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.
Chapter 1: The Uniqueness of Chrisitanity
An ironic dilemma of contemporary theology derives from its increasing insistence that Christianity both transcends and negates religion even while theology refuses to open itself to an understanding of the actual nature or the historical phenomenon of religion. The persistent calls for a "religionless Christianity" can have little meaning so long as religion is conceived of as merely a false righteousness or a shallow piety. All too clearly such conceptions of religion are reflections of the lifeless body of a dying Christendom, and while ultimately they may well derive from the historical actualization of Kierkegaard’s prophetic judgment that the Christianity of the New Testament no longer exists, it is nevertheless true that the problem of the relation between Christianity and religion has now become both inescapable and overwhelming. Immediately we must recognize that this problem has a historical ground: Christianity is losing its ancient body; no longer can it find life in its traditional form, and to the extent that it speaks its former language its witness becomes empty and silent. Faith must now find a trans-Christian language -- i.e., a language substantially if not wholly different from its previous speech -- if it is to exist and to live as faith. Not only must it abandon its own language, but it must likewise move beyond all that meaning which Christianity once shared with the universal community of belief.
Despite the fact that the last two hundred years has seen the birth and the flowering of the historical discipline of the history of religions, the historian of religions has not been notably successful in meeting the problem of the uniqueness of Christianity. Few Christians doubt the genuine distinctiveness of Christianity, but this distinctiveness has for the most part been formulated in terms adapted from the general culture of Christendom, and that culture is now in process of disintegration or transformation, thereby leading to the bankruptcy of the established conceptions of the unique and particular nature of the Christian faith. Strangely enough, the theologian has had little interest in the relation between Christianity and the nonChristian religions, largely confining himself to extravagant claims bearing little relationship to the non-Christian religious world. If only because Christian theology has for the most part attempted to establish an impassable gulf between Christianity and the non-Christian religions, it would seem that an elucidation of the genuine and full uniqueness of Christianity might unveil its deepest faith; but this is a challenge which continues to go unanswered. Moreover this challenge cannot be met apart from a confrontation of Christianity with the highest expressions of religion. Of course, there are higher forms of religion that seemingly resist all comparisons with Christianity -- the Olympian religion of ancient Greece and the Confucian tradition of the Far East quickly come to mind -- just as Judaism and Islam are so close to the religious form of Christianity that they can scarcely provide the necessary perspective for an assessment of the full distinctiveness of the Christian faith. It is, rather, in the purer forms of Oriental mysticism that the Christian theologian must seek out the deepest challenge of the non-Christian religious world.
Obviously this study can do no more than make certain general observations about the relationship between Christianity and Oriental mysticism, and these observations will bear little historical or scholarly authority, but they are nonetheless deemed essential to our theological goal. If we can point to a root and fundamental difference between Christianity and the forms of Oriental mysticism, then this difference will have a significant bearing upon the problem of the authentic meaning of the Christian faith, and can serve as a basis for a liberation of Christianity from an inessential and now archaic religious form. We must first arrive at some sense of what these various mystical forms have in common, assuming that here we do indeed find a true manifestation of religion. Granted that any effort to capture the common form of such an exceedingly complex phenomenon as Oriental mysticism will lose much of its richness and power, this is a price which must be paid for our own particular purpose. Inevitably we must also view Oriental mysticism from the vantage point of our own historical situation, confessing that it will have meaning to us only from our own point of view, even if such a perspective must necessarily lead to what the Oriental religious mind would judge to be a false conception. Yet by choosing the higher expressions of the Oriental religious vision as the arena in which to confront Christianity with the non-Christian religions, we may safely assume that we are taking up the full challenge of our problem.
Our initial judgment about Oriental mysticism must be that it is a way of radical world-negation. Directing itself against the ordinary contents of consciousness and all those forms of experience and perception resulting from an individual self’s encounter with both the interior and the exterior worlds, this is a form of religion seeking an absolute negation of the immediate and actual reality that is manifest in the world. Oriental mysticism sets itself against the autonomy of that which appears before it, seizing upon the actuality of that which happens to exist or to be at hand as the initial springboard for its own movement of negation. However, this movement of radical negation is inseparable from an interior recovery of a sacred Totality, a primordial Totality embodying in a unified form all those antinomies that have created an alienated and estranged existence. Transcending the mythical and ritual forms of a communal and cultic religion, the higher expressions of mysticism in the Orient culminate in an interior epiphany of the primordial Totality. Whether this Totality is symbolically known as Brahman-Atman, Nirvana, Tao, or Sunyata, it always becomes manifest in a mystical form as the original identity of an unfallen cosmos. Yet the primordial Totality, which is known here as ultimate Reality, can only appear and be real to the mystic by means of an absolute and total negation of the fallen forms of the world. True, Eastern ways of negation differ substantially from one another; a difference particularly to be noted between the gradual way of the various forms of Indian Yoga and the spontaneous and immediate way of Taoism and Zen. So likewise the form of the negation differs insofar as these are distinct and singular mystical ways, leading to widely different apprehensions of the relation between an original Totality and the fallen or apparent forms of the world. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Oriental mystic can only reach his goal of total redemption by means of a radical negation of all that reality which is present to an individual and isolated human consciousness.
