THE THEOLOGICAL CHALLENGE OF NIHILISMBy Thomas J. J. Altizer
D. G. Leahys NOVITAS MUNDI: PERCEPTION OF THE HISTORY OF BEING (New York University Press, 1980, SUNY Press, 1994) is a revolutionary breakthrough to a truly new thinking, deeply Catholic and deeply contemporary at once, even while being a profoundly original work. While conceptually reenacting the history of Being from Aristotle through Heidegger, a reenactment which is itself a profound re-thinking of each of the primal metaphysical thinkers of the West, even including Augustine and Kierkegaard, this reenactment culminates with what claims to be a revolutionary breakthrough to an absolutely new thinking, a pure apocalyptic thinking calling forth that absolute beginning even now occurring of transcendent existence in thinking itself. Its deepest and most powerful, although also its most difficult sections, are contained in its three appendices, the first of which names an essentially new matter as the transcendent form of an essentially transcendent thought, and its third appendix can affirm that before now Christ existed inessentially, but now Christ himself exists in essence for the first time in thought itself, and so exists in a radically new conception of the body itself (page 361). For the dawn of the Day of Yahweh is now occurring, and it essentially occurs in thought for the first time as the glorification of existence itself (page 395), a glorification which Leahy names as the missa jubilaea.
Novitas Mundi is radically Catholic precisely by being apocalyptically Catholic, celebrating an absolutely new thinking which is the unleavened bread of existence itself, as over against the essential finitude of past thought: What happened before now in the Mass exclusively (missa solemnis) now happens in the Mass inclusively (missa jubilaea) (page 347). At the end, in extremis, and even by way of an Hegelian irony of history, it becomes the destiny of the Eucharist to be the substantial experience of the world at large: What now occurs in thought for the first time in history (transcending in fact the end of the world in essence) is the perception itself of the body--God in God in essence--the Temple of the New Jerusalem--effected now in essence inclusively in the missa jubilaea, the center of an essentially new consciousness in the conversion of the universe into an entirely new stuff (page 348). The missa jubilaea is the infinite passover of God, and precisely thereby the death of God in Christ:
Before now the word was made flesh. Now the word is spoken in essence, that is, Christs imagination is now made flesh. . . . Now Christ suffers death in essence; now Christ is perceived to be embodied in God himself; now the world is seen to be the embodiment in essence of the transcendental passion of existence itself in ssence. It is now the essentially transcendental perception of the body itself. (page 378) Now and only now there is essentially the infinite passover of God who is absolutely Christ, and therefore: God is in fact (being there) in the absolute nullification of God (page 364). This nullification of God is the blood of the Lamb, the Crucifixion itself, but a Crucifixion which is the resurrection or glorification of existence itself, a glorification which is the resurrection of the body.
Novitas Mundi is our most intrinsically difficult book since Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit, but Leahys next book, Foundation: Matter the Body Itself, is even more difficult and complex, even if it is in full continuity with Novitas Mundi. Once again there is a calling forth of the end of modernity and the absolute beginning of a new world order, an order which is an actually universal new world consciousness, and an absolutely new consciousness in which the body itself is nothing but existence itself. Now, and for the first time, an explosion of reason has occurred in the form of faith, so that in the thinking now occurring for the first time faith has raised reason itself to the level of faith. Of course, this is a claim fully embodied in German Idealism, and above all so in Hegel, but now what is at hand is a Catholic universal reason and a Catholic universal faith. And if German Idealism was inaugurated by the French Revolution of 1789, and culminated in its reversal in Marxism, this radically Catholic new world order only becomes a clearly visible fact in 1989, the Year of the Beginning, which is not only the year of the public ending of Marxism but the year of the final ending of modernity itself.
If nothing was more revolutionary in Hegelian thinking than its apocalyptic ground, an apocalyptic ground which becomes even more actual and universal in Marxism itself, nothing is more revolutionary in Leahys thinking than its absolute apocalyptic ground, one which is more total here than it has ever been before, with the possible exception of Nietzsches radically apocalyptic thinking. America is a deep site of this new and radical apocalyptic thinking, and just as the first imaginative and apocalyptic enactment of the death of God occurs in Blakes America (1793), Leahy can understand America as the deepest site of the death of God, an America which is the furthest extension of modernity, and the complete actualization of the death of God occurs for the first time in history in the American consciousness (page 596). Yet this is a death of God releasing an absolute apocalypse, that absolute apocalypse which is the identity of the absolutely new world now beginning. Modernity is an anticipation of that beginning, just as Marxism is a reverse anticipation of a new absolute world society, an absolutely new society in which selfhood disappears, in which work itself is essentially inalienable, for the now existing foundation of the absolute objectivity of this world society is the actuality of an absolute incarnation, the advent of the body itself absolute, wherein personality is an absolutely material reality, but body itself or the actual human personality is absolutely free (page 86).
