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 3: God and History
I. Dialectic and theology
Today the Christian theologian is faced with the primary problem of the identity of the Word that is present in our history. Insofar as the theologian recognizes the truth that ours is not simply a distinct moment of history but, rather, a moment or an era which is being born at the inevitable cost of the loss of its roots in a previous history, he can no longer search for the presence of the Word by means of a theology whose form and language was evolved in a now long distant past. We can sense the estrangement of the contemporary Christian from his own theological heritage by simply noting the inability of all traditional forms of theology to speak in the presence of our history. As the historical world of Christendom sinks ever more deeply into the darkness of an irrecoverable past, theology is faced with the choice either of relapsing into a dead and archaic language or of evolving a whole new form of speech. Already we have noted that the radical Christian has created a new language of faith, a language often purporting to be the expression of a final age of the Spirit; but now we must attempt a more direct appropriation of this language into the mode of an openly theological discourse. Immediately we must confess that to the extent that theology absorbs the radical Christian vision it will lose its traditional identity and appearance. Not only will each of its former categories be negated or transformed by this encounter, but so likewise the very method of theological thinking must be given a new direction and form.
Almost invariably the radical Christian has set himself against theology, believing that theology is inevitably bound to the authority of the Church, and thus is incapable either of speaking the original language of faith or of expressing a contemporary Christian vision. Quite simply the radical Christian has judged theology as such to be closed to either original thinking or imaginative vision, and the so-called renaissance of theology in the twentieth century has done little to dissipate the force of this judgment. Nevertheless, the fact remains that so long as the radical vision remains unassimilated by theological discourse it will both continue to remain foreign to the community of faith and appear to be confined to a peculiarly speculative or imaginative realm. The task of theology today is to appropriate a contemporary Christian vision in such a manner as to make it thinkable as faith. So far from continuing to find its ground in the finality of Biblical revelation, theology must seek contemporary expressions of the Word of faith, opening itself to the address of a Word that has become fully actual in the present, an incarnate Word that has ceased to be meaningful and real in its original or initial expression. Above all, theology must abandon a religious form, wholly and consistently repudiating the religious quest for the primordial sacred, and with it the religious negation and reversal of the profane; for to the extent that theology even now remains bound to a primordial or transcendent Word it will remain closed to the present and human actuality of history. Consequently, theology must follow the radical Christian in passing through the death of God, in dying to every echo and memory of the reality of the primordial God, not as a means of simply capitulating to its own dissolution, but rather as a way to the rebirth of itself.
We have seen that radical faith envisions a moving Word or Spirit, a Word becoming embodied in the actual process of history in such a way as to lose or negate its original and earlier forms, thereby undergoing a real metamorphosis or transformation. Insofar as this movement entails a progressive negation of the original identity of Spirit, it is a dialectical movement, a movement whereby Spirit actually becomes its own other. A theological thinking which would capture the meaning of this movement must inevitably be dialectical, expressing in its own form and language the dynamic process of the metamorphosis of the Incarnate Word: for when theology is bound to an abstract and impassive Word, it must betray the historical reality of the Incarnation. Moreover, it is of vital importance to note that when theology has been purely theological in a strict and limited sense, that is to say when it has limited itself to an abstract and conceptual understanding of God himself, it has not only been nondialectical but it has also been estranged from both the original language of Biblical faith as well as the contemporary language of Christian witness and proclamation. Until the nineteenth century, dialectical thinking had only decisively entered into Christian theology at two points, in the Augustinian conception of nature and grace, and in the Lutheran understanding of law and gospel. Both of these achievements of Christian dialectical theology were Biblical and contemporary at once: they built upon a genuine Biblical ground while being expressions of a new historical movement of faith, and each prepared the way for a new and even revolutionary Christian era. Let us also note that these theological movements were grounded in a new understanding of the Incarnation, a new response to the forward movement of the Christian Word; and each in its own way effected or recorded a negation and transcendence of the eternal and primordial reality of God. Augustine's conception of the omnipresence and the omnipotence of grace proceeded out of a dialectical negation and reversal of the ontological givenness of Being, just as Luther's understanding of the free gift of grace in Christ rested upon an abridgment or annulment of the transcendent distance and the sovereign authority of the Creator. In either case, we find a new and more comprehensive form of the uniquely Christian Word, a form evolving out of a negation or transformation of the original or religious form of God.
