Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Thomas J. J. Altizer (1927-)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Thomas J.J. Altizer is one of the most interesting and distinctive theological thinkers of the twentieth century. Altizer was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 28, 1927, and was raised in the Episcopal Church. He completed his entire tertiary education at the University of Chicago: A. B., A. M., and Ph. D. He was a student in the renowned History of Religions program at that university (his first book was dedicated in memory of his teacher, Joachim Wach). His doctoral work culminated in a dissertation examining Carl Jung’s understanding of religion. What he learned at Chicago of the approach of modern historical consciousness to religious ‘objects’ has profoundly shaped Altizer’s assessment of the contemporary theological situation. He was also strikingly influenced by Buddhist thought during this period, and the encounter with Eastern religions helps provide explicit framework for his early books. Altizer taught at Wabash College from 1954-1956, then moved to Emory University as professor of Bible and Religion until 1968. The "death of God" theology became a heated debate during his professorship at Emory. Although he was not removed from his teaching position, he accepted a position at the State University of New York, Stony Brook in 1968 as professor of English. 

Altizer’s first teaching post was as Assistant Professor of Religion at Wabash College. In 1956 he moved to take a post as Assistant Professor of Bible and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His first publication, an article entitled “Religion and Reality,” appeared in 1958. Already, Altizer was signaling concerns which have been tenaciously explored and exposited throughout his career: the distinctly Christian dimensions of modernity; secularization and the future of theology; the encounter of world religions, and Christian apocalypticism.

In 1961 Altizer published Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology, a text in which he endeavors to explicate the thesis that modern men and women cannot accept religion as a mode of encounter with anything truly real. The antithesis of religion and reality which he finds in modernity, he then correlates theologically with mystical expressions of Madhyamika and Yogacara schools of Buddhism. Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred followed in 1963. The theological weight of this book is borne in the second half, in which Eliade’s conception and evocation of the sacred for modern, critical thought is compared with literary modernist exponents of the profane consciousness as the dialectical path to epiphanies of the sacred. In this text, as he did not in the previous one, Altizer has engaged with a more dialectical thought-process. From then on, Altizer has developed as probably the most consistent and demanding dialectician in contemporary theology.

Altizer’s next publication was The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake. The text underscored Altizer’s turn to literature for theological speech, and demonstrated his apprenticeship to Hegel. “Most startling of all,” Altizer later reflected, “we find a fully systematic theology in this book. It is a theology purporting to be the expression of a radical Christian tradition–a tradition unknown to the world of Christian theology. . . .” (Altizer 1978: 625)

The vocabulary of “radical” Christianity and its contrast with ecclesiastical Christianity prevailed through the rest of the 1960s, the period of Altizer’s most public visibility, as evangelist of “the death of God.” In the northern Autumn of 1965, Time magazine and several similar mass publications ran stories on a new movement of theologians purportedly united in the claim that “God is dead.” Besides Altizer were included William Hamilton, Gabriel Vahanian, Richard Rubenstein (a Jewish thinker). Harvey Cox and Paul Van Buren also were added to the group by some commentators. Two books by Altizer, Radical Theology and the Death of God (a collection of essays in collaboration with William Hamilton) and The Gospel of Christian Atheism came out in 1966, and a national conference on “radical theology” also met that year. Both books were aimed at broader audiences and evidently reached their target: Altizer received letters from people warning him of, if not taking comfort from, the likelihood of his eternal damnation, as well as from people expressing relief and hope gained from his justifications of the uniqueness of Christianity and centrality despite, indeed because of, the end of transcendence declared as the death of God.

At the time of publication of his next work, The Descent into Hell, Altizer had taken a position as Professor of English at the State University of New York, Stony Brook (he later became the first chairman of an interdisciplinary program in religious studies there). The book draws together the various topics of his thought again but, the preface claims, “it marks a new direction and a fresh voyage. For I am losing all sense of the particular identity of the Christian faith, and have become persuaded that Christ is actively and immediately present wherever darkness or Hell is actual and real” (13). The “particular identity” of the Christian faith was further placed at stake in The Self-Embodiment of God, which appeared in 1977. The work is an ontological systematization of Altizer’s thought, a stunning theological ontology (though not an ontotheology) coordinating categories achieved through a dialectical analysis of ‘silence’ and ‘speech,’  with the epic biblical categories of Genesis, Exodus, Judgment, Incarnation and Apocalypse. This was followed in 1980 by Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today. Perhaps as a result of the systematic work of the previous text, Total Presence goes beyond engaging the loss of transcendence and suggests possible concrete signs of actual divine immanence, that is, of ‘God’s’ “total presence,” through a dialectical negation of the total isolation of the subjectivity of modern persons. For instance:

The power embodied in jazz violently shatters our interior, as its pure rhythm both returns us to an archaic identity and hurls us into a new and posthistoric universality. Most startling of all, the “noise” of jazz releases a new silence, a silence marked by the absence of every center of selfhood, the disappearance of the solitude of the “I.” That silence is the silence of a new solitude, an absolute solitude which has finally negated and reversed every unique and interior ground of consciousness, thereby releasing the totality of consciousness in a total and immediate presence And we rejoice when confronted with this solitude, just as we rejoice in hearing jazz, for the only true joy is the joy of loss, the joy of having been wholly lost and thereby wholly found again. (107-108.)

Genesis and Apocalypse: A Theological Voyage toward Authentic Christianity, also published 1990, is a more systematic theological counterpart to Total Presence, embarking on a venture into modern nihilism in the conviction that: “[O]ur deepest atheism is an anti-Christian atheism, as most clearly manifest in Nietzsche, and therefore our uniquely modern nihilism is an anti-Christian nihilism, and one, indeed, that would be impossible apart from Christianity.” Altizer continues, “But if Nietzsche and Joyce alike could celebrate that nihilism as a liberating nihilism, and liberating above all in that absolute affirmation or Yes-saying which it alone makes possible, that Yes is the Yes which the Christian knows as the Yes of the gospel, a Yes which faith knows as a total Yes, and a total Yes which is an all comprehending totality.” (25-26.) Altizer’s other major works include History as Apocalypse (1985), The Genesis of God: A Theological Genealogy (1993), and The Contemporary Jesus (1997). Altizer is also the author of numerous articles, reviews and essays. His work has been widely translated, and he continues to attract the admiration and fascination of theological thinkers grappling with our contemporary situation. Altizer retired from SUNY Stony Brook in 1995, redubbing his home address, “The Institute for Christian Nihilism.”

While themes and some developments in Altizer’s theological thinking have been described, the contours and movement of that thinking demand more attention. Altizer responds to a cluster of closely interconnected religious problems which have been thrown up for and by modern consciousness. Altizer was clear from an early date about whom he imagines his audience to be. The preface to Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology notes that the book:

. . . was written with the hope that the very abyss of faith in which we must live may paradoxically make possible a deeper encounter with the authentic meaning of religion. For “modern man” has lost his homeland in faith. . . . We moderns are immersed in a profane world that charges the immediate moment with absolute meaning and value. To us, religion can only appear as an alien reality. In our sensibility, the religious Reality can manifest itself only as the Other. Therefore man, qua modern man, cannot associate religion with “reality.” (9.)

Modern men and women face the religious problems of the desacralization or disenchantment of the world at the hands of their objectifying scientific knowledge and the radical relativization of all human values through coming to consciousness of the historicity of human being. The world which comes to view through these allied ways of knowing is utterly profane. This cultural articulation of the religious problems has a ‘metaphysical’ side to it, too; whether and how the sacred can relate to such a world. The authoritative voice of religions is silenced for modern men and women; they “can apprehend the historical reality of all religions, but in no authentic sense can [they] respond to the reality of religion itself . . . . Today the theologian can know religion only as idolatry, for he can know religion only as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology, as a product of human grasping and will to power.” (ibid., 156.) This radical loss of transcendence is one level of the meaning of the death of God. There is nothing other than the reality we give ourselves through will to power since there is no absolutely Other.

Theologians of the modern period have, for the most part in Altizer’s view, made a misguided response to this problem. Perhaps the most important result of historical critical study of Christian history has been the rediscovery that Jesus’ conceptual and ethical and imaginative worlds were determined by apocalyptic expectation. Ironically, the very mode of knowledge which recovered that understanding makes it that much more alien, incomprehensible and offensive to modern intelligence. The modern Christian theological response was to abandon religion in the name of the subjectivity of faith. A 1960 article, “Demythologizing and Jesus” (much of which was incorporated into Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology) charges:

Efforts to maintain that the imminence of the eschatological event is no more than an expression of the intensity of faith, that eschatology is merely a temporal representation of an eternal meaning and value, or that eschatological faith is simply an incontrovertible assurance that God will act, must all be recognized as modernizations of the gospel which are far removed from the ecstatic faith of the early Christians. (566.)

The demythologizing program, which Altizer argues (thanks to Bultmann) permeates even the Barthian program, suppresses more fundamental questions for the sake of answers generated out of the contemporary world view. But Altizer, a fervent partisan of the sacred, of religious Reality, refuses such a faith. Christian theology will not get off the hook by negating Jesus’ person and message; not by elevating him as a god, or by leaping out of history in ‘faith’ and thereby reflecting more affirmation back upon this world in radical disjunction from any kind of relation to the sacred. Altizer has steadfastly refused to compromise on his demand that theology face up to the offense of the apocalyptic Jesus whose faith was rooted in absolute negation of this-worldly consciousness. For an ‘historical religion,’ it may be observed, Christianity has a passle of problems coming to terms with its own historical actualities.

