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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 8: Response by Thomas J.J. Altizer


Richard L. Rubenstein has had a greater and more immediate impact upon the world of Christian theology than has been effected by any recent radical Christian theologian, and doubtless this is true because, in the words of Langdon Gilkey, he presents the sharpest and most devastating challenge to the traditional or Biblical conception of God. More than any Christian thinker in our time, Rubenstein speaks both as a man of faith and as a man of the world. Just as his faith is real, or so it must appear to the Christian if not to the Jew, so likewise the world of which he speaks is real, and real precisely in its imperviousness to everything that the Christian has been given as the gracious or providential love of God. What seems paradoxical to the Christian if not to the Jewish mind, and paradoxical in a nontheological and nondialectical sense, is that Rubenstein has found a religious way that can be lived at the center of a Godless world. Of all the contemporary radical theologians, the one I feel closest to theologically is Rubenstein, and this is because both of us have chosen the project of attempting to effect a synthesis between a radical form of mysticism and a radical form of modern Western atheism. We would not seem to be far apart in terms of our fundamental allegiance to either Freud or Nietzsche, and perhaps we are not far apart in terms of our dependence upon either Kabbalism or Madhyamika Buddhism. What most decisively distinguishes us is our respective identities as Jew and Christian. Indeed, I have learned more of my Christian identity through encounter with Rubenstein than I have by way of encounter with any Christian theologian.

If only through Rabbi Rubenstein, the contemporary Christian can learn that his hope is both absurd and impossible. Or, at least, hope is impossible and absurd if it is an eschatological or apocalyptic hope, and it is precisely Christianity’s eschatological ground that most fundamentally distinguishes it from Judaism. There is a Protestant theological principle that is commonly identified as extending from Paul and Augustine to Luther and Kierkegaard that identifies the absurd as being integrally and necessarily related to faith. Only through the gift of faith can we know the full reality of guilt and meaninglessness, for only the perspective of the new Adam or the new man of faith has sufficient distance from the old Adam to realize the full weight of brokenness. Perhaps Paul Tillich will prove to be the last theologian who could speak in this manner, and he did so only by employing the language of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud. For in our time it has become all too clear that it is the non-Christian thinker and visionary who has most profoundly realized the absurdity of the human condition. Can the Protestant theologian continue to maintain the integral relationship between faith and the absurd? Or between faith and depth? I believe that he both can and must, but he can do so only by evolving both a fully dialectical and a fully apocalyptic form of theology. Indeed, I believe the greatest challenge before us is one of understanding the integral and mutual relationship between apocalyptic faith and a dialectical mode of thinking and vision. It is at this point that Rubenstein can point the way for the Protestant theologian, and he can do so by his identification of the New Jerusalem as nothingness.

Notice that for Rubenstein the death of God can truly be greeted only with despair, but this is a despair that drives us to nothingness as our ultimate situation. Our only hope can be one of returning to our true sources in the divine nothingness or nothing-ness. For evil can be overcome only by returning to the nothingness that is both our source and our end. Our end is our beginning, Endzeit is Urzeit, our origin is our goal. Every hope that is a hope in an end other than in the beginning is a hope in a literal as opposed to a primordial nothingness, a hope in "nothingness" as opposed to "no-thing-ness." Finally, the Christian hope in the Kingdom of God or the New Jerusalem is a hope in such a "nothingness," for it is a hope that contradicts the inherent nature of reality. The goal of total liberation is a pathetic falsification of reality and it can be achieved only by bringing reality to an end. Hence eschatology is a sickness, a sickness in both a Freudian and a Nietzschean sense, for it arises from what clearly appears to be an infantile or resentful attempt to abolish reality.

Now I believe that these judgments are both humanly and theologically true, and it is only by accepting their truth that Christian theology can establish its reality in our world. I also believe that it is an inescapable historical truth for us that the proclamation of Jesus and hence the original ground of the Christian faith announced the immediate dawning of total liberation, a liberation that is inseparable from the abolition of reality. An inevitable temptation of Christian theology, and particularly so in our own time, has been to think that the idea or symbol of an actual end of the world was no part of the original proclamation of Jesus, and rather derived either from the apocalyptic religious world that so dominated Jesus’ disciples or from the all-too-human or fleshy component of their minds and hearts, which was impervious to the higher call of the Spirit. To this day, the greatest achievement of theological mediation in this direction is Bultmann’s method of demythologizing, which assumes that any objective meaning of the gospel, any meaning that speaks of the world or reality as such, including the idea that the end of the world is at hand, belongs to the world of myth and not of gospel, and therein is consigned either to the premodern age of humanity or to the realm of the old Adam or "flesh" (sarx).

