Chapter 12: Zen and the Death of God by Winston L. King

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

Chapter 12: Zen and the Death of God by Winston L. King

Note: Winston L. King is Professor of the History of Religions at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.

Since Zen Buddhism does not believe in god in any recognizably Christian sense, and since, for radical (Christian) theology, the Christian God is "dead," a comparison of the two suggests itself. Nor is their comparison a merely captious joining of two "atheisms." On the Japanese Buddhist side there is considerable interest, because the death-of-God language seems to approximate the historical Buddhist Dharmakaya language.1 And at least with Thomas Altizer -- whom we shall take to represent death-of-God "theology" -- there is a considerable return interest in Buddhism. Further, and perhaps ironically, Altizer specifically rejects Buddhism as inadequate because, in its quality as an Oriental mysticism, it seeks regressively to return to a transcendent primordial Unity for salvation.2

The question to be raised here is whether Zen (Buddhism) in its rejection of (Buddhist) "Oriental mysticism," and Altizer in his rejection of Christian and Buddhist transcendentalism, do not finally come to approximately the same position -- though by somewhat different routes. To this end we shall sketch the rejection-affirmation modes of each party to the comparison and in the third section draw our conclusions.


For Altizer the contemporary and very much alive Devil is Dualistic Transcendence. As a Hegelian he believes that the only creative form of dualism is of the dialectical sort in which every entity is always moving into union with its opposite. This kind of "contradiction" is "the root of all movement and life."3 But the traditional dualistic transcendencies of religion and philosophy are separated by an infinitely wide and deep chasm of irrelevance and unreality from the living immediacy of the ongoing world-process. Here "transcendence" is always and everywhere synonymous with the abstract, the empty, the meaningless, the past, the distant, and the dead in everlasting opposition to and separation from the concrete, the significant, the present, the near at hand, and the living.4

Hence Altizer’s war to the death against "God." For "God" as portrayed in Christian theology and embodied in the institutions and rituals of Christendom is the essence of evil transcendence and the root cause of all that is wrong in Christianity today. It is impossible for Altizer to be too emphatic here. "God" as mystery must be rejected since mystery means ‘silence and apartness from history and life."5 With Nietzsche he holds that "God" is "the deification of nothingness," in polar opposition to the world, "the contradiction of life," one who "crushes the life of man," "the deepest embodiment of . . . No-saying, [i.e.,] absolute life and self-negation."6 Such a God is the author, or the excuse for "the alien power of the moral imperative" which is "addressed to man from a beyond" and imprisons him "by an obedience to an external will or authority."7

The Christian theological tradition has created in "God" a uniquely monstrous transcendence "whose very sacrality is absolutely opposed to the life and immediacy of man’s existence in the world" . . . a feat unequaled even by Muslim or Jew!8 Hence one must "kill" the sacred-transcendent God.9 He must be specifically and deliberately pronounced dead by the Christian community, and even the putrefying corpse of his memory must be deeply buried lest its infection bring Christianity to its total death. Of course the death of the traditional Christian God calls for the death of traditional Christianity as well:

The modern prophet. . . has been given a vision which abolishes all that humanity has thus far known as light. Both the ancient and modern prophet must speak against every previous epiphany of light, calling for an absolute reversal of a fallen history as the way to life, with the hope that the destruction or dissolution of an inherited and given history will bring about the victory of a total epiphany of light.10 If Christ is truly present and real to us in a wholly incarnate epiphany, then the one principle that can direct our search for his presence is the negative principle that he can no longer be clearly or decisively manifest in any of his previous forms or images. All established Christian authority has now been shattered and broken.11

Thus only in knowing and declaring that God is dead can the Christian live as Christian. But it is precisely at the point of the death of God and the abolition of traditional Christianity that true (radical) Christianity is to be differentiated both from "religion" (false transcendence per se) and its supreme embodiment in Oriental mysticism:

Christianity, and Christianity alone, proclaims the death of the sacred; and only in Christianity do we find a concrete experience of the factuality and the finality of death. . . . No other higher religion in the world calls its participants to a full experience of the pain and darkness of the human act of dying as the way to transfiguration and rebirth. Unique, too, is the way in which the Christian is called to share or to coexperience Christ’s death, where a sharing of the passion of Christ becomes participation in the process of salvation.12

But before we can fully understand Altizer’s call for the death sentence upon all sacred entities in general, and God in particular, we must add Altizer’s emphasis upon kenosis, the Self-emptying of God into historical being. Now with this we are obviously moving into the area of affirmation. Altizer’s basic affirmation is precisely here, the kenotic emptying of all transcendence into the immanence and particularity of incarnation. For him the basic and uniquely Christian truth is the Incarnation.

