return to religion-online

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 7: Thomas Altizer’s Apocalypse by Richard L. Rubenstein

Richard L. Rubenstein is Charles L. Merrill Lecturer in humanities, Director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel foundation, and Chaplain to Jewish Students at the University of Note: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


I am delighted for this opportunity to respond to Dr. Altizer’s work, which I have admired, and to speak on the issue of the "death of God" theology. I believe that what these theologians are saying about the death of God as a cultural event is irrefutable. I start with this premise. I do not like to use the phrase "God is dead" for the reason already suggested by Dr. Altizer: in some sense this symbolism is specifically Christian. In Christianity, the Christ who is both God and man dies. In some versions of Christianity he is also resurrected. I hesitate to use the term "death of God" because I am reluctant to associate myself with an exclusively Christian symbol arising out of the crucifixion tradition. Jesus as a man or Jesus as the Christ has little significance for me. It is difficult even to assert that he was a great teacher, because we really don’t regard him as such. Nevertheless, what Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky understood by the death of God -- the absence of any sense of meaning, direction, or value derived from a transcendent theistic source -- is certainly an accurate description of the way we experience the world.

I also welcome the "death of God" theologians because I believe they start with the real spiritual problems of the twentieth century. They begin where twentieth-century man finds himself. They attempt to offer theological insight concerning human existence in the twentieth century as it really is.

Nevertheless, while I believe that the death of God is a cultural fact, I cannot share the apocalyptic enthusiasm that Professor Altizer seems to attach to this event. As I read Dr. Altizer’s paper,’ I was reminded of Paul Tillich’s comment in The Courage to Be (Yale University Press, 1952) that the God of theism is dead and deserved to die because he was an enemy of human freedom. I also thought of something that Jean-Paul Sartre has said repeatedly. For Sartre, there is no doubt that God is dead. According to Sartre, we live in a universe that is utterly devoid of meaning and hope. We are condemned to be free. While Dr. Altizer sees the death of God as liberation and apocalyptic promise, Sartre, I think more correctly and with deeper insight, understands this event in terms of condemnation and anguish.

This problem was already understood by Soren Kierkegaard, who turned away in radical fright from that which Professor Altizer takes as a portent of apocalyptic liberation. Kierkegaard understood that the death of God meant absolute despair and hopelessness. He could not accept this. After he had pushed the negation of Christian belief to the dialectic extreme of absolute despair and absolute hopelessness, he turned and made the leap to the Christ. What is important in Kierkegaard is not necessarily his leap, but his understanding that funerals are sad events -- even the funeral of God. Albert Camus has commented in his The Myth of Sisyphus on Kierkegaard’s dialectic turning away from despair toward faith. Camus accepts Kierkegaard’s either/or of faith or ultimate hopelessness, but sees no way of avoiding a life without hope. I do not believe it is necessary to live entirely in the dimension of despair. Nevertheless, although I can accept the proclamation of the death of God, I cannot accept the apocalyptic enthusiasm that comes out of it.

There is one twentieth-century prophet of the death of God who is strikingly absent from Professor Altizer’s thought, and from the list that he has given us. He is the one who has suggested that religion actually begins with the death of God, the first object of human criminality. I refer to Sigmund Freud, author of Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism. The fundamental insight expressed in Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism is not that religion actually began with the brothers of the primal horde cannibalistically consuming their father, but that human civilization rests in part on the fact that men are driven to both express and repress their parricidal inclinations.

Freud’s myth is instructive, because it suggests the futility of seeking an end to repression and limitation in the death of God as Professor Altizer would do. The sons murdered the father because he had access to the women of the primal horde. In order to possess them, they had to displace the father. But once the deed was done, they realized that they were bound to destroy each other unless they arranged some instrumentality whereby social cohesiveness would not be threatened by sexual competitiveness. According to Freud, this was accomplished when the sons instituted the law of exogamy. Those who had participated in the crime were compelled to go outside of the tribe to find their mates. Having murdered the father for withholding the females of the horde, they then prevented themselves from possessing the very same wives and daughters, just as the father had done. They discovered that the father was not the author of repression and limitation. Reality itself demands limitation and discipline whether there is a God or not.

