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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.


Does God lie at the center of Christian faith and proclamation? Is the Christian Word forever inseparable from its historic ground in the existence and the power of God? Must Christian witness inevitably speak of the glory and the sovereignty of God? These are questions which faith itself is now posing to the Christian and they are questions that must be met by the Christian who dares to accept the contemporary challenge of faith. It is the thesis of this book that the Christian, and the Christian alone, can speak of God in our time; but the message the Christian is now called to proclaim is the gospel, the good news or the glad tidings, of the death of God. Few Christians have thus far been able to embrace the death of God as a redemptive event, but an acceptance of his death looms ever larger in contemporary Christian thinking, and it is unquestionably true that the greatest modern Christian revolutionaries willed the death of God with all the passion of faith. Christian theology, however, has yet to learn the language of the death of God. Yet this should not persuade us that we are here meeting an anti-Christian rebellion which is foreign to the reality of faith: for theology is a thinking response to the witness of faith, and it appears only after and not before the epiphany or the movement of the Christian Word. Now the time has come for theology openly and fully to confront the death of God, and whether or not a new form of theology will arise in response to this crisis, theology in our time can only refuse to speak of the death of God by ceasing to speak.

For many years a conspiracy of silence removed theology from our contemporary human and historical situation. The modern theologian, while recognizing that God was no longer visible in the culture, the society, and the history of a dying Christendom, was nevertheless persuaded that he was present, and present in his eternal form, in an autonomous Word of faith. Inevitably the price that had to be paid for such a choice was an isolation of faith from the concrete and present reality of human existence. Many ironies beset this strategy of retreat, not the least of which is the claim that was advanced by innumerable theologians that the Christian faith is uniquely "historical" and "existential," insofar as it is directed to the deepest and most immediate center of man’s naked existence in the world. Needless to say, this center was identified as a broken existence of anxiety, guilt, and meaninglessness, and, even then, it was accepted only insofar as it compelled an "answer" from the Christian faith. Under the impact of an increasingly profane history, this "answer" simply evaporated or lost all human meaning, and theology was reduced once more to establishing faith as a haven from the emptiness and the ravages of an indifferent or hostile world. Meanwhile, theology ceased to speak in any meaningful way about the Word of faith. The language of the theologian became largely the polemical language of attack, assaulting other theologians for either the sacrifice of faith or the complete abandonment of all clarity and coherence, and even occasionally -- and this much more timidly! -- daring to attack the great outside world of unfaith or antifaith.

Today a new theologian is speaking in America, a theologian who is not so confident of the truth or certainty of faith, yet a theologian who is willing to discuss the meaning of faith. From the perspective of the theology of our century, the strangest thing about this new theologian is his conviction that faith should be meaningful and meaningful in the context of our world. Indeed, the very conviction that faith is eternally given or wholly autonomous is forcefully being challenged. Having come to the realization that Christian theology cannot survive apart from a dialogue with the world, it is increasingly being recognized that dialogue is a mutual encounter: faith cannot speak to the world unless it is prepared to be affected by that world with which it speaks. Moreover, the new theologian is confessing that the Word has ceased to be truly or decisively present in the established and traditional forms of faith. Certainly the older forms of faith have little meaning in our world, yet if we as Christians believe in an actually incarnate Word, then either the Word has perished or it has undergone a radical transformation. Refusing either to deny the Word or to affirm it in its traditional form, a modern and radical Christian is seeking a totally incarnate Word. When the Christian Word appears in this, its most radical form, then not only is it truly and actually present in the world, but it is present in such a way as to be real and active nowhere else. No longer can faith and the world exist in mutual isolation, neither can now be conceived as existing independently of the other; thus the radical Christian condemns all forms of faith that are disengaged with the world. A given and autonomous faith here reveals itself to be nonincarnate -- and is judged to be a retreat from the life, the movement, and the process of history -- with the result that faith must now abandon all claims to be isolated and autonomous, possessing a meaning or reality transcending the actuality of the world, and become instead wholly and inseparably embedded in the world.

