return to religion-online

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.


Theology and the Death of God by Thomas J.J. Altizer


Contemporary theology is unquestionably in a state of crisis, perhaps the most profound crisis which Christian theology has faced since its creation. This crisis is manifest in three areas: (1) in the relation of dogmatic theology to its biblical ground, a crisis posed by the rise of modem historical understanding; (2) in the relation of theology to the sensibility and Existenz of contemporary man, a crisis created by the death of God; and (3) in the relation of the community of faith to the whole order of social, political and economic institutions, a crisis initiated by the collapse of Christendom. I intend to focus upon the second of these areas, although it can only be artificially isolated from the other two. Furthermore, we shall simply assume the truth of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, a truth which has thus far been ignored or set aside by contemporary theology. This means that we shall understand the death of God as an historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence. The man who chooses to live in our destiny can neither know the reality of God’s presence nor understand the world as his creation; or, at least, he can no longer respond -- either interiorly or cognitively -- to the classical Christian images of the Creator and the creation. In this situation, an affirmation of the traditional forms of faith becomes a Gnostic escape from the brute realities of history.

Modern theology, as we shall understand it, was founded by Sören Kierkegaard; and founded not simply in response to the collapse of Christendom, but more deeply in response to the advent of a reality that was wholly divorced from the world of faith, or, as Kierkegaard saw, a reality that was created by the negation of faith. While employing the Hegelian categories of the "universal" and the "objective" as a means of understanding the new reality created by modern man, Kierkegaard came to understand the modern consciousness as the product of a Faustian choice. Modern philosophy is, as Kierkegaard argued in The Sickness Unto Death, simply paganism, its real secret being: "cogito ergo sum, to think is to be"; whereas the Christian motto, on the contrary, is: "As thou believest, so art thou; to believe is to be." Here, cogito and credo are antithetical acts: modern or "objective" knowledge is not religiously neutral, as so many theologians have imagined; rather, it is grounded in a dialectical negation of faith. Again, to know "objectively" is to exist "objectively." and such existence is the antithetical opposite of the "subjectivity" which Kierkegaard identified as faith. With the birth of objective knowledge, reality appeared as an objective order, and God was banished from the "real" world. But for Kierkegaard, who was living at a moment when a Christian sensibility was still a possibility, it was not only God but also the concretely existing individual who was banished from the world of the "universal." Already, in Fear and Trembling, the major theme of the "knight of faith" is threatened by the minor theme that ". . . the individual is incommensurable with reality," that ". . . subjectivity is incommensurable with reality." So radical is this incommensurability that the existing individual and objective reality now exist in a state of dialectical opposition: to know objectively is to cease to exist subjectively, to exist subjectively is to cease to know objectively. Moreover, it was precisely Kierkegaard’s realization of the radically profane ground of modern knowledge that made possible his creation of a modern Christian mode of dialectical understanding. Existence in faith is antithetically related to existence in objective reality; now faith becomes subjective, momentary and paradoxical. In short, existence in faith is existence by virtue of the absurd. Why the absurd? Because faith is antithetically related to "objectivity." Therefore true faith is radical inwardness or subjectivity, it comes into existence by a negation of objectivity, and can only maintain itself by a continual process, or repetition, of negating objectivity.

Kierkegaard’s dialectical method is fully presented in the Postscript, but it was a method which was destined never to be fully evolved. Quite simply the reason why this method never reached completion is that it never -- despite his initial effort in Fear and Trembling -- moved beyond the level of negation. Although biographically Kierkegaard’s choice of a negative dialectic was hardened by his second conversion or "metamorphosis," a conversion which led to his resolve to attack the established church, and hence to abandon philosophy, it is also true that he could limit faith to a negative dialectical movement because he could identify faith and "subjectivity." In the Postscript, subjective thinking is "existential," and ". . . passion is the culmination of existence for an existing individual." But "passion" is radical inwardness, and true inwardness is "eternity" (an identification first established in The Concept of Dread). To be sure, "eternity" is a subjective and not an objective category, and therefore it can only be reached through inwardness. Nevertheless, the crucial point is that Kierkegaard could identify authentic human existence with existence in faith. Kierkegaard knew the death of God only as an objective reality; indeed, it was "objectivity" that was created by the death of God. Accordingly, faith is made possible by the negation of objectivity, and since "objectivity" and "subjectivity" are antithetical categories, it follows that faith can be identified with "subjectivity." Today we can see that Kierkegaard could dialectically limit "objectivity" and "subjectivity" to the level of antithetical categories because he still lived in an historical time when subjectivity could be known as indubitably Christian. Less than a hundred years later, it will be little less than blasphemy to identify the truly "existential" with existence in faith. But in Kierkegaard’s time the death of God had not yet become a subjective reality. Hence authentic human existence could be understood as culminating in faith, the movement of faith could be limited to the negation of "objectivity," and no occasion need arise for the necessity of a dialectical coincidence of the opposites. Yet no dialectical method can be complete until it leads to this final coincidentia oppositorum.

II

If radical dialectical thinking was reborn in Kierkegaard, it was consummated in Friedrich Nietzsche: the thinker who, in Martin Heidegger’s words, brought to an end the metaphysical tradition of the West. Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God shattered the transcendence of Being. No longer is there a metaphysical hierarchy or order which can give meaning or value to existing beings (Seiendes); as Heidegger points out, now there is no Sein of Seiendes. Nietzsche was, of course, a prophetic thinker, which means that his thought reflected the deepest reality of his time, and of our time as well; for to exist in our time is to exist in what Sartre calls a "hole in Being," a "hole" created by the death of God. However, the proclamation of the death of God -- or, more deeply, the willing of the death of God -- is dialectical: a No-saying to God (the transcendence of Sein) makes possible a Yes-saying to human existence (Dasein, total existence in the here and now). Absolute transcendence is transformed into absolute immanence; being here and now (the post-Christian existential "now") draws into itself all those powers which were once bestowed upon the Beyond. Consequently, Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence is the dialectical correlate of his proclamation of the death of God.

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. (Also Sprach Zarathustra, Part III)

Only when God is dead can Being begin in every Now. Eternal Recurrence is neither a cosmology nor a metaphysical idea: it is Nietzsche’s symbol of the deepest affirmation of existence, of Yes-saying. Accordingly, Eternal Recurrence is a symbolic portrait of the truly contemporary man, the man who dares to live in our time, in our history, in our existence.

We must observe that Eternal Recurrence is a dialectical inversion of the biblical category of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God makes incarnate a transcendent Wholly Other, a Wholly Other that radically reverses the believer’s existence in both the being and the values of the Old Aeon of history, and makes possible even now a participation in the New Aeon of grace. So likewise the "existential" truth of Eternal Recurrence shatters the power of the old order of history, transforming transcendence into immanence, and thereby making eternity incarnate in every Now. Eternal Recurrence is the dialectical antithesis of the Christian God. The creature becomes the Creator when the Center is everywhere. Hence Zarathustra, the proclaimer of Eternal Recurrence, is the first "immoralist," and his proclamation is a product of the "second innocence" of atheism. The atheistic Nietzsche was the enemy of God and Christ. But Nietzsche was a dialectical thinker. His opposition to Christ was directed against the Christ of Christianity, against religion itself, rather than against the actual figure of Jesus. Again and again, in The Antichrist, Nietzsche portrays Jesus as a kind of naive forerunner of Zarathustra. For Jesus is incapable of resentment (non-dialectical negation), is liberated from "history," and is himself the exact opposite of Christianity. For, as Nietzsche says:

If one were to look for signs that an ironical divinity has its fingers in the great play of the world, one would find no small support in the tremendous question mark called Christianity. Mankind lies on its knees before the opposite of that which was the origin, the meaning, the right of the evangel; in the concept of "church" it has pronounced holy precisely what the "bringer of the glad tidings" felt to be beneath and behind himself -- one would look in vain for a greater example of world-historical irony.

