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The Gospel of Christian Atheism by Thomas J.J. Altizer

.Thomas J. J. Altizer received his Ph.D at the University of Chicago in 1955. He taught at Wabash College from 1954-1956, then moved to Emory University as professor of Bible and Religion until 1968. The "death of God" theology became a heated debate during his professorship at Emory. In 1968 he accepted a position at the State University of New York in 1968 as professor of English. Some of his primary works are: Radical Theology and the Death of God, ed. Altizer and William Hamilton (1966), The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966), The Descent into Hell (1970), The Self-Embodiment of God (1977), Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today (1980), Genesis and Apocalypse: A Theological Voyage Toward Authentic Christianity (1990), and The Genesis of God: A Theological Genealogy (1993). Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Copyright © 1966 W.L. Jenkins. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There would seem to be little doubt that we are now entering a period in which Christianity must confront the most radical challenge that it has faced since the time of its beginning. Certainly the churches are inadequately equipped to face such a challenge, and if we were forced to rely solely upon ecclesiastical Christianity to find a way to a new Christian life and witness, then we would very nearly be without hope. But there is no intrinsic reason why Christianity should be identified with its ecclesiastical expressions. Indeed, the identification of Christianity with the Christian Church may well be the major source of the troubles that now beset the Christian faith. This study has chosen to challenge this identification, and to do so with the conviction that there is no other way to a living and contemporary Christian faith. Few Protestants are aware of how much of our inherited Christian faith and witness has its source in an increasingly archaic ecclesiastical tradition, and even fewer theologians are willing to negate all those ecclesiastical norms and traditions which are incompatible with the contemporary life of faith. But there lies no way to a contemporary epiphany of Christ apart from a consistent and thoroughgoing transformation of the language and forms of all ecclesiastical Christianity.

A truly contemporary theology can only begin its task today by first seeking a ground outside of the given and established form of the Church. A sweeping transformation is taking place in the Church today, and even Catholic theologians are calling upon the Church to enter a post-Constantinian age, a historical era following the collapse of Christendom. Yet theology need not necessarily be bound to the life of the Church, not even to the vanguard of the Church, for theology must seek the presence of Christ in the world. The first duty of the Christian theologian is loyalty to Christ, and he must strive to open his thinking to the universal presence of Christ, to the presence of Christ in the totality of human experience. Above all, a contemporary form of theology is in quest of a contemporary form of Christ. In our situation this must mean that theology is now called to listen fully to the world, even if such a listening demands a turning away from the church’s witness to Christ. At a time when Christian theology is called upon to pass through the most radical revolution in its history, the theologian must not be thwarted from his goal by a false loyalty to the authority of the Church.

In dedicating this book to the memory of my father, I intend also to include all those fathers who have played such a decisive role in my life, including, most particularly, Paul Tillich. It was while reading Tillich as an undergraduate that I was led to an acceptance of the Christian faith, and I have found that throughout my teaching and study it was Tillich who exercised the greatest theological influence upon my work. Among twentieth-century theologians, it was Tillich alone who made possible a way to a truly contemporary theology. While I have been forced to resist and oppose Tillich’s theological conclusions, I do so with the conviction that they are not yet radical enough, and with the memory of Tillich’s words to me that the real Tillich is the radical Tillich. Certainly, Tillich is the modern father of radical theology, and although he did not succeed in founding a Tillichian school of theology, his influence is felt at most of those points where theology is now being carried beyond its traditional limits.

My own route to theology has been through the discipline of the history of religions. My teacher was Joachim Wach, and the incredible breadth of his understanding of religion beautifully exemplifies the methodological contribution that the history of religions can make to theology. More recently, Mircea Eliade is beginning to make an impact upon theology, as Rudolf Otto did before him, and I cannot refrain from once again pointing out the debt that I continue to owe to Eliade. Moreover, I am persuaded that one of the most important sources of a new direction of theology will be a new and more critical understanding of the uniqueness of Christianity. All theological talk about a "religionless Christianity" will remain largely meaningless so long as the theologian remains ignorant of the historical phenomenon of religion.