We must be distrustful of all Promethean proclamations of freedom that come with the death of God. Albert Camus undoubtedly understood this when he suggested that Christianity is guilty of the sin of hubris. As Martin P. Nilsson has suggested, hubris is not the sin of overweening pride but of taking upon oneself more in the order of being than one has a right to. Inevitably, hubris is followed by nemesis. The scales are righted. The harmony of things is restored. Anaxagoras saw all existence as a kind of hubris, and death as the payment by which we render final account. Insofar as the primary parsimony of nature is violated by life itself, we are in a sense taking upon ourselves more in the order of being than we have a right to. Death is a restoration of the disturbed harmony. Camus insists that men must take seriously the old Greek insights about hubris and nemesis. The idea of an apocalyptic humanity, overreaching itself in a new liberation, is an illusion. It is an attempt to seek for the impossible: a new aeon, a new being, a new heaven, and a new earth.

I feel strangely as if Dr. Altizer and I are Christian and Pharisee in the first century all over again. Incidentally, when I say Pharisee, I simply mean rabbi because all rabbis are of the Pharisaic school. Basically, what was the issue between them? Jesus represented the promise of a new beginning, a new fulfillment, a radical change in man’s tragic and broken condition. The sad answer of the rabbis was that nothing new has happened. The world in its sadness goes on. The rabbis did not recognize any "good news." In another context, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor was to have more faith in the ongoing institutions to which he had become accustomed than in the radical insecurity of the Christ returned to earth with the promise of a new start for mankind. There is tragic resignation in the refusal to accept novelty and hopefulness. Unfortunately, it is inevitable. The Pharisees and the early Christians saw the problem in terms of whether God had sent his Anointed, thus beginning a new era of hope for mankind. One group said, "Yes, he has come. The new aeon has begun." The other said, "No, he has not. Things are no different today than they were yesterday." Today, both Dr. Altizer and I stand in the time of the "death of God," and we find that Christian and Jew are still arguing about the new being and the new aeon. The Christian hopefully proclaims the new aeon, and the Jew sadly says: "Would that it were so. Would that there were less evil. Would that there were less human vice. Would that the complexities of the passions we are now free to express were less tragic than they are. Unfortunately, the complex, tragic nature of man continues unchanged."

It is my opinion that Albert Camus was correct when he suggested that, of all the evils in Pandora’s box, none was so great as hope. I reject ultimate hope completely. I don’t mean that I cannot hope that tomorrow I will have a good day or that in the years ahead I may enjoy a measure of fulfillment in life. I reject hope in the sense that I believe that out of Nothingness we have come and to Nothingness we will return. This is our ultimate situation.

I find myself drawn to the "death of God" theologians. If I have to choose sides, I’ll choose my sides with them, because the radical recognition of God’s absence as a cultural fact offers the only basis for theological speculation in our time. Nevertheless, I don’t like to use the words "death of God" -- I’ve joked about this with my students, though with serious intent. They have said, "Well, are you a ‘death of God’ theologian or not?" My answer is, "I am a ‘holy Nothingness’ theologian."

Let me attempt to suggest an alternative myth to the one implicit in what Dr. Altizer is saying. It’s a myth that Dr. Altizer will undoubtedly recognize, with his understanding of mysticism and eschatology. It is the myth of Lurianic Kabbalism. Isaac Luria (d. 1572) was a Jewish mystic of the sixteenth century. After the catastrophes of Spanish Jewish life and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, he developed a radical theory of creation. According to Luria, the world came into being when God created it ex nihilo, out of nothingness. This nothingness was not exterior to God. God created the world out of his own nothingness through an act of self-diminution not unrelated to the idea of God’s kenotic emptying of himself to which Dr. Altizer alludes. Whatever has been created out of God’s nothingness is caught in a dialectic dilemma from which it can never escape. Insofar as it is aware of its true origin in the divine nothingness -- no-thing-ness would be better than nothingness -- it yearns to return to its source. Insofar as it desires to maintain its separate identity, it is in alienation, separated from God’s nothingness. According to Luria, all existence is in an unavoidable dialectic conflict between the tendency toward self-maintenance and the yearning to return to the nothingness that is our true origin and our real essence. Eventually, of course, God’s nothingness will be victorious. With the self-division of God, in Luria as in Hegel, negation comes into existence. The price paid for creation is negation. And, negation brings evil in its train. That does not mean creation is evil; it does mean that a part of creation is inevitably evil and that there is, as Melville understood, a demonic side to God himself.

