Thomas J. J. Altizer: In Memoriam
At the beginning of the week, it was my intention for this morning’s address to be very Advent orientated. I had actually already written most of it, all about getting ready, as Mary got ready for the coming of her son. A getting ready which began in the Hebrew Scriptures; a getting ready, not just for Jesus’ birth, but a getting ready in ourselves, as we prepare to live into the reality of that light coming into the world - of that Kingdom reality, present amongst us but so often undiscerned or ignored, inviting us to enter in, notice it, and inhabit it. And surely, there is an alternative reality out there in which that sermon is being preached now. However, on Thursday morning, I learned of the passing in the previous day of the theologian Thomas J. J. Altizer (he was 91 years old), and so as an act of respect, in memory to him, I knew this morning’s address had to be on him and his ideas which have impacted me so much. To my mind it’s a toss-up as to who has had more influence on me: Carl Jung, or Thomas Altizer. I think there’s probably a little bit of both of them in almost everything I say.
Okay, so I’ll make this about me for a moment, and try to explain why he’s had such an impact on me. Very briefly (I think most of you will know this), I didn’t grow up in a religious family at all. My dad is kind of an apathetic atheist. When I was 16, and had just started my A-levels, I was swept up into Charismatic Evangelical Christianity, had the whole conversion experience, and became a so-called ‘Bible believing Christian’. That was coupled with a strong sense that my life’s calling was to be a preacher, and I’ve never lost that sense. The power of good rhetoric can’t be underestimated in my opinion. It is my immense privilege to get into this pulpit every week, to weave a narrative, to tell a story, to make an argument, to hold up an idea for us to examine, to lead us in a journey from one place to another. There’s really nothing that beats it. So, it was a narrative of this kind which so compelled 16-year-old me. A narrative which I have subsequently found problematic and lacking. But at the time, it seized upon me, and seemed to offer so much. It offered purpose in purposelessness, it offered a concrete truth in a world in which it’s very difficult to talk about ‘the truth’, and it offered a very personal hope, not so much of a heavenly after-life to come (that was obviously part of it, but I was young enough that that wasn’t really a concern of mine), but rather it was more like a sense of destiny, that God had plans to use me, that I was part of something much bigger than myself. And, although now I’d need to give several provisos to this, I still do believe it, just in a very different sense.
So I went from that Evangelical community to Bible College, and from there to Cambridge, and in the course of my studies I slowly deconstructed that which I once held so certain. I slowly gave more and more ground to a more liberal, progressive and generous way of understanding my Christian faith. In the course of that deconstruction, I can remember a specific day when it struck me as starkly as my conversion did - we could call it my de-conversion experience - the day in which my ‘as held’ understanding of God suddenly fell out of the sky. And for lack of a better term, I began describing myself as a ‘Christian Atheist’. There were several writers at this time which I found particularly valuable: Lloyd Geering, Don Cupitt, Richard Holloway, and most of all Thomas J. J. Altizer. So, what is the problem I was trying to resolve through reading these theologians?
I was looking for a way to continue to hold to what I see as the unique significance of the Christian message, while at the same time being a secular pluralist.
I was looking for a way to take religion seriously, while no longer being able, personally, to hold to a traditional Christian cosmology.
I was looking for a way to hold, without exception, to a scientific worldview, while at the same time holding onto what I see as the profound significance of the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, and the transformative power of the Jesus story.
I was looking for a way for me to be a preacher in post-Christian times. And what is preaching? It’s not just telling a nice story, although that is something good. It's not just explaining an interesting philosophical or theological idea, although that is also good, and I find that a very interesting thing to do as you all know. It’s not about educating people about other religions of the world, although we certainly could do with more of that in the West. All of these things have value, but ultimately preaching has to be more than this. One must preach the Gospel. The word ‘Gospel’, comes from a Greek word which means ‘Good News’; preaching must ultimately be about, and return to this. It must be a proclamation of the Good News!
In other words, I wanted to find a Gospel message, a message which I profoundly believed to be a good news message, which is also true, and is authentic to who I am, and how I inhabit and perceive this world, which also allows me to hold together an impossible tension: to be an Atheistic sceptic on one hand, while at the same time being a Christian preacher called by God on the other hand. I am the sum of this odd set of contradictions. The trouble is that writers trying to negotiate this tension often allow liberalism to get the better of them. Liberalism has at its core a fundamental problem, and that is relativism. The Good News must have the power to be proclaimed by one person, in this case me, be heard by another person, in this case you, and for that message to have the potential to cause in you an awakening, a paradigm shift, a sudden movement in perspective, from darkness to light, from bondage to liberty. If that potential is not there, then one is no longer really preaching at all. In such a case, the minister would no longer represent anything. He would be no more than a facilitator of conversation. I, personally, wouldn’t want a minister who didn’t stand for something, who wasn’t willing to argue and risk offence in the name of what he believed true, who wasn’t willing to push back, roll up his sleeves, play the trickster if need be, to challenge the status quo, and be ready always to lead us on to the fertile ground before us.
