The Private Sea
10. The Death of God
Thomas J. J. Altizer, the Young Turk of Christian theology, had
gee-whizzed to fame on the strength of a single four-letter word.
He was holding on to that word for dear life. And then, for one
breathless moment, it appeared as if he might let it dribble through
The word was "dead." As in "God is Dead."
The occasion was a symposium at Northwestern University, in the
Chicago suburb of Evanston, where Altizer appeared on a panel
with Walter Kaufmann, the Princeton philosopher, and Harvey Cox,
author of The Secular City. Altizer had become the most
controversial spokesman for the ultra-radical Death of God theology.
Again, this was in 1966, shortly before my meeting with Bishop
Robinson at Wabash, and I attended the symposium in hopes of discovering
just what it was that Altizer had been trying to say.
Nobody seemed certain. As it developed, nobody had really asked
him before. After the symposium I did ask him, and later I had
a lengthy interview with him following his return to Atlanta and
his duties as associate professor of Bible and religion at Emory
University. If nothing else, Altizer made it perfectly clear exactly
what he meant.
He arrived at the Northwestern symposium in a canary-yellow sport
coat, black slacks, ice-blue shirt, flame-red tie, baby-blue wool
socks, and brown brogans. He had tousled black hair and looked
a little like the movie actor Glenn Ford. When he addressed the
audience, however, he no longer looked like Glenn Ford. He looked
and sounded like one of Plato's divine madmen. He had charisma,
and lots of it. And what he said was pure poetry. Everybody agreed
it was poetry, because it was very beautiful, and nobody could
"I apologize for my presence," he said. "I'm incapable
of speaking about man. I find myself almost speechless. Almost
the only word that may be spoken about man in our time is a word
that attempts to express the darkness of ourselves. And this darkness
is the body of the dead God.... If faith can but whisper in our
world, it can take a step toward life. And we can never take that
step until we truly know that God is Dead. We can say with thanksgiving,
'God is Dead. Thank God.'"
It was not only what Altizer said; it was his tremulous, Margaret
O'Brien way of saying it. A professor winced, turned and whispered,
"How can he bear to do itstrip himself naked this way?"
"He's sick," said one. "Inspired," said another.
Altizer had been described as speaking at times in mystical overtones,
but that did not go far enough. Rather, he presented the image
of a full-fledged, card-carrying visionarya profane mystic
haunted by an apocalyptic vision of cosmic dimensions. At one
point, responding to a sharply worded question, he told the audience
in Billy Budd-ish frustration: "Sometimes I feel like a man
who stutters and can't speak. Sometimes I feel like a man in a
room where a foreign and untranslatable language is being spokenbut
he has to speak nevertheless."
As he did speak, his references to the dead God became even more
enigmatic. They were voiced in the present and future tenses.
"God is." "God will." As it turned out later,
this was significant.
Before the audience, Altizer did tend to express himself in arcane
symbolism. But later, at a student bull session, a different Altizer
took the floor. This was Altizer the scholar, Altizer the theologian,
Altizer the metaphysician. The vision was switched off, intellect
was switched on, and Altizer himself was no longer obscure; he
was instead a thoughtful man who was doing his best to express
an obscure idea: like a mathematician who has been asked to describe
the taste of peppermint. He was friendly, amusing, intelligent,
and eager to communicate. He knew what he meant; questioned carefully,
he said what he meantand he did not mean what most people had
seemed to think he meant. Listening to him, it appeared increasingly
ironic that Altizer had somehow come to be identified with that
mainstream phenomenon known as the New Theology, in so far as
that refers to the secularization of the church and a this-worldly
involvement in social problems; it seemed even more ironic that
the New Theology had come to be identified with Altizer. This
was a gigantic error, Altizer agreed. Grinning, puffing on a fragrant
pipe, he explained his vision.
What it boiled down to was a highly unorthodox interpretation
of the Incarnation: of the Word becoming flesh in the person of
Jesus Christ. What Altizer was talking about was transcendence,
We have said it is possible to conceive of God as both transcendent
and immanent, and we recalled the analogy to the relationship
between Shakespeare and the characters in The Tempest.
