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 5: A Wager
I. The Living Christ
From the point of view of radical Christianity, the original heresy was the identification of the Church as the body of Christ. When the Church is known as the body of Christ, and the Church is further conceived as a distinct and particular institution or organism existing within but nevertheless apart from the world, then the body of Christ must inevitably be distinguished from and even opposed to the body of humanity. Only a religious form of Christianity could establish such a chasm between Christ and the world: for it is the backward movement of religious Christianity which retreats from the world, regressing to a primordial deity which it dares to name as the cosmic Logos and the monarchic Christ. We must not be misled by the emergence of Catholic Christianity into thinking that an increasingly universal form of the Church gives witness to a genuinely forward movement of the Church. A forward movement evolving by means of an extension and enlargement of its given or original form cannot evolve to a truly new and comprehensive universality, nor can it embody the kenotic process of the Incarnation. Thus a forward movement in this sense is finally the expression of the will to power, an all too human regression to an inhuman or prehuman state, which necessarily entails a reversal of the true humanity of Jesus. Once the Church had claimed to be the body of Christ, it had already set upon the imperialistic path of conquering the world, of bringing the life and movement of the world into submission to the inhuman authority and power of an infinitely distant Creator and Judge.
But by identifying the Church’s Christ as a reversal of the incarnate Christ, a reversal effected by a backward movement to the now emptied preincarnate epiphanies of God, the radical Christian points the way to the presence of the living Christ in the actuality and fullness of history. It is precisely because the orthodox image of Christ is an image of lordship and power that it is a reversal of a kenotic Christ. The mere fact that the Christ of Christian orthodoxy is an exalted and transcendent Lord is a sufficient sign to the radical Christian that Christianity has reversed the movement of the Incarnation. Simply by clinging to the religious image of transcendent power, the Church has resisted the self-negating movement of Christ and foreclosed the possibility of its own witness to the forward movement of the divine process. Consequently, the radical Christian maintains that it is the Church’s regressive religious belief in God which impels it to betray the present and the kenotic reality of Christ. So long as the Church is grounded in the worship of a sovereign and transcendent Lord, and submits in its life and witness to that infinite distance separating the creature and the Creator, it must continue to reverse the movement of the Spirit who progressively becomes actualized as flesh, thereby silencing the life and speech of the Incarnate Word.
Only by recognizing the antithetical relationship that radical faith posits between the primordial and transcendent reality of God and the kenotic and immediate reality of Christ, can we understand the violent attack which the radical Christian launches upon the Christian God. Even the remembrance of the original glory and majesty of God roots the Christian in the past, inducing him to evade the self-emptying negativity of a fully incarnate divine process, and to flee from the Christ who is actual and real in our present. A faith that names Jesus either as the Son of God or as the prophet of God must be a backward movement to a disincarnate and primordial form of Spirit, a movement annulling the events of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion by resurrecting Jesus either in the form of the exalted Lord or as the proclaimer of an already distant and alien majesty of God: hence an orthodox and priestly Christianity is inevitably grounded in the sacred authority and power of the past. How can the Christian know the living Christ who is immediately present to us, a Christ who is the consequence of the continual forward movement and self-negation of the divine process, if he is bound to a long-distant epiphany of Christ which has been emptied and left behind by the progressive movement of the Word’s becoming flesh? A Christ appearing to our consciousness in his ancient and traditional form cannot be the true and the living Christ, unless we are to deny the real and forward movement of the Incarnation. Above all, a Christ who even now is manifest in the preincarnate form and epiphany of God, and who can be reached only by a total reversal of our history and experience, must be named as the Antichrist, as the dead and alien body of the God who originally died in Christ. Thus it is the radical Christian proclamation of the death of God which liberates the Christian from every alien and lifeless image of Christ.
Radical Christianity poses the real question which must now be addressed to the Christian: is faith speakable or livable in the actuality of our present? Already we have seen that Christianity is the only form of faith which is not grounded in a backward movement of involution and return. Accordingly, authentic Christianity must move forward through history and experience to an eschatological goal. If Christianity refuses the destiny before it, renouncing the actuality of the time and space which it confronts, then inevitably it must regress to a pre-Christian or nonChristian form. Now we must not confuse a Christian and eschatological passage through the actuality of history and experience with a mere submission to the brute reality of the world; such a submission does not affect the world, nor does it embody a self-negation or self-annihilation of the Incarnate Word. We must, rather, understand the forward movement of Christianity to be a truly negative or self-emptying process, a process simultaneously negating both the Word and world which it embodies, and therefore a process transcending and moving beyond the initial expressions of its own movement. Such a process can be actual and real only by occurring in the actuality of experience, it must move through diverse and ever fuller forms of experience to new and progressively more universal goals. A faith reflecting and witnessing to this process obviously cannot retain a static and unchanging form; instead, it must undergo a continual metamorphosis, a progressive metamorphosis embodying the gradual but continual descent of the Word into flesh. Faith must always be able to speak of the Word which is actually present, and to speak to the actuality of the world and experience which it confronts; otherwise, it will relapse into immobility and silence, thereby betraying the very vocation of faith. Perhaps the religious Christian can believe that Christianity need not know the Christ who is immediately present; but a Christianity divorced from the living presence and action of Christ is a Christianity that has abandoned the specifically Christian movement of faith.