Let me confess that this book was written with the conviction that it is an expression of a new and profoundly radical theological movement in America. I have benefited immensely from the compassionate support, the patient understanding, and the probing criticism of one of my comrades-in-arms in this movement, William Hamilton, and I am more specifically indebted to him for having initiated me into the possibility of a consistent kenotic Christology. Many of my colleagues at Emory University, particularly William Mallard, have freely given me both the challenge of their criticism and the sustenance of their support, and I am indebted to Hendrikus Boers for inspiring me with the tide of this book. Last fall I attended an alumni conference in the history of religions at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where I presented much of the material in the first chapter. This provided me with an excellent scholarly sounding board upon which to test my conception of the uniqueness of Christianity, and I am grateful for the criticism that I received from Charles H. Long, and for the ruthless way Charles Adams forced me to revise my inadequate conception of Islam, thus ironically allowing me to strengthen my conception of the uniqueness of the Christian God.

While writing this book I was again and again both challenged and enlightened by questions and comments which I received from students, teachers, monks, pastors, priests, and even journalists. Their response openly testifies to the radical theological fervor which now grips this country, and it fully persuaded me that theology must never again be enclosed within the classrooms and the churches. I discovered that even the most abstruse theological problems can be opened up in the marketplace of free discussion. A conference at Emory University on "America and the Future of Theology" also provided me with an exciting occasion upon which to realize the new vocation of theology. But I owe a very special debt of gratitude to those scholars and theologians who have either written criticisms of my work or who have given oral responses to my lectures. These include: Owen Barfield, Hendrikus Boers, Jack Boozer, Lon Chenutt, Alexander Czegledy, John B. Cobb, Jr., John W. Dixon, Jr., Robert Funk, Langdon Gilkey, William Hamilton, Frederick Herzog, Stanley Romaine Hopper, Bernard Johnson, Maynard Kaufmann, Sam Kean, Dow Kirkpatrick, Charles H. Long, Allen Lacy, William Mallard, Thomas Ogletree, Richard Rubenstein, Theodore Runyon, Gregor Sebba, F. Joseph Smith, Thomas Trotter, James Wall, Herbert Weisinger, and John Yungblut. I am also indebted to Franklin H. Littell for introducing me to radical Protestantism and for giving me the insight that the original Christian heresy was the identification of the Church with the body of Christ.

The Primary sources of this book are the writings of Blake, Hegel, and Nietzsche. A word of warning is in order about the punctuation of the Blake quotations. Blake himself employed little punctuation, and the punctuation in the citations here is simply taken verbatim from Sir Geoffrey Keynes’s 1957 edition of the Complete Writings of William Blake (Random House, Inc.). However, David V. Erdman and Harold Bloom have just published the most critical edition yet of Blake’s poetry and prose, attempting to preserve the original state of his texts (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965). My citations from Hegel are taken from J. B. Baillie’s translation of The Phenomenology of the Mind (The Macmillan Company, 1949) and from W. H. Johnston’s and L. G. Struthers’ translation of the Science of Logic (The Macmillan Company, 1952). The quotations of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Antichrist are taken from the translations of Walter Kaufmann as contained in The Viking Portable Nietzsche (The Viking Press, Inc., 1954). Let me add that my interpretation of Blake has been most affected by the studies of Northrup Frye and Joseph Wicksteed, and that my understanding of Hegel has been reached in part by way of the studies of John Findlay, Karl Lö with, and Herbert Marcuse.

My wife, Gayle, shared with me the thinking that went into this book, and her questions and criticisms were a constant source of stimulation, to say nothing of the skill with which she criticized my writing. I am also fortunate in my editor, Roland W. Tapp, whose editorial wisdom is surpassed only by the charity of his constant support. The administration of Emory University shielded me from a barrage of critical fire while I was finishing these pages, and I am also grateful to them for financial support of various kinds which made possible much of the research that went into the preparation of the book. Once again, Barbara Harkins has proved to be a devoted helper and an excellent typist. Finally, I cannot fail to express my apologies to those numerous correspondents whose letters I did not answer if only because I was determined to finish this book while still riding the momentum of my initial enthusiasm.

T. J. J. A.

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