Shakespeare obviously is immanent in his characters, since they
owe their existence to him; but he also transcends them, in the
sense that they do not exhaust his being: he has a separate existence
above and beyond them. Altizer began with a fairly traditional
view of God somewhat along these lines, accepting the idea of
a transcendent-immanent divinity. And he also accepted the Incarnation
as a historic fact: God manifesting himself in the world in the
flesh of Jesus.
For years, however, he brooded upon the full significance of this
event. He immersed himself in a study of Eastern mysticism, Nietzsche,
Hegel, William Blakeand he thought hard about the Incarnation.
Then, one day while he was reading, it came to him. It all fell
The Incarnation happened.
So did the Crucifixion.
But not the Resurrection!
This idea is the essence of Altizer's theology. God had incarnated
himself in the body of Jesus; but when Jesus died, God did not
"jump back up into heaven." He remained in the world.
He is in the world now. What God did, said Altizer, was "empty
himself of transcendence." He became totally immanent in
the universe. He became part of the universe. But he did not,
immediately, become all of the universe.
At first he was immanent only in Jesus. Since the death of Jesus
he has continued to embed himself deeper and deeper into the fabric
of the universe. No longer transcendent in any sense, he is in
the process even now of becoming ever more immanent.
Jesus, to Altizer, was "the original Christ." Christ
was that point where God entered the world. And Altizer retains
the word Christ to signify the God who remains in the world, becoming
more and more a part of it. The word "spirit" might
do just as well, said Altizer. But for various reasons he would
prefer to "stick with the word Christ."
More often than not, however, Altizer in his conversation spoke
neither of Christ nor of spirit. He kept right on speaking of
"God." When this was called to his attention, he conceded:
"In a certain sense I treat Christ as God. But the word bears
an entirely different meaning from the dominant meaning of God.
That's why I resist the word God." He resisted it all evening
with little success.
Altizer described the movement toward greater immanence as an
evolutionary, creative process; it is leading toward a final Christ:
an apocalyptic new godhead in which God will be all there is.
Altizer spoke of "a new world that will dawn at the end of
the old world." He spoke of "a totally new creationnew
man, new world, new life." When he speaks of the death of
God, said Altizer, he is speaking of the passage from transcendence
to immanence. Eventually the new and different godhead will be
realized, he said. But even now, before it is realized, man can
rejoice in a new sense of freedom.
Man finds himself in darkness, said Altizer. "And this darkness
is the body of the dead God." But once the darkness is recognized
for what it is, it can be accepted. "Only a rotting body
in a tomb," said Altizer. "It can't bind us to it, once
we have known it truly as an empty darkness. Then, at that moment,
we can truly be liberated from it." The transcendent power
has ended, and man is free.
Shakespeare has entered his own play, Altizer seemed to be saying.
Eventually he will be the playand then he will write a final
act which incorporates the preceding five but is wholly different.
"I make the Incarnation everything," Altizer summed
up, adding, necessarily, that he gives the rest of the Bible "only
a very limited allegiance." His interpretation of the Incarnation
was entirely consistent, he said. "Christ has come, and you
hurl him back into heaven. This is a complete betrayal of Christ.
Only by seeing God's death in Christ can we be true to Christ."
At the bull session, the Northwestern students fired questions
at Altizer, and, as they did so, it was possible to trace many
of his concepts back to their sources. A wholly immanent God,
after all, is scarcely a new idea: it is the idea of Eastern pantheism,
pure and simple, and Altizer conceded he was talking pantheism.
The God of the East is "very real," he said, and "infinitely
more realistic" than the traditional Western God. One could
opt for this God, he said. But there is one important sense in
which Altizer would distinguish his position from the Eastern
view, and we shall return to this point in a later chapter. Briefly,
for now, Altizer's theology suggests that the cosmic process is
evolutionarythat it is leading up to somethingwhile Eastern
metaphysics supposedly rejects the evolutionary hypothesis. The
East "looks backward to a primordial totality" (according
to Altizer), and Altizer on the other hand "looks forward"
to an eschatological totality which is utterly transformed and
aware of itself.
