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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 5: Man and God Evolving: Altizer and Teilhard by James W. Heisig


Note: James W. Heisig is Instructor in Philosophy and Theology at Divine Word College, Epworth, Iowa.

On Easter Sunday, 1955, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the noted Jesuit scientist and mystic, died in New York City of a sudden heart attack. After a life dedicated to the discovery of God’s revealing presence in an evolving universe, and yet banished and silenced in his own church, it seemed appropriate that he should depart this life on the day of the great epiphany of the Lord as victor over sin, ignorance, and the established religion. Eleven years later, on Good Friday, 1966, a new edition of Time magazine rolled off the New York presses with the announcement of another untimely death -- the death of God. In bold red letters set on a somber black background, the words "Is God Dead?" jolted the religious sensitivities of millions during the time of the highest feast of the Christian year. Meanwhile, the principal protagonist of the new "radical" theologians, Thomas J. J. Altizer, an Episcopalian layman and professor of religion at Emory University, was busy lecturing on this bizarre theme and coming under the censure of ecclesiastical authorities. Two unorthodox theological currents confronted traditional Christianity -- one convinced of God’s living reality, the other preaching his obituary. Each has had an unforgettable impact on contemporary man; each has threatened, inspired, and deepened man’s religious understanding. Teilhard’s lasting influence, as many have already suggested, will probably lie more in the direction of his poetic inspiration than in the formation of a systematic world view. His expertise in paleontology and his deeply mystical spirit combined in the project of bringing the opposing forces of Christian theology and evolutionary science into a harmonious synthesis. Yet the continued enthusiasm and research that his writings have occasioned since his death are due not so much to his scientific and philosophical achievements as to his imaginative and visionary insight. In retrospect, it is perhaps fortunate that the forced solitude of his life spared him the overexposure to mass media that has absorbed so many a prophetic voice prematurely.

Altizer’s influence for the future, however, seems precarious. Coming from a background in comparative religion and nineteenth-century philosophy, he has attempted to bring together human existence and divine life, to show how the changes in Christian experience run parallel to the very evolution of God himself in history. While publicity gave him nearly two years of attention, it has also diluted his thought, letting it softly drift into the breeze of passing fashions. Few critics seem to have read him seriously, and nothing resembling a complete critique has been forthcoming. As a theologian putting himself at the mercy of journalism, he has fared worse than his work deserves.

Despite one’s first impression that a death-of-God theology is hopelessly incompatible with a deeply God-centered theology, there is much that the writings of Dr. Altizer and Père Teilhard share in common. It is my purpose in this paper to compare their thinking in several salient areas, in the hopes that this will help render our contemporary Christian myths more transparent and spell out their consequences more fully. In order to bring the comparison into context, it is first necessary to summarize the thought of each man.

At the risk of oversimplification, we might characterize Altizer’s theology as an attempt to bring man to a radical Christian humanism that will involve the denial of all past forms of God and Christianity. The theoretical foundation for this view lies in the centrality of the Incarnation, for it is precisely Jesus Christ who has made man aware of God’s role in history and the demand to incorporate it into an understanding of human history. Taking his lead from Hegel, Altizer sees the sacred-or "divinity" -- as formerly identifiable with a fully transcendent and personal God. Later in its evolution, the sacred poured itself out (by kenosis) into the fully profane and immanent personality of Jesus of Nazareth. This act of Incarnation resulted in the literal death of the transcendent God of the Old Testament and issued in a new "Age of the Spirit." After the death of Jesus, the process of incarnational evolution took a new turn into the "Third Age of the Spirit," resulting in the disassociation of the sacred from one profane personality and its subsequent movement toward total identification with the world by becoming coextensive with humanity. Thus man now finds himself in the process of moving dialectically toward an eschatological point, where Spirit and flesh become united in an apocalyptic coincidence of opposites.

Man’s tendency to understand this world in continuous and static terms, according to Altizer, is responsible for the fossilization of past forms of Christianity prolonged anachronistically into the present. Hence, his deep concern for burying once and for all both God and church in order to align his loyalties fully with Christ -- the symbol for the sacred at work in human history -- as he is becoming present "in every human hand and face."