God cannot create without creating evil. This evil is overcome neither in an earthly Jerusalem nor in a new aeon. It is overcome only when we return to the no-thing-ness that is both our source and our end. Life has its very real joys. Nevertheless, the price we pay for existence is pain, suffering, anxiety, hopelessness, and evil. It is for this reason that I cannot accept Dr. Altizer’s apocalyptic image. It seems too hopeful. It seems too quick a dance of joy at the great funeral.

Dr. Altizer has also spoken hopefully of America’s vocation as being cut off from the past and oriented toward the future. I believe that few aspects of American life are as problematic as our lack of a sense of history. This has frightened Europeans as divergent in loyalties as Albert Camus and Charles de Gaulle. They regard America as an adolescent nation precisely because of our lack of a sense of the past and the continuing inheritance of the dilemmas of the past in the present. In the long run, it is America’s destiny to become Europeanized. What we are experiencing in Vietnam is a sense of limit, defeat, and the ironies of history. For several centuries we were able to separate ourselves geographically from the problems of European man. When we did not find things to our liking, we went farther west. That time is past. Eventually we will find that our situation is as tragic, as replete with evil as well as good, as the European situation has been throughout its entire history.

One of the things I like about the academic life is that it has given me an opportunity to spend my summers in the Mediterranean world. There is swimming; there is beauty; there are joys of the flesh. All the joys Dr. Altizer believes are available to Americans after the death of God are freely given in the Mediterranean landscape. But, as Albert Camus pointed out in "Summer in Algiers," what you buy with the flesh you pay for with death. The beauty of the Mediterranean is the beauty of Earth, the great mother goddess who gives birth to her children, allows them their moment in which to be fruitful and beautiful, in order that she may in her own time consume them. Earth, the great mother goddess, is a cannibal goddess. She alone is our true progenetrix. She is our final destiny. We have no reason to rejoice before her.

Dr. Altizer has a highly original interpretation of the meaning of Captain Ahab’s quest for the great white whale in Moby Dick. According to Dr. Altizer, "Ahab’s mad quest for the white whale can be seen as faith’s response to the death of God, wherein the man of faith becomes the murderer of God so as to make possible a historical actualization of God’s death in Jesus, and thus an apocalyptic consummation of God’s original self-sacrifice or self-negation." Dr. Altizer sees Ahab as a paradigmatic figure. He seeks the death of God in order to bring about the apocalyptic liberation from the restraints of the dead God, which is America’s true mission. I agree with Dr. Altizer’s high regard for Moby Dick. There is, however, one crucial speech of Captain Ahab’s which Dr. Altizer seems to ignore. It is the speech at the very end in which the mad captain tells Starbuck of his forty years upon the sea. He declares that he did not marry until past fifty. His wife was not truly his wife, but a widow. He had hardly put a dent in the marital pillow before returning to sea. Having pursued his mad quest for forty years, he would not now desist from seeking the whale, in spite of Starbuck’s pleas.

Melville was not unfamiliar with Biblical imagery and symbolism. I do not believe that his use of Ahab’s forty-year sojourn on the seas was accidental. The forty years on the sea represent Ahab’s years in the wilderness. The great white whale is the Captain’s Promised Land. As much as he hates the whale, as much as he wants to destroy the creature, he yearns unknowingly to be consumed by it. Erich Fromm has made a very interesting point about the story of Jonah and the whale: When Jonah is swallowed by the whale, he returns to the womb. God has charged Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh. Jonah avoids his task. His ultimate withdrawal from adult responsibility is symbolized by his being consumed. The whale is the only creature large enough to enclose an adult man. The yearning to return to the source is a yearning to end the agonies and the problematics of the human condition. What troubles Captain Ahab is precisely the fact that we live in a malignant universe, in which human existence is filled with anxiety. As he says in one place, it is a cannibal universe underneath the calm, placid sea. There is only one escape. It is not the New Jerusalem. Moby Dick does not end with the New Jerusalem. It ends with Ahab consumed by the whale, destined to be dissolved in the cannibal sea. Ahab returns to the nothingness out of which he has come. What Ahab fears and hates is that for which he also yearns. I hope that Captain Ahab is not the paradigm of the new American, as Dr. Altizer suggests. There are many Europeans who fear that it is. If Ahab is the paradigm of the new American, we will not have the tolerance for the ambiguity, the irony, the hopelessness, and the meaninglessness of the historic eras that dawn ahead of us. Lacking this tolerance, we will choose self-destruction rather than the pain of an incomplete and not entirely desirable existence.