Suppression of the answers of the gospel is not a new error. Christian theology stepped out of the tradition centuries ago when it turned Jesus into a heavenly king. The genuinely Christian apocalyptic imagination survived, not in Christendom, but in an ‘underground’ tradition of ‘heretical’ radical Christianity, with its focal achievements in the cultural glories of, especially, Dante, Milton, Blake and Joyce. The very meaning of the incarnation is that God is in the world, wholly and without remainder. The bad faith of the church only confirms this: “the world of Christian theology . . . is irredeemably satanic insofar as it is bound to the dead body of that God negated and left behind by the forward and apocalyptic movement of the incarnation.”(Ibid, 626) The apocalyptic faith of Jesus is that God is unveiled fully in a radical self-negation or kenosis. The crucifixion is both death and resurrection, a symbol of the death of the transcendent God “once and for all” resurrected not as a lord who returns to heaven but as the radical profanity of worldly presence.

Altizer makes no bones about this. In his earlier work, as noted previously, it seemed that Altizer wanted to bring back the world-negation of apocalyptic expectation as a kind of supplement for the modern predicament. But he quickly realized, through a more nuanced dialectic, that:

If we allow Heidegger to speak for the being that is manifest in our time, we could say that genuinely contemporary human existence is finitude, that the nothingness which has been resurrected by the death of God is the source of the Angst that has identified being and time, that in the “night of the world” in which we live, transcendence can only appear as immanence, eternity can be present, if at all, only in time itself. But can a genuine epiphany of eternity take place in the context of such a mode of human existence? Is a radically profane mode of existence open to the presence of the sacred? Can eternity become manifest upon the plane of radical finitude? (Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred, 107.)

Under such conception, the death of God signifies not just a lack, an absence, but that absence is present precisely as absence. And it is only as such absence that God could be truly and actually present in the modern world. From this point, Altizer is freed to pursue his radical yea-saying to the death of God.

It would be a mistake to think that it is merely Altizer’s yea-saying, or of modern men and women generally. Altizer is driven to produce a genuinely theological thinking that is beholden to no term except God, and so his works are to some extent also attempts to enact this thinking and not just describe its concepts. If the death of God were simply an historical matter then we would conclude that God had been overtaken by events; that we were justified in thinking God to be obsolete. However, the death of God is not a merely historical event although, because, it actually occurs in our history. From the primordial silence of nothingness came speech (“And God said . . .”), so that now:

If we pronounce the name of God in speaking of beginning, an absolute or final beginning, then the name which we pronounce bears the imprint of that beginning, and thereby it is a name of that which is in exile from itself. Of course, every name which we pronounce bears that imprint, but God is the name of names, the name of the source of names, the name of the source and the ground of absolute beginning. Thus God is the name of exile . . . .(Self-Embodiment of God, 29.)

What Altizer indicates by this “meditative analysis and reencatment of the origin, identity, movement and actuality of speech” (ibid., 6) is that “simply to pronounce that name is not only to evoke the necessity of speech but to sanction it as well. Thereby speech sanctions its ground, and [it] sanctions it by naming it, by naming it as God.” (ibid., 41.) You can’t just get away with speaking ‘God’ as an ‘innocent’ curse, a surd, a non-sequitur. The language evokes its very ground in its own dialectical operations.

Altizer has been called a practitioner of ‘theopoesis’ and of ‘theology by incantation.’ There is much of that in the economy of his writing, yet he does more than simply weave a spell, as though magic could bring back all that Christianity has lost and destroyed through its own history. Altizer has brought about a radical, theological re-reading of that history, reclaiming secularization as a divine act of total, apocalyptic kenosis. Faithfulness to God requires actually participating in God’s death. Only God’s ‘killers’ hear and obey the ‘gospel of Christian atheism,’ and they only can share in the apocalyptic joy and expectation of a new world.

2. Works (Selected List)

Christianity, Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology (1961), Truth, Myth and Symbol, ed. Altizer, William Beardslee, and J. Harvey Young (1962), Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred (1963), Radical Theology and the Death of God, ed. Altizer and William Hamilton (1966), The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966), The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (1967), The Descent into Hell (1970), The Self-Embodiment of God (1977), Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today (1980), History as Apocalypse (1985), Genesis and Apocalypse: A Theological Voyage Toward Authentic Christianity (1990), and The Genesis of God: A Theological Genealogy (1993), Godhead and the Nothing (2003), Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir (2006).

3. Themes

The Task of Radical Theology and Dialectical Method

Altizer observes that American theology is in the process of transition. The emergence of radical theology replaces the older forms of faith, in which the traditional faith is passing and has no relevance to the present. The revolution of radical theology reverses the old forms of theology that is based on the God of Christian tradition. For Altizer, the task of theology must abandon the theology created by Christendom and embrace the dawn of radical theology that proclaims the good news of the "death of God." Theology in order to be authentic must experience death and rebirth. Theology must die first and cease to be itself. If theology is truly to die, it must will the "death of God" in Christendom. In order for a new theology to be reborn, everything that theology has affirmed must be negated. Authentic theology cannot be reborn "unless it passes through and freely wills its own death and dissolution.” Theology is now impelled to employ the very language that proclaims the "death of God" (Altizer 1966, 16). Theology today must embrace the radically profane form of contemporary existence to prepare for a theology that seeks to unite the radical sacred and the radical profane. Radical theology is moving towards a profane destiny. Its task is to provide a way to return to "God who is all in all that enables theology not to return to an old form of the sacred but welcomes the God that affirms the profane" (19).