Altizer of course had taken his God-is-Dead tag from Nietzsche,
and the new sense of freedom echoed Blake's mystical emphasis
upon man: his delight in man's liberty and his rejection of any
transcendent authority, his absorption with Jesus and his denial
Altizer acknowledged his debt to Blake and Nietzsche.
There also seemed nothing new in the idea of an evolving spirit.
That derived from Hegel, as Altizer was pleased to point out.
But it also sounded very much like Henri Bergson's vital force.
As a matter of fact, it sounded even more like Teilhard de Chardin's
view of the universe. Again, we shall have more to say about this
in another chapter, and we shall limit ourselves for the moment
to only one aspect of Teilhard's metaphysics.
Teilhard, a Jesuit paleontologist, had proposed an evolutionary
theory based upon the increasing complexification of inert matter.
He proposed that mankind was moving toward the realization of
a new godhead which Teilhard referred to as the Omega point. And
he saw in this process the hand of God.
The key to it all: the Incarnation.
Teilhard described evolution as "a prodigious biological
operationthat of the Redeeming Incarnation." He added:
"As early as in St. Paul and St. John we read that to create,
to fulfill and to purify the world is, for God, to unify it by
uniting it organically with himself."
And how would God unify the world? Teilhard answered: "By
partially immersing himself in things, by becoming 'element,'
and then, from this point of vantage in the heart of matter, assuming
the control and leadership of what we now call evolution."
This immersion, said Teilhard, was through Christwho "put
himself in the position (maintained ever since) to subdue under
himself . . . the general ascent of consciousness into which he
inserted himself.... And when he has gathered everything together
and transformed everything, he will close in upon himself and
his conquests, thereby rejoining, in a final gesture, the divine
focus he has never left. Then, as St. Paul tells us, God shall
be all in all."
I asked Altizer about this, and Altizer acknowledged his IOU to
Teilhard. (He suggested later that I may have overwritten the
amount a bit, but I doubt it.) He largely accepted Teilhard's
view, Altizer said. It represented "the most important theological
work in a long time."
That seemed to leave Altizer with little to call his own, apart
from his unique view of the Incarnation. Even there, he appeared
to be separated from Teilhard by a single word: "partially."
The students jumped on what was left.
"That which was God," said Altizer, "will finally
be real and present again in a wholly new formif you like,
in Teilhard's Omega point."
Well, then, God wasn't really dead, was he? Altizer more or less
conceded than "transformed" might be more accuratethat
the passage from transcendence to immanence meant "a totally
new form of the godhead." "So we shouldn't panic?"
asked a student.
"Well," said Altizer, "the Christian church should.
Because I'm saying that everything they stand for is dead."
Pressed again on his word choice, Altizer said of God: "I
think he's dead in a very crucial way . . . in his original divine
form. Everything the Christian has called God is dead." All
this sounded remarkably close to the minimal concession that theologians
had been trying to wring from Altizer for some time. God lives,
but man's concept of him is outdated. In my subsequent interview
with him, after his return to Georgia, Altizer picked up his word
and ran with it again: a less drastic word might fail to make
the point, he saidand, as a newspaperman, I could certainly
appreciate this. Suppose that first story coming out of Atlanta
had begun: "A theologian here says God is immanent."
