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 4: The Self-Annihilation of God
I. The Death of God
What can it mean to speak of the death of God? Indeed, how is it even possible to speak of the death of God, particularly at a time when the name of God would seem to be unsayable? First, we must recognize that the proclamation of the death of God is a Christian confession of faith. For to know that God is dead is to know the God who died in Jesus Christ, the God who passed through what Blake symbolically named as "Self-Annihilation" or Hegel dialectically conceived as the negation of negation. Only the Christian can truly speak of the death of God, because the Christian alone knows the God who negates himself in his own revelatory and redemptive acts. Just as a purely religious apprehension of deity must know a God who is transcendent and beyond, so likewise a purely rational and nondialectical conception of deity must know a God who is impassive and unmoving, or self-enclosed in his own Being. Neither the religious believer nor the nondialectical thinker can grasp the God whose actuality and movement derives from his own acts of self-negation. Thus it is only the radical, or the profane, or the nonreligious Christian who knows that God has ceased to be active and real in his preincarnate or primordial reality.
Nevertheless, it is essential that the radical Christian make clear what he means by his confession, eliminating so far as possible all that confusion and ambiguity arising from the language of the death of God, and clearly establishing both his Christian claim and his repudiation of all forms of religious Christianity. To confess the death of God is to speak of an actual and real event, not perhaps an event occurring in a single moment of time or history, but notwithstanding this reservation an event that has actually happened both in a cosmic and in a historical sense. There should be no confusion deriving from the mistaken assumption that such a confession refers to an eclipse of God or a withdrawal of God from either history or the creation. Rather, an authentic language speaking about the death of God must inevitably be speaking about the death of God himself. The radical Christian proclaims that God has actually died in Christ, that this death is both a historical and a cosmic event, and, as such, it is a final and irrevocable event, which cannot be reversed by a subsequent religious or cosmic movement. True, a religious reversal of the death of God has indeed occurred in history, is present in the religious expressions of Christianity, and is now receding into the mist of an archaic, if not soon to be forgotten, past. But such a religious reversal cannot annul the event of the death of God; it cannot recover the living God of the old covenant, nor can it reverse or bring to an end the progressive descent of Spirit into flesh. Religious Christians may know a resurrected Lord of the Ascension, just as they may be bound to an almighty and distant Creator and Judge. Yet such a flight from the finality of the Incarnation cannot dissolve the event of the Incarnation itself even if it must finally impel the Christian to seek the presence and the reality of Christ in a world that is totally estranged from Christianity’s established vision of the sacred.
Once again we must attempt to draw a distinction between the original or primal death of God in Christ and the actualization or historical realization of his death throughout the whole gamut of human experience. Remembering the radical Christian affirmation that God has fully and totally become incarnate in Christ, we must note that neither the Incarnation nor the Crucifixion can here be understood as isolated and once-and-for-all events; rather, they must be conceived as primary expressions of a forward-moving and eschatological process of redemption, a process embodying a progressive movement of Spirit into flesh. At no point in this process does the incarnate Word or Spirit assume a final and definitive form, just as God himself can never be wholly or simply identified with any given revelatory event or epiphany, if only because the divine process undergoes a continual metamorphosis, ever moving more deeply and more fully toward an eschatological consummation. While the Oriental mystic knows an incarnational process whereby the sacred totally annihilates or transfigures the profane, a process providing us with our clearest image of the primordial reality of the sacred, it is Christianity alone which witnesses to a concrete and actual descent of the sacred into the profane, a movement wherein the sacred progressively abandons or negates its particular and given expressions, thereby emptying them of their original power and actuality. Radical Christianity knows this divine or incarnational process as a forward-moving Totality. Neither a primordial God nor an original garden of innocence remains immune to this process of descent: here all things whatsoever are drawn into and transfigured by this cosmic or total process of metamorphosis. This movement from "Innocence" to "Experience" is potentially or partially present at every point of time and space, and in every epiphany of the divine process: thus we could even say that God dies in some sense wherever he is present or actual in the world, for God actualizes himself by negating his original or given expressions. Yet we truly know this divine process of negativity only by knowing God’s death in Christ.
Estranged as we are from our Christian heritage, and distant as we most certainly are from the actual faith of the earliest disciples, what can the contemporary Christian know of the original epiphany of God in Christ? Initiated as we are, moreover, into a historical consciousness that has unveiled a whole new world of New Testament thought and imagery, a world that is subject neither to theological systemization nor to translation into modern thought and experience, how can we hope to ascertain the fundamental meaning for us of the original Christian faith? Let us openly confess that there is no possibility of our returning to a primitive Christian faith, and that the Christ who can become contemporary to us is neither the original historical Jesus nor the Lord of the Church’s earliest proclamation. Given our historical situation in the twilight of Christendom, we have long since died to the possibility of a classical or orthodox Christian belief, and must look upon both the New Testament and early Christianity as exotic and alien forms of religion. Nevertheless, and here we continue to have much to learn from the radical Christian, we cannot neglect the possibility that it is precisely our alienation from the religious world of primitive Christianity which can make possible our realization of the fundamental if underlying meaning of the earliest expressions of the Christian faith. For if a religious movement necessarily embodies a backward movement of involution and return, then the very fact that we have died to the religious form of early Christianity can make possible our passage through a reversal of religious Christianity, a reversal that can open to us a new and fuller participation in the forward movement of the Incarnation.
