Thomas Altizer, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism
Thomas J. J. Altizer is one of very few twentieth-century theologians who managed, albeit briefly, to break into popular culture. In 1966 he was the main inspiration behind Time magazine’s famous cover – “Is God Dead?”. A contemporary documentary recorded Altizer’s views at that time and reactions, some of them heated. It makes interesting viewing.
Remarkably enough, he is still writing and speaking now, approaching 90, and has lost none of his intensity. I will confess to being fascinated by his writings, although he is not the most accessible. Like one of his heroes Nietzsche, I find he is best not approached as a systematic thinker but a visionary, someone who has a particular perspective on the world and is doing their best to convey it in language, something not fully possible..
And what is that vision? The phrase “God is Dead” is sometimes taken simply as a shorthand for atheism, for lack of belief in God. But it means much more than that. To say that you do not believe in God does not seem to me to be saying very much at all. People mean countless things by God so to be meaningful you need to say which God or Gods you don’t believe in. It is also a bit passive – focusing on something you are not doing, which often does not require much thought or effort.
But to say that God is dead is to recognise that something dramatic and significant has happened. For centuries, God has been our source of stability, meaning and order. God started our story at the creation and will finish it at the judgement. God ensures we can have confidence that things will be ok, or at least have been ordained a certain way, because He guarantees it. But that is gone now. God is dead and that means we need to take full responsibility for our lives and for each other, without guarantees and without rewards or punishments in the afterlife. The world is formless and void and we need to embrace that.
This was, for Altizer, a key element of the programme of Jesus Christ and Paul his greatest interpreter. Some biblical scholars see the original Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher, and for Altizer the apocalypse was not, as is sometimes thought, God intervening dramatically to end everything but God intervening to empty himself into the world. The death of Jesus brought about a new heaven and a new earth, one empty of God – the resurrection is not Jesus popping back to life but going fully into the world, to be found only there. The word apocalypse means revelation and perhaps the image that sums this up is that, at Jesus’ death, the great curtain in the temple was torn in two (Mark 15, 38 and parallels). The curtain symbolised the division between God and the universe, but is now torn and of course behind it there was nothing. Emptiness – that is the revelation.
This was too much for the church, of course, even in its earliest days, when the New Testament was forming. The idea was developed that, after being restored to life, Jesus went back up to heaven after a temporary absence, and normal service was resumed. The hierarchy of God and his angels modelled the hierarchy of the church and validated its power. Order is restored, and for the next two thousand years the church would, with honourable exceptions, be reactionary in its attitudes to power and authority.
I do not quite buy Altizer’s reconstruction, but I do largely buy his vision. We have to deal with the fact that our guarantor of order and outcomes is dead. This is going to be traumatic and will reverberate in our culture for some time. When you have been ruled by a tyrant, it is never easy to transition to freedom, as countless examples have shown through history. But it is also exciting. We need to rise to the challenge, refusing to replace the God who has died with new Gods called science, technology, fate, destiny, the forces of history or anything else. Those gods need to die too. Instead it is up to us to take responsibility for each other and our world. A new heaven and a new earth awaits.