restricted to its merely institutional forms but becomes one with all men and the entire cosmos. Underlying his argument is Altizer’s basic belief that the Christ that is now present (that has negated and moved beyond the forms of the historical Jesus and the Christ of the Gospels) is an Incarnate Word that is fully immanent in the world and in all human energy and life and progress. The Church is the whole body of the present Incarnate Word. Therefore, the Church must become the whole world and must die to any form separate from the world.
Catholic theologians have often spoken of "the natural Christian" and "the anonymous Christian." Christ is confessed as both creator and redeemer, and it is claimed that he has already won the victory over death and begun the renewal of all things. I think, therefore, it must be said from the Catholic viewpoint that the saving presence of Christ is everywhere immanent (without annihilation of his personal unity), but this presence is not automatically unitive in such an opere operato manner that it requires no human involvement nor choice. In this sense, it seems to me that we may say that all men are potentially and even virtually members of Christ already, but the presence of Christ is not a demonic suppression of human selfhood and its freedom. Even if one attempts by subtle arguments to show that somehow men really accept Christ in their very seeming rejection of him (because the Christian witness they encounter is either unworthy or incomplete and so on), there is still always the possibility of sin, of closing in on oneself against Christ. If there were no such possibility, there would be no possibility of any free, personal acceptance of Christ either. Therefore, although the institutional Church is not exhaustively the entirety of the body of Christ, this fact does not require that the Church have no explicit and definable expression whatever nor that the Church must be willy-nilly everything. As a matter of fact, redemption or the new creation should radically change the old creation; and the completion of the new creation is not simply independent of man’s response.
Furthermore, Altizer himself has argued in effect that the institutional Churches are not in the Church because they are not members of the body of the present (and therefore the only) Christ. He judged them to be fundamentally guilty of heresy by their clinging to the transcendent God and to the Christ of the Gospels. This "religious" faith and theology of return to past forms separates them from the only true Incarnate Word of Christ of the immanent present. Therefore, if it is possible to separate oneself in this way, then the whole world cannot simply be the Church.
Altizer has not shown that the life of the Church can be fully absorbed into the cosmos as he proposes. Therefore, he has not been able to demonstrate convincingly that it is really possible in this regard for his brand of death-of-God radical theology to be grounded in the life of the Church.
2. Altizer contends that Christian tradition is not simply negated but dialectically negated, i.e., that precisely by negating its past and static forms it is affirmed in a transformed way so as to bring the entirety of its life and energy forward into the present and future. This continuing dialectical transformation moves toward a culmination in Christian atheism precisely because authentic Christian tradition must reflect the dialectical movement of God, who emptied himself into Christ and by the death of Christ became universally immanent in cosmos and consciousness and continues there to move on toward the final identity of opposites in which God will be all in all. Therefore, although everyone experiences the absence of the transcendent God, it is only the Christian who can really know and name this absence as the death of God. Confessing God’s death is, then, a Christian profession of faith which moves Christian tradition forward to the atheistic evolution of its own intrinsic destiny in a final apocalyptic Totality.
First of all, I would like to point out what seems to me the logical conclusion of Altizer’s contention that tradition must follow the movement of energy beyond every particular form, in the direction of an apocalyptic identity of opposites in which God will be all in all. If this were merely another form of the dialectical process of energy and life -- rather than the energy and life itself -- it would be static and require the fixation or death of process or movement. Therefore, if the process of life and energy is not to go on endlessly negating every new form in order to move beyond it, if a final coincidence of opposites is actually to be achieved, then that coincidence would have to be formless or pure energy or life. But such an abstraction or formlessness of energy and life is the equivalent of the "Pure Act" concept of God, an actuality that has realized every possible form. The method of arriving at this concept is certainly different, but the result seems largely the same. This idea of God, however, is so excessively abstract and even deterministic that it seems foremost among the perishing or deceased God-concepts. Secondly, Altizer’s idea of God’s finally becoming all in all is an ultimate identification of opposites that annihilates all distinctions. But from our viewpoint as persons, this differs in no practical way from a final nothingness. God again becomes a monster-God that devours us. Thirdly, traditional Christian faith has always stood on Paul’s either/or proposition in 1 Corinthians 15:19: "If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of all people." Christian tradition stands or falls on a personal salvation beyond the brutal collapse of death. We puzzle over how that trust could be realized. We puzzle over the nature of Christ’s resurrection, and the locus of the resurrected Christ is extremely problematic, but in so merging Christ with cosmos and consciousness that he has no personality of his own in any sense, Altizer certainly seems to have negated Christian tradition. At any rate, he has not shown us convincingly that .his death-of-God theology meaningfully affirms Christian tradition.
