books book reviews

Books on Resurrection and the Apocalypse

Two interesting books to read over the Easter holiday. Reviewed by T. Nelson

The New Gospel of Christian Atheism

by Thomas J. J. Altizer
Davies Group, 2002, 158 pages
Reviewed by T Nelson

Among the world religions, says Thomas J.J. Altizer, only Christ­ianity observes the death of its God. By the same token, in modernity nothing is more unique than the realization of the death of God. Thus, genuine atheism is possible only for Christians.

Christianity celebrates resurrection, on Easter, instead of mourning the crucifixion as it did in the past. According to Altizer, we ought to do both: it “cannot be a total event if it is not the death of God”. [1]

Now, you might ask, is this death death, or only “death” death? Or does he mean practical irrelevance, as Nietzsche meant? It seems that for Altizer God continues to exist, but his transcendence was converted to immanence by a process of self-negation.

In his 1966 book The Gospel of Christian Atheism, which made quite a splash in its day, Altizer proposed that God's death during the crucifixion was a voluntary act in which he poured out his transcendence or divinity into the world, sacrificing it or emptying it out as an act of immanentization to transform the world. Altizer calls such a transformation “apocalyptic” in that it signals a new beginning and the end of an old way of thought.

In 2002 Altizer rewrote his book for the benefit of those who missed his message about God being “dead” the first time around, or who didn't notice.

But the fact he says it so many times proves he doesn't really believe it. If your parent died, it would be the most terrible thing in your life; you could not bear to write a whole book about it, let alone repeat it multiple times on every page. Either he means it metaphorically, or he's saying it for the sake of notoriety. In The Call to Radical Theology (reviewed at right) he hints that it is Christianity's relationship to God, not God himself, that has changed. Maybe that is what has died.

But even that strikes me as false. I suspect that what believers want from God is something beyond the world—something transcendent. As science learns more about the natural world, their concept of God, rather than adapting, recedes to maintain that distance, so as to remind them that there is such a place.

Other theologians have explained Altizer's ideas as attempts to understand Christianity from a secular point of view. However, since he still accepts the presumed existence and divinity of God, perhaps one should say it is an attempt to explain the how and why of Christ's death and resurrection, which Christians celebrate as Easter.

None of that is really explained in the Bible (though I admit not to being an expert on this), nor does the Bible propose a mechanism to explain how the entire episode is supposed to have redeeming effects on humanity. These unexplained mysteries aren't as easily accepted as they were in earlier times. Nowadays we demand explanations: what exactly do transcendence and divinity actually mean? How could they be poured out like liquids or transformed through some alchemy into immanence?

Take divinity. Is divinity a property of a deity or merely a product of believers' relationship to him as worshipers? If the latter, perhaps it says more about us than about God when we say he loses it.

Perhaps in response to the generally hostile reaction of his original book, the writing here is rather cryptic. It doesn't answer these questions. Instead Altizer relies on quotes from Hegel, Nietzsche, and Blake. At one point, for example, he tries to relate Hegel's three categories of Being-In-Itself, Being-For-Itself, and Being-In-and-For-Itself to the Trinity in Christianity.

This sort of thing reminds me of R.D. Laing, a radical psychiatrist from the same era. The writing tends to make improbable, unexpected leaps of logic, on occasions citing fictional works like Finnegans Wake, Faust, and Moby Dick in support of his argu­ments. There is also, like R.D. Laing's writing, a certain amount of wandering, inscrutable prose:

Can we truly return from an absolute death, or can we only numb or disguise it, and if postmodernity is the advent of a truly new emptiness, and one now realizing a universalization of an actual emptiness, and a universalization of a new and absolute anonymity, are these universal embodiments of an absolute death, but now embodiments that are wholly exterior rather than interior, and embodiments bringing an end to interiority itself? [2]

Um, I would say ... yes?

For Altizer, the basis of Christianity is resurrection:

Resurrection is perhaps the most elusive of all Christian theological categories ... it is only in modernity that it has been possible to recognize the ultimate elusiveness or mystery of resurrection itself. [3]

But it's important for Christians to come to grips with the fact that if Christ was God, then despite his subsequent achievements, God did in fact die. In so doing, Altizer says, God caused a liberation from the body of thought that had become a prison for humanity from which mankind could only be liberated by the death of God. This is potentially a good thing:

Only the most ultimate and absolute negation can realize that apocalyptic totality, but this negation is a self-negation or a self-emptying, and only thereby can it make possible an absolutely new totality. [4] . . .