We know that the proclamation of both Jesus and the earliest Palestinian churches revolved about the announcement of the glad tidings or the gospel of the dawning of the Kingdom of God. But thus far neither the theologian nor the Biblical scholar has been able to appropriate the eschatological symbol of the Kingdom of God in such a manner as to make it meaningful to the modern consciousness without thereby sacrificing its original historical meaning. It is scarcely questionable, however, that this symbol originally pointed to the final consummation of a dynamic process of the transcendent’s becoming immanent: of a distant, a majestic, and a sovereign Lord breaking into time and space in such a way as to transfigure and renew all things whatsoever, thereby abolishing the old cosmos of the original creation, and likewise bringing to an end all that law and religion which had thus far been established in history. The very form of Christianity’s original apocalyptic proclamation rests upon an expectation that the actualization of the Kingdom of God will make present not the almighty Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge, but rather a wholly new epiphany of the deity, an epiphany annihilating all that distance separating the creature from the Creator. Despite Paul’s conviction that the victory which Christ won over the powers of sin and darkness had annulled the old Israel and initiated the annihilation of the old creation, to say nothing of his assurance that God will be all in all, both Paul and the early Church were unable fully or decisively to negate the religious forms of the old history, or to surmount their bondage to the transcendent and primordial epiphany of God. Consequently, early Christianity was unable either to negate religion or to absorb and fully assimilate an apocalyptic faith, with the result that it progressively became estranged from its own initial proclamation.
Already we have seen that the modern radical Christian has evolved an apocalyptic and dialectical mode of vision or understanding revolving about an apprehension of the death of God in Christ, and it is just this self-negation or self-annihilation of the primordial reality of God which actualizes the metamorphosis of an all-embracing Totality. Can we not make the judgment that it is precisely this vision of the death of God in Christ that can make possible for us a realization of the deeper meaning of the Christian and eschatological symbol of the dawning of the Kingdom of God? Thereby we could know that the victory of the Kingdom of God in Christ is the fruit of the final movement of God into the world, of Spirit into flesh, and that the Christian meaning of the Kingdom of God is inseparable from an abolition or reversal of all those preincarnate forms or epiphanies of Spirit. By so conceiving the underlying meaning of the original Christian proclamation, we can also see that it is the religious vision of early Christianity which reverses the Christian reality of the Kingdom of God. Inevitably, the orthodox expressions of Christianity abandoned an eschatological ground, and no doubt the radical Christian’s recovery of an apocalyptic faith and vision was in part occasioned by his own estrangement from the dominant and established forms of the Christian tradition. Such a contemporary appropriation of the symbol of the Kingdom of God can also make possible our realization of the gospel, or the "good news," of the death of God: for the death of God does not propel man into an empty darkness, it liberates him from every alien and opposing other, and makes possible his transition into what Blake hailed as "The Great Humanity Divine," or the final coming together of God and man.
Whether or not we choose to so understand the original Christian gospel of the dawning of the Kingdom of God, it is clear that the radical Christian affirms that God has died in Christ, and that the death of God is a final and irrevocable event. All too obviously, however, we cannot discover a clear and decisive witness to the meaning of this event in either the Bible or the orthodox teachings and visions of Christianity. But the radical Christian envisions a gradual and progressive metamorphosis of Spirit into flesh, a divine process continually negating or annihilating itself, as it ever moves forward to an eschatological goal. While the Christian proclaims that this process is triumphant in Christ, or that it is inaugurated in its final form by the events of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, it does not follow that the process itself ceases to move forward in all that history following the death of Christ. Simply by noting the overwhelming power and the comprehensive expression of the modern Christian experience of the death of God, we can sense the effect of the ever fuller movement of the Word or Spirit into history, a movement whose full meaning only dawns with the collapse of Christendom, and in the wake of the historical realization of the death of God. A contemporary faith that opens itself to the actuality of the death of God in our history as the historical realization of the dawning of the Kingdom of God can know the spiritual emptiness of our time as the consequence in human experience of God’s self-annihilation in Christ, even while recovering in a new and universal form the apocalyptic faith of the primitive Christian. Insofar as the kenotic or negative movement of the divine process is a movement into the actuality of human experience, it can neither be isolated in a given time and place nor be understood as wholly occurring within a given moment. On the contrary, the actualization of the metamorphosis of the Word into flesh is a continual and forward-moving process, a process initially occurring in God’s death in Christ, yes, but a process that is only gradually and progressively realized in history, as God’s original self-negation eventually becomes actualized throughout the total range of human experience.
Once again we have detected a Christian religious reversal of God’s act in Christ: for a faith that isolates the sacred events of Christ’s passion from the profane actuality of human experience must inevitably enclose Christ within a distant and alien form and refuse his presence in the immediacy of our existence. Every Christian attempt to create an unbridgeable chasm between sacred history and human history gives witness to a refusal of the Incarnation and a betrayal of the forward-moving process of salvation. We can discover a reversal of the kenotic movement of the Word in the very insistence of the religious Christian that faith has for once and for all been given, that it is fully and finally present in the Scriptures, the liturgies, the creeds, and the dogmas of the past, and can in no sense undergo a development or transformation that moves beyond its original expression to new and more universal forms. All such religious claims not only attempt to solidify and freeze the life and movement of the divine process, but they foreclose the possibility of the enlargement and evolution of faith, and ruthlessly set the believer against the presence of Christ in an increasingly profane history, thereby alienating the Christian from the actuality of his own time. The radical Christian calls upon his hearer to open himself to the fullness of our history, not with the illusory belief that our history is identical with the history that Jesus lived, but rather with the conviction that the death of God which has dawned so fully in our history is a movement into the total body of humanity of God’s original death in Christ. Once we grasp the radical Christian truth that a radically profane history is the inevitable consummation of an actual movement of the sacred into the profane, then we can be liberated from every preincarnate form of Spirit, and accept our destiny as an occasion for the realization in the immediacy of experience of the self-emptying or self-annihilation of the transcendent and primordial God in the passion and death of Christ.
