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.
Word and History by Thomas J.J. Altizer
Theology, as Christians commonly understand it, is seldom conceived to be a unique creation of Christianity. Theology first appears in Western literature in Hesiod’s Theogony, and appears there as systematic discourse about the acts of divine or sacred beings. It is probable that Hesiod intended to record a peculiarly Greek synthesis of the myths of the Olympian deities with the myths of pre-historic Hellas. When theology later assumed a fully philosophic form in Greece, it became either a purely rational expression of Dionysian myth as in Plato, or a complete abandonment of myth as in Aristotle’s identification of theology with the metaphysics of Being. We may not speak of an Oriental theology if only because the Orient knows nothing of God in either the Greek or the Biblical sense. It is significant that only under the impact of Greek theoretical thinking did theology arise in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. H. A. Wolfson writes that scholastic philosophy, or the coming together of the Biblical tradition and Greek philosophy, was founded by Philo and destroyed by Spinoza. This thesis is highly significant, for to this day Judaism resists the very word "theology." Albert Schweitzer identified Paul as the creator of Christian theology, but as A. von Harnack teaches, Paul’s theology was not understood by Christendom until the Reformation if even then. In our own day, the two most important studies of Paul, those of Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann, interpret his theology as being either a consistent expression of eschatological mysticism, that is to say as being wholly antithetical to philosophical thinking, or as an understanding of sin and grace that can become fully meaningful only by means of modern existentialism, a philosophy that has set itself against the Western philosophic tradition. We are increasingly coming to understand that the Bible itself can be understood in its own terms only to the extent that it is detached from both the moral and the intellectual categories of Western culture. Yet this must mean that theology can now assume a Biblical ground only by abandoning its own tradition. To become itself, theology must negate itself. Only such a dialectical negation can save the meaning of faith from the darkness brought on by the collapse of Christendom.
The preceding statements illuminate the distinctive nature of Christian theology. Christian theology is neither a mystical nor a rational unveiling of Being. Christian theology is a thinking response to the Word that is present upon the horizon of faith, and thus it is neither a systemization of a mythical vision nor a metaphysical or mystical system. The Christian Word appears in neither a primordial nor an eternal form; it is an incarnate Word, a Word that is real only to the extent that it becomes one with human flesh. Archbishop Söderblom has judged the uniqueness of Christianity to lie in the fact that here revelation has the form of "man." No word can be accepted as a Christian Word which appears in an abstract, an inhuman, or a non-historical form. In the words of William Blake: "God only acts and is in existing beings or men." A word must be judged to be non-Christian if it cannot appear and become real in a present and human act of faith, and it is non-Christian to the extent that it cannot become incarnate in the immediate horizon of faith. The judgment is not non-Christian in an absolute or universal sense, but rather non-Christian in the moment at hand, in the actual now to which the Christian Word is directed.
Paul’s theology, although it failed to assume a systematic form, revolved about a response to the advent of a New Creation, a New Aeon or New Being that delivers its participant from the Old Aeon of sin, the Law, and the "flesh" (sarx, or existence apart from grace). Paul celebrated a New Covenant, a new life of freedom in Christ or the Spirit that annuls the old covenant of Sinai and the Torah of Israel’s priestly and legal traditions. Apart from the eschatological situation of the triumph of the New Creation, Paul’s theology is simply meaningless. Or, rather, it can be appropriated only in a non-Pauline or non-biblical form, as was done by St. Augustine when he understood Paul’s thinking by employing the moral categories of Stoicism and the ontological categories of neo-Platonism. Even Luther was unable to arrive at an eschatological understanding of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and thus was forced to introduce a non-eschatological dualism into his thinking. This dualism has plagued Protestant theology throughout its history. One must not, however, condemn the Christian theological tradition for its failure to reach a full biblical form. There must be a recognition that Christian theology can speak only to the historical moment before it. If the primitive Christians alone were participants in a fully biblical moment of faith, then faith in this New Testament form is closed to their Christian descendants. The Christian disciple cannot seek the presence of Christ in a moment of time that is irrevocably past; he must open himself to the Incarnate Word that is present in his own time and space. Faith in Jesus Christ demands a response to a Word that is present in the life of every human hand and face.