For Bultmann, Jesus, unlike the prophets, directed his preaching to individuals and not to a community. Therefore, Jesus "dehistorized" God and man; that is, he released the relation between God and man from its previous ties to history (Historie). Again, in contrast to both the Old Testament and Judaism, Jesus "historicized" God -- in the sense of Geschichte as opposed to Historie -- by "desecularizing" man.

For Jesus, however, man is dc-secularized by God’s direct pronouncements to him, which tears him out of all security of any kind and places him at the brink of the End. And God is "desecularized" by understanding His dealing eschatologically: He lifts man out of his worldly ties and places him directly before His own eyes. Hence, the "de-historization" or "desecularization" both of God and of man is to be understood as a paradox (dialektisch): precisely that God, who stands aloof from the history of nations, meets each man in his own little history.1

Here, it is apparent that Bultmann is engaged in the process of demythologizing through his translation of Biblical eschatological categories into the categories of Kierkegaardian subjectivity, wherein the inner now of Geschichte not only replaces but also negates the outer now of Historie.

Rubenstein can teach the Christian that the God who stands aloof from the history of nations is the God who stands aloof from Auschwitz, and that the price of accepting a dehistorized or subjective God (the God who is absolute Subject and only Subject) is the abandonment of the objective world or reality as such to the realm of "flesh." Precisely this, of course, has been the path of modern Protestantism, and beyond Protestantism, of Christianity at large; and therein, in the words of Kierkegaard, Christianity has become historically exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament. Already beginning with Franz Kafka, it has been the Jew who has most poignantly unveiled the bad faith of the modern Christian world’s belief in God, and no doubt the Jew has most clearly and truly seen this bad faith, because he exists as an exile in the Christian world, an exile whose humanity is negated by the Christian faith and hope. As never before in the history of the Christian consciousness, the modern Jew has appeared and has been real as the suffering servant, the broken one in whose agony the world can behold and know the pain of humanity. If the Christian continues to believe in the gracious and providential love of God after Auschwitz, then not only is he once more denying the humanity of the Jew, but he is also inevitably denying the pain of all humanity, refusing the authentic or ultimate reality of a pain that cannot be relieved or assuaged by a dehistorized or dehumanized God. The Jew presents the Christian with the image of his brother, the brother from whom he is estranged by his very faith in God, and a brother who will never be real to the Christian until the Christian repudiates and negates every idea or symbol of salvation confining liberation to an interior, a subjective, or an esoteric realm.

But there is no way to an idea or symbol of a total liberation as opposed to an interior or subjective liberation apart from accepting the full scandal of the gospel: the scandal of a faith proclaiming that the world and reality as such are in process of coming to an end. The New Jerusalem is quite literally nothing if its advent has no actual effect upon or no integral relation to reality as such. So long as reality remains untouched by the New Jerusalem, then the New Jerusalem is untouched by reality, and the inner realm or "little history" that is celebrated by its proclaimers is not only an innocent illusion but, more fundamentally, a perverse veiling of reality. Finally, the Christian must say Yes or No to the question of the actual advent of the New Jerusalem: for if the Messiah or the New Jerusalem lies wholly in the future or primordially in the past, then Christ is neither actually nor historically real. Moreover, the Christian today can make such a decision only with the realization that to affirm the presence of the New Jerusalem is inevitably to engage in a pathetic falsification of reality, and a falsification that can truly be known to derive from an infantile or resentful attempt to abolish reality. For we know, and know as man has never known before, that faith can only know as Spirit what flesh has repressed and reversed as flesh, and that the flesh that is negated by Spirit is the flesh from which flesh itself is alienated and estranged. Spirit is born only at the cost of self-alienation, and to speak of the total triumph of Spirit is to speak of a final self-dissolution or self-annihilation. In short, to speak of the presence of the New Jerusalem is to speak of the end of reality as such.

Certainly an eschatological symbol of the end is an integral ground of the original Christian faith, and in our own time we have increasingly come to realize that such a symbol of the end is an integral and immediate ground of modern Western dialectical thinking and vision. If the modern imagination is eschatological or apocalyptic to the extent that it evolves out of a negation and reversal of our given world of consciousness and experience, then so likewise is it dialectical in the sense that it is grounded in a movement of negation and transcendence. Wherever we turn to the fullest and most total expressions of modern imaginative vision, as, for example, in Blake, Proust, and Joyce, we find that a new and total world of vision is established and maintained only by way of a dissolution or reversal of our given selfhood. Everything that an autonomous and uniquely individual form of self-hood knows and experiences as reality is here negated, reversed, and transcended; and this fully parallels primitive Christianity’s eschatological negation of the world in faith. If anything, the fullest expressions of the modern imagination are even more apocalyptic in form, movement, imagery, and symbolism than is the New Testament; or so, at least, it would appear to the Christian today who inherits almost two millennia of demythologizing an originally apocalyptic faith.