Jesus’ proclamation abolishes any distance separating God and man (a distance which religion knows as sin). His gospel did not promise blessedness, nor did it bind salvation to legal or moral conditions: blessedness is the "only reality." What Christianity has called the gospel is actually the opposite of that which Jesus lived: "ill tidings, a dysangel." Christianity is a dysangel because it retreated into the very "history" which Jesus transcended and transformed, the transformation of the blessedness of Jesus’proclamation into the No-saying of resentment. Thus Nietzsche looked upon Christianity as the stone upon the grave of Jesus.

The astute theological student of Nietzsche must wonder whether Nietzsche’s portrait of Zarathustra is not a modern dialectical image of Jesus. Not the "Christian" Jesus to be sure, but already the modern Christian has lived through the death of historical or objective Christianity in Kierkegaard’s realization of faith as radical subjectivity. If Kierkegaard’s subjectivity has dialectically passed into Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, is it possible that the radically profane Now of Eternal Recurrence is a dialectical resurrection of a Kingdom of God beyond God? Does not the New Creation (Eternal Recurrence) of Zarathustra parallel the New Creation of Jesus (the Kingdom of God) insofar as it shatters history, dissolves all rational meaning, and brings to an end the rule of Law? Such a radically modern coincidentia oppositorum would parallel the highest expressions of mysticism (e.g., the Madhyamika and Zen schools of Mahayana Buddhism) while at the same time offering a non-Gnostic form of faith. Non-Gnostic because a truly modern dialectical form of faith would meet the actual historical destiny of contemporary man while yet transforming his unique Existenz into the purity of eschatological faith. In Nietzsche, we have witnessed the deepest willing of the death of God pass into the deepest affirmation of Eternal Recurrence. Dialectically, the opposites coincide, radical negation has become radical affirmation; but if the negative movement is a denial of God, then the positive movement must finally be an affirmation of God, of the God beyond the Christian God, beyond the God of the historic Church, beyond all which Christendom has known as God. A truly dialectical image of God (or of the Kingdom of God) will appear only after the most radical negation, just as a genuinely eschatological form of faith can now be reborn only upon the grave of the God who is the symbol of the transcendence of Being. Does Nietzsche point the way to a form of faith that will be authentically contemporary and eschatological at once?

III

We shall define eschatological faith as a form of faith that calls the believer out of his old life in history and into a new Reality of grace. This Reality (the Kingdom of God) effects a radical transformation of the reality of the world, reversing both its forms and structures, a transformation that must finally culminate in the "end" of the world. Historically, eschatological faith was born in the reform prophetic movement of the Old Testament prophets, at a time when the world of ancient Israel was crumbling. In all probability, the prophetic oracles recording this revolutionary eschatological faith did not assume either a written or a canonical form until the Jewish Exile or thereafter. Moreover, it was not until the time of Jesus that a fully eschatological form of faith appeared, for only in Jesus’ proclamations does the Kingdom of God cease to be a promise and become instead a present reality. As Rudolf Otto notes in The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, the idea which was entirely unique and peculiar to Jesus was ". . . that the Kingdom -- supramundane, future, and belonging to a new era -- penetrated from the future into the present, from its place in the beyond into this order, and was operative redemptively as a divine power, as an inbreaking realm of salvation." However, the power of the Kingdom is inseparable from the "end" which it is bringing to the world, and, as Albert Schweitzer has so powerfully insisted, the new life of ethical obedience to which Jesus calls his followers is likewise inseparable from the liberation of the believer from the very reality of the world. When the Hellenistic Church once again bestowed upon the world the biblical name of "creation," it thereby abandoned a truly eschatological form of faith. For, in the New Testament, kosmos means "old creation." Eschatological faith can never detach the world from its coming end.