Can we truly speak of the Christ who is present to us, of the living Christ who is actually manifest in our world, and who even now is making all things new? We are forewarned that a contemporary Christ will by no means be identical with the Christ of our Christian past, except insofar as he too is a kenotic Christ who is moving ever more comprehensively into the depths of life and experience. By following the way of the radical Christian, we can rejoice in the death of God, and be assured that the historical realization of the death of God is a full unfolding of the forward movement of the Incarnation. Just as the Crucifixion embodies and makes finally real a divine movement from transcendence to immanence, a movement of an originally transcendent God into the actuality of life and experience, so too the dawning of the death of God throughout the totality of experience progressively annuls every human or actual possibility of returning to transcendence. It is precisely because the movement of the Incarnation has now become manifest in every human hand and face, dissolving even the memory of God’s original transcendent life and redemptive power, that there can no longer be either a truly contemporary movement to transcendence or an active and living faith in the transcendent God.
Only by accepting and even willing the death of God in our experience can we be liberated from a transcendent beyond, an alien beyond which has been emptied and darkened by God’s self-annihilation in Christ. To the extent that we attempt to cling to a transcendent realm, a realm that has become ever darker and emptier in the actuality of our experience, we must be closed to the actual presence of the living Christ, and alienated from the contemporary movement of the divine process. Every death of a divine image is a realization of the kenotic movement, an actualization in consciousness and experience of God’s death in Christ; thus a fully incarnate Christ will have dissolved or reversed all sacred images by the very finality of his movement into flesh. We know the finality of the Incarnation by knowing that God is dead; and once we fully live the death of God, we will be liberated from the temptation to return to an epiphany of deity which is present only in the past. Yet to recognize the Christ who has become manifest and real as the result of a total movement from transcendence to immanence, we must be freed from every attachment to transcendence, and detached from all yearning for a primordial innocence. A truly contemporary Christ cannot become present to us until we ourselves have died to every shadow and fragment of his transcendent image.
We must not deceive ourselves by thinking that the faith and worship of the Church must inevitably give witness to a contemporary epiphany of Christ. No doubt, the Incarnate Word is never without witness, but we have little reason to believe that a Christ who has fully and totally entered the world could be known by a Church that refuses either to abandon its transcendent image of Christ or to negate its religious movement of involution and return. If Christ is truly present and real to us in a wholly incarnate epiphany, then the one principle that can direct our search for his presence is the negative principle that he can no longer be clearly or decisively manifest in any of his previous forms or images. All established Christian authority has now been shattered and broken: the Bible may well embody a revelation of the Word but we have long since lost any certain or even clear means of interpreting its meaning as revelation; the Church in its liturgies, creeds, and confessions may well embody an epiphany of Christ, but that epiphany is distant from us, and it cannot speak to our contemporary experience. Even the language that the Christian once employed in speaking of Christ has become archaic and empty, and we could search in vain for a traditional Christian language and symbolism in contemporary art and thinking.
