From Anthropos to Albion: Gnosticism and the theology of Thomas Altizer

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not. (Eliot 1979, p25)

And where you are is where you are not. So concludes T.S. Eliot in his own radical vision of the soul’s pilgrimage from ignorance to knowledge. The language, of course, is dialectical, and the journey essentially one of negation ‘So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing’ (Eliot 1979, p25). A journey upon such a road, as Eliot charts through the four movements of the poem, is one that requires continual reassessment and re-evaluation of both the worldly material facade that acts as a semiological backdrop, and the spiritual possibilities that lay awaiting discovery. As such it is a journey characterised by the inversion or transformation of the given or profane world.

It is, as perhaps any pilgrimage should be, the journey if a life-time, undertaken in the knowledge that

the end of all our exploring will be
to arrive where we started and to know the
place for the first time (Eliot 1979, p48)

Further, the journey is an existential one, and its conclusion is revelatory. An appropriate term of reference in this instance would seem to be ‘Gnostic’. The revelation is a knowing that is at one and the same time self-knowledge and knowledge of God. The unity of experience brought about by the dialectical negation of the sacred and its consequential effusion into the profane brings about a corresponding unity of knowledge. Thus the acquisition of self- knowledge is also acquisition of knowledge of God. To know oneself is to know God.

How then, in the light of such an apparent possibility, can the radical dialectic of Thomas Altizer be understood? If the abolition or negation of the sacred and the consequential kenotic effusion of sacredness into the profane world following the historical death of God demand a transformation of Christian consciousness, should it not be towards an understanding of a oneness of knowing? The shattering of the ontological divide between the holy and the quotidian is the establishment of ‘God-in-the-world’ in the very purest of senses because the transformation effected is that of spirit into flesh. As Altizer observes;

“When the Incarnation is known as a dynamic process of forward movement, then it must be conceived as a progressive movement of Spirit into flesh, even if it should succeed in evoking a religious reversal of its own movement and process” (Altizer 1967, p46)

The question is seemingly begged once more: is self-knowledge knowledge of God? At face value there would appear to be only limited mileage in talking of Altizer’s theology in Gnostic terms as he seems at times to demonstrate an overt antipathy towards it. In ‘Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred’, for example, he uses ‘Gnostic’ pejoratively to describe those who he sees as denying or refusing to embrace the new realities of faith. Thus he writes

Christianity is increasingly becoming yet another Gnostic way of retreat from history: indeed, one can detect the presence of a contemporary form of Gnosticism at precisely those points at which the greatest emphasis is given to the traditional forms of faith. (Altizer 1963, p14)

The sense in which he uses the term in this instance is a valid one, but only in a pre-radical theological sense when the retreat from the world could be spoken of in terms of a regressional withdrawal into a spiritually dominated reality that could be perceived as authentic. But surely the newly evolving forms of faith should adopt a correspondingly evolutionary understanding of historical expressions that have themselves seemingly developed mythological conceptions of the effusion of spirit into flesh. In this respect can not Gnosticism be understood not in terms of retreat but rather as an apprehended eschatological fulfillment?

This paper then is concerned with the possibility of both identifying Gnostic elements in Altizer’s theology and/or of understanding elements of it in Gnostic terms, and as such will take the following form. Firstly, a discussion of Gnosticism in its early form outlining a number of concepts which are both central to its own identity and which may find modern parallels in Altizer’s dialectical myth. Secondly a critique of Blake as Gnostic and Altizer’s relation to him in the light of such an interpretation. Hermenutical analysis of the Gnostic and Blakean myths may well reveal a brotherhood of meaning with Altizer’s process of dialectical negation that could prove to be as unconditional as it is unexpected. But then a dialectical journey is inevitably a hazardous and uncertain one. And where you are is where you are not.

Gnosticism in its initial form was a discrete phenomena of unknown origin possessed of a highly syncretistic nature which flourished in the Hellenistic world for about three centuries from about 100 BCE. It can be understood as syncretistic in so far as it ‘appropriated all sorts of mythological and philosophical traditions for its expression” (Bultmann 1960, p162), although it would be wrong to understand it simply in terms of that which is appropriated. Nevertheless, so synthetic does its nature appear to have been, initial assumptions were that Gnosticism was a particular Christian expression that ran in opposition to the emerging orthodox view. Research has since shown however that this is not so and Gnostic formulations have been identified in many other theological and philosophical traditions hat comprised the first century Hellenistic milieu.