The guiding element in Teilhard’s world view was his introduction of the evolutionary principle into God’s relationship with man, by means of which he wove a vision that both broke from the traditional transcendence-immanence dualism and challenged many timeworn dogmas of divine providence. Beginning from empirical scientific evidence, Teilhard gradually develops a metaphysics in which man appears as the product of a dynamic, evolving universe. His law of "complexity-consciousness" returns us to a Ptolemaic world where man once again becomes the focal point of existence. This law states that there has been a tendency through time for matter to become increasingly complex in its organization, and that with this growth of material complexity there has been a corresponding rise in the level of consciousness. The causal principle of this process is what Teilhard calls "radial energy," a force inherent in the very structure of matter, propelling it toward union and eventually manifesting itself as "Love." Hence, Teilhard finds a without and a within, matter and Spirit, universally present at every level of existence.

The steps that Teilhard distinguishes in evolution include the geosphere (matter), the biosphere (life), and the noosphere (consciousness). It is on this lattermost level that the evolutionary process itself becomes self-conscious, reflects back upon itself and its dependence on a creator who made the world as a process consistent with its own principles but not totally self-sufficient. The Incarnation is the source of man’s understanding of this added transcendent dimension, for it points to a reality beyond the immediate grasp of the noosphere: the union of God with his creation. The coming of Christ served both to reconcile fallen man to God and to initiate the further process of Christogenesis wherein the whole universe tends toward final union with Christ. We are now in the early stages of the Christosphere and are moving toward "Point Omega," which is Christ coming in the parousia. There is thus, for Teilhard, a definite rhythm to history: Creation is set into process by God at "Point Alpha," grows in perfection by becoming conscious and directing its responsibilities toward growth into Christ, and finally culminates, at Point Omega, in the Second Coming of Christ and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

Of the many points of comparison and contrast that present themselves, we may restrict ourselves to five general areas: evolution, the sacred and the within, eschatology, Christ, and God. Since these topics are all so intimately interrelated, it will soon become apparent that these divisions are somewhat artificial and constantly overlap one another.

1. Surely the most fundamental similarity, and one which these two thinkers share with most contemporary movements in theology, is the evolutionary outlook. Teilhard came to evolution through the scientific tradition associated with Darwin, Lamarck, and Huxley. Later, the thought of Spencer, Bergson, and LeRoy were to inspire him to more philosophical speculation. Altizer, on the other hand, is more a child of his time, for whom the evolutionary hypothesis is a given presupposition and requires little explication in his writings. His closest direct influence for a dynamic view of history is undoubtedly the Hegel of The Phenomenology of Mind, whose thought contains the obscure seeds of much later evolutionary thought. Hegel’s own words seem to ring prophetically here: "We find that what in former days occupied the energies of men of mature mental ability sinks to the level of information, exercises and even past-times, for children."1 Thus Altizer approaches the past armed with the prejudices of a twentieth-century world view, and extracts a vision that both illumines Hegel and corresponds to contemporary experience.

What is common to the two systems of thought is the added concept of time, which provides a fourth dimension and thus expands a previously static spatial world.2 By accepting time as a factor in any metaphysics, the power of the present moment is exalted above the glories of the past, and there is implied the obligation of forming an eschatology that is both continuous with the ongoing process and irreducible to any pristine state of original innocence. Altizer’s concept of the dialectic and Teilhard’s law of complexity-consciousness are the basic patterns through which the temporal factor is introduced.

There are two sides to the notion of dialectic as Altizer makes use of it. First, a radical negation and a radical affirmation of the world are involved simultaneously; that is, the realms of the sacred and the profane must pass through a mutual transfiguration. They are not joined together as if in a static synthesis, but grow together in a creative tension known as the coincidence of opposites.3 Second, this process of sacred and profane moving dialectically into one another is an active and forward-moving impulse that directs and defines the course of history. Because this dialectic is directed to the future rather than based on anamnesis, Altizer considers the Christian understanding of the coincidence of opposites particularly nonreligious, that is to say, non-world-negating.4

The Incarnation is the dialectical center of such a truly nonreligious view of history. The Word, moving out of a primordial, sacred realm, undertakes a kenosis into human history whereby it aligns itself to the profane by becoming flesh while not ceasing to be Spirit. In contrast to the religious way of world-negation, "What is distinctive to Christianity is a witness to an incarnation in which Spirit becomes flesh in such a manner as to continue to exist and to act as flesh."5 At the same time, the Word continues to move ever forward, shedding previous transcendent forms and emptying itself into the profane present. The coincidence of sacred and profane in the Word-made-flesh, therefore, "cannot be truly meaningful unless it is understood as a real movement of God himself, a movement which is final and irrevocable, but which continues to occur wherever there is history and life." 6 Thus, for Altizer, the dialectical process is the means whereby God is introduced into the world and by which history moves forward.

