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


American radical theology, or the death-of-God movement, is generally seen as a negation of traditional Christianity in the name of honesty and modernity. Often it is associated with the call for secularity, or for a political theology, or for a theology of revolution, or even for a dissolution of theology in ethical action. Alternately it is associated with support for a general religiousness characteristic of East and West alike.

This picture of radical theology is appropriate to much of what has been taking place, but it is profoundly misleading when applied to Altizer. He is a leading radical theologian, indeed the leading radical, but his radicalism is marked by opposition to much of what is called radical theology. His concern is not to adjust Christian theology to the predominant contemporary sense of what is credible and important. His thought is not secular, and even his call for total affirmation of the profane is for the sake of a new manifestation of the sacred. For him theology is much more fundamental than politics and ethics. It is Christianity and not religion in general to which he is committed.

Fortunately, alongside the general discussion of radical theology, there has appeared also a substantial literature of insightful criticism directed toward Altizer as an important and original thinker. As the excitement stirred up by the news media subsides and the demand for titillation by something new focuses popular attention upon other movements, the time has come for serious Christians to look more carefully at Altizer, the constructive theologian.

Altizer is a young man with much of his theological career ahead of him. Most of his serious critics, also, have been men with much of their theological work ahead of them. Many of them have already experienced a profound impact on their work through encountering Altizer’s thought. Hence the discussion between Altizer and his critics is not the clash of fixed positions but the concerned interchange of growing minds. It is a living and unfinished debate.

One purpose of this book is to encourage increased attention to Altizer’s systematic theology. To this end critical essays of high quality, some previously published, some new, are presented. All reflect keen interest in, and generally accurate understanding of, Altizer’s position. Their several criticisms help to locate his thought in relation to the panorama of contemporary theology as well as to highlight the critical issues involved in his distinctive views.

The second purpose of the book is to stimulate and embody the living debate. To this end critical essays are followed by Altizer’s responses. The tone of both the critiques and the responses is respectful, friendly, and open. But the issues raised are matters of ultimate importance toward which indifference is impossible. The book should serve to clarify issues and to involve readers in the ongoing discussion.

Some of the critiques of Altizer come from clearly defined traditions. Of those included in this book, two (Runyon and Beardslee) are Protestant, two (Meyer and Heisig) are Catholic, and one (Rubenstein) is Jewish. These are grouped accordingly. The remaining four papers view Altizer in relation to a diversity of issues. They have been grouped rather arbitrarily under two headings. Two (Noel and Gier) discuss Altizer’s relation to other nontraditional options for religious thought, and two are written by historians of religions (King and Eliade), who view Altizer in perspectives provided by the discipline in which he did his doctoral study. The final essay was written by Eliade specifically for this volume and is of particular interest as it is his first public response to Altizer’s book Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred.

The idea of editing this book was stimulated by the thesis of Nicholas Gier entitled "Process Theology and the Death of God" (Claremont Graduate School, 1969). In addition, Gier has played several roles in the preparation of the volume. He helped locate, evaluate, and edit materials; he contributed an essay; and sections III and IV of the Introduction are from his hand. He represents a generation who, while experiencing spiritual turmoil in college through disillusionment with traditional Christianity, found the death-of-God theologies speaking to their condition. This is a generation it is important to involve rapidly in the professional theological discussion, lest those of us "over thirty" lose touch with the shapers of the future.

The greatest contribution to the volume is that of Altizer himself. He has assisted in identifying and evaluating the critiques; he read and criticized an early version of the Introduction; and, most important, he has written substantial responses to the critical essays. It is with his encouragement that the hilarious spoof on him, and specifically on Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred, "Mercy for Miss Awdy, in a Vile Acting of the Sacred," is included as an appendix. This spoof was written by Walter D. Love, formerly a colleague of Altizer at Emory University, who has since been killed in an accident. It is used with the kind permission of his widow, Peggy V. Love.

Grateful acknowledgment is hereby also made to the previous publishers for permission to use the following essays:

William A. Beardslee, "A Comment on the Theology of Thomas Altizer," Criterion, Vol. VII (Spring, 1968), pp. 11- 14.

Winston L. King, "Zen and the Death of God," Japanese Religions, Vol. V (December, 1967), pp. 1-21.

Eric C. Meyer, C. P., "Catholic Theology and the Death of God: A Response," Chicago Studies, Vol. VIII (Summer, 1969), pp. 189-203.

Daniel C. Noel, "Still Reading His Will? Problems and Resources for the Death-of-God Theology," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XLVI (October, 1966), pp. 463-476.

Richard L. Rubenstein, "Thomas Altizer’s Apocalypse," in William A. Beardslee, ed., America and the Future of Theology (The Westminster Press, 1967), pp. 32-40.

Theodore Runyon, Jr., "Thomas Altizer and the Future of Theology," in Jackson Lee Ice and John J. Carey, eds., The Death of God Debate (The Westminster Press, 1967), pp. 56-69.

Thanks are due also to my student assistant, Delbert Swanson, for help in editing and proofreading, and to Mrs. Erma Walks and Mrs. Barbara Henckel for typing. Without the cooperation and assistance of the administration of the School of Theology at Claremont, especially President Gordon Michalson and Dean F. Thomas Trotter, the project could not have been realized.

John b. Cobb, Jr.

Claremont, California