Altizer on Early Christianity, Nietzsche, and Heidegger


Here are some provocative quotes from Altizer’s essay named the Self-Saving of God. I was able to read it entirely on Amazon. I’ve included some comments after each quote.

“It continues to remain impossible fully to understand the depths of the transformation of an original Christianity, and even if the earliest Christianity which we can know was a deeply divided Christianity, as can most clearly be seen in the extreme polarity between its Gnostic and its apocalyptic poles, these poles did not simply disappear in the triumph of orthodoxy Christianity, they were profoundly transformed, and transformed within a new orthodox Christianity. Now a truly new Godhead is manifest and real, one absolutely immutable, an absolute immutability impossible within the horizons of a biblical Godhead, but likewise impossible within the horizons of apocalypticism and Gnosticism, both of which could know profound transformations of the Godhead, transformations making possible what both Gnosticism and apocalypticism know as an absolutely new redemption or an absolutely new totality” (The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, 431).

I’ve been listening to Caputo’s course on the Monstrosity of Christ. He assigns his class to read Altizer’s The Contemporary Jesus. Altizer’s hypothesis was that Christianity was something of a muted Gnosticism (most clearly in the Gospel of John), and of course apocalyptic thinking heavily influences John, Jesus, and Paul. This is why Altizer remains resolutely opposed to the Jesus Seminar scholars attempt to remove the eschatological elements of Jesus’ message. Also, I think Altizer offers his answer to the question of the Biblical support for the immutability of God (a question I posed in this blogpost: Here’s the quote.

“At this crucial point, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche are united, and if purely conservative critics can know all three as being deeply Gnostic and deeply apocalyptic at once, and as the very embodiment of a truly Satanic thinking, so that if here a truly new theological thinking becomes a purely anti-theological thinking, and above all so in its enactment of the death of God, it does so as a purely apocalyptic thinking, and an apocalyptic thinking thinking absolute transfiguration” (The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, 432).

Altizer’s interest in Satan is not merely theological, but also personal. In his candid theological memoir entitled Living the Death of God he remembers being forced to study the history of religions (not theology) at U Chicago because he failed his psychiatric exam. He was told he could expect to be in a psychiatric hospital in under a year. Also, he related a story where he woke up in the middle of night where he had an epiphany of Satan, that is to say he experienced Satanic possession. Mark C Taylor noticed the parallel that while the Confessions records Augustine’s conversion to God, Altizer’s theological journey has been a conversion to Satan.

“But it is Nietzsche and not Heidegger who writes about Jesus, and is the only philosopher who has written fully about Jesus, even if this only occurs in the Antichrist. Earlier, Nietzsche had gone so far as to intend a recreation of the very voice of Jesus, creating an absolutely new gospel in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a Zarathustra who could understood as the resurrect Jesus, but a resurrection possible only as a consequence of the deepest descent, and one alone making possible a freedom from all ressentiment” (The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, 441).

This descent Altizer mentions is further fleshed out in his work the Descent Into Hell. There he argues that the incarnation can be understood as movement to earth, which is made complete in Jesus’ descent into hell. This is truly a movement from transcendence to immanence. Altizer understood the ascension as being an absolute reversal of the incarnation, where the death of God is fully reversed and transcendence is restored.

“Perhaps he (Heidegger) was being a Bultmannian in thinking that this language can never be known, or perhaps he was following Paul in transforming Jesus’s language into a truly new language, for we do know of Heidegger’s deep attraction to a Pauline language, even employing it in the Introduction to Metaphysics to insist that a “Christian philosophy” is a round square and a misunderstanding. And it is Paul’s apocalyptic language which most affected Heidegger; perhaps it is only apocalyptic language which was real to Heidegger as a biblical language, and just as he became even more distant from his original and Catholic ground, it was even thereby that he moved ever more fully into a sacred or ultimate language, a language unique to a twentieth-century philosopher” (The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, 441-2).


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