From this perspective it would even be possible to understand Christendom’s religious reversal of the movement of Spirit into flesh as a necessary consequence of the Incarnation, preparing the way for a more comprehensive historical realization of the death of God by its progressive banishment of the dead body of God to an ever more transcendent and inaccessible realm. If we conceive of the Word or Spirit as moving more and more fully into the body of the profane in response to the self-negation of God in Christ, then we can understand how the Christian God gradually becomes more alien and beyond, receding into a lifeless and oppressive form, until it finally appears as an empty and vacuous nothingness. The God who is progressively manifest in human experience as an empty and alien other is the inevitable consequence of the Spirit who descends ever more deeply into flesh. Not only does the distant and alien God witness to the historical actualization of the Word in the flesh, but his epiphany as a vacuous and empty formlessness dissolves the possibility of a living and actual faith in God, thus impelling the Christian to seek a new epiphany of Christ in the world. Let the contemporary Christian rejoice that Christianity has evolved the most alien, the most distant, and the most oppressive deity in history: it is precisely the self-alienation of God from his original redemptive form that has liberated humanity from the transcendent realm, and made possible the total descent of the Word into the fullness of human experience. The God who died in Christ is the God who thereby gradually ceases to be present in a living form, emptying himself of his original life and power, and thereafter receding into an alien and lifeless nothingness.
The death of God in Christ is an inevitable consequence of the movement of God into the world, of Spirit into flesh, and the actualization of the death of God in the totality of experience is a decisive sign of the continuing and forward movement of the divine process, as it continues to negate its particular and given expressions, by moving ever more fully into the depths of the profane. A faith that knows this process as a self-negating and kenotic movement, as both embodied and symbolically enacted in the passion of Christ, knows that it becomes manifest in the suffering and the darkness of a naked human experience, an experience banished from the garden of innocence, and emptied of the sustaining power of a transcendent ground or source. So far from regarding the vacuous and rootless existence of modern man as the product of an abandonment of faith, the radical Christian recognizes the spiritual emptiness of our time as the historical actualization of the self-annihilation of God, and despite the horror and anguish embedded in such a condition of humanity, the radical Christian can greet even this darkness as a yet more comprehensive embodiment and fulfillment of the original passion of Christ. Hence a radical faith claims our contemporary condition as an unfolding of the body of Christ, an extension into the fullness of history of the self-emptying of God. No evasion of an autonomous human condition is possible for the Christian who confesses his participation in a Word that has negated its primordial and transcendent ground: the Christian who lives in a fully incarnate Christ is forbidden either to cling to an original innocence or to yearn nostalgically for a preincarnate Spirit. Indeed, it is precisely the Christian’s life in the kenotic Word which impels him to accept and affirm a world in which God is dead as the realization in history of God’s self-annihilation in Christ.
Once the Christian has been liberated from all attachment to a celestial and transcendent Lord, and has died in Christ to the primordial reality of God, then he can say triumphantly: God is dead! Only the Christian can speak the liberating word of the death of God because only the Christian has died in Christ to the transcendent realm of the sacred and can realize in his own participation in the forward-moving body of Christ the victory of the self-negation of Spirit. Just as the primitive Christian could call upon his hearer to rejoice in the Crucifixion because it effected the advent of the Kingdom of God, the contemporary Christian can announce the glad tidings of the death of God, and speak with joy of the final consummation of the self-annihilation of God. True, every man today who is open to experience knows that God is absent, but only the Christian knows that God is dead, that the death of God is a final and irrevocable event, and that God’s death has actualized in our history a new and liberated humanity. How does the Christian know that God is dead? because the Christian lives in the fully incarnate body of Christ, he acknowledges the totality of our experience as the consummation of the kenotic passion of the Word, and by giving himself to the Christ who is present to us he is liberated from the alien power of an emptied and darkened transcendence. Rather than being mute and numb in response to the advent of a world in which the original name of God is no longer sayable, the Christian can live and speak by pronouncing the word of God’s death, by joyously announcing the "good news" of the death of God, and by greeting the naked reality of our experience as the triumphant realization of the self-negation of God. What can the Christian fear of the power of darkness when he can name our darkness as the fulfillment of the self-emptying of God in Christ?
When the Incarnation and the Crucifixion are understood as dual expressions of a common process, a kenotic or negative process whereby God negates his primordial and transcendent epiphany thereby undergoing a metamorphosis into a new and immanent form, then the incarnate manifestation of Word or Spirit can also be understood as an eschatological consummation of the self-negation of God, an extension of the atoning process of the self-annihilation of God throughout the totality of experience. Such an apocalyptic and dialectical understanding of the atonement, however, demands a new conception of atonement or reconciliation: a conception revealing not simply that God is the author and the agent of atonement but is himself the subject of reconciliation as well. We have seen that radical faith knows the transcendent epiphany of Spirit as an alien and repressive form of God, and Hegel would teach us that it is only in the modern world or in an absolute form of faith that consciousness can know that transcendent Spirit is abstract and lifeless, for only by means of a realization of the death of God in human experience can faith be liberated from the authority and the power of the primordial God. Once God has died in Christ to his transcendent epiphany, that epiphany must inevitably recede into an abstract and alien form, eventually becoming the full embodiment of every alien other, and thence appearing to consciousness as the ultimate source of all repression. Already we have seen that faith can name this movement as the metamorphosis of God into Satan, as God empties himself of his original power and glory and progressively becomes manifest as an alien but oppressive nothingness. We must understand this whole movement as an atoning process, a forward-moving process wherein a vacuous and nameless power of evil becomes increasingly manifest as the dead body of God or Satan; but it is precisely this epiphany of God as Satan which numbs the power of evil, and unveils every alien and oppressive other as a backward-moving regression into the now lifeless and hence ultimately powerless emptiness of the primordial sacrality of God.
The negation occurring in the Crucifixion therefore is not a simple negation, not a mere annulment or annihilation of a previously existent Being, but rather the negation of a negation, the reversal and transformation of the fallen or transcendent epiphany of Spirit. Yes, God dies in the Crucifixion: therein he fulfills the movement of the Incarnation by totally emptying himself of his primordial sacrality. But his death is a self-negation or self-annihilation: consequently, by freely willing the dissolution of His transcendent "Selfhood," the Godhead reverses the life and movement of the transcendent realm, transforming transcendence into immanence, thereby abolishing the ground of every alien other. If we conceive the Crucifixion as the original enactment and embodiment of the self-reversal of all transcendent life and power, then we can understand the atonement as a universal process, a process present wherever there is life and energy, wherever alienation and repression are abolished by the self-negation of their ultimate source. However, the abolition of alienation and repression must remain illusory if it is not the expression of the self-negation or self-annihilation of God. Alienation and repression must forever rule in history if it is impossible to abolish their ground; so long as the ultimate ground of a fallen history remains wholly isolated and absolutely autonomous, there can be no hope in the resurrection of energy and life. Yet the God who died in Christ has freely annulled the final ground of repression: by annihilating his original epiphany, he has shattered all abstract and alien forms of Spirit, finally bringing an end to the life and movement of a transcendent or wholly other beyond, thereby obliterating the ground of all No-saying, and dissolving every sanction for a regressive movement to immobility and silence.
While it is true that the event of the Crucifixion, or the movement of the universal process of atonement, reveals the self-estrangement of God, a polarity manifesting itself in the yawning chasm between the Father and the Son, a consistent and radical form of faith must never fall into a nondialectical dualism by wholly isolating the alien God and the incarnate Word. Recognizing that the Crucifixion is an act of atonement, an act reversing the primordial sacrality of God, we must not imagine that it is consumed in the emptying of the transcendent sacred, but rather conceive its consummation as the final extension of an emptied and negated sacrality throughout the totality of experience. Not until a self-negated sacrality has entered into the fullness of experience will it fulfill the movement of the atonement. Just as the Crucifixion cannot truly be known as the mere negation of transcendence, it is necessary to understand the atonement as a negative process of reversing every alien other, a process of negating all negations. It, too, is a kenotic process, for it is the embodiment in history and experience of the divine process, and it effects a self-negation or self-annihilation of every power confining life and energy. Even the most awesome and oppressive manifestations of an alien otherness are finally subject to a dialectical reversal, a reversal that has already occurred in the self-annihilation of God, but only with the extension of this reversal into every alien sphere will the actualization of the atonement be consummated. Satan must become totally and comprehensively present in his apocalyptic form as the lifeless residue of the self-negation of God before the atonement will have become wholly actualized in history; and then, the radical apocalyptic seer assures us, Satan must undergo a final metamorphosis into an eschatological epiphany of Christ.
No doubt the total vision promised by an apocalyptic form of faith is not yet present upon our historical horizon; for, immersed as we are in a fully profane consciousness, we would seem to have lost the very possibility of apocalyptic vision. Not until our time did the meaning and the reality of the radical profane become embedded in human consciousness, because ours is the first form of consciousness to have evolved after the historical actualization of the death of God. Nevertheless, the modern artist, by inverting or reversing our mythical traditions, has disclosed a totally immanent mode of existence banished even from the memory of transcendence, and created a comprehensive vision of a new and total nothingness which Blake named as Ulro, or Hell. In 1822, Blake etched The Ghost of Abel, "A Revelation in the Visions of Jehovah Seen by William Blake," and the poem on this single plate was destined to be the last prophetic poetry that Blake was to give to the world. After the death of Abel, his ghost appears, demanding vengeance, then sinks into his grave, from which Satan arises, demanding of Jehovah the sacrifice of men, and foreseeing that: "Thou shalt Thyself be Sacrificed to Me, thy God, on Calvary." But Jehovah thunders and replies:
"Such is My Will that Thou Thyself go to Eternal
In Self-Annihilation, even till Satan, Self-subdu’d,
Into the Bottomless Abyss, whose torment arises
Compressed as these lines are, they contain the dual theme that God must be sacrificed to Satan on Calvary, and that Satan must be self-annihilated and forever perish as Satan. Once again Blake is envisioning a revolutionary transformation of Christianity. Believing that every repression of energy is a repetition of Calvary, Blake finally came to see that the very horror of the sacrifice which Satan demands in all his multiple forms is ultimately a redemptive horror, a darkness which must become light. This is because the movement of the energy of passion is kenotic or sacrificial, both in origin and in goal: therefore an energy becoming actualized or incarnate in the flesh must be self-subdued in self-annihilation. Can this mean that, apocalyptically and dialectically envisioned, Satan is the Christian name of the atoning power and presence of Christ?