Incidentally, not only does the imagery of arising out of nothing and returning to nothing make its appearance in the Kabbalism of Isaac Luria, and I suspect in Melville, but also in the psychoanalytic insights of Sigmund Freud, especially in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which Freud sees life as a struggle between the desire to maintain individual identity and the desire to return to the source from whence we have come.

I wonder whether America can accept the death of God. I hope that it can, although I doubt it. I understand that Dr. Altizer has been getting a lot of angry letters lately. Every American accepts the death of God in one sense. Dr. Altizer is right in characterizing our refusal to accept this event as "bad faith," mauvaise foi, as Sartre uses the phase. The fact that Dr. Altizer and the other "death of God" theologians show the naked mirror of the self to America does not mean that America will thank them. Who knows what forms of secular tyranny and secular security America may choose rather than endure the awesome anxiety of a hopeless and meaningless cosmos? Dostoevsky saw this in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Men will choose bread, miracles, and security rather than truth and freedom. The sad few who acknowledge the truth will not rejoice in it.

Let me add a warning: Two years ago (1963) I was invited to lecture at a German theological conference in Recklinghausen. One of the questions I was asked was, "What do you think about eschatology?" My answer was, then as now, "Eschatology is a sickness." I want to say to all of you as Christians -- and this is a difficult thing to say -- it was our Jewish sickness originally. We gave it to you. You took us seriously. Would that you hadn’t! Would that you hadn’t for your sakes and ours! But as a Jew who has known this sickness, let me warn you. Do not be tempted by it if you become post-Christian. If you are Christian, you cannot avoid it. If you become post-Christian, choose pagan hopelessness rather than the false illusion of apocalyptic hope.

One of the insights I find psychologically most completely on target in Christian theology is the old Augustinian-Calvinist notion of original sin. It is an anthropological insight that cannot be negated even in the time of the death of God. Perhaps especially in the time of the death of God, we must not lose sight of the fact that man does not cease to be a guilty or sinful creature. Original sin suggests an important impediment to apocalyptic enthusiasm at the death of God.

In conclusion I want to tell you of the way Isaac Bashevis Singer ends his novel The Family Moskat. The Germans are before the gates of Warsaw in September, 1939. One of the brothers, realizing that Hitler is at the gates of Warsaw, affirms, as Jews have for thousands of years: "I believe in perfect faith that the Messiah will come speedily in our days." The other brother is astonished and says: "How can you say this?" The first replies: "Surely he will come. Death is the messiah." There is only one way out of the ironies and the ambiguities of the human condition: return to God’s nothingness, the radical non-being of God and death.


Four years have passed since I offered my reflections on Thomas Altizer’s theology at Emory University. The respect I expressed for Professor Altizer’s work at the time has continued to grow. Some of the elements in Altizer’s theological vision seemed very strange, but I was convinced that they were a healthy corrective to a shared understanding of the religious situation, which had outlived its usefulness.

Since that time Altizer’s thought has been immensely deepened. It is my conviction that his latest work, The Descent Into Hell, is one of the most important and exciting theological statements since the work of Paul Tillich. Altizer is a dialectic theologian. His vision unites mystical, apocalyptic, and eschatological themes. Few of the modern greats in philosophy, theology, or literature are absent from his synthesis. What Hegel did for his time, Altizer is in the process of doing for his. This is an achievement of enormous scope.

When I reacted to Altizer in 1965, I was puzzled by his eschatology. I shared with Altizer his basic image that the cosmos was the expression of the self-emptying of the primordial Godhead. I was convinced that Altizer’s doctrine of kenosis was both accurate and inevitable. It seemed ironical to me that a Christian theologian who took seriously the ultimate unity of all things in God was regarded in the popular imagination as a Godless iconoclast. Nevertheless, I failed to understand the meaning of the New Jerusalem that Altizer proclaimed as the ultimate fulfillment of "the death of God." When Altizer asserted that Christianity involved a forward-moving negation of all past epiphanies of the sacred, in which the future was the only meaningful temporal category, he seemed to be a restless Faustian. His theology appeared to be the religious counterpart of America’s involvement in the exploration of outer space. There is an element in American culture that is forever compelled to negate the limitations of any given existential situation. The quest for Eldorado has been so deeply engrained in the American psyche that many Americans could never tolerate a final closing of the frontier. American ingenuity and technology had to press on to outer space when no new locale remained on earth where the nomadic American could perpetuate the illusion of beginning anew once more. After California proved to be a smoggy, angry, problematic New Jerusalem, the planets promised an infinity of opportunities to negate the limitations of the past. Altizer’s call for a liberation from the restraints of the past appeared to be a quintessential expression of the American as Faustian man. I wondered whether there would ever be a moment for Altizer when he could say, "Linger a while, thou art so fair."

