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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 11: Thomas J.J. Altizer Response


Daniel C. Noel poses a problem that is seldom stated by theologians but that has overwhelming implications for our contemporary theological or religious situation: What is the decisive difference between the religious ways of pre-death-of-God and post-death-of-God religion? By understanding pre-death-of-God and post-death-of-God as stages of religious evolution, Noel sees a full continuity between what he terms the way of momentary rebirth and the way of "on-goingness." The latter is understood as a Christian phenomenon, for a passing through the experience of the death of God leads to the apotheosis of subjective experience, which itself is a fulfillment of the continuing Incarnation culminating in the Christification of many. If this analysis is to stand, it depends upon the actuality of a new form or mode of the religious consciousness, one that transcends even while existing in full continuity with the previous stage of religious evolution. While I am fully persuaded that the death of God is a Christian phenomenon, and that it promises the Christification of all, I find that Noel’s portrait of "on-goingness" at no point transcends or goes beyond a pre-death-of-God stage of religious evolution.

Why, it may be wondered, does Noel place such an enormous burden in his argument upon the identification of Jung’s process of individuation as a truly new and yet Christian process of continual and interior self-redemption? Whether or not Jung may truly be identified as a Gnostic (and he has so identified himself on numerous occasions), there is nothing in what he describes as individuation that is not far more fully present in classical mystical ways of both the East and West. It is noteworthy that Noel ignores the world of mysticism, preferring to identify pre-death-of-God religion with Eliade’s archaic religion, and this leads him to the fantastic historical thesis that interior- and self-redemption arises only with the death of God. No doubt the individuation process will truly appear to be new if one confines all pre-death-of-God religion to the historical world of primitive or archaic man. Jung knew better, for already in 1920, with the publication of Psychological Types, Jung demonstrated his own immersion in the mysticisms of China, India, and Europe. Indeed, he never abandoned the theory of the "Self" that was formulated in this work, and the unifying or reconciling symbol of the "Self" ever thereafter remained the foundation and the goal of the individuation process, a process that Jung himself considered to be universally present in the collective unconscious.

In a section entitled "The Relativity of the Idea of God in Meister Eckhart" in the Psychological Types, Jung shows how a mystical way can concretely collapse the dogmatic distinction between "God" and the "soul." For Jung believed then, as he continued to believe until his death, that the goal of all the great religions is the subjective withdrawal of libido into the unconscious so that a libidinal power may therein be stored which in the form of "God" or the "soul" becomes the most active force in psychic life. By means of religious or mystical discipline or practice, this libido may be withdrawn from the unconscious, thus bringing about a regenerative attitude and a new life springing out of the reactivation of unconscious psychic energies. The birth of this libidinal power signifies a becoming aware of unconscious contents.

This is an act of conscious discrimination from the unconscious dynamis, a severance of the ego as subject, from God (i.e., the unconscious dynamis) as object. In this way God "becometh." When, through the "breaking-through," i.e., through a "cutting off" of the ego from the world, and through an identification of the ego with the motivating dynamis of the unconscious, this severance is once more resolved, God disappears as object and becomes the subject which is no longer distinguished from the ego, i.e., the ego as a relatively late product of differentiation, becomes once more united with the mystic, dynamic, universal participation (participation mystique of the primitives).1

Jung finds this meaning of "God" to be present in Christian, Indian, and Chinese mysticism, and he insists that it is identical with that "Self" which is the goal of all psychic growth. How, then, can Jung’s individuation process be identified as a post-death-of-God and specifically Christian way of "on-goingness"?

Initially I was intrigued with Noel’s suggestion that the replacement of dialectical thinking with metaphorical thinking would cure the regressive tendencies of my thought. But Noel’s real complaint seems to be that my dialectical method is tainted because it fails to return to the natural dialectic of Heraclitus and insists on assigning metaphysical primacy to post-Parmenidean concepts of contradiction. This is certainly true, for I do not believe that it is possible to reverse history and return to a pre-modem or primal thinking, whether of a Jungian or a Heideggerian kind. Unlike Jung and Heidegger, however, Owen Barfield does embrace the historical evolution of consciousness, and he does so by way of a radical understanding of the Incarnation. Or is it truly radical? Of this I am now unsure, particularly in view of Barfield’s most recent writings, to say nothing of the fact that his most fundamental loyalty has always been to Rudolf Steiner (whom Noel pointedly ignores). Already in 1927, moreover, Barfield hailed the backward glance of poetry, for it is by creating true metaphors that poetry restores (Barfield’s italics) the primordial unity of subject and object. At its birth, language is a living unity, but this unity is lost with the development of consciousness.

