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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 3: Response by Thomas J.J. Altizer


I am deeply grateful to Theodore Runyon for the manner in which he has presented my theological quest, particularly insofar as he has seen it in terms of an attempt to join the religious ways of East and West. I am also pleased that he has chosen to do so by way of a typology posing a fundamental difference between the way of identity and the way of distinction. This is clearly a way of meeting the difference between the religious worlds of East and West at its deepest level. Not only does this means of approach allow the worlds of East and West to speak for themselves, but it is also an effective means of raising the theological question of whether or not Christianity is ultimately a universal way of faith. Few theologians would answer this question negatively, and in our day many of our most gifted theologians, including Runyon, see the universality of Christianity in terms of its necessary and inevitable expression in a historical process of secularization, a process that has perhaps already triumphed over the religious world of the East.

A fundamental problem posed by Runyon’s analysis has to do with the meaning of "relation." Let us grant that in the way of distinction true relation can exist only where there is difference. Time-space existence then not only becomes the arena of man’s contact with the divine but also becomes just as "real" as is God himself. My first question is, How can the way of distinction know that historical process is just as real as God if it posits an infinite difference between man and God? If the goal and ground of the way of distinction is the restoration of true creaturehood where God will be God and man will be man and not attempt to be God anymore, than how can man know thereby that he is just as "real" as God? This problem becomes particularly acute for a theological position that repudiates both the aesthetic and the religious faculties as sources for a true or genuine knowledge of God. Are we to believe that the God of the way of distinction has revealed that the ultimate reality of the world is just as "real" as is the ultimate reality of himself?

A second question has to do with the human and historical identity of the way of distinction. Presumably the way of distinction is a religious way; or, at least, it is presented in the context of a typology distinguishing between contrary ways of man’s consciousness of divine reality. Quite clearly, it is also intended to comprehend the Christian faith. But here a problem arises. If Christianity embodies a negation of religion and of the religious instinct, then how can it be a religious way of distinction? Does this mean that the way of distinction is a non-religious way and that only the way of identity is religious? If so, is Christianity the only way of distinction? No, for it would appear from Runyon’s analysis that the God of the way of distinction is present and known in the worlds of Judaism and Islam. Then does anything whatsoever distinguish the God of Christianity from the God of Judaism and the God of Islam?

I am particularly intrigued that Runyon is honest enough to say that the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed is an eschaton that will "restore" true creaturehood, or full humanity. Apparently it is an eschaton or an end that will reverse the Fall and return humanity to its pristine and unfallen state. Here, our end lies in our beginning, our goal is a state of primordial innocence. Moreover, the God of the end is the God of the beginning, the primordial and transcendent Creator. If so, does Jesus’ proclamation and ministry embody a new revelation? Isn’t the God of the way of distinction more clearly manifest in the Old Testament than in the New? If we identify God with the transcendent and primordial Creator, then isn’t the fullest and most powerful witness to God present in Second Isaiah and in The Book of Job? Or in the Koran? Surely the early surahs of the Koran contain far purer images of the transcendence and sovereignty of God than does the proclamation of Jesus. Or does Jesus transcend both religion and historical revelation by abolishing all images of God? Then how can we know that God is Creator? Mustn’t we then be silent about God? Isn’t full humanity a state in which one ceases to talk about God and religion and all ideologies and talks instead only about man, the world, and the secular?

Are we then to assume that the pure form of the way of distinction has become manifest only through the historical process of secularization? Is the new language that will communicate both divine and fully human existence to man once again a language going beyond and transcending Biblical language? Or do we reach the true meaning of Biblical language by passing through a process of secularization that stills all human language about God, thereby allowing man to respond passively in faith to the full and final language of God? This would appear to be the real goal of the secular school of contemporary theology, and I think it does full justice to the meaning of God-language for us. Only when man can no longer speak about God can he hear and respond to the Word of God. I think that this school has truly gone beyond Barth and neo-orthodoxy by recognizing that it is only a fully and finally secular man who can speak about God. I also think that it has gone beyond neo-orthodoxy in reaching a manifestly non-Christian position. Here, God appears as being absolutely sovereign and transcendent, so transcendent that there can be no human language about God, and so sovereign that God can be known only by way of the image of the Creator, and this is an "image" that negates all human vision of God, an image totally confining man to the creaturely realm, to the secular, or to the "world." God is now real both apart and within, but he is real in our midst only insofar as he silences our religious and aesthetic faculties, thereby liberating us for a life in which only man and the world can appear or be manifest.