The question of origin is one that has divided scholarship. Jonas, for example, observes that ‘scholars have advanced in-turn Hellenic, Babylonian, Egyptian and Iranian origins and every possible combination of these with one another and with Jewish and Christian elements.’ (Jonas 1963, p33) This continuing debate, however, is not of particular importance here, save for one possibly interesting analogy. In her work ‘The Gnostic Gospels’ Elaine Pagels observes both the emphasis on the concept of spiritual enlightenment over and against physical or worldly illusion and the fact that Gnostic teachers are understood more in terms of guide than Lord and speculates accordingly on a possible link with Buddhism or Hinduism. So, given Altizer’s own background in Comparative Religion and expertise in Buddhism and Oriental mysticism there appears the possibility of a certain level of potential similarity between these micro and macrocosmic expressions. Consequently it might be of interest to keep in mind the issue ‘to what extent knowledge of these traditions inform his own Christian theology’ to see if some speculative modern parallels might be drawn.

As a phenomena in its own right Gnosticism can be seen to be dualistic, perceiving absolute differences between good and evil, spirit and flesh, and so on. It has a soteriological aspect in so far as its teachers, whilst not necessarily being saviours themselves offer knowledge (or the way to knowledge) of paths and passwords that the soul needs when it embarks upon its ultimate journey through the heavens. Also, Gnostic thought can be distinguished by its preoccupation with the individual and with the idea that both truth and God will be revealed by inward rather than outward search.

All these aspects were vested in an identifiably Gnostic myth. This is described and discussed fully in Bultmann’s Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting and by Rudolph in Gnosis, and is recounted in some detail here as elements of it, given hermenutical interpretation, reveal overtures in Altizer’s theology. The myth then, ‘with manifold variations’ (Bultmann 1960, p163), tells of a cosmic struggle between a heavenly being of light and the demonic forces of darkness that occurred before time began. The forces of darkness were victorious in the struggle and the being of light was shattered into sparks or splinters which were used by the demons as magnets to form a cohesive universe out of the formless chaos in which they dwelt. In turn each of these sparks of light were embodied in a man and is his true innermost self. However, the demons watch over the world and attempt to blind man to his true nature as should the sparks become self-aware and return to their original home the universe would once more revert to chaos.

To assist the process of the sparks awakening however, God (not to be mistaken with the creator) sends down his son, disguised as a man, to inform men of their true nature, to reveal their present abode as a hostile and alien environment and to teach them the passwords they will need to know when, upon the death of the body in which they are imprisoned, they begin their ascent through the spheres of the universe back to the world of light. When the Son of God has completed his task, which is to reassemble the being of light, the universe will revert to its state of primordial chaos and this is understood in terms of an eschatological day of judgement.

From the above outline it is not difficult to see how Gnosticism came to hold a particular affinity to Christianity as it shared not only a dualistic understanding and soteriological desire but also even mythological characters and conceptions. It followed therefore that the syncretism between these two traditions produced a form of Christianity that was to offer viable expressions other than those based on the notion of the institution itself as the arc of salvation and the recognition of the authority of the apostolic successors.

The political and theological in fighting between the Gnostic and what might be regarded as institutional factions need not be examined here. It is sufficient to note that its history was written by the winners, that ideas based on the resurrection of the body, the authority of the bishopric, and the church itself as a salvific vehicle became the orthodox notions, whilst Gnostic Christianity was outlawed as heresy. However, having observed Gnosticism as a phenomena in its own right, we might similarly outline in what forms it manifested itself when clothed in its Christian myth, highlighting in particular those aspects of peculiar relevance to the ongoing discussion.

