Thursday, June 24, 2010

Altizer - The Gospel of Christian Atheism


"It is the thesis of this book that the Christian, and the Christian alone, can speak of God in our time; but the message the Christian is now called to proclaim is the gospel, the good news or the glad tidings, of the death of God" (15). Altizer laments the fact that the language of the theologian today (Barthians) has become largely one of polemical attack and lauds the coming of a new kind of theologian in America, a modern and radical Christian who is seeking a totally incarnate Word. This kind of radical Christian (as opposed to the religious Christian) abandons the idea that theology is a continual elucidation of an eternal and unchanging Word, rejecting both the literal and historical interpretations of the Bible for a pneumatic/spiritual understanding of the Word. The radical Christian is inspired by the works of protest against Christianity, namely those of Nietzsche, Blake and Hegel, who deem Christianity a "No-saying," a flight from life, an evasion of suffering, a refusal of the burden and anguish of the human condition. All this is an attack on God as transcendent Other, and the radical Christian understands that the death of that God is necessary for true Christianity to emerge.

Chapter 1: The Uniqueness of Christianity

I. Religion: Altizer begins by comparing Christianity with "Oriental mysticism," which is essentially a way of radical world-negation that seeks in a backward movement to return to the primordial Totality at a paradisical Beginning. In its religious form, Christianity is not so different from this mysticism; but "a reborn and radical Christian faith must renounce every temptation to return to an original or primordial sacred" (40).

II. Word and History: The uniqueness of the Christian Word lies in the fact that it is a dynamic, a living, and a forward-moving process (in contrast to Oriental mysticism). The Word is real for Christians only to the extent that it becomes one with human flesh. "An understanding of a fully kenotic Christ continues to elude the theologian, who at best has reached Karl Barth's ironic and antikenotic conclusion that God's omnipotence is such that it can assume the form of weakness and in that form can triumph" (43). There is an inevitable incompatibility between the primordial Christian God and an incarnate or kenotic Christ; so long as the Christian God continues to be known as transcendent, he cannot appear in his uniquely Christian form as the Incarnate Word and kenotic Christ. When Blake said "God is Jesus," he meant that God abandoned his transcendent form. If, as in the Christian religious tradition, he does not become the Incarnate Word, he becomes the solitary God of Blake's Satan, Hegel's abstract spirit or Melville's Moby Dick.

III. Fall and Death: Religious Christianity resists the movement of the Word, opposing its abandonment of an original and primordial sacred by resurrecting the Word in a religious form. A fully consistent or radical Christianity knows the totality of the Fall and consequently condemns the religious quest for an unfallen sacred, repudiates the God who alone is God and renounces all attachment to the past. Christianity alone proclaims the death of the sacred, and thus only in Christianity do we find a concrete experience of the factuality and finality of death (i.e., ain't no afterlife). Radical Christians are thus open to death as an ultimately real event. But once again, the historical forms of Christianity have failed to embody the full and radical consequences of the Christian Word. It is faith's resistance to the Word becoming fully actualized in the flesh that has driven it to the backward movement of religion.

Chapter 2: Jesus and the Incarnation

I. The Name of Jesus: In the radical Christian vision, we understand that the Jesus of the Christian tradition was born only by means of the negation of the original Jesus. The image of the dead Jesus is perpetuated by Christian orthodoxy in the mask of the God-man, while the true Jesus has passed through his death from a particular to a universal form. What is unique about Jesus is the epiphany of the totality of the sacred in the contingency of a particular moment of time: in this name the sacred appears and is real only to the extent that it becomes actual and realized in history. The Jesus of the radical Christian is best represented in Nietzsche's Zarathustra, whose goal is to "will backwards," to transform the dreadful accident of all "it was" into "thus I will it" or "thus shall I will it," thereby making possible a Yes-saying to the oppressive contingency of time.