What then does incarnation mean for Altizer? In general it means the dialectical (not dualistic) movement of God’s total being into his "opposite," the world of flesh-in-history, or historical being in flesh. It is assumed that this movement must be total and absolute; were any part or particle of God left behind, in terms of sovereignty or transcendent being, there could be no incarnation worth speaking of. Now was God’s movement into historical being in Christ unique and once for all, or is there a perpetual ongoing movement of God into historical being? The answer is both. Thus:

It [the Incarnation] is . . . a real movement of God himself, a movement which is final and irrevocable, but which continues to occur wherever there is history and life.13. . . If we conceive the Crucifixion as the original enactment and embodiment of the self-reversal of all transcendent life and power, then we can understand the atonement as a universal process present wherever there is life and energy, wherever alienation and repression are abolished by the self-negation of their ultimate source.14

Ultimate source means "transcendent God," of course.

Now the dualistic sin of the Christian church, its original heresy, is that of resurrecting Jesus into the heavens with God in glory and the designation of the church as Christ’s mystical body on earth.15 In actuality this doctrinal pronouncement represents a reversal of God’s kenotic movement into humanity in Christ’s flesh and in his death, for contrary to the spirit of kenotic incarnation, the church has become ever more sacredly apart from the profane, and the resurrected Savior ever more transcendent of the world. Not only so, but the church-style incarnation confines it to one man at one time in history. But though this is a primary manifestation, and initially occurred in Christ,16 the incarnation cannot be understood and participated in save as a total and perpetual process which moves on toward a supreme consummation:

At no point in this process does the incarnate Word or Spirit assume a final and definitive form, just as God himself can never be wholly or simply identified with any given revelatory event or epiphany, if only because the divine process undergoes a continual metamorphosis, ever moving more deeply and fully toward an eschatological consummation.17

This eschatological consummation will be the death of the transcendent God, his self-negation by a total incarnation of actualization "throughout the total range of human experience,"18 his "kenotic passion" fulfilled in a "new and liberated humanity"19 -- a humanity liberated from even the memory of God to become its own Divine Self.20

In conclusion to this sketch of Altizer’s affirmations we must say a word about his affirmation of the eschatological quality of Christianity which, he holds, most definitively and radically separates Christianity from "religion" in general, and Eastern mystical religion -- the essence of "religion" as such -- in particular. In this context Christianity is characterized as forward-looking -- toward the eschatological consummation of God’s full movement from transcendence into immanence. It is thus to be contrasted to the religious and Eastern-mystical looking backward from concrete, present historical reality to a primordial blessed Oneness of mystic peace as the final consummation.

Now Christianity has produced its own false form of apocalyptic in which the apocalyptic goal (eschaton) is thought of in a chronological sense as some far-off divine event toward which all creation and all history move. But this is a reversal of the true kenotic-apocalyptic process, for in the guise of moving forward it would instead be moving backward toward a repetition of the primordial unity and harmony. And in so doing it forsakes its uniquely Christian quality and becomes an Oriental-mystical type of "religion." It is here precisely that radical (true) Christianity must be separated from Buddhism:

At this point Buddhism presents an instructive contrast to Christianity, for here [in Buddhism] one discovers unbelievably complex systems of meditation centering upon the image of death, but here death is a way to a dissolution of the human condition, and therefore to the abolition of pain and suffering.21

That is, by the salvational dissolution of the human condition, Buddhism reverses incarnation and rejects the immanental consummation of true Christianity.


In Zen, as in death-of-God, we encounter a radical critique of the parent tradition. However, it should be observed at the outset that Zen does not seem to be as finalistic and radical in its rejection. For Zen Buddhists are still quite willing to be called Buddhists in the full sense, and in many ways are quite indistinguishable from other Buddhists. Perhaps part of the difference of tone lies simply in Eastern and Western temperament and cultural conditioning. Western dialectic is sharp, hard, definite. Eastern dialectic is softer and more indirect. And, after all, in the Buddhist-Eastern view, words and arguments never contain the definitive essence of matters religious.