Now, despite those critics who insist that this negative movement of Oriental mysticism sets it wholly apart from the prophetic faith of the Bible or the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, we must recognize that all expressions of religion in some measure share such a movement of negation. Religion must necessarily direct itself against a selfhood, a history, or a cosmos existing immediately and autonomously as its own creation or ground. Thus Hegel believed that religion is identical with dialectical or true philosophical understanding insofar as both must negate the Given: "For religion equally with philosophy refuses to recognize in finitude a veritable being, or something ultimate and absolute, or non-posited, uncreated, and eternal" (Logic, Vol. I, Bk. I, Ch. 3). We might also note that critical definitions of religion in all their variety show that the sacred or the religious life is the opposite of the profane and the secular life. What is important from our Christian point of view is to realize that the negative movement of Oriental mysticism is a backward movement to the primordial Totality. The Oriental mystic, whether Hindu or Buddhist, Far Eastern or Indian, reverses ordinary life and consciousness so as to make possible a return to the paradisical Beginning. He seeks a repetition of an original paradise in the present moment, a repetition effecting an absolute reversal of a fallen or profane reality, and moving whether suddenly or gradually through a total inversion of the concrete processes of time and history. Remembering that Kierkegaard identified recollection as the pagan life view, we might conceive the negative movement of Oriental mysticism as a process of involution. Here the mystic reverses the fallen order of history and the cosmos so as to return to an unfallen Beginning. Whereas the prophetic faith of the Old Testament and the primitive faith of Christianity were directed to a future and final End, and thus are inseparable from a forward-moving and eschatological ground, the multiple forms of Oriental mysticism revolve about a backward movement to the primordial Totality, a process of cosmic and historical involution wherein all things return to their pristine form.
The Westerner would be grievously misled if he were to think that the backward movement of Oriental mysticism is confined to Eastern religion and occupies no role in the religious forms of his own tradition. Very nearly all forms of cultic or priestly religion, including those of Judaism and Christianity, revolve about a concrete renewal or a representation (anamnesis) of a sacred time of the past. We should, rather, think of Oriental mysticism as bringing to its purest and most interior expression a movement of reversal and return that is universally present in religion. Moreover, it is of vital importance to realize that when this negative movement of return achieves its highest expression in Oriental mysticism, it is indissolubly linked with an apprehension of the sacred as an original or primordial Reality. If only because the Oriental mystic carries this religious way of involution and reversal to its radical and inevitable conclusion, he reaches the final goal of a backward movement of return: the original and unfallen Totality of the Beginning. Accordingly, the higher Oriental symbols of the sacred give witness to an eternal, an inactive, or a quiescent Totality, and a Totality that only truly appears with the disappearance or inactivity of all motion and process. Just as this very disappearance or inactivity repeats or resurrects the original Totality, it could even be said that the Oriental mystic must understand the advent of motion and process to be the beginning of the Fall, despite the fact that here neither motion nor process can be judged to be ultimately or finally real. Underlying all forms of Oriental mysticism is a cosmic and interior process of regeneration, a fully mystical process that either annuls or dissolves both spatial location and temporal duration, leading to the epiphany of a precosmic or pretemporal Totality. Hence, the Oriental seer invariably speaks of this Totality as a timeless Eternity, a Nothing, or a Void.
