Chapter 1: Thomas Altizer and the Future of Theology, by Theodore Runyon, Jr.

The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response
by John B. Cobb, Jr. (editor)

Chapter 1: Thomas Altizer and the Future of Theology, by Theodore Runyon, Jr.

Note: Theodore Runyon, Jr. is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Candler School of Theology

In attempting to clarify and assess critically the contribution of Thomas J. J. Altizer to theological discussion in our time, I shall employ a rather broad descriptive typology. Like all typologies, it will not do justice to all the factors, but its use will be defensible, I trust, if it makes a few of the main issues more clear.

Generally speaking, man has expressed his consciousness of divine reality in two basic ways. One of these we shall call "the way of identity," the other, "the way of distinction." According to the way of identity, man intuits himself and the divine as one, at least on the ultimate level; the way of distinction insists on distinguishing the reality of God from that of man at every level.

The "way of identity" is by far the more venerable and the more universal. It can be observed as operative in some of religion’s most subtle and highly developed forms as well as in its most primitive manifestations. Whether primitive or sophisticated, however, the way of identity views reality as monolithic. The gods do not have their reality independently from the world but rather are the personification of world forces. Man himself, at least in the primitive forms of this approach, does not differentiate himself from the cosmos of which he is a part. He understands himself, his society, and his daily life as an integral part of a world which is in its totality sacred. Though there may be areas of his life or his world which take on special sanctity for cultic purposes, these sacred acts and places only represent the whole of life, the whole of his world. The divine is intuited fundamentally, therefore, not as a separate object (even though the worshiper may be surrounded by idols) but as that which permeates his whole existence. Because the divine is continuous with the world, access to the divine requires no mediation. Insofar as he is able to penetrate through the superficial and actually illusory levels of his existence, man finds himself to be in immediate touch with the holy. He participates ecstatically in the ultimate principle of the universe.

Moreover, man intuits this ultimate principle to be unmoved and unmoving. This is why he joyfully embraces it as an answer to the problem of his own existence, plagued as he is by insecurity, instability, and change. By means of his participation in the ultimate, unmoving, unchanging reality, he is assured of that which is permanent in the midst of change. The enlightened man is thus able to recognize "change" as a deficient mode of being and finally illusory.

The way of identity, therefore, presents us with a monolithic approach to reality in which the gods, the world, and man all have an ultimate identity in the infinite, unchanging One which is All.

In contrast, the approach to the reality of the divine which I have termed "the way of distinction" draws a fundamental difference between God and the world, and exercises considerable effort to maintain this difference in the face of recurring tendencies to weaken or erase it. The typical way of asserting the distinction is by differentiating between Creator on the one hand and creature and creation on the other. "Creature" and "creation," even when raised to their highest powers, are still qualitatively distinct from Creator, according to this view. To quote Kierkegaard, there is an "infinite qualitative difference between man and God." The divine is not available to man as an immediate principle either within himself or his world. Rather, contact between the human and the divine is characteristically understood as being initiated from the side of the divine and involves an interaction between the divine and the human which is analogous to interpersonal relations. Indeed, the way of distinction would assert that, strictly speaking, "relations" can exist only where there is difference, and thus it would be improper to speak of "relation" within an identity context. For things which, at the point of their mutual interaction, are intuited as identical are not related, they are simply one.

Having noted the fundamental contrast between these approaches in their understanding of the nature of the divine-human link, we are not surprised to find that the way of distinction has a contrasting view of change. "Relation" is understood on the model of an event in time and space; that is, it has a reality which transcends man as well as involving him, and it occurs in the flux of history. Time-space existence, therefore, as the arena of man’s contact with the divine, is not a deficient mode of being, it is not illusory. It is just as "real" as is God himself. It is where salvation takes place.

This means, however, that the God who is interacting with man in this time-space dimension is just as involved in history and change as is man. He is not above the historical flux but commits himself to it; and he is known in the midst of the flux not as the static, unmoving absolute but as the Faithful One of Israel.

The Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed, and which he may have sensed as dawning in his own ministry, was the Kingdom of this kind of God and was to be realized in a new history. His ministry may have had ecstatic overtones, but one thing is clear, he conceived of the Kingdom fundamentally as the reconstituting of all relationships: God with man, man with his fellowmen, man with the world.

The way of distinction, therefore, puts a positive valuation on the time-space continuum and, though it sees divine redemption as the remaking of history into something new, it cannot conceive of divine-human interaction in other than historical terms which preserve the qualitative difference between God and man.

Now let us attempt to locate Altizer’s contribution to the future of theology in terms of his typology. He is seeking to do a very daring thing, one that has exciting and far-reaching implications.