The story would never have come out of Atlanta in the first place;
the complex and productive arguments behind the catchword might
never have seen the light, and Altizer, at best, would be an obscure
The word was not important really. What seemed to upset the Northwestern
students far more was Altizer's fundamentally apocalyptic view
of the world. Once understood, Altizer appeared to stand in direct
contradiction to the radical theology his name had come to dominatebecause
the main thrust of that theology had probably been messianic and
Radical theology is a big tent, and it has sheltered other theologians
who also have said that God is Dead. But these others have not
meant that God is Dead in Altizer's sensenor indeed have they
really meant that God is Dead in any sense. Some of the people
who are associated with this phrase have meant to say simply that
the word God is dead; they have abandoned the word as a
semantic wreck which means all things to all men, and they have
tried to clarify the concept through linguistic analysis. Others
have studied God talk as a cultural phenomenon, asserting
that man creates God in his own image, so to speakthat his
idea of God is molded by his cultural prejudicesand they have
tried to identify the real divinity which exists perhaps behind
the man-made idols. Still others have meant that God is hidden
or mysterious, as Job found him to be, beyond the power of human
comprehension, and they have called upon us to abandon the vain
effort to understand God metaphysically, recommending instead
that we do God's work by seeking social justice here on earth.
Still another school appears to derive its inspiration largely
from Bonhoeffer. Its advocates speak of God as absent in
the sense that modern man no longer is capable of experiencing
God: the reality of God has somehow gone dead on him. But absence
is not the same as death, and Altizer's fellow radical William
Hamilton, for example, has referred to "our waiting for God,"
implying that God perhaps will one day return: it may be that
he has simply withdrawn for a time, in order that we may achieve
our adulthood in Bonhoeffer's "world come of age." In
one of his essays, Hamilton said he followed Bonhoeffer in rejecting
religionwhich is to say, "any system of thought
or action in which God or the gods serve as fulfiller of needs
or solver of problems." Hamilton described radical theology
as a movement from the church to the worlda letting go of God's
hand, as it were. And he added: "This combination of a certain
kind of God-rejection with a certain kind of world-affirmation
is the point where I join the death of God movement.... If God
is not needed, if it is to the world and not God that we repair
for our needs and problems, then perhaps we may come to see that
he is to be enjoyed and delighted in.... Our waiting for God,
our godlessness, is partly a search for a language and a style
by which we might be enabled to stand before him once again, delighting
in his presence." In other words, we won't come home again
until we have made it all by ourselves in the big city, or rather
the big cosmosand then won't Father be proud of us? Then we
can sit on the front-porch swing together and trade stories, man
to man, and really get to know each other. No more of this writing
home for money; enough of this juvenile dependency relationship:
Andy Hardy is growing up. We are falling into parody here, but
it is not our intention to poke fun; we are merely trying to communicate
a rather difficult idea, somewhat in the manner of an editorial-page
cartoonist. Hamilton, in any case, has probably been the best-known
Death of God theologian next to Altizer, and Hamilton clearly
has not been saying the same thing that Altizer has been saying.
Altizer really stands by himself. Only he has taken a position
which might be construed to imply an actual Death of God, and
even in his case a stretch of the imagination is required to justify
that word Death. He is in fact talking about the Transformation
of God. Nevertheless, Altizer has been the only Death of God theologian
to propose a really radical metaphysics. He has been the only
one to suggest that an actual change has occurred in the
nature or ontology of God. The orthodox atheist says that God
never existed in the first place. Bishop Robinson and the demythologizers
say we ought to change our ideas about God. Altizer alone says
that God himself has changed.
Altizer also rejects the idea that theology has anything to do
with social action. In fact he scoffs at the idea, and he ridicules
the secularizers who are trying to make the church "relevant."
("Suddenly the church had something to do.") He is not
against good works, of course; but he feels that the secularizers
are simply putting old wine into new bottles, and Altizer wants
a new wine. He can argue, and does, that good works have nothing
to do with the relevance of the church; he can argue, and does,
that the business of theologians is theology; he can argue, and
does, that only he and a few others have been doing theology.
Harvey Cox is a physician, Altizer is a metaphysician. Only Altizer
has been asking ultimate questions about the nature of God and
The secularizers have been responding to history and to social
forces, and many people, missing his meaning, have supposed that
Altizer is doing the same thing. They interpret his message as
a kind of existential reaction to the modern world and the impact
of technology; they think he is this-worldly, as the secularizers
are. But that is wrong. Altizer did not start with the world,
he said. He started with his vision. That is what he is talking
about, and that is what concerns him: not the world as such, but
a vision of the world.