Too frequently we Westerners attempt to translate the symbols of Oriental religion into the language of our own Western ontology. Whereas the Western thinker has an almost invariable tendency to place a positive and even absolute evaluation upon existence and being, the Eastern mystical thinker begins with the conviction that actual or existing being must be abolished or reversed to make possible an epiphany of Being. Both the Chinese and the Indian Buddhists paradoxically employ words whose immediate and literal reference is to nonbeing and to nothingness when they wish to speak of ultimate Reality. So likewise we cannot understand the Hindu symbols Brahman and Sat if we imagine them to represent a Being existing in continuity with the world of actuality. The language of Oriental mysticism is consistently and fully dialectical: it can speak of the sacred only by inverting the meaning of the profane, and its symbols of the sacred always refer to a total dissolution or reversal of an actual and immediately existent being. Finally, the language of the Oriental mystic is the language of silence. He can speak only by inverting or reversing all common and established meaning. But this practice must culminate in the cessation of speech. Total silence is the only appropriate witness to an absolutely quiescent Totality, just as the mystic who embraces this highest of religious ways must finally abandon all symbols, all language, all discipline, and all meaning. Why should the Oriental mystic concern himself with language when finally he knows that the truest communication takes place by way of silence? Such silence is beyond all possibility of realization wherever there is the presence of action, movement, or process. Thus here lies the necessity for mystical ways to abolish all actual or willful movement, whether by way of the wu wei or inaction of Taoism and Zen, or the Yogic discipline of emptying the contents of consciousness, or even the purposeless action of the Bhagavad-Gita. All such ways finally carry the mystic to that total quiescence which is an absolute inversion of everything that the Western ontological tradition has known as Being.
It is precisely because the Oriental mystical way revolves about a negation of all that reality which the Western mind knows as Being that it must appear to us as a way of radical world-negation. Yet Oriental mysticism, like all the highest expressions of religion, whether in East or West, follows a dialectical way. It seeks a total negation of the "being" that is manifest in the world as a means of transforming time into Eternity or of unveiling the fallen form of the world as the elusive mask of an unfallen Totality. Here, in the higher forms of Oriental religion, what would appear to us to be a simple negation of the world is at bottom an epiphany, a renewal, or a repetition of the Totality of the Beginning Dialectically, an absolute negation of the profane is identical with a total affirmation of the sacred. Consequently, the symbol of the coincidentia oppositorum lies at the center of Oriental mysticism. All too naturally we employ a Latin phrase in speaking of the "coincidence of the opposites." For it is none too clear as to whether coincidentia is a coincidence, a harmony, a unity, or an identity of the opposites. But with this ambiguity the meaning of the opposites themselves is obscured; and we cannot arrive at a theological understanding of Oriental mysticism so long as we remain unclear as to the opposition that it initially posits, and then finally removes, between the sacred and the profane. What is that "being" whose absolute negation issues in an epiphany of a cosmic Totality? What meaning can we give to a seemingly fallen profane reality that the mystic ultimately comes to know as total bliss? How can a world that is judged to be an arena of turbulence and suffering finally become manifest in a wholly sacred form as absolute Quiescence?
Certainly the Oriental mystic reaches his goal of absolute Quiescence by means of an inversion of human consciousness and a corresponding reversal of the cosmos. However, when the negative movement of religion is wholly a reversal of the profane, acting by way of a backward movement or return, the sacred must inevitably appear as an original or primordial Reality. It is the total repetition of this primordial Totality which reveals the sacred identity of the profane. We might even say that a purely mystical repetition annuls the possibility of profane existence, reversing its form and structure so as to make possible its manifestation as the original sacred, thereby definitively and finally abolishing the profane or fallen form of the world. Therefore a coincidentia oppositorum in this sense must identify the opposites by abolishing their opposition -- an abolition effected by an absolute negation of the profane -- and here coincidentia must finally mean a nondialectical "identity." If by one means or another all forms of Oriental mysticism culminate in an identification of nirvana and samsara, then this is an identity in which the opposition between the sacred and the profane has wholly disappeared. No longer does either the sacred or the profane bear a polar or dialectical meaning, for with the abolition of the profane consciousness all human or worldly meaning has vanished. Now silence reigns triumphant, an absolute Quiescence has become all in all, the sacred has returned to its original form, and thus it ceases to exist in opposition to the profane. When the Oriental mystic insists that ultimately the "way" of mysticism must be abandoned, he is speaking of a transcendence of religion, a transcendence of the movement of dialectical negation. His goal is the cessation of all movement and process, including the movement of religion, and with the realization of that goal every individual identity returns to its primordial source.