I believe it is accurate to say that Altizer’s roots are in the identity approach. That approach has, in the past, spoken most directly to his religious sensibilities. The immediate awareness of the Holy, the mysterium tremendum, ecstatic participation in the Sacred: this is language he can understand and with which he can identify, as is evidenced by his first book, Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology. More recently, however, Altizer has become at least partially dissatisfied with "the way of identity." Why? Because in its traditional forms it is unable to put a positive value on the historical process. As a result, it can neither take the problem of evil in history seriously nor affirm a redeemed future in time. Christianity, however, does both. In Christianity the problem of evil, for example, is not an illusion which is to be escaped but the occasion for responsibility in this world, for struggle, and for ultimate victory. The present and future have significance according to Christian faith because they are the plane on which God is working out his will. God has a stake in history. He has a destiny.

Now we are in a position to see more clearly the uniqueness and daring of Altizer’s theological venture. He stands in two theological worlds. He is unwilling to give up either, because he has a vision of combining both of them. This is not a matter of syncretism, he asserts, for the combination is demanded by the deepest religious insight of both approaches. What I have presented as two contradictory approaches he feels to be dialectically related. The way of identity, the way traditionally associated with Oriental mysticism, must be completed by a world-affirming involvement in history. Its world denial, if understood dialectically in terms of the "coincidence of opposites," is actually world-affirming, he insists. And this potential for world affirmation ought to be given theological expression, which the East has not as yet done. Precisely here lies the Western contribution, for only in the West, and -- in spite of the fact that it was implicit in the Christian gospel -- only in our time, has "change" become something no longer to be feared but rather to be welcomed as the bringer of hope and the unfolding of the divine (Hegel). "Modern man is the first to live so fundamentally out of the future," says Gerhard Kruger, "that for him the new as such has a magical attraction." 1 If it can be demonstrated that world affirmation is implicit within the way of identity, the Eastern approach need no longer place a negative value on change but can learn from the West that there is no necessary conflict between change and the divine, nor is there any need to view the dimension of the sacred as antagonistic to the phenomenon of change.

Equally important, however, are the implications for Christianity. The Christian proclamation will be complete only as it recognizes that the way of distinction was only a passing stage in the divine evolution. It was a projection of the alienation and repression which man experiences in his society. But now through the insight of the true inheritors of the Christian gospel, seers such as Blake, Hegel, Nietzsche, this projection can be recognized for what it is. It need no longer victimize and repress, for it is in the process of dying away. History is moving toward the ultimate dissolution of the distinction between God and man and a merging of the two in the new godmanhood of the eschatological age.

This vision of a new way of identity Altizer sees as inherent in the true meaning of the incarnation. Theology in the past, he argues, has not taken with radical seriousness the claim, in Phil. 2:7, that Christ, in entering the world, "emptied" himself (Greek, kenosis) of his divinity, pouring out his divinity into the world and assuming full and complete humanity. With this one act of self-giving, namely, the life and death of Jesus, God willed to join himself with the world, so that from henceforth he is no longer to be found in the heavens -- the transcendent, domineering God is dead -- but must be found where he wills to be found, that is, in his world.

It has taken Christianity nineteen hundred years to discover that the God who is distinct from man and the world no longer exists, says Altizer. The seers of the nineteenth century finally grasped the fact, and now it is breaking through to the masses. (It is in this dual sense that Altizer wants to insist that "God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence.") His point is that this death of God was implicit from the beginning in the Christian proclamation, for it was a death willed by God himself. Though we are only now beginning to realize it, as our awareness of this fact increases we move into new possibilities for becoming sensitized to the life of God in his incarnate form, that is, in the world Christologically viewed. Our eyes are opened to his epiphany, and we begin to see the dawning of that Kingdom which complete union with the divine in this world will bring, namely, the new humanity, the divine humanity, our being remade in the image of Christ, our identity with the truly Sacred.

Anyone who is serious about the task of theology in our day cannot but appreciate the breadth of Altizer’s vision and the ambitiousness of his undertaking. If he succeeds, he will have accomplished what no other theologian has done: he will have joined the characteristic religious ways of the East and the West together in one consistent approach, albeit on an Eastern base but with strong Western contributions. This accomplishment would have consequences of the utmost importance for missiology and ecumenism. Thus, regardless of one’s attitude toward Altizer’s thought, there is no denying its seminal significance.

Let me now indicate, however, what I consider to be the chief difficulties in his approach. I shall mention just two.

