return to religion-online

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 2: Jesus and the Incarnation

I. The Name of Jesus

Why Jesus? Christianity has always been confronted from both within and from without by the primary question of why it makes such an absolute claim for the particular person of Jesus. At no time has this question become so compelling as it has today, as Christianity is attempting to move beyond its past historical expression to a universal form, and is inevitably being forced to face the full scandal of its own particularity. What is the intrinsic relationship between the Christian faith and Jesus of Nazareth? Can and should the Christian Word be divorced from the person of Jesus? What can the name of Jesus mean to the Christian today or, for that matter, to any man living outside of Christendom? Is his name nameable in our time? Is Jesus present in our history? Before we can meet these questions, we must first inquire of the identity of Jesus, recognizing that modern New Testament scholarship has for the most part dissolved the image of Jesus in the Christian tradition, and acknowledging, if only on the basis of the Gospel accounts of his teaching, that Jesus will be present to later ages in strange and paradoxical forms.

In the radical Christian vision, as can most clearly be seen in Blake, Hegel, and Nietzsche, we invariably find the prophetic judgment that the Jesus of the Christian tradition is alien and lifeless, having been born only by means of a negation of the original Jesus, and therewith having evolved to the very opposite of his original identity. Moreover, the radical Christian insists that Jesus can never again be manifest as the man whom his disciples knew, that Jesus died on the cross; and while an image of the dead Jesus has been perpetuated by Christian orthodoxy, albeit in the mask of the God-man or the eternal Word, the true Jesus has passed through his death from a particular to a universal form, and continues to be present in a forward-moving and transfiguring Word. Nevertheless, even the radical Christian either clings to the name of Jesus or preserves it in a disguised form. Just as Nietzsche reverenced Jesus, hailing him as a free spirit who had abolished religion and consequently made possible a new man who is free of guilt and its corresponding resentment, so likewise Hegel came to know Jesus as the kenotic Word or "pure negativity" that is the source of all life and movement, and Blake called upon all mankind to accept the goal of becoming identical with Jesus -- he gave the motto, "Jesus only," to his greatest work, Jerusalem -- proclaiming that Jesus is the "Universal Humanity." The name of Jesus is no mere symbol of a higher man to these prophets: rather, they unveil the historical reality and power of his name as concealing a hidden but universal process of redemption and transformation, a process that has only been known in a reversed or religious form to his ecclesiastical followers. No way lies to the living Jesus, proclaim these radical Christian prophets, apart from a total transcendence of the orthodox Christian tradition.

Setting aside for the moment the problem of Christianity’s betrayal of Jesus, can we discover in the Christian affirmation of the name of Jesus a clearly distinct and individual movement of faith? What distinguishes the Christian proclamation of Jesus from the devotional or bhakti forms of Hinduism and Buddhism? First, we cannot fail to note that Christianity limits the name of the redeemer to the historical name of Jesus, whereas bhakti religion can either be open to a wide variety of savior gods and goddesses as in Hinduism, or it can follow the Buddhist way of devotion to a single savior deity (Amitabha or Amida) who is wholly dissociated from the historical founder of the religion (Siddhartha Gautama). By this means we can see that the scandal of Christianity’s particularity is inseparably related to the historical ground of its faith; and a faith arising in response to a unique and particular event can only lose the name or reality of that event by ceasing to be itself. But where lies the uniqueness of the original event or person of Jesus? Historically or phenomenologically considered, that uniqueness must in some sense lie in the fact that here and only here a sacred event deeply and decisively affects the concrete process of history, embedding itself in a particular and contingent movement in such a way as to be indissolubly identified with the actuality of its occurrence, thereby abandoning the universal or eternal form that otherwise is invariably present in sacred events. When the Christian pronounces the name of Jesus, he is confessing his participation in the actuality lying at the center of this unique and particular event. The "Experience" that Blake envisioned as the dialectical contrary of "Innocence," the full actuality (Wirklichkeit) that Hegel knew to be the destiny of Spirit, the Yes-saying to life, the body, and the earth that Nietzsche opposed to all No-saying, are all expressions of this uniquely Christian movement of faith. What is new in the Christian name of Jesus is the epiphany of the totality of the sacred in the contingency of a particular moment of time: in this name the sacred appears and is real only to the extent that it becomes actual and realized in history.