May we allow this understanding of Oriental mysticism to represent the true meaning of the negative or mystical movement of religion? Granted that it does violence to the complex historical phenomena of the higher religions of the Orient, does it apprehend a meaning of the ground of religion that is relevant to the contemporary Christian goal of the negation of religion? If religion is understood to be a backward movement of return to an original sacred, does this give us a proper basis for assessing the uniqueness of Christianity? Surely it gives us insight into the presence of universal religious forms within the historical body of Christianity: a nostalgia for a lost paradise, a quest for an original innocence, a cultic re-presentation or recollection of a sacred history of the past, a conception of faith as contemporaneity with an ancient or long’ distant epiphany of Christ, a belief in a primordial God whose very sacrality annuls or negates the existence of the profane, and a longing for an eschatological End that will be a repetition of the primordial Beginning. At all these points and others we find religious forms within Christianity that belie its claim to uniqueness. Assuming that the true center of Christianity nevertheless remains unique, what is the relation of that center to these universal religious forms? Can it fully appear or become truly manifest apart from a negation or transcendence of these forms? The call for a "religionless Christianity" can mean no less than this, nor can it have real meaning apart from a resolution to abandon the whole religious body of Christianity, even if that body should prove to comprehend very nearly everything which Christianity once knew as faith. Above all, a reborn and radical Christian faith must renounce every temptation to return to an original or primordial sacred, or to follow a backward path leading to an earlier and presumably purer form of the Word, or to seek a total silence in which both Word and world will have disappeared.
II. Word and History
Having seen that a pure form of religion knows the sacred as an original, an immobile, and an impassive reality, can we conceive the uniqueness of the Christian Word to lie in the fact that it is a dynamic, a living, and a forward-moving process? It is seldom remarked that theology, in its distinctively Christian form, is a unique creation of Christianity. Christian theology is a thinking response to the Word that is actively present upon the horizon of faith, and thus it is neither a systematization of a mythical vision nor a metaphysical or mystical system. The Christian Word appears in neither a primordia1 nor an eternal form: for it is an incarnate Word, a Word that is real only to the extent that it becomes one with human flesh. If we are to preserve the uniqueness of the Christian Word, we cannot understand the Incarnation as a final and once-and-for-all event of the past. On the contrary, the Incarnation must be conceived as an active and forward-moving process, a process that even now is making all things new. Unless we are prepared to allow the Christian Word to recede into an impassive and primordial form, we must acknowledge its occurrence in the present, no matter what form that present may assume to the believing consciousness of faith. There are times, and certainly ours is not the least of them, when the darkness of history would seem to impel faith to seek an earlier and even primordial form of the Word. Then theology is tempted to conceive the Word in an abstract, an inhuman, and a nonhistorical form. Yet we must confess this to be an anti-Christian temptation if we are not to succumb to a regressive and backward movement of the religious form of faith, a form that ever threatens a true witness to the Incarnation.
Christian theologians and historians of religion are united in asserting that the uniqueness of Christianity derives from its proclamation of the Incarnation; thus Archbishop Soderblom has judged that uniqueness to lie in the fact that here revelation has the form of a "man." However, a movement of incarnation, of the transition of Spirit into flesh, is not unique to Christianity. Already we have observed an act of repetition in Oriental religion in which flesh is transformed into Spirit in such a way that flesh loses its own apparently intrinsic form and Spirit ceases to exist in opposition to flesh. What is distinctive to Christianity is a witness to an incarnation in which Spirit becomes flesh m such a manner as to continue to exist and to act as flesh. Such a movement is both active and real, because here we do not find an unveiling of the illusory form of flesh, but rather an actual movement of Spirit’s decisively and truly becoming flesh. Christian theology has never thought through the full meaning of the Incarnation if only because it has remained bound to an eternal and primordial form of Spirit. When Spirit is apprehended in this religious form, it obviously can never be known as becoming fully incarnate, and thus the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation has thus far only been able to posit a Word that is partially flesh and partially Spirit. Despite the Nicene formula, the Word cannot be fully God and fully man if, on the one hand, it continues to exist in an eternal form and, on the other, it is unable to move into the present and the full reality of history.
Throughout its history Christian theology has been thwarted from reaching its intrinsic goal by its bondage to a transcendent, a sovereign, and an impassive God. Once having absorbed a Greek metaphysical idea of God as an eternal and unmoving Being, and having refused Paul’s proclamation of faith as freedom from a moral law and a priestly cultus, Christian theology found its ground in the God who alone is God, the awesome Creator and the distant Lord. No way lay from this transcendent and wholly other God to the Incarnation, the act of the Word’s becoming flesh, apart from a transformation of the Incarnate Word into an eternal Logos and a mysterious Lord. Blake’s Albion, a symbolic figure representing a cosmic and universal Humanity, while dying under the weight of sin and darkness, curses the Christian God --"God in the dreary Void dwells from Eternity, wide separated from the Human Soul" -- and then he laments the disappearance of the merciful Lamb of God:
O Human Imagination, O Divine Body I have
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The footsteps of the Lamb of God were there; but
No more shall I behold him; he is clos’d in Luvah’s
(Jerusalem 24: 23-51.)
