Thomas Altizer: Christianity in Historical Perspective

This paper is an examination of the dialectical theology of Thomas Altizer. It seeks in particular to discuss his relationship to Hegel's historical dialectic and, through this, to consider the implications of a radical theology that fully embraces a process definition of deity.

There are, of course, many ways for a Christian to construct meaning. Conservatives and fundamentalists, for example, may adopt a literal belief in a physical resurrection and life everlasting in the company of saints and angels. Liberals and radicals may develop poetic or metaphoric interpretations of the Gospel where the reader breaths new life into old words and through the creative encounter develops a very different response to human existence in a profane and ordinary world. Some may seek to 'ring-fence' the tradition from the modern world and ascribe meaning through its own self-imposed unchanging character. Some emphasise prayer over politics, others politics over prayer.

The interpretative qualities of the idea of the death of God can be similarly apprehended. If we are able to say, for example, that God is not Man writ large, to say even that God is a being of transcendence, wholly other than man conceptually and communicatively, then can we not say, in some sense, that, from a human perspective, God is dead? Or if man used to believe in a transcendent reality in which power and authority was invested but no longer does so, can we not say, in some sense, that God is dead? Or if man used to apprehend God in a primordial form as creator and sustainer, but no longer does so can we not say, in some sense, that God is dead?

In 'Radical Theology and the Death of God' co-authors Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton cite no less than ten different ways in which the expression 'death of God' has been used. Categorising them in relation to their particular degree of correspondence to deity or the human condition they observe that they fall into two different camps; those that express something about humanity and those that say something about God. Thus the death of God has heralded nothing more than a crisis in language and communication between church and an increasingly secular society and nothing less than the literal annihilation of transcendent deity. Given even this level of divergence, however, a unifying thesis can be discerned, namely, an evolving understanding of the absence of God.

Altizer and Hamilton's first definition expresses the classical atheist view.

"That there is no God and that there never has been. This position is traditional atheism of the old-fashioned kind and it does seem hard to see how it could be combined, except very unstably with Christianity or any of the Western religions." [1]

This speaks not of God of course, but of the idea of God. Its most eloquent expression is probably found in the voice of Nietzsche's Madman, who proclaimed God's death and judged Humanity his murderer. If one is to speak of the death of God in this way, that is to see God as a product of the mind of humanity but which is now no longer needed, we must be mindful of two things. Firstly, that history is without purpose and, secondly, that humanity lives without transcendent meaning. With the death of God also comes the collapse of the very foundation upon which meaning and morality in Western civilisation are based. Thus the death of God brings a new and challenging demand with it, for man himself is now required to construct his own meaning and moral base.

Despite his much-vaunted status as a prophet of Radical Theology, Nietzsche's philosophy presents problems when translated into a Christian paradigm, no matter how radical that paradigm might be. The most of obvious of these is not simply his atheism, but his complete rejection of religion as a vehicle of meaning. Most Radical Theologians are happy to throw out the baby (but keen to keep the bath water). Nietzsche disposes of both. Other problems occur at the ontological level. Nietzsche's universe is a physical one. It is a natural mechanical world where cause and effect have purely physical origins and humankind's intellectual encounter with this universe is a solitary meaning-making affair. This, of course, is not so for orthodox Christianity, but it is also often not so for Radical Theology either. Nietzsche's atheism is complete but Christian atheism often engages with its paternal tradition and from out of the encounter develops different ideas of deity.

Altizer and Hamilton's second definition brings us into quite different territory. Here the possibility of a definition of Radicalism born out of recognition of the death of God as an historical event is considered. As they observe.

"That there once was a God to whom adoration, praise and trust were appropriate, possible and even necessary, but that now there is no such God. This is the position of the Death of God or radical theology. It is an atheist position, but with a difference. If there was a God, and if there now isn't, it should be possible to indicate why this change took place, and who was responsible for it." [2]

The idea would appear to be, quite simply, that God was alive but is now dead. Moreover, His death was an actual event that occurred in our history. Altizer contends that the message has taken time to filter through into modern culture, but the increasing secularisation of western society and the loss of God consciousness are predicaments brought about by the annihilation of God at the crucifixion. To put it plainly, the primordial creator god of the Old Testament literally poured himself into the person of Christ and destroyed himself.

