Chapter 6: Response by Thomas J.J. Altizer

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

Chapter 6: Response by Thomas J.J. Altizer

If ours is an age of ecumenical theology, it is so above all in the Catholic-Protestant theological dialogue, a dialogue that so far has only just begun. Already it is possible to say that Catholic and Protestant theologians commonly meet on the basis of a mutual disenchantment with their own traditions, and a corresponding enchantment with the tradition of the other. Today Catholic theologians are for the most part excited by Biblical theology, and Protestant theologians are rapidly discovering a new form of metaphysical theology, each thereby appropriating the tradition of the other. At the same time few contemporary Catholic theologians display a firm sense of the meaning and authority of their own tradition, and Protestant theologians seem to be abandoning all sense of a specifically or uniquely Protestant tradition and authority. Is it possible that each is now recovering the ground of the other?


It is a distinct pleasure to respond to the critique of Father Eric C. Meyer, who was the first Catholic theologian to respond seriously to my work, and who in many ways knows my own position, or, at least my route to it, better than I do myself. However, I am embarrassed that he has focused his attention upon my essay, "Catholic Theology and the Death of God." This essay was written as a lecture to be presented to a Catholic theological audience, and its major purpose was to elicit a response from radical American Catholics, and to see if it might be possible to establish a dialogue between radical Protestant and radical Catholic theology. The argument claims far more than I can substantiate, and perhaps it might best be interpreted as the attempt of a radical Protestant theologian to think from the perspective of a radical Catholic position.

Accordingly, I seized upon the Catholic theological category of analogy or analogia entis, assuming, first, that it is the primary foundation of the Catholic understanding of God, and, second, that only a radical reconception of this category can make possible a genuinely Catholic form of radical theology. I am aware that what I present as the meaning of analogia entis is at odds with the Catholic theological tradition, and most particularly so with its Thomist expressions -- but I am persuaded that no radical Catholic theology is possible apart from a radical break from or radical reconstruction of that tradition. Indeed, it is the latter course that seems to me to be the distinctively Catholic way. For this reason alone, I regard John Henry Newman’s The Development of Christian Doctrine as the most important of all modern Catholic theological works, or at least, the most significant until Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. Newman’s work is so revolutionary that it is still not fully understood, and perhaps someday he will stand forth as the Darwin of theology. Until we learn to rethink the whole meaning of the movement and development of tradition, and to identify tradition with its movement and development, there will he no role for tradition or the past in any truly contemporary form of theology.

My own approach to a radical Catholic understanding of analogy or analogia entis was by way of giving it a dialectical meaning, and a meaning that hopefully would be dialectical and historical at once. This would mean that God and the world are apprehended as dialectical opposites, as opposites that bear both a positive and a negative relationship with each other, and whose relation or opposition varies in accordance with a historical movement or evolution. Now no fully dialectical way is possible which assumes that what we experience and understand of God is essentially different from what we experience and understand of man and the world. It is just this scholastic ground of the Catholic doctrine of analogy which I attempted to oppose, and my opposition was intended to be based upon a theological ground far more fundamental than any that is present in either medieval or modern scholasticism. This ground is, quite simply, Christian faith in Christ, for I am persuaded that no full or genuine understanding of Christ is possible so long as the scholastic principle that there is an essential and eternal difference between God and the world is accepted.

Father Meyer is quite correct in indicating that my understanding of analogy is grounded in my understanding of the Incarnation. This means that I regard the Incarnation as a coming together of God and world, as a coincidentia oppositorum, as a coincidence or coinherence of the opposites, God and the world or creature and Creator. Moreover, I regard the Incarnation as a historical movement and process; it does not reveal the illusory opposition between God and the world, but rather effects an actual reconciliation between estranged and alienated opposites, between an alien and transcendent form of God that is estranged from the world and a fallen and broken form of the world that is estranged from God. Thus I would insist that the Incarnation is a coincidence of real opposites. But as a consequence of the Incarnation, the real opposition between God and the world is negated and transcended. From this point of view, the scholastic principle that there is an essential and eternal difference between God and the world must necessarily result in a denial of the event or the reality of the Incarnation. And this is the fundamental charge of radical Christianity against orthodox Christianity: that the latter is quite simply non-Christian.

Insofar as the Catholic doctrine of analogy has always, so far as I know, appeared in a scholastic form, the particular challenge that I faced was one of formulating at least the outlines of a nonscholastic but nevertheless Catholic doctrine of analogy. I continue to believe that this is possible, even if I have wholly failed in my premature and all too sketchy attempt. I also believe that the idea of evolution or development is an essential key to a nonscholastic doctrine of analogy, if only because it is the modern understanding of organic and historical evolution that brought to an end the scholastic idea of Being (as is so brilliantly demonstrated by Arthur O. Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being).