If we are honestly to embark upon a quest for a truly contemporary epiphany of Christ, we must be prepared to accept an ultimate risk, a genuine risk dissolving all certainty and security whatsoever. Let us note, however, that authentic faith always entails a risk of a high order, and this risk must vary in accordance with the time and situation in which it occurs. Already the modern traditional or orthodox Christian has made a wager incorporating such a risk: he has bet that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and thus he has bet that finally there is only a single image or epiphany of Jesus, regardless of the time or history in which it appears. The modern dimension of this wager is that our time is so obviously divorced from the time of Jesus, or, at least, our world and history is clearly estranged from the classical world of Christendom, with the consequence that to choose the traditional form of Christ is either to set oneself against the contemporary world or to decide that the actuality of one’s time and situation can have no bearing upon one’s faith in Christ. Never before has this consequence become so clearly manifest, because, as we previously observed, ours is the first form of consciousness and experience that has evolved after the full historical realization of the death of God. This means that any contemporary wager upon the Christ of Christian orthodoxy must be willing to forfeit all the life and movement of a world and actuality that has negated or dissolved the Christian God. We cannot pretend that an ultimate faith in the transcendent Christ of the Church can have no effect upon the actuality of the believer’s life in the world, nor can we imagine that the Church can change its language about Christ in accordance with the actual world which it confronts without in any way decisively effecting its faith in Christ. No, the fact remains that the Christian today who chooses the orthodox image of Christ is making a wager in which he stands to forfeit all the life and energy of a world that is totally alien to the Church’s
Of course, few Christians are consciously or fully aware that they must make such a choice. But true faith is impossible apart from a risk, and the Christian who now chooses the traditional form of Christ is risking not only the loss of the actuality of the present but also the loss of the Christ who may be fully incarnate in that present. Now we must pose a contrary wager. Dare we bet upon a totally incarnate Christ, whose contemporary presence negates his previous epiphanies, with the full realization that we are therein risking both the total loss of Christ as well as the loss of all that life and energy deriving from the presence of a transcendent and eternally given Christ? We must be fully aware that a wager upon a totally incarnate Christ is every bit as much a wager as a wager upon the orthodox image of Christ. Either risks losing both the true reality of Christ and all that life evolving from the presence of Christ. Both are genuine expressions of faith because each enacts a genuine wager, and they are united in repudiating any form of faith that does not demand an ultimate wager. The radical Christian who chooses a fully contemporary Christ not only must be willing to abandon the Christ of our Christian past but he must accept the fact that no clear path lies present to the Christ whom he has chosen, and no final authority exists to direct him upon his quest. Moreover, the Christian who wagers upon a totally incarnate Christ must negate every form and image of transcendence, regardless of what area of consciousness or experience in which it may appear. Thus he must forswear every transcendent ground of judgment, and be banished from every hope in a transcendent life or power. He has chosen a darkness issuing from the death of every image and symbol of transcendence, and he must bet that the darkness of his destiny is the present form and actuality of a totally incarnate body of Christ.
II. Guilt and Resentment
Nietzsche, the greatest modern master of understanding man, has taught us an ironical and intimately human mode of listening, and this listening is often most effective when it listens to what is not said. The modern Christian, at least to judge by the theological spokesmen of the churches, has very nearly ceased speaking about damnation and Hell, and seemingly is no longer capable of even speaking about an ultimate and final form of guilt. Irony besets every action of that strange creature man, and we can only wonder that the ecclesiastical Christian should have ceased to speak about damnation in a century in which guilt and damnation have become an overwhelming motif in so many of the most creative expressions of consciousness and experience. Is ours not a time in which Hell appears to be the arena of human existence? Yet our theologians no longer speak of Hell, and great masses of Christians seem to have lost all fear of damnation. While we need not doubt that most ecclesiastical Christians practice Christianity as a heaven-sent way of returning to innocence, why is it that even the wisest and most worldly of our theologians are mute on the subject of damnation? Why can the theologian not speak of Hell, whereas the artist and the thinker often seem to speak of nothing else? Is it the modern religious Christian’s inability to speak about a God who is actually present in the world which is the ground of his refusal to share a uniquely modern sense of guilt?
Naïve Christians frequently say that damnation and Hell are Old Testament themes which find no place in the "good news" of the New Testament. But the simple truth is that Hell, Satan, and final damnation are almost uniquely New Testament motifs, and these motifs of ultimate terror play a far greater role in the doctrines and liturgies of Christianity than they do in any other religion. Who else but the Christian fears a final and total damnation? Where else but in Christendom do we find records of an experience of total terror? However, in the modern world we find the strange phenomenon of the Christian who is liberated from the fear of damnation, a Christian who apparently is incapable of experiencing terror. Is this the sign of a mature faith which has finally come of age? Or is it but another sign of the truth of Kierkegaard’s judgment that the Christianity of the New Testament no longer exists? Why should the contemporary Christian be innocent of the knowledge of Hell unless the Church has succeeded in establishing itself as a haven from the horror of the modern world? Or is the modern religious Christian so numb with guilt that he can no longer name his condition, and must relapse into a state of immobility and silence about guilt if only as a means of existing in its presence? Is it because the Church can no longer speak about Hell and damnation that we hear so much foolish ecclesiastical chatter about forgiveness? What can an ultimate forgiveness mean if it is impossible to speak about an ultimate guilt? When the Church speaks about guilt, can it be no more than the custodian of the law, ever sanctioning the common fears of society and incorporating in its body whatever is left of the restraints and inhibitions of the society of the past? Is the real function of an all too modern ecclesiastical Christianity to actualize whatever faith and hope is possible for all those masses of men who refuse the darkness and terror of our time?
