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The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response by John B. Cobb, Jr. (editor)


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1970. Used by Permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 2: Dialectic or Duality? by William A. Beardslee


Note: William A. Beardslee is Professor of Religion at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

It is a privilege to respond to the thought of Dr. Altizer, from whom I have learned as much about theology during the past ten years as I have from anyone else. But I do not find my response easy to formulate. It is not difficult from the fact that in Dr. Altizer’s theology I am, as a believer in the old transcendent God, unwittingly a servant of Satan -- in all seriousness, that can happen to any theologian, and we need to be able to see ourselves in that light. The difficulty is simply that I do not find it easy to be sure that I have really grasped the center and thrust of his thought.

Let us first sketch very briefly some of the leading motifs of his theology. Central and basic is his dialectic. There are no fixed things. The structure of human reality is process, and this process is not additive, but dialectical, which means that time does not bring just an accumulation or enrichment as the case may be, but a reversal whereby things pass into their opposites. But the dialectic is not simply cyclical (things passing into their opposites and back again indefinitely); the dialectical is fundamentally one-directional and telic. Its central key is the dialectic of Spirit and flesh: Spirit, existing originally in itself, apart, moves into flesh where it exists for itself, and this consciousness of itself as "there" in flesh makes possible a richer existence in itself. The ultimate goal, which will be also an end (finis), will be the complete passing of Spirit into flesh. I take Dr. Altizer to hold that all important human meaning takes part in the dialectic process. For human meaning centers in faith; and we now see the dialectic of faith, that is, of Christian faith, in its radicality, namely, that the transcendence of God passes totally into the immanence of Christ, so that transcendence when perceived as such has only a shell left -- the power of repression. Hence faith calls us to be completely open to the present moment, so that the energy of love may be released with no reserve or restraint imposed by past forms. The very darkness of the present moment signifies that a new epiphany of Christ may dialectically take place if we give ourselves totally to the world. Even though such a way of faith may exist principally as a vision, and be as yet largely beyond our grasp as a whole way of life, nonetheless it is the only framework of reference for human meaning to the man of contemporary Christian faith.

This is a very bare statement, and no doubt is inadequate. Dr. Altizer sums it up by calling on the Christian joyfully to will the death of God. I have tried to do this, and I only draw a blank; it is not possible for me. Perhaps I cannot articulate the reasons with full clarity, but let us look at some of them. What you will find is a humanistic Puritan commenting on the work of a radical theologian -- in many ways no new situation, since radical theology has important roots in left-wing Puritanism, and there is a long history of bitter controversy between Puritanism and its left wing.

My first comments will deal with the structure of existence as perceived by Dr. Altizer. In Dr. Altizer’s vision, repression and energy are polar opposites (it seems to me that most of the time he thinks about them dualistically rather than dialectically). Love means release of energy, openness, total presentness; and it involves, of course, complete freedom to enter into suffering as well as joy. With all of this I am in accord, but I separate myself from him when he explicates his meaning by contrasting all this with any form of withholding energy. What I see here is the fear that any structure channeling the energy of love will be antithetical to love, will be, in fact, a retreat from love or from life, and this does not correspond to reality as I see it. Life and love require structure for fullness. It is evident that the sexual symbolism so fully used by Blake (and so widely felt to be the fullest symbolism for total presentness in the imagination of our time) carries with it this sense of the dissolving of structure, of the loss of self in total union. At the same time, the inability of sex to provide a full release from selfhood could raise some questions about this model for understanding "presentness."

To me the fundamental point is that some elements of pattern or structure are precisely what enable energy to manifest itself with totality and power. At this point the "I-Thou" symbolism of Buber, Ebner, and others is more adequate than the sexual symbolism. The mutual openness of love comes to its fullest expression not in a merging in which all structure is lost, but in a patterned mutuality. It is true, as Buber pointed out long ago, that one cannot confront the "thou" in a fixed or rigid structure, but the relationship nonetheless spontaneously takes form, and the form includes a withholding, a shaping, even a repressing of energy. In other language, harshness and grace need each other, and they are inextricably interwoven in the very necessity of form in the relationship of love.

Related to the dislike of form in Dr. Altizer’s thought is his dislike of the past, for he understands form primarily as the fixed form imposed by the past, which the present must break. This stance toward the past is extremely widespread today, and assumes varied forms. In Dr. Altizer’s thought the predominant note is that time is a leaving behind of the past. Of course, he perceives our own time as one in which historical roots are not available, but he has generalized this particular situation which he finds in Western civilization into a universal dialectic, or perhaps more properly antagonism, of the past and present. Pastness is deadness, sterility, repression. To live we must live in the present, and faith is able in some sense to make the future already real in the present, so that the future is not something "out there" on a line of time, but that which reaches into the present in faith. however, for Dr. Altizer, faith does not seem to have a similar creative relationship to the past, toward which its stance must be 0ne of breaking away and freeing itself.