II. Kenosis: The "atheism" of a radical Christian is a prophetic reaction to a distant and nonredemptive God who by virtue of his very sovereignty and transcendence stands wholly apart from the forward movement and the historical presence of the Incarnate Word. Christian scholasticism made the mistake of identifying God with Aristotle's actus purus, thus removing him completely from the world. In Eckhart's and Bohme's mysticism, and then in Hegel's dialectics, however, one finds a different conception of God as Spirit, or the kenotic or emptying process of negativity. Hegel does not simply negate the root idea of the aseity of Being, he reverses this idea by conceiving Being as a perpetual process of becoming its own other. It is only in Hegel that we may discover an idea of God or Being or Spirit which embodies an understanding of the theological meaning of the Incarnation, which is that Spirit only comes to know itself and fulfill its destiny by completely emptying itself into its otherness. "God is Jesus" means the Incarnation is a total and all-consuming act: as Spirit becomes the Word that empties the Speaker of himself, the whole reality of Spirit becomes incarnate in its opposite. A Christian proclamation of the love of God is a proclamation that God has negated himself in becoming flesh, his Word is now the oppposite of the intrinsic otherness of his primordial Being, and God himself has ceased to exist in his original mode as transcendent or disincarnate Spirit.

III. The Universal Humanity: Blake named Jesus the "Universal Humanity," and the comprehensiveness of Blake's vision impelled him to seek the presence of Jesus in that world of experience most estranged from the Christ of Christian orthodoxy. The death of God in Jesus effected a transition from Innocence to Experience, but Jesus cannot appear as the "Universal Humanity" until the transcendent realm has been emptied and darkened.

Chapter 3: God and History

I. Dialectic and Theology: We can sense the estrangement of the contemporary Christian from his own theological heritage by simply noting the inability of all traditional forms of theology to speak in the presence of our history. Theology must open itself to the address of a Word that has become fully actual in the present and abandon a religious form, for to the extent that theology remains bound to a primordial Word it will remain closed to the present and human actuality of history. Augustine and Luther both attempted the dialectical thinking proper to radical Christianity: "Augustine's conception of the omnipresence and the omnipotence of grace proceeded out of a dialectical negation and reversal of the ontological givenness of Being, just as Luther's understanding of the free gift of grace in Christ rested on an abridgment or annulment of the transcendent distance and the sovereign authority of the Creator" (78-79). Yet both remained bound to past and heteronomous norms, closing themselves off to the real and dynamic movement of the Word. A Christian dialectical theology must direct itself to an understanding of a Word that is penetrating the present, or a transcendent Word becoming immanent. Only a false dialectic posits an ultimate and irreconcilable chasm between opposites. Certainly no Christian or incarnational theology can submit to a final and absolute opposition between time and Eternity or the finite and the infinite. Nothing less is demanded of contemporary theology than that it open itself to the meaning of an apocalyptic and total redemption.

II. The Christian Name of God: In a nutshell, "from the point of view of a radical and dialectical Christian theology, the absolutely decisive and fundamental theological prnciple is that the God of faith so far from being unchanging and unmoving is a perpetual and forward-moving process of self-negation, pure negativity, or kenotic metamorphosis" (84). We must repudiate all religious conceptions of the mystery of the Godhead, with their inevitable corollary that the sacred or ultimate reality is impassive and silent. The God who reveals himself in history is the God who empties himself of the plenitude of his primordial Being; thereby he actually and truly becomes manifest in history, and finally history becomes not simply the arena of revelation but the very incarnate Body of God. A consistent and radical Christianity will embody no knowledge of the primordial God but instead will incorporate and make real that "Kingdom of God" which is a consequence of the absolute self-negation of God.

Non-dialectical understandings of Christianity, both natural and revealed theology, invariably establish a chasm between God and his redemptive acts: natural theology in conceiving a primordial or eternal nature of God that is incapable of either forward movement or redemptive action, and revealed theology positing a sovereign Lord who is infinitely removed from the immediate or historical reality of his creation. Blake saw that the Gods of deism and orthodoxy were the same.

