Overt Language About the Death of God — In Retrospect

by Thomas J.J. Altizer

Thomas J. J. Altizer received his Ph.D at the University of Chicago in 1955. He taught at Wabash College from 1954-1956, then moved to Emory University as professor of Bible and Religion until 1968. The “death of God” theology became a heated debate during his professorship at Emory. In 1968 he accepted a position at the State University of New York in 1968 as professor of English. Some of his primary works are: Radical Theology and the Death of God, ed. Altizer and William Hamilton (1966), The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966), The Descent into Hell (1970), The Self-Embodiment of God (1977), Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today (1980), Genesis and Apocalypse: A Theological Voyage Toward Authentic Christianity (1990), and The Genesis of God: A Theological Genealogy (1993).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 7-14, 1978, pp. 624-627. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr Altizer is offered the opportunity to review his own book. He enters the game with gusto. Writing in the third person, his criticism is sweeping as he critically reassesses not only this book but several other of his own works as well, yet preserving the arguments.

Dr. Altizer is one of a number of authors of notable works of the ‘60s to whom we made an offer they couldn’t refuse: How would you like to review your own book? Dr. Altizer, now director of religious studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, enters into the game with zest. Writing in the third person, he critically reassesses not only The Gospel of Christian Atheism but several other Altizer works as well.

Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology (Westminster, 1961) is a tantalizing book. Badly written, pretentious and irresponsible in its claims and arguments, wholly lacking in historical sophistication and mastery of its sources, it nevertheless remains our only theological correlation of the original religious ground of Christianity with the higher religious expressions of Oriental mysticism. A historical and theological thesis of prime importance has been spoiled both by premature publication and by the absence of scholarly and historical mastery in its author. For despite the fact that Altizer completed a doctorate in the history of religions at the University of Chicago, he is neither a historian nor a historian of religions.

Instead he is an ersatz theologian, a self-taught theologian, one who employs the history of religions only as a route into a non theological theology. And that theology is grounded in the death of God -- not simply as the historical end of Christendom, but rather as the ultimate ground of Buddhism and Christianity alike.

Beginning with a Nietzschean analysis of Greek thinking and literature which sees the distancing of the numinous as the center of the Greek experience, this book attempts to demonstrate that the higher expressions of religion in both East and West revolve about an absolute antithesis between religion and reality, wherein religion can only truly and finally realize itself by an absolute negation, dissolution or annihilation of reality itself. Such a movement of total negation is shared by both Jesus and the Buddha. and it is a negation which finally negates both "God" and nirvana in its realization of a religious totality. A daring claim, yes, but one which remains largely unintelligible in this most regrettable nonbook.

Altizer’s next nonbook (Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred [Westminster, 1963]) is in fact two nonbooks only loosely and inadequately conjoined. The first is a long-overdue study of the scholarly work of Mircea Eliade; it attempts to demonstrate that Eliade’s dialectical understanding of the sacred is at once both genuinely modern and an authentic expression of Eastern Christianity, although having true parallels with Kierkegaard and Schweitzer.

All of us, of course, but especially Altizer, are ignorant of Eastern Christianity. Nonetheless, Altizer’s thesis that Eliade has given us our only Christian and dialectical modern understanding of religion is not to be taken lightly. The second part of the book is theological rather than critical or historical, and it advances the claim that it is precisely the most radical expressions of the profane in the modern consciousness (Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Freud, Proust, Kafka and Sartre) that can be dialectically identified with the purest expressions of the sacred.

Thus Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence is here dialectically identified with the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God. This dialectical identification (a Madhyamika Christianity?) is presented as the true resolution of a contradiction in Eliade’s understanding -- a contradiction deriving from an only partially dialectical understanding of Christianity in Eliade, the latter arising from the nondialectical ground of the historical expressions of Christian theology. One wonders how Eliade will respond to this nonbook, for it attempts to unmask him as a historian of religions and to unveil him as a Christian homo religiosus immersed in a labyrinthine world in which God is dead.