Eschatological faith is also dialectical. The Kingdom of God and kosmos are antithetical categories. The very dawning of the Kingdom of God places in question the reality of the world; when the Kingdom is fully consummated, the world must disappear. But Hellenistic Christianity assumed a nondialectical form: the world became the arena of sanctification, redemption now takes place without any effect upon the actual order of the world, and consequently ethics is dissociated from redemption. Adopting the language of Greek ontology, the Church came to know the world as "being" and God as transcendent "Being." The Church thus invested the world with an ontological reality, faith came to know God and the world as existing in a common ontological continuity, and thereby was established what Kierkegaard was to call the great compromise of Christendom. No longer could the Church call for a reversal of the believer’s existence in the world, despite the fact that this was the heart of Jesus’ message. For Christianity had entered time and history. By transforming its original faith, Christianity had become a "world-affirming" religion. Since that time, Christian theology -- at least in its orthodox and dominant forms -- has been non-dialectical. Yet now the Christian God is dead! The transcendence of Being has been transformed into the radical immanence of Eternal Recurrence: to exist in our time is to exist in a chaos freed of every semblance of cosmological meaning or order. If the death of God has resurrected an authentic nothingness, then faith can no longer greet the world as the "creation." Once again faith must know the world as "chaos." But, theologically, the world which modern man knows as "chaos" or "nothingness" is homologous with the world that eschatological faith knows as "old aeon" or "old creation" -- both worlds are stripped of every fragment of positive meaning and value. Therefore the dissolution of the "being" of the world has made possible the renewal of the stance of eschatological faith; for an ultimate and final No-saying to the world can dialectically pass into the Yes-saying of eschatological faith.

IV

If Kierkegaard founded modern theology, one is also tempted to say that Kierkegaard is the only truly modern theologian. For he is the only theologian whose mode of religious understanding has been consistently dialectical: faith neither enters into union with the world nor does it stand in isolation from the world; faith is always the product of a dialectical negation of the world, of "history," and of "objectivity." Nevertheless, we must remember that dialectically Kierkegaard’s method has two grave limitations: it never moves beyond the level of negation, and consequently it never reaches the level of the coincidentia oppositorum. While a definition of faith as subjectivity -- i.e., authentic human existence culminates in faith -- could be real in Kierkegaard’s time, it can no longer be so at a time when the death of God has become so fully incarnate in the modern consciousness. Today theology is faced with the overwhelming task of establishing a dialectical synthesis between a radically profane "subjectivity" (Existenz) and an authentically biblical mode of faith. Obviously this definition of theology’s task is dialectical, and, from this point of view, theology can only succeed if it employs a fully dialectical method. This means that theology can reach a true coincidentia oppositorum only on the negative ground of the realization of the radical opposition between Existenz and faith. When Existenz and faith are known as true opposites, then the possibility is established of effecting an ultimate coincidentia oppositorum. But such a coincidence can arise only on the basis of the most radical negation. To stop short of the deepest negation is to foreclose the possibility of a dialectical synthesis. That is why Kierkegaard has prepared the way for a fully dialectical form of faith.

Theologically, the twentieth century was inaugurated by theology’s reaction against the new estrangement which our time has brought the Christian faith. One form of this estrangement may be observed in Nietzsche’s condemnation of the No-saying of Christianity. Faith, in our time, appears to be opposed to the very existence and reality of modern man; the reality -- or illusion -- of faith is wholly other than the reality which we know. Thus, in The Antichrist, Nietzsche presented an authentically modern reaction to the Christian God:

God degenerated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God -- the formula for every slander against "this world," for every lie about the "beyond!" God -- the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy.

Another and intimately related form of Christianity’s new estrangement was posed by the historical discovery of the eschatological "scandal" of New Testament faith. Modern scholarship unveiled a Jesus who is a "stranger and enigma to our time" (Schweitzer’s words) because his whole message and ministry were grounded in an expectation of the immediate coming of the end of the world. The Jesus whom we "know" is a deluded Jewish fanatic, his message is wholly eschatological, and hence Jesus and his message are totally irrelevant to our time and situation. Modern man can know faith only as a "scandal"; faith is wholly other than the reality which we most deeply are. Karl Barth met this "scandal," and thus founded crisis theology, by adopting Kierkegaard’s dialectical method, a method which led him to posit an antithetical relationship between the Word of God and the word of man. God’s Word -- God’s Yes -- can only appear as an ultimate No to sinful, autonomous and "religious man"; for Barth grounded his position in Kierkegaard’s infinite qualitative distinction between time and eternity.