Altizer’s concern is the connection of the sacred to the profane and how to make the Christian faith relevant to the modern secular world. The task of radical theology is to affirm the profane, which has been negated by the Christian tradition. The problem that theology faces, according to Altizer, is the danger of Gnosticism where religion becomes a negation of the world. Gnostic thinking escapes the reality of the present that makes faith becomes irrelevant to the world. The problem created by Gnosticism is that it emphasizes the split of the sacred and the profane, wanting to affirm life by moving towards the sacred and negates the profane (Altizer 1966, 144). "Gnosticism is a form of world opposing faith in which it seeks salvation by a radical kind of world negation" (19). Altizer emphasizes that Gnosticism is dangerous to the Christian faith because of its world negation; it denies the possibility of redemption. A theology that holds to the theology of Christendom that dichotomize the "sacred and the profane, cannot escape the charge of Gnosticism. The affirmation of the traditional forms of faith becomes a Gnostic escape from the brute realities of history" (95). The Gnostic attitude of separating the sacred and the profane leads God to be unrecognized in the world leading to a Godless world. Faith no longer works in the profane. The problem of Altizer is how to make faith become meaningful to the secular world and how to speak a theology that affirms the profane (28-9). Altizer’s concern is to save Christianity from the danger of Gnosticism.

In order to free Christianity from the Gnostic bondage, it needs a dialectical form of faith. A genuinely dialectical faith can never be Gnostic. The dialectical method always constitutes the principle of negation and affirmation. "The dialectical faith’s negation of history is grounded in the affirmation of the present"(Altizer 1966, 110). The task of theology must now accept a dialectical vocation in which it must learn the language of affirmation and negation. It must sense the possibility of yes, which can become no and no which can become yes. In short, "theology must be born out of a truly dialectical method through the negation and affirmation which culminates on the "coincidence of the opposites" (Altizer 1966, 109-10). Initially, Eliade’s study of religions helps Altizer understand the dialectical relation between the sacred and the profane. Though the sacred and the profane radically oppose each other, at the same time they mutually require each other. The ultimate meaning of the dialectic is realized when the opposition of the sacred and profane is overcome in the "coincidence of the opposites." The profane is radically negated leading to a deeper movement into the sacred, in which the profane is transformed and at the same time losing and manifesting its identity with the sacred. According to Altizer, this is the religious movement of both the Oriental mysticism and traditional Christianity, in which the "coincidence is realized through the abolition of the profane as profane" (Ogletree 1966, 83-4). This attitude is also a manifestation of a Gnostic religion, a flight from the world, "wanting to experience salvation by negating the world and moves to the sacred" (Altizer 1966, 144). The profane is annulled and suffers from a Gnostic injury.

According to Altizer, this kind of movement by collapsing the profane into the sacred is a violation to the faith of the New Testament and the Christian meaning of the Incarnation. The dissolution of the profane into the sacred has been the characteristic of the Christian tradition, a manifestation of Gnostic thinking, which does not affirm the world. According to Altizer, this is a heresy. The doctrine of the Incarnation affirms the profane rather than abolish it. Only in affirming the reality of the profane can make the genuine coincidence of the opposites possible, that is, the coming together of the reality of the sacred and the profane. This coincidence of the opposing reality of the sacred and the profane makes Christianity’s celebration of the Incarnation a real event, effecting a real transformation of the world. Faith in this dialectical sense must negate the sacred. A sacred that abolishes the profane cannot affirm the Incarnation and can never understand the true meaning of the Incarnation. A faith that virtually negates the profane can never realize the promise of redemption (Altizer 1966, 149).

The Doctrine the Incarnation and God’s Self-negation

Altizer’s The Gospel of Christian Atheism tries to combine biblical and philosophical theology. He tries to build a radical doctrine of the Incarnation on the concept of kenosis. Altizer finds the dialectic of Hegel helpful in reinterpreting the Incarnation. According to Altizer, Hegel’s idea of kenosis and the dialectical process of self-negation of being, provides him a way of interpreting the self-emptying of the Incarnation in which he find a poetic visioning as expressed in the work of Blake. In other words, Blake supplies Altizer a poetic vision and Hegel supplies the philosophical agenda to interpret the vision. Altizer uses Phil. 2:7 as a biblical base for a kenotic doctrine of the Incarnation and by using the metaphysics of Hegel’s idealism as a philosophical framework (Cobb 1970, 33-4).