Only the dualistic form of the modern Western consciousness, which is grounded in an absolute distinction between the subject and the object of consciousness, instills us with the seemingly irrevocable sense that the world or reality stands wholly outside of consciousness itself. Once this dualistic form of consciousness is negated and transcended by a dialectical movement of thinking or vision, then the world or reality no longer stands forth as autonomous and apart, and is known or experienced as being integrally and necessarily related to the center and ground of consciousness. Then a reversal of consciousness inevitably makes manifest and real a reversal of the world or of reality as such, and the world or reality as it was previously manifest to consciousness comes wholly to an end. We need not conceive such a reversal of consciousness as purely imaginative or visionary, as witness Marx’s dialectical understanding of the integral and necessary relationship between consciousness and society, and Marx’s revolutionary understanding of society was a consistent enlargement -- if reversal -- of Hegel’s dialectical method. So likewise Kierkegaard’s dialectical understanding of faith establishes the subjective truth of faith as a consequence of the negation of objectivity, and the passion and inwardness of faith is established only by virtue of the absurdity of its objective meaning or ground. We might also note that Nietzsche’s higher or Dionysian vision of Eternal Recurrence -- which he judged to be the ultimate expression of Yes-saying or total affirmation -- can be reached only by passing through a full and total realization of the meaninglessness and chaos of the world or reality as such. Surely all of these expressions of modern dialectical thinking have an eschatological ground: a ground in an absolute negation and reversal of what apocalyptically can be named only as old aeon or old creation.

Yet Christians have learned again and again in our world, and perhaps most so at the hands of the Jew, that a world lies about us that is wholly impervious to faith or vision. In one sense, the Jew knows a world that the Christian has never known, or never known by way of his Christian consciousness and sensibility, and that is the world which the Christian judges in faith to be old aeon or old creation. What the Jew as Jew apparently has, and what the Christian has lost if he ever had it, is a sense of the world as creation and only creation, and thereby untouched by the announcement or gospel of total vision or total liberation. In our time, if only because of Auschwitz, the Christian is being forced to respect the judgment of the Jew as Jew, and to acknowledge that it is possible in good faith to judge that neither a messiah nor full liberation has yet entered or affected the world. Thereby a theological chasm is once again arising between the Christian and the Jew that is perhaps as great or even greater than it has been in the past, a chasm leading the Christian to question his knowledge of Yahweh, and to recognize that the Scripture which he knows as Old Testament is not the Scripture which is known to the Jew. At the very least, the Christian is coming to see that the Christian God is not to be theologically identified with the Lord of Israel, and that the God whom the Christian knows in Christ is absent from Israel, and absent because Israel has preserved its covenant with the Lord.

Even when the Jew speaks of the absence or the silence of God, he can still presumably speak as a Jew, and exist in a world that in some sense he can know as creation. Perhaps because he was forced to exist for so many centuries as an exile in alien religious worlds, the Jew has been prepared to live in faith in a Godless world, and therein to preserve the name of the Lord, even if that name must now be named as no-thing-ness. Nevertheless, if the Christian recognizes the good faith of the Jew in preserving the divine name in a Godless world, he must acknowledge his own bad faith in attempting to exercise the same vocation. For not only does the Christian not know the God of the Jew, but as a Christian he is inescapably a son of that Christ who proclaimed and made manifest the full advent of the Kingdom of God. Once faith is grounded in the dawning of the Kingdom of God, there can be no true openness to a God or Lord standing outside of the world and time, and hence no openness to the reality of God in a Godless world. To know that Christ and the Kingdom have actually come is to actualize in faith the name of God in such a manner as wholly and finally to dissociate the name of God from any realm or mode that is beyond and apart. Therefore, when the Christian acknowledges his own existence in a truly Godless world he must repudiate both the name and image of God. Indeed, when the good faith of the Jew unveils the bad faith of Christian belief in God, the Christian can become more truly open to the Christ who points to the end of the old creation, the end of reality as such, and ushers in that new creation of total liberation, which no longer can even be named as reality.

 

Notes:

1. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, 3:3, tr. by Kendrick Grobel (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), p. 25.

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