Accordingly, at a later stage in the evolution of consciousness, we find it operative in individual poets, enabling them to intuit relationships which their fellows have forgotten -- relationships which they must now express as metaphor. Reality, once self-evident, and therefore not conceptually experienced, but which can now only be reached by an effort of the individual mind -- this is what is contained in a true poetic metaphor; and every metaphor is "true" only insofar as it contains such a reality, or hints at it. The world, like Dionysus, is torn to pieces by pure intellect; but the poet is Zeus; he has swallowed the heart of the world; and he can reproduce it as a living body.2

In its infancy, language is all poetry. But with the development of conceptual thinking the primordial unity between subject and object is lost from perception. Now the connections between discrete phenomena can be apprehended only as metaphor -- for once they were perceived as immediate realities -- and it is the function of the poet to see these connections as immediate realities, and to make others see them, "again" (my italics).

At bottom there is nothing in this theory of poetry as metaphor that goes beyond the romanticism of the nineteenth century, just as there are no ideas of Jung that cannot be traced to a comparable source. If there is one motif that is common to all forms of romanticism -- and here I am speaking of romantic theory and not of the actual poetry of the so-called romantic poets -- it is a nostalgia for the lost innocence of a primordial beginning and a yearning for an original and undifferentiated form of consciousness. This romanticism was still present in the Nietzsche who wrote The Birth of Tragedy, but it was conquered in his prophetic realization of the death of God, and his consequent baptism of time and death in his vision of Eternal Recurrence. Yes, this vision of Eternal Recurrence is an acceptance of death as living in the Now, and it is just for this reason that it is opposed to all primordial forms of a coincidentia oppositorum. It is precisely those who most deeply refuse our world and the forward movement of history and consciousness who are now driven to a primordial way, a way that masks the profane reality of time and death by apprehending it as being at one with a primordial unity. Nietzsche points the way to a total refusal of every such primordial call, and his own thinking and experience is a model for the reversal of regression. For this reason alone the contemporary Christian should accept Nietzsche as a prophet and seer. Where else may one find such a consistent and comprehensive inversion and reversal of a pre-death-of-God stage of religious evolution?


There can be no gainsaying the power of process theology in the contemporary American Protestant theological world, and not the least source of this power is its ability, or the ability of its proponents, to enter and comprehend the most diverse forces upon the contemporary theological scene. Despite the fact that I was initiated into systematic theology by Daniel Day Williams, that I am an alumnus of the established academic center of process theology -- the Divinity School of the University of Chicago -- or, most important of all, that I have been in intimate touch with the thinking and criticism of John B. Cobb, Jr., for the past thirteen years, I continue to find process theology both conceptually and humanly unreal. First, I find it to be unreal because it is so closely bound up with the cultural world of liberal Protestantism. As Charles Harvey Arnold attempts to demonstrate in Near the Edge of Battle, a history of the Chicago Divinity School, there is a full and unbroken continuity between the liberalism of the early twentieth-century Chicago theologians and the liberalism of Meland, Loomer, and Williams. To this day, Cobb is the only process theologian who is even open to the challenge of radical relativism and nihilism. Thus I must begin my response to this critique from the point of view of process theology by citing a portion of Cobb’s criticism of Boston Personalism in his Living Options in Protestant Theology:

Personalism has great confidence in the reliability of a kind of common-sense speculation about the cosmos as a whole, whereas sophisticated moderns generally find such confidence naive and out of date. Even when sympathetic to such inquiry they find the results too suspect and humanly unreal to serve as a basis for ultimate decisions of life and death. Hence, it is not philosophers only, but spiritually sensitive moderns generally, who feel an ultimate frustration and emptiness before Personalism’s staggering claims about reason’s ability to know God.3

Now I recognize that process theology is far more sophisticated than Boston Personalism, and more sophisticated precisely because it is genuinely philosophical, but I fail to detect any substantial or real theological distance between Boston Personalism and Chicago Process Theology, just as I cannot fail to observe that both are so clearly related to the social world of modern American liberal Protestantism.