Altizer at Northwestern fulminated against otherworldliness. He
implied he was this-worldly, since after all he had equated God
with this world. It seemed fair, however, to put him in his own
category and describe him instead as inner-worldly.
He told the Northwestern students that civil rights was a "phony
nineteenth-century issue" as far as church relevance was
concerned. In fact, he said, since divine authority had collapsed
(since the transcendent deity was dead), there was absolutely
no basis left for moral decision-making. "A Christian can't
make decisions on Viet Nam," he said. Nor had a Christian
much to hope for at the moment. There was, said Altizer, no messianic
hope for "this world, this history, this society." There
was only the apocalyptic hope for "the total transformation
of all things."
"Suppose I accept your dead God?" said a co-ed. "Where
do I get my Brownie points?"
Altizer could offer her only Omega pointsand a sense of freedom
to do something or other. Whatever she wanted to, apparently.
He did not offer the God-is-love message of Bishop Robinson and
the secularizers. In several hours, in fact, the word love never
came up. Just that other word.
Altizer returned to Atlanta, and we later had the following conversation:
Q. Let me see if I understand your viewpoint correctly, from what
you said the other night. You believe, do you not, that there
once was a transcendent God?
Q. Was this God wholly transcendent, or was he also immanent in
A. Both transcendent and immanent.
Q. Did he create the world?
A. This gets more difficult theologically. I do not believe in
a literal creation or creation story. Frankly, I haven't worked
this out. It's merely tentative. But I think in terms of a kind
of evolution of the cosmos. There was an original totality in
which all things were oneno separation between nature, man,
and God. And out of this totality there evolved the world or the
cosmos as a distinct entityand also God. I think in a certain
sense God appears as creator in conjunction with the world's coming
to exist apart from God.
Q. As I understand it, you believe God emptied himself of transcendence
and became immanent in the worldthat he incarnated himself
in the person of Jesus. That sounds orthodox, to a point. But
you stop with the Incarnation. You reject the Resurrection. You
say, "God did not jump back up into heaven." You say
he stayed right here in the world after the Crucifixion. Is that
A. Correct. I believe the fullness, the totality of God passed
into Christ, moving ever more deeply and fully and comprehensively
into the world, flesh, consciousness, and experience.
Q. Why did God decide to do this?
A. He didn't decide. I understand the Incarnation as implicit
and essential in the whole process of cosmic movement. There was
no arbitrary point where a decision was reached.
Q. So God is no longer transcendent but is immanent right now
in the world?
A. That's right....
Q. But in what is he immanent? In mankind?
A. I wouldn't say only mankind. As I told you at Northwestern,
I reverence Teilhard's vision and largely accept it.
Q. By that, I take it you mean God is immanent in the cosmos as
A. Really yes, in the entire cosmos.
Q. You speak of Jesus as the original Christ. Do you mean by that
there have been other, latter-day Christs?
A. Originally the Incarnation was in the man Jesus. And then,
following the Crucifixion, Christ progressively enters the fullness
of history and experience, ever more fully and comprehensively
becoming actual in the world . . . a forward movement . . . Christ
becoming ever more actual, ever more real, ever more incarnate.
Q. You mean this is an evolutionary process that isn't finished
A. I like to think of this immanence itself as a gradual process.
God once was real and actual as a transcendent lord. He negated
himself. Nevertheless, his epiphany or manifestation as lord continues
to linger in human experience, and it has a certain reality in
that experience. I call this the dead body of God. It's real in
human experience. And it will continue to be real until it is
totally negated by the total dawning of the incarnate Christ.
Q. You mean there are parts of the cosmos in which Christ is not
yet wholly incarnate?
Q. All this sounds rather like pantheism. Is it?
A. I think it is . . . in the same sense that Teilhard's vision
is. In the cosmic process, it's a kind of dynamic pantheism
God ever becoming other than he was in the pastbut nevertheless
pantheism in that God eventually will be all in all. Call it a
Q. Could your immanent God in any sense be interpreted to mean
the Holy Ghost?
