Thomas J.J. Altizer – The Death of God

April 2, 2010

Thomas J.J. Altizer burst onto the religious scene in the 1960s with his book The Gospel of Christian Atheism. He was one of the “Death of God” theologians discussed in the famous TIME cover story, “Is God Dead?” Altzier holds an M.A. in theology and Ph.D. in History of Religions from the Universeity of Chicago. Now 83 years of age, Altizer remains a Young Turk among radical theologians, insisting that only Christians can be true atheists and must proclaim the death of God.

In this conversation with Robert Price, Altizer delves into Death of God theology. He explains the difference between saying “There is no God” and “God is Dead.” He discusses his interactions with other theologians and what they thought of his work. Altizer gives his opinion of contemporary public atheists and what he likes and dislikes about them. He relates stories from his career involving other thinkers such as Paul Tillich and Mircea Eliade—including a personal “initiation” experience. He explains how he formerly debated evangelical Christians and how Death of God theology can be used when doing so.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 2nd, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Robert Price. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs and at the grass roots level. Our guest this week is one of the great architects of the death of God theology prominent of the 1960s, Thomas J. 

J. All Ties are author of the Gospel of Christian Athie ism, The Descent into Hell, The Self Embodiment of God. And with William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God, plus numerous other titles over many years was by far the most original and radical of the death of God. Theologians, those whom conservative Luther and John Warmack Montgomery, who debated all Tizer once dubbed the pheo thanatology, lists all Tizer calls the bluff of traditional Christianity that it took history seriously. Unlike Buddhism, for example, if Christians mean it, then in the modern world, theologians must stop neutralizing and retreating from secular history into an interior fairyland of so-called salvation history. They must no longer ignore what has been revealed about reality by such thinkers and visionaries as Nietzsche, Freud, FOIR, Bach, Hegel and Blache. Christian faith must take these insights into account. When it does, it realizes that it must stand against transcendence and must will the death of God. It comes down to this radical negation instead of, say, some convenient redefinition of the God concept. This is because God is inseparable for us from what it has come to mean and experience. And the experience we have of the transcendent God is one of alienation. Whatever relation could one possibly have to the holy other? This God must die to proclaim and will the death of God is a Christian thing to do. In fact, those who do are more entitled to the name Christian than most traditional and modern theologians who have tried to reverse the apocalyptic thrust of Jesus proclamation. What Jesus was getting at. By proclaiming the imminent reversal of all things, including the God who was once far off that is transcendent but now is made near. This is what we refer to in modern conceptuality as the self emptying of God, of his transcendence or spirit. The myth of the Edenic fall denotes the mutual alienation of God and humanity. Thus, humanity has fallen and God as transcendent are both in ipso facto fallen. We experience this God as the creator or the divine ground of this world. The transcendent creator transcends his creation. Thus, if an s scatological or end times reversal is to be truly new, as by definition it must be, and not a mere return to previous equilibrium. A homecoming to Eden. The final form of God must be imminent and not transcendent. How does that change occur? The incarnation of God in Christ occurs at the resurrection, which is to be understood as a downward, not an upward motion in Christ. God became for ever and flashed the resurrection is not. And this sent into heaven a reversal of the incarnation, a return to transcendence, but rather a descent into hell where he stays. God is to be met. 

In our experience of the darkness and horror of the world, Doctor all Tizer welcome to Point of inquiry would come any time, for heaven’s sake. 

I first read your book, The Gospel of Christian Athie ism, when I was an undergraduate religion major and an evangelical Christian. I felt compelled by the party line to naturally to resist and refute your book and even wrote a paper on it called No News is Good News. What do you mean by Christian Athie ism and why isn’t it a contradiction in terms? 

Well, I understand a genuine or full or true atheist to be an actual belief or faith in the death of God and the real and actual. Death of God. And that only occurs in Christianity that’s unique to Christianity. So that’s that’s why I say that this is not only genuinely Christian, but uniquely Christian. And it’s the source of redemption in Christianity that is the death of Christ is a source of redemption, but it’s for Christianity. Christ is the fullness of God. So if Christ is the focus of God and the death or Christ crucifixion of Christ as a source of redemption, that death could only be the death of God himself. So this is fundamental to my thinking. 

But it’s also a claim. And he this you know, it even works apologetically. 

You can’t really be an atheist without being a Christian. Mm hmm. So if you really want to be an atheist, you have to be a Christian. 

So I do. Well, that brings up something I was gonna ask, what is the difference between saying there is no God and saying God is dead? 

Well, that’s where there is an overwhelming difference. I mean, there is an actual real death of God, which there can’t be without God. 

I mean, you know, if God doesn’t exist, there can be no death of God. Right. It’s that simple. 

Mm hmm. Do you mean anything similar to one Nietzsche’s great affirmation of the death of God? 