I delight in Runyon’s excellent critique of my theological way because I believe that it makes manifest the anti-Christian consequences in our time of classical Christian language about God. Despite all its concern with the secular and the future, or perhaps because of it, secular theology is finally grounded in the God of the absolute Beginning, and it wishes to restore man’s pristine and therefore prehistoric state. True faith in God is an openness to a Kingdom of God in which God will be God and man will be man and neither will speak or appear in the form or language of the other. There will be no human language about God, no human vision of God, no religious awareness of God: in short, it is only Godless man who can truly have faith in God. Jesus then becomes the one who points to the state of total creaturehood, a state of full humanity in which man is only man, and all human language about God, the ultimate, the total, the final, etc., will simply disappear. The Kingdom of God as the brave new world? Here, man can know that within his windowless world there can be no dimension of ultimacy. Or rather, the ultimacy that he has been given is an ultimacy that stills and silences every human voice about the ultimate, so that here man will listen only to God. And what will he hear? Nothing that can be expressed in a human or creaturely language; nothing, nothing whatsoever! Then man will truly be servant and God will truly be Lord.

II

William A. Beardslee speaks from a different perspective than that of Theodore Runyon, but both raise the important question of the meaning of the dialectic of faith, just as both pose the question of whether my position is dialectical or dualistic. Beardslee’s astute and penetrating analysis suggests that my thinking has fallen into a naturalization of historical time by way of my inability to establish a creative relationship between the present and the past. I am sensitive to this criticism because it is obviously a just one, and I am embarrassed because Beardslee has taught me so much about the past. Am I to repay that debt by understanding the past as the ground of repression and death? As Beardslee recognizes, this understanding derives from a particular historical situation, our situation, a situation in which many Christians are unable to apprehend their historical past as a living resource for the contemporary life of faith. Have I generalized this particular situation into a universal dialectic or antagonism between the present and the past?

No doubt I have and my initial defense is that every theological position reflects a particular historical situation and whatever universality it reaches can never wholly transcend its particular and relative historical ground. If the universality of a theological position can be measured by its transcendence of this ground, then my position is all too limited and particular. There is in this context, however, the further question of the relation between our particular present and our apprehension of the meaning of form and structure. Certainly ours is a century in which the traditional Western forms have been collapsing about us, but in the arts and sciences at least, the dissolution of old forms has gone hand in hand with the birth or rebirth of new forms. May we hope that a comparable process is occurring in the arena of faith, and that it is the birth of a new form of faith that has given the old form the image of darkness and death? For a truly new form of faith can be born only out of the ashes of the old, and to the extent that the old form remains powerful and real the new form must remain unrealized and unreal (as witness, the opposition that Paul and Luther established between the law and the gospel).

It is my persuasion that the thinker who has most truly understood the revolutionary and dialectical meaning of faith is Hegel, and that we must ever return to Hegel for a theoretical understanding of the meaning of a movement of dialectical negation. Hegel’s Aufhebung, or dialectical negation, is a movement of history and consciousness wherein the old passes into the new. It is not that the old is literally negated or forgotten, but rather that it is transcended in such a manner as to allow its own life and energy to evolve into a new form. The crucial point is that it is only an act or movement of negation and transcendence that makes possible the advent of the new. The power and the fullness of a new form of energy and consciousness is inseparably related to the negation that it effects of its own original ground. We could put this position into an explicitly Christian context by saying that the new testament will truly be new to the extent that it embodies and effects a negation and transcendence of its old-testament ground. This formulation would also capture the Hegelian point that no entity is eternally given and unchanging, just as no identity truly remains itself apart from a process of change and transformation, a self-transformation in which each identity becomes itself by passing through its inherent other. It is the old testament that becomes the new testament, not in the sense that the Old Testament gives way to the New Testament, but rather in the sense that the old testament itself becomes the new, but it does so only by ceasing to be old.

Thus I would maintain that it is only in the context of the new testament that the God of the old testament can be known as being alien and other. We can learn through Paul (as Beards-lee has taught me) that it is only to the extent that we live in faith that we are liberated from the law, only to the extent that we live in Christ or in the new aeon that we are liberated from the power and authority of the old aeon. The power and reality of the old aeon are not simply or literally negated in Christ, they remain present in what Beardslee calls the structure of existence, and are negated and transcended only in what Beardslee calls vision and Paul calls Spirit or the new creation. So, likewise, as Beardslee points out, it is only in vision, or in the new creation, that the "end" is consummated; apart from vision we can know the "end" only as merely future. But a dualistic danger arises here, namely, the danger of establishing a dualistic distinction between old and new creation, as though old and new are literal and unchanging opposites. I would say that we actualize this dualistic danger whenever we impute a given and unchanging form to either old or new creation. Moreover, as I am coming to see it, it is the old creation or old aeon itself that passes into the new creation. And only to the extent that the old aeon is negated and transcended can the new aeon be actualized and real.

The danger, as I see it, of maintaining traditional styles and practices of faith in a new situation is that their very life and existence will block or reverse an eschatological and dialectical movement of faith. Doubtless, as Beardslee insists, symbols of fulfillment are essential to eschatological symbolism. But apart from a movement of dialectical or eschatological negation, fulfillment will not be eschatological; it will either fail to move from the old to the new or it will dualistically isolate the new from the old. The fundamental question here is the question of the relation between old and new in eschatological faith. In some sense the new fulfills the old, but in what sense? Surely the new does not fulfill the old in an obvious and clearly apparent sense, just as Jesus is not openly and obviously the Christ. Furthermore, the historical expressions of eschatological faith do employ the symbolic language and imagery of opposition: old and new, light and darkness, flesh and Spirit. May we say that old and new are truly opposite in eschatological faith, and that it is only on the basis or ground of this total opposition that an eschatological fulfillment can occur? Beardslee sharply opposes this position and suggests that it is in Gnosticism and not in Biblical eschatology that we find such a total opposition. Is it true that there is no dialectic of opposites in Biblical eschatology? If so, my own position is Biblically groundless.

It is true that I am fascinated by the religious symbol of "Totality." I have learned through Joachim Wach and Mircea Eliade of its immense power in the history of religions, and Hegel and Blake have convinced me that it is an essential ground of dialectical thought and vision. Must we say that eschatological faith is closed to a vision of "Totality"? Why then do we find therein such symbols as old and new creation, old and new being, and old and new aeon? Nor do such symbols play a peripheral role in eschatological faith; they are rather at its center, even if that center was lost in the established form of the Christian tradition and in its nondialectical theologies. If the idea or symbol of "Totality" is foreign to a genuinely eschatological faith, then what meaning can be present in Paul’s hope and assurance that God will be all in all? Or in Jesus’ proclamation that the Kingdom of God is dawning in our midst? Or in the expectation of the coming of the Paraclete in The Gospel According to John? Yes, images and symbols of "Totality" are fully present in Gnosticism, and they are not fully present in orthodox Christianity. Yes, radical theology, as I understand it, just like the radical faith that is its source, does embody a quest for total redemption, and it does deny ultimate differentiation. Does that mean that it must finally be judged to be non-Christian?

I am particularly indebted to William A. Beardslee for the way in which he has presented my own theological quest, and especially so for his point that I have attempted to invert the Gnostic vision of a transcendent totality in my quest for a totally immanent Christ. But I must resist the judgment that such a quest entails a dualistic rather than a dialectical form of faith and understanding. Let me confess that a substantial body of my work is either implicitly or explicitly dualistic. But to the extent that it is dualistic it is a failure, and I acknowledge it as such. The more I have struggled to formulate a dialectical theology the more I have recognized its overwhelming difficulty.

Is a consistent and comprehensive dialectical theology a possibility? Or is it impossible for dialectical theology to go beyond Luther and Kierkegaard? We know that a fully and totally dialectical vision is present in Buddhism. Is it impossible in Christianity? I believe that it is insofar as we remain bound to the dominant Western symbol of the eternal and unchanging distance between God and the world. I also believe that to the extent that we remain bound to that symbol we will be closed to the fullness of eschatological faith. Unless we engage in what Beardslee astutely calls a "refusal of distance," we will not be able to break away from the contingent particularity of our Christian history, a history that in any case is rapidly coming to an end. True, we must seek a community going beyond and thus negating everything that is manifest to us as a Christian and ecclesiastical community. Only such a radical negation will make possible that universal form of faith which is our goal.

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