In his commentary on Romans and in his book on the resurrection of the dead, Barth succeeded in grasping the eschatological "end" as an existential Krisis. For he translated an eschatological symbol pointing to the cosmic end of the world into a human symbol standing for the crisis created by the situation of sinful man encountering the God of righteousness. Following Kierkegaard’s existential thesis that truth is "subjectivity," Barth translated the eschatological symbols of biblical faith into symbols reflecting a crisis in human Existenz. So it is that eschatological faith became existential intensity, and thus was established the existential school of Protestant dialectical theology. Quite significantly, when Barth later took up the task of constructing a dogmatics which would be in continuity with the historic forms of the Christian faith, he renounced both his earlier discipleship to Kierkegaard and the dialectical method. Quite possibly Barth realized that a dialectical method must negate all human expressions of the meaning of faith -- including the creedal and dogmatic statements of the historic Church -- while paradoxically affirming the deepest expressions of "subjectivity" or Existenz.

The work of the early Barth has been carried on by various followers, the most important of whom are surely Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, the one engaging in an ontological and the other in a biblical theology. Although in many ways these theologians are dissimilar, they are united by the dialectical goal of correlating modern man’s understanding of himself -- which they believe culminates in a despair of the human condition -- with the answer to this understanding in Jesus as the Word. Both Tillich and Bultmann employ a theology of immanence which apprehends both the human condition and the word of faith apart from the cosmic and transcendent setting of traditional theology. Again, both take as their starting point the eschatological "scandal" of the Christian faith, which as we have seen is a parallel way of formulating Nietzsche’s condemnation of the No-saying of Christianity.

V

For the sake of brevity, and despite the complexities of Tillich’s system, we shall, for our present purposes, adopt Jacob Taubes’ critique of Tillich’s theology. Taubes points out that Tillich tries to escape the historical judgment that Christianity has abandoned its biblical and eschatological roots by the daring method of creating an eschatological ontology. Thus Tillich translates the New Testament eschatological symbols of this world and the New Being (Old Aeon and New Aeon) into the ontological concepts of "old" and "new" being, "old" and "new" referring to poles of one continuum of being. The concept of "old being" derives from man’s experience of estrangement from being, while the concept of "new being" points to the reconciliation of this estrangement in a fulfillment of being. As Taubes says, Tillich "eschatologizes ontology" and "ontologizes eschatology" in the light of man’s present situation: "His entire system rotates around the one eschatological problem: man’s self-estrangement in his being and his reconciliation in the ‘new being.’" Tillich’s apologetical method of correlation attempts to relate the ontological Krisis of the human condition with the "new being" which is present in Jesus as the Christ. This method entails the assumption of an ontological continuity between our estranged existence as "old being" and the "new being" of Christ (this is the Protestant existentialist version of the Catholic doctrine of analogia entis, for which Tillich has been so fiercely criticized by Barth). Consequently, the "new being" of Christ can only be in continuity with our being (contemporary Existenz) if it is an immanent reality which is liberated from all ontological transcendence. Taubes makes the telling point that Tillich’s "depth" of being -- which is reached by the "ultimate concern" of the existing person -- is not a transcendent reality lying beyond the world, but is instead the ultimate ground of the being which we now are. This "ground of being" is God or the Unconditioned, who now becomes simply the "depth" underlying Existenz. Thus Tillich translates the transcendent Beyond into an immanent "depth" as a means of making the Christian faith meaningful to our time.

If we grant that Tillich’s ultimate concern (he defines faith as being ultimately concerned) produces an existential intensity which deepens man’s participation in being, his existence in the immediate moment, does it follow that Tillich has followed Nietzsche’s "Dionysian" program of transforming the transcendent into the immanent? Taubes believes that he has. Furthermore, Taubes believes that all modern theologies which mediate between faith and Existenz involve ". . . the divine in the human dialectic to the point that the divine pole of the correlation loses all supernatural point of reference." However, this judgment must be questioned if only because Tillich’s method is not fully dialectical: for Tillich has negated neither the traditional Western ontologies nor the historic forms of Christianity; instead, he has simply correlated an immanentist and mystical form of the traditional ontology which he borrowed from Schelling -- it is certainly not Nietzschean, if only because it remains metaphysical -- with a modern and only semi-Kierkegaardian form of Protestant "existentialism." Furthermore, Tillich is incapable of true Yes-saying, for he cannot accept an authentically contemporary form of Existenz, and he insists that Existenz must culminate in anxiety and despair. Again, Tillich refuses to accept an eschatological form of faith; his "eschatological ontology" inverts eschatological faith by establishing a continuum between "old" and "new" being, and his very system demands that the historical Jesus be sacrificed to an "existential" Word. Nor does Tillich’s theology of correlation effect a dialectical coincidentia oppositorum. For Tillich’s method is only partially dialectical; it employs neither radical affirmation nor radical negation, accordingly it must culminate in a non-dialectical synthesis. Yet it is precisely because Tillich’s method is not fully dialectical that it reaches neither eschatological faith nor contemporary Existenz, despite the fact that this is the apparent goal of Tillich’s method, and surely the real goal of all genuinely modern theology

Bultmann’s theology also proceeds out of the two elements of the modern experience of the eclipse of God and the modern "scandal" of the eschatological foundations of the Christian faith. Like Tillich’s, the heart of Bultmann’s method lies in the translation of eschatological symbols into categories referring only to human existence. Unlike Tillich, Bultmann’s concern is to construct a biblical rather than an ontological theology. However, he is only able to formulate a biblical theology by a process of transforming the cosmic and transcendent dimensions of the New Testament message into an existential anthropology (supposedly borrowed from Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, but Bultmann’s categories are almost a parody of Heidegger’s). By following, in large measure, the original theological method of Barth, Bultmann maintains that the most authentic meaning of the primitive Christian eschatological expectation refers not to a cosmic end of the world but rather to a Krisis in human existence. Yet Bultmann is first a New Testament scholar, and a great one, and only secondly a theologian; thus he has gone far beyond the early Barth and recognized that an existential interpretation of the New Testament demands a radical transformation of the original meaning of the New Testament. Hence Bultmann originated the method of demythologizing -- here paralleling Tillich’s method of correlation -- as a means of translating ancient "mythical" eschatological symbols into modern existentialist categories. This method is most clearly revealed in his Theology of the New Testament, where the translation takes place so subtly that the reader is scarcely aware that it has occurred at all. Bultmann has never formulated his position systematically and it contains much ambiguity (witness the division between left-wing and right-wing Bultmannians). Moreover, he has freely borrowed many of his most important ideas not only from Heidegger but also from Luther, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dilthey; so much so that one wonders whether his position is capable of either a consistent or a systematic expression -- and the enormous literature on Bultmann does much to substantiate this suspicion.

A little perspective reveals important parallels between the methods of Tillich and Bultmann. Both methods are in part dialectical, and both attempt to mediate between an "existentialist" form of Protestantism and a contemporary form of Existenz. Again, both attempt to translate the biblical form of eschatological faith into a modern form of existential intensity. Thus Bultmann’s method of demythologizing reduces the content (ihr Was) of the Gospel to the fact (das Dass) of the "revelation," a reduction which intends to maximize the existential offense of the Gospel, while eliminating its offense to the modern scientific mind. Thereby, Bultmann, too, sacrifices the historical Jesus to an "existential" Word.

Yet it is of fundamental importance that neither Bultmann nor Tillich is dialectical enough to rise to an acceptance of Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence. Both believe that human existence apart from "grace" can only culminate in despair, and thus both have developed a fundamentally hostile attitude toward the modern consciousness. Neither Tillich nor Bultmann will follow Kierkegaard in his negation of Christendom, for both are closed to Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God. Clinging to the vanishing symbols of a now fallen Christendom, they stand on the "knife-edge" between Angst and faith. But it is increasingly apparent that the dialectical theologian is standing on thin air, the cloud is lifting, and now we are beginning to see the illusory nature of a stance that would exist "half-way" in the radical immanence of modern man and "half-way" in the transcendence of Christian faith. Finally, neither Tillich’s nor Bultmann’s method is fully dialectical. We find here neither the radical faith of Kierkegaard nor the radical doubt of Nietzsche. Yet their methods are partially dialectical, and we may hope that their dialectical methods have saved theology from the temptation of the "positivism of revelation" (Bonhoeffer’s words) of the Barth of the Church Dogmatics. Indeed, the source of the success of Tillich’s and Bultmann’s work lies in the dialectical method which they both employ. The time has now come for theology to deepen and extend that method.