Therefore we cannot truly pronounce the name of Jesus if we isolate his name from the contingency and the actuality of our concrete existence in the world. lt. was the religious movement away from this immediate actuality that constituted an important dimension of Christianity’s betrayal of Jesus, for when Jesus appears as an eternal and cosmic Word, he loses the immediacy of his original appearance. Yet it is no less true that to identify Jesus wholly with a particular and isolated person or event of the past is to foreclose the possibility of his present life or forward movement. Indeed, we can know Jesus as the ancient Jesus of Nazareth only insofar as we are closed to his contemporary presence. Not only is this ancient Jesus alien and lifeless, but precisely for this reason he can be manifest in a religious form only as an abstract and distant Word or as an epiphany of a primordial Innocence. In either case we find a reversal of concrete experience, a flight from the actuality of consciousness and the body, a regression to a primordial moment of time. The uniquely Christian Jesus is the Jesus who is fully manifest in a present and actual moment of time. Accordingly, Blake could speak of his prophetic call in these words:

This theme calls me in sleep night after night,
& ev’ry morn

Awakes me at sun-rise; then I see the Saviour over

Spreading his beams of love & dictating the words
of this mild song.

"Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows,
wake! expand!

I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine:
Fibres of love from man to man thro’ Albion’s
pleasant land.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and

Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in

(Jerusalem 4: 3-20.)

Now, it is not simply any moment of time that is fully actual and real, for the mere passage of time is not to be identified as actuality, just as the brute factuality of history cannot reveal a human hand or face. Only a fully lived time is actual and immediate, its actuality deriving from a fullness of life that its movement releases, as time here receives a fully human expression. One of the most profound portraits of such actuality, and one that we must regard as embodying a vision of the Jesus who is present in our time, is contained in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a work that was intended to be an ironic reversal of the Christian gospel. In the section entitled "On Redemption," in the second part, Zarathustra reveals that the presence of time in a past and external form is the deepest obstacle to the realization of life and joy:

"To redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it’ -- that alone should I call redemption. Will -- that is the name of the liberator and joy-bringer; thus I taught you, my friends. But now learn this too: the will itself is still a prisoner. Willing liberates; but what is it that puts even the liberator himself in fetters? ‘It was’ -- that is the name of the will’s gnashing of teeth and most secret melancholy. Powerless against what has been done, he is an angry spectator of all that is past. The will cannot will backwards; and that he cannot break time and time’s covetousness, that is the will’s loneliest melancholy."

A spirit of revenge is born of this melancholy, what Nietzsche calls the will’s ill will against time and its "it was," a religious rebellion against the mere fact of time, leading to the refusal of time itself, and a consequent orgy of self-hatred as a broken humanity seeks to dissolve itself by ceasing to will. Yet Zarathustra, in announcing a new redemption, speaks to the very madness of the vengeful Nosayer:

"I led you away from these fables when I taught you, ‘The will is a creator.’ All ‘it was’ is a fragment, a riddle, a dreadful accident -- until the creative will says to it, ‘But thus I willed it.’ Until the creative will says to it, ‘But thus I will it; thus shall I will it.’"

On its surface there seems to be no relationship between this passage and a Christian witness to the immediate presence of Jesus, for the "creative will" is equated by Zarathustra with the will to power, and is judged to be its own redeemer and joy-bringer. Nevertheless, Zarathustra’s goal is to "will backwards," to transform the dreadful accident of all "it was" into "thus I will it" or "thus shall I will it," thereby making possible a Yes-saying to the oppressive contingency of time. Yes-saying is a reversal of the Nosaying of the spirit of revenge or ressentiment; it freely accepts and affirms the burden of time, but its affirmation transforms the external givenness of time into the human actuality of a time that is fully lived and immediate. Yet in what sense may we speak here of the Jesus who is near and not afar off? Why in any way associate Zarathustra with Jesus? We do so first because Nietzsche himself opposed Zarathustra to Christianity, but more deeply because his portrait of Jesus in The Antichrist bears an amazing resemblance to Zarathustra, since the original Jesus, like the new Zarathustra, is here conceived to be the opposite of the Christian Christ:

Make no mistake at this point, however seductive the Christian, in other words, the ecclesiastical, prejudice may be: such a symbolist par excellence stands outside all religion, all cult concepts, all history, all natural science, all experience of the world, all knowledge, all politics, all psychology, all books, all art -- his "knowledge" is pure foolishness precisely concerning the fact that such things exist. Culture is not known to him even by hearsay, he does not need to fight it -- he does not negate it. The same applies to the state, to the whole civic order and society, to work, to war -- he never had any reason to negate "the world"; the ecclesiastical concept of "world" never occurred to him. To negate is the very thing that is impossible for him. (Section 32.)

The Jesus who is incapable of negating the world is for that very reason free of all ressentiment: he cannot even know a world standing over against the blessedness that he proclaims to be the only reality.

In the whole psychology of the "evangel" the concept of guilt and punishment is lacking; also the concept of reward. "Sin" -- any distance separating God and man -- is abolished: precisely this is the "glad tidings." Blessedness is not promised, it is not tied to conditions: it is the only reality -- the rest is a sign with which to speak of it. (Section 33.)

Nietzsche even goes so far as to say that the life and death of Jesus was nothing other than the practice of blessedness. Therefore, Jesus could know nothing of the dreadful accident of "it was"; his practice of blessedness must inevitably have transformed all "it was" into a "thus I willed it" -- although words such as "I" and "will" here lose their common meaning and consequently Nietzsche freely acknowledged that Jesus was the original liberator from the No-saying of guilt and revenge.

Whether or not we can accept Zarathustra as a radical Christian image of Jesus -- and this is an interpretation that will only gradually be explored in the course of this book -- it should be clear that a redemption from a past and external time, which paradoxically occurs by way of affirmation rather than negation, cannot be dissociated from a reversal of the religious movement of involution and return. If the original Jesus abolished or reversed religion, thereby annulling the quest for the primordial Beginning, then he himself can never appear in a moment of lost time, nor can he be truly present in any form of Innocence. A "Christian" quest for lost time must invert the Jesus who dissolved the religious movement of remembrance and return. But by opening ourselves to the immediate actuality of the moment before us, we can know the Jesus who is present in the fullness of time itself, even if that time should prove to be a negation or reversal of the past event of Jesus of Nazareth.

II. Kenosis

If the Christian name of Jesus is in some intimate and unique sense associated with the immediate actuality of the present, then the God of the Christian tradition is not simply a primordial deity but, rather, the God who has evolved out of a religious reversal of the act of Incarnation. The "atheism" of the radical Christian is in large measure a prophetic reaction to a distant and nonredemptive God who by virtue of his very sovereignty and transcendence stands wholly apart from the forward movement and the historical presence of the Incarnate Word. It is precisely because the radical Christian seeks a total union with the Word made flesh that he must refuse the God who alone is God and give himself to a quest for the God who is Jesus. When Christian Scholasticism followed Aristotle in defining God as pure actuality or actus purus, it wholly isolated God from the world, knowing him as inactive and impassive, the God who is aseitic, or self-derived, the causa sui who is the sole cause of himself. At the very time when this Scholastic definition was being baptized by the Church, a contrary vision of God arose in Christian mysticism, a vision arising from an experience of God in the depths of the human soul where God is known as generating the individual soul as the eternal Son of God. The radical Christian mystic knew that he himself was generated as the Son of God, the same Son, and without distinction. Meister Eckhart coined a word to express this idea, istigkeit, with various spellings, meaning "isness" in an immediate sense; thus he declared in his own official defense: "God’s isness is my isness, and neither more nor less." Eckhart could even affirm in one of his sermons that God is that One who denies of every other that it is anything except himself. While this radical expression of Christian mysticism was driven underground by the ecclesiastical authorities of the Church, it continued to exist m a subterranean form, finally surfacing in Jakob Böhme and his circle, who provided the germinal source for the one thinker who created a conceptual portrait of the incarnate or kenotic movement of God: Hegel.