In his commentary on Jerusalem, Joseph Wicksteed notes -- but unfortunately he fails to develop or explicate this insight -- that Blake’s Christ is the redeemer of the Creator. Christ is the redeemer because he is the full actualization of kenotic energy; but the Creator, or the wholly alien and transcendent epiphany of Spirit, is the redeemed because an absolutely transcendent and sovereign God is finally the source of all that repressed energy which is transmuted in self-sacrifice. Thus the Creator is the spectrous "Shadow" of a fallen and inverted energy, and his shadow disappears in the kenotic passion of self-sacrifice and self-annihilation. "I am not a God afar off," declares the Savior in Jerusalem, but in the Lamb’s presence the distant God is self-annihilated and forever perishes as Satan: "Thou shalt Thyself be Sacrificed to Me, thy God, on Calvary." So long as Christianity knows the Crucifixion as a vicarious sacrifice for a totally guilty humanity, as the innocent sacrifice of the eternal Son of God to a just but merciful Father, it can never celebrate the definitive victory of the Crucifixion; for such a redeemed humanity remains in bondage to the transcendent Judge, and must continue to be submissive to his distant and alien authority, ever pleading for mercy when it falls away from his absolute command. If the Crucifixion does not express and embody a decisive self-transformation of God, then at most it can only give a guilty humanity a temporary respite from the sovereign power of the transcendent Creator, while at worst it can seal a fallen humanity in its abject state of powerlessness and self-abasement, totally repressing every tendency to movement and life. The radical Christian, who is in quest of a total redemption, must repudiate every religious promise resting upon a perpetuation of man’s fallen state, and recognize in the orthodox image of the crucified Christ an image of the victory of that Satan who would bind man to a broken and shrunken condition. Not until the Christian recognizes the Crucifixion as enacting and embodying the self-negation of the sovereign and transcendent Creator can he celebrate an atonement which is the source of the abolition of all confinement and repression.
Hegel, in those difficult, often cryptic, but nevertheless profoundly rewarding pages in the final sections of The Phenomenology of Spirit, where he discusses Christianity as the "absolute religion," gives witness to the advent of an absolute form of Christianity which both negates all previous religion and promises a reconciliation of all those antinomies which have plagued human consciousness throughout its history. While Blake struggled with great difficulty to create a consistent dialectical vision of the atonement as a universal process, Hegel’s philosophical method leads to an understanding of the ground of such a vision, and for that very reason the philosopher’s ideas can illuminate the dark if deeper vision of the poet. Hegel is all too Blakean in understanding the Crucifixion as the sacrifice of the abstract and alien God. Indeed, Hegel attempts to demonstrate that the Crucifixion can only fully appear and be real in consciousness when God is known as being alienated from himself, existing in a dichotomous form as Father and Son or sovereign Creator and eternal Word. To maintain his existence as the transcendent Creator, God must continually cancel or negate the world; but to move toward his universal epiphany as the Incarnate Word, he must negate his sovereign transcendence. Consequently, God is here known as existing in opposition to himself. The dissolution of this opposition takes place only when each form of the Godhead, by virtue of its inherent independence, dissolves itself in itself: "Therefore that element which has for its essence, not independent self-existence but simple being, is what empties and abandons itself, gives itself unto death, and so reconciles Absolute Being with its own self." Spirit now becomes manifest in its ultimate form, yet it comes to its own fulfillment in the sphere of the immediate and sensuous present, as the dissolution of the alienated forms of the Godhead reconciles that Godhead with the actuality of immediate existence.
Through the events that faith knows as the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, God empties himself of his sovereignty and transcendence, and not only does this kenotic sacrifice effect the dissolution of the opposition between Father and Son in the new epiphany of God as universal Spirit, but so likewise vanishes the opposition between God and the world. As the full meaning of this sacrifice or self-negation dawns in consciousness, the factuality and historicity of Jesus’ particular "self-existence" is negated as that existence now becomes universal self-consciousness: "The death of the mediator is death not merely of his natural aspect, of his particular self-existence: what dies is not merely the outer casement, which, being stripped of essential being, is eo ipso dead, but also the abstraction of the divine Being." Therefore spiritual Christianity, as Hegel conceives it, understands the atoning death of Christ as the manifestation of the transition of Spirit from its alienated epiphany as transcendent Being to its final epiphany as incarnate Spirit, or what Hegel termed "total self-consciousness." This transition is effected by the death of the abstract and alien God in the kenotic process of Incarnation and Crucifixion; but a religious form of faith can only grasp this process as a series of events that are autonomous and external to human consciousness. Only when the death of God appears in all its bitterness in the "unhappy Consciousness," and consciousness thence comes to know the dissolution of the Wholly Other, can a spiritual form of dialectical understanding arise that will know the death of God as the triumphant epiphany of Spirit. For so long as consciousness remains bound to religion, it must exist in an alienated form, closed to the inner reality of Spirit by its very belief in an alien Other. This traditional form of faith is the product of a divided consciousness: it can only know redemption as a reconciliation with an Other lying beyond itself, and must experience the actuality of the present as a world merely awaiting its transfiguration. Yet Christianity has now at least implicitly evolved to an absolute form wherein it can realize the final epiphany of Spirit as immediately present and actualized for us.
All too obviously, however, our world is not bathed in an epiphany of light. Indeed, the contemporary Christian is confronted with a world of total darkness, a darkness dissolving or negating everything that Christianity once knew as faith. If a new and total Antichrist has appeared upon our horizon, and is destined to become yet more fully incarnate in the world, then we must learn from the apocalyptic and radical Christian to greet his epiphany not only with horror but also with the joy of faith. The fact that artists and seers have succeeded in naming our darkness, in speaking in the presence of the most awesome nothingness yet actualized in history, is a decisive sign of new life and affirmation, a life that can speak and move even in the presence of a life-negating Totality. Like the ancient apocalyptic seer, the modern artist has unveiled a world of darkness, but whereas earlier seers could know a darkness penetrated by a new æon of light, the contemporary artist has seen light itself as darkness, and embodied in his work an all-embracing vacuity dissolving every previous form of life and light. Nevertheless, the Christian can name an empty and life-negating Totality as the body of the Antichrist. The Christian, moreover, who knows the Christ who is the embodiment of the self-negation of God, can know the Satan or the Antichrist who is present to us as the actualization or the historical realization of the death of God. Insofar as an eschatological epiphany of Christ can occur only in conjunction with a realization in total experience of the kenotic process of self-negation, we should expect that epiphany to occur in the heart of darkness, for only the universal triumph of the Antichrist can provide an arena for the total manifestation of Christ. Thus the Christian must finally rejoice in the advent of a total darkness, because the Christian knows the reign of the Antichrist as the darkness before the dawn, a darkness that must ultimately pass away by being transfigured into light.
The radical Christian repudiates the Christian dogma of the resurrection of Christ and his ascension into a celestial and transcendent realm because radical faith revolves about a participation in the Christ who is fully and totally present to us. Speaking in the traditional symbolic language of Christianity, we could say that radical faith transposes the traditional vision of the resurrection into a contemporary vision of the descent into Hell: the crucified Christ does not ascend to a heavenly realm but rather descends ever more fully into darkness and flesh. By this means we can see that the continuing descent of the Word into flesh clearly parallels the historical actualization of the death of God and God’s final appearance in our history in a totally alien and lifeless form. Finally, the dead body of God cannot be dissociated from the Christ who has descended into Hell. We must not imagine that a movement of Word or Spirit into flesh is liberating and redemptive in a simple and nondialectical sense: a metamorphosis of Word into flesh must reverse the original redemptive potency of Spirit and extend that reversal throughout the whole range of experience. As the original form of Spirit progressively recedes into a faceless immobility, that blank and numbing silence becomes manifest throughout experience, abolishing every transcendent ground of hope and stilling every nostalgic aspiration for a garden of innocence. Once the transcendent realm has lost every sign of its original redemptive power, then it must become manifest as a negative or demonic transcendence, before its passage into total formlessness. It is not without significance that the modern artist has given himself so fully to envisioning evil and nothingness, or has been so deeply bound to visions of Satan, of chaos, and of emptiness; for the artist cannot escape the reality of his time by fleeing to an earlier moment of history. A new epiphany of Antichrist is drawing everything into itself, as its ever dawning totality transfigures all experience, unveiling the emptiness of Hell in every human hand and face.
Yet if the Christian can but name our Hell as Antichrist, then we shall know that its power has been broken and it can pose no ultimate threat to us. When all evil and nothingness pass into the faceless epiphany of a total Antichrist, then the ultimate ground of chaos will be dissolved, every inherent sanction for all alien and compelling demands will be removed, and every opposing other will stand revealed in a lifeless and vacuous form. The reign of the Antichrist is the consummation of all oppressive power because it embodies every alien other in its pure and intrinsic otherness, dissolving once and for all the deceptive mask of evil, and actualizing an underlying and hidden chaos in the fullness of a now naked experience. It is precisely because an epiphany of Antichrist abolishes the transcendent source of evil and nothingness by embodying a primordial chaos in the actuality of history that it is a redemptive epiphany, an epiphany unveiling the full reality of alienation and repression, thereby preparing the way for their ultimate reversal. Therefore the Christian is finally called to accept the Antichrist, or the totality of the dead body of God, as a final kenotic manifestation of Christ. Distant as we ourselves may actually be from such an apocalyptic vision, a vision that is already clearly present in Blake, we must nevertheless be prepared to open ourselves to the anguish and terror of experience as an expression of the atoning process of redemption, a process that even now is unveiling a yet fuller form of horror by dissolving the sacred and transcendent masks of experience, and actualizing experience in a totally immanent form. Perhaps we cannot yet name such an experience as the atoning body of Christ; but we can know it as the dead and alien body of God, and consequently we cannot dissociate the alien body of the Antichrist from the Christ who is the embodiment of the self-negation of God.
III. The Forgiveness of Sin
Protestant dialectical theologians from Luther to Barth have insisted that we only truly know our fallen and sinful condition as a consequence of the gift of grace, that only a realization of redemption or of the forgiveness of sin makes possible an understanding of the reality of sin. Nevertheless, Christian theology has almost entirely reached its conception of sin either from the postulation of a natural and universal moral law or from the situation of a broken and guilty humanity confronting an absolutely sovereign Creator and Judge. When theology draws its conception of sin either from a normative understanding of law or an analysis of the state of the sinner, it isolates sin from grace, and thus forecloses the possibility of understanding the forgiveness or the annulment of sin. Perhaps the Old Testament words most clearly preparing the way for the Christian proclamation of the forgiveness of sin are contained in a postexilic prophecy recorded in The Book of Jeremiah, a joyous prophecy embodying the initial promise of a new covenant:
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:31-34.)
It is the final phrase of this prophecy which supplies a crucial key to the radical Christian vision: "I will remember their sin no more." Remarkably enough, these words have no clear analogue in the New Testament, but the radical Christian joins the greatest reformers of the Christian faith in discovering that the forgiveness of sin culminates in an abolition of the memory of sin.
If we know anything at all about the ministry of Jesus, we know that no action of his ministry brought greater offense to his hearer than his forgiveness of sin; and no theme of his sayings or parables overshadows the proclamation of forgiveness, although we must recognize that originally this forgiveness was inseparable from the eschatological situation of the dawning of the Kingdom of God. We can sense something of the early Christian understanding of the eschatological meaning of the new covenant by noting the words of Paul, who, while speaking of the old covenant as a law of death and condemnation, rejoices that the glory of the new covenant so surpasses the glory of the old that the old covenant now has no glory at all:
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (II Cor. 3 :12-18.)
A radical Christian would interpret these words as meaning that the glory of the God of the old covenant is abolished, for apart from an abolition of the God of judgment, there remains no possibility of transforming humanity into the likeness or image of the glory of Christ. Accordingly, radical or spiritual Christians believe that the demands of the God of law and judgment are annulled in the grace of the God who died on Calvary. Yet this grace cannot be realized or fulfilled until it culminates in the cessation of the very memory of sin: indeed, Kierkegaard underwent his second conversion or "metamorphosis" only when he finally came to realize that God had forgotten his sin, and then wrote The Sickness Unto Death, whose dialectical thesis is that sin is the opposite not of virtue but of faith.
When faith understands itself as existing in opposition to the state of sin, it must give itself both to a negation of law and guilt and to a continual process of abolishing the consciousness of sin: "Come, O thou Lamb of God, and take away the remembrance of Sin" (Jerusalem 50:24). Seen in this perspective, guilt is the product of self-alienation: and not simply an alienation from an individual and private selfhood, but rather a cosmic state of alienation from a universal energy and life.
In Great Eternity every particular Form gives
forth or Emanates
Its own peculiar Light, & the Form is the Divine
And the Light is his Garment. This is Jerusalem
A Tent & Tabernacle of Mutual Forgiveness, Male
And Jerusalem is called Liberty among the Chil-
Although Jerusalem is present in every "Man" as a tabernacle of mutual forgiveness, that tabernacle has been shattered by the Fall, as fallen man is sealed in the isolation of his individual selfhood:
But AIbion fell down, a Rocky fragment from
By his own Spectre, who is the Reasoning Power
Into his own Chaos, which is the Memory between
(Jerusalem 54: 1-8.)
To name chaos as the memory separating man from man is to recognize that sin is a state of solitude, with the consequence that the forgiveness of sin is a cosmic process of "Self-Annihilation." Furthermore, the forgiveness of sin is a universal and apocalyptic process of redemption: all those spaces separating a fallen humanity from its isolated parts must be annulled by a forward-moving process drawing the apocalyptic futurity of Jerusalem into the present moment, thereby making possible the final triumph of "The Great Humanity Divine."
Blake’s most luminous vision of "Self-Annihilation" is contained in the second book of Milton, where Milton or a reborn Christianity undergoes regeneration by transforming Satan into "The Great Humanity Divine." This vision of the mature Blake is accompanied by a new conception of the relation between human individuals and their changing states:
Distinguish therefore States from Individuals in
States Change, but Individual Identities never
You cannot go to Eternal Death in that which can
While individual identities never die, all that which they become in history and experience must pass through an eternal death, and it is precisely this passage through death which effects a cosmic and total regeneration. Milton, the human state called "Eternal Annihilation," has, in his own state of self-negation, the power to annihilate that Satan who appears within the deadly "Selfhood." But following the "Laws of Eternity," he annihilates himself for Satan’s good: "Such are the Laws of Eternity, that each shall mutually/Annihilate himself for others’ good, as I for thee" (38:35). Repudiating the fear and dread inspired in men by Satan and his churches -- an Angst deriving from an abject and selfish terror of death (38:38) -- Milton’s purpose is to teach men to despise death and to move forward:
"In fearless majesty annihilating Self, laughing to
Thy Laws & terrors, shaking down thy Synagogues
I come to discover before Heav’n & Hell the Self
In all its Hypocritic turpitude, opening to every
These wonders of Satan’s holiness, shewing to the
The Idol Virtues of the Natural Heart, & Satan’s
Explore in all its Selfish Natural Virtue…"
We must not fail to observe, however, that here God is revealed in his satanic form only in response to a humanity that has passed through "Self-Annihilation" and abolished even the memory of sin. It is only when man has been delivered from the threat of condemnation, a threat always present wherever humanity exists in a state of isolated selfhood, that a truly forgiven humanity can be liberated from Satan’s power.
When self-righteousness and natural virtue are unveiled as Satan’s holiness, we are once again confronting a transcendence and inversion of the Western moral and theological tradition, an inversion revealing that the natural virtue and power of an individual selfhood is the inevitable expression of the self-alienation of a fallen and isolated humanity. Moreover, so long as self-righteousness is judged to be a moral state deriving from an isolated and autonomous individual, there lies no way to a comprehension of its ultimate ground and its universal consequences. The regenerate Milton moves through a self-annihilation actualizing the death of God in immediate experience. Thereby the living power of the transcendent and omnipotent Judge is transposed in human experience into the dead body of Satan, as Milton’s passage through the death of selfhood unveils the ground of an isolated selfhood as that chasm separating the creature from the Creator, thus making possible the reversal or dissolution of natural virtue and self-righteousness in the immediate and present actualization of the self-annihilation of God. Once God has ceased to exist in human experience as the omnipotent and numinous Lord, there perishes with him every moral imperative addressed to man from a beyond, and humanity ceases to be imprisoned by an obedience to an external will or authority. In The Everlasting Gospel, Blake presents a simple but powerful evocation of this antinomian theme, as can be seen in these lines recounting Jesus’ reaction to the woman taken in adultery (who is blasphemously identified with Mary, the mother of Jesus):
What was the sound of Jesus’ breath?