Whitehead himself, unlike Hartshorne and Ogden, repudiates the deductive method and the demonstrative claims of classical rationalism and, rather, attempts to arrive at a metaphysical system that will bring a consistent meaning and coherence to the critical ideas, mostly scientific, of his own time and world. We might then expect that process theologians who are in continuity with Whitehead would attempt to establish a theological system that brings a consistent meaning and coherence to the theological ideas or the religious practices and beliefs of the contemporary Christian world. After two generations of process theology this is finally, perhaps, being attempted; but surely it is a fact of some significance that process theology could exist for nearly forty years even while ignoring virtually all of the central or unique affirmations of the Christian faith. At no other point is there such an enormous distance between the English Whiteheadian theologians -- e.g., William Temple and Lionel Thornton -- and the Chicago School. Of course, Temple and Thornton were more classically Christian than philosophically Whiteheadian. But this leads to the inevitable question: Can Whiteheadianism be a conceptual vehicle for the Christian faith? Indeed, the common theological charge against process theology is that it is quite simply non-Christian. Here, we find no awareness of the Fall (except as a means of affirming total personal responsibility), no doctrine of sin as opposed to evil, no past or future eschaton, no atonement (except as a moral example), and no Incarnation (except as a "renewal" of the sense of the present immediacy of God). Does process theology not in large measure confront us with a contemporary expression of a traditional natural religion or natural theology? At what point do the theological affirmations of process theology decisively differ from the common-sense beliefs of traditional Western culture and society? Above all, is it because process theology has chosen to affirm the eternal reality of God that it is unable to speak specifically of Fall or eschatology or Christ?

Gier makes a major point of insisting that the retention of the past is a basic philosophic tenet of process theology. Now what can the retention of the past mean in a theological context? Surely it cannot refer to physical time, which for Whitehead is perpetual perishing. Does this mean that the "living immediacy" of temporal occasions is preserved in the consequent nature of God? If the consequent nature of God is "the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can, be saved,"4 does this mean that every positive value is everlasting in God? And does every such positive value provide a specific aim for some new occasion to realize in the future? Is not this very conception in full continuity with the classical liberal understanding of progress and progressive evolution? Is this not, furthermore, a religious way of providing an ultimate sanction for whatever has occurred or happens to be? Does not such a total affirmation of the past foreclose the possibility of a truly new or revolutionary future? Such a judgment must inevitably occur from the perspective of a radical Hegelian understanding of history, as can be seen from Engels’ interpretation of those primal words of Hegel, "All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real":

And so, in the course of development, all that was previously real becomes unreal, loses its necessity, its right, of existence, its rationality. And in the place of moribund reality comes a new, viable reality -- peacefully if the old has enough intelligence to go to its death without a struggle; forcibly if it resists this necessity. Thus the Hegelian proposition turns into its opposite through Hegelian dialectics itself: All that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is therefore irrational by its very destination, is tainted beforehand with irrationality; and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, no matter how much it contradicts existing apparent reality. In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.5

What can it mean to speak of the richness of the past in the context of our revolutionary situation? Is process theology yet another priestly and counterrevolutionary assault upon that actual future which now lies before us? How can we retain all past forms of experience and move forward to a truly new future?

At no point do I feel a greater distance from process theology than in its affirmation of the absolute value and reality of the unique and individual person. Here, process theology is in full continuity with Boston Personalism, as it is with liberal Protestantism in general. In brief, my response to this fundamental affirmation of liberal Protestantism would he that the idea of the ultimate value and reality of the individual is historically limited to the classical period of modern Western culture, and that it can have neither a living meaning nor a truly human form in a post-modern or post-liberal period of history. When theologians affirm that every quest for a genuine and lasting polis is identical with the development of "personhood" in community they should be aware that -- at least from a Marxist or revolutionary political point of view -- they are serving as ideological spokesmen for a modern Western or bourgeois conception of politics and society. Hopefully, radical theology is truly apolitical and nonethical, if responsible ethical and political action are identified with the established forms of modern Western politics and ethics. Now I cannot pretend that I have reached a positive ethical or political way, but so far as I am aware a positive and radical ethics or politics has not yet been reached by any school or movement of theology. The only positive ethics or politics that we possess are clearly grounded in historical worlds of the past, and for this reason alone responsible theologians have opted for the retention of the past. But there can be no avoiding the truth that in our historical situation an affirmation of the past is at the very least in grave danger of negating and opposing an actual and real future.

No, as opposed to Gier, I continue to believe that the great challenge of process theology is in its doctrine of God, rather than in its conception of the personhood of the individual. For apart from what process theology affirms as the absolute presence of God there would be no ground for the ultimate reality and responsibility of the individual. If each new moment, according to process thought, is open to the infinite range of possibilities contained in the primordial nature of God, then is possibility as such finally grounded in God’s purely conceptual and unchanging envisagement of eternal objects? Whitehead conceived the primordial nature of God as this timeless envisagement of possibilities, and God’s ordering of the eternal objects is such as to specify the initial aim for each new occasion. While God is the sole ground of the initial aim of each occasion, every actual occasion is a novel addition to the universe. "Creativity" is inescapably an aspect of every such entity, but as Cobb interprets Whitehead, "God must be conceived as being the reason that entities occur at all as well as determining the limits within which they can achieve their own forms." 6 In view of this fundamental metaphysical conception of the relation between God and the world, Cobb’s understanding of the otherness of God as absolute nearness can be seen as a way of affirming the sovereign and primordial power of God.