We cannot hope within the brief compass of this study to set forth the full meaning of Hegel’s idea of absolute or pure negativity, but it is the center of his dialectical system, and it cannot finally be divorced from a Christian ground. Negativity is the power and the process of the self-realization or the self-mediation of the Hegelian Absolute, Subject or Spirit. Accordingly, Spirit is the kenotic or emptying process of negativity; as such it is the true actuality (Wirklichkeit) of the world, for Spirit is the inherently negative or the negativity found in Being per se. As Hegel says in the section on revealed religion in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Spirit qua essential Being is "absolute distinction from itself, is pure process of becoming its other." Hegel’s dialectical method succeeds in effecting an inversion of the Western ontological tradition, for he does not simply negate the root idea of the aseity of Being, he reverses this idea by conceiving Being as a perpetual process of becoming its own other, a process that is known in myth or religious belief as the self-sacrifice of the divine Being. Despite the fact that Hegel has been damned by theologians for transposing faith into philosophical thinking, it is only in Hegel that we may discover an idea of God or Being or Spirit which embodies an understanding of the theological meaning of the Incarnation. No doubt Hegel’s abstract language disguises the Christian faith that is its source, but rather than falling back upon a pre-Christian and even primordial understanding of Being, Hegel opened the very center of his thinking to the Incarnate Word of faith, allowing its kenotic movement to be the archetype of what he conceived as the dialectical method of pure thinking. True, the traditional deposit of Christian dogma is transformed in Hegel, and now it appears as no more than the portal to true understanding. But this is exactly the case with all radical Christians, who invariably believe that the final age of the Spirit effects a negation and transcendence of the dogma of the Church. The kenotic meaning of Spirit is already given in the preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit, a meaning that Hegel says is due to the modern age and its religion. Yet Hegel transforms the mythological language of Christianity by understanding the emptying of Spirit to be the self-expression of Spirit in an objective and seemingly alien form:

Spirit is alone Reality. It is the inner being of the world, that which essentially is, and is per se; it assumes objective, determinate form, and enters into relations with itself -- it is externality (otherness), and exists for-self; yet, in this determination, and in its otherness, it is still one with itself -- it is self-contained and self-complete, in-itself and for-itself at once.

However, these words must not be misconstrued as speaking of a traditional monistic pantheism. Whereas a mystical or ontological monism conceives Spirit as the underlying and ultimate identity of a world that is only apparently or provisionally external and temporal, Hegel, and Hegel alone, reached a radically dialectical understanding of Spirit wherein only Spirit is ultimately real, and yet Spirit is fully identical with itself when it exists as the world or as an external "otherness." To employ Hegel’s terminology, Spirit exists "for-itself" (für sich) when it exists as its own opposite or other; nevertheless, this seemingly fallen or lower existence of Spirit is both selfcontained and self-complete, or for-itself and in-itself (an sich) at once. Only the modern age and its religion unveils the actual identity of Spirit with its own other. For while Spirit is implicitly a self-contained Totality, it is only in the modern world that Spirit reaches its absolute form by becoming actually and historically self-conscious of itself.

Historians of philosophy tell us that the one truly unique ground of Hegel’s thinking is his dialectical understanding of pure or radical negation, a self-negation of Spirit in which Spirit kenotically becomes its own other, existing as the actual opposite of its own original or initial identity. This self-negation of Spirit makes possible its real movement, a historical movement in which Spirit evolves to its absolute form only by progressively negating its own expressions. Thus Spirit, which exists originally and eternally in-itself (an sich), must become historical, existing in a determinate form as object for-itself (für sich) .