Altizer is the only Christian theologian I have ever come across who has successfully negotiated all these difficult pit falls, and remained obstinately true in the face overwhelming opposition to what he believed. He is, then, the father of what some have termed ‘Death of God theology’, which is basically an attempt to understand Christianity from a secular point of view. To understand Christianity in such a way which does not require you to buy into a predetermined set of impossible presumptions on day one, and check-in your brain at the front door while you’re at it. The phrase ‘Death of God’ is generally taken to mean an approach to Christianity which sees God as non-existent. Now, that statement alone gets us immediately into some difficult linguistic territory. What do we even mean by ‘God’ here? Altizer wants to define ‘God’ using the most everyday, vernacular sense of that word. ‘God’, then, is something akin to a being, outside of time, in a metaphysical realm, hearing our prayers, and perhaps preparing a place for us in heaven for when we die. This is what most people mean when they talk about God. But of course, if you put some thought into your conception of God, one is able to nuance their definition, and make their definition more expansive, and that is certainly an appropriate thing to do. It’s why the question, “Do you believe in God?” is so meaningless. Give me a 1000-word essay on what you mean by ‘God’ and I’ll tell you if I believe in it, or him, or her.
The reformation impulse, however, is towards using language which is as close to our vernacular usage as possible. That was the impulse behind Luther’s desire to translate the Bible from Latin into German. And so, using the vernacular definition of ‘God’, I’m quite happy to say I am an ‘Atheist’. I don’t believe in that traditional God of the sky. Anyway, trust me, there is no conversation starter better, then saying to another “I’m a Christian Atheist.” Altizer’s theology, though, does get a bit more complex than that. He would say that God or the gods did exist, but then he became, or they became, non-existent. So, what he would mean by that is that for most secular people today living in the West, God’s non-existence is a given, and if we were to jump in a time-machine and go back and interview the ancient Israelites, for example, or any other ancient peoples, for them God’s existence, or the gods’ (plural) existence, would have been a given.
This is not about what is objectively true, but rather about what we as people perceive to be true, and for all intents and purposes such a truth, when inhabited and lived out and experienced, subjectively is true. If you believe there is a metaphysical realm impacting your life in some way, then you will experience just that, and for you that will be true. The world shows up to us through the lenses by which we are viewing the world. So for Altizer God did exist, and now he does not. He wants to locate that change, that death as he would say, in a particular historic moment, namely in Jesus’ death upon the cross.
Okay, so again, I’m not talking about what is objectively true, that’s basically irrelevant to all this, objective reality is basically impossible to access anyway, so we’re talking about truth in a much more conceptual sense, in a mythological sense we could say. So, he’s understanding it like this: in the incarnation God is, in effect, moving from heaven to earth. There is no bit of God being left back up in heaven, he’s not dividing himself up into three parts or anything like that, Jesus is fully human and fully God. God is here, and therefore God is, by definition, not there. The problem in Altizer’s view, and mine, is not so much with incarnational theology, but that most Christians don’t take incarnational theology seriously enough. And then as we know, Jesus lives his life on earth as an exemplar of love, and ultimately, that culminates in his death upon the cross. So, Altizer would see in this death God’s divinity being poured out across the earth. Divinity then is no longer separated from us, off there in some inaccessible realm beyond - in heaven say - but infusing all of us, and all of creation.
Our conception then of the primordial God of the sky post-crucifixion has been transformed from an empowering, and positive idea (as it was for our ancestors), to a deeply negative one. Those who continue to be held, or ensnared, consciously or unconsciously by the idea of a moral arbiter above, or some kind of deep-seated cosmic duty, or of that great dictatorial ‘Other’ hanging over us, are trapped. They’re not free agents. They’re not participating in Christ’s liberating Kingdom of love on earth, but rather they are serving (to borrow spiritual language) a demonic, lifeless, life-denying cause. I’m sure you have all met repressive Christians before. They that claim to be saved, they are the most lost of them all. The Good News, the Gospel, is that God is dead, and that we now are fully liberated to inculcate a Kingdom of Love on earth by our own volition. To be divinely present now. In this way, divinity is re-awakened within us, and we begin to discern the Kingdom amongst us, the Spirit moving. God through the incarnation is self-negating his own existence as an ultimate act of sacrificial love, that we might be without burden, wholly in the present. For, to truly be, begins in every now.
I have found in Thomas J. J. Altizer’s theology, his radical theology, an incredibly rich and thought-provoking tool for going deeper, plumbing the depths of what I think and believe, a far more compelling way to do faith in the 21st Century. It’s the strange thing about belief, it can so often hold us in one restrictive mode of life, and make journeying beneath the surface level of things so much more difficult. It can close down our questions, and dull our curiosity. But Altizer’s slant has encouraged me to take a more liberated, creative, and exploratory approach to Christianity, and to the biblical story, that narrative, as I have received it. For me he has made the possibility of Church (spiritual community) a life affirming and healing possibility again, even now in post-Christian times. God has set us free to be free.