Once and for all the Christian must abandon the idea that theology is a continual elucidation of an eternal and unchanging Word. If we were to accept the common distinction between dogma and doctrine -- i.e., that dogma is an immovable deposit of faith and doctrine a particular expression of faith -- then Christian theology may well be doctrinal but it must never be dogmatic. Only a dead or dying theology could rest upon the principle that the Christian Word is fully or finally present in the past, and surely no Christian could be wholly bound to the past who is open to the presence of a living or eschatological Word. We must not imagine that there is a single essence of Christianity, or an inner core of unchanging faith, or a form of faith meaning all things to all men. The Christian faith is real only insofar as it undergoes a particular human and historical expression, and we must not betray that faith by falsely believing that faith is confined to either its primitive or its past historical expressions. As one who is called to witness to the dynamic presence and the forward movement of the Word, the Christian must always be open to the transfiguring power of the Incarnate Word, knowing that the Word is in process of renewing all things, not by recalling them to their pristine form in the Beginning, but rather by making them new so that they can pass into the End. Therefore, Christian theology is a thinking response to the Word that is present upon the horizon of faith: but that horizon does not lie in the past, it lies in that future which extends into the present. Accordingly, a theology that merely speaks a word of the past is not engaged in the true task of Christian theology. Only a theology unveiling a new form of the Word, a form that is present or dawning,in the immediate and contemporary life of faith, can be judged to be uniquely and authentically Christian.

Therefore, a faith that is truly open to the world can never be wholly or purely "faith." Such a faith can never identify itself with an ecclesiastical tradition or with a given doctrinal or ritual form. Nor can faith in this sense have any final assurance as to what it means to be a Christian, or what comprises the community of faith, or what are the signs of Christian witness in the world. We do know that Jesus himself repudiated the search for clear signs of the dawning Kingdom, dissolved the boundary between the righteous and the damned, and spoke of faith in a parabolic language that inverted the questions which it met. How are we to judge the signs of the Word or the Spirit in our own time? First, it is clear that if we were to confine Christian witness to those communities claiming to be churches, then we would in effect be denying the presence of an active or transfiguring Word, thereby making the judgment that the Christian Word is now lifeless and silent. Surely this is an alternative that is not open to the Christian theologian. Again, if we were to identify Christian witness with the compassionate life or the creative vision of those individuals or groups who confess themselves to be Christian, then we would be forced to concede that the Word is present in only a few diminishing fragments of our history. Perhaps the theologian will finally be driven to this judgment, but it could only proceed out of a counsel of despair, for so severely to limit the activity of the Word would be to abandon every claim to the effect that the Word is reconciling the world to itself. For the present time at least, theology must make another choice: it must accept the principle that the Word can be and is indeed present, even though it is not possible to discern any traditional signs of its activity, and despite the fact that the life and movement of our time would appear to be so irrevocably anti-Christian.

Let us assume that Christian theology is directed to the goal of unveiling that form of the Word which is present or dawning in the contemporary community of faith. What is that community? Where is it to be found? How is its language or activity to be interpreted by the theologian who knows full well that his is a time of spiritual darkness? In the past, theologians have dared to claim that nothing which is human is foreign to faith. Can we make that claim? Can we go beyond it and assert as a matter of principle that the most authentically human is a manifestation of faith? Yet all that we once knew as human is disappearing in our history, the classical Western form of the unique and autonomous person is vanishing in our midst, and we have long since ceased to have imaginative expressions or conceptual portraits of the Christian man. Perhaps we are too numbed by the horrors of the twentieth century to discern in its assaults upon an inherited form of humanity an epiphany of the Spirit. Nevertheless, we would seem by this time to have arrived at a sufficient distance from the nineteenth century to make possible a positive theological appraisal of its revolutionary achievement. Two generations of theologians have now finished their work of attacking the atheism of the nineteenth century and building upon that attack an autonomous form of the Word which is isolated from the demonic threats of a profane history. We have seen that this theological choice has finally issued in a wholly inhuman and meaningless form of the Word. May we retrace the footsteps of our elders and meet the atheism of the modern world with acceptance and affirmation? Nothing less will be required of the theologian who fully opens himself to the creative vision of the nineteenth century, for it was that vision which established the ground of contemporary atheism, and one has only to observe the dominance of atheism in our century to sense the overwhelming power and apparently inescapable consequence of the nineteenth-century prophetic proclamation that God is dead.

Once we have decided to engage in a positive theological confrontation with the nineteenth-century vision, we soon discover that even in its most atheistic expressions it is inseparable from both a strange but radical form of the Christian faith and a passionate affirmation of the birth of a new humanity. True, the world has given us no more violent anti-Christians than the nineteenth-century prophets. Their attack upon Christianity, however, was directed against those very theological forms and moral laws which they knew to be most opposed to the advent of a new man. It is also significant to observe that these atheistic prophets venerated Jesus, were fully persuaded that the Christian tradition had either buried or inverted both his message and his person, and frequently invoked either the name of Jesus or the Christian symbol of the Incarnate Word to sanction their most radical proclamation. Moreover, it would not be unjust to say that these prophets were obsessed with Christianity -- here they differ all too clearly from their twentieth-century descendants -- and this obsession cannot be explained merely by noting the still lingering power of the Christian tradition in their time, for most of these prophets again and again return to their struggle with Christianity both in their most private writings and in their greatest imaginative and conceptual achievements. If even a violently hostile passion is a measure of attachment, then who can doubt that a Blake, a Hegel, a Marx, a Dostoevsky, and a Nietzsche were deeply bound to Christianity? Again, each of these prophets was motivated by a profound moral passion -- and despite appearances to the contrary, this is no less true of Hegel -- which, although it assumed an antinomian form, must surely have had its roots in the prophetic traditions of Christianity and the Bible. Indeed, these greatest and most radical creators of modern atheism have ironically proved to be the most seminal influence upon twentieth-century Christian thinking.

No graver charge has ever been leveled against Christianity than the typically modern protest that the Christian faith is a flight from life, an evasion of suffering, a refusal of the burden and the anguish of the human condition. Nietzsche’s symbol of "No-saying" may be taken as epitomizing the condemnation of Christianity that has become dominant in the modern world. As Nietzsche said in The Antichrist:

The Christian conception of God -- God as god of the sick, God as a spider, God as spirit -- is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types. God degenerated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live, God -- the formula for every slander against "this world," for every lie about the "beyond"! God -- the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy! (Section 18.)

Unlike the far weaker contemporary attacks of a Lawrence or a Camus, Nietzsche’s protest against Christianity, like Blake’s and Hegel’s, is most fundamentally directed against the Christian God. It is God himself who is the transcendent enemy of the fullness and the passion of man’s life in the world, and only through God’s death can humanity be liberated from that repression which is the real ruler of history. Standing upon the threshold of what he believed to be a new age of humanity, the nineteenth-century prophet identified the God of Christianity as the deepest obstacle to liberty and joy. Blake gradually came to the realization that the true name of the Christian God is Satan, just as Hegel conceived of the "false infinite" or the impassive and unmoving Absolute as the ultimate source of alienation, and Nietzsche disclosed God to be the very embodiment of an infinitude of man’s self-hatred and guilt. Thus the triumphant Blake could say in The Everlasting Gospel: "Thou are a Man, God is no more."

If there is one clear portal to the twentieth century, it is a passage through the death of God, the collapse of any meaning or reality lying beyond the newly discovered radical immanence of modern man, an immanence dissolving even the memory or the shadow of transcendence. With that collapse has come a new chaos, a new meaninglessness brought on by the disappearance of an absolute or transcendent ground, the very nihilism foreseen by Nietzsche as the next stage of history. Just as ancient myths of creation envision a repetition of creation by way of a return to the primordial chaos, and religious rites of initiation effect a symbolic passage through death, the new humanity lying upon our horizon can be reached only by means of a voyage through that darkness which has fallen with the breakdown of our past.

Must the contemporary Christian refuse the dark chaos of our time? Is our faith a lifeline to the submerged roots of a vanished Christendom? Can we believe that the Christian alone among men in our day possesses the assurance that can give meaning and direction to life? Is only the Christian to be spared the broken condition of a life without roots? Must we join the modem atheist in declaring that Christianity is a flight from this world to the beyond? Certainly, few responsible Christians would answer these questions affirmatively, but we must recognize that to cling to the Christian God in our time is to evade the human situation of our century and to renounce the inevitable suffering which is its lot. Already a Kierkegaard and a Dostoevsky knew that no suffering can be foreign to the Christian, not even the anguish that comes with the loss of God, for the way of the Christian is to bear with Jesus all the pain of the flesh.

In the perspective of the atheistic historical destiny of our time, a time in which simply to share the universal condition of man is to take upon oneself]f a life without God, it does not seem amiss to pose the problem of the necessity of a contemporary Christian atheism. This study has accepted this necessity by way of constructing a theological analysis based upon the Christian visions of Blake, Hegel, and Nietzsche. But in what sense may we think of these revolutionary figures as Christian prophets? There is a substantial body of scholarly analysis in agreement with the judgment that Blake was a Christian visionary and Hegel a Christian thinker, but they remain untapped sources for the theologian. The question of Nietzsche would appear to be far simpler, for there is virtually a unanimous scholarly concurrence with Nietzsche’s own self-judgment that he was a profoundly anti Christian thinker, and the theologian has employed Nietzsche only to point to the antithesis of faith. Yet it cannot be accidental that so many of the more creative theologians of our century have implicitly if unconsciously shared much of Nietzsche’s vision --e.g., the early Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, and the late Bonhoeffer -- and it would be difficult to deny the fact that Nietzsche’s whole vision evolved out of what he himself proclaimed to be the death of the Christian God, and we shall attempt to show that this event can only be perceived by faith. Although it is understandable why twentieth-century theology thus far at least should have openly set itself against Nietzsche, it seems strange that Blake should be unknown to the theologian and Hegel commonly regarded, following Kierkegaard’s judgment, as being an enemy of faith (few theologians have taken account of the fact that Kierkegaard adapted almost the whole movement and method of his thought from Hegel). Can it have no theological significance that Blake is the most Christocentric of all poets and Hegel the only thinker who made the kenotic movement of the Incarnation the core and foundation of all his thinking? Or has the theologian recognized that an acceptance of Blake or Hegel would demand a revolutionary transformation of Christian language and theology?

However, it must be confessed that we can by no means think even of Blake as a Christian visionary unless we are prepared to give a new theological status to the radical Christian. Inasmuch as radical Christianity has never made a real impact upon theology, and has only once -- in the work of William Blake -- been given a full imaginative expression, theology at present has neither the methods nor the categories to make possible a theological understanding of a Blake or a Hegel. Church historians have been so delinquent -- or so bound to the churches -- that it is not even possible to piece together the full and continuing history of radical Christianity, although we know that it is present in many forms of Christian mysticism as well as in numerous sects. Nor can we fail to observe that Blake shares many of the motifs of the seventeenth-century radical English Protestants: an antinomian ethics, a violent rebellion against both the Christian tradition and the Christian churches, and a belief only in the spiritual Jesus of the third and apocalyptic age of the Spirit. Renouncing both cult and doctrine, the radical Christian seeks a total union with Jesus or the Word, and repudiates the God who is the sovereign Creator and the transcendent Lord (and this rebellion against the Christian God may be seen in a philosophical form in Whitehead as well as in Hegel). It is this passionate protest against the Christian God that is both strange and offensive to the common Christian, but to the radical Christian there is no way to true faith apart from an abolition or dissolution of God himself. Once we recognize that radical Christianity is inseparable from an attack upon God, then we should be prepared to face the possibility that even Nietzsche was a radical Christian.

Now, what can it mean to seek a radical form of Christian theology or a form of Christian language reflecting and embodying the vision of the modern atheistic Christian prophet? First, it is all too clear that such a language must set itself against the Christian tradition, not simply by way of negating its doctrinal and ritual forms but, rather, by inverting its forms and structures so as to reverse that history revolving about the epiphany of the Christian God. Radical Christians are Protestants insofar as they seek a return to the original Word of faith. But recognizing the reality of the process of history, and the forward movement of Word and Spirit, they are in quest of a renewal of the original Jesus in the spiritual or universal form demanded by the apocalyptic or final age of the Spirit. No radical Christian believes in the possibility of returning to either the word or the person of the original Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, the radical Christian rejects both the literal and the historical interpretation of the Bible, demanding instead a pneumatic or spiritual understanding of the Word. Above all, the radical Christian seeks a total union with the Word, a union abolishing the priestly, legalistic, and dogmatic norms of the churches, so as to make possible the realization of a total redemption, a redemption actualizing the eschatological promise of Jesus. It is this quest for total redemption -- and nothing has so violently aroused the theological spokesmen of the churches -- that demands the death of the Christian God, the God who is the sovereign Lord and almighty Creator. The radical Christian must not be thought of as a reformer; he believes that the ecclesiastical tradition has ceased to be Christian, and is now alive only in a demonic and repressive form. No, the radical Christian is a revolutionary, he is given to a total transformation of Christianity, a rebirth of the Christian Word in a new and final form.