Yet neither Augustine nor Luther reached a fully comprehensive and consistent mode of dialectical understanding, each remained bound to past and heteronomous norms of the Church--ironically, both Augustine and Luther demonically deepened those norms when they encountered other radical expressions of faith -- and neither was able to bridge the gulfs established by the dualistic and nondialectical tendencies of their own thinking. If only because Augustinianism and Lutheranism remained dualistic, being unable to accept the full implications of their own movements of dialectical negation -- for Augustine isolated the omnipotence of God from the omnipotence of grace, just as Luther isolated law from gospel -- both finally sanctioned the primordial sacrality of God. Augustine and Luther have often been criticized as nonsystematic thinkers, but from a dialectical point of view, what this judgment really means is that neither was able to truly escape from the abstract and formal categories of a purely rational thinking; for Augustine remained a neoplatonist despite the fact that he had effected a transformation of Greek philosophical thinking, and the Luther who could so violently condemn the "whore reason" nevertheless was unable to break with the rational necessity of the unchanging identity of God. When Christian theology so binds itself to the abstract and static categories of our dominant Western logic, it can be open neither to the real and dynamic movement of the Word nor to a metamorphosis of a primordial Word in the actuality of history. For so long as theological thinking is grounded in the logical laws of identity and contradiction it cannot apprehend a forward-moving and self-transfiguring Word, and must simply submit to the ever-widening gulf between the primordial God and an increasingly profane and actual historicity. Hegel, who wrote the first and greatest Western dialectical treatise on logic, insisted that it is only when dialectical understanding (Vernunft) has negated and transcended the logical laws of pure reason (Verstand), that thinking can apprehend the movement of Spirit in history. Thus he declared that all actual or living beings are contradictory in themselves, and therefore contradiction is more real than a seemingly unchanging identity: "For as opposed to it identity is only the determination of the simple immediate, or of dead Being, while contradiction is the root of all movement and life, and it is only insofar as it contains contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity" (Logic, Vol. I, Bk. II, Sec. I, Ch. 3).
Dialectically considered, perhaps the most demonic consequence of a theology that accepts as its foundation the primordial sovereignty and holiness of God is its submission to the providential authority of what Hegel called the "Given," or that which happens to appear or to be at hand. Throughout the nineteenth century, radical Christians such as Dostoevsky violently protested against a theodicy that would sanction every horror and injustice in the name of the absolute sovereignty of God. For the simple truth is that so long as God is known only in his primordial form there lies no way to a theological understanding of history, for either history is totally negated following the universal religious way or it is ruthlessly subordinated to the alien authority of what Luther called the "law" or Blake names as Urizen ("your reason"). Just as a purely abstract and formal reason reflects the unchanging givenness of the world, the God of religion is impassive and immobile, and must inevitably appear in history as the enemy of movement and life. When Nietzsche understood the Christian God as the deepest embodiment of man's self-hatred and resentment, he unveiled the solitary and transcendent God of Christianity as the absolute antithesis of a total existence in history or what the new Zarathustra calls the "body." It is precisely because a primordial and religious deity is the antithesis of life and history that its sacred name can so naturally and spontaneously be evoked to sanction evil and injustice (e.g., The Book of Job). No horror in our history has been too great for it not to be embraced by the majority of the theological spokesmen who speak in its presence, for all historical as opposed to mythological witness to the primordial deity necessarily directs itself against the dynamic movement and the human actuality of history. What greater theological consistency could we expect than for a theologian who speaks for the primordial God to speak in the name of everything that confines and constricts the human hand and face?
A Christian dialectical theology must direct itself to an understanding of a Word that is penetrating the present, or a transcendent Word becoming immanent, and therefore it must speak against both the ecclesiastical norms of the past and all that reality which is alien and repressive in the present. Above all, such a theology must assault every source of meaning that lies beyond or stands opposed to the life and movement of humanity, attacking the ultimate barriers to the expansion of humanity, insofar as these appear to be rooted in an eternal and unchanging ground. So far from being the senant of the dogmatic and institutional authority of the Church, a truly dialectical theology will dissolve all such authority, and give itself to an attack upon every repressive law and power that claims a holy or a transcendent source. Whether in East or West, dialectical thinking has ever set itself against all forms of dualism, discovering an infallible sign of inhuman repression or willful illusion in every ultimate distinction between two realms of meaning or reality, if only because all such distinctions forebodes the possibility of the realization of the total rebirth or transfiguration of humanity. Only a false dialectic posits an ultimate and irreconcilable chasm between the opposites, for to the extent that the opposites are dualistically isolated from one another they are frozen in a static form and denied their own intrinsic resolution. Certainly no Christian or incarnational theology can submit to a final and absolute opposition between time and Eternity or the finite and the infinite: for such an opposition simply reflects an abstract, an unmoving, or a primordial Word, in short, a Word that cannot become incarnate. Furthermore, a theology positing an absolute distinction between man and God, or the creature and the Creator, has no basis for seeking the total presence of the Word; it must cling to the transcendent and wholly other God, refusing the kenotic movement and epiphany of Christ, thereby denying the historical reality of the Incarnation.