It is obvious that in comparison to the openness of the present, there is a sense in which the past is dead. But it seems to me that Dr. Altizer has fallen into a naturalization of historical time, that he has been led astray by his nineteenth-century mentors, who were battling against the rigidity of a mechanistic universe, for there is no doubt that in the mechanistic and objective sense the past is dead and unchangeable. No doubt human and historical time shares this quality -- a word once said can’t be unsaid. But my perception of historical time is very different from Dr. Altizer’s. Memory is the central focus of historical time, and in the context of memory the past is a living resource, and not just a repressive and negating factor. In my perception, time "buds" (a metaphor which I acquired from William James via Dr. Ivor Leclerc), time pushes forward as the fluid and growing tip which is supported by and draws resources from the harder but still living stem behind it. The past provides possibilities (and though memory is the central locus, these possibilities are by no means confined to what is consciously remembered). It may be that the direction of the present comes from the future, not from the past; but the past is constantly reaching into the present ill countless ways, both creative and destructive. Physically, we carry the past around with us in our bodies, and meet it in our environment, so that in some sense the past is already the future -- and this is so not only physically -- what we have already done to our children is part of their future. But this does not have to be understood in a rigidly deterministic way. The past will bud forth into the future as part of the complex fabric of the successive presents. Each present is free within the conditions and possibilities offered to it by its past. This is the way existence is, and if you want to love it and enter into it completely, it will not do to chop off the past and regard it as simply negative and repressive.

Of course I recognize that each of us speaks from a particular and limited point of view, and we know that the experience of alienation from the past is widespread today. Lawrence Durrell had to escape what he called the "English death," and his rebellion against what seemed to him to be the rigid and lethal forms of the English past produced the volcanic eruption of The Black Book. Dr. Altizer’s book -- also black -- is a kind of volcanic eruption against the "Christian death" which threatens the life of faith. But I would remind you that Durrell came to write the fantastically structured Alexandria Quartet, in which, even though the selves in it do not escape from the relativity of their own selfhood, nonetheless memory, and thus the past, plays a central and creative role. I venture to hope that Dr. Altizer will move beyond his negative view of past time to draw more sympathetically upon the past that lives within him as a Christian. In particular I refer to his several references to the negative function of memory and to liberation as forgetting. Thus my judgment is that the traditional view of the past as a living resource is more adequate than the contemporary one which Dr. Altizer, along with many others, so eloquently represents. This criticism is obviously closely linked to the former one, for in both cases the thesis is -- in line with my Puritan tradition -- that limitation and form are essential to life and that formed life is full life. Even though the quest for an adequate form for life and faith is the agonizing quest of our time, this quest is not rightly expressed as a quest for freedom from form.

Next, with regard to the very important role of the concept of "the future" in Dr. Altizer’s thought, I find a very considerable ambiguity here, as to whether the future as eschatological future is grasped as vision or as analysis of actual existence in faith. Clarification of this point is important to his thinking. One vein of his thought presents the dialectical movement of the transcendent into the world as a continual one, to be consummated at the "end." On this view there would presumably still be some transcendence left, so to speak, even though the real intention of the future would be disclosed by the vision of an immanent Christ which Dr. Altizer sets forth. Thus a positive alternation between past and future would be possible. The other vein speaks of the dialectical movement as already completed, so that there is no transcendence left (except the dead shell of oppression which grips those who reach out toward transcendence in the old style). It seems that if the former vein, which is usually the secondary one in his thought, were to become primary, the whole structure would look quite different. If the total coincidence of transcendence and immanence is vision, and not structure of existence, then the traditional styles of faith and practices of faith may still have possible meaning, even though they are seen to be penultimate; and then the radical theologian can be understood as standing in a spectrum of theological positions and not in isolation.

Dr. Altizer picks out the eschatological symbols of total reversal, of forgetting, of loss of identity. But along with these the eschatological language uses symbols of fulfillment -- notably the symbol of the "city," which is the profound eschatological symbol with which the Bible closes. This is a symbol of the taking up into the final reality of the hopes and strivings and work of the past -- a structured symbol, in which transcendence has indeed become totally present, but in which form, pattern, dance, differentiation still have meaning. Dr. Altizer’s hope moves toward a point -- all his lines converge. I am suggesting that the older eschatological visions were right in projecting the lines through the point to a reemergence of moving, living pattern.

The future is problematic in another sense in Dr. Altizer’s thought. He has so harshly applied the dialectic of opposites to the contrast between present and future that his eschatological future is made to contrast completely with the present. Thus the present, including what we may call the visible and human future, is forced into the category of total darkness. This absolutism has its clearest historical counterpart, not in Biblical eschatology, but in Gnosticism.