Teilhard’s law of complexity-consciousness, in contrast, is a means of describing the evolutionary energy in history by positing a hidden potentiality throughout the existing universe. Evolution is not a mere speculative tool for Teilhard, but an actual verifiable fact. He raises it to the level of "a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true."7 For Teilhard, the scientist, this means that the phenomena of the world must be explained in terms of the causes inherent in the world, and that no recourse is to be had to extracosmic forces. "The fundamental unity of the Universe and the inexorable interconnection and interaction of the cosmic elements . . . preclude any new being from emerging into our experience otherwise than in function of all the present and past states of the empirical world." 8 The law of complexity-consciousness is meant to fulfill such a causal role by (1) expressing the direction of evolution at all levels of material existence seeking complexity, and (2) by insisting that there is a psychical energy at work in matter by which evolution tends toward self-consciousness. For Teilhard, therefore, complexity-consciousness is the means whereby man was introduced into the world and whereby history continues to progress.

Altizer’s image of the Spirit expressing itself in flesh and Teilhard’s notion of the emergence of mind from matter appear to be operating in opposite directions. For Altizer, it is the Spirit that is primordial and guiding growth, while Teilhard prefers to see matter as the fundamental starting point from which Spirit later evolves. The basic difference is that Teilhard alters the traditional concept of Creation by viewing God as permitting things to make themselves9 or as the great "Animator" of the world,10 and Altizer has God himself entering the evolutionary scheme of history and undergoing change with man toward a common end. A secondary consequence of the variation in the two theories is seen in their respective attitudes to the Christian Church. Altizer, who prefers to emphasize how the past is negated by the present, can view the church only as the prolongation of a "religious" world view that says No to the present and directs its attention backwards. Teilhard, who stresses the extent to which the present is an outgrowth of the past, always remained faithful and apparently optimistic toward the established church, looking ahead to its development rather than its dissolution. In fairness to both men, it seems clear today that progress demands both a spirit of crusading courage and the cultivation of thoughtful traditionalism. For while a four-dimensional world can never permit faith to align itself decisively to any dogmatic formulations, it can nevertheless be presented with a heritage of symbols, Biblical and dogmatic, whose meaning must be continually supplied and interpreted by contemporary experience.

2. If we consider next the contrast between Teilhard’s idea of the within and the without of things, and Altizer’s use of the notions of sacred and profane, we shall better understand how their solutions to the problem of God’s immanence and transcendence in relation to the world are different but complementary.

Both dichotomies attempt to define a polarity existing in an evolving world, a polarity whose divisions are all inclusive and yet distinct from one another. For Teilhard, everything that exists in the world has a within and a without, an inner driving force and an outer expression of it. The without is the realm of complexity in material evolution, while the within is the realm of consciousness. Thus everything that exists has some structure and a consciousness commensurate with the complexity of that structure. The within corresponds to the spiritual aspect of things, the without to their material side. Moreover, there is an energy that Teilhard posits at each pole: "tangential energy" is the force that drives matter into complexification with all elements of the same order, and "radial energy" is the dynamism drawing a thing into convergence in the future, into ever further spiritualization. Together these two energies are responsible for moving the evolutionary history of the world from geosphere to biosphere to noosphere.