Yes. I think the course is one of my great sources. And by the way, you know, I think that that is such a profound enactment of a death of God in Hegel and Nietzsche and other other sources as well, of course. But it seems to me that this is deeply fundamental in our deepest modern philosophy and in the deepest expressions of the modern imagination. And one of my projects has been to correlate the realization that death of God and philosophical thinking with the realization that death of God an imaginative vision. 

So that was one reason why my work on Blake was so important to me. 

Mm hmm. You consider obviously Nietzsche, James Joyce, Hegel, Freud, foir Bach and many other thinkers as providing genuine revelations that must shape Christianity force. 

One of the first things I question, though I think I understand it better now, is how do you know these thinkers are telling us the truth? What Gibson such regulatory authority in your thinking? 

Well, you see here we have something that’s that’s fascinated me, deeply fascinating because there’s a real correlation between reason and revelation or between realization and revelation. Because as these enactments occur in let’s take hail, Hagel is the first thinker to think the death of God. And Hagel thinks an absolute self negation, which is the very center of his thinking. 

But he gave us the most purely and comprehensively logical thinking that’s ever been created. And it’s all grounded in an absolute self negation. I would say ultimately grounded in the crucifixion. So here in AIGO, we have this conceptual enactment, this incredible logical, purely conceptual demonstration of an absolute self negation, which which pervades all of its thinking. And I think that we have something comparable that in Blake say so that to me it’s say, let’s just stick with Hegel and buy that in. 

Hey, go and Blake. You have total realizations of the death of God, which are simultaneously total enactments of reality itself and of totality. So that here we can realize a total conception or a total vision of everything which is inseparable from an absolute self negation of the crucifixion. So to me, this is these are enactments of Christianity, realizations for Christian that that does make sense. 

Why, I wonder, are you the only one or first one to say these things? 

Well, now, wait, wait. I’m not the first one does not say that. I tried to make it more explicit. I think that’s true. I tried to make it marks. 

But what do you think? Dairy Don. Deconstruction say to to this. They added cards to the game. 

Oh yeah. I think so very much. I am not a deconstructionist myself, but I married very much. You know, I think that first of all, I think that deconstruction very is a very deeply a conjunction of Faygo and Nietzsche. And it’s it’s I think deconstruction is inseparable from an absolute self negation. And so I would say finally, inseparable from the crucifixion itself. I realized that I’d never speaks of the crucifixion, but it’s interesting that the laid there becomes so theological listening. Mm hmm. 

When I was introduced to him by Hillis Miller, who is very close to him at that time, I was at Stony Brook and we just had a big grant to establish a major chair in religion. And so we were looking for somebody who got Taradash man. And we want so before this colloquium on Drydock heard, I call all the crucial members of the committee. I was chairman of it and got their permission to offer Darod this job. And so Helus introduced me to Derrida. We were talking and Hillis said that you take what Tom said seriously, you can trust. And so I said, look, I want to broach. 

If I ask you if you would be open to an offer of a major distinguished professorship and for some reason I ingenius he said professor of theology rather than professor of religion. 

And he turned to me and very seriously said I would pay to be a professor of theology. And then we seriously negotiated about it. 

What do you think of the work of Don Cuban? Would he be considered a death of God theologian? He toys with the phrase. 

Well, he is close to it. And I’ve had some talks with him some years ago when I went to one of their conferences in England. 

And I knew I would think that that he’s very much an expression of it. Yes, I would accept it. And there were actually a number of different theologians. I mean, many of them, of course, in public. I presume that you’re a one yourself. 

Oh, yes. Yeah. I always tell people I’m a Christian atheist and they are wondering, what the heck are you talking about? So you asked Thomas all Tizer blame him for it. Thanks. And I got hooked. And to me, it it just covers so much of the ground, so clearly and helpfully, I have to preach that gospel. 

Well, see, I would say that you’ve got you’ve got a Christian atheist in William Blake. 

Now there’s a great and glorious Christian atheist fusion overwhelming him. 

Mm hmm. One of the things I love in your work, like the great Book of a Descent into Hell, which I believe you kind of don’t think so much of in retrospect. But I love it. 

I’m very ambivalent about it. I mean, I like it and dislike it simultaneously. Did you really like it? 

Oh, yeah. I just love the way you point out that the traditional view of the resurrection of Jesus just undoes an vitiates. The whole thing about the death of Christ and the death of God in Christ. You die for a couple of hours and then it’s all hunky dory again. Well, that’s practically docx autism, right? 

That’s what I think it is. That’s what I really think it is, because it transforms Jesus in a totally spiritual teachers. 

The only true Jesus is the heavenly Jesus. 