Nevertheless there have been both rejection and criticism of the mainstream Buddhist tradition by Zen. One way of characterizing the Zen reversal is in the famous words falsely attributed to Bodhi-Dharma, but truly descriptive of Zen principles:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;

No dependence upon words and letters;

Direct pointing to the soul of man;

Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.22

This is a kind of antitraditional Buddhism, so to speak. The real, radical teaching of Buddhism, according to Zen, is the "secret transmission" of the original enlightenment (Satori) experience directly from master to disciple in person-to-person confrontation; not by the scriptural or doctrinal route. Accordingly, as even a casual reader can observe, Zen tradition is full of aspersions cast on theoretical learning. Again and again one reads of a master who answers a disciple’s philosophical question with a complete and insulting non sequitur of nonsensical quality. The learned-in-the-scriptures disciple is held up to derision. And on occasion the sacred manuscripts have been used practically, i.e., for kindling a fire. So too, disregard, even insult, has been sometimes directed toward the Buddha. What is he? A dung stick, three chin of flax. The Buddha image? Fine for a fire to keep warm by. You must "kill the Buddha" before you can gain enlightenment, in the words of some of the Zen masters.

Yet some of this should not be taken too literally. One young Zen monk, concerned that Westerners should think that "Kill the Buddha" statements meant habitual insult of the Buddha in Zen circles, invited us to witness a Founder’s Day service at a Zen temple. Not only was there a majestically magnificent temple, but numbers of gorgeously robed priests, and a ritualistic order of service that put Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgists to shame in the elaborateness with which the Buddha was honored by reverential and multiplied bowings and meticulously crafted ritual forms. It is also true that a Zen meditator in training hears numerous sermons on Buddhist truth, and frequently chanted scriptures; he participates in a rigidly prescribed manner of life that has no allowable variation save in that awful moment of truth when he confronts the roshi on his own and must speak forth what he himself knows of enlightening truth. In short we might say that Buddha and scripture denials are primarily methodologically and psychologically oriented; they are designed to shake one loose from easy dependence upon the mere forms of piety and open to him the deeper truth of his own being.

But the question of rejection or denial must be pressed on a deeper and more existential level than this. What does Zen reject? Dualism, in all its forms, and on every level. It finds the cerebral-visceral, thought-action, reflection-participation, abstract-concrete, intellectual-existential, good-bad dichotomies of most contemporary men to be unrelievedly tragic. It is the mark of their unsaved status, or in Buddhist terms, their inability to realize their own essential, i.e., Buddha, nature at every moment and in every action. This dichotomized or unsaved man, unable to perform any action with the totality of his being, is not as well-off even as the animal. Dr. Daisetsu Suzuki used to point to one of his cats and remark: "When that cat jumps, it doesn’t have to think: I am about to jump. It just jumps," in a perfect unity of thinking, feeling, being, and acting.

There are many other types of destructive dichotomy to be found in human life. For example, there is the distinction which men make between themselves as souls, selves, or thinking beings, over against the inanimate world of rocks, trees, and mountains. Dr. Suzuki was fond of saying that when a man sat in a garden contemplating a rock it was not a one-way operation, but that "something" returned from the rock to the man. Or, to reverse it: A man must somehow feel-think-intuit himself into that mode of being which is the rock’s. And in discussing this very situation, Professor Keiji Nishitani was quite unwilling (on a Zen basis) to allow one to speak of the mind of man as "including" the object of thought, i.e., the rock, in a way superior to that rock itself. The rock and its human observer were different, to be sure, but not in any hierarchical sense, nor in any fully separative manner.

Again, and fundamental to all Zen thinking, is the evil of the subject-object dichotomy. Because our basic modes of consciousness are always experienced in the context of subject vs. object, we can never see things as they truly are, nor see into our own true nature. For the subject-object relation is an assertion of ego, one’s ordering the world about his subjective, personal consciousness, and as such it offers a handhold to all of the invidious evaluations that separate men from things, from each other, and from their own deepest life itself.

Naturally, Zen also has much to say about the evil dualism of the transcendent and the immanent. If transcendence is to be thought of as apartness from, standing in opposition to, then it is to be condemned here just as roundly, if not as violently, as in the death-of-God view. Zen will have nothing to do with a "holiness" which is holy by virtue of being apart from the rest of life; it must be "sacred" by being intrinsic to life, or it is not sacred at all. The final state in the famous ten Oxherding pictures, which are a parable of the Zen quest for enlightenment, is that of the fully enlightened man who

is found in company with wine-bibbers and butchers;

he and they are all converted into Buddhas.