A. Possibly. I'd almost be willing to use the word spirit. I'd
be willing. In part I do. It's just that this word spirit is so
kicked around these days. I'd rather stick with the word Christ.
Q. But doesn't all this say something entirely different from
God is dead? You keep speaking of God in the present tense and
the future tense. You agreed at Northwestern, I believe, that
transformedcompletely transformedwas perhaps more accurate
than dead. That it was the church's concept of God that was utterly
dead. Isn't that what you said at Northwestern?
A. Well, I also want to say the transcendent lord is dead. He's
become totally immanent, totally flesh, totally world. If I just
speak of transformation, I fear the whole point will be lost.
I'm really saying that the God a Christian prays to and worships
Q. Dead? You start with a transcendent God and you end up with
an immanent God. It seems to me you've killed the adjective, not
the noun. The noun is God, and the noun remains.
A. Yes. All right. But it doesn't remain in the sense that it
still is what it was before. That which God has become is wholly
other. And there is, to my knowledge, no form of Christian doctrine
that admits or asserts thisthat God has decisively transformed
himself. I think God as God has died, and God has passed into
Christ. And he lives in Christ . . . but only lives in Christ
himself. If you like, God the father is dead.
Q. Would you call yourself an atheist?
A. Yes. I do.
Q. The question arises, how do you know all this? I believe you
have stated that it came to you one day while you were reading
in the University of Chicago library. Could you describe the nature
of your experience?
A. That must be about ten years ago now. It was the summer of
1955, I guess. I was reading Erich Heller's essay on Nietzsche
and Rilke. It was a very intense personal experience. I'd been
thinking about these things for years, of course. Suddenly I was
overwhelmed.... I felt it. I sensed it. And once having sensed
it, I've never been able to lose that sense.
Q. I assume this wasn't something you arrived at by a purely rational
process, from empirical evidence. Would it be fair to call it
A. I'm afraid that would mislead too many people. I think this
theological position is simply a consistent consequence of thinking
fully and radically about the meaning of the Incarnation. Once
you grant that God fully and finally became man in Jesus Christ,
you can largely think through this whole thing. Also, it's rooted
in what I believe to be modern and contemporary Christian experience
and thinking. And I employ people like Blake and Nietzsche as
spokesmen for this radical Christian vision. I base my work on
Q. You often speak of your vision. Wasn't this really a personal
vision you had?
A. Let's put it this way. I believe there does in fact exist a
great body of materials of various kinds that reflect and embody
a modern radical Christian vision. For example, the works of William
Blake. I haven't had these visions. I'm no visionary. I seek to
be an interpreter of them. Then there's also Hegel's logic as
a conceptual expression of the same thing. You can build on the
vision and think it through. Hegel allows you to see how Blake's
vision is really a consistent resolution of the Christian faith.
Q. But you didn't start with Hegel. Wouldn't you say this understanding
of yours came originally from a non-rational source?
A. Oh yes. Every kind of understanding comes originally from a
source other than the empirical, the rational. I'd include Freud
and Marx in that category.
Q. Would it be fair, then, to describe your vision as basically
mystical in nature?
A. There is a higher vision; or, if you like, a radically profane
mystical vision. There is such a thing as a modern mystical vision,
yes. But it's not the same as traditional [otherworldly] mysticism.
It's radically profane. It's directed to the here and nowto
life, flesh, energy.
Q. You told the students the other night you couldn't help them
make up their minds on Viet Nam and other issues. You said your
view provided no basis for moral decision-making. What did you
A. Well, basically this. My view does not lead to an ethical system
or set of moral laws. I don't think anyone can think responsibly
about ethical problems today. Man has lost the ability.
Q. You said civil rights was a phony nineteenth-century issue.
What did you mean by that?
A. The problem itself, it seems to me, is basically a matter of
a group of people, Negroes, entering bourgeois, middle-class society.
And that basically is an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century problem.
It's an old problem, not a problem peculiar to the twentieth century.