Altizer’s distinction between the sacred and the profane is a less specific dichotomy that is not as empirically evident as Teilhard’s within and without. It grows out of the dilemma of the immanence and transcendence of God. While Teilhard begins from the observation of material phenomena, Altizer is taken with human experiences of the holy11 that are only indirectly applicable to nonhuman life and dead matter. The sacred points to the human encounter with the realm of the Spirit, of transcendence; the profane lies in the area of immanent experience, of the flesh. What this means is that the zone of experience is either strictly scientific and looks for immanent causes, or else is open to nonscientific, transcendent origins. The profane world is not seen as a veil for the sacred,12 but is a contradiction to the sacred and will eventually unite with it in the coincidence of opposites. In pure religion, the profane world is denied precisely so that it can be reassumed as sacred, that is, primordial. In Christianity, however, the situation is quite different. There must be a total disassociation from the concept of a totality that preexisted the separation of reality into sacred and profane so that history can be viewed as the working out of an identity of the two. There is to be a transformation of the opposites rather than a denial of one or the other. "Only at the End will flesh and Spirit become identical, and their identity will be established only when flesh has actually ceased to be flesh and Spirit has perished as Spirit."13 It is evident that Teilhard and Altizer are working on different levels of experience. Teilhard is concerned with setting up a tension of energies that will account for growth at all levels of existence. Altizer, on the other hand, wants to show how the originally distinct realms of transcendence and immanence come together and grow into an identity through the course of history. Thus, just as Teilhard’s within and without serve to ground his law of complexity-consciousness ontologically, so too Altizer’s sacred and profane further explicate his concept of the dialectic in history.

Once again differences in their understanding of evolution come into focus. Let us look, for instance, at their conceptions of modern man. Teilhard sees man as possessed of a spirituality in virtue of which he turns in love toward his fellowman, seeking collectivization, totalization, and socialization of mankind and the personalization of the Universe.14 Altizer, on the contrary, locates man in the "Third Age of the Spirit," meaning that the sacred has already begun to become flesh (in the Incarnation), and continues this embodiment insofar as man becomes ever more conscious of his divinity. While Teilhard seems always to consider the within as a force that grows in pace with the complexity of the without, Altizer sees the within -- the sacred -- as seeking externalization, kenosis, and expressing its incarnational presence in a without -- the flesh. Teilhard’s image is that of God perfecting himself and his universe in preparation for eventual union with God; Altizer’s image is that of God perfecting himself by becoming the universe. For both of them, man furthers history by perfecting his own consciousness and growing into love. Altizer stands alone, however, in adding the fact that history furthers man by rendering him ever more the coincidence of the Divine and the flesh.

Finally, there is a contrast appearing in the type of tension that the two thinkers posit between the poles of within and without, sacred and profane. For Teilhard, the within and the without appear to expand in harmony, so that a constant proportion is maintained between the levels of complexity and consciousness in a given entity, while at the same time there is a seething energy beneath the surface that constantly strives to raise the whole to a higher level of integration. In Altizer, the profane remains throughout a rather passive element that grows only by its association with the sacred, and is of itself pure meaninglessness. It is only the embodiment of the Spirit into flesh that renders the realm of the profane significant. A certain corresponding "growth" in the profane in its preparation to accept Spirit would seem to be more in line with a truly dialectical process and would suggest the possibility of associating the processes of material evolution with the process of divine evolution in the world. In this way, the two patterns of within and without, sacred and profane, could be profitably united, so that Spirit would be defined as an energy central to all entities in the universe, and flesh as the context in which that Spirit enriches and expresses itself.

3. Having seen the importance of the evolutionary viewpoint and the principles by which it is guided in the two systems of thought, we think it natural that we should ask about the goal of history, that is, its eschatological dimension. Altizer makes much of this point, emphasizing that it is the central unique characteristic of Christianity and suggesting that "a major task of contemporary theology is that of recovering an eschatological vision of God." 15 Teilhard, for his part, suggests that when evolution is viewed as the process in which the consciousness within matter emerges and is transmuted into Spirit, natural history is seen to have a different direction -- or rather, since we are on the level of the noosphere, a different purpose.

Altizer goes to great lengths to show how eschatology can serve a variety of purposes in religion, but, he insists, Christianity’s dynamic standpoint demands that it preach the ongoing incarnation of Spirit. As if by anticipated result, he finds that pure religions tend to see eschatology as a return to a primordial state of innocence, while Christianity favors an end that will be the natural result of a process, a perfection rather than a return. The final apocalyptic identity of sacred and profane will thus be an improvement over the original state of total separation without becoming a mere reversal to a state of primitive sinlessness.

Teilhard develops his notion of Point Omega in a similar fashion, though for him history is merely human history, for God remains transcendent and untouched by time’s changes. The goal of history is Christ, and man is prepared for this eschaton by his evolution on earth. When the world reaches its end, however, it does not open up naturally into Omega, but awaits a special parousia, involving a new tension and a new choice. "The end of time will then draw near," Teilhard predicts, "and a terrifying spiritual pressure will be brought to bear on the limits of the Real, born of the effort of souls desperately straining in their desire to escape from the Earth. The pressure will be unanimous. But the Scriptures teach us that at the same time it will be rent by a profound schism between those who wish to break out of themselves that they may become still more masters of the world, and those who, accepting Christ’s word, passionately await the death of the world that they may be absorbed with it into God."16 In addition, Point Omega, seen as fulfillment, changes the traditional concept of Point Alpha, which must then be seen as the initiation of a process, an invitation to freedom placed within matter itself by God, and not a state of preternatural holiness disrupted by our first parents. By identifying the cosmic Christ with Point Omega, Teilhard implies belief that the Incarnation is part of an overall plan arranged from the beginning but permitted to work itself out through time.

The differences in the two eschatological visions again hinge on the role of God in history. Mankind, according to Teilhard, grows in history until the parousia, when it is subsumed into Christ who has preexisted human history. Altizer prefers to see man and God moving together toward an apocalyptic unity that will not involve any sort of parousia or special divine intervention. The details of each theory are clearly extrapolated from what is already implied in their fundamental positions toward evolution. Thus it is clear that Altizer would direct history to a final outcome effected by natural causes, while Teilhard’s insistence on the continued transcendence of God would involve man’s somehow being raised up by an act of God to a new level of being. While there is a definite significance to the symbol of heaven for Teilhard, Altizer can see only a new earth.

The basic similarity in their thought lies in that both are aiming at a linear or spiral concept of history, not a cyclical one. In order to see salvation history as an ongoing event rather than a once-and-for-all occurrence, Altizer’s image of the Incarnation might help to clarify Teilhard’s view of the redemption. Altizer shows how the movement toward an eschaton that began with the Incarnation of God into Jesus has been impeded by the stubbornness of the human consciousness, by man’s refusal to recognize the Incarnation because of his tendency to maintain transtemporal values and to deny profane existence its new importance. For Teilhard, this would mean that the work of salvation wrought in Jesus Christ is not an accomplished fact but a continuing process. Redemption, therefore, has not occurred to the extent that man withholds love from his fellowman, despite his sentiments of gratitude and acceptance. I remain unredeemed insofar as I refuse to cast my life into the course of saving history. Such an interpretation would seem to be more consistent with Teilhard’s system than the traditional Pauline conception of a strictly objective redemption.

4. Teilhard and Altizer agree in placing the Incarnation at the center of history, although their understanding of Jesus Christ differs considerably. For Altizer, the Incarnate Word represents an irreversible movement of the Godhead to incorporate himself into the world of the profane. He is God freely become man in order to redeem humanity from utter profanity and lead it on the road to its final end. Of course, Altizer’s conception of the kenosis necessarily excludes a transcendent being who continues in existence after the coming of the Lord. For Teilhard, on the other hand, Jesus Christ is a high point in the noosphere, wherein God intervenes to give a new direction to struggling man. As perfect God and perfect man, Jesus Christ represents an anticipation of the eschaton in which God will raise man up to union with himself in love.

The differences in approach become more apparent if we distinguish Jesus from Christ. Jesus, the historical person who walked the earth twenty centuries ago and died on a cross, has ceased to exist for Altizer. Absolute Spirit -- Hegel’s term, which Altizer adopts to serve his conception of the sacred or God -- had to sacrifice itself in order to gain itself. It had to become flesh in order to enrich itself. "This self-sacrifice enters consciousness when Spirit first appears in its kenotic form as the man, Jesus of Nazareth. . . . God is Jesus, proclaims the radical Christian, and by this he means that the Incarnation is a total and all-consuming act: as Spirit becomes the Word that empties the Speaker of himself, the whole reality of Spirit becomes incarnate in its opposite." 17 With the death of Jesus, therefore, God has also died. Altizer is quite clear about this. The Christ who lives on is not the bodily exalted Jesus of traditional Christianity who was raised from the dead on Easter morning. Rather it is the presence of the sacred, of the Absolute Spirit, in the humanity of history, working itself out in total profanity, enriching itself in the world of men. The Resurrection is the exaltation of Jesus into the Christ. Jesus becomes Christ after God and Jesus have died.

