Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton

Radical Theology and the Death of God

Review by Andrew Linscott, 2009

Radical Theology and the Death of God. By Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1966. 202 pp. Out of Print.

In this collection of essays, radical theologians Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton offer an introduction to the 1960’s “Death of God” movement in American theology. As two of the movement’s foremost proponents, one could not ask for better guides than Altizer and Hamilton. The essays range from general introductions to death of God theology to more specific studies, such as the notion of religious belief in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The following review shall limit itself to the essays focusing on introducing and explicating the nature of death of God theology.

In the first essay, American Theology, Radicalism and the Death of God, Hamilton offers a brief assessment of American theology in the 1960’s. He begins by calling attention to the critical state of contemporary academic theology, noting that theology “is currently a far less important discipline today than it has been for some time” (3). Hamilton goes on to divide American theology into four camps. The first is a new articulation of Neo-Orthodoxy, as represented by Harvey Cox’s A Secular City. The second group is that of the Bultmann school, which has a particular emphasis on biblical theology, demythologization, New Testament studies. The third group consists of various philosophical theologies, such as that of Tillich and Whitehead. The fourth group is that of the “radical theologians,” which includes the death of God movement.

Hamilton focuses the rest of the essay on the latter group, as it was the newest and least defined movement of that time. Hamilton defines death of God theologians as those who accept and embrace the reality of God’s death. Rather than creatively reinterpreting Nietzsche’s proclamation as referring to the death of an idol god, or the death of the God of theism, death of God theologians affirm that it is the God of the Christian Tradition who has died. “And this group persists, in the face of both bewilderment and fury, in calling itself Christian” (6). Just why they insist upon doing so will become clearer in the following essays.

Hamilton is upfront about the practical implications of death of God theology. He acknowledges,

It certainly must be clear that this theology has neither the power nor the ability to serve the Protestant Church in most of its present institutional forms. I do not see how preaching, worship, prayer, ordination, the sacraments can be taken seriously by the radical theologian (7).

The next essay, America and the Future of Theology, consists of Altizer’s brief appraisal of the contemporary theological scene, and the need for a radical theology that can meet the demands of the times. Altizer maintains that, “authentic contemporary Existenz is alienated from faith, or from all historic forms of faith…” (10). The desire to overcome such alienation was the impetus behind Bultmann’s program of demythologization and Tillich’s reinterpretation of traditional Christian symbols into the idiom of existential philosophy. However, according to Altizer, these theological approaches do not go far enough. “It is precisely the acceptance of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God that is the real test of a contemporary form of faith” (11). Altizer alludes to the later Bonhoeffer, claiming that the result of a theology come of age must be the realization of God’s death as an historical event. We must accept that “…God has died in our cosmos, in our history, in our Existenz” (11).

Altizer goes on to treat the death of God as a form of dialectical negation as opposed to a straightforward atheistic denial of God’s existence. While the latter simply denies that God has ever existed, Altizer negates God’s existence in order that this negation might eventually pass over into a deeper affirmation, claiming that, “…it is the very radical nature of this negative movement which can prepare the way for the deepest epiphany of faith” (13). He goes on to write,

Everything that theology has thus far become must now be negated; and negated not simply because it is dead, but rather because theology cannot be reborn unless it passes through, and freely wills its own death and dissolution (15).

Altizer further explicates the idea of the death of God by invoking the mystical notion of the “dark night of the soul” in which the absence of God is experienced as the most profound theological truth. He concludes that the present historical situation is such a “dark night,” wherein we must come to terms with the absence of God. Furthermore Altizer claims that to fail to acknowledge the reality of God’s death in our time is to fall prey to “Gnosticism,” turning one’s back on history and the world. He seems to have the Neo-Orthodox tradition in mind when he claims that the "Gnostic" desire to flee from the exigencies of history is the major religious temptation of our time.

…the man who says no to our historical present, who refuses the existence about and within him…and yet seeks release in a timeless or pre-temporal moment, a moment or ‘eternity’ having no relation, or only a negative relation, to the present moment, is succumbing to the Gnostic danger (19).

Against this temptation Altizer insists that we must face our historical situation, and in doing so accept the reality of God’s death. However for Altizer, the death of God is not a final resolution but rather a means of keeping open the space for an eventual affirmation. He concludes that, “A profane destiny may yet provide a way to return to the God who is all in all, not by returning to a moment of the past, but by meeting an epiphany of the past in the present” (19).

Hamilton’s Death of God Theologies Today is probably the best essay in the book; it offers a helpful analysis of death of God theology with a particular focus on the positive aspects of the movement. He begins by asserting along with the later Bonhoeffer the need to disavow the concept of a "religious a priori," or any view that makes God a necessary condition for human knowledge, morality, or existential fulfillment. Hamilton writes,

It is not just that a capacity has dried up within us; we do not take all this as merely a statement about our frail psyches, we take it as a statement about the nature of the world and we try to convince others. God is dead. We are not talking about the absence of the experience of God, but about the experience of the absence of God. Yet the death of God theologians claim to be theologians, to be Christians…they do not grant that their view is really a complicated sort of atheism dressed up in a new spring bonnet (28).

Hamilton goes on to insist that death of God theology is not a merely negative movement. On the contrary, it contains a robustly ethical, positive element, which he dubs the “movement from the cloister to the world” (36). Hamilton understands this movement as the shift from the place of security and protection, i.e. the church, to the place of disorder and discomfort, i.e. the world. He joins Altizer in affirming the present historical situation as a “dark night” in which we are left “waiting for God.” Thus the movement from the cloister to the world is a way of being honest about the death of God while still attempting to live Christianly.

In the time of waiting we have a place to be. It is not before an altar, it is in the world, in the city, with both the needy neighbor and the enemy. This place, as we shall see, is not only the place for the waiting for God, it is also a way to Jesus Christ (41).

Hamilton concludes that this notion of “waiting for God” keeps the death of God movement from dissolving into mere “atheist humanism,” insofar as “our being in the world, in the city, is not only an obedience to the Reformation formula, from church to world, it is an obedience to Jesus himself” (49).

In Theology and the Death of God Altizer explores the historical antecedents of death of God theology and enters into a critical engagement with contemporary movements in Christian theology. Altizer begins with an analysis of modern theology, which, he contends, found its truest expression in the thought of Soren Kierkegaard. It was Kierkegaard’s disjunction between objective reason and subjective existential authenticity, culminating in the leap of faith, which captured the foreboding implications of modernity for the Christian faith.

According to Altizer, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith was a conceivable option in his day due to the ascendancy of the Christian worldview. However for those living in the 20th century such a subjective leap is no longer possible, because the death of God no longer resides in the merely conceptual realm of objective reason but has become a part of our subjective reality. As we have already seen, Altizer not only maintains that the death of God is a cosmic and historical event, but that it has also become a subjective, existential event for modern man. He cites Nietzsche as the harbinger of this now common experience of the death of God. And according to Altizer, “an astute theological student of Nietzsche must wonder whether Nietzsche’s portrait of Zarathustra is not a modern dialectical image of Jesus” (100).

Again he emphasizes the necessity of the following out the dialectical method, wherein affirmation passes over into negation and negation into affirmation. Altizer claims,

…if the negative movement is a denial of God, then the positive movement must finally be an affirmation of God, of the God beyond the Christian God…beyond all which Christendom has known as God. A truly dialectical image of God (or of the Kingdom of God) will appear only after the most radical negation… (100-101).

Next Altizer offers a critique of the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann, arguing that neither is capable of fully coming to terms with the death of God, and thus the reality of our historical situation. Altizer notes that, “…Tillich is incapable of true Yes-saying, for he cannot accept an authentically contemporary form of Existenz, and he insists that Existenz must culminate in anxiety and despair” (107). Similarly Bultmann is unable to say yes to contemporary Existenz insofar as he maintains that true authenticity is only possible by means of divine grace, as opposed to existential resoluteness as in Heidegger, which he dismisses as “works righteousness.”

Thus Altizer argues that in order to meet the times, modern day theology must go beyond Bultmann and Tillich. He insists that an honest contemporary Christian faith will lead not only to an intellectual and religious scandal, but also to an ontological scandal, namely that of the death of God (109). Altizer concludes, “If theology is to transcend itself it must negate itself for theology can be reborn only through the death of Christendom, which finally means the death of the Christian God…” (110).

Though well written and surprisingly accessible, I found this book to be ultimately disappointing in respect of its theological content. In reading through these essays one is hard pressed to find a precise definition of what the “death of God” actually refers to. Altizer and Hamilton are helpful in telling us what it is not: the death of God is not merely the absence of subjective experiences of God, nor is the death of God the death of an idol god, or the god of Christendom. Altizer and Hamilton always stop short of saying that God never in fact existed, claiming instead that the death of God refers to an historical event. Yet they never go on to offer a clear explication of what is meant by this event. Thus the reader is left wondering, “How did this event occur? Did we kill God, as Nietzsche’s madman insists, or did God sacrifice himself, perhaps in the person of Jesus? Or did God, as a manifestation of Geist, expend God’s self through his self-unfolding in history?” Furthermore, one might ask, “When did this event occur? Was it on Good Friday, 2000 years ago? Was it upon the publication of Nietzsche’s Gay Science, which was the first proclamation of the God’s death? Or was the death of God a gradual process, beginning with the death of Jesus and culminating in late modernity? Unfortunately, neither theologian offers an explicit answer.

These questions are further complicated by Hamilton and Altizer’s notion of the present situation of “waiting for God,” which suggests that God may return or be resurrected at some point in the future. Hamilton confusingly states that although we presently inhabit the dark night of doubt and unbelief, we nevertheless “…pray for God to return” (47). Elsewhere he claims, “our waiting for God, our godlessness, is partly a search for language and a style by which we might be enabled to stand before him once again, delighting in his presence” (41). Altizer is no less ambiguous on this point either. Consider for example his cryptic remark that,

When faith is open to the most terrible darkness, it will be receptive to the most redemptive light. What can the Christian fear of darkness, when he knows that Christ has conquered darkness, that God will be all in all? (21).

Vague as they may be, these formulations certainly connote a sort of dim eschatology and seem to suggest a traditional, supernatural understanding of God and his salvific act in Jesus Christ. And if this is not the case, then what could the death of God theologians possibly mean by these assertions? Regrettably, clear answers to such decisive questions are not forthcoming in this volume.