Bare-chested and bare-footed, he comes out into the market place;

Daubed with mud and ashes, how broadly he smiles!

There is no need for the miraculous power of the gods,

For he touches, and lo! the dead trees come into full bloom.23

For Zen, not even the individual "self" is ever to be thought of as transcendent of the physical-mental events that constitute its present content. They are the self, in its totality and essence. As mind, or "no-mind" equally well, they are an integral part of the universal flux of events.

So too, more ontologically speaking, Zen rejects the noumenal as over against, within, or beyond the phenomenal; there is no other reality "behind" appearances. There is perhaps a depth dimension in which all realities are to be seen, but it is not separate from them in any way. Thus, says Suzuki, when Western-Christian-oriented Tennyson looked at the tiny flower in the crannied wall, first of all he plucked it. Then he began to think thoughts about "God and man" or about being "all in all," which he hoped would enable him to understand the mystery of all creation. But when Basho the Zen poet saw a flower he left it there and unromantically writes thus:

When closely inspected,

One notices a nazuma in bloom

Under the hedge.24

No more, no less. No need to bring in a God-thought at all. The flower is simply there to be totally sensed. Its perceived existence is its sacredness. In totally and perceptively sensing it, in ceasing to try to dominate, categorize, or change it in any way, one experiences in the very act of sensing it the totality of reality.

Here we are on the ground of affirmation. And indeed negation in Zen is difficult to separate from affirmation, for Zen insists that they are the same. To negate dualism is to affirm oneness; to negate separation is to affirm unity; to deny the unreal is to affirm reality -- without defining them. To negate anything is to affirm something else. In a true vision of reality, the distinctions of one and many, large and small, better and worse will be bypassed -- or transcended, if you will, by a nontranscendent kind of awareness. The greatest is the smallest and the smallest is the greatest. One finds the three million worlds in the tip of a single hair. Individuality cannot be separated from totality, nor vice versa. Each implies the other; or better, each is present in the other. And with regard to God, if he is to be thought at all, he is not transcendent or other, but present in, consisting in, the holiness of all that is. For isness is holiness; holiness is isness, just that and no more. To live a holy life is just to live life in all its natural fullness. For the moment we may then summarize the Zen radical immanence in this well-known passage:

Again, you and I sip a cup of tea. The act is apparently alike, but who can tell what a wide gap there is subjectively between you and me? In your drinking there may be no Zen, while mine is full of it. . . . In my case the subject has struck a new path and is not at all conscious of the duality of his act; in him life is not split into an object and subject, or into acting and acted. The drinking at the moment to him means the whole fact, the whole world.25


Zen immanental terms are not precisely death-of-God incarnational terms, but they seem to be within shouting distance of the latter. Therefore I wish to raise again the question in this final section as to whether Altizer, despite his rejection of Buddhism as definitely different from and lesser than Christianity, has not in the final analysis come full circle and embraced a Buddhist type of radical immanentalism. In support of this suggestion I will make four comparisons, drawing in part on statements already made, and in part upon further statements, particularly from the Zen side.

1. Though beginning from somewhat different bases, both death-of-God and Zen reject all transcendence modes that separate ultimate reality from contemporary living event. Zen begins with the ordinary individual who is separated from his own true Buddha nature by the false dichotomies of a "Buddha" far back in history, or now in Nirvana; or, more existentially, man as separated from the world around him by a subject-object dualism. For such a man rivers are rivers, mountains are mountains, and trees are trees, things of differing natures, apart both from each other and from the man who observes them. But after Zen meditation there comes a time when one is not certain of this ordinary sort of realism. A mountain as such is not a sharply separate entity. In itself and by itself it is not fully real. Not only does it imply all other things -- trees and rivers as well -- indeed it may be said to have tree-and-river nature within it, to be inseparable from tree and river in reality. And the meditator becomes troubled and confused. What is true reality?

But if he persists, the third and final step of enlightenment ensues. And how does he now see things? He sees trees as trees, rivers as rivers, and mountains as mountains. Mere word play? No. We have returned to the first condition, but spiralwise on a higher level. We now behold all things in their genuine immanental reality. They are in their very particularity, universal as well; to be universal is to be particular. There is nothing "beyond" this immediate reality, no substrate of Being, no mystically apprehended noumenon, no God who "clothes" himself mysteriously in phenomenal beauty and power. We -- things and persons -- just are; but in being, we are both many and the One.

Do not death-of-God Christianity and Zen here unite? For Altizer there is no longer a God out there, back there, up there, anywhere. All the God that is, is incarnate in the concrete realities of the here and now. We make him alive by killing him in his transcendence. We encounter him simply by immersion in living. True, Altizer from his Christian context speaks of involvement in "history," whereas the word "history" hardly ever crosses a Zen lip. And again, perhaps because of Christian backgrounds, Altizer has a certain preference for God’s incarnation in "human face and hand," rather than rocks, mountains, trees, and rivers. Perhaps these distinctions are crucial; but to me they seem peripheral.

2. Historical particularity is obviously, at least in Altizer’s case, a close corollary of immanentalism and incarnationalism. But two brief quotations will give it further point:

What is new in the Christian name of Jesus is the epiphany of the totality of the sacred in the contingency of a particular moment of time: in this name the sacred appears and is real only to the extent that it becomes actual and realized in history.26

In the modern historical consciousness, only two hundred years old, there has been

an eclipse of the transcendent realm, an eclipse resulting in the birth of a unique sense of historical particularity. . . . For the first time historical events appeared as radically particular, as confined in their meaning and value to the actual but singular process in which they occur, and thus as being wholly detached from a universal order or law.27

Note that again we have the prevalent "historical" motif; the Altizer particularity is historical particularity or event. And again this grows out of the general Christian context from which Altizer speaks.

With Zen, particularity is of a somewhat different sort by virtue of the Buddhist context of its assertion. And that Buddhist context has led many Christians to deny that the integrity and value of the particular can be had in Buddhism, especially that of the personal particular. Thus the late Paul Tillich in his Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, written shortly after his visit to Japan some years ago, says: "Only if each person has a substance of his own is community possible, for community presupposes separation. You, Buddhist friends, have identity but not community."28 It seems that quite logically Altizer should share in this general opinion, and see in the Buddhist pattern a denial of the humanistic, historical, and particularistic, for the sake of the Primordial Whole.

But contemporary Zen Buddhist scholars vigorously reject Tillich’s interpretation. In the above-mentioned person-and-rock discussion in which he rejected the superiority of the person’s nonstone capacity for "inclusion" of the stone in his field of thought and action, Professor Nishitani maintained that Zen Nothingness (sunyata), because of its indeterminate character, could include both the person and the rock in a "loving" relation, in which (1) each party could relate to the other in the true meaning of "love," without let or hindrance; and (2) at the same time respect the true identity of the other being without coercing it into any preformed, or prejudged, relational framework.

So also there was a specific rejoinder to Tillich’s statement by Professor Masao Abe, which I doubt that Tillich ever read.

Is not the dialectical nature of the Christian community and separation really not dialectical, thus not reaching the core of ultimate reality? Buddhist communion takes place as the communion of the "Realizer of Nirvana" with everything and everyone in the topos of the absolute Mu (i.e., nothingness) in which everything and everyone are respectively absolute, being just as they are, and thus absolutely relative.

True Sunyata, being the negation of sheer emptiness as well as sheer fulness, is an active and creative Emptiness which, just because of being itself empty lets everything and everyone be and work respectively in their particularity. . . . The several rocks with different shapes and characters which are placed here and there on the white sand are nothing but the self-expression of the true Sunyata which lets everything stand and work. Each rock is not simply something with a particular form but, equally and respectively, the self-expression, through the taking form, of the true Sunyata, that is, the True Self which is beyond every form.29

Again we see differences between death-of-God and Zen. But again, they unite in strenuously affirming the holiness of particularity: Altizer, the human historical particular; Zen, every particular as such.

3. As noted earlier, it is at the point of eschatology that Altizer makes his stand most particularly for the radical uniqueness of Christianity. Its uniqueness consists in its forward-looking eschatology as opposed to the backward-looking mysticism of "religion." He chides Christian theologians in general for not seriously taking history as a dynamic forward movement into God’s future. But whether this is a valid distinction must be judged on the basis of the essential quality of eschatologies. For, contrary to much Western opinion, Zen also contains a species of eschatology, in which worlds are passing away and the Great Death of cataclysmic change must take place before the New Order can enter in.