That’s just so amazing. The orthodoxy that despises that really perpetuated it. He just as much as Islam. And when when they have somebody die and Jesus place, he gets raptured to heaven. Well, Christianity has him dead for a couple of hours and then back on the heavenly throne. What’s the difference? And the way you use you remind me of Cupid a bit in that both of you speak of a kind of Christian form and Buddhist substance. And that’s if I’ve got that right, that the Christian task is to be a BOTUS Sativa in a world of pain and suffering and to try to to bear the pain of others and help them through it. And that’s striking to me. How would you describe the work of the great comparative religion scholar, Muchea Liati? If I’m saying that right on your work? 

Well, of course you knew that I wrote a book on anybody. Yes, of course. Yeah. And I was very close doing. 

Physical attention from HVAD, which I think is so powerful theologically, which breaks virtually everyone is ignored. Here’s a quotation. 

The theology of the death of God is supremely import because the sole religious creation of the modern Western world. 

But at any rate, that’s a book. Here’s a quotation from a book of yours. But I was very, very close to anybody and he had a deep impact on me. 

And, you know, in my memoir even described being initiated by undergoing an initiation by everybody. 

Could you tell us more about that? 

Well, this this occurred really not long before anybody died. And I went to see him in Chicago and we had a deep conversation, the deepest we’ve ever had. It was the culmination of years. Toward the end of it, he said, Tom. 

Let’s do something together. And he proceeded to punish me. 

And it wasn’t very long initiation. And afterwards I called him Father. And then his wife, Christine, came in and dressed her as mother. And I felt that I had been initiated into a deep body. But that was the culmination of a long and intimate relationship with me. And I was a kind of disciple of here. 

Mm hmm. I wonder if you can tell us about some of the other mystical experiences and visionary experiences you relate with. 

I haven’t had much in the way of mystical experience, but I I’ve been deeply affected by by mystics. And of course, I was very deeply affected by Buddhist, but I didn’t have any ecstatic experiences. That’s why I sent you that chapter, the first chapter and memoir. Let’s don’t forget the experience that I had of being initiated into the body of Satan, which every chapter of my memoir which I sent you. Now, that was a kind of ecstatic experience of being united with the body of faith. So this book is very important because that second conversion experience in which I experienced the death of God, but that was experiencing the death of say, wow, this is all in my memoir. 

Yeah. 

Yeah. People ought to read this that you are. Just so I know, I sound like a sickening fanboy, but I just have to say, after decades of familiarity with your work, it’s just so fascinating. And believers and unbelievers all both find a lot in it. What do you think of the the secular atheist, some of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris? 

I don’t think any of them seriously, frankly, because I don’t think any of them are real thinkers. 

Not just about I mean, compared to nature. This is such a penny. Any step really. Any any step. 

Mm hmm. Yeah, I sometimes think they just have a tin ear for what they’re attacking. If you want to know what evolution is, Dawkins is the guy to ask. 

I know he’s a brilliant biological furnished evolutionary theory as I know it, but when he talks about religion and God, that’s something else again. 

Mm hmm. Mm. I just sorta as I read you and Paul Tilak and others, I just cannot take seriously the glib dismissal of theology. I admit virtually every rationalistic argument against traditional theism. Yeah, that’s well founded. But there’s still missing some meat in this thing. 

Well, so far I really haven’t. I’m not able to read those people that you mention, but so far as I know. No, no, no. Any theology anyway. Mm hmm. 

Mm hmm. So, Walter. COUNTERMAN Syndrome, again, was not too different. 

No different. Yeah. Yeah. Draws a great Nietzsche scholar. Hey, didn’t you know I watched debate it here. No, no. 

I’d love a public debate at Northwestern. It was the height of the death of God controversy, and there must have been 3000 people there. But it was a lot of fun because it was ironic because we’re both speaking as atheists. 

Yeah, yeah. But he’s a serious atheist. 

He’s not like these contemporary atheists at all. He had a serious philosophical mind and he was a great micucci guy. 

Are they they speak, though, of the Walter Kaufman syndrome that he’d he’d sort of rather everybody be a fundamentalist so he could write a moth more easily. But he does have a serious engagement. Oh, yeah. Knows what he’s talking about when he takes Telic and others. I’ve often said to people that if you want an agnostic or atheist counterpart to Lewis’s mere Christianity, you ought to read the faith of a heretic that might make them think twice. Well, I love these anecdotes. I got to ask you if if there’s any truth to what I’ve heard that once, shortly before his death, Paul Telek asked you where on earth you got the idea of God is dead. And you startled him by answering why, Professor Telička. 

I got it from you that that’s an apocryphal story. 

It’s important to clamp the lid on these. Yeah. 

Now, there’s something more serious that you didn’t know. This Life magazine, which used to be big. You remember Life magazine? Oh, yeah. Seriously. Really big. Any rate, they had a big obituary on Kelly. And they said that I was responsible for his death. 