There continues to be much to learn from Kierkegaard, a man who not only arrived at a radical and dialectical understanding of faith, but who did so in the context of the advent of a world that is totally profane. Kierkegaard identified faith as "subjectivity," a subjectivity that is the dialectical negation of the "objectivity" that has progressively but decisively evolved in history. The act of faith is a reversal of profane history, a leap across the dead bones of Christendom to contemporaneousness with Christ. When Kierkegaard finally came to believe that the Christianity of the New Testament no longer exists, that contemporary Christianity is exactly the opposite of New Testament Christianity, he reached a consistent fulfillment of his earlier understanding of faith. A truly dialectical leap of faith is inseparable from its ground in an absolutely profane moment of time and space. Just as the apocalyptic New Aeon of primitive Christianity appears only in the context of the seeming triumph of the Old Aeon of darkness, a total act of faith in Christ demands a dialectical movement occasioned by the presence of the radical profane. Consequently, faith, in its Christian expression, must repudiate a non-dialectical dualism. Wholly to isolate flesh from Spirit, or light from darkness, or sin from grace, or the sacred from the profane, is to embark upon a path which must inevitably lead to a disintegration of the very act of faith. If a Pascal, a Kierkegaard, or a Dostoevsky never reached a faith that is a haven from darkness, a certainty or a purity that is free of the temptation to despair, then one must recognize that the truest expressions of faith are dialectically united with the very opposite of faith. Likewise the Word of Christianity is inseparable from the concrete actuality of time and space. It was precisely because Kierkegaard was so profoundly open to the spiritual emptiness of his time that he was able to reach a radical understanding of faith. Only on the basis of a full acceptance of the reality of that emptiness was he able to create an existential conception of faith as subjectivity, and thus it was only when he came to realize the death of historical or objective Christianity that Kierkegaard fulfilled his own conception of faith.
More than a century after Kierkegaard, theology has reached the point where it must confess the death of God if it is to survive in the presence of history. Perhaps the greatest theological problem of our time is an understanding of the meaning of the death of God. While it has only been quite recently that the professional theologian has been willing to acknowledge that the Christian God is dead, the disappearance of the historical Jesus from New Testament research clearly testifies to the collapse of the traditional form of faith. It was a Christian and scientific probing into the meaning of the Gospels that led to the dissolution of the historical person of Jesus. True, a Bultmann could follow Kierkegaard and believe that the absence of an objective knowledge of Jesus provides the way to an existential decision of faith. Nevertheless, the fact remains that here the historical Jesus becomes disjoined from the Word of faith, and all too naturally the priestly followers of Bultmann have reinstituted a quest for the historical Jesus as a means of reviving a Protestant form of orthodoxy. When the person of Jesus disappears from the Christian consciousness, the Christian faith seems to lose that very anchor which occasioned its beginning. Yet, Blake believed that ever since the resurrection Jesus has been imprisoned in Vala’s Veil -- Blake’s symbol of the repressive "Mystery" of the Church -- and can no longer appear in his original redemptive form. Increasingly there is the recognition that to the extent that we imagine Jesus in his traditional Christian form we are closed to his contemporary presence. The Gospel portraits of Jesus are inseparable from modes of belief and understanding that long since have become impossible for us, whether or not they are products of the Hellenistic community of faith. To cling to these traditional images of Jesus is to pose an insuperable barrier to the appearance of Jesus in our flesh. Jesus can appear neither as an apocalyptic Son of Man nor as an eternal Son of God, nor can we isolate the historical Jesus from the "mythological" categories of the New Testament. Bultmann brilliantly demonstrates that to discard the mythological framework of the New Testament is to negate the historical Jesus, and, as well, to negate both the cultic Christ and the cosmic Logos. Grant as we may the unquestioned power and reality of the Church’s image of Jesus, we can scarcely deny that it has disappeared from our history, and with it has disappeared every possibility of mediating the New Testament Jesus to our time and space.
The disappearance of the historical Jesus is but a particular expression of a far deeper reality, the death of God. The theologian must be prepared to recognize that the death of God underlies every mode of our thought and experience. Furthermore, the very ground of Christian theology calls upon the Christian theologian to recognize the death of God as an historical event. Too many Christian theologians have been attracted to Martin Buber’s idea of the "eclipse" of God. In Two Types of Faith, an exposition of the Jewish and Christian types of Biblical faith, Buber asserts that the Jew can be safe in a time of God’s eclipse because he exists in an eternal covenant that cannot be annulled by an act of man. The contemporary Jew can experience the contradiction of our existence as a theophany. However, not existing in an eternal covenant with God -- if only because he exists in an Incarnate Word -- the Christian cannot know the death of God as a theophany. Nor can the Christian join a Simone Weil in waiting for God. If the Christian is called into an immediate and historical covenant before him, he must fully open himself to the ultimate meaning of his own time and place, and live the reality of his own destiny with the conviction that the Word is to be found here and nowhere else. To wait for another historical destiny, or to speak the name of God in the presence of his absence, is to renounce the very reality of the Incarnation, and to close himself to the presence of Jesus. If God is dead in the life of faith -- and this truth is prophetically apparent in the great Christian visionaries of the nineteenth century -- then the theologian must fully acknowledge that the Christian God is dead. God is not simply hidden from view, nor is he lurking in the depths of our unconscious or on the boundaries of our infinite space, nor will he appear on the next turn of an historical wheel of fate. Totally committed as he is to the full epiphany of faith in the concrete moment before him, the contemporary Christian must accept the death of God as a final and irrevocable event.
To speak of the death of God as a final and decisive event is to open oneself to the horizon of our history as the full arena of faith. This has not always been the way of Christian faith. It has only been in the course of a long movement of a particular history, the history of Christendom, that Eternity has been swallowed up by time itself, that a radical finitude has appeared which has dissolved the very meaning of transcendence. Earlier Christians could greet the world as the creation, as a contingent realm deriving its ultimate meaning and reality from a transcendent Creator, even though the primitive Christians looked upon the world as the old creation, an Old Aeon that even now is coming to an end. Scholastic philosophy, as Max Scheler teaches, could know finitude as sheer contingency -- i.e., as being wholly dependent upon a reality outside it -- because medieval Christendom experienced nature as the creation. When an autonomous nature and an infinite space dawned in the Renaissance, the world was no longer manifest as the creation, and with the subsequent triumph of modern science, contingency in the medieval sense has disappeared from view. The world is no longer meaningful by means of anything which might lie beyond it. If a new meaning of nature has pervaded modern history, an autonomous world existing in-itself, then so likewise man himself no longer appears as the image of a transcendent Creator. Increasingly he has become manifest as the product of a series of particular historical and existential situations. Isolated from both the natural and the transcendent realms, the human creature has become its own creator, an autonomous consciousness existing for itself, despite the fact that in our own time the human consciousness has become a solitary subjectivity progressively dissolving itself. Lament as we may the vanished world of Christendom, it is not present to us, and we must also come to recognize that with the erosion of Christendom we can no longer respond either interiorly or cognitively to the classical forms of Christian belief.