Is Zarathustra Nietzsche's name of the apocalyptic Jesus? Certainly not if we know Jesus as he has ever been known before, but if that Jesus has truly disappeared, this could make possible an absolutely new Jesus . . . who is the embodiment of a new humanity and a new world. [6]

Whether these ideas make any sense to Christians or not I can't say, but you have to admit they're radical. Atheists would say they're confirmation that any discussion of the properties of God and his motivations is pure, unadulterated speculation. Believers, if they're feeling optimistic, might see Altizer's work as a form of evangelization: anything that gets atheists to read about theology couldn't hurt. Everybody else, I suspect, will just put the book aside and get back to dying their Easter eggs ... I mean, dyeing them ....

1. The Call to Radical Theology, p. 149
2. The New Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 39
3. ibid., p. 65
4. ibid., p. 60
5. ibid., p. 66
6. ibid., p. 69

apr 14, 2017; updated apr 16, 2017

The Call to Radical Theology

by Thomas J. J. Altizer
SUNY, 2012, 177 pages
Reviewed by T Nelson

What does a theologian do if God up and dies? Become a plumber, maybe? As if! No, he talks about his favorite topics: nihilism, death, despair, and the hopelessness of modern life. In short, he becomes an existentialist.

Voltaire wrote that if there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him. And that is the task Altizer sets for himself here: to re-invent theology in such a way as to accommodate modernism and post-modernism—to make theology great again: post-theistic theology!

But perhaps we should not make light of it. Even for atheists, the loss of God, and hence Christianity, is apocalyptic, because religion is the foundation of Western civilization. Science did not displace religion—it evolved from it, and retains many of its trappings and core beliefs (as I discussed here). The Physics Building is the Cathedral of Cause and Effect, and it looks like one. If God dies, all the atheists go out of business; without religion to use as a foil, how can there still be secularism?

Even the radical atheists must know by now that a Europe without Christianity has no immunity against the intrusion of alien gods. The human soul cannot tolerate nihilism; without something to believe in it will shrivel up and die, taking the West with it. As Altizer puts it, “for the first time in history the non-being of the finite nothingness is the groundless infinite.” Christ stands at the foundation of our civilization, whether we believe in him or not, and so all of us are praying for a quick recovery.

Altizer really has only one thing to say, so the content in this book is pretty much the same as in The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (see review at left), so I'm jolly well not going to review it again. The difference is that this one is a collection of his essays, and the language is a bit plainer. There are also some better sound bites, though they still might not fit on a bumper sticker:

This God who is known in Christianity is a consequence of a radical de-eschatologizing of the original Christian kerygma. [p.90]

When God is dead religion is everywhere, and everywhere as a vacuous and destructive power. [p.29]

This is the center making possible the first full philosophical enactment of an absolute immanence, an absolute immanence that is the total self-negation or self-emptying of an absolute transcendence, and only an apprehension of that immanence makes possible an understanding of a total self-emptying or self-negation, for the Hegelian philosophical revolution is inseparable from the uniquely modern historical realization of a final and ultimate death of God. [p.42]

Also deserving of praise is Lissa McCullough's compelling Introduction.

Of course religious conservatives will take issue with claims of God's demise, and atheists might wonder why God would have poured himself into the world at the Crucifixion rather than at the Big Bang, which might make a lot more theological sense, but they would both be overlooking an important fact. Whether one agrees with him or not (and I still maintain Altizer is only speaking metaphorically, since it's impossible to have evidence of God's death), Altizer has tapped into something important. Our culture was founded on Christianity as espoused by Milton, Dante, and, yes, Hegel, Spinoza, and Nietzsche. We have only to look at the poverty of our modern culture to see what a civilization without faith, religious or otherwise, looks like. At the moment, no one's at the helm, and the West is at risk of dying from nihilism and despair.

In the Appendix Altizer gets philosophical, saying

Perhaps The Gospel of Christian Atheism has made a contribution to our situation; if not, let it be cast into oblivion.

In my view, the reason Altizer's ideas never caught on is not so much that they were wrong, but that they presupposed a relationship to God that is not longer realistic. Humans used God as a hypothetical embodiment of good. If we now view this concept as no longer meaningful it is because we can no longer accept truth that is dictated to us by authority. It is not God who has died; it is our old relationship to knowledge. We have become more skeptical about the world. And I think that that just might be what God would have wanted.

apr 15, 2017; updated apr 18, 2017