Luvah’s sepulcher, most simply interpreted, is the repressive body of the Christian Church -- as Nietzsche remarked, Christianity is the stone upon the grave of Jesus -- for Blake, like many radical Christians before him, believed that the resurrected Lord was an epiphany of the wholly other God who had been left behind by the movement of the Incarnation. Like the Krishna who appears to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, the resurrected Christ of Christianity is a monarchic Lord and cosmic Logos. Despite the efforts of modern theologians to formulate a kenotic Christology, a doctrine of the incarnate Lord as a consequence of the emptying of the power of God, an understanding of a fully kenotic Christ continues to elude the theologian, who at best has reached Karl Barth’s ironic and antikenotic conclusion that God’s omnipotence is such that it can assume the form of weakness and in that form can triumph.
The problem that the theologian refuses to confront is the inevitable incompatability between the primordial Christian God and an incarnate or kenotic Christ, a refusal arising from a new epiphany of the primordial Godhead in Christian history. Even as Christianity almost immediately came to worship Christ in the image of the Hellenistic mystery gods, the Christ of Christianity has almost invariably appeared in the form of a high god or heavenly deity which is found almost everywhere in the history of religions. Certainly the Christ who is fully God is not unique to Christianity, except insofar as he bears some sign of a concrete descent of God into human flesh. Such a descent cannot be truly meaningful unless it is understood as a real movement of God himself, a movement which is final and irrevocable, but which continues to occur wherever there is history and life. So long as the Christian God continues to be known as transcendent and impassive, or as a primordial deity who is unaffected by the processes of time and history, he cannot appear in his uniquely Christian form as the Incarnate Word and the kenotic Christ. Thus the radical Christian reverses the orthodox confession, affirming that "God is Jesus" (Blake’s Laocoön engraving), rather than "Jesus is God." Before the Incarnation can be understood as a decisive and real event, it must be known as effecting a real change or movement in God himself: God becomes incarnate in the Word, and he becomes fully incarnate, thereby ceasing to or to be present in his primordial form. To say that "God is Jesus" is to say that God has become the Incarnate Word, he has abandoned or negated his transcendent form; or, rather, he remains present and real in his original form only where faith itself refuses to become incarnate.
A religious form of Christianity resists this forward movement of the Incarnation, regressing to a preincarnate form of the Word, and by this means dualistically isolating flesh from Spirit. Only in radical Christianity do we find a fulfillment of the incarnate movement of the Christian Word, and here alone do we discover a "religionless Christianity." The radical Christian identifies religion with a repressive opposition to the Word of life because in its Christian form it effects a reversal of the Incarnation. Thus Blake prophetically denounces natural religion in his address, "To the Christians," in Jerusalem:
I stood among my valleys of the south
By it the Sun was roll’d into an orb,
We must not imagine that such a condemnation of religion is directed at the non-Christian religious world. It is, rather, Christianity, and Christianity alone, that has reduced human existence to sin and guilt, confronting a broken humanity with a wholly other God who demands a total submission to his numinous and judgmental power. Religion assumes its most repressive form in the Christian religious tradition, because only here -- and in its historical antecedent, The Book of Job -- may one find a God of naked and absolutely sovereign power, a God who was evolved out of a reversal of the movement of Spirit into flesh, and who now for the first time becomes abstract, alien, lifeless, and alone.
The solitary God of the Christian religious tradition certainly embodies a measure of uniqueness: no other religious tradition has so isolated deity and humanity, and all too naturally He finally appears under the forms of Blake’s Satan, Hegel’s abstract Spirit, and Melville’s Moby Dick. Nevertheless, even this most awesome of the forms of God illuminates the unique process of the Christian Word, for it is an evolving Word, a forward-moving Word, a Word that only exists and is real in the concrete life of history. Christianity is a historical faith, not simply because it is grounded in a sacred history of the past, but more deeply because it celebrates the human reality of history as an epiphany of the Word. An incarnate Word embodying a real transfiguration of Spirit into flesh cannot be sought in a heavenly beyond, nor can it be reached by a backward movement to primordial time; it is only in the actual and contingent processes of history that Spirit fully becomes flesh. Here, Spirit never truly appears in a pure or eternal form, nor does it simply appear as Spirit, except insofar as it is known apart from its movement into flesh. Moreover, it is only a regressive and religious form of Christianity that would confine the Word to its Biblical and past historical expressions. When the Incarnation is known as a dynamic process of forward movement, then it must be conceived as a progressive movement of Spirit into flesh, even if it should succeed in evoking a religious reversal of its own movement and process. Each historical expression of the Word will bear its own peculiar and distinct reality, and while no clear path may be seen to lie between one and another, faith must ever seek that particular form of the Word which acts in its own present.
