Generally, when I think of a death of God theologian, I think of a theologian who asserts that theistic language simply doesn’t work for our world today. John Shelby Spong comes to mind. Technically, it’s not that the Godhead has literally died, but that the way we are used to conceiving of the Godhead has metaphorically died. This is not how Thomas JJ Altizer thinks. As I continue to work my way (again) through Altizer’s radical theology in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, I come to understand more fully why he believes that the actual, historical death of God is good news.
I have already hinted at Altizer’s emphasis on forward momentum. For him, Christianity moves forward, from a beginning to an end. That which has happened cannot be reversed. In the beginning, we have the transcendent primordial God, then the incarnate God, then the immanent apocalyptic Spirit. In contrast to that, he sees most of the history of Christianity wanting to turn the incarnation and crucifixion into a pivot point that takes us back to the worship of a primordial God. It is this very reversal that he resists. He doesn’t want to return to the transcendent primordial God, for that is a self-alienated God that has not experienced atonement. Key to understanding why this atonement of God is so important is to understand the shadow-side of God.
Typically, Christian theology sees evil as being separate from the transcendent God who is good. Altizer conceives otherwise. He would rather see evil as one pole of divine potential. The transcendent God can impose both good and bad upon us, according to the divine will at the time. The incarnation–the event that is the death of the transcendent, primordial God–reveals this di-polar reality that was within the Transcendent.
Indeed, the power of Transcendence–the power that is power over–is the power that is Satan. The God who lords over is really Satan. The God who crushes is Satan. The God who intervenes is Satan. Drawing on other thinkers (like Nietzsche, Hegel, and Blake), he finds the primordial God to whom most religion wants to return to be horrific. The incarnation brings this divine potential toward either good or evil into stark contrast.
What we saw in the incarnation was a self-alienated Godhead. The gap between the negative and positive poles within the divine were revealed as Jesus and Satan became each other’s other. Between them we saw the struggle of power over vs. power with. It was the key struggle within the divine, but the Godhead always had the potential to move past it. When we talk about fulfilling potential, we’re talking about fulfilling one’s destiny, or becoming what one was meant to become. The “self-annihilation” of God was the actualization of the destiny of God, the moment in which God truly became God. As Altizer describes it, “Godhead only becomes, or is only truly actualized as universal Godhead through this sacrifice, a sacrifice that most deeply is the Godhead; hence, finally, Godhead is unnamable and unknowable as anything else, and in the wake of the historical or universal realization of this sacrifice, God is ultimately unknowable as God, and not simply ultimately unknowable, but ultimately unknowable as God.” (101)
After the crucifixion, we see the continuing transfiguration of the now dead, absolutely transcendent, primordial God into the absolutely immanent, apocalyptic Spirit. In this move, God has actualized as the fullness of the Godhead through self-annihilation by becoming the immanent movement of self-emptying known as “kenosis.” To understand this kenosis, Altizer leans on Hegel. Continuing in a dialectical fashion, the Being of God includes both being and non-being. So, God holds within God’s self God’s very own wholly other. The evil pole within God comes about by one pole withdrawing from the other, establishing distance and alienation. Self-centeredness is the definition of evil. It is the very transfiguration into Immanence that reconciles the two poles of God. As he says,
Hegel purely understands this dichotomy in his understanding of the self-negation of Spirit, a self-negation in which Spirit kenotically becomes its own other, therein Spirit exists “for-itself,” but only insofar as it is its own opposite. Thus Spirit, which exists originally and eternally “in-itself,” must and does become wholly other than itself, yet just as it remains identical with itself in its own absolute otherness, it is this opposition within itself that is the source of its movement and life, and if this is an ultimate and absolute movement of self-negation or self-emptying, it is precisely as such that the forward and apocalyptic movement of the Spirit occurs. (111)
This is ultimately about the atonement of God: “the atonement is a universal process of self-negation or self-emptying, and a self-emptying and self-negation that is an absolute sacrifice, an absolutely atoning sacrifice…an atonement actually embodying the death of the transcendent God….” (111) History from the crucifixion on, then, is the working out of this divine self-emptying. While the church tried to reverse this apocalyptic Spirit by attempting a return to the primordial God, we see the death of God becoming ever so much more manifest all the time. Indeed, history itself is the dissolution of God, with perhaps the absolute nihilism we live in taking us to the point where “we can know our new world as the incarnation of nothingness…” (118) And so we move from Transcendence, into the incarnation, and finally into immanent incarnation itself–which is also the resurrection itself.
This might not sound like good news to many. But for Altizer, it truly is. While we have entered into an age of absolute nihilism, we have arrived here because of the divine movement in the depths of our existence. As the movement continues, it continues toward an apocalyptic reality, transfiguring all the way. As the Godhead is being transfigured silently in the deepest darkness into something wholly other than the transcendent God, so too are we being transfigured, whether we realize it or not. Inasmuch as we are open to this trasfiguration ourselves, we are freed from from prior constraints and the door opens for us to an absolutely new future.
Altizer is an extremely difficult read. Many things remain unclear. My biggest difficulty with him is that he comes at this from a perspective that is very religio-centric from the beginning. He really doesn’t leave room for interpreting other religions. I also want to shy away from his historical literalization of events. I believe he comes from a Southern Baptist background, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising. And as a person who emphasizes narrative and our inability to speak of ultimate things, I’m hesitante to to buy into a story about what happens inside that which we simply can’t get to. Yet, despite my reservations, he seems to have come up with a way to make sense of the continual secularization of postmodernity in a way that others have not. And the story he tells (inaccessible as it should be) is a very good one.
About the art: I created the banner as possible liturgical art for a worship service. Using meat-packing paper, cut out the areas that are green, and hang a green cloth behind it. The idea came from a book, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten which one.