A great many contemporary theologians believe that the new worldliness or the hard secularity of the contemporary world does not touch the interior depths of faith. Indeed, theologians have celebrated the advent of the full worldliness of the world as an occasion for the epiphany of a truer form of faith. Granted that most such statements are naive and unthinking, a dangerous rhetoric underlies many of these joyous announcements. If ours is a world in which the Christian God is dead -- and this is the real meaning of theological language which speaks of the triumph of worldliness -- then it is an idle and irresponsible fantasy which would imagine that either faith or the Church can survive in their traditional forms. Quite frequently the theologian who rejoices in a new worldliness will reveal that such worldliness simply impels him to an interior and pseudo-historical realm, a world where faith can shine in its original and pristine glory, but also a world that is untouched by the actualities of history and free from the threats of scientific thinking and the assaults of the creative imagination -- in short, the world of a simple and unreflective Christian piety. We have only to observe the work of Teilhard de Chardin to grasp the revolutionary consequences for a faith that would engage in a real encounter with our world. It is true that Teilhard occasionally and inconsistently introduces traditional Christian language into the pages of The Phenomenon of Man; but this fact scarcely obviates the truth that virtually the whole body of Christian belief either disappears or is transformed in Teilhard’s evolutionary vision of the cosmos. Moreover, in The Divine Milieu, Teilhard reveals that a religious life which would respond to the death of God cannot direct its prayer or meditation to a transcendent or numinous realm, but instead must open itself to a divine "center" that fills the whole body of the cosmos, and a "center" that has no existence apart from the movement of the cosmos itself. Numerous critics have pronounced The Divine Milieu to be the only original Christian treatise on the interior life of prayer to be produced in the twentieth century. If this is true, we can only conclude that even Christian meditation cannot survive in its traditional form in the presence of the death of God.
Confronted as we are by a new and revolutionary moment of history, we can accept our destiny only by acknowledging the loss of all our traditional Christian images. No sacred images whatsoever are present upon our horizon. The original form of Jesus has disappeared from view, transcendence has been swallowed up by immanence, the events of our salvation history have passed into the dead and lifeless moments of an irrevocable past, no heaven can appear above the infinite stretches of a purely exterior spatiality, and no grace can appear within the isolated subjectivity of a momentary consciousness. May we hope that the time has at last arrived when the Christian faith can transcend the language of images? Is the moment at hand when Christianity can fulfill its heritage of a Torah that forbids all images even while giving witness to a total union between the Word and the world? Has the time finally come when Christianity can move beyond even those higher expressions of mysticism which transcend the images and the language of religion? To speak to these questions we must first note the relationship between Christianity and those higher forms of Oriental mysticism which discard all images.
Whether they speak of Brahman-Atman, Purusha, Nirvana, Sunyata, or Tao, the various forms of Oriental mysticism give witness to an eternal and primordial Reality, a passive and quiescent Reality without energy or motion, and a Reality that only truly appears through the disappearance or inactivity of all other reality whatsoever. The Oriental mystic follows a path leading to a dissolution of consciousness, an inactivity of the self, or a total transformation of a spatial and temporal existence into an infinite and eternal Being. These purer expressions of the mystical way are consummated in the epiphany of a primordial Totality, a Totality that reveals itself as being the underlying reality of a seemingly fallen cosmos, and a Totality that is the original source of the polarities of consciousness and the antinomies of history. Yet it is of crucial importance for our purpose to note that the way of the Oriental mystic is a way backwards. He must reverse the movements of consciousness and history if he is to unveil the primordial Totality. His goal is the primordial Beginning that existed before the advent of the cosmos or history; the eternal Now which he celebrates is a Now existing prior to the manifestation of time and history.
Simply to speak of Oriental mysticism in the context of a discussion of Christian theology is to open oneself to a realization of the presence of Oriental or non-Christian motifs in the traditional expressions of Christian meditation and belief. If we were to identify a backward movement to a primordial and quiescent Totality as the ground of Oriental mysticism, then we must acknowledge that a Christian doctrine of God as an eternal and impassive Being shares this fundamental ground with Oriental mysticism. So, too, do a Christian nostalgia for a lost paradise, a Christian doctrine of Christ as the eternal Logos, and a Christian meditation that sinks into the interior depths of the self. Furthermore, when Christianity is seen in this perspective it can only suffer in comparison with Oriental mysticism, for in this form it never reaches the purity, the depth, or the consistency of the Oriental vision. Yet it is precisely by looking for the distinctiveness or the uniqueness of Christianity that the Christian faith can be preserved and enhanced by this challenge. Rudolf Otto in his study of mysticism in East and West, Mysticism: East and West, compares Meister Eckhart and Shankara and reaches the conclusion that the distinctiveness of Christian mysticism lies in its celebration of God or the Godhead as a forward-moving process. Whereas Shankara understands Brahman or Sat as existing in an unmoving repose, Eckhart conceives of the Godhead as a life-process, a process whose true reality derives from its very movement. Otto’s great study of the eschatological proclamation of Jesus discovers the fundamental and distinctive motif of Jesus’ message to lie in its announcement of the "dawning" of the Kingdom of God, a dawning that is itself a forward-moving process, a process whereby a future and transcendent Kingdom penetrates from the future into the present, from its place in the Beyond into this world, and is operative here as an inbreaking realm of salvation. With Otto can one conceive the uniqueness of Christianity to be its affirmation of the sacred or the numinous Reality as a forward-moving process that even now is in process of realizing itself?
This understanding of the ground of Christianity must inevitably lead to a realization of the dynamic and self-transfiguring quality of the Christian Word. Existing neither in a static nor an eternal form, the Christian Word can never wholly or finally be confined within a particular set of images, nor can it perpetually be bound to a particular culture or history. As an active or a forward-moving process it must necessarily negate its particular expressions, and progressively transform itself as it becomes incarnate in a continually changing series of historical moments. At a moment of crisis faith must have an inevitable temptation to return to an earlier or even a primordial form of the Word, but such a path is fundamentally a repetition of the universal mystical quest, and can by no means be judged to be a positive witness to the Word that becomes incarnate in the world. Moreover, priestly religion in all its expressions binds its adherents to a particular Word and a particular community as the sole arena of the redemptive sacred. It isolates and solidifies the events of salvation history into a series of unique and once and for all events. Again, priestly religion, in both its Christian and non-Christian expressions, is a backward-moving remembrance or re-presentation (anamnesis) of the sacred events of the past or the primordial Beginning. To employ Kierkegaard’s categories in a different context, priestly religion is a "recollection" of all that which has been, and it acts by repeating backwards. But the uniquely Christian form of the Word of faith demands that it express itself in a movement of "repetition," a forward-moving recollection wherein that which has been becomes anew. A Kierkegaardian movement of repetition is impossible for a form of faith that is bound to a sacred history of the past, and so likewise the backward movement of recollection must reverse the forward movement of the Incarnation.
Our situation calls upon us to negate the religious forms of Christendom just as the reform prophets of the Bible called for a new form of faith that negated the pre-exilic forms of Israel’s religion. Since the institution of the Church the task of the theologian has primarily been a priestly one. He has been called upon to give meaning to the life of the cult, to reconcile the developing life of the Church with its Biblical ground, to mediate between the Church and the world, and above all to be an apologist for the Church to the world. For the most part the theologian has accepted the sacred history of his particular community as an inviolable given or as the very foundation of theology itself. Yet we must remember that the Biblical prophet spoke against the sacred history of his time. His task was not to link the present and the past but rather to forge a way from the present to the future, and thereby to make possible a new and more radical form of faith. Speaking in the situation of an impending catastrophe to his people, he called them out of their life in an old history of the past and pointed the way to the final moment of the Eschaton. Jesus was such a prophet, but unlike his prophetic forebears he celebrated the immediate dawning of the Eschaton and gave himself to a total negation and reversal of history. By giving himself so fully to the Eschaton of the future, Jesus was, in the words of Schweitzer, crushed by the wheel of destiny, and even the form by which his disciples remembered him has perished in the disintegrating moments of our history. Nevertheless, we know his Word as a Word pointing to an eschatological future, and we must not be dismayed if it is no longer meaningful as a Word of the past. Only by shattering all those images of Jesus that are present in our past can we be open to an eschatological end.
While the Jew awaits a Messiah of the future, the Christian knows that the Messiah-Son of Man has come in Jesus Christ, that his coming was a real and decisive event, and that he will be present with us even to the coming of the end of the world. Despite the fact that we can no longer know him in the images of the Christian tradition, we know that he is present in his Word, and that Word is a Word reconciling the world to itself. But if we are to believe in a real process of reconciliation we cannot believe that the Word itself is unaffected by its act. Nor can we believe that the Word acts through a fleeting series of Gnostic mirages and masks. From the words of Paul, we know that the Word becomes kenotically incarnate in its own Other. It becomes what it beholds, it speaks itself in the speech to which it responds, it acts itself in the joy and pain which it transfigures. In short, the Christian Word is an historical Word. This does not mean that it is a Word which is simply present in a sacred event of the past, nor does it mean that it is merely addressed to historical events, or confined to an historical realm. It means that the Christian Word becomes fully incarnate in the concrete actuality of human flesh, that it is present wherever that which has been becomes anew, or wherever the present seeks fulfillment in a redemptive and eschatological future. Only by a continual process of negating its own past expressions can the Word be a forward-moving process, and only by a process of reversing the totality of history can the Word be an eschatological Word breaking from the future into the present. It is precisely the forward movement of history that testifies to the presence of the Word. Such a movement is a real movement. It is not a perpetual cycle revolving about itself, but a movement opening into the Eschaton of the future, an Eschaton that dawns wherever history negates its past to realize its future. While an eschatological movement of the Word must necessarily negate the past moments of its own expression, it does so not to negate the reality of history itself, but rather to annul a past which forecloses the possibility of a realization of its own future.
Therefore we must recognize that to understand the Christian Word as an historical Word need not mean that it is identified with a history that is past. Historicity is the realm of concrete and actual events, of humanly meaningful events, and when an historical event ceases to exist in a meaningful relation to the present it thereby passes into a non-historical realm. When a contemporary Christian confesses the death of God he is giving witness to the fact that the Christian tradition is no longer meaningful to him, that the Word is not present in its traditional form, and that God has died in the history in which he lives. Insofar as such a Christian is undergoing a full encounter with history he can by no means be judged to be non-Christian, for it is precisely the meditation between faith and history that lies at the center of the Christian faith. Faith has no security against history because history is the arena of faith, and apart from history the Christian reality of faith would perish. It is rather the faith that cannot exist in history that has ceased to be Christian. But it is just for this reason that the contemporary Christian is called to confess the death of God. If God has died in our history then he is no longer present in the Word of faith, and at most he can be no more than a nostalgic memory of an age that is past. At worst he can be a positive barrier to the realization of faith. Buber has said that the modern age is dominated by a Paulinism without grace -- we are overwhelmed by alienation, despair and guilt, but we know nothing of Paul’s celebration of faith, hope, and love. We might translate these words into our context by saying that the Christian must now know a Paulinism without God. Gradually it is becoming apparent that the Angst of modern man is not created by an encounter with an abstract Nothing. It is occasioned by the presence of that nothingness which has followed in the wake of the death of God. Our nostalgia for God has created our Angst, just as our demand for an unchanging absolute has hurled us into meaninglessness. Kierkegaard judged Angst to be a product of sin, and when we remember that the late Kierkegaard came to understand sin as the opposite not of virtue but of faith, then we must ask if Angst is created by the evasion of history, by faith’s refusal to exist in the moment before it. A faith that dares to live in our present will not seek a God that lives in the past. It cannot know an Angst that derives from a longing for the God who is the transcendence of Being, and it will be free of a nostalgia for a sacred time that is irrevocably and finally past.