Of course in the Christian sense Buddhism has no genuine eschatology. There is no prospect of an Absolute present world order in the flaming fires of judgment, or of a new order forged in its flame. To be sure, there are world endings, some of them quite catastrophic. But there have been and will be many of them.

But Zen makes little, if anything, of such eschatological materials of even the limited sort that are available to it in its own Buddhist heritage. Yet it has its own immanental apocalyptic, of a most intense and radical sort. For what is the nature of life itself? A moment-by-moment succession of states of existence, each one of which dies before another can be born. Indeed human "existence," so called, is nothing but a tenuous film of shadow-being stretched over the great abyss of nonbeing. There is no solid ground underneath our feet, no solid place to stand on, only the foundation of the Abyss of the Void.

The eschatological myth of older ages that the cosmos must someday necessarily be burned up in a cosmic fire also entered into Buddhism. Buddhists, however, in their interpretation of this myth have always accepted it on the dimension of religious existence and transformed the idea of the end of the world into an existential problem. Viewed from this standpoint, this world as it is, with the sun, the moon and the numerous stars, with mountains, rivers, trees, and flowers, is as such, the world ablaze in the all-consuming cosmic conflagration. The end of the world is an actuality here and now, is a fact and a fate directly underneath our very feet.30

And how shall one escape this existential fiery abyss? By the Great Death: the great death of his own ordinary selfhood in all its dimensions; by a complete reversal of his hitherto-followed, conventional, ordinary subject-object modes of thinking, feeling, and acting. The same author writes further:

The very procedure of stepping out into the field of the scientific world view (from our religious teleological, human-oriented world views) is here translated into a decision to accept the universe with its feature of bottomless death as the place for the abandoning of oneself and the throwing away of one’s own life. . . . When he presented the eschatological situation of the world in terms of an unspeakably awesome cold, the Zen master offered to the questioner -- and through him to all things in the world -- a place for their Great Death. The myth of eschatology was thus de-mythologized and turned into the religiosity of the Great Death of the questioner as well as of the world itself.31

What then is the quality of Altizer’s eschatology? It sometimes preserves the Christian form in words of forward-moving progress into the future. In an essay entitled "William Blake and the Role of Myth" he speaks of "final Eschaton," "dawning Kingdom," of a dynamic and forward-moving process that will lead on to the "realization of a final paradise which must wholly transcend the paradise of the beginning."32 It is "a forward-moving process revolving about the absolute negation of the old cosmos of a totally fallen history."33 Thus the radical apocalyptic is at least dynamically going somewhere, in opposition to the Buddhist reversal process.

But where is somewhere? This is the crucial point. There are phrases like "The Great Divine Humanity" of Blake, in which God has become man and destroyed his own transcendent Godhood in the process; there is God’s progressively greater kenosis into "energy and life,"34 "energy and joy of body," "ever more fully into the depths of the profane" ;35 there is the Spirit, a la Hegel, "come to its own fulfillment in the immediate and sensuous present,"36 as final reality "in the actual and contingent processes of history";37 and Jesus as "the body of humanity,"38 or as the Christian name for the totality of experience of a "new humanity liberated from all transcendent norms and meanings,"39 and a "movement of Incarnation [that] has now become manifest in every human hand and face." 40

Can the conclusion be resisted that it is not into history as going somewhere chronologically or teleologically, but in "history" as individualized human existence in whatever form, that Altizer’s God incarnates himself? And how, save in peripheral terminology, does this distinguish itself from Zen existential apocalypticism? Indeed Altizer also speaks of the "extention of an eschatological future into the present."41 Not even Altizer’s assertion that this does not mean a mere submission to the brute realities of historical process clearly differentiates it from Zen.

4. Finally there is the almost inevitable result that neither Zen nor Altizer has any clear ethical direction to present. Writes Altizer:

The Christian who bets that God is dead risks both moral chaos and his own damnation. . . . [He] must do so with a full realization that he may very well be embracing a life-destroying nihilism; or, worse yet, he may simply be submitting to the darker currents of our history, passively allowing himself to be the victim of an all too human horror. . . . [There is the] very real possibility that the willing of the death of God is the way to madness, dehumanization, and even to the most totalitarian form of society yet realized in history.42

This of course is spoken out of Altizer’s conviction that all the Christian past -- historical, theological, ecclesiastical, ethical -- must be obliterated if incarnation is to be perfectly fulfilled. And consonantly with this, one looks in vain on the pages of Altizer for any moral-social direction the radical Christian should take, beyond that of plunging with all one has in him into contemporary "historical" action. The only discernible direction, ethically and historically, is into life, without asking or knowing where "life" and "history" are going or even what they are.