In The Gospel of Christian Atheism Thomas Altizer, in an attempt to identify its uniqueness, embarks upon an examination of Christianity in relation to other World Religions. Following a rejection of comparison between Christianity and the other major prophetic traditions because of the lack of sufficient perspective between them necessary for a full assessment, he alights upon Oriental Mysticism as that which offers "the deepest challenge of the non-Christian religious world". [3] In these Oriental traditions Altizer observes a particular aspect (which he later identifies as being present in all religions) that constitutes the essence of religious belief. Namely, that religions are world negating and that the way of world negation lies within the religious imagination in a quest for a recovery of a Sacred Totality - quite literally as a desire for a return to an original paradisal state.

In contrast to these elements Altizer identifies the Incarnation as that which establishes the uniqueness of Christianity. The myth of Incarnation, of course, is not unique to the Christian tradition and the incarnation of deity in the form of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is one example of an incarnational doctrine that Altizer acknowledges. However, Altizer establishes a qualitative difference between Christian and other concepts by developing the argument that all others feature a transformation of flesh into spirit that results in the total negation of flesh. As Altizer observes;

"...in Oriental religion...flesh is transformed into spirit in such a way that flesh loses its own apparently intrinsic form and spirit ceases to exist in opposition to flesh." [4]

By contrast, for Altizer, the Christian tradition is witness to a dialectical form of Incarnation where flesh and spirit are not subsumed one by the other but rather exist in a state of mutual transfiguration in such a way that spirit becomes flesh and flesh becomes spirit.

"What is distinctive to Christianity is a witness to an incarnation in which spirit becomes flesh in such a manner as to continue to exist and to act as flesh. Such a movement is both active and real, because here we do not find an unveiling, of the illusory form of flesh, but rather an actual movement of spirit's decisively and truly becoming flesh." [5]

At the point of identification of both the essence of religion as being world negating and nostalgic for a primordial paradise, and the uniqueness of the Christian witness to the Incarnation being the dynamic actualised fusion of spirit into flesh, Altizer develops the argument central to his thesis. Stated simply it is that the Christian witness to the incarnation is contradictory to a religious world view because the act of incarnation in itself is an act of world transfiguration that denies the possibility of a return to a sacred totality. It is a point from which history and humanity can only move forward. The dynamic actualisation of spirit become flesh incorporates the very sacrifice of the original sacred state for "the Incarnation is only truly and actually real if it effects the death of the original sacred, the death of God himself." [6]

For Altizer this issue lies at the heart of the perennial problem that theology has had with the doctrine of Incarnation, and it exists because theology has always tried to frame an adequate understanding whilst still holding on to religious conceptions. Not until Christianity evolves a religionless form will the Incarnation ever be truly comprehended. This then is the proclamation central to Altizer's theology. The Incarnation is not an event fixed in history to which the religious adherent can refer, but, rather, an ongoing process of which the life and death of Jesus constitute the primary expression. The transfiguration of flesh-become-spirit and spirit-become-flesh is a continuous historical process that is nothing less than the process of deity itself moving forward through experience into a richer and fuller expression of itself. To quote Kee;

"...the death of God, without reference to the Incarnation, simply means the cultural fact that for modern men there is no present God. But in the light of the Incarnation the death of God is not seen as a random cultural event, but as the outworking of God's way of dealing with his creation" [7]

In 'The Gospel of Christian Atheism' Altizer cites Blake, Hegel and Nietzsche as the three major radical thinkers who can be understood as the prophets of the death of God theology. From Blake he draws the poetic vision of a God metamorphosed by kenosis into Satan as well as the myth by which to express the loss of God in the modern world. In the writing of Nietzsche he finds the Anti-Christ become Christ as the doctrinal and dogmatic forms of religious forms of Christianity is discarded to reveal the true nature of the tradition that demands the 'yes saying 'to life. And in Hegel he finds the dialectical system that explains the process of history and that commands even the death of God in primordial form.