III. God and Satan: Nietzsche's attack on the infinitude of guilt and punishment is Blake's attack on Urizen and Hegel's attack on an alien and lifeless form of Spirit. Altizer agrees with Nietzsche that the Christian God is the deepest embodiment of No-saying, the absolute negation of life, but that in his absolute self-negation, that God becomes wholly Other. If God truly negates himself, then his alien and empty form is an inevitable consequence of his own act of self-negation, and thence God himself can only be present or real in his divine form as the absolute antithesis of life and energy. Thus, only a Christian can know a God that is wholly Other. The kenotic movement of the Incarnation reaches its consummation when God finally appears in human experience as the contradiction of life and the deification of nothingness. In his Angst, the radical Christian recognizes the "smell" of God's decomposition. For to know an alien and empty nothingness as the dead body of God is to be liberated from every uncanny and awesome sense of the mystery and power of chaos.

Satan is the power enclosing energy and stilling movement, the power of darkness standing over against and opposing all life and light. In the end, the Christian God is Satan. Satan's chaos is present wherever his "web of religion" binds life and energy to the laws of his own identity. Religion becomes repressive when it arises in response to the kenotic movement of the Incarnation, regressing to a now empty and alien form of Spirit by binding itself to that dead body of God which Blake names as Satan. When the radical Christian confronts us with the liberating message that God is Satan, he is stilling the power of that negation, breaking all those webs of religion with which a regressive Christianity has ensnared the Christian, and unveiling the God who had died in Christ.

Chapter 4: The Self-Annihilation of God

I. The Death of God: The proclamation of the death of God is a Christian confession of faith. For to know that God is dead is to know the God who died in Jesus Christ. Only the radical Christian knows that God has ceased to be active and real in his preincarnate or primordial reality. It is Christianity alone which witnesses to a concrete and actual descent of the sacred into the profane, a movement wherein the sacred progressively abandons or negates its particular and given expressions. And it is precisely the radical Christian's alienation from the religious world which can make possible our relation of the fundamental if underlying meaning of the earliest expressions of the Christian faith. Paul and the early church were not able to fully or decisively negate the religious forms of the old history. Consequently, early Christianity was unable either to negate religion or to absorb and fully assimilate an apocalyptic faith, with the result that it progressively became estranged from its own initial proclamation. The radical Christian happily proclaims the death of God, which does not propel man into an empty darkness, but liberates him from every alien and opposing other. But the kenotic movement does not happen at any given moment: the actualization of the metamorphosis of the Word into flesh is a continual and forward-moving process, a process initially occurring in God's death in Christ, yes, but a process that is only gradually and progressively realized in history, as God's original self-negation eventually becomes actualized throughout the total range of human experience. Let the contemporary Christian rejoice that Christianity has evolved the most alien, the most distant, and the most oppressive deity in history: it is precisely the self-alienation of God from his original redemptive form that has liberated humanity from the transcendent realm. The radical Christian recognizes the spiritual emptiness of our time as the historical actualization of the self-annihilation of God.

II. Atonement: When we understand the Incarnation and Crucifixion as dual expressions of the eschatological consummation of the self-negation of God, as an extension of the atoning process of the self-annihilation of God, it is clear that we need a new conception of atonement. The whole kenotic movement is an atoning process, a forward moving process wherein a vacuous and nameless power of evil becomes increasingly manifest as the dead body of God or Satan. Atonement is thus a negative process of reversing every alien other, a process of negating all negations.

We can understand our present alienation the moment before proper atonement, as Satan's becoming totally and comprehensively present in his apocalyptic form as the lifeless residue of the self-negation of God. In other words, we must pass through Hegel's unhappy consciousness in order to come to know the dissolution of the wholly Other. Consequently, the radical Christian repudiates the Christian dogma of the resurrection of Christ and his ascension into a celestial and transcendent realm because radical faith revolves around a participation in the Christ who is fully and totally present to us. Radical Christianity thus transposes the traditional vision of the resurrection into a contemporary vision of the descent into Hell: the crucified Christ descends ever more fully into darkness and flesh.

III. The Forgiveness of Sin: Protestant theologians have insisted that we can only know sin when we understand the forgiveness of sin, but in isolating sin from grace, they foreclose the possibility of understanding the forgiveness or annulment of sin. The radical Christian believes that the demands of the God of law and judgment are annulled in the grace of the God who died on Calvary. Faith takes as its task the negation of law and guilt and the abolition of the consciousness of sin. Guilt is a product of self-alienation, and forgiveness of sin is the process of self-annihilation of that guilt. It is only when man has been delivered from the threat of condemnation, a threat always present wherever humanity exists in a state of isolated selfhood, that a truly forgiven humanity can be liberated from Satan's power. Man must be delivered from good and evil, from self-hood, from his solitary and autonomous ego. When he ceases to be aware of the distance separating himself from others, his sin is forgiven. In Blake, this is when Satan and Jerusalem engage in a mutual embrace and actualize a new Totality of Love. The forgiveness of sin is an atoning process embodying the progressive realization in experience of the self-annihilation of God.

Chapter 5: A Wager

I. The Living Christ: The original heresy was the identification of the Church with the body of Christ; this kind of "forward movement" is simply an all-too-human regression to the will to power. The radical Christian, on the other hand, seeks the living Christ in the actuality and fullness of history. This does not mean, however, that we should simply submit to the brute reality of the world. We must rather understand the forward movement of Christianity to be a truly negative or self-emptying process, a process simultaneously negating both the Word and world which it embodies, and therefore a process transcending and moving beyond the initial expressions of its own movement.

Just as the Crucifixion makes real a divine movement into immanence, so too does the death of God progressively annul every human possibility of returning to transcendence. Only by willing this death of God can we be liberated from a transcendent beyond. This willing involves a genuine risk, but so too does religious Christianity, in alienating itself from the contemporary world. The radical Christian chooses a darkness issuing from the death of every image and symbol of transcendence and must bet that the darkness of his destiny is the present form and actuality of a totally incarnate body of Christ.

II. Guilt and Resentment: For Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, existence = guilt. For everything we know as consciousness and experience is grounded in repression, and to broaden or deepen our consciousness is to recognize the power of repression, a power creating all those dualistic oppositions or antinomies which split human existence asunder, dividing and isolating that shrunken energy of life. This power is that of law, judgment and sin, but the New Testament promises its forgiveness. When Jesus said, "Judge not," he was calling for an end of all moral judgment. Betting that the Christian God is dead, which is betting on the real and actual presence of the fully incarnate Christ, means that the ultimate ground of guilt and resentment is broken. We should nonetheless realize that this is all a bit nuts: "No honest contemporary seeker can ever lose sight of the very real possibility that the willing of the death of God is the way to madness, dehumanization, and even to the most totalitarian form of society yet realized in history" (146) (clearly Altizer rejects Paul's messaging tactics).

III. Yes-Saying: In alienation from the absent God of Christianity, people are increasingly turning towards Oriental mysticism without looking to the western tradition first. In Nietzsche's vision of the Eternal Recurrence, he proclaims a Yes-saying which embodies a total affirmation of meaninglessness and horror. This affirmation is only possible when man gives all the energy that he once directed to the transcendent beyond to the immediate moment. If we can find a way to affirm absolute immanence, then we can give ourselves to the darkest and most chaotic moments of our world as contemporary ways to the Christ who even now is becoming all in all. It is precisely by a radical movement of turning away from all previous forms of light that we can participate in a new totality of bliss. The sacred center of Oriental mysticism is a return to an interior depth or transcendent beyond which negates the profane, whereas Zarathustra's "center" lies at the very heart of profane existence. We must renounce every backward movement to eternity for the affirmation of a new eternity which is here and now.

1 comment:

  1. Altizer's reading of Nietzsche as basically continuous with Hegel strikes me as bizarre. Nietzsche's death of God can't possibly be Hegel's actualization of spirit in history, given that the two have totally incommensurable understandings of the nature of history. It's like Altizer left out all of Nietzsche except the eternal return, and transformed him into a self-help manual, rather than a fairly pointed critique of Christian values.