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Radical Theology and the Death of God by Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton

Thomas J.J. Altizer is a native of Charleston, West Virginia. He attended St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, and received his degrees of A.B., A.M., and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He was Associate Professor of Bible and Religion at Emory University, Atlanta Georgia. William Hamilton is a graduate of Oberlin and Union Theological School. He received his Ph.D. degree from St. Andrews in Scotland in 1953. He is Professor and Dean at the College of Arts and Sciences, Oregon State University, in Portland. Published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. A Subsidiary of Howard W. Sams & Co. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

America and the Future of Theology by Thomas J.J. Altizer

Observing that the waters of European theology are at present somewhat stagnant, Karl Barth recently said that what we need in Europe and America is not a renewal of an older form of theology but a "theology of freedom" that looks ahead and strives forward. If this indeed is the true task of theology today, then perhaps, at long last, the time has come for America to assume a theological vocation, a vocation previously denied her because America lacks those deep roots in the past which have thus far been an essential presupposition for theological creativity. America is truly a semi-barbarous nation if only because it has no history. Every American can in some sense join James Baldwin in saying that the Chartres cathedral is not part of his past. As Americans, our past is simply an extension of a horizontal present, and apart from a few rapidly vanishing insular regions of the nation, the contemporary American cannot associate a living moment with a moment of the past. Thus the American who is in quest of a deeper form of existence must look forward to the future, not a future which is simply an extension of the present, but a future that will shatter all that we know as present. Hence an anarchistic utopianism has always been a deeply ingrained component of the American character. And it is precisely such a detachment from the past that may now make possible a new form of theology.

On all sides theologians are agreed that we are now in some sense living in a post-Christian age. Catholic theologians can speak of the new challenge posed by the necessity of a post-Constantinian form of the church, while Protestant theologians can vie with one another in detaching faith from all forms of existence in an admittedly secular historical present. Yet few if any theologians confess that our time demands a radical transformation of faith. Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing stops short of demythologizing the Kerygma, and Paul Tillich’s method of correlation demands a preservation of the form of the traditional Christian symbols. By preserving faith inviolate from the brute realities of a post-Christian history, theology has isolated faith from history, whether in the orthodox manner of Barth, or via the liberal and semi-existential methods of the dialectical theologians. These methods are semi-existential because no dialectical theologian has been open to a contemporary form of Existenz, for dialectical theology has retained the Kierkegaardian thesis that authentic human existence culminates in faith. Kierkegaard conceived of faith as the product of a dialectical negation of time and history, of the "universal," and of "objectivity"; however, his twentieth-century successors have imagined that faith is isolated from history, that faith is independent of an historical ground, and thus is totally autonomous. In the final phase of his work, Kierkegaard pronounced the death knell upon Christendom. While Kierkegaard’s attack upon Christendom was the consistent development of his life and thought, he nevertheless knew a moment of inwardness, reached by the negation of objectivity, which was indubitably Christian. Yet Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God gave witness to the advent of a new historical moment. This moment transformed transcendence into immanence, thereby dissolving the religious ground of subjectivity and inwardness. Authentic contemporary Existenz is alienated from faith, or alienated from all historic forms of faith, thus necessitating a non-dialectical retreat of theology from both the inner and the outer realms, from subjectivity and objectivity, from the "inner now" of Geschichte and the "outer now" of Historie.

While Martin Buber has courageously called for a transformation of faith in response to the "eclipse" of God, Christian theology has chosen to remain silent about the theological import of the death of God. We must not accept the contemporaneity of a form of theology which maintains that the death of God does not affect the inner man, for here lies the Gnostic temptation of a retreat from history. It is precisely the acceptance of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God that is the real test of a contemporary form of faith. Tillich, in his early writing, formulated the theological criterion of contemporaneity with his thesis that a Christ who is not contemporary is not the true Christ; that a revelation which demands a leap out of history is not true revelation. But the theological method of the mature Tillich, particularly as contained in the second volume of his Systematic Theology, is grounded in the traditional Christian principle that Christ is the "answer" to the Angst of the human condition. Once granted that Existenz in our time is swallowed up in a radically immanent mode of being, then the Christ who is an "answer" to our condition must be a wholly immanent Word that is fully detached from the Jesus of history. At this point, the positions of both Tillich and Bultmann become ambivalent. Christ is both immanent and transcendent, the Word is simultaneously an immanent Word which is the ground of our Existenz and a transcendent Word in full continuity with the historic forms of the Christian faith. From one point of view, we might say that dialectical theology culminates in a simple contradiction. From another, we might rather say that dialectical theology refuses to be truly dialectical, it refuses both radical transcendence (biblical or eschatological faith) and radical immanence (contemporary Existenz), and thus is forced to reach a non-dialectical synthesis between a partial transcendence (Tillich’s Unconditioned and Bultmann’s Word of faith) and a partial immanence (an Existenz whose Angst can only be answered by "faith").