I think the church has falsely prided itself on being able to
speak relevantly on this issue, when it's not really a contemporary
issue at all. Further, we are now moving into a phase of the problem
that's highly technical and modern. And as we do, the church will
have increasingly less and less to say. It will have to be solved
by technicians basicallyby economists and sociologists.
Q. You mean the church shouldn't speak out on the issue?
A. No, that's not the point. The church should not pride itself
on being relevant. These church people congratulate themselves.
They say, "See how relevant the church is." And I think
that's a great illusion.
Q. Are you saying there's no teleological or ultimate basis for
any kind of a morality at all?
A. All I'm saying is, as far as I can see right now, there is
no source of moral or human insight into contemporary human and
social problems. This is a period of terrible darkness we're going
through. Either there is no basis for morality or I just can't
see it. Nobody else can see it either. But I think it will come.
I hope it will.
Q. Shouldn't clergymen involve themselves in civil rights marches?
A. Oh sure, sure. But we've reached the point already where there
aren't going to be any civil rights marches. There won't be any
role for churchmen to play. Their basic job was to identify the
problem, to attract public attention. And now they've done that.
Q. And now they have another job?
A. That's the great problem. What is that job? I think the church
has to be totally reformed.
Q. Until you came along, the mainstream of Christian upheaval
seemed partly at least a reaction to social forcesBonhoeffer
reacting to the Nazis, Cox to urbanization, Robinson to secularization.
The reformers seemed to be calling for social involvement and
more or less suspending judgment on the fine points of theology.
That is, they seemed to start with the world. But you seem to
start with this inner vision of yours. Is that a fair statement?
A. Yes. It's fair to say I started with the vision rather than
Q. And your vision should in no way be interpreted as a call to
social action, to solve the problems of the world?
A. That's right. That's not for me. But I don't want to say it
can't involve social action. Each one must find his own way. It's
a new kind of freedom if you like. This is why the Death of God
is pretty crucial. There's no longer any kind of divine law to
follow. It's no longer there.
Q. How would you differentiate yourself from people like Harvey
Cox and Bishop Robinson, who say Christians should seek God by
involving themselves directly in the problems of the world?
A. The people I call secularists, they're basically church reformers.
They're reacting to a form of Christian religiosity which has
turned itself completely away from our world. They want basically
to restructure the form of the church, to make the church relevant.
They're not concerned with transforming the heart of the Christian
gospel. They think that's the same, and that's given, always.
I myself, and Hamilton and others, belong to a radical group who
believe the very heart of the Christian center has got to be transformed.
The transcendent God the church has worshiped is no more. One
difference is, Cox is not really a theologian. He's not interested
in constructing a theological vision or system. Robinson, too.
I'm concerned with a full theological understanding of contemporary
Q. In other words, you're more metaphysical?
A. Yes. Except that word is such a . . . it makes people see red.
I'm not a Thomist or anything like that. But I am concerned with
an ultimate vision, with a full understanding of faith in the
world today. Teilhard was metaphysical in this sense.
Q. As one of the students asked the other night, "Where do
I get my Brownie points?" What good does your vision do,
and what's in it for me? Isn't it just morbid introspection, this
naming of the darkness?
A. I think it's liberating to know God is Dead. Otherwise, inevitably,
consciously or unconsciously, we will look upon reality as being
something alien. Something we can't really know. We'll be victims
of it, slaves of it, because it's mysterious. To know God is Dead
is to be liberated from the threat of an unknown world, the threat
Q. What is the nature of the light you say you see burning beyond
A. That dawns in accordance with the degree with which darkness
is unveiled. And it's a light that makes possible freedom from
oppression right now. To the extent that we're liberated from
darkness, we are able to give ourselves to life. And life itself
becomes light. Darkness becomes light.
Q. This ultimate consummation we're moving towardis the nature
of it predestined? Or is the evolutionary process creative, in
the Bergsonian sense?
A. Something like the latter. Except that everything that happens
in the world will be a part of that final Omega point.