Finally, we must conceive the Christian Word as being directed to the eschatological goal of the absolute reversal of flesh and Spirit. Ever since its establishment in the second century, Christian theology has chosen one of two paths: either it has adapted the language of a purely rational and nondialectical thinking, a thinking that wholly isolates theology and faith; or it has become partially dialectical, and thereby attempted to ground its language in the reality of faith only insofar as it has repudiated an eschatological goal. In either case, theology has refused a thinking that would incorporate the apocalyptic ground of the proclamation of Jesus, just as it has turned aside from any attempt to understand the full meaning of an eschatological end. Consequently, Christian theology has never sought to unveil the meaning of an apocalyptic coincidentia oppositorum. It is no accident that radical expressions of Christianity have invariably assumed either a dialectical or an apocalyptic form. Apart from a dual and dialectical movement of flesh and Spirit into each other, there can be no actual process of incarnation; here, an original sacred must "descend" and become flesh, just as a fallen flesh must "ascend" and become Spirit. Yet this process cannot be real apart from an actual transfiguration of flesh and Spirit: flesh must cease to exist as flesh in becoming Spirit, even as Spirit must wholly perish as Spirit in fully becoming flesh. The Incarnation can culminate in a truly apocalyptic or eschatological end only by effecting an absolute negation of the original identities of flesh and Spirit. Thereby the given and intrinsic forms of flesh and Spirit are totally reversed so as to make possible a final movement of each into its respective other. Inevitably, the radical Christian believes that the end of the world, whose immediate coming was proclaimed by Jesus, is the total transfiguration of the fallen form of the world, the end of a flesh that is isolated from Spirit, and so likewise the end of a Spirit that is isolated from flesh.
At first glance an apocalyptic coincidentia oppositorum would appear to be identical with its mystical counterpart in Oriental religion. Both embody a total dissolution of the "being" of a fallen or profane world, just as each is the fulfillment of a movement of absolute negation, a negation shattering or dissolving an autonomous selfhood, a repressive history, and an exterior cosmos. But does an apocalyptic coincidentia oppositorum abolish the opposition between the sacred and the profane by annihilating the reality of flesh or old æon? True, the religious forms of Christianity have celebrated a Kingdom of God that is wholly Spirit, and lived in hope of the disintegration of the world and the flesh. Even Paul was unable to believe in the resurrection of a fallen flesh, for he posited a wholly negative relationship between flesh and Spirit; and the Gospel of John, which, unlike Paul, abandoned the original apocalyptic ground of Christianity, betrayed its own symbol of the Incarnate Word by envisioning the Kingdom of God in the form of pure Spirit. Let us fully recognize that so to conceive the eschatological destiny of the Word is both to abolish its incarnational form and to renounce the reality of the Incarnation. Furthermore, we must observe that a religious expression of eschatological faith differs at no decisive point from the purely mystical way of Oriental religion -- except for the all too significant fact that eschatological religion has yet to receive a pure expression in history. A truly or radically Christian coincidentia oppositorum must pass through an actual transfiguration of flesh and Spirit: each must dialectically move into its own other, as Spirit moves kenotically and historically into flesh, and flesh is transposed into a new and final form of Spirit.
III. Fall and Death
No myth has been more persistent in Christian history, and no religious theme more pervasive, than the myth of the Fall, of man’s expulsion from paradise and his consequent condemnation to death. In the perspective of the history of religions, we can sense the significance of this motif by noting that no religion has so stressed the importance and the centrality of the Fall as has Christianity, just as no other religion has accepted the Fall as an ultimate and final event. Almost from its very beginning, moreover, Christianity has paradoxically if partially affirmed that the Fall was a fortunate occurrence, a felix culpa, a finally blessed and even necessary event apart from which there could be neither Incarnation nor full redemption. This bitter if liberating knowledge of the loss of paradise is integrally related to the eschatological ground of the Christian faith. Only when the paradise of the Beginning has finally been lost, thereby dissolving the very possibility of a true nostalgia or longing for primordial time, can faith fully give itself to the forward movement of the Christian Word. The Christian may lament the loss of an original paradise, but he himself is banished from its garden.