Altizer’s doctrine of the Incarnation is an inversion of the traditional Christian thinking. The traditional thinking conforms to the dissolution of the profane to the sacred. Altizer asserts that only in the self-emptying of God can provide redemption of the profane world. "When the sacred and the profane are understood as a dialectic opposites where mutual negation culminates in a transformation of each into its repetitive "other" then the Christian coincidence of opposites becomes the eschatological realization of the dialectical union of the original sacred and the radical profane (Altizer 1966, 155). Altizer contends that a truly "Christian theology must affirm the union of the sacred into the profane and affirm the profane as profane" (155). The movement of the sacred into the profane is explained by the dialectical movement of the kenotic Incarnation of the Word. Altizer’s kenotic Incarnation is a forward movement of God into the human flesh by self-emptying with the form of God (Phil. 2). Understood in this way, the kenotic movement of the Incarnation is a continuing "process of Spirit becoming flesh, the movement of the sacred becoming profane" (Altizer 1966, 152). This is Altizer’s doctrine of self-negation of God grounded from his kenotic christology. Altizer’s kenotic Incarnation means the self-emptying of God completely from his transcendent form to and become totally incarnate in the world. Kenosis is a "total process in which a pure transcendent God becomes a totally immanent actuality" (Noel 1970, 176).

Altizer found kenosis as the expression of God’s self-negation through the Incarnate Word. The self-negation of the Spirit is the expression of God’s self-sacrifice manifested in the kenotic Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This makes God’s self-sacrifice a redemptive act of self-negation. God’s kenotic Incarnation manifests the total presence of Jesus in the world, which is also the expression of Jesus’ act of redemption of the profane. The "death of God" as manifested in the kenotic Incarnation can be viewed a doctrine of redemption. The profane is redeemed through the unity and actual presence of Christ in history by the reality of the kenotic Incarnation. This shows the total self-giving love of God. The absolute negativity as the expression of God’s total self-giving is also a manifestation of God’s act of redemption (Ogletree 1966, 69).

The Meaning of the "Death of God"

Altizer’s "death of God" has two phases. Altizer’s early notion of the "death of God" is understood in "historical-existential" terms (Cobb 1970, 34). Viewed in this way, the "death of God" according to Altizer is an historical event, "that God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence" (Altizer 1966, 11). The experience of the profane affirms the "death of God." Later, with the coming into terms with the dialectic of Hegel, Altizer was able to reconcile philosophy and theology, "the death of God" is ontologized and universalized. The "death of God" becomes the "self-annihilation of the Spirit primordial nature and deficient actuality (the transcendent being), pours into the world and becomes flesh. The "death of God" is now seen in ontological and existential terms" (Cobb 1970, 34). The "death of God" is not only a designation of an historical event but also a theological assertion about Christ and the meaning of his presence in the secular world. Altizer’s problem is how such a theology of the "death of God" can "contribute to the emergence of a profane form of faith in our time" (Ogletree 1966, 86). Again, Hegel’s idea of negativity provides Altizer with a perspective in the affirmation of the "death of God." Negation in Hegel’s thought refers to the dissolution of a given actuality as a precondition for the emergence of a new possibility through a forward movement process. In the light of Hegel’s principle of negativity, Altizer interprets the "death of God as God’s own act of self-negation. In Jesus Christ, God has emptied himself into the world. Altizer asserts the legitimacy of speaking about the "death of God" by emphasizing, "the principle of negation as realized in the actualization of the profane that requires the negation of the sacred" (90).

"God is dead" as the "Wholly Other" who in isolation beyond the world remain unaffected by the world processes. The Spirit’s forward movement into the process has resulted in the radical transformation of his being. "The transcendence has been transformed wholly into immanence" (Ogletree 1966, 90-1). This is the meaning of the Christian affirmation of the "death of God" according to Altizer. The central theme for Altizer is to affirm the nature of God’s presence in the world. (92). The ‘death of God’ for Altizer is a divine sacrifice for the redemption of the profane. It is an expression of divine love. God’s self-annihilation is an act of redeeming and affirming God’s creation. In this sense, Altizer insists that only a Christian can affirm the "death of God." The "death of God" is God’s act of affirming the profane as rooted in the positive significance of God’s self-sacrifice. Viewed in this way, the "death of God" is fundamentally a redemptive event in which humanity is liberated from the clutches of the "Wholly Other" (93). Altizer wants us to follow the logic of the Incarnation as a forward movement in which God, the "Wholly Other’s" self-emptying in totality is realized in the forward movement of history (95). Altizer’s radical theology attempts to interpret the contemporary form of Christ presence in the world (95). His innermost concern is for us to detach from the traditional understanding of God. The Christian traditional understanding of God has isolated God from the world that made God static, unaffected and remote from the world realities. Altizer’s project is to affirm Christ’s presence in the world in such a way to enable us to affirm the "death of God" theologically (99).

Altizer was influenced by Nietzsche’s radical philosophy, particularly on the repudiation of the Western Christian tradition as expressed on Nietzsche’s "God is dead." Nietzsche’s proclamation of the "death of God" has shattered the transcendent being of Christendom (Altizer 1966, 98). Altizer’s radical theology, which is based wholly on the presupposition of the "death of God," has led to the collapse of the transcendent being. The "death of God" as the negation of the pure transcendent God of the Christian tradition is what Altizer termed "Atheism." "Atheism" in this sense is a criticism of a remote God. "This God beyond the world is a non-redemptive God who by virtue of his sovereign transcendent stand wholly apart from the historical presence of the Incarnation" (62). For Altizer, this transcendent God cannot redeem the world. Therefore, it must be declared dead. The saying that "God is dead," radical theologians attempts to say that the transcendent ground of the world has died. But ultimately, God died for the redemption of the world (Altizer 1967, 78). The affirmation of the "death of God" is Christianity’s act of transforming the original old faith of the transcendent "Wholly Other." This makes Christianity become a world affirming religion. The "death of the Christian God" implies that the "transcendence of Being has been transformed into radical immanence" (Altizer 1966, 101). Radical theology’s "death of God" claims that the absolute transcendence is transfigured to absolute immanence (98). The originally transcendent sacred becomes immanent. The formerly separated realms of reality, the sacred and the profane, are becoming into one. The sacred now is in the midst of the profane (Noel 1970, 175). Therefore, to speak of the "death of God" is to "speak of a movement of God from transcendence to immanence (Altizer 1967, 11). The concept of the "death of God" becomes a confession of faith that affirms God’s self-negation as expressed in the Incarnation is a manifestation of God’s redemptive act in history.

4. Outline of Major Works

Radical Theology and the Death of God


The Gospel of Christian Atheism


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1956. A Critical Analysis of C. G. Jung’s Understanding of Religion. Ph.D. dissertation. The University of Chicago.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1958.   “Religion and Reality.” Journal of Religion 38: 251-260.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1959.   “The Religious Foundations of Biblical Eschatology.” Journal of Religion 39: 263-273.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1960.   “Demythologizing and Jesus.” Religion in Life 29: 564-574.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1961. Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1962.   “The Religious Meaning of Myth and Symbol.” In Truth, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Thomas J. J. Altizer et al. A Spectrum Book. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 87-108.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1962. “Mircea Eliade and the Recovery of the Sacred.” Christian Scholar 45: 356-362.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1963. Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1963.   “Nirvana and Kingdom of God.” Journal of Religion 43: 105-117.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1965.   “Word and History.” Theology Today 22: 380-393.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1966. The Gospel of Christian Atheism. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1966. Radical Theology and the Death of God. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1967. Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue. Chicago, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1967. The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1967. Toward a New Christianity: Readings in the Death of God Theology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1967.   “The Death of God and the Uniqueness of Christianity.” In The History of Religions: Essays on the Problem of Understanding. Ed. Joseph M. Kitagawa with the collaboration of Mircea Eliade and Charles H. Long. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 119-141.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1967. “The Significance of the New Theology.” In The Death of God Debate. Ed. Jackson Lee Ice and John J. Carey. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 242-255.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1968.   “Radical Theology and Political Revolution.” Criterion 7: 5-10.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1970.The Descent into Hell: A Study of the Radical Reversal of  the Christian Consciousness. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company. (A paperback edition was published in NewYork in 1979 by The Seabury Press.)

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1970.   “Imagination and Apocalypse.” Soundings 53: 398-412.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1971. “Dialectic of Ancient and Modern Apocalypticism.” JAAR 39: 312-320.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1971.   “Dialectical versus Di-polar Theology.” Process Studies 1: 29-37.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1972.   “An Inquiry into the Meaning of Negation in the Dialectical Logics of East and West.” In Religious Language and Knowledge. Ed. Robert H. Ayers and William T. Blackstone. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 97-118.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1972. “Method in Dipolar Theology and the Dipolar Meaning of God.” In Philosophy of Religion and Theology. Comp. David Ray Griffin. Chambersburg, Pa.: American Academy of Religion.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1973.   “From Death into Life: Are Theologians Free Simply to Choose? A Reply to Driver’s Challenge.” JAAR 41: 238-242. (See Tom F. Driver. “From Death into Life: Altizer Challenged. A Review Essay.” JAAR 41: 229-237.)

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1975.   “Buddhist Ground of the Whiteheadian God.” Process Studies 5: 227-236.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1977.   “The Apocalyptic Identity of the Jew.” JAAR 45: 361. (Abstract only; full article available from Scholars Press.)

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1977. The Self-Embodiment of God. New York et al.: Harper and Row, Publishers.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1977. “Holistic, Non-Alienated Theologian.” In John Cobb’s Theology in Process. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Thomas J. J. Altizer. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1-4.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1977. “Spiritual Existence as God-Transcending Existence.” In John Cobb’s Theology in Process. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Thomas J. J. Altizer. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 54-66.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1978.   “Overt Language About the Death of God.” Christian Century 95: 624-627.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1980. “Demythologizing as the Self-Embodiment of Speech.” In Orientation by Disorientation: Studies in Literary Criticism and Biblical Literary Criticism, Presented in Honor of William A. Beardslee. Ed. R. Spencer . Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series. Pittsburgh, PA: Pickwick Press. 139-150.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1980.   “Ritual and Contemporary Repetition.” Dialog 19: 274-280.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1980. Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today. New York: The Seabury Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1981. “The Anonymity of God.” In Is God God? Ed. with an introduction by Axel D. Steuer and James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Nashville: Abingdon. 19-35.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1981.   “The Apocalyptic Identity of the Modern Imagination.” JAAR Thematic Studies 48/2: 19-29.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1981. “Revelation and the Hermeneutical Spiral.” In Unfinished…: Essays in Honor of Ray L. Hart. Ed. Mark C. Taylor. JAAR Thematic Studies 48/1: 99-109.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1982.   “History as Apocalypse.” In Deconstruction and Theology. Thomas J. J. Altizer et al. New York: Crossroad. 147-177.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1983.   “Paul and the Birth of Self-Consciousness.” JAAR 51: 359-370.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1985.   History and Apocalypse. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1985.   “Theology as Reflection upon the Roots of Christian Culture.” In The Vocation of the Theologian. Ed. and with an introduction and epilogue by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 135-142.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1988.   “Satan as the Messiah of Nature?” In The Whirlwind in Culture: Frontiers in Theology – In Honor of Langdon Gilkey. Ed. Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price. Bloomington, Indiana: Meyer-Stone Books. 119-134.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1989.   “The Atheistic Ground of America.” Anglican Theological Review 71: 261-272.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1989. “Emptiness and God.” In The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji: Encounter with Emptiness. Ed. Taitetsu Unno. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press. 70-81.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1990.   Genesis and Apocalypse: A Theological Voyage Toward Authentic Christianity. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1990.   “Is the Negation of Christianity the Way to its Renewal?” Religious Humanism 24: 10-16.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1990. “Buddhist Emptiness and the Crucifixion of God.” In The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation. Ed. John B. Cobb, Jr. and Christopher Ives. Faith Meets Faith Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 69-78.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1990. “The Beginning and Ending of Revelation.” In Theology at the End of the Century. Robert P. Scharlemann (ed.). Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press. 1990. 76-109 (reply, Robert P. Scharlemann, 110-129; rejoinder, 130-135).

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1991.   “Hegel and the Christian God.” JAAR 59: 71-91.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1991. “Total Abyss and Theological Rebirth: The Crisis of University Theology.” In Theology and the University: Essays in Honor of John B. Cobb, Jr. David Ray Griffin and Joseph C. Hough, Jr. (eds.). Albany, NY: SUNY Press. 169-184.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1993.   “Abe’s Buddhist Realization of God.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 13: 221-222.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1993.   The Genesis of God: A Theological Genealogy. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1994. “The Challenge of Nihilism.” JAAR 62: 1013-1022.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1994.   “The Contemporary Challenge of Radical Catholicism.” Journal of Religion 74: 182-198.

Altizer, Thomas J. J., 1995.  “God as Holy Nothingness.” In What Kind of God?: Essays in Honor of Richard L. Rubenstein. Ed. Betty Rogers Rubenstein et al. Lanham: University Press of America.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. 1997.   The Contemporary Jesus. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J., William A. Beardslee, and J. Harvey Young, eds. 1962. Truth, Myth, and Symbol. A Spectrum Book. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Altizer, Thomas J. J., and David Ray Griffin, eds.  1977. John B. Cobb’s Theology in Process. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Altizer, Thomas J. J. and William Hamilton, eds. 1966. Radical Theology and the Death of God. Indianapolis; New York; Kansas City: The Bobbs-Merril Company, Inc., a subsidiary of Howard W. Sams & Co., Inc Publishers.

Aldwinckle, R. F. 1968.  “Christianity and Religion in The Gospel of Christian Atheism.” Canadian Journal of Theology 14: 102-112.

Barth, Hans Martin. 1971. “Tod-Gottes-Christologie: der christologische Ansatz der nordamerikanischen Tod-Gottes-Theologie.” Kerygma und Dogma 17: 258-272.

Boyd, George N.      1972. “Changing Trends in Radical Theology: Counterattack on the New Polytheism.” Theological Studies 33: 285-293.

Butler, Clark. 1980. “Hegel, Altizer and Christian Atheism.” Encounter 41: 103-128.

Cobb, John B., Jr. 1965. “Christianity and Myth.” Journal of Bible and Religion 33 (1965): 314-320.

Cobb, John Jr. B. ed., 1970. The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Cowdell, Scott. 1991. “Radical Theology, Postmodernity and Christian Life in the Void.” Heythrop Journal 32: 62-71.

Daecke, Sigurd M. 1973. “Gott ist tot–in der Theologie: Wie können wir dennoch heute vom lebendigen Gott reden?” In Der fragliche Gott: Fünf Versuche einer Antwort. Comp. Josef Kopperschmidt. Düsseldorf: Patmos-Verlag, 11-31.

D’Arcy, Paul Wellington. 1975. The Mode of God’s Relation with the World in the Thought of Tillich, Altizer and Cobb. Ph.D. dissertation. Claremont Graduate School.

Detweiler, Robert. 1967. “Poetics and the Death of God.” Religion in Life 36: 270-289.

Feero, Richard Lee. 1993. Radical Theology in Preparation: From Altizer to Edwards. Ph.D. dissertation. Syracuse University.

Fountain, J. Stephen. 1994. “Ashes to Ashes: Kristeva’s Jouissance, Altizer’s Apocalypse, Byatt’s Possession and ‘The Dream of the Rood.’ ” Literature and Theology 8: 193-208.

Gounelle, André. 1990. Le Christ et Jésus. Trois christologies américaines: Tillich, Cobb, Altizer. Jésus et Jésus Christ 41. Paris: Desclée, 1990.

Harrod, Howard L. 1966-7. “Christian Ethics Post Mortem Dei.” Journal of Religious Thought 23: 31-49.

Hatt, Harold Ernest. 1967.  “A New Trinity: One God in Three Deaths.” Religion in Life 36: 53-69.

Hearn, Thomas K. 1968. “Radical Theology: A Philosophical Perspective.” Anglican Theological Review 50: 342-355.

Hickling, C. J. A. 1968. “Speak What We Have Seen: A Comment on ‘Active Silence about God.’ ” Theology 71: 339-342.

Hodgson, Peter C. 1966. “The Death of God and the Crisis in Christology.” Journal of Religion 46: 446-462.

Ice, Jackson Lee, and John J. Carey (eds.). 1967. The Death of God Debate.  Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Idinopoulos, Thomas A. 1969. “Radical Theology, Evil and Freedom.” Scottish Journal of Theology 22: 165-174.

Kamuyu-Wa-Kang’ethe. 1985. “The Death of God and the African Religion: An African Viewpoint.” Journal of Dharma 10: 379-391.

Kliever, Lonnie Dean. 1967. “Mapping the Radical Theologies.” Religion in Life 36: 8-27.

Kliever, Lonnie D., and John H. Hayes. 1968. Radical Christianity: The New Theologies in Perspective, with Readings from the Radicals. Anderson, S.C.: Droke House, Publishers.

Krieger, Frederick B. 1967. “The Curious Theology of Thomas J. J. Altizer.” Canadian Journal of Theology 13: 86-98.

Lantz, George Benjamin, Jr. 1971. A Critique of the Theologies of Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton from the Perspective of Historical-Critical Research on the New Testament. Ph.D. dissertation. Boston University Graduate School.

Murchland, Bernard (ed.). 1967. The Meaning of the Death of God: Protestant, Jewish and Catholic Scholars Explore Atheistic Theology. New York: Random House.

Neville, Robert C. 1984. “Buddhism and Process Philosophy.” In Buddhism and American Thinkers. Ed. Kenneth K. Inada and Nolan P. Jacobson. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 120-142.

Noel, Daniel C. 1970. "Thomas Altizer and the Dialectic of Regression," in The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response. John B. Cobb, Jr. ed., Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Odin, Steve. 1987. “Kenosis as a Foundation for Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: The Kenotic Buddhology of Nishida and Nishitani of the Kyoto School in Relation to the Kenotic Christology of Thomas J. J. Altizer.” The Eastern Buddhist (new series) 20: 34-61.

Ogletree, Thomas W. 1966. The Death of God Controversy. Nashville; New York: Abingdon Press.

Peden, Creighton. 1967-8. “Altizer’s Christian Atheism: System and Polemic.” Journal of Religious Thought 24: 29-41.

Richard, Jean. 1971. “La Kénose de Dieu dans le Christ d’aprés Thomas J. J. Altizer.” Eglise et Théologie 2: 207-228.

Richardson, Alan. 1967. “The Death-of-God Theology.” Religion in Life 36: 70-79.

Ricketts, Mac Linscott. 1967. “Mircea Eliade and the Death of God.” Religion in Life 36: 40-52.

Ross, James Robert. 1969. “From World Negation to World Affirmation: A Study in the Development of the Theology of Thomas J. J. Altizer.” JAAR 37: 353-359.

Schoonenberg, Piet. 1972. “The Transcendence of God, Part I.” In Transcendence and Immanence. Ed. Joseph Armenti. Saint Meinrad, Ind.: Abbey Press, 157-165.

Stewart, William C. 1991. Nihilism: The Postmodern Dilemma. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Calgary. (Has a chapter on Altizer. Also considers Nietzsche, Mark C. Taylor and John Caputo.)

Suda, Max Josef. 1979. “Atheismus als Konsequenz extremer theologischer Ansätze: Aufgewiesen an der Denkentwicklung Bruno Bauers und der atheistischen Theologie“ Thomas J. J. Altizers.” In Weltphänomen Atheismus. Her. Augustinus Karl Wucherer-Huldenfeld et al. Wien: Herder, 89-107.

Taylor, Mark C. 1984. “Altizer’s Originality: A Review Essay.” JAAR 52: 569-584.

Winquist, Charles. 1982. “Thomas J. J. Altizer: In Retrospect.” Religious Studies Review 8: 337-342.

7. Internet Resources

Altizer on Wikipedia

“The ‘God Is Dead’ Movement” in Time, Friday, Oct. 22, 1965)

Paige P. Parvin, “The Revolutionary” in Emory Magazine Autumn 2006.

Religion Online edition of Radical Theology and the Death of God

Religion Online edition of The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response

8. Related Topics in the BCE

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770-1831)


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