Q. You said the other night that God in a certain sense remains
transcendent. What did you mean?
A. We were speaking in the context of Judaism. I think the Jew
can indeed know a transcendent God. The Jew lives in a kind of
eternal covenant with God, and he can preserve this because he
lives in exilebecause he is not totally involved in our history.
Q. How can this be? Are you saying there are two Gods, a Jewish
God who's alive and a Christian God who's Dead?
A. The Jew actually is in communion with that ancient epiphany
of Godhas preserved and perpetuated that moment in faith.
Q. But you said that was over. Are you saying Jews worship a God
who isn't therea false God?
A. It's a false God as far as the Christian is concerned. But
I see no reason for the Christian to attack it as such. What must
be attacked are the forms of Judaism that maintain themselves
within Christianity. That's the real danger.
Q. But is it a false God as far as the Jew is concerned? Are you
simply saying the Jew has a right to worship as he pleases?
A. No. I think It's possible for the Jew actually to be in communion
with this God. Christians must be totally immersed in history.
Jews don't have to be. They're in exile.
Q. I think there was another sense in which you said God remains
transcendent. You were debating the point with a philosophy major,
and finally you agreed with him.
A. Oh! The problem there was, he was using transcendent in a different
senseto refer to something beyond the given, beyond the brute
actuality of experience. He was using it in terms of vision. That's
in a sense transcendent. In that sense, everything I say is transcendental.
Altizer said he represents a far more basic challenge to orthodox
Christianity than the secularizers do, and no doubt he does for
he represents that influx of Eastern ideas we talked about: he
represents pantheism. And pantheism is in the air, no question
about that. The doctrine of transcendence is challenged today
as never before, and in Altizer's theologyas in LSD cultismEastern
immanence is given full and final expression. In one of his articles,
Altizer called upon the American theologian to "cast off
his German tutors" and "open himself both to the religious
world of the East and to the deeper sensibility of the Western
present." He added: "From the East we may once more
learn the meaning of the sacred.... We can encounter in the East
a form of the sacred which Christianity has never known, a form
which is increasingly showing itself to be relevant to our situation."
Obviously, the leap to the East is just as evident in radical
theology as it is in the drug movement, at least in so far as
this implies a leap from transcendence to immanenceand if Altizer
has been the only important theologian so far to embrace pantheism
without reservation, less radical radicals have been embracing
it with reservations. On a superficial level at least, it is not
much of a jump from Robinson's position to Altizer's (which is
not to imply that Altizer derives from Robinson; in fact, Altizer
was publishing his views for a non-popular reader ship several
years before Honest to God saw print), and radical theology
on the whole can be characterized essentially as a movement in
the direction of immanence. It is significant perhaps that Harvey
Cox, that squarest of all the radicals, was able to defend transcendence
at Northwestern only in a very limited way. He suggested it was
"too early" to foreclose the possibility of a transcendent
God; the discussion, he said, should "remain open."
It could be that man is simply incapable of answering the question
one way or the other.
Once the shock effect has worn off, the Death of God slogan may
lose much of its appeal, and Altizer perhaps will suffer an eclipse.
Once understood, his apocalyptic message is not likely to capture
the imagination of this messianic Peace Corps generation, and
his unique view of the Incarnation is subject to considerable
criticism. To some degree at least, Altizer has owed his success
to the fact that few people have actually grasped his meaningthe
attacks against him have not been well informedand, from one
point of view, the best way to attack him is to explain him fully.
But the loss of an unfortunate slogan will not put an end to the
radical examination of transcendence, and Altizer's path to immanence
is not the only one.
Altizer is both in and out of the radical mainstream. He is in
it so far as he leans toward immanence; he is out of it so far
as he rejects the messianic hope for this world in the here and
now. Particularly is he out of it in his apparent rejection (or
neglect) of a primary essence or condition of Being which might
provide the basis for an ethical system. This essence or condition
has meanwhile been given its due by the drug movement and by the
bishop of Woolwichand it also is central to that emerging phenomenon
which is sometimes described as humanistic psychology.
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