VI

If theology must now accept a dialectical vocation, it must learn the full meaning of Yes-saying and No-saying; it must sense the possibility of a Yes which can become a No, and of a No which can become a Yes; in short, it must look forward to a dialectical coincidentia oppositorum. Let theology rejoice that faith is once again a "scandal," not simply a moral scandal, an offense to man’s pride and righteousness, but, far more deeply, an ontological scandal. For eschatological faith is directed against the deepest reality of what we know as history and the cosmos. Through Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence we can sense the ecstatic liberation occasioned by the collapse of the transcendence of Being, by the death of God -- and we may witness a similar ecstasy in Rilke and Proust; and, from Nietzsche’s portrait of Jesus, theology must learn of the power of an eschatological faith that can liberate the contemporary believer from the inescapable reality of history. But liberation must finally be effected by affirmation, for negation alone must pass into Gnosticism. The believer who says no to our historical present, who refuses the existence about and within him, who sets himself against our time and destiny, and yet seeks release in an "eternity" having no relation, or only a negative relation, to our present moment, is succumbing to the Gnostic danger. Consequently, a faith which nostalgically clings to a lost past, a past having no integral relation to our present, cannot escape the charge of Gnosticism; for a total refusal of our destiny can only be grounded in a Gnostic negation of the world. A genuinely dialectical form of faith can never be Gnostic, for it can never dissociate negation and affirmation; hence its negation of "history" must always be grounded in an affirmation of the "present."

We must understand the contemporary crisis in theology as a crisis arising within theology itself. Theology was born out of faith’s will to enter history; now theology must die at the hands of a faith that is strong enough to shatter history. If theology is to transcend itself it must negate itself, for theology can be reborn only through the death of Christendom, which finally means the death of the Christian God, the God who is the transcendence of Being. We must have the courage to recognize that it is the Christian God who has enslaved man to the alienation of "being" and to the guilt of "history." Yet now the contemporary Christian can rejoice because the Jesus whom our time has discovered is the proclaimer of a gospel that makes incarnate a Kingdom reversing the order of "history" and placing in question the very reality of "being." Perhaps we are at last prepared to understand the true uniqueness of the Christian Gospel.

The history of religions teaches us that Christianity stands apart from the other higher religions of the world on three grounds: (1) its proclamation of the Incarnation, (2) its world-reversing form of ethics, and (3) the fact that Christianity is the only one of the world religions to have evolved -- or, in some decisive sense, to have initiated -- a radically profane form of Existenz. Christendom imagined that the Incarnation meant a non-dialectical (or partial) union of time and eternity, of flesh and Spirit; thereby it abandoned a world-reversing form of ethics and ushered in the new age of an absolutely autonomous history (profane Existenz). What we know as the traditional image of the Incarnation is precisely the means by which Christendom laid the ground for an inevitable willing of the death of God, for this traditional image made possible the sanctification of "time" and "nature," a sanctification finally leading to the transformation of eternity into time. If this process led to the collapse of Christendom, it nevertheless is a product of Christendom, and faith must now face the consequences of a nondialectical union of time and eternity. Is a form of faith possible that will effect a dialectical union between time and eternity, or the sacred and the profane? Already we can see significant parallels between Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. By accepting "Being begins in every Now" as the deepest symbolic expression of contemporary Existenz, we can see that modern profane existence knows a form of the Incarnation. Like its New Testament original, the profane form of the Incarnation isolates authentic existence from the presence of "being" and "history," and it does so dialectically. The Yes-saying of Eternal Recurrence dawns only out of the deepest No-saying; only when man has been surpassed will "Being" begin in every "Now." Let us also note that modern Existenz has resurrected a world-reversing form of ethics -- e.g., in Marx, Freud, Kafka, and in Nietzsche himself. May the Christian greet our Existenz as a paradoxical way through which he may pass to eschatological faith? Surely this is the problem that the crisis of theology poses for us today.

T.J.J.A.

 

Viewed 135722 times.