This comment leads to a related point at which I part company from Dr. Altizer, indicated by his frequent references to "Totality." To me this is a very Gnostic-sounding word raising the question whether Dr. Altizer’s resolute dialectical inversion of Gnostic patterns of thought has really been successfully achieved. One way of describing Dr. Altizer’s effort is to say that he recognizes that Gnosticism, as flight from reality into a private religious world (or ideological world), is the great temptation or even treason of today, and that to combat this threat he has boldly adopted a typically Gnostic pattern of thought as the vehicle for expressing total commitment in and for the world.

Characteristic of Gnosticism, as of Dr. Altizer, is the sense of a radical split within the divinity; and also characteristic of both is the faith that the radical split is overcome by acknowledging the ultimate unreality of one side of the split -- in Gnosticism, the evil, worldly side will eventually become nothing; in Dr. Altizer’s thought, the transcendent side has assumed the negative sign and either will become, or has become, nothing. Common to both is the quest for an ultimate beyond the god of religion, and this ultimate has in both the character of "totality." The quest is also expressed by the term "radical" in "radical theology," for it is characteristic of radical theology as Dr. Altizer uses the term that it involves a quest for totality, which denies ultimate differentiation.

There is obviously a drastic difference between Dr. Altizer’s worldly totality of Christ and the Gnostic vision of a transcendent totality. But both have in common what I may call a "refusal of distance." The quest for "total redemption" on which Dr. Altizer is embarked (note the continuity with left-wing perfectionist sects in Protestant history, "antinomians") is restless with an awareness of distance between the human and the divine. Perhaps one could say that this theology is too serious -- too serious about man and hence unable to accept the distance between man and the transcendent. A little more irony about the human might allow more scope for the stance of awe which Dr. Altizer finds passé, but which is so deeply built into the various forms of the response of faith.

So far our comments have been largely a contrast of stances toward human existence: a plea for a more truly dialectical, less dualistic understanding of the relation between form and energy, a plea for a similar openness toward the past, a question about the future to the effect that the incompleteness of the present ought not to frustrate Dr. Altizer into insisting that the total reversal promised by the glimpsed eschatological future be the only standard or norm of faith. In a way my question about "totality" and "the refusal of distance" sums up the other questions and suggests that a stance which has a larger component of irony and understatement toward the self might be able to bear the fragmentary character of existence with less restlessness toward totality.

Can we now turn from these comments toward a more positive statement? I agree with Dr. Altizer on the crisis character of the present theological situation, in which the old expressions of faith are, all of them, called into question. I hold, with him, that a movement of deeper interaction with the contemporary world is required of theology if it is to have a future. At the same time I concur in his fundamentally confessional stance that what is particularly required of the Christian theologian is a clarification of the meaning of Christ.

At the same time I find that he has adopted a rigid dialectic that forces reality into patterns to which it does not correspond. It is clear that I hold the association of transcendence with rigid negation to be wrong. Just as in human existence the pressure of structure has always to be imposed upon energy, so too, any ultimate to which we respond will embody both the elements which are traditionally known as justice and love. Similarly I find his dialectic of past and future to be out of correspondence with reality, forcing him to reject not only the past but the non-eschatological future as positive elements in his theology.

Dr. Altizer’s emphasis on process I take very seriously. The process of reality includes God himself, and he is affected, even changed, in the process. A key element in the process of reality is incarnation, the embodiment of the transcendent in the world, the actualization of spontaneous love. For the Christian, Christ is the paradigm of incarnation, or love, and Christ is to be understood as a living reality who is not unaffected by the encounter of incarnation.

Further, I concur at least in the willingness to explore an orientation toward the future which (however inadequately worked out, as noted above) is a central feature of Dr. Altizer’s theology. Christ is fundamentally to be understood from the future, not the past. It is apparent that we are just seeing "the future" becoming a central theological concern. I would suggest, however, that theology needs to be more open to various modes of the future than Dr. Altizer’s system allows: both to the impact of the future as presented in a corpus of Christian tradition under the theme of "hope," and to the future as it presents itself to our secular world.

Thus, to sum it up, I should think that a more adequate line of theological exploration would entail the working out of an understanding of Christ and God that views them in a framework of process, but understood in such a way that process involves cumulative enrichment and fulfillment and not simply dialectical reversal. The life that is through death is not wholly discontinuous with the life before death. It is apparent that I am sympathetic with, and open toward, the various attempts to restate Christian affirmations in Whiteheadian categories, for Whitehead’s thought seems to me to offer a categorical framework which may express a grasp of process appropriate to Christian faith.

Further, faith must be understood more fully in a framework of community than is the case in Dr. Altizer’s work (for him the outsider is the model of faith). A fuller grasp of the interactive, community dimension of faith will make it possible and necessary to retain ethics in its traditional proximity to theology.

The quest for a more universal form of faith is one on which we shall be embarked for some time. It is not always possible, in the midst of the quest, to judge which are the false starts. Personally, I should find it more helpful to quarry into the old logos theology, and interpret it with a deeper sense of man’s historicity, than to cut off the doctrine of Christ so sharply from its roots as Dr. Altizer seems to do.

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