Teilhard, however, sees the distinction between Jesus and Christ as one that occurs only in the minds of men. Jesus was the Christ from the moment of his conception, but it took the events of salvation and his bodily resurrection from the dead for him to be recognized as such by men. Jesus the man died and Jesus the man was raised from the dead. According to Teilhard, Christ-Omega was operative in the cosmos before the Incarnation and will continue to be at work until the parousia. The actual Incarnation was a spatiotemporal intervention of God into the world, although the Word had been organically related to the world from the moment of Creation. The importance of the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, is that he becomes the focal point of human history and gives meaning to evolution. "The mystical Christ, the universal Christ of St. Paul, has neither meaning nor value in our eyes except as an expansion of the Christ who was born of Mary and died on the cross."18 Jesus Christ, therefore, is both immanent in the world and transcendent from it.

In addition to their differences concerning the historical Jesus, leilhard and Altizer also differ in their understanding of the presence of Christ in the world. Teilhard characterized the presence of Christ-Omega as "a supreme, physical influence over all of cosmic reality without exception." 19 He states elsewhere that since there is only one overall plan to the movement of the universe, "no element or movement could exist in the world at all, apart from the informing action of the main center of all things. Coextensive with space, coextensive with time, Christ . . . is likewise coextensive with the values ranged between the heights of the spirit and the depths of matter."20 His influence is immanent, while his personality is transcendent.

Altizer’s Christ, however, is immanent both in its influences and its total reality. In place of the person of Jesus who once housed the kenotic sacred, the universal humanity now assumes the reality and dynamism of Christ and activates that power by ever becoming more conscious of its divine nature. "Radical faith calls us to give ourselves totally to the world, to affirm the fullness and the immediacy of the present moment as the life and the energy of Christ. Thus, ultimately the wager of the radical Christian is simply a wager upon the full and actual presence of the Christ who is a totally incarnate love." 21 For Teilhard the world is diaphanous of a transcendent God, who reveals his presence by means of signs whereby the evolutionary process points to something beyond itself. For Altizer the world is coextensive with God. God and world are growing jointly through the intermediary of human consciousness. While Teilhard recognizes the work of Christ-Omega throughout the universe, Altizer prefers, with Blake, to see Christ "in every human hand and face." 22

Both views clearly opt for seeing Christ as an intervention of God into history -- an intervention that is a unique factual occurrence and that gives new direction to the evolutionary process on the conscious level. Altizer, who views Jesus’ death as final and irrevocable by any sort of resurrection, is attempting to thrust Christ fully into the current of history, while Teilhard’s treatment of Christ as immanent through his Incarnation and transcendent through his Resurrection, leads to a perturbing paradox. For if Jesus was fully man, then men after him should necessarily evolve beyond him. But since he is a perfect man, the linear view of history is broken and replaced by a cyclical view which begins and ends with Christ, the Alpha and Omega. The evolutionary process then becomes a concession to the world, interesting and unpredictable, but ultimately to be superseded by the divine plan.

Although the radical Christian vision as Altizer has outlined it to us seems alien to Christian tradition, its undeniable strength lies in its ability to reconcile the radical humanity of Christ with the centrality of the Incarnation for human ‘history. Even a program as contemporary as Teilhard’s limps at the thoroughgoing immanence of God in Jesus and somehow seems to shrink from the possibility that the evolutionary process underlying human development should include God as well. If God’s perfection could be disassociated from any aseitas, then perhaps we could better understand the meaning of the Incarnate Word who died in Jesus and yet arose in Christ to live on in the lives and history of men. This brings us to our final points of comparison.

5. We come to the God-concepts of Teilhard and Altizer with a number of loose ends to tie together. Much has already been said to describe their differences and similarities, but it must somehow all be synthesized.

Teilhard’s God is Biblical to the core, a God who is covenanted to his people through love and whose providence guides mankind out of sin and ignorance and into life. He departs from much pietistic tradition by making Creation and divine providence subservient to the evolutionary world process, rather than viewing God’s activity as a sporadic set of interventions designed to inform man of some eternal truth or to keep him traveling the straight and narrow. Defending his view against the established doctrine brought him only allegations of pantheism and endless misunderstanding during his lifetime.