Surely never before has such a pure thinking been so wholly conjoined with such a pure utopianism, yet this is not utopianism but rather apocalypticism, and a pure apocalypticism whose absolute affirmation is inseparable from an absolute negation, and here an absolute negation of everything which thinking has thus far been. Inevitably one is reminded of Hegel, and of the deeper and purer Hegel, and Hegels is the deepest philosophical presence in Leahys thinking, even if this is a thinking which is a reversal and transcendence of Hegel, and Leahy maintains that the essence of American thought is the reversal and inversion of Hegel (page 466). As opposed to Novitas Mundi, now American pragmatism is the true prelude to the thinking now occurring for the first time, and most immediately so the American theology of the death of God, a theology which while voiding pragmatism is the last gasp of modernity, and it is in these death throes that an absolute apocalyptic thinking is now born. And this is a truly new apocalyptic thinking if only because of the primacy here of the body itself, a new body which is an apocalyptic body, the apocalyptic body of Christ, and a body calling forth an absolutely new thinking in which the body itself is the totality of life itself for the first time (page 104).
Now the totality of pure thinking is a purely apocalyptic thinking, one not only reflecting but embodying an absolute apocalypse, which is nothing less than an absolutely new universe, and an absolutely new universe which is an absolutely new thinking. Now, and for the first time in history, the world itself terminates in essence, but this means that for the first time the world is essentially historical, for the history of the world is now absolutely actual. What can this mean? First, it means that the very existence of potentiality is now ended, and with that ending an absolute primal nothing is no more, and now there is no
longer a necessity for an embodiment of the Nothing: We, the survivors of sin itself, the proclaimers of the body itself, declare the speaking of death to be without necessity, a waste of words, the guest at the wedding without a wedding garment (pages 91-92). Then a declaration occurs that today is the Third Day, the day after the sabbath, the first of a new creation, a day without night, for everything now proclaims matter itself as the body itself. Body? This is surely the most difficult category in the thinking now occurring for the first time, the one most removed from everything which is given or manifest to us, and the one most unique in this radically apocalyptic thinking.
Matter, the body itself, is itself the beginning of the absolutely new universe, a matter precluding the present possibility of that abyss which is the ultimate ground of modernity. For the body itself is now nothing but the absolutely new form of thinking, a thinking giving birth to a new creation, as history is transcended for the first time in the death of death itself, in the absolute inconceivability of either a potential or an actual nothingness. Now, and for the first time, the body itself is the totality of Life, and Life itself is now for the first time matter itself, for now there is no foundation or grounding of Being which is not the proclamation of the body itself. Yet this body is Christ, or the body of God, revealing itself in the absolute freedom of personality saying itself, hearing the voice of the absolute speaking freely of itself, saying of itself: I am Christ absolute existing for the first time--I am the absolute temporality of existence (page 165).
We are given in Foundation a new logic of beginning, with multiple charts and graphs, one which is opaque to this reader, and while zero is retained here, it no longer equals any form of nothing, for there never was a nothing, because in every now is the beginning absolutely. Christ is that beginning, an absolute beginning which is an absolute ending or apocalypse, for in every now begins the transcendence of consciousness, in every now begins the body itself, and this is the beginning of the end of the world in essence, the beginning of the end of time itself (page 423). But it is the passion and death and not the exaltation and glorification of Christ which is realized in the absolutely new essence of thought, a Christ who is the transcendence of transcendence itself, as the passion of Christ is for the first time the very essence of identity, for now this passion of existence absolutely creates itself, a creation which is for the first time the absolutely passionate creation of the world: the creation ex abysso (page 198). This absolute passion is the foundation, firmer than which none can be conceived, and even the foundation of that absolute world society now first beginning to exist. For this world is constructed ex futuro, after the future, and ex nihilo, after the pure Nothing which modernity knows as total presence. Yet for the first time identity is absolutely without identity, absolutely without the identity of identity, absolutely without reference to the inside of the abyss itself.
This is that internal or interior abyss which is the deepest ground of modernity, an abyss which is a pure Nothing, and one which is most theologically manifest in the uniquely American theology of the death of God, in the theology of Altizer. But this is a theology calling forth the Body Abysmal, the abyss of infinite non-existence, an abyss calling forth an abysmal absolute affirmation of Nothing. Indeed, this theology is an essentially pure dialectical immanence, one which is the self-conscious form of the theological essence of modern thought. Precisely thereby it is a theological reflection of a uniquely modern embodiment of the Nothing, a revolutionary Nothing which is the counterpart to a total presence of the abysmal form of the body, that Body Abysmal which is the final embodiment of modernity. This is that abysmal body releasing an ultimate nihilism, and only an absolute apocalypse can truly transcend that nihilism which Nietzsche and his descendants so forcefully reveal as our destiny, and an absolute apocalypse absolutely transcending all modern apocalyptic vision. Perhaps this is the very point at which Leahys thinking can be most meaningful to us all, for to grasp our nihilism as both an historically inevitable and an eschatologically ultimate nihilism, is to know the necessity of absolute apocalypse, or the necessity of that apocalypse for the possibility of life itself.