As we discover the points at which Christianity transcends the universal movement of religion, reversing its intrinsic direction and ground, we can only look with amazement upon the obvious fact that throughout its history Christianity has almost invariably appeared in a religious form. Perhaps nothing else could so forcibly demonstrate the theological truth of the historical reality of the Christian Word. Having never appeared in a pure or definitive form, the Christian Word is a Word in process of realizing itself. Inevitably, the Word has only gradually and partially become manifest, appearing in forms that are extrinsic and even antithetical to its own reality, if only as a means of accommodating itself to the actual contingencies of history. Of course, a religious Christianity will dogmatically insist that the Word has been given its definitive and final expression in the Bible. But we must hasten to observe that this is an intrinsically religious claim, exhibiting -- insofar as it confines revelation to a past or primordial time -- the backward religious movement of return. Nor does such a claim take account of the full and Christian meaning of the Fall. It seeks an unfallen form of the Word, a pure moment of revelation untarnished and unaffected by history, in which the Word is manifest only in its primordial and eternal meaning. Even a Christian belief in the possibility of a final revelation in history is a flight from the truth of the Fall. If Adam has been expelled from paradise, resulting in the advent of a truly profane history, then a final revelation cannot occur in history, apart from a dissolution or reversal of history itself.
In the Orient, where the religious movement of involution, reversal, and return receives its fullest and clearest expression, an absolute or final revelation is always known as occurring in the primordial time of the Beginning. Here, revelation is either wholly isolated from the profane reality of time or is visible in a fallen form only to the extent that it ceases to be absolute and accommodates itself to human ignorance and weakness. When revelation is so conceived, it will be historical only to the extent that it ceases to be revelation. As opposed to this purely religious form of revelation, a truly historical revelation can only occur in the contingent actuality of a profane history, and thus it must inevitably appear in a fallen rather than an eternal form. Therefore a historical revelation can be manifest in a sacred or eternal form only to the extent that it has not yet become or has ceased to be historical. Revelation can be historical only by means of a metamorphosis of the sacred into the profane, an actual movement of the Word from the sacred to the profane, reversing the backward movement of religion. Religious Christianity resists this movement of the Word, opposing its abandonment of an original and primordial sacred by resurrecting the Word in a religious form. Refusing the Word that appears and is real in the fallen reality of history, the religious Christian succumbs to the temptation of the past by fleeing to the primordial God of an unfallen Beginning.
A fully consistent or radical Christianity knows the totality of the Fall. Consequently, it condemns the religious quest for an unfallen sacred, repudiates the God who alone is God, and renounces all attachment to the past. Blake’s prophetic hatred of memory, his realization that "Innocence" must become "Experience," and his subsequent attack upon innocence as a subhuman flight from the human reality of history all illustrate this antireligious ground of radical Christianity. Having been initiated into the totally fallen and historical reality of the world, the radical Christian knows that the original paradise is both lost and forbidden, lost in the sense that it has wholly vanished from history, and forbidden if only because a quest for an original paradise must reverse the reality of history, a reversal that can be accomplished only by abolishing humanity. To speak of the totality of the Fall is to recognize that no way lies present in history to an unfallen innocence or a primordial Word. Once history has become truly manifest in its fully profane form, both an original paradise and a primordial sacred have been forever lost. Confronted with the advent of a totally profane world, faith has an inevitable temptation to flee to the past. Yet radical Christianity points the way to a new epiphany of the Word -- a Word that has died in its original and sacred form, and is now manifest only at the center of the radical profane.
If we are to grant that the Christian Word is truly a forward-moving process, and moves by way of a metamorphosis of the sacred into the profane, then it can move only by negating its original identity, thereby passing through the death of its original form. Christianity has always celebrated death as the way to redemption, proclaiming that Christ’s death inaugurated a new reality of joy and forgiveness, and calling all men to a participation in his death as the way of salvation. Death, it is true, is a universal motif in the history of religions: man dies to his profane or fallen condition as a means of being reborn in the sacred. However, Christianity, and Christianity alone, proclaims the death of the sacred; and only in Christianity do we find a concrete experience of the factuality and the finality of death. At this point Buddhism presents an instructive contrast to Christianity, for here one discovers unbelievably complex systems of meditation centering upon the image of death, but here death is a way to the dissolution of the human condition, and therefore to the abolition of pain and suffering. No other higher religion in the world calls its participants to a full experience of the pain and darkness of the human act of dying as the way to transfiguration and rebirth. Unique, too, is the way in which the Christian is called to share or to coexperience Christ’s death, where a sharing of the passion of Christ becomes a participation in the process of salvation. Underlying this Christian experience of death is a new openness to death as an ultimately real event. Nowhere else is death granted its simple if brutal reality, for nowhere else in history has man found life through the human event of death.
