Genesis and Apocalypse – Preface & Prologue


[Let me offer a brief disclaimer for those of you unfamiliar with Altizer’s writing style. It is repetitive, forceful, and hypnotic. He continues to recycle phrases and concepts exploring them to their fullest. Although, my summaries will try and prevent a sheer repetition, it will be impossible to not reproduce this style. I’ve actually had an interesting emotional reaction to reading his text out loud. It is a violent but sonorous rhetoric that reminds us of Altizer’s Southern Baptist roots. He was and is a preacher, perhaps our last theologian, but one whose theological creativity and power cannot be questioned]


Modern historical research has revealed that apocalyptic thinking lies at the heart of early Christianity. Altizer believes that modern theology has been most reactionary and conservative in its refusal to acknowledge these findings. Genesis and Apocalypse “is an attempt to evolve a purely apocalyptic theology by way of a full conjunction and even dialectical identity of genesis and apocalypse” (10). The beginning chapters will abstractly focus on genesis, and Altizer vows to continue his dialogue with Hegel who he believes tried but ultimately failed to think of absolute genesis within his logical system. Altizer wagers that apocalypse cannot be fully understood “if it is divorced from genesis” (11). The voyage he will take us on will be one attempting to explore the understanding of the act(uality) of God, which is the dialectical identity of genesis and apocalypse “only insofar as it is simultaneously incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection” (12). He argues that Barth’s Church Dogmatics largest failure was its failure to engage historical, Biblical criticism. As Altizer has said elsewhere, Barth sacrificed the Bible for the church. He also takes Spinoza, Hegel, and Nietzsche to be inspirational thinkers who combined historical scholarship and abstract, systematic thinking effectively. Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-politicus introduced us to a modern historical interpretation of the Bible, and Hegel’s philosophy combines pure thought with history. Nietzsche’s brilliance was his ability to philosophize in such a way as to open up new historical possibilities of thinking in our modern, nihilistic world. Altizer emphatically declares that “Christian theology must finally be either historical or not theology at all” (15).


Christianity recognizes that the cross as “the one source of redemption, for it is a death that is crucifixion and resurrection at once” (17). Our modern world is one that is truly atheistic, and it has formally enacted the death of God. It was Hegel who realized that the French Revolution perfectly embodied this act in our history. The death of God for Nietzsche was a nihilism brought about the history of Christianity. Altizer believes that Nietzsche foresaw all too well this nihilism and its inevitable embodiment in the horrors we witnessed in the twentieth century. Although Nietzsche is usually associated with the death of God, it was actually Hegel who first incorporated this into his philosophy. For Hegel, the crucifixion is the dissolution of pure transcendence read through the kenosis of God. Hegel used the crucifixion “as the primary symbol of the self-negation of absolute spirit, for he knew the crucifixion as the final incarnation of pure transcendence, and therefore as the resurrection of an absolutely new consciousness and world” (19). Although Altizer agrees with Nietzsche that nihilism and atheism are uniquely Christian developments, he refuses to concede that Christianity is ultimately nihilistic and hence an embodiment of God’s death. While Hegel understood the historical consequences of the death of God as leading to a radical secularization, Kierkegaard refused to allow this objectification of the world to dissolve the subjectivity of faith.

In The Antichrist, Nietzsche described the No-saying God of Christianity as holy nothingness that was responsible for modern man’s repression. Re-thinking genesis is the task for theology today, and this genesis must come to terms with the origin of nihilism, which will necessarily lead to a study of primordial nothingness. While Altizer praises both Barth and Tillich for being “open to that nothingness”, he also recognizes that “neither of them were able to realize that nothingness dogmatically or systematically, and were unable to do so if only because neither of them could name that nothingness theologically or could grasp it as a ground or a potency inseparable from the uniquely Christian God” (21). Theologians remain ignorant of creation ex nihilo because the nihilo remains a profound mystery. Altizer’s radical theology will try and understand that mystery qua genesis by analyzing it from the perspective of modern nihilism. He has hope that perhaps we can finally recover a Christian systematic theology that can be truly biblical. The early chapters will be a theological voyage into this primordial nothingness that was originally negated in the act of creation. Altizer recognizes that traces remain, and the death of God is ultimately nothing more than the “resurrection of nothingness” (23). Also, our task will be a re-thinking of totality. Modernity involves the shrinking comprehensiveness of our theological thinking. We must resurrect a modern theology that can think totality itself. “Even if such a totality can only appear and be real to us as a nihilistic totality, both faith and vision finally know totality itself as absolute Yes an Amen” (26).


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