As we have seen so far, Altizer's own thought is overtly dialectical and acknowledgement is given to Hegel throughout his 'Gospel' (and, indeed beyond, in his later work 'The Contemporary Jesus' he still proclaims Hegel to be "our only truly systematic and comprehensive thinker" [8]). But to what extent is Altizer an Hegelian pure and simple? To what extent does he develop Hegel's dialectic in the formulation of his own thesis?

Just as Altizer works out an understanding of the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel, so too did Hegel affirm the uniqueness of Christianity. It was Hegel's belief that it represented the highest form of religious expression, although religion, in turn, had to take its place on the greater order of universal movement. For Hegel this movement was also understood in a dialectical form. The statement that baselined his own thought was "the real is the rational and the rational is the real", [9] and he declared that reality lay not in objective phenomena, but in reason. The principal of his historical method was the negation of negativity, which was, achieved both on micro and macrocosmic scales by the resolution of imperfection under the pressure of negation. The mode of expression usually adopted to explain this process, although Hegel himself did not use it, is that of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The system moves from a starting point (thesis), to another that stands in objective contradiction to it (antithesis). It then moves to its third stage in which the two are reconciled and integrated at a higher level so becoming the synthesis, which in turn becomes a thesis again as it confronts its own contradiction. Thus each thesis is in turn an enriched and fuller expression of the supreme reality and the process continues until a final reconciliation occurs.

Underlying the philosophical speculation on the teleological movement of history was the theological proposition of Absolute Idealism. For Hegel what linked the mind with the rational was the supreme reality, God. In this respect religion was itself only one of the dialectical forms of the imperfect expression of the Absolute Mind along with art and philosophy. For Hegel, religion only dealt in pictures or images of the Absolute whereas philosophy superseded religion by dealing with concepts and thus conceptualised the images that religion provided. Thus Hegel attached a higher importance to philosophy than to religion.

In terms of such an understanding it can be seen that the original thesis must, by definition, have been the sole or supreme reality alone, and thus does Hegel develop his ideas in this way - seeing the Absolute Mind, the self-consciousness of God, as having originally existed in isolation. However, as it is the nature, indeed the necessity of consciousness to distinguish in order to objectify itself in relation to a subject, so does the universe, standing in relation to God, become self-position. As Reardon observes;

"God is Himself consciousness, He distinguishes Himself from Himself within Himself, and as consciousness He gives Himself as objects for what we call the side of consciousness." [10]

In other words the world is the antithesis of God in so far as it stands in contradiction to his essence. But the world is God also, and the synthesis will be the consciousness and the essence united.

The questions are begged, of course. In what respect is this system Christian, and how does Hegel respond to the demands of Christian doctrine? Hegel saw Christianity as a tradition comprising three essentially profound characteristics. Firstly, that Christianity is revelatory; the infinite enters into the finite (although not as something finite for whilst participating in the world He also remains as something other than finite). Secondly, Christianity is the religion of truth because it knows and offers knowledge of God. Finally, that Christianity is the religion of reconciliation of the world with God. The myth of the Fall is the relation of the objectification and necessary separation of the Absolute Mind and the world. The dialectical process of history is that which will reunite God and Man through the absorption of the infinite in the eternal.