Once again, however, we must note that the historical forms of Christianity have thus far failed to embody the full and radical consequences of the Christian Word. Not only did unchristian ideas of immortality creep into the body of Christianity, but the very religious form of traditional Christianity has foreclosed the possibility of its acceptance of the finality of death. A belief in the resurrection of Jesus in the form of an eternal and primordial God must necessarily annul the reality of his death, either reducing it to a mere transition to a higher state or retrogressively conceiving it as an abolition of his human condition. Unlike the doctrinal expressions of orthodox Christianity, Christian meditation upon the passion of Christ has grasped his death as an ultimate and human event, a concrete but decisive event that has transformed the primordial relation between man and God. Despite its claim of being a historical faith, orthodox Christianity tenaciously clings to the primordial Creator, an eternal and unchanging Lord. Thus it is closed to the presence in Christ’s passion of God himself. Trinitarian forms of Christianity have inevitably dissolved the actual and the historical reality of the Crucifixion and the Incarnation, because in identifying Christ with an eternal Word they have eliminated the possibility of either actual death or real movement. Therewith, too, they have retreated from the factuality and finality of death, for death cannot be real in the presence of an eternal and primordial Word.
Only when the Fall is known as a real and decisive event does death assume its awesome reality. A religion that is innocent of the damning knowledge of the finality of the Fall cannot know the true reality of death, for insofar as an eternal and impassive Word is present to the religious consciousness death can pose no ultimate threat to the believer. Before death can become fully actualized and wholly real to consciousness it must penetrate the realm of the sacred, appearing here not simply as an image of the profane but, rather, affecting by the fullness of its own actuality the very form and reality of the sacred. Christian imagery of death, perhaps most so in the New Testament, has ever tended to regress to a pre-Christian religious form, dissolving the reality of death in its vision of resurrection, thereby confining death to temporal contingency and fallen flesh. Such a reversal of the full meaning of death inevitably resists the finality of the Fall, isolating Word and Fall by clinging to an unfallen and imperishable Word, and annulling the historical actuality of the Fall by positing its culmination in a prefallen Spirit. Moreover, when the finality of the Fall has been so reversed, the Incarnation and the Crucifixion can no longer be manifest as fully historical events, because here the Word can only be present in a prefallen and hence nonhistorical form. No true movement is possible for a Word that is unaffected by its own action and process; accordingly, the real ground of religious Christianity is an impassive and unmoving Word.
Again and again we have discovered that Christianity has resisted the Word of its own proclamation by regressing to a primordial, an unfallen, and a nonhistorical Word. Above all, it is faith’s resistance to the Word’s becoming fully actualized as flesh that has driven it to the backward movement of religion. Rather than opening itself to the forward movement of the Word, with its intrinsic goal of undergoing a total metamorphosis in history, Christianity has given itself to a dualistic isolation of flesh from Spirit, thereby imprisoning the Word in an inactive and lifeless form. Not until the Word has been liberated from its religious veil will it appear and be real to the Christian in its own intrinsic reality. Yet this can occur only when the Word is known as undergoing an actual movement into history, wherein the Word itself is affected by its movement, abandoning its original and primordial form as it becomes incarnate, and moving forward to the goal of a new and eschatological Totality. An incarnate Word that truly and actually enters the profane reality of history must not only appear in a fallen form, but must itself pass through the reality of Fall and death, thereby emptying itself of its original purity and power. The Christian Word itself is a fallen or kenotically emptied Word, just as the Incarnation is the truest witness to the totality and finality of the Fall. Now the Word is active and real only in the profane reality of a fallen history. In the Crucifixion the Word has finally died to its original form, losing its transcendent glory and its primordial holiness, while fully becoming flesh. Only in the Crucifixion, in the death of the Word on the Cross, does the Word actually and wholly become flesh. Finally, the Incarnation is only truly and actually real if it effects the death of the original sacred, the death of God himself.
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