My first question has to do with Altizer’s interpretations of Biblical passages and of traditional Christian doctrines. Is it legitimate, on Biblical and historical grounds, to make the kind of nondialectical use of traditional language which Altizer does? He employs (a) the kenosis passage of Philippians, (b) the doctrine of the incarnation, and (c) the eschatological message of Jesus to justify dissolving the distinction between God and the world, bringing God into identity with the world in a way which, though initially dialectical, is ultimately thoroughly monistic.

Altizer’s interpretation of the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ as the merging of God with the world may be defensible if one is reading Paul via Hegel and Blake. But if one is attempting instead to get at Paul’s own orientation, then it would seem that for Paul the most basic sin of man is that he confuses God with the world, the Creator with the creation:

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. . . . They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. (Rom. 1:22-25.)

How can a reading which eliminates the distinction between Creator and creation claim to do justice to Paul’s theological intention?

Nor did the historical doctrine of the incarnation intend to provide a basis for a dissolution of the difference between man and God. Even in Chalcedon’s tortured attempts to bend rational language to serve the cause of paradox it is evident that in the description of the new humanity, Jesus Christ, the God-man, the distinction between the divine and the human is to be maintained:

We apprehend this one and only Christ . . . in two natures, without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other. . . . The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the unity.2

Regardless of what one thinks about the adequacy of this formula it is clear that the classic doctrine of the incarnation cannot be construed as supporting, even eschatologically, a dissolving of the distinction between God and man.

Finally, Jesus’ own apocalyptic message can scarcely be credited with pointing toward the elimination of the Creator-creature distinction, for his was the proclamation of the inbreaking of the reign of the Lord. And "Lord" and "servant," even when transmuted by Jesus into "father" and "son," remain distinct, noninterchangeable categories. In raising the term "son" to the highest power, we still have son and not "father." To be sure, the inbreaking of the Kingdom meant the transvaluing of all previous religious and cultural values; but this transvaluation was one of completely reconstituted relationships, not one of mystical identity. For Jesus, the eschaton means that God will be God, and man will be man and not attempt to be God anymore. True creaturehood will be restored, which is at the same time full humanity. And thus there will be peace, joy, life!

It would seem to me, therefore, that the use Altizer makes of Jesus’ eschatological message, Paul’s notion of the self-emptying of Christ, and the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, is suspect in the light of their historical contexts and original intentions.

My second question has to do with the nature and extent of secularization and the response appropriate to it.

Contrary to the impression some may have received, Altizer is not uncritical of the process of secularization. True, he warmly greets the process insofar as it is releasing persons in our time from their bondage to the transcendent God (who in his dead and negated form is better identified as "Satan"). Yet, unlike those who might uncritically embrace the "secular city," Altizer recognizes that secularization is a very mixed blessing. Why?

Because it destroys not only false religion but any sensitivity to the Sacred as well. The technological world is no new savior. It is dull, flat, boring, and finally demonic, because it prevents the realization of that new humanity which is only possible where the Holy is present and participated in. Therefore, for Altizer, secularization is good insofar as it destroys that God who is different from man, but bad insofar as it also eliminates the religious instinct, the awareness of the Sacred, that divine dimension of experience which is intuited as identical with man’s own ultimate being and destiny.

At this point I should like to suggest an approach which is quite the opposite. Secularization is good, it seems to me, insofar as it undermines excessive confidence in the religious instinct or intuition (Bonhoeffer calls it the "religious a priori"). The religious instinct appears to be a fairly universal phenomenon. Men have from time immemorial experienced wonder, mystery, awe, and dread in the face of the inexplicable and uncontrollable forces of nature and of their own inner nature, and have hypostatized these experiences in the gods. But critics as diverse as Calvin, Marx, Julian Huxley, and Bultmann have recognized that to give these experiences absolute status and authority is to fall into ideology. Calvin labeled the religious instinct "the idol factory of the human heart." And Marx was hopeful that as man more fully mastered his environment and destiny, residual religious feelings would wither away. The religious ideology would no longer be necessary when its source in human feelings of finitude and limitation had been overcome by man’s success in organizing his world. Marx may have been overly optimistic in his prediction. Nevertheless, insofar as Marxism exposes the products of the religious instinct as ideology, as one stage in man s development which is now being made irrelevant, thus undermining confidence in the absoluteness of the religious intuition, Marxism may be Christianity’s secret ally in world history. Secularization is therefore good as it undermines man’s confidence in the ultimacy of the religious intuition as the clue to the divine.

However, from the same standpoint, secularization would be bad insofar as it itself turns into an ideology, secularism, which collapses reality into a self-contained monolith, so that there is no longer anything or anyone to call man out of identity with his world into responsibility for it.

