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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 13: Thomas J.J. Altizer Response


Upon first reading this essay I was simply overwhelmed, for Winston L. King has carried my position to a conclusion that I myself was unable to reach, and he has done so on the basis of an understanding of Buddhism that is fuller and more solid than mine. So far as I am aware, Winston L. King and myself are the only Christian theologians who have entered into a dialogue with Buddhism with the purpose of attempting by this means to enrich and even reconstruct the present shape and Structure of Christianity. Thus it was with both delight and fearful apprehension that I followed the argument of this essay, for it challenges my own theological choice at the deepest level. Nor does it challenge it simply in a negative sense, for it opens horizons that had previously been closed to me and others ideas and images with which to voyage into those horizons.

Before taking up this challenge, however, I wish to object to two of King’s points. Both of these points have to do with what King terms "Dualistic Transcendence"; and, at this point, I wish to state only that I do not regard such transcendence as false in a literal or ordinary sense, nor do I believe that a genuine dualistic transcendence is to be found outside of the Christian tradition. From my point of view, God himself negated and reversed his own transcendence in the Incarnation, and the Christian is called to will the death of God as a way of opening himself to the gift or "Body" of God in Christ. Buddhism has never known any form of a truly transcendent realm or deity, hence I concur with the common judgment that from the Christian point of view Buddhism is atheistic. Moreover, it is precisely its "atheism" that makes possible the richness and power of Buddhism, and most particularly so in its Madhyamika and Zen expressions. But I do not regard Buddhism as being either false or inferior to Christianity. On the contrary, I regard Buddhism as a "true" apprehension of the primordial Totality, and as being religiously superior to Christianity. While I believe that Christianity is called to a negation and reversal of both the way to and all images of a primordial Totality, I nevertheless believe that such negation should be dialectical in the Hegelian sense, and therefore it must ultimately entail an affirmation of the primordial Totality.

If nothing else, King’s Christian apprehension of the dialectical way of Zen offers a demonstration of a form of Buddhist dialectical life and power that is apparently not present in Christianity. And how embarrassing it is when my efforts at dialectical thinking are contrasted with Zen! As King notes, my own thinking appears to be almost totally dualistic in this perspective, and I can only plead that I fear that this is inevitable. Yet Zen’s total transcendence of dualism can point the way to a Christian transcendence of dualism, a transcendence that can lie only in our future, for it does not exist in anything that we can know as our Christian past. I must confess that it had never even occurred to me that Zen could be understood as a way of negating Buddhist transcendentalism so that its negation fully parallels the radical Christian negation of transcendence. Perhaps this is true, although such a momentous point cannot easily be understood or assimilated. Here, I can only take up the question of the relation between Zen and Christian affirmation. King astutely and succinctly captures the quality of Zen affirmation in one sentence: "To negate dualism is to affirm oneness; to negate separation is to affirm unity; to deny the unreal is to affirm reality -- without defining them." The all too significant qualification of this last point itself defines a gulf between Buddhism and Christianity. For despite the profundity and profuseness of the purely theoretical or philosophical expressions of Buddhism, these expressions, at least in their Zen and Madhyamika forms, follow a totally negative way. Thereby they not only refuse all positive statement or definition, but they identify such definition as a turning away from the all-embracing life and truth of "Emptiness." Accordingly, Zen affirmation is not susceptible to what we know as definition, and therefore it can appear to us only as pure negation.

Insofar as we remain bound to the meaning and reality of "history," we will also be closed to the positive ground of Zen affirmation. It is not simply that Buddhism knows nothing of what we have known as history, but also that Buddhism is closed to everything that we have known as world and self-affirmation. King’s portrait of Zen particularity makes manifest how Zen can affirm the immediately real even while dissolving all apprehension or awareness of a differentiated real -- thus the disappearance of the distinctive or differentiated categories of nature, deity, and selfhood goes hand in hand with the appearance of the immediately real. Nothing that we have known as "will" is present in this affirmation, nor can affirmation here be understood as a human, a moral, or a religious act. The Taoist category of wu wei ("doing nothing") illuminates the meaning of Zen affirmation, for it is an affirmation in which nothing is done or said. Or, at least, there is nothing present in Zen affirmation that approximates to a Western or Christian language and action. From our point of view, nothing really happens in Zen. Zen knows nothing of a "Fall," nor does it know anything of what we have known as redemption and salvation. Consequently, Zen is closed both to forward-moving process and to backward-moving regression. Nothing is present here of what we have known as goal or direction, and perhaps only the advent of modern Western nihilism opened the West to the meaning and power of Buddhism.

I was particularly taken with the manner in which King, following Nishitani, related the Buddhist image of the "Great Death" to Zen acceptance and affirmation. Now if it is only by the abandoning of oneself and the throwing away of one’s own life that Zen affirmation is possible, then obviously this parallels the Christian way of finding life through death. But a crucial difference between the two immediately presents itself. Just as the Christian celebrates an ultimate death or Crucifixion that is both actual and historical, so likewise a Christian dying with Christ is a dying to a particular and actual human condition. Not only is the Christian called to die to a fallen form of selfhood, but he is also called to die to that form of selfhood which is most immediately real to him. That is to say, the Christian must die to or in an individual and personal form of selfhood, a form of selfhood that is historically real and that is actually and indubitably real to a fully individual or differentiated mode of consciousness. Not only does Buddhism know little or nothing of such a form of selfhood, but Buddhist "death" or enlightenment entails an obliteration or dissolution of any awareness of selfhood as such. Accordingly, Zen knows nothing of an actual abandoning of oneself, for there is no self to abandon.