He laid His hand on Moses’ Law:
The Ancient Heavens, in Silent Awe
Writ with Curses from Pole to Pole,
All away began to roll:
The Earth trembling & Naked lay
In secret bed of Mortal Clay,
On Sinai felt the hand divine
Putting back the bloody shrine,
And she heard the breath of God
As she heard by Eden’s flood:
"Good & Evil are no more!
Sinai’s trumpets, cease to roar!
Cease, finger of God, to write!
The Heavens are not clean in thy Sight.
Thou art Good, & thou Alone;
Nor may the sinner cast one stone.
To be Good only, is to be
A God or else a Pharisee."
Good and evil cease to be when man is delivered from selfhood, when his solitary and autonomous ego is abolished, and he ceases to be aware of a distance separating himself from others. That very distance is solidified by the demands of a distant Lord, and apart from a fallen confinement in an isolated selfhood there could be no awareness of the God who is the Wholly Other.
If a universal and fallen condition of selfhood isolates man from man and man from God, then sin is equivalent to this cosmic state of isolation, and the forgiveness of sin must be a cosmic and historical process that negates this estrangement by annihilating the solitude that is its source. On the 96th plate of Jerusalem, there is an illustration of the Creator and Jerusalem drawing together in an ecstatic embrace. The Creator is on the left and is moving downward toward Jerusalem in his final manifestation as Satan, while Jerusalem, or the apocalyptic epiphany of Christ, appears as a naked female form moving upward toward Satan. Satan ("The Ancient of Days") looks to the right and exposes his right foot from beneath his covering veil, both of which symbolize a spiritual ascent; whereas, Jerusalem, who unlike her divine counterpart is facing us, rises on her left foot and looks to her right and our left, as she ascends by descending, by reversing the divine movement ("the way up is the way down"). We may surmise that this illustration is a vision of the universal process of atonement if only because Satan and Jerusalem are engaged in a mutual negation of all that selfhood isolating each from the other: Satan reverses his transcendent selfhood so as to become "flesh" (i.e., sarx, in the Pauline sense of existence outside of or apart from Spirit), and Jerusalem completes her reverse movement of ascent by descending into Hell. The text on this plate is saturated with apocalyptic imagery; it opens with a vision of the sun and moon leading forward the "Vision of Heaven & Earth," which is immediately followed by an apocalyptic epiphany of Jesus as the Son of Man: "And the Divine Appearance was the likeness & similitude of Los." However, the traditional apocalyptic symbol of the Son of Man is a symbol of a heavenly and divine Being; and his epiphany -- which marks the advent of the final Eschaton --occurs in the heavens, where he appears with legions of angels. Blake dialectically inverts this ancient symbol so as to transpose it into the kenotic Christ: hence Jesus appears in the likeness of Los or the temporal form of the "Human Imagination."
We must not dissociate the lines of the text from their accompanying illustration, for the apocalyptic epiphany of Jesus occurs when Satan and Jerusalem engage in a mutual embrace. This ecstatic union of Satan and Jerusalem is in process of fulfillment even as Albion (Blake’s symbolic figure representing a universal but fallen humanity) experiences the final epiphany of Jesus. The Satan of the illustration has his back turned toward us, and in the lines directly facing his awesome buttocks, Albion laments his cruel and deceitful "Selfhood," recognizing that the God of Sinai has ensnared him in a deadly sleep of six thousand years: "I know it is my Self, O my Divine Creator & Redeemer." These words are addressed to Jesus, and we must not fail to notice that the transcendent Creator and Judge can be identified as the ultimate ground of selfhood only at the moment when an immanent and totally human Jesus can be named as the divine Creator and Redeemer! Nothing less is occurring here than an apocalyptic coincidentia oppositorum, and while such a radical dialectical inversion has never previously occurred in the apocalyptic tradition, when it occurs in this initial form it is accompanied by a vision of a total process of redemption that is effected by a divine passage through death. Thus Jesus responds to Albion’s terror of his own selfhood with these words: "Fear not Albion: unless I die thou canst not live;/But if I die I shall arise again & thou with me...."
So Jesus spoke: the Covering Cherub coming on
Overshadow’d them, & Jesus said: "Thus do Men
One for another to put off, by forgiveness, every
The Satan whose darkness engulfs both Jerusalem and Jesus and Albion is the Satan who finally undergoes a total reversal by dying in Jesus’ death:
For thee, or ever die for one who had not died for
And if God dieth not for Man & giveth not him-
Eternally for Man, Man could not exist; for Man
As God is Love: every kindness to another is a
In the Divine Image, nor can Man exist but by
While Satan’s embrace of Jerusalem can only be consummated in death, that death is a final realization in experience of the self-annihilation of God, thereby effecting the forgiveness of sin by the reversal of all solitary selfhood. The "Divine Image" dies in Jesus and Jerusalem so as to abolish the transcendent source of guilt and judgment and bring about an apocalyptic and total union of God and man, a union abolishing both transcendence and selfhood, and actualizing a new "Totality of` Love." Consequently, the forgiveness of sin is an atoning process embodying the progressive realization in experience of the self-annihilation of God, and it must culminate in an apocalyptic epiphany of "The Great Humanity Divine."
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