Once theology accepts a fully dialectical vocation, it will negate its inherited categories insofar as these are given an unchanging identity, recognizing that dialectically the opposites pass into one another, and therefore the language of theology must undergo a continuous metamorphosis if it is to reflect the kenotic and historical movement of the Christian Word. A dynamic and forward-moving Word or Spirit can only partially and provisionally be recorded by a particular idea or image: that idea or image must in turn negate itself in response to the movement of the Word, and theological thinking must progressively lose its original form if it is to apprehend the increasingly universal epiphany of Spirit. If theology is a living discipline, a mode of understanding evolving with the movement of its historical ground and source, then it must understand that it can retain its traditional identity only by renouncing the Incarnate Word. To confine theological meaning to the sacred history and scriptures of the past is to abjure the activity of the Word in the present and to reverse the kenotic direction of the uniquely Christian Word. Moreover, the eschatological goal of the original and the authentic Christian Word demands that it be an activity or a process of making all things new, of transforming the totality of history so that God may be all in all, therewith annulling all that distance separating the creature and the Creator, and obliterating every opposition between the sacred and the profane, or flesh and Spirit. Yet, as we have seen, if such a process is to be active and real, it must be a process of Spirit actually becoming flesh and of flesh actually becoming Spirit: only a real and forward-moving process of Spirit becoming its own other can culminate in an apocalyptic coincidentia oppositorum.
Nothing less is demanded of contemporary theology than that it open itself to the meaning of an apocalyptic and total redemption, a redemption issuing from the total presence of God in Christ, as God himself becomes the Word who is progressively incarnate in the actual processes of history. A theology expressing the incarnate movement of God must negate its image of the primordial God, closing itself to every echo and memory of God's original form so as to open itself to the metamorphosis of God's original sacrality and transcendence in a profane and immanent totality. Dialectically, everything depends upon recognizing the meaning of God's total identification with Jesus and of understanding that it is God who becomes Jesus and not Jesus who becomes God. The forward movement of the Incarnate Word is from God to Jesus, and the Word continues its kenotic movement and direction by moving from the historical Jesus to the universal body of humanity, thereby undergoing an epiphany in every human hand and face. At no point in this dialectical process can we isolate the Word and affirm that here it receives its final and definitive expression. Any such abstraction of the Word from history must necessarily lose the meaning of an incarnational process, isolating theology from the activity and movement of the Word, and inevitably setting theology upon the retrogressive path of the religious forms of Christianity. Thus, regression must be identified as the intrinsic enemy of the Christian faith; it is the supreme temptation of a faith that celebrates the forward movement of the Word, and theology must ever give itself to a negation of every past form of the Word, if only as a means of opening itself to an extension of an eschatological future into the present.
II. The Christian Name of God
From the point of view of a radical and dialectical Christian theology, the absolutely decisive and fundamental theological principle is that the God of faith so far from being unchanging and unmoving is a perpetual and forward-moving process of self-negation, pure negativity, or kenotic metamorphosis. A consistent and fully dialectical form of radical Christianity cannot know an eternal and primordial God who forever remains bound to his original identity, if only because radical faith is a total response to the actual presence and the forward movement of God in history. Therefore, radical faith must negate the primordial name and image of God if it is to respond to the real movement of God himself. As opposed to a purely religious form of faith with its backward movement of involution and return, a distinctively Christian form of faith must ever be open to new epiphanies of the Word or Spirit of God, epiphanies that will not simply be repetitions of the original manifestation of God, or even ever more comprehensive illuminations of his eternal glory and power but, rather, truly new epiphanies whose very occurrence either effects or records a new actualization or movement of the divine process. Insofar as Christian theology has almost invariably assumed a priestly form -- i.e., has been directed to a recovery or re-presentation of the original Word of faith -- it has been grounded in a religious conception of the Creator or the God of the Beginning and closed to an understanding of the eschatological Christ of the End. Quite naturally the God of Christian theology has been both estranged from the forward movement of faith and alien to the Word or Spirit that has progressively dawned in the profane movement of our history. Not until theology is able to understand the self-negation or self-transformation of God himself will it be able to arrive at an eschatological conception of the actual and forward movement of God.
If we are to become open to a contemporary and authentically Christian name or epiphany of God, we must first repudiate all religious conceptions of the mystery of the Godhead, with their inevitable corollary that the sacred or ultimate Reality is impassive and silent, and thus incapable of moving or speaking in history. To say that the name of God is unutterable is not simply to renounce the God of the Bible but to follow a retrogressive path leading to a total rebellion against history and a consequent religious quest for the lost innocence of the primordial Beginning. Closely linked to this religious refusal of the name of God is the dogmatic insistence that the names or epiphanies of God have for once and for all occurred in the past, with the consequence that faith must ever be a recollection or remembrance of a past and eternally given form of God. When faith is so conceived as a process of recollection or remembrance not only must it be identified with a backward movement of return but it must also be set against the forward movement of history and the cosmos. We must take due note of the fact that it is the prophetic tradition, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments, and this tradition alone, which gives witness to the forward or progressive movement of revelation, a movement wherein the God of faith appears in new and ever more dynamic epiphanies, as the prophetic oracle actualizes the name of God in such a manner as to reveal the integral relation between the divine process and the human reality of history. The God of the Biblical prophetic tradition is a God who speaks or reveals himself in history; here history is not the passive receptacle of the divine speech, but is rather the arena in which that speech itself becomes actual and real: for apart from history God would be silent, impassive, and alone. By the very act of revealing his name, God empties himself of an original plenitude, negating the God who alone is God, the causa sui, the unmoved Mover who is the sole cause of himself.
At long last, theology must come to an understanding of the inevitable correlation between God's self-revelation and his self-negation or kenosis. The God who reveals himself in history is the God who empties himself of the plenitude of his primordial Being; thereby he actually and truly becomes manifest in history, and finally history becomes not simply the arena of revelation but the very incarnate Body of God. Accordingly, revelation is here an actual movement from Beginning to End, a real and forward movement from the primordial Being of God to the God who becomes all in all in the End. Progressively but decisively God abandons or negates his original passivity and quiescence -- and a knowledge of the primordial name and reality of God is present neither in the Bible nor in Christianity, but is fully manifest in the purest expressions of religion -- becoming incarnate both in and as the actuality of world and history. Indeed, from the Christian point of view, revelation and incarnation are inseparable, being but two faces of a single process, a process wherein God both reveals himself in and becomes incarnate as the very opposite of his original identity. Revelation, as it occurs in the Biblical prophetic tradition, gives witness to a fall or gradual dissolution of the primordial God, as God progressively becomes actualized and real in history, finally dawning as an all-encompassing but immanent and imminent "Kingdom of God." Therefore, a consistent and radical Christianity will embody no knowledge of the primordial God but instead will incorporate and make real that "Kingdom of God" which is a consequence of the absolute self-negation of God
If radical Christianity disembodies the primordial God, refusing even the name of the sovereign Creator, then a new or radical theology must seek an understanding of the uniquely Christian name of God, opening itself to a full theological understanding of the name of Jesus Christ. First, we must recognize that Jesus Christ is the name of the God who has become fully and totally incarnate, and thus it is a divine name, a name revealing the actual movement of God himself. The name of Jesus Christ is simply meaningless apart from its Old Testament background, for it is the God of the Old Testament who becomes fully actualized and historically real in Christ. When the Christian proclaims the Lordship of Jesus, he is speaking of that same God whom the Old Testament knows as Creator, Lawgiver, and Lord; but here an originally sovereign and transcendent God appears in a totally empty or kenotic form. Moreover, it is only through faith in Christ that the believer can know the Old Testament names of God as epiphanies of God's self-negation or emptying of himself. If it is true to say that only the Biblical tradition knows the God who is the absolutely sovereign Creator and the wholly other Lawgiver and Judge, then the Christian, even as Job, must come to know the Creator and Judge as an alien and even self-estranged epiphany of God. Only an alien or empty form of God could be wholly other than man and the world, for the God whose very reality and power crushes the spirit of man is a God who is estranged from his own identity as Redeemer. The El Shaddai or almighty Lord who reveals himself to Job as the absolutely sovereign Creator is a God who is estranged from his own acts of redemption: thus an impassable gulf appears between man and God at precisely that point when God ceases to exist and to act in his redemptive form. The theologian may well speak of a divine economy of salvation, a process of history wherein man and God, or world and deity, become manifest and real in new forms or manifestations; and obviously the relation between man and God must undergo genuine transformations as this process unfolds. Yet if this process is actual and real, that is to say if it is a historical process occurring in the concrete contingencies of time and space, then God himself must act and exist in such a manner as to negate his primordial mode of Being.
Hegel, ever the dialectical thinker, maintains that Spirit has real or actual existence only insofar as it alienates itself from itself, and therefore Spirit can only move forward by a process of self-estrangement or self-negation. God moves forward m history by negating his present and previous modes of Being; only insofar as he ceases to act and exist in a given manifestation does God evolve to a new form, as his progressive historical epiphany carries him farther and farther away from his primordial or prehistoric identity. Nevertheless, it is crucial to maintain that God remains God or the divine process remains itself even while in a state of self-estrangement. Indeed, the Christian confesses that God is most truly or actually himself while in a state of ultimate self-alienation or self-estrangement. For the Christian believes that God most fully reveals himself in Jesus Christ: and the kenotic acts of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion are by no means to be understood as fragmentary epiphanies of the power and glory of an eternal and unchanging Godhead, but rather as historical acts or events whereby the Godhead finally ceases to exist and to be real in its past and primordial manifestations. If a radical monotheism is present only in the Biblical tradition, or if it is only here that God remains himself in a diverse and ever more actual series of historical epiphanies, then the Christian alone knows the God who remains God in a total act of self-estrangement or self-emptying. The Christian name of God is the name of a process of absolute self-negation, as God reveals himself in Jesus Christ to be the God who has come and freely died for man.