There was another element in Altizer’s thought, brilliant as it was, that gave me pause. Altizer called upon the Christian to participate in the death of God so that total liberation could be realized as America’s destiny. It was my conviction that, in so doing, Altizer was bringing to the light of consciousness one of the most potent though hidden strains in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the quest for the achievement of infantile omnipotence. The myth that the death of the father is a prelude to liberation is one of the oldest of all human dreams. Nevertheless, it is a pathetic falsification of reality. Limitation is inherent in the structure of things. Total liberation can be achieved only by bringing reality to an end. That is why I saw Captain Ahab’s "Promised Land" as return to the nothingness out of which he had come. Total liberation means the dissolution of all craving and sensation. The content of Altizer’s New Jerusalem could not be a perpetual negation of the past; it could only be nothingness.

In his latest work, Altizer faces the question of the content of the New Jerusalem. His solution is startling yet inevitable for a thinker of Altizer’s competence. Instead of shying away from the conclusion that nothingness is the only possible content of the New Jerusalem, Altizer embraces it. He does so by offering a unique synthesis of Buddhism and Christianity. It is now apparent that Altizer is not a Faustian. He asserts that the Christian must recognize the Buddha as "the original name and identity of the New Jerusalem or the apocalyptic Christ." Altizer maintains that

Nirvana is not "other" than Kingdom of God, just as Buddha is not "other" than Christ; Nirvana is the primordial ground of Kingdom of God, just as the New Jerusalem is the eschatological realization of Nirvana.2

Altizer has thus faced both the nothingness of liberation and the Nothingness of God. He envisages the eschatological nothingness as a "total and primordial bliss" rather than a contentless void. Christ and Buddha, the New Jerusalem and Nirvana, are revealed as ultimately one.

Nevertheless, Altizer insists that the New Jerusalem can be realized only by "the final or ultimate death in consciousness and experience of every fragment or memory of the original Totality." Like Hegel and Teilhard de Chardin, Altizer sees Endzeit as radically different from Urzeit. I believe this is one of the most problematic aspects of all three related visions. It is possible that Altizer’s denial of the ultimate sameness of Endzeit and Urzeit may simply be an expression of Christian sensibility I cannot penetrate. Nevertheless, my inability to distinguish final Nothingness from its initial counterpart compels me to maintain, as I did in 1965, that if there is a Redeeming Messiah, he can only be the Angel of Death. Furthermore, I prefer the limited gratifications of an unredeemed existence to the consuming bliss of Nirvana. When God truly becomes "all in all," the diverse structures that constitute reality will finally collapse. This will not be bliss but extinction.

Although I would no longer want to characterize the difference between Altizer and me as that between Christian and Pharisee, I cannot share his apocalyptic quest for "Totality," even though our visions of God and the world share many elements in common. Totality will envelop and consume all of us soon enough. In the meantime, I am convinced that gratification can be as real as craving and that love does not require the total obliteration of otherness as Altizer maintains. On the contrary, it is precisely the wholehearted celebration of the otherness of male and female that makes sensuous love realizable. The chasm separating male and female expresses both the fact that every individual can experience only a very partial segment of reality and the fact that each person is an epiphenomenal expression of the unitary, underlying nature of all things. There is a dialectic interweaving of individual separateness and ecstatic union in genuine love. One must be able alternatively to lose and to recover oneself. Altizer seems too impatient to terminate the tension between the individual and the encompassing "Totality." There are joys to finitude. They are problematic and imperiled. They are ultimately doomed to extinction. They are nevertheless very real. I would not exchange the small moments of bliss I have known for the consuming Bliss of the New Jerusalem.



1. This paper was originally a response to Thomas J. J. Altizer, "Theology and the Contemporary Sensibility," in William A. Beardslee, ed., America and the Future of Theology (The Westminster Press, 1967), pp. 15-31.

2. Thomas J. I. Altizer, The Descent Into Hell (J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970), p. 192.

Viewed 115647 times.