In relation to the historical Christian narrative Hegelian philosophy can be broadly understood in the following terms. God existed in eternity before creation in the form of pure thought, an aspect that Hegel understood as the Idea and Christianity, understands as the Father. Then the Idea as self-consciousness objectified itself against the crested universe. He then entered that universe as incarnated Truth. Finally the reconciliation occurs between Father and Son manifesting itself in the form of the Holy Spirit. In this respect Hegel believed it was the doctrine of incarnation that elevated Christianity above other religions by expressing the idea that God is not ultimately distinct from what is finite, but is manifested in it. To this end Hegel saw the Christian narrative of Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection as the pictorial representation of his own thesis. To quote Findlay;

"...that what is absolute and spiritual can only emerges in painful triumph over what seems alien and resistant. Hegel may, in fact, be said to have used the notions of Christianity in the very texture of his arguments and to be almost the only philosopher to have done so." [11]

If that is an outline of the Hegelian system and its relationship to the Christian tradition, in what terms can we view Altizer's dialectical worldview? In order to crystallise potential differences between them we might examine three areas; their respective relationships to the nature of history, their attitudes to religion, and their use of and responses to different forms of language.

In many ways Hegel's system can be seen as nothing less than the working out of the process of history, indeed, even that the process of history is the story of God. Such a concept affords the historical dialectic the highest significance. Yet, at the same time, the theological nature of the process and the apparently inevitable implication of a pre-determined outcome when allied to a view so all-embracing as to reduce the importance of individual actions to a level not far short of irrelevance presents a perplexing and problematic counter view. As Heron observes;

"This...is perhaps the fundamental difficulty in Hegel's entire pattern of thought. While it does set out to include and explicate the sense of the whole movement of history, history itself seems to be in the end rather unimportant. It does not appear as the arena of significant events...it is simply an element in what, in its totality, is seen as the drama of the self-determined unfolding and returning to itself." [12]

By way of contrast Altizer's approach to the nature of history, in the sense of individual endeavour, seems more positive. The Incarnation, and, more significantly still, the Crucifixion are invested with a relevance that is neither simply a mythological expression or didactic pictorial representation of a philosophical truth, but rather an understanding of an event charged with purpose. Whether, in the end, the result is identical to Hegel, or whether, like Hegel, it must still be seen against a background of cosmic development and process, Altizer at least related the importance of the event itself. It is the recognition of the significance of the event that affirms an importance to humanity and individual personality that Hegel seems to deny. For Altizer history does hold the potential to be seen as the arena of significant events.

At the heart of this apparent divergence lay their two respective approaches to religion and language. Hegel developed a hierarchical understanding of thought in which religious expression was seen to be superior to art but inferior to philosophy. Altizer, as we have also seen, rejects religious demands and calls for the development of a religionless form of Christianity. Such a religionless form however, despite his Hegelian sympathies, is not simply a re-statement of Hegel's thought and indeed never can be because Hegel supersedes religion with philosophy, but Altizer seeks a neo-religious form of expression that is not purely philosophical.

The form of Altizer's proposed religionless expression is not a denial of the authority of the tradition itself (as it is with Hegel) but rather a development of the tradition. Because deity itself is involved in an historical process of development so too must religious conceptions and expressions evolve. However, because Altizer affords a greater import to the particular events of history his intellectual development can never be fully Idealistic as it is not the philosophical conceptualisation of deity that marks the limits of reality but rather an experience that is actualised and apprehended historically. It can no longer be primordial in the sense that it seeks a re-establishment of the primordial, but it remains religious when understood in terms of Hegel's conceptualisation. Despite his development of a dialectical theology and despite his demands for a religionless Christianity, Altizer still holds conservatively to a faith in the Incarnation beyond the representational and this seemingly disallows him the opportunity to develop a fully Hegelian philosophy. For Altizer certain events are important and meaningful and can not be viewed wholly as didactic or symbolic narratives.