When the Christian proclaims Jesus Christ as the triumphant epiphany of God, he is not speaking of an epiphany of glory and power; or, rather, power and glory here pass into the opposite of their original manifestation, as God now appears and is real only in an absolute act of self-sacrifice or self-negation. Yet Jesus Christ is the consummation of the historical acts and movements of God: the forward-moving process and kenotic energy of God have ever evolved through sacrificial acts of self-negation, as God has acted to estrange himself from his own original Totality, thereby making possible an actual movement to a new and wholly other Totality of the End. A century and a half of historical scholarship has demonstrated that the Bible contains a diverse body or series of traditions and imagery that resists all theological attempts at harmonization or reconciliation. No longer is it possible to speak of a Biblical faith or a Biblical religion or even of a distinct and singular Biblical God; nor is there any possibility of rationally or logically uniting the self-contradictory Biblical images of God. Nevertheless, a radical and dialectical theology can lead us to grasp the necessity of the contradictory language of the Bible. Here alone we can come to understand the meaning of a divine process progressively moving through a self-negation of an original ground to new and ever more opposing epiphanies, as these epiphanies continually oppose and reverse the primordialsacrality of God. Once we truly come to understand the Christian God as an actual and moving dialectical process, we shall finally be purged of the Christian religious belief in the existence of a unique and absolutely autonomous God.
What can it mean to speak of the Christian -God as a dialectical process rather than as an existent Being? First, it means that the Christian God cannot be known as an unchanging, an unmoving, or an impassive Being; nor can he be understood as possessing a common nature or substance that remains eternally the same throughout his revelatory and redemptive acts. If the Christian knows the God who has emptied himself of his original sacrality in actually becoming flesh, then he cannot know a God who remains distinct and self-enclosed in his own primordial Being. The God who acts in the world and history is a God who negates himself, gradually but decisively annihilating his own original Totality. God is that Totality which "falls" or "descends," thereby moving ever more fully into the opposite of its original identity. God or the Godhead becomes the God who is manifest in Christ by passing through a reversal of His original form: thus transcendence becomes immanence just as Spirit becomes flesh. At no point in this process is God uniquely himself: each point or moment in the process embodies a metamorphosis of God, as God remains himself even while estranged from himself, for it is precisely God's self-estrangement or self-negation that actualizes his forward movement and process. True, the Christian proclaims the God who has totally negated or sacrificed himself in Christ. Yet the Christian confesses that it is God who has become Christ; and the God who became Christ was once manifest and real as Creator and Lord. Otherwise, it is not possible to speak of the kenotic Christ, or of the self-annihilation of God, or of God as having actually negated himself in Jesus Christ. Therefore, to speak of God as a dialectical process rather than as an existent Being is to speak of the God who has emptied himself of God in Christ.
The Christian who comes to understand God as a kenotic and forward-moving process will be delivered from the temptation to think of God as a wholly other and autonomous Being just as he will be freed from any form of theological dualism. Nondialectical expressions of Christianity have by one means or another invariably established a chasm between the essential or integral reality of God and his redemptive and revelatory acts. When God has been known apart from his acts, the path of natural or rational theology, then a breach is established between the God of faith and the God of the understanding, a breach reflecting an internal bifurcation between the activity of the mind and the life of faith. On the other hand, any attempt to limit the meaning of God to the Word of his revelation must not only abandon all cognitive and imaginative meanings of God but must also isolate the reality of God from the reality of the world, therewith isolating God from both the arena and the actuality of his acts. Both natural and revealed theology refuse the full reality of God: the one conceiving a primordial or eternal nature of God that is incapable of either forward movement or redemptive action, and the other positing a sovereign Lord who is infinitely removed from the immediate or historical reality of his creation. Yet most damning of all, both the dogmatic expressions of revealed theology and the established forms of philosophical theology isolate God from Christ, establishing an unbridgeable chasm between the Creator and the Redeemer, or the primordial and the consequent natures of God, thus finally regressing to pagan or religious forms of Christianity.
Blake ingeniously sensed that the God of deism and the God of orthodoxy are identical, for both banish the redemptive God from the world, and in positing God as either the impassive source of cosmic order or the tyrannical despot of history arrive at a common conception of a distant and alien God. Indeed, as historical or ecclesiastical Christianity has progressively regressed from its original faith it has deepened the chasm between the Creator and the Redeemer, until in our time a redemptive meaning of God has wholly vanished. To reverse this process of regression we must return to the fundamental principle of dialectical theology: God is a forward-moving process of kenotic metamorphosis who remains himself even while passing through a movement of absolute self-negation. "God is Jesus," cries Blake and every radical Christian seer, because God himself has become incarnate and is fully and totally identical with Christ. So likewise we must resist every Gnostic and dualistic temptation to split asunder the Creator and the Redeemer by recognizing that if God is identical with Christ, then Christ is the final embodiment of God's self-negation. At no point is the Gospel of John more anti-Gnostic than in its attempt to portray Christ as the Creator, for the almighty Creator who became Christ is already in his original act and epiphany the God who is capable of emptying himself of his sovereign power. Dialectically considered, every act of God is a kenotic metamorphosis, for the God who acts as the Creator is a God who has fallen from an original Totality, and even the most awesome and oppressive acts of God can be understood by the Christian as preparations for the gospel. Nevertheless, the Christian must betray his faith if he refuses the forward movement of the divine process. God negates himself as sovereign Creator in becoming incarnate in Christ: God as Creator and Lord undergoes a metamorphosis in Christ, so that he passes into the opposite of his original epiphany. Christ is identical with God, yes, but the God who is present and real in Christ is the God who has emptied himself of his original sovereignty and transcendence. Hence the Christian who lives in Christ must refuse every image of the preincarnate God except insofar as such images are transfigured by the self-sacrifice or self-negation of God himself.
III. God and Satan
While inquiring, in The Genealogy of Morals, into man's employment of God as an instrument of his own self-torture, Nietzsche remarks that man projected all his denials of self and nature out of himself as God: "as transcendence, as eternity, as endless torture, as hell, as the infinitude of guilt and punishment." These words repeat in their own distinctive way Blake's prophetic attack upon Urizen and Hegel's dialectical assault upon an alien and lifeless form of Spirit. Moreover, they illuminate a uniquely Christian epiphany of God: the God who is infinitely distant from man, the God who in his transcendent majesty stands over against man, and before whom man is reduced to an abject condition of guilt and dread. Why is it that historians of religion have failed to note that Rudolf Otto's idea of the numinous as mysterium tremendum et fascinans is drawn from the Christian vision of God and is exemplified nowhere else in the world's religions? Not even the Muslim or the Jew (except for a modern and semi-Christianized Jew such as Kafka) knows a deity whose very sacrality is absolutely opposed to the life and immediacy of man's existence in the world. Nor does the Muslim or the Jew -- to say nothing of the participants in the mystical ways of the East know that awesome and overwhelming guilt deriving from a naked encounter with a divine and righteous Judge. Melville's portrait of Moby Dick, just as Ivan Karamazov's rebellion against God, has inevitably cast a spell upon the modern Christian; because only the modern Christian has known a God who appears only as mysterium tremendum, the awesome Lord whose sovereign power annuls the energy and movement of humanity.
Let us return to those prophetic words of Nietzsche unveiling Christianity as the absolute form of self-negation:
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! (The Antichrist, Section 18.)
Note that Nietzsche understands the Christian conception of God as reflecting the lowest point in a descending series of divine epiphanies. Who can doubt, particularly in view of Nietzsche's praise of the earliest Old Testament images of Yahweh as the expression of Israel's original consciousness of power and joy and hope, that here he is speaking in the context of the forward movement of Biblical prophetic revelation, a movement wherein God progressively appears as the apocalyptic God of the End, a God whose final epiphany must bring an end to the values and reality of the world? When Nietzsche speaks of the Christian God as the deification of nothingness, he is speaking of that primal Christian vision of God which apprehends an absolute polarity between God and the world. The Christian God is the contradiction of life because here God finally appears and is real in his divine form as an infinitely sovereign power that crushes the life of man. But in what sense may we say that the Christian God is the will to nothingness pronounced holy? Do we not perceive a far holier will to nothingness in the Buddhist? Yet the Buddhist is liberated from an abstract and empty nothingness, the nothingness of a fragmentary and isolated selfhood, by a realization of Nirvana or Sunyata: that all-encompassing, blissful, and total nothingness which appears precisely at the point where an empty nothingness is dissolved. Whereas, on the contrary, the Christian God may only truly be known by an absolute negation of the fullness of life and the flesh, a negation inverting the energy and joy of the body.
Accordingly, the Christian God is the deepest embodiment of Nietzsche's symbol of No-saying, that absolute life and self-negation which finally turns upon itself. Once again, however, we are being led by another route to the divine process of self-negation. If God truly negates or sacrifices himself, then his alien and empty form is an inevitable consequence of his own act of self-negation, and thence God himself can only be present or real in his divine form as the absolute antithesis of life and energy. Consequently, only the Christian can know the God who is Wholly Other, for only a life in Christ can make real the fruits of God's self-negation, and therein actualize or make historically present the now lifeless body or actual emptiness of the God who has died in Christ. From this point of view, we can see that Christendom's progressive movement away from the presence of a redemptive epiphany of God is a historical actualization of its original roots. The God who is finally manifest in Christian experience as the divine Judge and Executioner, or known as an abstract and totally lifeless Being, is the God who is the historical consequence of the divine process of kenotic metamorphosis. In one sense, the kenotic movement of the Incarnation reaches its consummation when God finally appears in human experience as the contradiction of life and the deification of nothingness. The totally alien God, a God already foreseen by Gnosticism, is simply the dead body of God, a body that only gradually decomposes in the history of Christendom, being known at first in conjunction with its preincarnate and living form, but increasingly revealing its life-negating emptiness, until with the disintegration of Christendom, it is finally actualized in history as the total embodiment of an alien and empty nothingness.
Although a terrifying experience of awe and dread in response to an epiphany of the Creator is already recorded in The Book of Job, it is not until the advent of the modern world that we may discover a pervading and comprehensive sense of dread, a dread or Angst that Kierkegaard truly named as the product of an encounter with nothingness. Pascal shuddered at the vast stretches of an infinite and empty space, but now that shudder is potentially present wherever the human heart is still capable of opening itself to what has increasingly become the brute facticity or the radical finitude of the world. The modern Christian seer, whether a Blake or a Nietzsche, has proclaimed that the chaos lying upon our horizon is a nothingness evolving from the death of God, the tomb of the dead Creator. Thus Nietzsche’s Madman, in announcing the death of God, unveils an earth that is unchained from its sun:
Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead.
Immersed as we are in the new chaos released by the death of the Creator, we have seemingly lost Adam's capacity for naming the creation, as faith becomes mute in face of a wholly alien and exterior cosmos. But it does not remain mute if it can name our chaos as the tomb of God. Neither will dread immobilize the Christian who comes to recognize our Angst as the "smell" of God's decomposition. For to know an alien and empty nothingness as the dead body of God is to be liberated from every uncanny and awesome sense of the mystery and power of chaos.
Remarkably enough, a comparable victory over chaos is present in an earlier apocalyptic faith, as the apocalyptic believer comes to know the world as an "old æon" which even now is returning to chaos, and thus coming to an end. Almost certainly it was apocalyptic religion, probably in its original Persian expression, which first evolved a belief in Satan or Antichrist, a cosmic and historical power of evil and nothingness that is the polar opposite of a beneficent Creator. Not only is Satan here known as ruling over the world throughout the downward path of history, but he is the ultimate author of evil, and in later Gnostic and Catholic theology he is conceived as the very embodiment of nothingness. Not until Satan or Antichrist has been conquered will the triumph of the "new æon" be realized, and with the defeat of Satan the "old æon" passes away or wholly relapses into nothingness. When Jesus sees Satan falling from heaven, he knows that the time is at hand for the dawning of the Kingdom of God. Just as the "new æon" arises out of the ashes of a disintegrating world of darkness, the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims reverses the values and institutions of history, bringing an end to the foundation of all tyrannical and repressive power. The reversal of that power marks the fall of Satan: for Satan is the power enclosing energy and stilling movement, the power of darkness standing over against and opposing all life and light. According to ancient apocalyptic writings, Satan or Antichrist only openly appears in history at the moment of his fall: not until the advent of the time of his dissolution is it possible to unveil or name the Antichrist. Apocalyptic seers have ever attempted the naming of Antichrist, commonly veiling their attempts in esoteric symbolisms, but throughout the history of Christendom apocalyptic visions have ever remained bound to that mystery which the "new æon" promises to bring to an end. Only with the collapse of Christendom does an apocalyptic seer appear who finally vanquishes the mystery of religion by unveiling the Christian God as Satan.
William Blake is that seer and we must fully acknowledge that Blake commits the blasphemy of blasphemies by identifying the Biblical Creator and Lord as Satan. Not only did Blake leave numerous personal statements to this effect but in his supreme pictorial creation, his illustrations to The Book of Job, he depicted God as Satan on the magnificent eleventh plate, and did so in fulfillment of his vision in this work that redemption can only fully be actualized after the transcendent and numinous God has undergone a cosmic and historical epiphany as Satan. This identification of God and Satan is a consistent motif throughout Blake's later work and it serves as the foundation of the apocalyptic vision of Milton and Jerusalem. In Milton, Satan has taken on all of the former functions of Urizen, only here Satan does not declare, "I am God alone" until he establishes the "Law" of repression (9:25). Remembering that Milton is Blake's vision of the apocalyptic regeneration of Christianity, we cannot fail to observe that here Satan is revealed as the "Shadow" or "Spectre" of a fallen humanity, an empty chaos confining the energy of life, and constricting the movement of every human hand and face.
And the Mills of Satan were separated into a
Among the rocks of Albion's Temples, and Satan's
Offer the Human Victims throughout all the
Dread Tomb, immortal on his Rock, over-
Where Satan, making to Himself Laws from his
Compell'd others to serve him in moral gratitude
Being call'd God, setting himself above all that is
And all the Spectres of the Dead, calling them-
In his Synagogues worship Satan under the Un-
The synagogues to which Blake refers are the Christian churches, and the "Unutterable Name" is the name of the Christian God, whom Blake dares to name as the ultimate author of all sacrifice and the tyrannical ruler of a repressed and enslaved humanity.
"I am not a God afar off," declares the Savior in Jerusalem (4:18), but the Jesus who is present in the midst of life is the Word made flesh, the Word which has finally and totally descended from the transcendent realm of Spirit. Once this descent has taken place, the life and movement of the Word are no longer present in a transcendent beyond, and thereby all preincarnate epiphanies of the Word are emptied of their redemptive potency, and become reduced to alien and repressive powers. As Blake declares:
Seek not thy heavenly father then beyond the
There Chaos dwells & ancient Night & Og & Anak
For every human heart has gates of brass & bars
Which few dare unbar, because dread Og & Anak
Terrific: and each mortal brain is wall'd and
Within, and Og & Anak watch here: here is the
Of Satan in its Webs.
Og was a powerful Canaanite king who was defeated by the early Israelites, and the Anak were a gigantic people who were exterminated by Joshua; but Blake employs their names symbolically to speak of a resurrected chaos which returns with Satan's fall from heaven, and is present wherever Satan's "Web of Religion" binds life and energy to the laws of his own identity. Thus, too, religion only becomes repressive when it arises in response to the kenotic movement of the Incarnation, regressing to a now empty and alien form of Spirit by binding itself to that dead body of God which Blake names as Satan.
Karl Barth was the first theologian to maintain that the "secret" of the creation can only truly be known by faith in Christ. This all too modern motif is one of the most powerful themes of the Church Dogmatics, and it beautifully illustrates the quandary of the modern theologian who is forced to speak about God in a world in which God is dead. Thus, we need not doubt that even a priestly theology can speak the words of the gospel, particularly when these are interpreted from the point of view of the radical prophetic vision. One of Blake's more elusive visions apprehends Satan in the form of the Creator; but his epiphany as the Creator occurs precisely to the extent that his beholder becomes enslaved to his divine if empty center:
So spoke the Spectre to Albion: he is the Great
Satan, Worshipp'd as God by the Mighty Ones of
Having a white Dot call'd a Center, from which
Circle in continual gyrations: this became a
From which sprang numerous branches varying
Producing many Heads, three or seven or ten, &
Innumerable at will of the unfortunate contemplator
Notice the traditional images of the center and the circle, commonly employed to envision the all-encompassing power of God, but here the circle progressively moves out from the center in such a manner as to consume or annihilate all that space which it encompasses. One is reminded of Blake's early vision of Urizen as the Creator, who, unseen and unknown, divides and measures space by forming it in the image of his "ninefold darkness" (the first chapter of The Book of Urizen). We must not, however, imagine that such images simply testify to a Gnostic hatred of the world. They are, rather, violent reactions against a human world of alienation and repression, and they attempt to reveal the ultimate ground of the bondage of humanity, by seeking that ground in the walls or boundaries surrounding the arena of human existence.
"They became what they beheld," is a frequent refrain in Jerusalem, which is implicitly present in the text just cited: for to know the distant and almighty Creator is to submit to a creaturely status, a mode of existence wherein the creature is totally subordinate to the Creator, and therein enclosed within a microcosmic center. We truly recognize that alien Creator by faith in Christ because the God who has become Christ has liberated humanity from a distant heaven by annihilating the power and the movement of transcendent Spirit. When the Word becomes flesh, it ceases to be active and real in its original epiphany, and its preincarnate form thereby becomes lifeless and immobile, gradually regressing to a formless state of an abstract and empty nothingness. Yet a fallen humanity must inevitably know this nothingness as an all-encompassing and "Devouring Power," if only because a broken and shrunken humanity can only submit to its own microcosmic alienation and isolation from life and energy by imagining its macrocosmic boundaries as that infinite distance separating the creature and the Creator. Hence, as Nietzsche says, man projects all his denials of self and nature out of himself as God. The Christian God is the embodiment of an absolute No-saying because it is the only epiphany of the sacred which is a total reversal of a forward-moving divine process. Thus the Christian God can be manifest and real only by means of a faith engaging in an absolute world and life-negation, a negation that must occur wherever there is energy and life. When the radical Christian confronts us with the liberating message that God is Satan, he is stilling the power of that negation, breaking all those webs of religion with which a regressive Christianity has ensnared the Christian, and unveiling the God who had died in Christ.
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