Can we speak of a theology without God? Already in the nineteenth century Blake and Dostoevsky proclaimed a Christ who can be known only by passing through the death of God, and, if we are radical enough, we might understand that Hegel and Nietzsche were Christian thinkers who grasped the necessity of a theological atheism. However, we should not be tempted to think that such a theology knows a God above God or a Godhead lying beyond the God who appears in history or religion. A mystical understanding of the Godhead was no doubt a Christian possibility at a time when God was still present in history. Yet no possibility lies before us of moving from God to the Godhead if only because God is no longer present to us. Even St. John of the Cross’s "dark night of the soul" lies intermediate between the presence of God and a total union with the Godhead. The Christian today is called upon to say No to God because God himself has ceased to be present in history. He is present to us only in his absence, and to know the absent or the missing God is to know a void that must be filled with despair and rebellion, an Angst deriving from a ressentiment that is itself created by an inability to bear a full existence in the present moment. If God has truly died in our history, then he must be negated by the Word of faith. It is the Christian who must murder God, or, rather, it is the Christian who must bury the decomposing God who continues to haunt our memory of things past. A Christian atheism says No to God because of its response to a Word that appears without God; simply to acknowledge that ours is a history in which God is dead is to foreclose the possibility of God’s manifestation in the Word. In this situation a Word that appears as the Son of God cannot be a Christian Word, for it is Christ himself who negates every Word that calls its hearer to a primordial or non-historical realm. Finally, as Blake envisioned, it is the human body of Christ who negated the God who is present in the memory of the past, and only when the Christian has wholly been delivered from remembrance and recollection will he be open to the Word that is fully incarnate in the present.
Classical Christian theology knew a tension between time and Eternity, a tension created by the chasm between the creation and the Creator. When the Creator disappears from the boundary of finitude, and Eternity is swallowed up by time, then theology must lose its ground in a dialectical tension between the here and the Beyond. Once, the Church could know Christ as the cosmic Lord, as the Mediator between time and Eternity, as both fully man and fully God. But Christ cannot appear as God at a time in which God is dead. The Christ who appears in the form of a transcendent Lord is inseparable from the actual presence of the transcendent Creator, and with the collapse of the transcendent realm the Word itself can no longer appear in the form of transcendence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer teaches that the presence of Christ can be known only in the body of a broken and suffering humanity, for the Jesus whom we know is wholly detached from the divine attributes of his traditional image. For the first time in its history, theology is now called to a radically kenotic Christology. Already a grave danger besets this new vocation of theology. Our temptation in this situation is to seize upon those New Testament images of Jesus that are seemingly free of a transcendent ground with the hope that we can thereby arrive ,at an image of a fully contemporary Jesus. Unfortunately, and as New Testament scholarship has long since demonstrated, there are no New Testament images of Jesus that are independent of the theological thinking of the early Church. Thus when we attempt by this means to unveil a fully human Jesus we discover that we are left with the empty shell of a once vital faith. All too naturally the major thrust of contemporary theology has been to dissociate Jesus and the Word, either to apprehend a Word that is wholly isolated from the Church’s memory of Jesus or to affirm a Jesus who is liberated from the Word of the Church. In one direction, theology is drawn to an abstract, an inhuman and a non-historical Word, and, in the other, it is drawn to a Jesus who gradually but inevitably collapses into the shrunken humanity of our own time. Is there no way open to us leading to a fully human Jesus or to an authentic Christian Word? Must we continue to wholly identify Jesus with a broken humanity or with an abstract and finally meaningless Word? At bottom these questions impel us to ask if we are in fact living in a post-Christian age, a time in which the Christian Word is silent.