Oh, my God. Well, maybe that’s swith. This came from. 

Well, I don’t know now that that that had to do with a party that was held in Chicago. I joked ago with House in conjunction with a conference there. At any rate, it was at that. Hardy, that that Paul had his stroke, which took him to hospital. And from which he died. 

And it’s true that we were having a passionate theological discussion shortly before a stroke. That’s true. And that’s why the life obituary, you know, they’d heard this story and said so that all times there was a folding clock or something. And until it was so upset by this that he had a stroke and died. We were having a passionate theological discussion. 

I can’t imagine he could have thought of any better way to go. 

True. Right. Right. Right. Yeah. 

What about the Gabrielle Gabriel Bahati and who also wrote a famous book on the death of God? 

What? I was going to mention him. Of course, he’s another Christian atheist. And, you know, he look, we’re so different theologically Christian atheist. Now, you know, Gaby, of course, is very orthodox. But he was the first one to talk to, the first theologian to write about the death of God. You know, he wrote about it before. I did. He was there before I was. It’s a very different form of the death of God. But nonetheless, it’s serious that the great theology. 

Mm hmm. Yeah, he is. Is there any truth in what he. He said to me, I’m sure he said it in print, too. But he said that what that he thought of the death of God as the problem. But you thought of it as the solution. 

That that’s you know, I that’s that’s not fair. 

That’s fascinating. Is it as deconstruction, given the death of God’s theology, a new boost or is that just me? 

Well, I think of Mark Taylor. Mm hmm. 

Marks really a death of God theologian. He doesn’t like to be so identified. But nevertheless, he is. And look, you know how profoundly Mark got into deconstruction and what he did with it and all that sort of thing. 

And, you know, one thing that happened there, Dehradun. You know, Mark’s very close to Dehradun. And Derrida had one of Mark’s books translated to French. And that in itself was revolution. And the French are so conservative theologically. This is the only radical theological book in the French language. And it all there couldn’t be published or the power of Derrida. 

You know, the French are so conservative theologically. One of the problems with French thinkers, if they’ve never encountered biblical scholarship because it virtually doesn’t exist in France, in France, as a result of the counter revolution, the reaction against the French Revolution became so conservative, theologically so conservative. And you know that no real biblical scholarship in France or any theological thinking, you know, and boy, Derrida gets a major book of Mark Killers published in French. That’s something. 

Wow. I guess these are these critical Jesus scholars like a gania bear. And Google just didn’t get much of a hearing like a prophet without honor or know their big eye. 

That that’s another era. Of course, I was thinking more recently that they’re, after all, almost 100 years ago. 

But it’s the same thing here. You’ve got all any kind of American critical scholarship like BW Bakan, who is a direct heir of the German higher critics and all these people. Today you can talk to conservative P.H. D and apologists say, have you ever read David Friedrich Strauss? Who? It’s just amazing how conservatism often builds on a strategic ignorance of the people that have refuted their views a hundred years before. Yeah, it’s sad. I guess it’s just like Nietzsche’s mad man prophet said. It just takes a darn long time for the light from that. 

No, but again here, did you know that I used to debate evangelicals? 

I read a great one with you and John War. Rick Montgomery. 

Oh yeah. OK. Yeah, that’s been published. But he was a Bush whenever debate. That’s true. 

Yeah. I disagree with everything he says, but I just find him so enjoyable. 

Well, you know, Montgomery is a serious scholar. Unusual. But I used to have fun. I didn’t do this. McNamara couldn’t go it Montgomery. But with others I would play this game. 

But it’s only in the desert, God, the Keyes, that we have loyalty to Jesus. You people refuse to take Jesus words seriously. And then I’d go into a whole business, the kingdom of God and the abundant dimension of that. And you people just refuse it all. What you’re doing is refusing Jesus. I’m much more loyal to Jesus than you are. That would be my life. 

Oh, my God. They get so mad. I was so much fun. 

I’d take that approach in debates. I do. I say I am a friend of the Bible. You are. Trying to mask and gag the Bible, I want to know what it really says, and it’s not just a gimmick. It’s true. What do you think? This is totally out of left field, but what do you think about go into church after the death of God? Is there any point to that? Or should people just stick to Unitarianism or the Moose Lodge or something? 

No, no, no, no. I, I, I, I support going to church and I don’t go to church very often. I must confess, although it’s just ironic. We thought, yeah, this last Sunday I went to church and to a Catholic church as a matter. 

But I only rarely go to church. True. But nevertheless I respect it. 

Well I guess I should move along here. It’s been a great thrill for me to talk with you, and I must apologize for not being critical. 

Thank you so much for being our guest on Point of Inquiry. I hope to have you on again. OK, very good. It’s good to talk to you. Very good. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Atomizing in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winner Michael Powell. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard.