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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.


Thursday's Child by William Hamilton


Non-theological observers have been saying for some time that America is a place and a people without a past and without a future, or, more exactly, without a sense of having a past and without a sense of being able to count on a stable future. America is the place that has traveled farthest along the road from the cloister to the world that Luther and the Reformation mapped out. We are the most profane, the most banal, the most utterly worldly of places. Western Europe is positively numinous with divine substance compared to us, and even the Communist world has a kind of spiritual substance and vitality that we are said to lack. Both the academic sabbatical leave and the conventional summer vacation bear witness to the American's need to go abroad to look for something he has not found at home.

Hope is the way of declaring one's future to be open and assured, and love is the way of standing before your neighbor in the present moment. Taking faith, hope and love together, the feeling is that the American theologian can really live in only one of them at a time, perhaps only one in a lifetime. If this is so, and if it is also so that as an American he is fated to be a man without a sense of past or future, then it follows that the theologian today and tomorrow is a man without faith, without hope, with only the present, with only love to guide him.

I propose that we should not only acknowledge, but will this faithlessness. What does it mean to say that the theologian in America is a man without faith? Is he therefore a man with out God? It would seem to follow. He has his doctrine of God, several of them no doubt, and all correct. But that is surely not the point. He really doesn't believe in God, or that there is a God, or that God exists. It is not that he is fashionably against idols or opposed to God as a Being or as part of the world. It is God himself he has trouble with. Can one stand before God in unbelief? In what sense is such a man "before God"? Faith, or trusting in God, ought to produce some palpable fruits. The theologian may sometimes see these, but never in himself. Something has happened. At the center of his thoughts and meditations is a void, a disappearance, an absence. It is sometimes said that only a wounded physician can heal.

Other pertinent questions can be raised. Does the theologian go to church? The answer is "no." He may, in the past, have concealed this "no" from himself by escaping into church work, speaking to church groups, preaching at church or college, slaking his thirst for worship and word in more protected communities. But now he is facing up to this banal answer to the banal question, and he wills to say "no" openly.

It used to be otherwise. In the past, the theologian would distinguish between God, Christendom, Christianity and church, so that a different balance of "yes" and "no" could be uttered to each. Now he finds himself equally alienated from each of the realities represented by the four terms, and he says his "no" to each.

The quality of the theologian's "no" to the church differs from the impressive, if verbose, debate now being waged by the church's sociological pundits. In this debate the issue is drawn between a kind of strident despair and a grim hope. The theologian, however, is neither despairing nor hopeful about the church. He is not interested, and he no longer has the energy or interest to answer ecclesiastical questions about What the Church Must Do to Revitalize Itself. One can choose his own language here: the theologian does not and can not go to church, he is not interested, he is alienated (for a tenser word), he must live outside. He is not thereby a happier man, nor is he a troubled one. He is neither proud nor guilty. He has just decided that this is how it has to be, and he has decided to say so.

Does our theologian write books in systematic theology? That is, does he sit down and decide that he'd better do a theological book? The answer is a clear "no." First he gets his doctoral dissertation published. If it is any good, he can get quite a few years of professional mileage from it, defending it, clarifying, writing articles on relevant new material. From then on he speaks and writes as he is asked. Editors, ecclesiastics, institutions and other scholars assign him subjects they think he would be interested in. In this way he can get a reputation for being skilled and interested in a field in which he has no interest whatever. As the years pass, the gulf between what he wants to do and what he does grows wider. His books, if any, are either private love-letters (or hate-letters) to fellow guild members or lecture series that offer an extra five hundred dollars for publication. Anything serious he manages will probably appear in articles.

What does the theologian read? Does he read religious books in hardcovers? Less and less, perhaps not at all, except when he has a free copy for a review or a bibliography to prepare. He has been unable to read books of sermons for a long time, and he has recently found that he practically never reads a book of theology for the sheer fun of it. He reads a lot of paperbacks, articles and reviews. Just as less and less theological writing is being put into books, the theological reader is reading fewer and fewer books. One wonders quite seriously if there is any long-range future for hardcover religious book publishing, apart from church materials, reference works and perhaps text books.

Is the theologian reading the Bible? Of course, he is forced into a kind of affable semi-professional relationship with Scripture in his daily work. But what has gone is the rigorous systematic confronting of Scripture, expecting the Word of God to be made manifest when one approaches it with faith or at least with a broken and contrite heart. Perhaps because he is without either faith or the truly contrite heart, the Bible is a strange book that does not come alive to him as it is supposed to. There are still some pieces of it that come alive, to be sure, although he is not sure why or how: this psalmist, that prophetic call, a piece or two of Job, perhaps even some words of Jesus.

The theologian is alienated from the Bible, just as he is alienated from God and the church. This alienation may not last. If it doesn't last, fine; if it does last, the theologian will have some piercing questions to ask of himself. But there are wrong ways (Karl Barth) and right ways to overcome this alienation, and for now he has to be honest with himself, with the God before whom he stands in unbelief, and he must wait.

Given this state of affairs, what is this theologian really like? How does he act? Is he consciously or unconsciously dishonest? What is the relation between his public and private persona? The theologian can be exonerated from certain coarse professional faults: he is not overly ambitious for position or even notice; he is not moving in this direction so that he can be seen by men or because of some special delight he has epater le bourgeoisie. Like all men, he lives in a public and in a private sphere, and like most men he works hard to keep the first from overpowering the second. On his public and professional side he is likely to make use of two different masks. One is modestly devout, earnest and serious, one which he uses for his teaching and church work. The other is a modestly worldly mask for his non-religious friends and for the forms of their common life. Sometimes he deliberately decides to interchange the masks, and wears the worldly mask for a church talk, a lecture, or even a sermon here or there. This leads to some harmless fun, and he is careful to see that everybody enjoys himself. Sometimes he dons the devout mask for his worldly friends and their parties, and this too is quite harmless, for his friends understand and sometimes even admire his willingness to stand up for his odd beliefs.