There can be no doubt that any attempt to give expression in theological language to the radical Christian vision demands a thorough rethinking of the meaning of faith. Although all original Christian thinking has been radical insofar as it effected a transformation of an inherited theological language -- e.g., Paul, the author of the Gospel of John, Augustine, Luther, and Kierkegaard -- theology has never before been called upon to effect or record a total transformation of faith. Fortunately, it is not necessary for the theologian to create a new language of faith; this has in large measure been accomplished by the Christian revolutionaries of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, it is necessary for the theologian to mediate the radical Christian vision to the forms of theological discourse. Just as the postexilic Jewish scribes and priests evolved a new religious form as a means of giving expression to the radical faith of the preexilic and exilic prophets, so the Christian theologian must now formulate a theological language that will capture the radical faith of the modern Christian prophets. If Israel through the exile lost very nearly everything that was the source of meaning and order to an ancient people, so Christianity today is passing through an exile from Christendom, an exile demanding a rebirth and reconstruction that is every bit as thoroughgoing as that effected by postexilic Judaism. The contemporary theologian should not imagine that he is simply the servant of an ancient faith and cultus, for that faith and cultus has almost disappeared from view, and to identify theology with a backward quest for the past is to foreclose the possibility of a truly Christian theology that is a response to the movement of the Word in the present.

Perhaps the deepest obstacle to the realization of this new vocation of theology is the priestly conviction that the canon of Scripture is closed, revelation is finished and complete, the Word of God has already been fully and finally spoken. Later we shall raise the question as to whether this belief is possible for the Christian; but already Paul could only establish his apostleship by insisting upon his own immediate communion with the Word, and Paul’s Word, like the radical Christian’s, demands an annulment of the old covenant of Sinai and the Torah of Israel’s priestly and legal traditions. The radical Christian also inherits both the ancient prophetic belief that revelation continues in history and the eschatological belief of the tradition following Joachim of Floris. This tradition maintains that we are now living in the third and final age of the Spirit, that a new revelation is breaking into this age, and that this revelation will differ as much from the New Testament as the New Testament itself does from its Old Testament counterpart. Of course, the great Christian revolutionaries of the nineteenth century went far beyond their spiritual predecessors. But we can learn from earlier radical Christians the root radical principle that the movement of the Spirit has passed beyond the revelation of the canonical Bible and is now revealing itself in such a way as to demand a whole new form of faith. To refuse such a new revelation of the Spirit would be to repudiate the activity of the Word which is present and to bind oneself to a now empty and lifeless form of the Word. Nor can we expect the new revelation to be in apparent continuity with the old. Now that historical scholarship has demonstrated the chasm existing between the Old Testament and the Christian visions of Paul and the Gospel of John, might we not expect a comparable chasm to exist between the New Testament and a new revelation? Yet this should by no means persuade us that no new revelation has occurred. We can only judge by the fruits of the Spirit, and if a new vision has arisen recording a universal and eschatological form of the Word, a form of the Word pointing to a total redemption of history and the cosmos, then we should be prepared to greet it with the full acceptance of faith.

Let us openly confess that a Christian who embarks upon a quest of this order is not only voyaging into a strange new country but is also submitting himself to the hazard of an irretrievable loss of faith. Again and again Christian theologians have told us that faith is a risk -- despite the fact that few theologians have ventured to take upon themselves anything more than a token risk -- and we must recognize that a faith which is not open to the loss of faith is not a true form of faith. A faith that is a haven from doubt and suffering is not only a false faith but is a reversal of the kenotic way of the Word. Moreover, the Christian can only participate in the suffering and broken body of the humanity of our time by freely sharing the depths of its anguish and despair, not with the self-conscious realization that his participation is vicarious, but rather with the certainty that there is no true suffering which is foreign to faith. If ours is a time that shatters the very possibility of faith, then the Christian faith is in vain, and the honest man can only renounce all faith. Therefore, for those Christians who have discovered that an established form of faith has become wholly unreal, there is really no choice, we must either open ourselves to a new form of faith or abandon faith itself. Few will follow the way that this book has chosen, but if it but points a way to the renewal of faith, it will have succeeded in its purpose.

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