It has to become self-contained for itself (für sich), on its own account; it must be knowledge of Spirit, and must be consciousness of itself as Spirit. This means, it must be presented to itself as an object, but at the same time straightway annul and transcend this objective form; it must be its own object in which it finds itself reflected.

Only when Spirit knows itself in its own otherness will it fulfill its destiny as Spirit, for unlike all forms of dialectical religious understanding, Hegel conceives of Spirit as a forward movement of self-negation or "self-redemption." This forward movement of Spirit is made possible only by an actual process of self-negation: Spirit-in-itself negates itself and thus becomes Spirit-for-itself; and by the negation of negation Spirit-for-itself transcends itself and once more becomes Spirit-in-itself; yet this final form of Spirit is far richer and fuller than its initial beginning.

Such an abstract and abbreviated exposition, of course, does very little to make clear Hegel’s understanding of Spirit. Significantly enough, this understanding appears most clearly in The Phenomenology of Spirit when Hegel employs the actual language of kenosis. Hegel can speak, for example, of the "kenosis of the eternal Being," whereby it enters the sphere of actuality, becoming sensuous and uncomprehended. While existing in its kenotic form, Spirit can never be apprehended as pure Spirit, and must instead be known as the opposite or otherness of Spirit. Quite naturally Hegel believes that religion knows only the extrinsic form of Spirit, it apprehends Spirit through imaginative representation or Vorstellung, a representation expressing merely the external form of Spirit, a form in which Spirit appears to transcend the actuality of history and consciousness. Yet a dialectical understanding of the phenomenon of religion can lead to a true conception of the kenotic process of pure negativity. For example, Hegel’s analysis of the cultic act of sacrifice shows that this very act points to the original and implicit self-sacrifice of Spirit.

The self actively sacrificing demonstrates in actual existence, and sets before its own consciousness, this already implicitly completed self-renunciation on the part of absolute Being; and replaces that immediate reality, which absolute Being has, by the higher, viz. that of the self making the sacrifice.

Paradoxically, the implicitly completed self-sacrifice of Spirit only becomes realized or historically actualized in self-consciousness while Spirit is in a state of alienation and estrangement from itself. This self-sacrifice enters consciousness when Spirit first appears in its kenotic form as the man, Jesus of Nazareth. The primitive Christian community marks the historical or actual advent of Absolute Spirit because for the first time consciousness recognizes God in immediate present existence, and God is known as self-consciousness because he is beheld sensuously and immediately as the individual self of Jesus.

This incarnation of the Divine Being, its having essentially and directly the shape of self-consciousness, is the simple content of Absolute Religion. Here the Divine Being is known as Spirit; this religion is the Divine Being’s consciousness concerning itself that it is Spirit. For Spirit is knowledge of self in a state of alienation of self: Spirit is the Being which is the process of retaining identity with itself in its otherness.

The last sentence is one of Hegel’s clearest definitions of Spirit, and not only does it unveil the kenotic form of Spirit, it expresses the conceptual meaning of the God who has died in Jesus, the God who has negated himself in fully and finally becoming flesh.

Already in the Gospel of John we find the revolutionary Christian proclamation that God is love. But despite the fact that Christian faith has invariably given witness to the reality of the compassion of God, Christian theology has been unable to incorporate this primary core of faith if only because it has ever remained bound to an idea of God as a wholly self-sufficient, self-enclosed, and absolutely autonomous Being. Even when theologians have rediscovered the agape or total self-giving of God, they have confined it to the movement of the Incarnation, and thus have dualistically isolated God’s love from the primordial nature and existence of God himself. So long as God is known in his primordial form as an eternal and unchanging Being, he can never be known in his incarnate form as self-giving or self-negating Being. The radical Christian refuses to speak of God’s existence -- Hegel appropriately speaks in his Logic of the soulless word "is" -- because he knows that God has negated and transcended himself in the Incarnation, and thereby he has fully and finally ceased to exist in his original or primordial form. To know that God is Jesus, is to know that God himself has become flesh: no longer does God exist as transcendent Spirit or sovereign Lord, now God is love.

If nothing else, the contemporary Christian can be initiated by Hegel into an understanding of a dialectical movement of God or Being or Spirit, an actual movement or process reflecting and incorporating the kenotic reality of the Incarnate Word. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, there are three fundamental moments of Spirit: (1) essential Being, in which Spirit is simultaneously in- and for-itself; (2) explicit Self-existence, which is the express "otherness" of essential Being, and for which that Being is "object"; and (3) Self-existence or Self-knowledge in that other. Appropriately, Hegel speaks most explicitly about these moments in the section on revealed religion, and then he goes on to say that in its third moment Spirit apprehends itself only in the objective otherness of its Self-existence:

In this emptying itself, in this kenosis, it is merely within itself: the independent Self-existence which excludes itself from essential Being is the knowledge of itself on the part of essential Being. It is the "Word," the Logos, which when spoken empties the speaker of himself, outwardizes him, and leaves him behind emptied, but the Word is as immediately perceived, and only this act of self-perceiving himself is the actual existence of the "Word."

We must not be misled by these words into thinking that Hegel in speaking of the self-knowledge of Spirit is referring to any kind of scientific, objective, or merely rational knowledge. Rather, he is speaking of a final or even apocalyptic knowledge, a knowledge that only dawns in the third age or moment of Spirit, and a knowledge presupposing an absolute self-negation of Spirit’s original moment or mode. Cryptic as his language is when Hegel speaks most dialectically, can the Christian doubt that the "Word" which when spoken empties the speaker of himself is the Incarnate Word? God himself is left behind and "emptied" by the movement of the Incarnation and now the Word is only as it is immediately perceived in the act of "self-perceiving himself." An immediate perception in this sense is dialectical, the self perceives itself only in its intrinsic otherness: only by an actual but total reversal of its original moment or mode can Spirit know and fulfill itself as independent "Self-existence."

God is Jesus, proclaims the radical Christian, and by this he means that the Incarnation is a total and all-consuming act: as Spirit becomes the Word that empties the Speaker of himself, the whole reality of Spirit becomes incarnate in its opposite. Only the radical Christian witnesses to the full reality of Jesus or the Incarnate Word, because he alone responds to the totally kenotic movement of God. If Spirit truly empties itself in entering the world, then its own essential or original Being must be left behind in an empty and lifeless form. Now, Spirit can exist and be real only in a kenotic or incarnate mode that is the very opposite of its original Being. Hegel and the radical Christian would teach us that finally Spirit is this eternal movement of absolute self-negation. Apart from what Hegel called the process of absolute negativity, there lies no way of apprehending the ontological reality of the Incarnation, and unless the Incarnation is known as effecting an absolute negation of the primordial or essential Being of God, there can be no knowledge that God is love. A Christian proclamation of the love of God is a proclamation that God has negated himself in becoming flesh, his Word is now the opposite or the intrinsic otherness of his primordial Being, and God himself has ceased to exist in his original mode as transcendent or disincarnate Spirit: God is Jesus.

III. The Universal Humanity

When Blake named Jesus as the "Universal Humanity" he was speaking of the Incarnate Word who is both the source and the substance of all life, and this very comprehensiveness of Blake’s vision of Jesus demanded not only that he sacrifice the historical and imaginative particularity of the Church’s Christ but also impelled him to seek the presence of Jesus in that world of experience most estranged from the Christ of Christian orthodoxy. Nothing less than a kenotic vision of Jesus underlies Blake’s mature prophetic work, and by coming to see that Blake and Hegel share a common vision of Christ we can grasp the fundamental unity of radical Christianity. As early as the Songs of Innocence, Jesus appears in Blake’s poetry under the figures of the lamb and the shepherd and in the universal human virtues of mercy, pity, peace, and love ("The Divine Image"). But here his most passionate presence is in "On Another’s Sorrow," which opens with the famous lines:

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief
And not seek for kind relief?

However, the "I" of this lyric is Jesus himself, who is identified in the penultimate stanza as the maker of all those who suffer and lament; and then the poem reaches this conclusion:

O! he gives to us his joy
That our grief he may destroy;
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

At about the same time or shortly before he wrote this lyric, Blake concluded the aphorisms which comprise There Is No Natural Religion with an affirmation of the Incarnation: "Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is." While these words parallel one of the Church’s earliest theological formulations of the meaning of the Incarnation, Blake gives them a contrary meaning. For he is not speaking of a transcendent and wholly other Godhead but rather of the God who has fully and finally become flesh. It was the simple humanity of Jesus that attracted Blake’s devotion, he saw that humanity wherever there is pain or joy; and while condemning all notions of an abstract or general humanity, he profoundly believed that Jesus is the body of humanity, and is present in every human hand and face:

The Divine Vision still was seen,
Still was the Human Form Divine,
Weeping in weak & mortal clay,
O Jesus, still the Form was thine.

(Jerusalem 27: 57-60.)

A fundamental problem posed by the radical Christian vision of Christ is the concrete identity of the Incarnate Word. Here, as we have seen, the Word is not confined to the particular man, Jesus of Nazareth; nor is it to be identified with the exalted Christ who is present in the images and the cultus of the Church; nor, for that matter, can the kenotic Word be equated with the Lamb of Innocence. No, the totally incarnate Word can only be the Jesus who is present in what B1ake called "Experience," the Jesus who is actually and fully incarnate in every human hand and face. The radical Christian knows that God has truly died in Jesus and that his death has liberated humanity from the oppressive presence of the primordial Being. Indeed, Blake’s most exalted vision would teach us that humanity can only exist through this death of God in Jesus:

Jesus said: "Wouldest thou love one who never

For thee, or ever die for one who had not died
for thee?

And if God dieth not for Man & giveth not him-

Eternally for Man, Man could not exist; for Man
is Love

As God is Love: every kindness to another is a
little Death

In the Divine Image, nor can Man exist but by

(Jerusalem 96:23-28.)

If, as Blake declares, the "Divine Mercy" redeems man in the "Body of Jesus" (Jerusalem 36:54), it does so only by freely dying in Jesus; and that death is both a once-and-for-all event annihilating God as the Wholly Other, and a death that is repeated in God’s eternal death for "Man." A death that is consummated in such an eternal repetition is obviously not confined to the particular death of Jesus, nor can an eternal repetition of the divine death be enclosed within the faith and liturgy of the Church: to the extent that the death of God in Jesus is limited to a particular time and space, the full reality and comprehensiveness of that death is negated, and God dies only to be resurrected in his original and primordial form.

What is that humanity which can only exist as a consequence of God’s dying for man? Obviously Blake is not speaking of what he himself condemned as the natural man, as can be seen from his address, "To The Deists," in Jerusalem: "Man is born a Spectre or Satan & is altogether an Evil, & requires a New Selfhood continually, & must continually be changed into his direct Contrary." A new humanity is created by the death of God in Jesus, a humanity that is a direct contrary of the natural man who is isolated in his own selfhood and imprisoned by the brute contingency of time. As early as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, while answering the question, "Is not God alone the Prolific?" Blake answers: "God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men." The Jesus who is the "Universal Humanity,’ is the full coming together of God and man: the God who has given himself eternally for man has thereby ceased to exist as a self-enclosed and autonomous Being, and the new man who is born in Jesus is liberated by the death of God from the oppressive power of every alien reality standing over against and beyond humanity. With the death of God, a primordial Being existing in-itself as its own creation or ground has been shattered, and with its dissolution every alien other loses its intrinsic ground. Now a new humanity arises that can give itself to the immediate actuality of the present as a result of being liberated from the once-and-for-all givenness of a primordial and distant Being. Blake calls this new humanity the "Body of Jesus," not because it is the crucified body in the tomb, or the Lord of the Resurrection and the Ascension but, rather, because it is the incarnate body of the God who has eternally died for man, and hence it could be hailed by Blake as "The Eternal Great Humanity Divine."

Once again we see the theological implications of a radical Christian affirmation of the Incarnation: in dying to his primordial and transcendent form, God himself becomes fully incarnate in the "Word" or "Body" of Jesus, and thus he ceases to be present or real as the God who alone is God. Or we could also express this truth of radical faith in Blakean terms by saying that the death of God in Jesus effects a transition from Innocence to Experience: humanity is banished from the original paradise of Eden -- which Blake calls "Beulah"-- the timelessness of that paradise is now at best a momentary release from the burden of time, for Innocence is forbidden the Christian who has been initiated by Jesus into the actuality of Experience. We might even say that Jesus is the Christian name of the totality of Experience, a new actuality created by the abolition of the primordial Being, whose death inaugurates a new humanity liberated from all transcendent norms and meaning. But with this new actuality there also comes a terrible darkness resulting from the obliteration of all inherited and established forms of judgment and understanding. So revolutionary was this actuality that it was not until after eighteen centuries that it penetrated the historical body of Christendom, first appearing in an anti-Christian form, and then finally eroding the foundations of the whole Western historical tradition. Yet the very darkness brought on by the historical actualization of the death of God makes possible the movement of the Incarnate Word into the universal body of humanity:

And thine the Human Face, & thine
The Human Hands & Feet & Breath,
Entering thro’ the Gates of Birth
And passing thro’the Gates of Death.

(Jerusalem 27: 61-64.)

Jesus cannot appear as the "Universal Humanity" until the transcendent realm has been emptied and darkened; with the eclipse of that realm no primordial archetype or paradigm remains present in consciousness, since humanity evolves to a fully universal and historical form only with the disappearance of its ground in a Being that is confined to a primordial or particular moment of time. We must recall that the modern historical consciousness is little more than two hundred years old, and that it was born by means of an eclipse of the transcendent realm, an eclipse resulting in the birth of a unique sense of historical particularity, a historicity arising from the advent of a fully actualized process of concrete and historical time. For the first time historical events appeared as radically particular, as confined in their meaning and value to the actual but singular process in which they occur, and thus as being wholly detached from a universal order or law Despite the fact that modern Christian theologians have long lauded Christianity as a historical faith, they have for the most part conceived of salvation history in priestly terms as an isolated but absolute and once-and-for-all series of events of the past; or, insofar as they have identified the moment of salvation or "decision" with a contemporary historicity, they have conceived of historicity as a purely inward or subjective realm, existing totally apart from the actuality and the contingency of the concrete processes of history. If only in reaction against the "anti-Christian" Hegel, few if any theologians have been able to accept and affirm the actual process of history as salvation history. Indeed, the theologian must inevitably remain closed to the redemptive possibilities of our history unless he is prepared to affirm the death of God as an epiphany of Christ.

True, our history has progressively but decisively dissolved every sign and image of the Christ who was once present in the Church. Yet the name of Jesus can continue to embody the innermost reality of faith if it can make concretely present the total union of God and man, even if that union should finally obliterate the God of a former faith. As the God who is Jesus becomes ever more deeply incarnate in the body of humanity, he loses every semblance of his former visage, until he appears wherever there is energy and life. Blake’s Los or the "Human Imagination" can employ a traditional mystical language to speak of the apocalyptic Eden in which this God will be all in all:

"Mutual in one another’s love and wrath all re-

We live as One Man; for contracting our infinite

We behold multitude, or expanding, we behold as

As One Man all the Universal Family, and that
One Man

We call Jesus the Christ; and he in us, and we
in him

Live in perfect harmony in Eden, the land of life,
Giving, receiving, and forgiving each other’s tres-

He is the Good shepherd, he is the Lord and

He is the Shepherd of Albion, he is all in all,
In Eden, in the garden of God, and in heavenly

(Jerusalem 38:16-25.)

Jesus is the name of the love of God, a love that eternally dies for man. Truly to pronounce his name -- and for the radical Christian the names of Jesus and God are ultimately one -- is to participate in God’s death in Jesus and thereby to know the God who is Jesus as the expanding or forward-moving process who is becoming "One Man."

Viewed 116287 times.