Death of God Part III

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The 1960’s were an odd decade, to say the least. Theology faced the formidable challenge of trying to continue to speak about God after Auschwitz. Although many theologians now dismiss the death-of-God theology as a mere fad instigated by faux-radicals abusing the term ‘God is dead’ for mere shock value, I wonder if Christianity’s refusal to engage them stems more from fear than the supposed superficiality of their ideas. I want to primarily focus on Thomas Altizer, but I will briefly mention the other main exponent of the death-of-God theology, Williams Hamilton. Hamilton’s book the New Essence of Christianity tried to rethink a God stripped of his transcendence, sovereignty, and providence. Using the insights of Camus, Nietzsche, and Bonhoeffer (especially his call for a religionless Christianity) he advocated a radical social engagement alongside one’s neighbor all the while following the Word. I believe he’s right insofar as I do not understand how given the world’s current fix we could possibly hold onto a belief in a providential or sovereign God. It’s also worth noting that Hamilton and Altizer dedicated their book Radical Theology and the Death of God (which is free online at religion-online.org) to Tillich and believed that they were living out the call, albeit in a more radical way of Bonhoeffer’s secular Christianity (note also Gutierrez in his famous Theology of Liberation also thought that his theology was a realization of Bonhoeffer’s prophetic plea).

To understand Altizer’s unique theology one has to have some understanding of the radical thinker from whom he draws his major inspiration: Hegel. Hegel was the first thinker who truly worked out the death of God in his philosophy, not Nietzsche. His dialectic works as a process that begins with 1) thesis followed by 2) antithesis, where both are absorbed and preserved in a 3) synthesis. Or, we have identity, difference, and then the identity of identity and difference. (While many a postmodern has been suspicious of this process given its reluctance to embrace difference, current scholarship has been trying to read against this totalizing view of Hegel). Hegel’s dialectic can be illustrated by a dialectical understanding of the Trinity. For Hegel, first we have God (thesis) who’s negated in the incarnation of the Son (antithesis), which is likewise negated on the cross and fully preserved in the Holy Spirit or the community of believers (synthesis). Altizer develops this more fully.

Quick side note, for Altizer the discovery of Jesus’ apocalyptic belief in the end of the world was a vital discovery for contemporary theology, so it’s no surprise that he disparages the scholars of the Jesus Seminar given that they contest the central importance Jesus’ apocalyptic roots. He believes that his theology is fully apocalyptic embracing Jesus’ message as opposed to re-interpreting it like Bultmann or Barth did. Likewise, Altizer’s theology is a journey from transcendence to immanence, which he believes is a repetition of Jesus’ announcement of the coming reign of God. In which, the alien other will restores justice and assume his Lordship on the earth. This discovery helps us negate any lie of an eternal life elsewhere outside the earth.

First, we have God the Father whose transcendence is negated as a result of the incarnation (Paul talks about kenosis). However, not until the cross can we fully understand the uniqueness of Altizer. For him, the cross represents the absolute negation of all transcendence, which ultimately results in the complete self-annihilation of God. Precisely, what dies in Jesus is God the Father, which is the Father’s ultimate act of grace. This rids us of any alien Other (big Other) who oppresses our existence. He also argues that this can help us for the first time truly grasp what Jesus’ cry of dereliction means in Mark. What abandons Jesus is actually the God the Father, who has fully negated himself of all transcendence. Hence, Jesus really was God-forsaken, but just what would atonement look like in this apocalyptic theology?

Altizer says, “When the Incarnation and the Crucifixion are understood as dual expressions of a common process, a kenotic or negative process whereby God negates his primordial and transcendent epiphany thereby undergoing a metamorphosis into a new and immanent form, then the incarnate manifestation of Word or Spirit can also be understood as an eschatological consummation of the self-negation of God, an extension of the atoning process of the self-annihilation of God throughout the totality of experience. Such an apocalyptic and dialectical understanding of the atonement, however, demands a new conception of atonement or reconciliation: a conception revealing not simply that God is the author and the agent of atonement but is himself the subject of reconciliation as well.”

Not surprisingly Altizer views the ascension of Jesus to be a negation of the historical movement of transcendence to immanence, so instead he believes the true realization of the death of all transcendence is accomplished in Jesus’ descent into Hell.

Finally, I want to add some comments. Altizer’s ethics is vastly similar to Bonhoeffer who I will cover in the next post followed then by Moltmann. One thing I find is interesting is Altizer’s fidelity and betrayal of Barth. Given Barth’s obsession with the ‘wholly Other God’ it’s obvious that Altizer emphasis on immanence is far from Barthian. However, the death-of-God theologians fixation on Jesus conforms to Barth’s Christocentrism. Mary Daly, the provacative feminist theologian, in her book Beyond God the Father condemns theologians from Augustine to Barth for their misogyny, and then addresses Altizer. Although, she lauds him for negating the patriachal God the Father, she remains puzzled as to why he doesn’t deny Jesus’ divinity as well. Her critique was likely spawned by Altizer’s statmement that for Christians it’s not that “Jesus is God but rather that God is Jesus’.

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