Not surprisingly we read a kindred passage in Professor Abe’s review of Tillich’s book referred to above, which sets forth a Christian-Buddhist contrast here in fine style:

It may well be said that the [acceptance of man] in-spite-of [his sin] character of the Christian faith, by means of prophetic criticism and the "will to transform" based upon divine justice, functions as a militant element in the realm of human society and history, whereas the just-because-of [human sin and selfishness acceptance] nature of Buddhist realization, . . . functions as a stabilizing element running beneath all social and historical levels. The in-spite-of character of the Christian faith is apt, I am afraid, to increase as well as decrease tension among people, to cause a new dissension as well as a great unity, thus falling into a false endlessness. On the other hand, there is always the risk, in the just-because-of nature of Buddhist realization which accepts everything indiscriminately, even social and historical evil, that one’s attitude toward the world will be, because of a false sameness, indifferent.43

In the end, is a radical Christian total involvement in, and affirmation of, everything that happens to man, any different from an indiscriminate acceptance of everything, of even social and historical evil? Perhaps only in its greater degree of enthusiasm.


1. Professor Shojun Bando, of Otani University in Kyoto, finds the death-of-God theology significant because it divests the Christian god of his specific and personalistic attributes, his historical purposiveness, and his transcendence. Thus the final result seems to approximate Buddhist Dharmakaya, that Absolute Reality or Ground of Being which is basic to all and in all existent beings.

2. To use one book as a basis of comparison is admittedly limited, but in Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (The Westminster Press, 1966), all of the basic Altizer themes are to be found. It may be noted in passing that Altizer is in some sense the victim and product of the most extreme degree of that very dualism which he abjures so strongly in the name of Hegel. Its presence is on every page that he writes. We encounter the radical, abyss-wide oppositions of life and death, beginning and end, innocence and Fall, the light of Spirit and the darkness of flesh, the certainties of primordial Being and the uncertainties of history, the abstract and the concrete, God and the world. Hence also that dramatic apocalypticism which likewise appears on every page.

3. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 80.

4. Ibid., pp. 22, 39, 42, 45, 54, 67, 73, etc.

5. Ibid., p. 85.

6. Ibid., p.94.

7. Ibid., p. 127.

8. Ibid., p. 93.

9. Ibid., p.51.

10. Ibid., p. 152.

11. Ibid., p. 137.

12. Ibid., p. 51.

13. Ibid., p. 43.

14. Ibid., p. 113.

15. Ibid., p. 102.

16. Ibid., p. 108.

17. Ibid., p. 104.

18. Ibid., p. 108.

19. Ibid., p. 111.

20. Ibid., p. 113.

21. Ibid., p. 51. Italics added.

22. D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, ed. by William Barrett (Doubleday & Company, Inc., Anchor Edition, 1956), p. 61.

23. D. T. Suzuki, Essays on Zen Buddhism, First Series (London: Luzac & Co., 1927), p. 366.

24. D. T. Suzuki, Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by William Barrett (London: Rider & Co., 1963), pp. 360-361.

25. Suzuki, Essays, p. 265.

26. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 57.

27. Ibid., p. 74.

28. Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (Columbia University Press, 1963), p. 75.

29. Masao Abe, "Review Article," The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, Vol.1, (Sept., 1965), pp. 118 -- 119.

30. Keiji Nishitani, "Science and Zen," The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, Vol. I (Sept., 1965), p. 88.

31. Ibid., p.91.

32. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "William Blake and the Role of Myth," in Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, eds., Radical Theology and the Death of God (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1966), p. 186.

33. Ibid., p. 189.

34. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 75.

35. Ibid., p. 110.

36. Ibid., p. 118.

37. Ibid., p. 46.

38. Ibid., p. 70.

39. Ibid., p. 73.

40. Ibid., p. 136.

41. Ibid., p. 84.

42. Ibid., p. 146.

43. Abe, "Review Article," p. 121.