Nietzsche teaches us that we cannot dissociate the phenomenon of guilt from the phenomenon of pain: it is those who suffer most deeply who are most conscious of guilt, and those who suffer the least who are free of a bad conscience. Of course, suffering in this sense is not to be identified with mere physical pain, but instead is the creation of a full and active consciousness. Nevertheless, a guilty conscience cannot naïvely be judged to be a product of illusion, or of an overly active consciousness, or of simple fear. Guilt is always the consequence of a retreat from life, of a reversal of the life and energy of the body, a reversal having its origin in that repression which is Nietzsche’s name for the real ruler of a fallen history. Nietzsche joins Kierkegaard in identifying existence as guilt. For everything that we know as consciousness and experience is grounded in repression, and to broaden or deepen our consciousness is to recognize the power of repression, a power creating all those dualistic oppositions or antinomies which split human existence asunder, dividing and isolating the shrunken energy of life. Accordingly, guilt is a conscious realization of the broken or fallen condition of humanity, and it is actualized in the individual insofar as he becomes consciously aware of his own bondage to repression. But humanity, as the poets tell us, cannot bear much reality; and we escape the pain of our condition by resentment, a resentment attempting to reverse or even to leap out of the actuality of existence. Resentment arises from an inability or refusal to accept the brute reality of the world; it is a rebellion against life itself, a hatred of the pain, the joy, the fullness of existence. Thus, resentment shrinks existence into the narrowest possible bounds, negating every outlet for the release of energy, and condemning every source of movement and life. The great No-sayers are those who have suffered most profoundly, and they have succeeded in creating patterns of resentment which a weak and broken humanity can accept as the way to the dissolution of consciousness and pain.
Yes, we are guilty; or, our given or actual condition is a condition of guilt; but we harden and freeze our guilty condition by a resentment which forecloses the possibility of the abolition of repression. Resentment is a withdrawal from the possibility of life and movement, a negative reaction to the painfulness of the human condition whereby we submit to guilt and alienation by condemning every possibility of accepting and affirming life. Such a submission to guilt is at bottom a submission to pain, or, rather, an attempt to lower the consciousness of pain by shrinking and confining the energy of life. Ultimately, resentment is directed against the cause of pain; and it arises when we become conscious of our painful condition, and attempt to numb our suffering by negating or evading all occasions for pain. Nietzsche commonly associated resentment with the weak, with those who have been defeated and broken by life, and who then negate every challenge to their own submission and withdrawal. Of course, he also teaches us that resentment can express itself in envy, which is itself the expression of an inability to accept the actuality of a given and particular situation. Always, however, resentment is a flight from life, an evasion of the human condition, an assault upon all life and movement as the way to the dissolution of pain. Resentment progressively lowers the threshold of consciousness, reducing experience to ever narrower spheres, or freezing a given state of consciousness by binding it to a hatred of its immediate ground. Thus, resentment must finally sanction the reality of guilt, passively submitting to the brokenness of the human condition, and ruthlessly refusing every promise of forgiveness and life.
A guilty humanity is inevitably conscious of an opposing other, an imperative appearing whenever we become aware of our confinement by recognizing the repressed state of our own energy. The law, Paul teaches, makes us conscious of sin; but we might reverse Paul’s dictum and also say that sin and guilt make us conscious of the law. As Augustine so wisely teaches, the deepest attraction of sin is the attraction of the forbidden. The temptation to do the forbidden becomes present only when we become conscious of our own state of repression, and then our attraction to the forbidden deepens our bondage to the law, submitting us ever more fully to its distant and inhuman power. Consequently, repression and guilt are inseparable, or, at least, we become conscious of our guilt only to the extent that we become aware of the power of repression within us. Thence our guilt demands that we be punished, and we indulge in orgies of self-hatred if only as a means of appeasing our bad conscience, a bad conscience which is itself the product of a consciousness of repression. A repressed humanity is a guilty humanity, whether it is conscious of its guilt or not, and to the extent that it becomes conscious of its guilt it must submit to the alien authority of the imperative, an authority sealing the finality of guilt, and binding humanity to perpetual repression. Already in the proclamation of Jesus, however, and in the New Testament messages of Paul and John, we discover the Christian promise of the forgiveness of sin, or the release of the sinner from his bondage to law and judgment, a liberation effected by his participation in the body of Christ or the dawning Kingdom of God. Paul insists that the reign of the law extends throughout the body of a fallen humanity, but it is confined to all that human sphere which does not yet exist in faith, for insofar as we exist in faith we are delivered from the bondage of the law. Indeed, it is only by the gift of freedom in Christ that we become aware of the terrible burden of the law, and only by faith in Christ do we receive the power to name the darkness of sin and guilt. It is by faith alone that we become aware of the true meaning and the overwhelming power of guilt and repression: thus we need have little hesitation in assigning Nietzsche to a tradition of a radical Christian understanding of sin, a tradition going back to Paul by way of Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Pascal, Luther, and Augustine.
Moreover, it is of vital importance to realize that while existing in a state of alienation and guilt we ourselves must oppose the other, imposing upon all others the obligation under which we live. When Jesus said, "Judge not," he was calling for an end of all moral judgment, a judgment that must inevitably arise from a condition of guilt. Judgment and forgiveness are poles of an opposing continuum, we judge to the extent that we exist in sin, and we become incapable of judgment to the extent that we are forgiven. The Christian is liberated from the alien power of the moral imperative by virtue of his life in Christ, and faith itself calls upon us to acknowledge that we can be aware of a moral demand only insofar as we are estranged from Christ, and thereby closed to the reality of forgiveness. A guilty humanity can exist only by way of judgment and resentment, a judgment sanctioning its own state of alienation, and a resentment opposing every call to forgiveness. In this perspective we can see that resentment is a flight from the presence of Christ, an opposition to his promise of forgiveness. All too naturally a religious Christianity has known the most awesome and terrifying form of the divine Creator and Judge, for a religious reversal of the Incarnation must resurrect the deity in the form of an absolutely majestic and sovereign power, a power that has now lost its ground in the kenotic movement of the divine process. Thus, too, Christendom has known the most terrible guilt in history, and as a religious Christianity has progressively and ever more fully reversed the movement of the Incarnation, the Christian God has increasingly become alien and abstract, until in our own time he has only been present and real in actual experience in a totally alien form, and the whole body of Western humanity has been initiated into a radical and total state of guilt.
Once again we are called upon to make a wager. Dare we bet that the Christian God is dead, that the ultimate ground of guilt and resentment is broken, and that our guilty condition is created by our clinging to the wholly alien power of a now emptied transcendent realm? If we can truly know that God is dead, and can fully actualize the death of God in our own experience, then we can be liberated from the threat of condemnation, and freed from every terror of a transcendent beyond. Even though we may be mute and speechless in confronting the terror of our time, we cannot evade its pervasive presence, and to relapse into immobility and silence is to foreclose the possibility of being freed from its life-negating power.
Yet the "good news" of the death of God can liberate us from our dread of an alien beyond, releasing us from all attachment to an opposing other, and freeing us for a total participation in the actuality of the immediate moment. By wagering that God is dead, we bet that the awesome and alien power of an infinitely distant and wholly other is finally created by our own guilt and resentment, by our refusal of the life and energy about and within us. Of course, every man who negates and opposes life becomes bound to an alien power. But the Christian knows that Christ is the source of energy and life: hence the Christian must identify all No-saying as a refusal and resistance of Christ. When the Christian bets that God is dead, he is betting upon the real and actual presence of the fully incarnate Christ. Thus a Christian wager upon the death of God is a wager upon the presence of the living Christ, a bet that Christ is now at least potentially present in a new and total form. No, we are not guilty, says the Christian who bets that God is dead. His very bet denies the alien authority of the imperative, and refuses all that guilt arising from a submission to repression. He bets that he is even now forgiven, that he has been delivered from all bondage to the law, and that guilt is finally a refusal of the gift of life and freedom in Christ.
Needless to say, such a wager entails a risk, and an ultimate risk at that. For the Christian who bets that God is dead risks both moral chaos and his own damnation. While the religious or the ecclesiastical Christian has increasingly become incapable of speaking about damnation, the radical Christian, who has been willing to confront the totally alien form of God which has been manifest in our time, has known the horror of Satan and Hell, and can all too readily speak the language of guilt and damnation. He knows that either God is dead or that humanity is now enslaved to an infinitely distant, absolutely alien, and wholly other epiphany of God. To refuse a deity who is a sovereign and alien other, or to will the death of the transcendent Lord, is certainly to risk an ultimate wrath and judgment, a judgment which Christianity has long proclaimed to be damnation. Nor can we pretend that it is no longer possible to envision damnation; the modern artist has surpassed even Dante in envisioning the tortures of the damned. So likewise modern man has known a moral chaos, a vacuous nihilism dissolving every ground of moral judgment, which is unequaled in history. The contemporary Christian who bets that God is dead must do so with a full realization that he may very well be embracing a life-destroying nihilism; or, worse yet, he may simply be submitting to the darker currents of our history, passively allowing himself to be the victim of an all too human horror. No honest contemporary seeker can ever lose sight of the very real possibility that the willing of the death of God is the way to madness, dehumanization, and even to the most totalitarian form of society yet realized in history. Who can doubt that a real passage through the death of God must issue in either an abolition of man or in the birth of a new and transfigured humanity?
The Christian, however, cannot escape the fact that he must make a choice. He must either choose the God who is actually manifest and real in the established form of faith, or he must confess the death of God and give himself to a quest for a whole new form of faith. If he follows the latter course, he will sacrifice an established Christian meaning and morality, abandoning all those moral laws which the Christian Church has sanctioned, and perhaps even negating the possibility of an explicitly Christian moral judgment. Certainly he will be forced to renounce every moral imperative with a transcendent ground, and this means that he must forswear the possibility of an absolute moral law, and at best look upon all forms of moral judgment as penultimate ways which must inevitably act as barriers to the full realization of energy and life. Indeed, the Christian who bets that God is dead must recognize that he himself has not yet passed through the death of God at whatever point he clings to moral law and judgment. True, he can look forward to the promise of total forgiveness, but the forgiveness which he chooses can only be realized here and now; it must evaporate and lose all meaning to the extent that it is sought in a distant future or a transcendent beyond. Yet the Christian who wagers upon the death of God can be freed from the alien power of all moral law, just as he can be liberated from the threat of an external moral judgment, and released from the burden of a transcendent source of guilt. Knowing that his sin is forgiven, such a Christian can cast aside the crutches of guilt and resentment. Only then can he rise and walk.
Not only has the modern Christian apparently been forced to retreat ever more distantly from the fullness of consciousness and experience, but he has been forced to bear the humiliation of discovering in Oriental mysticism a totality of bliss which is not even partially echoed in the shrinking boundaries of an ecclesiastical form of faith. At the very moment when Christian mysticism is either collapsing or receding behind the walls of the monastic cloister, an originally alien form of mysticism is increasingly becoming real to the Western mind, and is casting its spell upon a contemporary and seemingly post-Christian sensibility. We must note, however, that it has been Western scholarship which has unraveled the depths and subtleties of the Oriental mystical vision; or, at least, it has been Western thinkers who have succeeded in translating the exotic language of Eastern mysticism into the contemporary language of Western experience. When we think of such masters of Oriental mysticism as Mircea Eliade, René Guénon, and Hubert Benoit, we are thinking of uniquely contemporary visionaries, masters who have discovered a new way to the sacred through the labyrinth of our profane darkness. But have we not long since learned that the great poetic visionaries of the modern West have employed a non-Christian mystical language and symbolism as a way to the center of a uniquely modern immanence? One has only to think of the names of Blake, Goethe, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Yeats, Rilke, Proust, and Joyce, to realize that non-Christian and even anti-Christian mystical symbols and motifs can supply a primary source of a symbolic language which is here directed to a total vision of the radical profane. Yet it is Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence, a vision also employing but inverting the sacred language of the mystics, which most clearly illuminates the thinking and experience of a history which is becoming totally profane.
Few, if any, thinkers have known the sheer horror of existence which Nietzsche unveiled. Casting aside every fixed source of meaning and value, Nietzsche passed through an interior dissolution of an established form of consciousness and selfhood, and resurrected a chaos of meaninglessness lying deeply buried within the psyche of Western man. His quest was not simply a movement toward madness, for he prophetically foresaw the darkness of the contemporary world, a darkness arising in response to the collapse of the foundations of our history. Once the ground of an inherited form of experience has been uprooted, that experience wilt increasingly become formless, and consciousness with those both the center and the direction which previously made possible its activity and its self-identity. Nietzsche symbolically employed the name of Zarathustra to distinguish two world epochs of history: believing that the Persian Zarathustra created a moral and religious vision which later became the foundation of Western history, Nietzsche created a new Zarathustra whose prophetic proclamation embodies the end of Western history, an end which that history has reached through its own momentum, and an end which will be followed by the advent of a wholly new historical era. All things whatsoever pass into meaninglessness and chaos when they no longer can be known and experienced from the vantage point of a fixed historical or human ground. But it is only by passing through such a chaos that we can reach the new world lying upon our horizon, a world reversing the forms and structures of our inherited consciousness and experience, and a world promising a new life and freedom to that broken and guilty creature, man.
In its initial form, Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence records the chaos of a world that has fallen away from its original center. It reflects a totality of perpetual and meaningless flux; no longer is there a beginning or an end, or, for that matter, a purpose or goal of any kind. For to affirm that all things eternally recur, and recur eternally the same, is to grasp an absolutely chaotic movement or flow, a movement in which identity and difference flow into one another, and nothing at all either preserves its own identity or remains different from anything else. Then the world appears as sheer chaos, and existence itself becomes an unimaginable horror. This vision, however, allows us to peer into the abyss, and thus to perceive the ultimate ground of all No-saying: for guilt and resentment are rooted in the interior reality of chaos and emptiness. Yet the new Zarathustra comes to teach a way to the fullness of life in the midst of chaos, to proclaim a Yes-saying which is the antithetical opposite of No-saying, a Yes-saying embodying a total affirmation of meaninglessness and horror. Yes-saying is, of course, a primary symbol of the higher ways of mysticism, always reflecting a final coincidentia oppositorum, a total union of transiency and eternity, of suffering and joy. But the classical mystical forms of Yes-saying are interior expressions of the metamorphosis of a profane emptiness and nothingness into a sacred totality, a totality of bliss drawing all things into itself, and thereby negating their original and given form. Zarathustra’s Yes-saying dialectically inverts its mystical counterpart, for it embraces and affirms a radically profane nothingness, and does so only by negating the religious quest for a sacred totality.
We shall not understand the Yes-saying of a New Zarathustra unless we realize that it is a total negation of the human and historical world of Christendom, and a negation following from the modern prophet’s proclamation of the death of God. With the death of the Christian God, every transcendent ground is removed from all consciousness and experience, and humanity is hurled into a new and absolute immanence. Our chaos becomes manifest as a uniquely modern chaos when it is ever more comprehensively present in response to the emptying of the transcendent realm, as its darkness fills every pocket of light, and night falls throughout the whole gamut of experience. Now an ultimate choice is thrust upon every man, as he can either turn back in horror at our chaos by engaging in a final No-saying, or he can turn forward and meet our darkness by means of an ultimate Yes-saying, a total affirmation of our actual and immediate existence. Such an acceptance and affirmation is possible only if man will give all of the energy which he once directed to a transcendent beyond to the immediate moment, thus releasing every source of energy so as to effect a total engagement with the actual present before him. Zarathustra, and every authentic modern visionary, points the way to a total affirmation of the world, an affirmation which becomes possible only when the world appears as chaos, and man is liberated from every transcendent root and ground. Here, the disappearance of transcendence actualizes a new immanence, as a total Yes-saying to an immediate and actual present transforms transcendence into immanence, and absolute immanence dawns as the final kenotic metamorphosis of Spirit into flesh.
On every side, scholarly critics and theologians point to Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence as the antithetical opposite of the Christian gospel. Without doubt, this radically profane vision is absolutely opposed to the established dogmas and religious practices of Christianity, so much so that it only becomes manifest and real with the collapse of Christendom. Nevertheless, must the contemporary Christian be forced to confess that a totally immanent existence is wholly other than the life of faith? Will he not then also be bound to concede that the Christian can never fully exist in the world and the flesh? The consequence would follow, of course, that the modern Christian must repudiate that total immanence which has so fully dawned in our world, and stand aside from every contemporary negation of transcendence. Let there be no question about this: to judge Zarathustra as the Antichrist, and Eternal Recurrence as a demonic inversion of the Kingdom of God, is to set oneself against the radical secularity of the modern world, and finally to react with No-saying to the uniquely contemporary history of our time. This is precisely the path of the religious or ecclesiastical Christian today, and we might add that this is also the price which now must be paid for choosing the Christian God. On the other hand, if we can find a way to understand and affirm absolute immanence as a contemporary and kenotic realization of the Kingdom of God, an expression in our experience of an original movement of Christ from transcendence to immanence, then we can give ourselves to the darkest and most chaotic moments of our world as contemporary ways to the Christ who even now is becoming all in all. Nothing less is demanded of the Christian who would truly and fully live in our world, and nothing less is promised by the radically kenotic way of Christ.
The religious seer and prophet, whether in East or West, initially appears as one who can name the darkness about him, discovering in its dark emptiness a reversal of the sacred, a reversal banishing the sacred far beyond a present or given state of consciousness. Obviously Nietzsche was such a prophet and seer, and like his ancient compeers, his vision is an expression of a prophetic community, beginning from at least the time of Blake and extended into our own day. The modern prophet, however, names our darkness as a darkness issuing from the death of God. Only the seer or prophet who knows the original and all-encompassing power of God can realize the catastrophic consequences of the death of God. Like the reform prophets of the Old Testament or the Taoist prophets of ancient China, the modern prophet can name even our light as darkness because he has been given a vision which abolishes all that humanity has thus far known as light. Both the ancient and the modern prophet must speak against every previous epiphany of light, calling for an absolute reversal of a fallen history as the way to life, with the hope that the destruction or dissolution of an inherited and given history will bring about the victory of a total epiphany of light. Thus we discover in Second Isaiah, the fullest Old Testament prophetic vision of redemption, a call to look forward to the coming transformation of all things:
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
and they who dwell in it will die like gnats;
and my deliverance will never be ended.
The triumphant message of Second Isaiah is inseparable from a vision of the coming dissolution of all of reality as man has known it, and it calls for a faith that is wholly directed to this coming event. A disciple of Second Isaiah recorded an oracle of the Lord’s which most clearly witnesses to this radical prophetic call:
For behold, I create new heavens
and the former things shall not be remembered
May we take these ancient prophetic words as marking the very essence of radical faith? If so, when we greet our chaos with a total Yes-saying, a total engagement with its dark emptiness, then we too can become open to a new and total epiphany of light. It is precisely by a radical movement of turning away from all previous forms of light that we can participate in a new totality of bliss, an absolutely immanent totality embodying in its immediacy all which once appeared and was real in the form of transcendence, and a totality which the Christian must name as the present and living body of Christ. Indeed, can the Christian accept those triumphant words in the third part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Zarathustra’s animals speak ecstatically of the redemptive meaning of the symbol of Eternal Recurrence, as a portrait of such a new totality of bliss?