But back in the private realm, he is coming more and more to distrust this kind of manipulation. God -- this much he knows -- is no respecter of persons or personae or masks, and the theologian really knows that he is neither mask. He knows that his rebellion and unbelief is both deeper and uglier than his bland worldly mask suggests, and he knows also (a bit less assuredly?) that his devout mask is too vapid. To be a man of two masks is, he knows, to be less than honest. Thus, he has had to come out into the open about his faithlessness even though he may suspect and hope that beneath it is a passion and a genuine waiting for something that may, one day, get transformed into a kind of faith even better than the one he has willed to lose.

Is this theologian alone, or does he live in a community that needs and nourishes him? He is not alone, but he does not ordinarily live in a true community, though he is aware of the existence of such a community. He rarely gets close enough to anybody to identify him as a member of this community, but he knows that there is no place under the sun where a member of this community may not be found. They may, of course, even be found in the church.

The problem is not, as might be suspected, that he has no doctrine of the church; it is with the doctrine of the church that he does have his problem. Professionally he finds himself working with three quite different understandings of the church, but only the third makes genuine sense to him and it is far too imprecise to be very helpful.

The first understanding of the church states that it is to be defined by the classical marks of the church -- unity, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity. In his ecumenical work or in the emerging Roman Catholic-Protestant dialogue, he is compelled to see the church in this way. The second way reminds him that the church is found where the word of God is preached and the sacraments rightly administered. This doctrine of the church is most congenial to his own theology and theological vocation. He has always been drawn to a theology of the Word, and he has had moments when he has felt that theology might, after all, be able to minister to the church's proclamation.

But somehow he has had to come to define the church in a third way. The church is present whenever Christ is being formed among men in the world. This is a very vague way of describing his feelings about the community, even though it has no outlines, no preaching, sacraments or liturgy.

One final question needs to be asked: What is the theologian doing now? The answer comes in two parts, the first related to what we have called his loss of God, of faith, of the church. In the face of all this, he is a passive man, trusting in waiting, silence, and in a kind of prayer for the losses to be returned. He does not do this anxiously, nor does he seem a particularly broken or troubled sort of person. If it is true that he is somehow without hope as well as without faith, he is not in despair about himself. His waiting is more docile and patient and has little existential moodiness in it. There is, of course, no single Christian doctrine which he affirms or grasps with guileless joy, but for all of his acute sense of loss, he has an overwhelmingly positive sense of being in and not out; even in his unbelief he is somehow home and not in a far country. He would say, for example: "As long as the Gethsemane prayer stands there somehow close to the center of things, I can stand there. If it should have to go, I might have to go too."

The theologian today is thus both a waiting man and a praying man. His faith and hope may be badly flawed, but his love is not. It is not necessary to probe the cultural, psychological, or even marital reasons for this, but simply to note it as a fact. In Christology, the theologian is sometimes inclined to suspect that Jesus Christ is best understood as neither the object nor the ground of faith, neither as person, event or community, but simply as a place to be, a standpoint. That place is, of course, alongside the neighbor, being for him. This may be the meaning of Jesus' true humanity and it may even be the meaning of his divinity, and thus of divinity itself. In any case, now -- even when he knows so little about what to believe -- he does know where to be. Today, for example, he is with the Negro community in its struggle (he will work out his own understanding of what "being with" must mean for him), working and watching, not yet evangelizing. He is also with all sorts of other groups: poets and critics, psychiatrists and physicists and philosophers. He is not in these places primarily to make things happen -- a new solution to the science-religion problem or a new theological literary criticism -- but just to be himself and to be attentive, as a man and therefore as a theologian. This is what his form of love looks like. It is a love that takes place in the middle of the real world, the ugly, banal, godless, religious world of America today.

He has been drawn, then, to these worldly places by love (not by apologetics or evangelism), and it is his hope that in such places his faithlessness and dishonesty may be broken. His love is not a secure and confident one, and thus it is not condescending. It is not, therefore, what some men call agape. It is a broken love, one that is needy and weak. It is thus a little like what men call eros. To be sure, his whole project may be swept away in a moment, if it can be shown that the theologian is just fleeing from one kind of religion-as-need-fulfillment to another. Perhaps someone will be able to show him that his weak and needy love has some points of connection with the love of the Cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is, of course, deeply involved in this portrait. Have we discovered this in him, and then in ourselves; or in ourselves, and then rejoiced to find it in him? I think the second is nearer the truth. In any case, as Western Europe turns away from Bonhoeffer as a theological mentor, we in America can welcome his fragmentary help.

Atonement and redemption, regeneration, the Holy Ghost, the love of our enemies, the cross of resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship -- all these things have become so problematic and so remote that we hardly dare any more to speak of them. . . . So our traditional language must perforce become powerless and remain silent, and our Christianity today will be confined to praying for and doing right by our fellow men. Christian thinking, speaking, and organization must be reborn out of this praying and this action.( Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Thoughts on the baptism of D. W. R.," Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 187-88 in the 1962 paperback edition, The Macmillan Company.)

 

W.H.

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