If process theology is truly a rebirth in a contemporary form of an ancient natural religion or natural theology, then we should expect that process theology is unable to envision a truly new creation or new humanity. A dipolar conception of God seems to promise a genuine theological understanding and affirmation of creativity, and even of a forward-moving creativity, but, rather, the truth would seem to be that the God of process theology forecloses even the possibility of a new humanity. Once the primordial nature of God and its timeless ordering of eternal objects is envisioned as the ground of novelty, then not only can there he no fundamental or ontological change of reality, but potentiality as such must be limited to a primordial envisagement of possibility. God is manifest solely as the Creator, for even the consequent nature of God is God’s physical pole, his prehension of the actual occasions constituting the temporal world. It is pot accidental that process theology cannot speak of Christ or eschaton, for the eschatological goal of humanity is limited to a renewal of the sense of the present immediacy of the Creator. No contemporary form of theology has given us such a full and genuine conceptual understanding of God as has process theology, but the price that process theology has been forced to pay for its doctrine of God is its negation of both the meaning and the reality of Christ.

It is instructive at this point to contrast Whitehead’s metaphysical understanding of the primordial nature of God with Hegel’s dialectical understanding of Spirit. If the primordial nature of God is absolute because it always retains its self-identity, a fully dialectical form of Spirit is absolute because it is identical with itself even when it fully exists and is finally real as its own inherent otherness. The question of the fundamental meaning of "identity" is paramount here. In the Science of Logic, Hegel conceives identity as being nonidentical with itself. The essential moment of identity is that in which it is determined as being its own negativity even while being different from "difference." Its difference is not from an "other," but from itself: it is not itself, but its own "other." Thus the fullest moment of identity is that in which it passes beyond itself into self-dissolution. It is not accidental that it is this very section of the Science of Logic (Vol. I, Bk. II, Sec. I) that Hegel identifies the law of contradiction as the alternative expression of the law of identity, insisting that both are synthetic rather than analytic, and that when each is thought through to its own inherent conclusion they both cease to be formal and abstract and, rather, transcend and negate themselves by making "contradiction" manifest as the root of all movement and life. Accordingly, the pure or formal reason of Verstand is not opposed because of an opposition to reason as such. On the contrary, pure reason is here understood to pass beyond or to dissolve itself, and it is just this self-negation of pure reason which makes manifest the active and dialectical reason of Vernunft.

No one who has even the slightest knowledge of Hegel’s dialectical method of thinking, or who is aware of its immense impact upon the contemporary world, could think that his conception of identity and contradiction is simply absurd or arbitrary. Nor need the Christian Hegelian necessarily feel threatened in the presence of the logical power of the Christian Whiteheadian. What is at issue theologically is the question of whether Hegelian or Whiteheadian thinking is the best philosophical vehicle for the contemporary expression of the cognitive meaning of the Christian faith. And not the least claim that can he made for the Hegelian method or mode of thinking is that it is truly and fully a cognitive expression of the eschatologica1 and Christological ground of the Christian faith. Thus the Christian Hegelian can say that God is most truly and fully himself when he transcends and passes beyond his own identity and becomes "other" than himself in the eschatological event of Christ. God is identical with Christ, yes; but this is a dialectical identity, for it is only insofar as God dissolves himself as God that he is manifest and real as Christ. Apart from such a movement of "self-negation," there can be no new creation in Christ, and no advent of a new world or new humanity. Does a Whiteheadian dipolar conception of God make possible either an eschatologica1 understanding of Christ or a Christological understanding of eschaton? Surely this is one point at which Whiteheadian and Hegelian theological thinking could engage in fruitful dialogue, and perhaps the course of this dialogue will reveal that each is closer to the other than either is to any other system of thought. After all, both are genuine forms of "process" theology, just as both are full and genuine expressions of modern thinking. Is there any other contemporary theological movement about which these judgments could be made?



1. Carl G. Jung, Psychological Types, tr. by H. G. Baynes (London: Brace, Trench and Trulner, 1923), p. 316.

2. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1964), p. 88.

3. John B. Cobb, Jr., Living Options in Protestant Theology (The Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 82 f.

4. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (The Macmillan Company, 1929), p. 525.

5. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Religion (Schocken Books, 1964), p. 217.

6. John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology (The Westminster Press, 1965), p. 211.

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