Altizer goes farther by seeing God as involved totally with mankind in the world process, undergoing irreversible transformations, and being enriched by progressive incarnational movements. In exchange for growth, God abandons his past forms of existence, among them the transcendent personality that Christian tradition has come to revere as the God of the Old Testament. In some sense God-or more accurately, Spirit -- is now intimately united with man and accompanies him on the path to a common eschatological end.

Once again we come to the realization that Altizer’s God is evolving, while Teilhard prefers to leave evolution to the realm of man under the watchful eye of an immutable God. Even Christ-Omega existed from all eternity and entered the center of history merely according to divine plan. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which Teilhard’s work justifies Altizer’s image of God, and Altizer’s thought clarifies the implications of Teilhard’s scheme.

Were we to extend Altizer’s concept of the sacred to include a basic love-energy at the heart of all matter in the universe, then we would be freed from the confusion of speaking of Christ "in every human hand and face." We could see divinity at work in the world by total association with the world’s evolutionary energy. As that energy achieves self-consciousness (as it did in Jesus’ awareness of his own divinity), then the divine can seek the apocalyptic coincidence of sacred and profane in the realm of human history. We could then affirm the "Third Age of the Spirit" without insisting that there was a time when God was totally transcendent of the world, as Altizer is forced to do when speaking of the Old Testament.

On the other hand, by assuming with Altizer that the sacred is somehow growing in the universe, we might profitably extend Teilhard’s concepts of the within and the without to include God himself. In this way, the Divine Within would be the radial energy of love that God shares with the whole universe, and the Divine Without would be his material creation, groaning for self-consciousness and development, achieving its first self-reflective glimpses of divinity in the man Jesus, and growing into that awareness through the course of history.

What seems to happen when we combine Teilhard’s vision of the evolution of man toward the Christ-Omega with Altizer’s vision of the evolution of the sacred toward the apocalyptic coincidence of flesh and Spirit is that we end up with a total pantheism, not qualified by a transcendent God, either in past or present form. It is a dynamic pantheism that leaves the burden of growth and responsibility for the eschaton squarely in the hands of man and out of the control of a supernatural divine plan. Whether or not such a view is to be considered Christian will demand some further thought. What it does do, it seems to me, is to present the inevitable consequences of combining the visions of Teilhard and Altizer at the point where each becomes weakest: the artificiality of the three "Ages of the Spirit" and the continued transcendence of a triune God.

 

Notes:

1. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, tr. by J. B. Baillie (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1967), pp. 89-90.

2. For an excellent summary of the "added dimension" of time, cf. Eulalio R. Baltazar, Teilhard and the Supernatural (Helicon Press, Inc., 1969), pp. 91-139.

3. Cf. Thomas J. J. Altizer, Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred (The Westminster Press, 1963), pp. 81-104.

4. Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (The Westminster Press, 1966), pp. 32-48.

5. Ibid., p.41.

6. Ibid., p. 43.

7. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1965), p. 217.

8. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Vision of the Past (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1966), p. 104.

9. Ibid., p. 25.

10. Cf., for example, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Letters from a Traveller (London: William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., 1962), p. 143.

11. Altizer, Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred, p. 24. Altizer depends on Eliade for the position that all hierophanies are to be viewed as human events, created by man’s existential choice.

12. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "The Sacred and the Profane: A Dialectical Understanding of Christianity," in Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1966), p. 143.

13. Ibid., p. 154.

14. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, "Comment je vois" (unpublished, 1948), p. 7. Cf. also his The Future of Man (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1964), pp. 214-215.

15. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "Nirvana And Kingdom of God," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XLIII (April, 1963), p. 113.

16. Teilhard, The Future of Man, p. 307.

17. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, pp. 66, 68.

18. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1960), p. 117.

19. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, "Mon Univers," Science et Christ (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1965), p. 85.

20. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, "Christologie et Evolution" (unpublished, 1933), p. 9.

21. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 157.

22. For Altizer’s concept of "Universal Humanity" as taken from William Blake, cf. his The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (Michigan State University Press, 1967), pp. 57-75, 140-147, and his The Gospel of Christian Atheism, pp. 69-75.

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