Despite the fact that numerous theologians are now speaking of our time as a post-Christian age we must note that it is impossible for the Christian to dissociate the reality of his own time from the presence of Christ. To speak of an actual or historical time as being isolated from the Word is to speak a non-Christian language. When a Christian speaks of his own time as a time that is not united with Christ he should do so with the confession that he is not speaking the language of faith. Even if we were to adapt a Lutheran language and to speak of the Christian’s life in the world as being simultaneously faithful and faithless, we must nevertheless acknowledge that faith in its Christian expression can never be severed from the actual presence of an Incarnate Word. Rather than speaking of our time as a post-Christian age, the contemporary Christian might more truly say that the Word appears in our history in such a way as to negate its previous expressions. It is a particular Christian history, the history of Christendom, that has died in our midst, and it would be nothing less than blasphemy for the Christian to identify the Church with Christendom or to believe that the Word is confined to a history that is past. If the Incarnate Word is a Word that makes all things new then we must not naively believe that it is only the world and not the Word which is affected by the process of Christian "repetition." Such a conception isolates the Word from the world and renounces the reality of the Incarnation. An historical Word is a Word in the process of its own realization and it can move only by negating its own particular expressions. In our situation, a Word that fails to negate its image in Christendom would indeed become motionless and silent. The very fact that Christendom is collapsing about us and within us can be greeted by the Christian as a decisive witness to the contemporary presence of the Word. However, must we not finally define Christendom as all that history existing in the presence of the Christian God? A recognition that the Christian God is a creation of Christian history -- of the coming together of Word and history in a particular time and space -- can lead to an openness of faith to a new and radical epiphany of the Word in a future beyond the history of Christendom.
Therefore faith must come to know the death of God as an historical event witnessing to the advent of a new form of the Word. As so conceived only the Christian can truly know the death of God because only the Christian is open to the forward movement of history and the Word. Only a new Adam who is liberated from the old creation of the past can celebrate the presence of the Word in a new world that negates all previous forms of faith. After passing through the most abysmal depths of spiritual deprivation, George Bernanos’ dying country priest can joyously if feebly announce that everything is grace. Suffer as we must in a time that has already so ravaged the Christian spirit, we must resist the supreme temptation of despair and renounce every desperate effort to identify a broken and empty humanity as the sole fruit of grace. An eschatological faith knows that grace is all, that the Word appears in a new world, a new totality drawing all history into union with the Word. An authentically Christian faith can express itself in No-saying only when confronting a history that is irrevocably past. When meeting the actuality of the history before it, it must give itself to a total Yes-saying, an eschatological repetition of the Word in the present. Since the Christian Word is neither timeless nor primordial, it has no existence apart from its movement. Accordingly, the Christian Word is never silent, nor can it be impassive or speechless. The Incarnate Word speaks in its own movement and nowhere else, and while its movement may well be a process negating its own expressions, it will only cease to be when it ceases to move. The Word that is silent in our time is a Word that has been negated by the Word itself. A faith that clings to the diminishing fragments of a Word that is receding into the past must resist the actual presence of the Word and set itself against the forward movement of the Incarnation. If a new world is dawning in our midst, then the Christian must know this world as an epiphany of the Word, and he must give himself to this new history with the faith that it is precisely at this point that the Word is making all things new. Now that we have reached a point where it is manifest that history itself has moved through the death of God we must celebrate the death of God as an epiphany of the eschatological Christ. While the Christ who lies upon our horizon no longer appears in his traditional form -- indeed, he may never again appear in a form that is in continuity with his previous expressions -- as Christians we are called into union with his presence among us even when that presence would seem to negate all that faith once knew as the Word. Yet if the Christ of faith is an eschatological Word, he cannot be fully present in the dark and hidden crevices of a turbulent present, nor can he be fully at hand in the broken body of a suffering humanity. He must instead be present in the fullness of the history before us. The time is now past when the theologian can be silent in the presence of the moment before him. He must speak to be Christian, and he must speak the Word that is present in our flesh
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