Where the gods are identical with the world, man can have no independence from it either. The political scientist, Eric Voegelin, points out that modern technological secularism has, in effect, reversed the movement which took place in ancient Israel. That ancient movement was one in which man achieved independence from his world by being called out of his identity with the cosmos to assume a place of responsibility over it. He was called to this independence and responsibility by a God who was different from the world. Only where God remains distinct from the world is this kind of call possible. When this God dies, the cosmos is the only reality left; the process reverses, and man slips back into identity with his world, back into the pre-Judeo-Christian form of religion.3 Yes, modern secularism remains "religious," but it is a religion of identity: one aspect, one dimension of the world is exalted, is mythologized, represents the whole. And the new, technologically monolithic world has shown an amazing propensity to spawn mythological expressions by which to give itself identity (now that it has lost its relativity to a transcendent God), myths of race, class, nation, blood, etc. Man continues to attempt to create within his windowless world some kind of absolute, some dimension of ultimacy. All he seems to be able to bring forth, however, is more fanaticism, the clash of absolute with absolute, of ideology with ideology, always attaching what is left of the religious instinct to his creations and demanding obeisance.

Altizer is, of course, just as opposed to this kind of idolatrous absolutizing of the world as is any sensitive thinker today. I do not see, however, that he has any real basis or norm within his approach of identity for calling man out of identity. The Archimedean point of reference is missing, for God has no dialectical reality apart from us as well as in our midst, no reality apart from the world as well as in it. Therefore, there is no basis from which to create what I would call genuine historical existence, nor any way to call man to what seems to me the vital need of our age, the vocation of responsible technological existence. Strictly speaking, a "vocation" cannot be self-given; one must be called to it. And where there is no one to call, the understanding of life as vocation drops away. This is precisely modern man’s problem. He no longer has a context within which to understand his life as responsible to anyone but himself.

What is needed, therefore, is not a collapsing of reality into a monolith of immanence but rather the recovery of a language by which man can be called out of identity into responsibility. This I take to be the crucial task of theology in our time.

But allow me to push this questioning of Altizer a bit farther. What he understands to be the point of identity with ultimate reality, namely, the awareness of the Sacred, the sensitivity to the Word incarnating itself in our flesh, I would contend -- with the Marxists -- is in actuality simply our own aesthetic faculty, a sensitivity with which everyone is endowed to a greater or lesser degree. Most of us have experienced "finitude" and "ecstasy," which seem to mark off the standard range of "religious" awareness. To be sure, these experiences are also found in the "way of distinction," where they may accompany the event of relation. However, to paraphrase Martin Buber, while they may accompany the event they do not constitute it.4 Our aesthetic sensitivities, important as they are in experiencing life to the full, are a part of the world, a part of creation. To exalt them, including the most purely "religious" intuitions, to some kind of absolute status, or, which is to do the same thing, to assume that they are the means of access to the ultimate, is to be involved in ideology.

My own inclination is to say that genuine historical existence, understood as relation with the Other, is possible only when all ideologies, including religious ideologies, are called into question. From where I stand, therefore, it looks as if the "radical theology" represented by Altizer is not radical enough. Its atheism is a soft atheism. It disposes of the transcendent God, to be sure, but puts in his place something that looks very much like an esthetic ideology to which is attached the label, "Christ is alive!" In comparison with this, the hard atheism of a Sartre or a Camus, who refuses to be drawn into ideology, is still somehow more attractive.

Summarizing the crux of our difference of theological approach: From Altizer’s standpoint, the God I am advocating, the God who is distinct from man and the world, is a repressive figure who must be killed in order that the God who in Christ is identical with the world might emerge. From my viewpoint, what needs to die, or at least to be relativized, is absolute confidence in the religious intuition of man, which in this form I take to be a deifying of the aesthetic dimension of the creature. For only when our confidence in the ultimacy of our instinctive religiousness has effectively been challenged can we begin to be sensitive to the God who is distinct from man, who calls us out of identity with our world into responsibility for it.

I have posed the issues as forcefully as possible not to deny the contribution of Thomas Altizer but to affirm it. More than any of his colleagues in the theological movement of which he is a part, he is blazing new trails beyond the provincialism of Western theology. Even if one cannot agree with the particular amalgam of East and West which he is evolving, one cannot deny the importance of the task to which he has committed himself nor its usefulness as a stimulus to the overall task of arriving at a new language -- or languages -- which can communicate to man once again both divine and fully human existence, the goal we are all seeking.


1. Gerhard Kruger, "Die Geschichte im Denken der Gegenwart," Grosse Geschichtsdenker, ed. by Rudolf Stadelmann (Tübingen:Rainer Wunderlich, 1949), p. 224.

2. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963), p. 36.

3. Cf. Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation (Louisiana State University Press, 1956).

4. Martin Buber, I and Thou (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 14.