A theology that chooses to meet our time, a theology that accepts the destiny of history, must first assess the theological significance of the death of God. We must realize that the death of God is an historical event, that God has died in, our cosmos, in our history, in our Existenz. While there is no immediate necessity in assuming that the God who has died is the God of "faith," there is also no escaping the inevitable consequence that the dead God is not the God of idolatry, or false piety, or "religion," but rather the God of the historic Christian Church, and beyond the Church, of Christendom at large. Why, it may be asked, is it necessary to link in this manner the Church with Christendom? Because when the Church entered the Hellenistic world, and later helped create the world of the modern West, it became indissolubly linked with a particular historical tradition. Again and again modern theologians have found to their great embarrassment that logically and linguistically it is not possible to dissociate the rites, creeds and dogmas of the Church from their Western form. For example, the Christian idea of God is obviously a product of the fusion of the Bible with Greek ontology, and in large measure the distinctiveness of the "Christian God" derives from its Greek roots. The God or Logos who exists in an integral and essential relationship with the world is a nonbiblical God, as Barth so forcefully insists, yet this is the God who is most distant from the non-Christian religions, with the exception of those religions, such as Judaism and Islam, which have themselves come under the influence of Greek philosophy. When biblical faith is apprehended in its original form, it loses its radical uniqueness, and no longer exists at such a distance from the higher forms of Oriental religion. Furthermore, modern biblical scholarship has fully demonstrated the chasm which exists between the faith of the historic Church and its biblical ground, a chasm created by the entrance of the Church into history. What we know as the Christian Church is the product of the Bible and history. A fully biblical form of the Church, as the sects have demonstrated, would lose all genuine continuity with the Church of history.

Once again theology must return to Kierkegaard, the real creator of modern theology. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is, of course, a leap out of history; and the necessity of the leap derives from the very existence of Christendom. When Kierkegaard defines faith as "contemporaneity with Christ," he assumes the necessity of this leap, a "leap" which, dialectically, requires a negation of Christendom. But we must not make the non-dialectical assumption that Christendom is simply secularized Christianity. Dialectically, Christendom is everything that Christianity has become in history. Wherever the Christian faith has entered history, there lies Christendom. Thus the Christian God belongs to Christendom. One of the greatest problems in theology lies in the definition of Christendom, that is to say in the realization of the full meaning of the transformation effected in faith by its entrance into history. Shall we come to understand that everything we "know" as Christian is finally Christendom? Or, negatively stated, what can be the residuum of a faith which accepts the death of God? Will faith contain any definable or cognitive meanings? Indeed, will it contain any symbolic meaning? When no "up" or "down" is left, when "beginning" and "end" and all historic symbols have disappeared, what will be the meaning of such primary dogmas as the Incarnation and the Creation? In the Orient, a fully dialectical form of faith, such as Madhyamika Buddhism, has inevitably dissolved all positive meaning, with the result that it has left behind the world of symbols, myths and dogmas. Is this the destiny that awaits the Christian faith? Yet, dialectically, a faith that accepts the death of God must go beyond all previous dialectical forms of faith. Never before has faith been called upon to negate all religious meaning, but it is the very radical nature of this negative movement which can prepare the way for the deepest epiphany of faith.

At first glance America would seem to provide little hope that it can meet the awesome challenge now confronting theology. America has no tradition of a rich humanistic scholarship; it has not been an arena of purely theoretical thinking in any field. Most damning of all, America has become the very embodiment of that alienation, anomie, and dehumanization which is the curse of existence in a highly technological and urban society (Heidegger has remarked that, metaphysically speaking, America and Russia are the same, for here "time as history" has vanished from human life). Nevertheless, America has provided a haven for innumerable European artists and thinkers. One only has to remember that it was here that Alfred North Whitehead evolved his metaphysical system, and Paul Tillich wrote his Systematic Theology. Or that scholars as diverse as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Mircea Eliade, and Herbert Marcuse here found a new soil for their work. The one quality which these expatriate Europeans have in common is the radical thrust of their thought. One might imagine that existence in a vacuous society effects a liberation from the past, a liberation that is potentially demonic to be sure, but a liberation that likewise provides the occasion for the deepest kind of creativity. Need we wonder that it was America which was the first country to respond to psychoanalysis, that it was the American poets Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot who helped initiate a decisive revolution in European poetry, or that it has been America which has been most open to modern scientific thinking? Granted that a mass culture has never reached so low a point as in America, that a vulgar positivism pervades American thought, and that here solitude has become such a luxury that it is to be purchased only with the most arduous resolution. But the American, too, can join the Marxist in speaking of the birth-pangs of revolution. Only here there is little hope of a revolution in society: the one revolution that can justify America is a revolution in thought.

The alienation of the thinker from society is an ancient and a universal theme; perhaps its modern variant is the alienation of thought from society. Ours is a time when the individual person has disappeared, or, at least that form of the person has passed away which was the peculiar creation of Western culture and society. If thought is truly alienated from society then the initial movement of thought must be a negation of society, a negation which establishes thought’s right to existence. Today the task of thought is the negation of history, and most particularly the negation of the history created by Western man. But this negation must be dialectical, which means that finally it must be affirmation. A negation that arises out of ressentiment is forbidden, forbidden because it is merely destructive. Dialectical negation must never lose a positive ground. Nor can true negation seek a partial or non-dialectical synthesis; it must spurn a twilight which is merely ideological (ideology, as Marx taught us, is thought which is the reflection of society). In our time, thought must hold its goal in abeyance; otherwise it can scarcely establish itself, and is thereby doomed to be a mere appendix to society. If we accept these strictures for theology, then it follows that contemporary theology must be alienated from the Church, that it can be neither kerygmatic, dogmatic nor apologetic, and thus its deepest immediate task is the discovery of its own ground. Like all thought, theology, too, must find its ground in that terrible "night" unveiled by the death of God. It must return to that mystical "dark night" in which the very presence of God has been removed, but now that "night" is all, no longer can theology find a haven in prayer or meditation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said that we must not reach the New Testament too quickly, but the time has now come to say that theology can know neither grace nor salvation; for a time it must dwell in darkness, existing on this side of the resurrection. Consequently the theologian must exist outside of the Church: he can neither proclaim the Word, celebrate the sacraments, nor rejoice in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Before contemporary theology can become itself, it must first exist in silence.

In the presence of a vocation of silence, theology must cultivate the silence of death. To be sure, the death to which theology is called is the death of God. Nor will it suffice for theology to merely accept the death of God. If theology is truly to die, it must will the death of God, must will the death of Christendom, must freely choose the destiny before it, and therefore must cease to be itself. Everything that theology has thus far become must now be negated; and negated not simply because it is dead, but rather because theology cannot be reborn unless it passes through, and freely wills, its own death and dissolution.

Paradoxically, theology is now impelled to employ the very language that proclaims the death of God. At this point, a great step forward has been taken by biblical scholarship, for the historical consciousness is not simply a sign of Western decadence as Nietzsche believed; it has been a primary means of willing the death of God, of collapsing transcendence into immanence, of realizing a new and awesome human autonomy. When the biblical scholar arrived at an historical understanding of the eschatological foundation of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, he brought to an end the contemporary relevance of the biblical form of Jesus’ message. No longer could the original form of the Gospel be consigned to the province of "faith," therefore it must be reduced to the level of "myth." Fundamentally, true biblical scholarship is demythologizing. The time has passed when we could live in the illusion that biblical scholarship is scientific and hence non-theological. In a theological sense, the very fact that it is "scientific" means that historical scholarship is Faustian, for to "know" scientifically means to dissolve the ground of faith, and thus to will the death of God. A true instinct led Barth to stand aside from an historical understanding of the Bible, but a deeper instinct will lead theology to say no to Barth. Even at the terrible price of the dissolution of all which theology once knew as faith, it cannot reject the destiny which awaits it.

A theology that is open to the future must first exist in the present, not a present which is an extension of the past, but a present which is a culmination of the past, and hence for us a present which is a moment of vacuity and meaninglessness. Dialectically, the very emptiness of the American present stands witness to its integral relation to a vanished past; just as the almost inevitable tendency of the European thinker to exist in the past demonstrates all too convincingly his refusal of an uprooted present. Nietzsche, who is a true prophet insofar as he speaks out of the depths of our destiny, teaches that authentic human existence is existence in the "here" and "now," in the present moment. "In jedem Nu beginnt das Sein" (Zarathustra III) is at once a portrait of our Sein and a call to true :Existenz. Yes, we know that our existence (Heidegger’s Dasein and Sartre’s pour soi) is chaos, nothingness and despair; but we must not flee it either by clinging to a lost moment of the past or by leaping to a hopelessly transcendent eternity. We are called to accept our actual moment of existence, and to accept it by willing it. To refuse to will our destiny is finally to refuse both our identity and our existence. Lament as we may both the shallowness and the barbarism of life in America, we must confess that America exists in the present. Depth is absent here, and so likewise is real power, but the present is at hand, and with its advent has disappeared every form of depth and power that is rooted in the past. To the sophisticated European, America must appear as a desert, a desert shorn of the vegetation of history. But a desert can also be a gateway to the future. Ascetic virtues can arise from the nausea and the ennui of life in the desert; a new ascetic may arise whose very weakness will give him the strength to say no to history. If our destiny is truly one of chaos, or if we must pass through chaos to reach our destiny, then we must abandon completely the cosmos of the past.

There is some evidence to suggest the possibility that American theology is now living in the present. First of all, there is very little theology in America today: dogmatic theology has virtually disappeared, biblical scholarship is largely archeological and philological, church history barely maintains its existence as a discipline; and, in terms of German influences, Bultmann has replaced Barth as the guiding light of the younger theologians. By extending and deepening a heritage from liberal Protestantism, the American theologian is now opening himself to the logician and the philosopher, the psychiatrist and the psychoanalyst, the literary critic and the social scientist. Older theologians are dismayed as they see the traditional forms of faith gradually transformed by this process, but the one conviction that would seem to be shared by all who are actively engaged in American theology today is that these older forms of faith have no relevance to the present. Unquestionably American theology is in a process of transition, and while there is little that has thus far been accomplished to give hope for the future, the very least that can be said is that there seems no possibility that American theology will once again return to the past. Indeed, many American theologians consider Barthianism as a necessary but frightful detour from the true task of theology. Thus we must not dismiss the possibility that the poverty of contemporary American theology is witness to theology’s acceptance of its vocation of silence, that at last theology has accepted its sentence of death and is preparing itself for a true renewal. The new formula for theology may well reverse the old: not the goal of converging the present and the past, but rather that of seeking a convergence of the present and the future.

Certainly a theology which genuinely looks forward to the future will be free of the temptation to bind itself to a particular past, whether that of an ecclesiastical confession or of Western civilization itself. Does this mean that theology can no longer be "Christian"? Without doubt theology must abandon Christendom, and, as we have already seen, Christendom may well include all the meaning which the word "Christian" carries to our ears. An America which since Emerson has been receptive to the Vedanta, which only recently has been deeply moved by Zen Buddhism, and has been responsive to even the vague speculations of Jung and Toynbee, and initiated once again into the history of religions by Mircea Eliade, will surely refuse a Christocentrism that is less than universal. Perhaps the most prophetic religious thinker in America today is Norman 0. Brown, who is attempting to bring together radical Freudianism and left-wing mysticism (the Kabala, Boehme, Blake, Taoism, and Tantrism). And it is just this challenge of seeking a universal form of faith that will lead the American theologian to cast off his German tutors, that is, the theologians, and open himself both to the religious world of the East and to the deeper sensibility of the Western present. From the East we may once more learn the meaning of the sacred, not because the sacred has never been present in Christianity, but because Christianity in our time is in a process of dissolution and transformation. Furthermore we can encounter in the East a form of the sacred which Christianity has never known, a form which is increasingly showing itself to be relevant to our situation. Again, by opening ourselves to the radically profane form of contemporary Existenz, we can prepare ourselves for a new reality of the Incarnation, an Incarnation that will unite the radical sacred and the radical profane, an Incarnation that will be an ultimate coincidentia oppositorum. Let the Christian rejoice that only Christendom has evolved a radically profane form of Existenz. A profane destiny may yet provide a way to return to the God who is all in all, not by returning to a moment of the past, but by meeting an epiphany of the past in the present.

Surely no one could deny that a terrible crisis is upon us. And if a crisis brings with it an occasion for the deepest kind of creativity, it is nonetheless fraught with danger. The religious danger of our time is Gnosticism, a danger so elusive that it is impossible to define or circumscribe it. However, Nietzsche’s idea of ressentiment can teach us a great deal about Gnosticism. For the one universal quality of all forms of true Gnosticism is a profound hatred of the world and of existence in the world. Gnosticism is a world-opposing form of faith in quest of a salvation that can be reached not by an eschatological reversal of the world or by a mystical dissolution and transformation of the world but only by the most radical kind of world-negation. Only one attitude to the world is open to the Gnostic: negation. Nor can this world-negation be dialectical. It can be nothing less than simple, ruthless, ultimate negation. To the man who is faced with the emptiness, the vacuity, and the terror of our time, Gnosticism must present the supreme temptation. Yet the man who says no to our historical present, who refuses the existence about and within him, who sets himself against our common destiny, and yet seeks release in a timeless or pre-temporal moment, a moment or "eternity" having no relation, or only a negative relation, to the present moment, is succumbing to the Gnostic danger. Moreover, in our situation, a faith which nostalgically seeks an historical past, particularly a past having no integral relation to our present, cannot escape the charge of Gnosticism. For a total refusal of our actual existence, of, our destiny, can only be grounded in a Gnostic negation of the world about us. Of course, dialectical faith, whether in its Eastern or its Western, its mystical or its eschatological form, negates history. But as its negation of history is grounded in an affirmation of the present, a dialectical mode of faith can never dissociate negation and affirmation. Hence it can never know the Gnostic attitude of simple world-negation.

A contemporary form of faith is therefore called to a dialectical vocation. It can only be open to the present by negating the past. Indeed, its acceptance of the present demands an acceptance of the death of God, a willing of the death of God. Apart from a free acceptance of the death of God there lies no way to our profane present. From one point of view, the Christian now lives in the curse and judgment of existence in a Godless world. However, from another perspective, the very profane Existenz which our destiny has unveiled may yet prove to be a path to a universal form of faith. The very fact that our present is so detached from its past, from Christendom, with its corollary that an acceptance of the present demands a negation of Christendom, of the Christian God, can mean that the horizon of our present will open into a future epiphany of faith that will draw all things into itself. Never before has Christianity been called upon to assume a universal form, but, paradoxically, now that the Christian world has collapsed, the moment has arrived for faith to open itself to the full meaning and reality of the world. If the Word is to become flesh in our world, it must fully and finally become "flesh," become profane, and therefore it must negate all those forms of the Incarnation which effected a non-dialectical compromise between "flesh" and "Spirit." A Word that truly becomes "flesh" will no longer be "Spirit," just as a "flesh" that is transfigured by "Spirit" will no longer be "flesh." As Kierkegaard saw so deeply, faith in the Incarnation is faith in the truly absurd. Therefore the only adequate language for the Incarnation is the language of paradox, of the deepest paradox, which may well mean that it is only the language of the radical profane that can give witness to the fullest advent of the Incarnation. When faith is open to the most terrible darkness, it will be receptive to the most redemptive light. What can the Christian fear of darkness, when he knows that Christ has conquered darkness, that God will be all in all?


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