Central to the different levels of value afforded to religious experience in their respective theologies is the relationship of theology to language. As we have seen, Hegel holds to a total belief in rationality that is reflected in his confidence in philosophical expression as the way towards the apprehension of the Absolute Mind. As Heron observes, Hegelian thought preceded "on the assumption...that there is a sense and pattern in the structure and dynamics of reality, and that these can be explored and entered into through experimentation and theorising." [13]

For Altizer, the question of language seems more of an open one. Whilst accepting the dialectical structures that Hegel espoused, Altizer refuses to denigrate mythological or symbolic language as an inferior response to reality. Indeed, his use of the Blake's literary myth actually seems to enforce his belief in the power and legitimacy of myth as a valid way of apprehending and relating the world. Such an approach would seem to suggest either an allegiance to a post-Hegelian understanding of language, even the language of science and mathematics, as being itself mythological, or an acceptance of the idea that the revelations of history can only be experienced mythologically. His own use of Blake and his acknowledgement of the efficacy of mythological language in general would appear to suggest the latter.

So, is Altizer an Hegelian? Certainly he is a dialectical thinker dependent upon the basic Hegelian system, and he gives due recognition to this in his Gospel. Also, his apparent rejection of what he identifies as religious imperatives and his consequential demand for the re-direction of the Christian Gospel towards a non-religious form would appear to further strengthen his relationship to Hegel's thought. However, ultimately the relationship is more complex than that. Essentially Altizer's relationship to history remains unidealistic. Historical events are far more significant for Altizer than for Hegel and this more positive approach is reflected in his use of myth. Altizer's call for a religionless form of Christianity relates to a definition of his own making and a developed analysis appears to demonstrate an uneasy synthesis between Altizer's concepts of religion and language and the Hegelian structures that he uses.

Altizer's Christianity is radically Christocentric as it collapses the whole relevance of history into the death of Jesus. God transfigured in flesh and now devoid of his primordial form is free to enter into a dialectical union with the world (spirit become flesh, flesh become spirit) the synthesis of which will be, in Hegelian terms, consciousness and essence united and a fuller and richer expression of deity. This post-primordial state of God in the world, Altizer contends, has been glimpsed intuitively by a humanity who frequently contends that 'God is love'. For Altizer, the very fact that Christianity proclaims God as such an abstract and all embracing essence stands in contradiction to his original primordial state about which one could only say 'God is God'.

"...in the Gospel of John we find the revolutionary Christian proclamation that God is love'....To know that God is Jesus, is to know that God himself has become flesh: no longer does God exist as transcendent spirit or sovereign Lord, now God is love." [14]

As well as being radically Christocentric, this view is, of course, also radically dialectical and lays an absolute value on history where the history of the world is seen quite literally as the story of God. But it's a story so unique that Altizer's theology seems to demand an actual historical development of ontology, a literal cosmological tearing of the curtain (Matthew 27:51) that breaks down the barrier between deity and the universe. Through his dialectic Altizer engages with process theology, albeit from a Christian perspective. Through the union of spirit and flesh he also seems to court Gnosticism, although, as we have seen, he is committed to a movement forward towards a paradisal state not an escape from history and a return to paradise. However, through his unique interpretation of the proclamation of the death of God he represents Christian Radicalism in its most literal form.

Endnotes

[1] (2) Altizer p14.

[2] (2) Altizer p14.

[3] (1) Altizer p32.

[4] (1) Altizer p41.

[5] (1) Altizer p41.

[6] (1) Altizer p54.

[7] Kee p126.

[8] (3) Altizer px

[9] Heron p38.

[10] Reardon p65.

[11] Findlay p30.

[12] Heron p42.

[13] Heron p42.

[14] (1) Altizer p67.

Bibliography

(1) Altizer, T. 'The Gospel of Christian Atheism', Collins 1967

(2) Altizer, T. 'Radical Theology and the Death of God', Pelican 1968

(3) Altizer, T. 'The Contemporary Jesus', SCM 1998

Findlay, S. 'Hegel, a Re-examination', Humanities Press 1970

Heron, A. 'A Century of Protestant Thought', Butler & Tanner, 1980

Kee, A. 'The Way of Transcendence', SCM, 1985

Reardon, B. 'Religious Thought in the Nineteenth Century', CUP, 1966

Taylor, C. 'Hegel and Modern Society', CUP 1979

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