The characterisation of Christian Gnosticism has been greatly aided by the discovery and subsequent translation and interpretation of the Nag Hammadi Library. The tractates that comprise the library reveal the existence not only of a philosophical counter tradition but one that established itself with its own written accounts of the ministry of Jesus, using ideas that offered an essentially symbolic understanding of his life and teaching. This, of course, is to be expected. In the Gnostic myth the universe is the creation of the forces of evil and the Son of Man is a heavenly being who is only disguised as a man. This in turn led to a Docetist view of Jesus and to a rejection of any idea of a physical resurrection. As all matter was a base creation it followed that the orthodox views were dismissed as the “faith of fools” (Pagels 1979, p11) and both Jesus’ message and resurrection given a symbolic interpretation. In this respect we might examine two key concepts that, at least at face value, appear to find echoes in Altizer’s theology. These are the idea of the transformation of Christ and the concept of Anthropos.

The denial of the possibility of the flesh as a sacred form produced a radical dualism between flesh and spirit, so it followed that any resurrection must be a spiritual one. The transformation of Christ in the Gnostic Gospels demonstrates an understanding of a transcendence of form following the event of the crucifixion that in some instances evokes images of a transcendent world spirit - a Christ who is in no sense a corporeally identifiable Jesus (although that form may be re-assumed if required). In the Apocrypha of John, for example, the resurrected Christ appears in multiple forms. As John, in a state of great sorrow following the crucifixion, is contemplating the nature of the Saviour and the Father he reports that he

saw in the light [a youth who stood] by me. While I looked [at him he became] like an old man. And he [changed his] form [again], becoming like a servant. There was [not a plurality] before me, but there was a likeness with multiple forms (Pagels 1979, p16)

The transformed state of the resurrected Christ is also attested to in the Gospel of Philip

Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not reveal himself in the manner [in which] he was, but it was in the manner in which [they would] be able to see him that he revealed himself. He revealed himself to [them all. He revealed himself] to the great as great. He [revealed himself] to the small as small. (Pagels 1979, p17)

It would appear then that the Spirit of Christ was understood by the Gnostics to have assumed a form transcendent of the known personage of Jesus and become associated with a being of light - a non-corporeal spiritual entity that takes on a form relevant to the perceiver. As Pagels observes,

To the immature disciple, Jesus appears as a child: to the mature, as an old man, symbol of wisdom. As the Gnostic teacher Theodotus says ‘each person recognises the Lord in his way, not all alike’ (Pagels 1979, p17)

The second idea is that of Anthropos or the doctrine of the God-man. It emerges in Gnostic literature in a complex interwoven web of ideas and images that differ enough to allow for factional mythical development but which are unified enough to demand the acceptance of a particular anthropological position. In short the doctrine is based on the relationship of Humanity to God being that of a copy. According to (Rudolph 1983, p92) two basic forms are identifiable. In one the Supreme Deity (Anthropos) reveals himself to the demiurge and thus affords a pattern or form for the creation of humanity. In the second and more common type, the Supreme deity (the first man) creates a second man (a being of light or son of man) who is used in turn as a pattern for the form of earthly man. However, as we observed above, the second man was commonly believed to have been shattered into fragments that dwell in the form of the soul in earthly man. This whole formulation produced a uniquely high estimation of man in the cosmic order as this relationship to the Supreme Deity paradoxically affords him a higher status than that of his own creator. As Rudolph observes

...there is an entirely new conception of the higher estimate of man in comparison with the Demiurge; it is not only that the (first) man i.e. the unknown God exists before him - the earthly man also, who is his product, is superior to him by reason of his supra mundane divine relationship and substance (Rudolph 1983, p93)

Indeed, in some formulations, so exalted did man’s position become that not only did the pursuit of self-knowledge become identified with nothing less than the pursuit of knowledge of God, but man’s creative endeavours were similarly revalued and afforded a position of eminence over the creative powers of the demiurge. Thus in the Gospel of Philip it is observed,

God created humanity; [but now human beings] create God. That is the way it is in the world - human beings make, gods and worship their creation. It would be appropriate for the gods to worship human beings! (Pagels 1979, p122)

If then we can consider Christian Gnosticism in its initial form to be constituted in part by the elements so far outlined, to what extent can Altizer’s theology be defined as Gnostic? Are there aspects of his own mythical system that can be understood as bearing a legitimate formative relation to these original ideas and images? If so, to what extent does their formulation or redevelopment in the modern world alter their nature? As modern scholarship has shown, the fundamental basis for the understanding of Gnosticism as a discrete philosophical system is its allegiance to a uniquely identifiable myth. That being so it would seem reasonable to begin the discussion with a consideration of Altizer’s theology in relation to the myth and then continue with an analysis of its other elements.

To help facilitate the discussion let us consider two observations on Gnostic conceptions from Bultmann and Altizer. Firstly Bultmann,

The separation between God and the world has become complete. God’s transcendence is conceived in radical terms, and therefore eludes all definition. His transcendence is purely negative. He is not the world... (Bultmann 1960, p167)

The nature of this transcendent otherness that is identified only as not the world becomes an unknowable and unnamable being. Indeed, so divorced from the experience of the quotidian is the Supreme Deity that knowledge of his existence is only manifest through the revelation of epiphany and the teaching of the son of man. And this message or sign is aimed not at earthly man (for there is no salvation for the flesh) but rather at the spark of light embodied in him. And for each spark salvation is found in liberation from the world and a return to the transcendent otherness.

Now Altizer;

Only in ancient Gnostic imagery of an alien God and an alien cosmos can we discover a full historical parallel to the imagery of the beyond which has come to dominate the modern imagination. Moreover, both in Gnosticism and in modern imagery the alien beyond is manifest as being both within and without, both interior and exterior, as its alien otherness appears as the ground of both individual identity and universal life. (Altizer 1979, p99)

Here, as in Bultmann, Altizer highlights the radically dualistic understanding that forces a chasm so wide between God and Man that the transcendent is known only negatively. Altizer, however, does not confine himself to a simple historical discussion. Rather, he sees in it an historical parallel with the mind of modern man, centreing on the continuing religious concept of transcendence. Altizer understands the idea of salvation as a return to a transcendent otherness as a product of religious thinking that imposed itself upon the primitive Christian church and expressed itself in terms of redemption being found in the resurrection and the movement away from the physical to the heavenly world. For Altizer this was wrong from the start.

Both orthodox and Gnostic Christianity were, in their primitive forms, overtly eschatological, conceiving time as a linear process running from creation to judgement. For Altizer though the incarnation and crucifixion mark just such an eschaton as the spiritual negates itself and enters into the physical realm bringing transcendence to an end and refashioning the actuality of immanence. Both forms of Christianity failed to recognise this and instead continued to interpret Jesus as the heavenly Christ by whom a way back to the transcendent might be found.

Despite the fundamental flaw in Gnostic conceptions, a flaw arising from a religious yearning no longer appropriate to the realities of the world, it would be premature to reject all possible associations of Altizer with Gnosticism. Certainly in the sense that he interprets the crucifixion as the negation of the transcendent he is neither orthodox nor Gnostic in outlook, but amidst the confusion of Gnostic imagery and myth there seems to remain ancient echoes of his own thought. Such an example is found in the myth of the sparks of light and the embodiment of the being of light in humankind. Here we have both an unequivocal expression of the semi-divine nature of humanity and a primitive understanding of an original fall in terms of the negation of a divine spiritual entity resulting in the creation of a base physical world in which negated spirit dialectically informs flesh. Such an idea would appear to be very similar to Altizer’s own views on the negation of spirit and its consequential descent into flesh as both speak a dialectical language and perpetuate an eschatological worldview. What Gnosticism then does, however, is to seek a reconstruction of the original form rather than understand it as a revolutionary movement which disallows the possibility of a return to a primordial totality.

A fuller understanding of the implications of an eschatological worldview can also be glimpsed in the Gnostic transformation of the crucified Christ. As we previously observed, the resurrected Christ is not simply perceived as Jesus the cosmic being who is both identifiable in terms of historical personality yet spiritually immanent, but rather as a world spirit that is either mythologically identified as a being of light or associated with the symbol of light. In one sense this remains an unacceptable reversal of its own eschatological principle as the state of being is a transcendent spiritual one and its relationship to the perceiver or adherent remains one essentially characterised by distance. In another sense, however, such a conception goes at least some way towards fulfilling Altizer’s idea of the nature of the identity of deity in a post-incarnational state. The negation of transcendence and of the primordial totality of God is effectively the negation of personality. The authority and self- consciousness of the creator is destroyed in the process of his own self-annihilation and transformed into unnamable spirit. Thus the death of Jesus is the death of God in primordial form and the actualisation of the negation of the sacred corporeality of a nameable God. To quote Altizer,

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. (Altizer 1967, p67)

Without question the perceived flight to a transcendent otherness inherent in the Gnostic myth remains the baseline for the establishment of differences between it and Altizer’s vision. But the Gnostic relation of non-corporeality and, to some extent, abstractness of being does go some way towards what Altizer would understand as a fundamental principle or a revolutionary or eschatological tradition.

Through the approach to the question of personality in both Gnostic thought and Altizer’s theology the analysis can be broadened to include an examination not only of deity but of man as well. We have already noted a certain level of similarity between the Gnostic conception of the sparks of light from the shattered body of the heavenly second man becoming the embodiment of a once transcendent spirituality in the physical universe and Altizer’s dialectical understanding of the negation of the sacred and its consequential effusion into the profane. Yet it might also be of interest in respect of the nature and destiny of human personality to look further at this idea, this time from an anthropocentric viewpoint.

As previously observed, the desire of each spark of light, once it has attained self- consciousness and a full understanding of its origin and predicament, is to be released from the person of the body and ascend through the spheres of the universe back to its original home. This, of course, means that the ultimate goal becomes the reconstruction of the Being of Light. Such a reconstruction, however, comes not without cost, as the outcome in human terms is the loss or negation of ego. Thus whilst each spark is man’s innermost self, it is a self that exists ideally in a form devoid of all sense of self. Such a desire would seem to have much in common with the Wisdom Traditions of the east that equate salvation with liberation from both the world of forms and the illusion of individuality and ego, and strengthens, perhaps, those theories that favour an eastern source as its origin. More importantly in respect of Altizer, however, is the relationship it seems to have with his own ideas on ego and the dialectical process.

In the ‘Descent into Hell’ Altizer discusses the problem of individuality, identity and dialectical negation. To preface his examination he posits a series of questions that he describes as ‘the most awesome questions facing the individual Christian today’. (Altizer 1979, p144) Thus he asks,

What meaning has the death of God or the dissolution of transcendence for our individual identities? What effect has it already had, whether implicitly or explicitly, upon our individual selfhoods? Is Christ present for us and in us at those pints at which we pass through a dissolution of transcendence? (Altizer 1979, p144)

Interestingly, for Altizer, the answer to the question of man is found in the answer to the question of God. The death of god in our history, the negation of the primordial form of the transcendent creator is also the end of the autonomous and sovereign self-consciousness of God. However, the destruction of the self-consciousness of God also has far-reaching implications for the autonomy and self-consciousness of man. The end of the aspect of ‘I am’ in deity brings with it the consequential end of the reality of ‘I’ or ego in each individual in whose image such aspects were both created and sustained. Selfhood as the sense of perception of ego as a discrete embodiment separate and distinct from the world ceases to exist as soon as the realisation of the eschatological process effected by incarnation and crucifixion actualises the individual’s awareness of the new reality. At this point the old separate and autonomous definition of selfhood dies to a new form by which the individual becomes identifiable on ‘in the eyes of the glance or the touch of the other’ (Altizer 1979, p155).

When the heavens are darkened, and God disappears, man does not stand autonomous and alone. He ceases to stand. Or rather, he ceases to stand out from the world and himself, ceases to be autonomous and apart. No longer can self-hood or self-consciousness stand purely and solely upon itself: no longer can a unique and individual identity stand autonomously upon itself. The death of the transcendence of God embodies the death of all autonomous selfhood, an end of all humanity which is created in the image of the absolutely sovereign and transcendent God. (Altizer 1979, p153f)

The extinguishment of an objective and individual selfhood in turn demands a refashioning of soteriological constructs that were dependent upon the expectation of the survival of personality. Here Altizer brings us ever closer to salvation as liberation of self from self that is ‘release as an interior passage through the dissolution or reversal of the self’ (Altizer 1979, p155). Such recognition in Christian terms is, of course, revolutionary, but its consequence, as with some eastern traditions need not be so. More pertinent still, however, is its similarity to Gnostic ideas of salvation equating to liberation from self and the resultant reconstruction of the Second Man.

Such then is the perceivable relationship between Altizer and the early Gnostic myths. Certainly the major difference between them is their respective beliefs regarding the nature of transcendence, but that notwithstanding there do appear to be particular concerns and perceptions that at least require Altizer to be approached in Gnostic terms. Perhaps in this respect, given the inevitable evolutionary process and historical development of any theology it might be suggested that it is possible to understand Altizer’s theology as representing the fulfilment of Gnostic Christianity. Particularly when one considers the notions of the non- corporeality of Christ and the destruction of self as a soteriological requirement. One final comment on this matter: it was observed earlier that it might be of interest to consider to what extent Altizer’s own knowledge of eastern religious traditions informs his own Christian theology (especially given the possible oriental origins of Gnosticism). That question would seem particularly pertinent here as Altizer’s radicalism takes him completely away from the Christian conception of souls as everlasting and requires of him a definition of salvation more akin to a classical oriental belief.

The idea of Altizer’s theology as being in some sense the evolutionary fulfilment of Gnosticism clearly requires further consideration. In this respect what is needed is to place Blake in a Gnostic context and then extend the analysis of Altizer’s relationship to him. The question then is immediately begged: to what extent can Blake be seen as a Gnostic? The question is answerable on a number of levels. For example, by the ascertation of cosmological or anthropological standpoints it may be possible to talk of someone being Gnostic by default. In this respect Kathleen Raine, in conversation with Tobias Churton in his work ‘The Gnostics’ offers the fundamental Blakean viewpoints from which Gnostics could proceed. Speaking of Blake she says,

If you start from mind or spirit being the basic, fundamental reality, you have a whole field illuminated which is totally closed if you assume matter to be the basic reality. (Churton 1981, p141)

He (Blake) held the whole universe to be alive and to be also living within the spiritual unity of the being, the person he called the Divine Humanity - named Albion. He saw the spiritual universe to be a person. (Churton 1981, p146)

From knowledge of such a background it becomes easier to understand Blake’s own visionary nature a s one that allowed him to see not with the eye but through it, to the reality that existed beyond the material quotidian. Thus, for example, on viewing a sunrise Blake is able to affirm that he sees not a yellow ball of fire but rather ‘an innumerable company of the heavenly host.’ (Altizer 1967a, p5)

The exposition of this reality is contained within the series of poetic myths through which Blake mediated his own highly individual form of the Christian message. The myth that Blake creates surrounding the embodiment of the four Zoas in Albion (the Divine Humanity) and the fall of Albion into the world of forms created by the demiurge known as the ‘Ancient of Days’ and sustained as an illusory reality by the demonic development of the Zoa Urizen (Reason) has correspondence to Gnostic myths that are widely acknowledged and accepted by many scholars of Blake.

So, what can we observe of Altizer? Could it no be argued that someone who recognises Blake as a prophet of a new Christian understanding of the nature and experience of deity must be seen to be at least as Gnostic as Blake? The response from Altizer himself would seem to be not a rejection of his necessary, or otherwise, allegiance to any of Blake’s systems. Rather, Altizer seems to simply reject the notion of Blake as being Gnostic. In ‘The New Apocalypse’, for example, despite recognising that ‘Blake’s early poetry is pervaded with Gnostic ideas’ (Altizer 1967a, p87), he argues that ‘No one with any historical knowledge of ancient Gnosticism could imagine for a moment that Blake’s vision is Gnostic’ (Altizer 1967a, p87).

For Altizer the rejection of Blake as a Gnostic is grounded in his vision of the fall - a fall so universal and complete in nature that, through the dialectical process, affords the possibility of a total transformation from profane to sacred. As Altizer observes;

…the very universality of falleness stands witness to an inherent possibility of both the apocalyptic and total transfiguration of a fallen cosmos: and the universality both of falleness and of apocalyptic transfiguration are antithetically related to the dualistic and world- negating spirit of Gnosticism (Altizer 1967a, p87)

This point in itself, of course, would not be disputed were Gnosticism an ancient formulation fixed for all time. Altizer, thought, seems to demonstrate a certain naivety in assuming for the purpose of his argument that it is so. Writing about the possible evolutionary development of the Christian tradition he asks

Must Christianity be identified with its given or orthodox dogmatic form? Are we bound to confine the Christian myth to its past historical expressions? (Altizer 1968, p186)

In this instance the weight of Altizer’s argument drives the reader to answer ‘no’, and to accept that Christianity and its message are subject process and reformation. Yet if ‘Gnosticism’ were to replace ‘Christianity’ in the above passage it would appear that Altizer would require us to answer ‘yes’.

This at best seems a little disingenuous and we cannot side with Altizer and allow the historical development of one tradition whilst seemingly not allowing it of another. Certainly Blake displays, at times quite overtly, Gnostic elements of thought both in his general ontological perceptions of the universe and in the structure and concerns of his myth. That they may or may not correspond exactly to Gnosticism in its ancient or first form, rather than negating it, simply demonstrates an ability to evolve that is characteristic of all traditions that have survived as living faiths. The final question then must be ‘can the development of Gnosticism be found in Altizer’s own thought?’

Transcendence is once again the issue around which all contentions revolve As Blake observes in Jerusalem

I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend
Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me.

For Altizer this utterance stands as testimony to the radical and liberating nature of Blake’s vision. Here transcendence is negated and the love and redemption found in Christ is seen as immanent and emanatative. And this too, of course, speaks of the very process of kenosis and of the effusion of the sacred into the profane that constitutes the very core of Altizer’s own gospel. Yet still more than that, for Altizer it belies any vision that might be characterised as Gnostic.

As we have seen, however, such a rejection can only be made on the grounds of Gnosticism’s primary form constituting its irreducible and unevolving essence. If we are to allow Gnosticism an historical development and an intellectual growth then both Altizer’s concerns and his proclamation of and adherence to Blake’s vision seem to bring him far more into the encompassment of that tradition than at first seems likely, or that perhaps even he seems to freely acknowledge. So, can we talk of Altizer as Gnostic? The answer would not appear to be a simple one.

We cannot if we adhere to the rigid divisions of the acceptance or denial of transcendence as characteristic of their respective theologies. We can in part if we are prepared to afford Gnosticism the possibility of an intellectual development and interpret Altizer’s relationship to Blake in consequence of this. We can in greater part if we further consider the apparent similarity, given their mythological forms, of both Altizer’s and Gnosticism’s understanding of the nature of the soul and their consequential soteriological view points. Altizer as Gnostic? Let us end as we began, with a quotation from Eliot’s Four Quartets.

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded into a single party
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us - a symbol
A symbol perfected in death (Eliot 1979, p46)

We cannot revive or restore that which has gone before us, nor can we dance to archaic rhythms - doubtless Altizer would say amen to that. But in a world where the once transcendent sacred has been transformed into the profane, the journey of the individual soul becomes also the journey of humanity, becomes also the journey of God. A stronger understanding and a more ready acceptance of the intellectual development of the Gnostic tradition allows for a more positive realisation of the potential for creative interaction between Altizer and Gnostic symbols and myths. Whether they could ever be understood in terms as unified, as ‘folded into a single party’ is open to discussion, but surely a constitution could bind them if the perfected symbol of Gnosticism could be understood in terms of the death of its own referent.


Altizer, T. (1967), The Gospel of Christian Atheism, London: Collins

Altizer, T. (1968), Radical Theology and the Death of God, London: Pelican

Altizer, T. (1963), Mercia Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred, Philadelphia: Westminster

Altizer, T. (1979), The Descent into Hell, New York: Seabury

Altizer, T. (1967a), ‘The New Apocalypse’, Lansing: Michigan State University Press

Beer, J. (1969), ‘Blake’s Visionary Universe’, Manchester: University of Manchester

Eliot, T.S. (1979), The Four Quartets, London: Faber

Bultmann, R. (1960), ‘Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting’, Edinburgh: Fontana

Churton, T. (1981), ‘The Gnostics’, London, Channel 4

Jonas, H. (1963), ‘The Gnostic Religion’, Boston: Beacon

Pagels, E. (1979), ‘The Gnostic Gospels’, New York, Random House.

Rudolph, K. (1983), ‘Gnosis’, Edinburgh, T&T Clark

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There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

Mordecai Kaplan: Rethinking Judaism for the New World

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