"O Zarathustra," the animals said, "to those who think as we do, all things themselves are dancing: they come and offer their hands and laugh and flee -- and come back. Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again; eternally runs the year of being. Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; eternally the same house of being is built. Everything parts, everything greets every other thing again; eternally the ring of being remains faithful to itself. In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere There. The center is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity."
All things will dance when we greet them with affirmation, and then we will be released from the No-saying of guilt and resentment by being freed from all attachment to a distant and transcendent ground. When the path of eternity is bent or curved, then the way down is the way up, and the final or eschatological epiphany of Christ will occur kenotically in the immediate moment: "Being begins in every Now."
The highest expressions of mysticism also envision a center which is everywhere. But the sacred "center" is an interior depth or a transcendent beyond which reveals itself to be all in all as a consequence of an absolute negation or reversal of the profane, whereas Zarathustra’s "center" lies at the very heart of a profane or immanent existence, and it becomes manifest as being everywhere only as the consequence of an absolute negation or reversal of the sacred. The death of God abolishes transcendence, thereby making possible a new and absolute immanence, an immanence freed of every sign of transcendence. Once a new humanity is fully liberated from even the memory of transcendence, it will lose all sense of bondage to the past, and with the loss of that bondage it will be freed from all that No-saying which turns us away from the immediacy of an actual and present "Now." Before singing his drunken midnight song in the fourth part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra announces that now his world has become perfect; and he asks:
Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, "You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!" then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored --oh, then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants -- eternity.
Such a love of the world is a total affirmation of an actual and immediate present: but in totally affirming the present, we must will that it recur, and that it recur eternally the same. A refusal to will the eternity of the present, the eternity of this actual present before us, can only proceed out of an attachment to transcendence, a bondage to a power lying outside the present, a power withholding us from a total affirmation of the world. Thus Zarathustra concludes his drunken song of joy with a repudiation of every backward movement to eternity, and an affirmation of the new eternity which is here and now:
"Woe implores: Go!
But all joy wants eternity --
Wants deep, wants deep eternity."
Can we join Zarathustra in his hymn of praise to joy? Can we, too, repudiate every reversal of the present, every flight from pain, every backward movement to eternity? But this is to ask the Christian if he dares to open himself to the Christ who is fully present, the Christ who has completed a movement from transcendence to immanence, and who is kenotically present in the fullness and the immediacy of the actual moment before us. If a contemporary epiphany of Christ has abolished all images of transcendence, and emptied the transcendent realm, then we can meet that epiphany only by totally embracing the world. Dare we bet that Christ is fully present in the actuality of the present moment? Then we must bet that God is dead, that a backward movement to eternity is a betrayal of Christ, and that a flight from the pain of existence is a refusal of the passion of Christ. The radical Christian calls us into the center of the world, into the heart of the profane, with the announcement that Christ is present here and he is present nowhere else. Once we confess that Christ is fully present in the moment before us, then we can truly love the world, and can embrace even its pain and darkness as an epiphany of the body of Christ. It is precisely by truly loving the world, by fully existing in the immediacy of the present moment, that we will know that Christ is love, and then we shall know that love is a Yes-saying to the totality of existence.
Christian love is an incarnate love, a self-giving to the fullness of the world, an immersion in the actuality of time and the flesh. Therefore our Yes-saying must give us totally to the moment before us, and if we accept its actuality as the "center" which is everywhere, then we can be delivered from every temptation of regressing to a backward movement which is a reversal and diminution of an actual and immediate present. By turning away from the totality of the present, we engage in a regressive movement dissolving the actuality of the immediate moment, thereby disengaging ourselves from the fullness and the finality of existence. In naming Christ as the full embodiment of love, the Christian confesses that Christ is the fullness of time and the world. Christ is the pure actuality of the total moment, a present and immediate moment drawing all energy forward into itself, and negating every backward movement to eternity. Every nostalgic yearning for innocence, all dependence upon a sovereign other, and every attachment to a transcendent beyond, stand here revealed as flights from the world, as assaults upon life and energy, and as reversals of the full embodiment of love. The Christian who chooses the ancient image of Christ as the Son of God, or who is bound to an epiphany of Christ in a long-distant past, must refuse the Christ who is actually present in our flesh. He wagers upon a purely religious image of Christ even at the price of forfeiting the actuality of our time and history. But the radical Christian wagers upon the Christ who is totally profane. He bets upon the Christ who is the totality of the moment before us, the Christ who draws us into the fullness of life and the world. Finally, radical faith calls us to give ourselves totally to the world, to affirm the fullness and the immediacy of the present moment as the life and the energy of Christ. Thus, ultimately the wager of the radical Christian is simply a wager upon the full and actual presence of the Christ who is a totally incarnate love.
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