3. Altizer argues that Catholic theology has always recognized a general revelation (besides the special revelation of Scripture), that it has never separated God the creator from God the redeemer, and that it has always grounded itself in philosophy and natural theology. But if this is true, then it cannot now separate its doctrines of God, Christ, Church, and Faith from the historical development of human consciousness and the fact of cosmic evolution. But evolution involves transformation and takes us beyond past forms much as the living stream of present-day biological life has left behind the dead fossils of its past. Therefore, Catholic theology can be open to the possibility of becoming one with death-of-God theology and leave the transcendent God himself behind as a dead fossil. However, this does not mean that theology becomes a mere naturalistic or humanistic anthropology, because even while undergoing kenotic transformation God remains one with himself in the sense that the totality of that forward-moving energy and life can be said to be God and always remains the process of energy and life, and because, if I may add this point from The Gospel of Christian Atheism, death-of-God theology demands a real wager of faith in the totally present and immanent, evolving Incarnate Word as the only Christ (risking complete loss if Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever)9
If Altizer has not already reduced theology to a naturalism, it still seems to be the goal of his dialectic, for God and man are moving toward a final coincidence which will be a dialectically attained identification of opposites -- not a coincidence of juxtaposition or harmony or even of union. It is not at all clear how with this eschatology he avoids the objection that he reduces theology to a naturalism. The God of the end will not be different from anything else. Even at this present, pre-apocalyptic stage of Altizer’s Incarnational dialectic it is difficult to see how Altizer has avoided the charge he seeks to offset. Perhaps he might answer by describing this dialectical movement as a mutual one, as he often does in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, that the spirit becomes flesh and the flesh spirit. However, if this is to be more than a mere switch in poles, then both spirit and flesh must pass into one another and become some third thing (a synthesis or coincidence of the two that is a new identity rather than a tensive relation of the two in union and distinction, since Altizer appears to reject the latter idea of coincidence). But if this is the case, then man should have already correlatively died to himself as man just as much as Altizer claims the transcendent God has died to ‘himself as God. Since Altizer claims the transcendent God has fully and finally died to himself, this hardly seems very believable.
If God dies to transcendence or separateness and becomes fully and irreversibly immanent in man and world, in the movement of human consciousness and cosmic evolution -- and so much so that Altizer often repeats the words of Blake that God exists and acts only in existing and acting men, and that he can say in his essay that God has no separate nor independent existence apart from what faith apprehends him to be -- then, it appears unclear why this consciousness should still be called faith, since it is the very consciousness of God become man. It would seem that the process of energy and life which God still remains is, at least in the passing present, the evolving cosmos-man form of God, even if this form is to be dialectically negated and gone beyond in the future. It is clear that Altizer is not a positivist in the normal sense of the word, but humanism and naturalism need not be so restricted. It also seems clear that de facto most humanists find that Altizer’s explanation of our experience of being without God demands too much faith, but my point is that this demand for faith is not clear from within Altizer’s own system, because he asserts that God has through Christ quite fully emptied himself into cosmic evolution and our human consciousness. If God now does not exist nor act except in existing and acting men, then faith is only another word for human consciousness.
Altizer has not effectively clarified how his death-of-God theology avoids reducing theology to a merely naturalistic and humanistic anthropology. Therefore, on this count also it does not seem that Altizer has shown us the possibility of a Catholic death-of-God theology.
1. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "Catholic Philosophy and the Death of God," Cross Currents, Vol. XVII (1967), pp. 271-282.
2. Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (The Westminster Press, 1966). Cf. especially pp. 9-28.
3. Altizer, "Catholic Philosophy and the Death of God," especially p. 278.
4. Ibid., especially pp. 275-276.
5. Ibid., pp. 275-276, 279-280, 281.
6. Ibid., p.278.
7. Ibid., p. 279.
8. Ibid., pp. 271-272.
9. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, pp. 137-138.