At last in The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (Michigan State University Press, 1967) Altizer gives us a genuine book. It is as though his long combat with Nietzsche has finally given birth to him as a writer, though the secret of this book is that it brings together a Hegelian dialectical understanding of pure negativity with the images and symbolic figures of Blake’s imaginative world. Most startling of all, we find a fully systematic theology in this book. It is a theology purporting to be the expression of a radical Christian tradition -- a tradition unknown to the world of Christian theology, because that world is irredeemably satanic insofar as it is bound to the dead body of that God negated and left behind by the forward and apocalyptic movement of the incarnation.

The center of radical Christianity, at least as present in Blake’s vision, is the apocalyptic Christ, a total Christ, and a Christ who is totally human and divine, being at once the totality of a cosmic humanity and the total embodiment of what Blake envisioned in Milton and Jerusalem as the "Self-Annihilation of God." New Testament scholars and theologians, if they dare enter a truly imaginative world, will be amazed to discover that Blake in the early 19th century truly realized the eschatological identity of Jesus, and that he finally succeeded in actualizing this identity as the center and ground of his greatest creations. But the priestly temper is unlikely to look beyond the literal Bible as a source of vision, just as a priestly theology is incapable of envisioning a theology grounded in the sacrificial Christ rather than in the Creator God. At the end of Jerusalem these dichotomous figures dialectically and apocalyptically pass into each other, but it is a safe prediction that such an identification will elicit no interest from either our ecclesiastical or our theological worlds.

Only overt language about the death of God can succeed in calling forth such interest. Hence the scandalous success of Radical Theology and the Death of God (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), a collection of essays and articles by Altizer and William Hamilton. That book, along with The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Westminster, 1966), should make it clear that for Altizer the death of God is a Christian and apocalyptic event. Here, of course, Altizer is wholly unoriginal, for we now know, or should know, that in a fundamental sense this is true of Blake, Hegel and Nietzsche, and it is significant that Altizer could not write The Gospel of Christian Atheism until he had finished The New Apocalypse.

Now we can see both the strength and the weakness of the former volume: its strength arises from its actually speaking theologically of the death of God and its weakness derives from the absence of argument and demonstration. It is as though Altizer leaped over the theological community and addressed the layperson directly. In part, this was so because of the publicity which unexpectedly came to Altizer and the death-of-God movement, but The Gospel of Christian Atheism was largely written before this occurred. Yet at the very least this book should initiate the contemporary Christian into the world of Blake’s vision.

In The Descent into Hell (Lippincott, 1970) Altizer has attempted a systematic theological exploration of the radical and apocalyptic faith of Jesus and Paul, and has done so with the conviction that this has not yet been attempted by Christian theology and that a decisive key to this endeavor lies ready to hand in the world of Mahayana Buddhism. Herbert Richardson has identified this book as the first Buddhist Christian theology -- and while he may be saying too much, his words certainly set forth the intention of the author. Here we find the endeavor to speak of the Kingdom of God in a Christian language even while refusing the language of the Christian theological tradition, and to do so in the spirit of Blake’s marriage of "Heaven" and "Hell" and under the influence of the identification of nirvana and samsara in Mahayana Buddhism.

The deepest flaw of The Descent into Hell is that it is insufficiently theological; it fails to focus wholly on the self-negation of God, and thus fails to realize or make manifest that the eschatological acts and words of Jesus are an actualization or self-embodiment of God. Therein also Altizer has failed truly to enter the world of Buddhism, and therein to realize a transcendence of every distinction between word and act or here and there. Above all, this is a failure of the imagination, and of the theological imagination -- a failure truly to open theological thinking to the dynamic actuality of biblical faith and language.

Despite everything, Altizer intends to be a biblical theologian. Being persuaded that Barth abandoned the Bible by surrendering to the authority of the church, he is determined to realize the meaning of the Bible apart from the church and its tradition, and under the impact of what he would like to identify as the radical Christian tradition. His real hope and intention is to do pure theology, a theology thinking about God alone, and thinking in such a manner and mode as to make possible a theological realization of revelation.

The Self-Embodiment of God (Harper & Row, 1977) directly reflects this quest, and it attempts to re-enact biblical revelation in theological speech, and to do so by way of a meditation upon the actuality of speech and silence. Once again Altizer attempts too much, even if his reader senses that he attempts too little. For he is attempting not to speak about God but rather to speak in such a way as to make God manifest as the origin, center and end of speech. Finally, this can be achieved only by the reader of such a text, and here the reader must be the author as well.