It may well be possible to speak of Zen existential apocalypticism as King does, but we should be aware that this is a form of "apocalypticism" in which nothing actually happens, in which there is neither world- nor self-transformation. Even as Zen repudiates all actual ways to enlightenment, so in the last resort nothing is gained by enlightenment of satori, and thus the life of the sage is no different from the life of ordinary men. Of course, in one sense these Zen formulations are paradoxes that are intended to instill nonattachment and nonaction (wu wei). But in another sense they are celebrations of "Emptiness" that are intended to point the way to total calm or peace. I do not see how it is possible, at least from a Christian or Western point of view, to avoid identifying Zen as a backward way tg nal or primordial Unity. True, such an identification is not possible from the perspective of Zen itself, if only because Zen transcends any distinction between backward and forward or future and past. But we must inevitably look at Zen from our own perspective or point of view, even if our glances at Zen still and uproot our own vision. Indeed, it is only our discovery of Oriental religious or mystical ways that has initiated us into the full meaning of what must appear to us as "backward" ways to a primordial Unity or Totality. But thereby we have been given a new way into the "forward" way of eschatological faith.

Now if we entertain the possibility that a new and total way of eschatological faith has dawned in the modern world, one way into the meaning of that faith may well be by relating it to its Oriental counterpart. For both ways are total ways, therefore they are radical ways, and nothing whatsoever is untouched by their vision or practice. Initially, I was delighted with King’s judgment that the "history" which a Christian atheism claims to be the total consequence of the Incarnation is identical with Zen particularity. While such a "history" may indeed be present in the fullest expressions of the modern imagination, theology has only begun to understand that "history," and thus I must respond that King’s judgment is premature. Nevertheless, I believe that King has pointed to a legitimate goal of radical theology, although I would insist that an apocalyptic or total "history" must be in continuity with the actuality of the history that we in the West have known. Perhaps at no other point can such a continuity so immediately establish its importance as in the ethical or moral arena. King closes his essay with a discussion of what he terms "ethical indirection," claiming that neither Zen nor my own work has any clear ethical direction to present. No doubt this is true, but I would regard ethical indirection as an inevitable consequence of a total or radical way, if only because a total way uproots and dissolves or reverses all individual or particular ways, including the ethical way or direction. It is not accidental or insignificant that ethical ways disappear or are invisible as such in both the total ways of the Orient and in the most radical expressions of modern Western thinking and vision.

Nietzsche’s symbol of "Yes-saying" is a symbolic evocation of a total way, and it has inevitably been fiercely rejected and opposed by its theological critics. Theologically, however, we cannot understand Nietzsche’s Yes-saying unless we are aware of its atheistic ground and realize that it entails not only a negation but also a reversal of transcendence. On the one hand, this all too modern symbol of Yes-saying unveils the impotent passivity and the inhuman detachment of Christian faith in God, of Christian dependence upon and submission to God, the demonic consequences of which are so passionately portrayed in Ivan Karamazov. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s symbol of Yes-saying calls upon its hearer to become God, or to freely accept the total responsibility of God, a responsibility that Christianity had identified with the total sovereignty of the Creator. Once God is dead, the transcendent realm is emptied, and it is no longer possible to find life or hope in the beyond. But Nietzsche’s symbol of Yes-saying points the way to transforming transcendence into immanence, so that the emptying of heaven becomes identified as the transformation of heaven into "earth." As a consequence of this apocalyptic transformation or reversal, a new man or new creation dawns who embodies in himself the total life and power of the Creator. From the perspective of the old man or the old creation, this new power is terrifying, for it demands not only a total immersion in the here and now, but also a total responsibility for the world. Nothing whatsoever stands outside of this responsibility, for total Yes-saying demands not only an acceptance but also an affirmation of the All.

Is the Yes-saying of Nietzsche’s affirmation identical with the total affirmation of Zen? R. H. Blyth, among others, does not hesitate to draw this conclusion. I would rather suggest that just as Zen knows nothing of what we have known as transcendence, so likewise it has no awareness of what we are coming to know as total immanence. When we remember the overwhelming emphasis that Nietzsche gives to the "Will to Power," we are forced to recognize the chasm separating the total way of a modern Yes-saying from the total way or no-way of Zen. Nietzsche calls for an actual acceptance and affirmation, for a total willing of our real present as our own creation. This is at the opposite extreme from a total passivity or indifference to history, for it demands that the Yes-sayer assume total responsibility for both his own identity and his own world. Or, rather, world and individual identity here come together and are indistinguishable -- thereby truly paralleling Zen -- but their very identity is of such a kind that the individual not only wills but also enacts his total responsibility for the world. Nietzsche’s Yes-saying is a call to total freedom, but it is also a demand for total responsibility, and in demanding that responsibility it negates every form of responsibility or ethical direction that rests upon the authority or the power of the beyond.

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