How is it possible even to speak of the evolution of God from a Catholic point of view? Father Meyer says that evolution in God would be essentially different from what it is in the cosmos. If this is so, how can we assign any meaning to the evolution or even the movement of God? Father Meyer compounds the difficulty when he says that God in himself exists as an identity that "somehow" reconciles all of the many conflicting ways in which we know him, but we do not grasp that identification itself. If we cannot grasp God’s identity, how can we know that it exists? If we cannot know what God is in himself, how can we know that God in himself actually moves or evolves? Will we not then be forced to say that the evolution of God is no more and no less than the evolution or development of man’s understanding or consciousness of God? God then becomes the one exception to the universal principle or process of evolution. In other words, God is all the more fully banished from the reality of everything that we know as man and world.

The great claim of the doctrine of analogy has always been that it makes possible a genuine knowledge of God. It seems clear to me that no such knowledge is possible so long as the reality of the world is essentially different from the reality of God. And it must be essentially different once the world is known as an evolving process and God is known as an immutable and impassive Being. How can there possibly be a true analogical relationship between an evolving process and an unchanging Being? This is a problem which has driven scholastic theology to the wall, and it is not insignificant that Catholic theologians have been hostile toward the idea of evolution, just as it is not accidental that when a Catholic vision of evolution did appear in the work of Teilhard de Chardin, it contained no idea or vision of analogia entis. I would suggest that there can be no new or modern Catholic doctrine of analogy apart from a new and radical Catholic understanding of God as a developing or evolving process, a process that is a primary exemplification of rather than the one exception to the principle of evolution. I would suggest also that one way into such a new doctrine of analogy is a new understanding of man or history as the image of God, wherein historical development and evolution could be seen as a reflection or embodiment of the development and evolution of God.

There is no possibility of understanding history as the image of God unless we reach a new theological understanding of both imagery and the imagination. Father Meyer does not stand alone when he says that with regard to God-images there is no significant theological difference between Christian and Jewish or Muslim art. But he goes on to suggest that God-images have never been very important in Christian art, since Christian art has always found its life-giving images in Christ. One appreciates that "always," particularly when remembering a Dante, a Michelangelo, and a Milton. Perhaps Father Meyer is here speaking from a Protestant point of view, and from an all-too-modern Protestant perspective at that. Can we imagine how much of the Catholic tradition has been forgotten when it is said by a Catholic theologian that God-images have never been very important in Christian art? For purposes of brevity, let us simply take up the problem of medieval painting and sculpture, and ask if God-images here play a significant role, and, more particularly, ask if we can here discover a significant relation between God-images and Christ-images, a relation reflecting a uniquely Christian apprehension of the evolutionary movement and transformation of the divine process. For evidence, I shall limit myself to Andr6 Malraux’s Metamorphosis of the Gods, not only because Malraux cannot be suspected of either a Catholic or a Protestant bias, but far rather because this is the most illuminating study that I have discovered of the theological significance of the plastic arts.

Malraux points out that in the early Byzantine period, in both the East and West, a vision of transcendence was the foundation of Christian art. Christian mosaic art represented Jesus, but it did not attempt to portray him, as Gothic art was to do. For the function of art in the ancient Church (as it continued to be in the Eastern Church) was to depict the sign, not the event, and solely in a transcendent world symbolizing the world of God. While noting that God remained the dominant presence in Christian art throughout the fifth century, Malraux makes this extremely important theological point: "It seems that in art -- and probably in religion too -- Christ tended to become the more Jesus, the more God the Father receded into the background."1 Byzantium was obsessed by God’s inscrutable aloofness, but medieval Western Catholicism found God’s presence immanent in all things. Nevertheless, we do not find Jesus in any great Romanesque work, for only stage by stage did the image of Christ break free from the image of the Father in the history of Western art. As Malraux sees it, the history of medieval sculpture is one of a progressive incarnation:

But whence could the artist get convincing forms in which to clothe these symbols, except from such of their aspects as linked them to Christian faith? He did not invent them, he discovered them. The populace did not know them, yet it recognized them -- and the Church called them into being, the artist created them, so that they should be recognized by the people. But it recognized Christ solely in terms of communion and this is why no other art in any other civilization ever caused the sacred to embody so much of the human and so fully expressed the sacred through the human.2

A comparable humanization of the sacred was taking place throughout the Christian West during the Middle Ages, but Malraux insists that it was not the human but the sacred that "disappeared" in Gothic art.

Gothic lay piety replaced the earlier article of faith, "God is love," by "God is Jesus." More and more the image of the Savior replaced the Carolingian "Hand of God," as though the Incarnation were now known to go back to the Creation. The former distance between God and his attendant elders, between the Pantocrator and his angels and elect, simply ceased to exist in Gothic art. The Romanesque Christ is; the Gothic Christ acts: "What belonged to God, as God, has passed away."3 With the "passing" of the sacred, the living God ceased to be shrouded in awesome mystery, and now could be loved through the mediation of Jesus. Transcendence now became the transcendence of the love of Christ, a love of which human and earthly love is but a pale reflection. Thus the world of God the Father was eclipsed by the world of the Incarnation that succeeded it:

Everywhere mystery was giving place to love, the aloofness of God to the nearness of Jesus, adoration to communion, repining for the Fall to that sense of Christ’s victory which pervaded Gothic Christendom no less than the sense of his divinity. One would almost think that the West had only just had news of that victory, as it had just learned of the conquest of Jerusalem, and that the purpose of the company of statues that now was mustering in the glimmering recesses of cathedral porches was to reveal to men as living presences the figures of their collective dreams.4

With the advent of Giotto and the triumph of "Giottism," Byzantine art was swept away in the West, and within thirty years all traces of the East had vanished. Hand in hand with this Western victory over its Eastern Christian roots went a new discovery of nature, not the nature that has been present in modern art, but rather a nature charged with Christ’s presence. Thus Giotto brought to painting a power that was new in Christian art: the power of locating without sacrilege a sacred scene in a world resembling that of everyday life.5 Thereby Giotto discovered the gospel as being latently present throughout the created world. For the first time sacred scenes related no less to the world of man than to the world of God. By bringing the divine onto a plane nearer to that of man, this new "pictorial fiction" raised painting to the status of a major art and gave Christian painting a special accent distinguishing it from all other religious painting. For Malraux, Giotto brought an end to the Byzantine tradition in the West; but he fulfilled the Gothic tradition. Fifteenth-century painting then celebrated the redemption of all creation, even if the divine could no longer be expressed otherwise than by "appearance."

Now I would not insist that it is necessary for any theologian to accept Malraux’s conception of the metamorphosis of the divine in Western Christian art. But I would insist that it is necessary for any contemporary Christian theologian to open himself to the possibility of conceiving faith as a metamorphosis or evolution of consciousness reflecting and embodying a comparable or analogous evolution of God. If God has become man or Word has become flesh in consciousness and experience, then it is precisely the truest or fullest expressions of consciousness and experience that the theologian can identify as "faith." Then faith could be understood not only as a witness to or participation in the reality of God but also as an actualization and realization of the life and movement of God. Only when the Incarnation has fully and finally been realized in consciousness and experience will a final coincidentia oppositorum actually be achieved. Father Meyer most astutely suggests that such a coincidentia would have to be a formless or pure energy or life, and a theology embracing it would be equivalent to the abstract and scholastic conception of God as "Pure Act." I would suggest, rather, that scholasticism apprehends the abstract potency of the Godhead, while a radical and dialectical theology is in quest of the meaning of the final actualization and realization of that potency, and therefore in quest of the meaning of the ultimate victory of Christ. From this point of view, scholasticism is an apprehension of the primordial reality of God, of God apart from Christ, and radical theology is an apprehension of the eschatological reality of God, of the God who is all in all in Christ.


The greatest joy of ecumenical dialogue comes when encounter between two conflicting traditions produces a mutual enrichment of each. While I am in no position to say whether or not Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary theology might be enriched by relating it to my own, I know all too well that mine can be enlarged and illuminated by relating it to his, and not even my own love of Teilhard has taught me this so forcefully as has the essay of Father James W. Heisig. I am particularly grateful for the manner in which Father Heisig relates Teilhard’s conception of the within and the without to my understanding of the sacred and the profane. Moreover, I Suspect that I am not simply projecting my own problems into Teilhard’s position when I think that he was never able to resolve the ultimate or eschatological relationship between the within and the without. In one sense, Teilhard was a Hegelian, if only because he understood evolution, at least in part, as the evolution of consciousness. As he himself said in the Postscript to The Phenomenon of Man:

Reduced to its ultimate essence, the substance of these long pages can be summed up in this simple affirmation: that if the universe, regarded sidereally, is in .process of spatial expansion (from the infinitesimal to the immense), in the same way and still more clearly it presents itself to us, physico-chemically, as in process of organic involution upon itself (from the extremely simple to the extremely complex) -- and moreover this particular involution "of complexity" is experimentally bound up with a correlative increase in interiorisation, that is to say in the psyche or consciousness.6

Are we to understand that the involution of complexity is identical with the evolution of interiorization? Is the Omega point the manifestation of God as the ultimate identity of both the within and the without?

At one point I believe that I am closer to Teilhard -- or, at least, to the Teilhard whom I understand -- than Father Heisig admits. It appears to me that the Teilhardian within and without can have meaning and reality only in relation to each other, and therefore neither can be real apart from the other. This, at any rate, is the way in which I approach the meaning and reality of the sacred and profane, and thus I would resist Father Heisig’s point that I understand the profane as a passive element that evolves only through its association with the sacred. True, I believe that of itself and in itself the profane is pure meaninglessness. But I would say exactly the same of the sacred. Each is meaningless and unreal apart from the other, and it is only the conjunction or coincidentia of both together that creates or is the ground of what appears to us as meaning and reality. While what we know and experience as the growth and enlargement of the profane is manifest to us as the diminution of the sacred, I would insist that faith apprehends this loss of the sacred as a metamorphosis or transformation of the sacred into the profane. Or, in more explicit theological language, the death of God is the actualization of the movement of Spirit into flesh. May one then hope that the apparent dominance of the without in our world is at bottom a reflection and consequence of a transformation of the within into the without? Was Teilhard both prophetic and apocalyptic in his vision of the essential correlation between spatial expansion and cosmic interiorization? Is the Omega point the manifestation of a totally profane without as a totally Christic within?

If the possibility actually exists that we can understand "love energy" as the heart of matter, then we would be freed to reach a cosmic understanding of Christ. Blake and others (perhaps Rilke and Joyce) reached a vision of the cosmic Christ; but an imaginative vision remains distinct as such from a cognitive understanding. Even Father Heisig concedes that the enthusiasm that Teilhard’s work has aroused is due to its imaginative and visionary insight rather than to its scientific and philosophical achievement. Here lies one of the great dangers of Teilhard’s vision, particularly since he chose to clothe it in the language and the imagery of modern science. So desperate are many of us for vision that we will embrace it at almost any price, including the price of the abnegation of critical thinking and understanding. It should be clear by now that Teilhard’s vision can offer an authentic way to a Christian future only if it is buttressed by a philosophical understanding, which Teilhard himself only partially and precariously achieved. As every visionary has cried, we will perish without vision, but we will also perish if we attempt to exist by vision alone.

Not only does authentic vision demand a philosophical or a purely theoretical ground, it also demands a theological expression, and most certainly so if it is to bring illumination to a communal and social body. Once the theologian could speak of the church as a truly human communal and social body, and perhaps the Catholic theologian can still do so, but I see no way by which the Protestant theologian at this time can speak both honestly and positively about the church. The point that most excites me about Father Heisig’s essay is the new and revolutionary meaning that he appears to bring to the ancient image of the church as the body of Christ. I suspect that the Catholic has always most deeply identified the church as the true and universal body of all humanity, and has furthermore understood the church as being a fully natural as .well as a spiritual body. But Father Heisig indirectly and implicitly suggests that the church might best be understood as the "Divine Without": "groaning for self-consciousness and development, achieving its first self-reflective glimpses of divinity in the man Jesus and growing into that awareness through the course of history."

True, Father Heisig identifies the "Divine Without" as God’s material creation. But I for one, and I presume Father Heisig as well, can associate no empirical or scientific meaning with any idea of such a "Divine Without." Could we not far more easily believe that the "Divine Without" is an image of the church, and of the church as the cosmic body of Christ? Moreover, if it is still not possible to assign an empirical or scientific meaning to Teilhard’s vision of cosmic movement and evolution as culminating in "interiorisation" and "hominisation," may we not nevertheless regard it as an authentically Catholic and yet revolutionary vision of the church? It is surely no accident that R. C. Zaehner, one of the most gifted of contemporary Catholic religious scholars, and one who has devoted himself to the study of a non-Christian religious world, should have called in his most recent work for a revolutionary synthesis between a Teilhardian vision and Marxism. What Teilhard has given us in his vision of the "within" is a revolutionary idea and image of the church: here the church becomes understood and affirmed as a new and cosmic body of humanity. This is at least one way of understanding Teilhard, albeit a peculiarly Protestant way, and it might open a way for a Protestant appropriation of the dynamic pantheism for which Teilhard and his contemporary Catholic followers call. If Protestant understanding, at least in its living expressions, has lost all sense of the life and reality of the church, perhaps Catholic understanding can lead the Protestant to the reality and life that we have lost. For we have lost both the communal and the cosmic presence of Christ, and now perhaps Catholicism can teach us what it has always known: that all fully natural life is human life, and that life is the body of Christ.


1. Andre Malraux, Metamorphosis of the Gods, tr. by Stuart Gilbert (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960), pp. 132 f.

2. Ibid., p.213.

3. Ibid., p. 219.

4. Ibid., p. 244.

5. Ibid., p. 337.

6. Pierre Teilliard de Ghardin, The Phenomenon of Man (Harper & Brothers, 1959), p. 300.