What is most challenging about Leahys work is the very purity of its thinking and writing, here is the purest thinker not only in the history of American thought, but also in the history of European thought since Hegel, and if it is Hegel alone with whom Leahy can be compared, this is not only because each are apocalyptic thinkers, but are pure thinkers precisely by being apocalyptic thinkers. Leahy judges that what is most missing in Hegels thinking is the novitas mundi, or the actual newness of the world, so that Hegelian thinking is finally a reflection of an old world, and an old world which has actually and finally ended in our own time. So likewise all of our theologies are reflections of an old world, for even if it was Augustine and Aquinas who most decisively inaugurated the novitas mundi in thinking itself, here the novitas mundi is only partially and not totally realized, a total realization which does not occur until the thinking now occurring for the first time. Nevertheless, this radically new thinking is in deep continuity with a purely Catholic thinking, and even in continuity with the radically Protestant thinking of Kierkegaard, for Leahys is unquestionable a Christian thinking, and the first Christian thinking since Hegels which is a universal thinking.
Thus Leahy can call his reader into this new thinking with the assurance that all genuine thinking as such can now only realize a thinking which is fully recorded here, now simply to think, or genuinely to think, is to realize what here is named as foundation and matter, and even if this is a matter that has never been conceived before, it is the only matter which now can truly or even actually be thought. The simple truth is that Leahy is the most imperialistic thinker in our history, thereby once again revealing his Catholic ground, but now an imperialistic thinking is simultaneously a kenotic thinking, a thinking embodying the passion of Christ. This is a passion negating every possible ground in selfhood, but that is a negation absolutely negating everything whatsoever which is not absolutely free. Inevitably such thinking calls forth an ultimate shock and an ultimate offense, yet is it possible genuinely to respond to this thinking without affirming its absolute necessity, or without recognizing the ultimate necessity for us of an absolute apocalypse which is here enacted in pure thinking itself?
No doubt this reader encounters a particular and even a unique challenge here, for it is the theology of Altizer which is here most assaulted, and assaulted by thinking through its deepest ground, for that ground is certainly an absolute nothingness or that revolutionary Nothing through which modernity realizes its own integral and intrinsic ending. Yet the ending of modernity is the ending of the world, or the ending of every world which is not that absolute apocalypse which is the new creation, and the ending of all thinking which is not an embodiment of that apocalypse, not an actualization of that new matter or new universe which is now becoming all in all. Indeed, what decisively breaks the total presence of the death of God is an absolutely unconditioned exteriority existing transcendentally: total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (pages 238-239). Or, more simply stated, it breaks with the very advent of that matter which is existence itself, or that body which is the Body of God. Now the within is absolutely outwardized, not merely nothing remaining within, as in the totality of the kenotic movement of God, but no within, no depth whatsoever to the shining of the light. Now there occurs the first step after the abyss, actually completed by thought essentially in the form of Jesus Christ: the divine mind univocally predicated of the totality of essence for the first time (page 243). Now the one Jesus Christ is essentially conceived as the foundation itself, as the foundation not only of any society, but of any individual or person now actually existing.
Now existence itself is for the first time the passion of Christ, for the first time it is the known fact of the very essence of identity itself, as the absolute passion of Christ for the first time repeats itself in the essence of thought. In this perspective, the American theology of the death of God can be known to be a realization of the Nothing itself, one enacting the self-identity of Nothing, and even an absolute perception of Nothing, calling forth that univocal Nothing which is not itself, and doing so sola morte, thereby effecting an abysmal reversal of the life and death of Jesus, a reversal calling forth an infernal body which is the pure silence of the body itself. Here, the death of God is not the actual death of the Living God, but the actual death of the God of Death, that uroboric Moloch of the End, and if that death releases apocalypse, and an absolute apocalypse, this is an apocalypse which absolutely inverts and reverses that revolutionary Nothing which is the final ground of modernity.
Now if American thought is the furthest possible extension of modernity, it is so most deeply by undergoing its own voiding, so that the Nothing/nothing is pragmaticisms own final identity, and the American realization of the death of God is the abysmal apocalyptic recognition of the necessity of apocalypse, realizing an absolutely anticipatory Nothing, which is the abyss now anticipating the Final Judgment (page 577). This is the beginning of the pure Nothing, Being itself for the first time the Nothingless Nothing, and yet this is essentially the conception of the necessity to create the absolute elimination of nothingness, and for the first time in history the very form of Christianity is the necessity of the elimination of nothing (page 604). Leahy can understand the American theology of the death of God as a Black Mass, an inversion and reversal of the Eucharistic substance to the dark identity of the immediate actuality of experience, so there now occurs a Satanic form of a Mass for the resurrection for a dead god, in the form of the absolute dilution of the Word in the primal waters of non-existence (page 536). Nonetheless, this furthest possible extension of the essence of modern consciousness is conscious of its own darkness of vision: perceiving clearly in the darkness the presence of a new universe (page 550).
But if this most ultimately abysmal of all abysmal theologies can actually perceive the presence of a new universe in that darkness which it knows, is there not an essential and intrinsic relationship between this last gasp of modernity and that absolutely new thinking now occurring for the first time? Does not this absolute negation of that final negation incorporate this very negation in its own enactment of itself? For even if it absolutely inverts and reverses this negation, is that not a preservation of this negation itself? Such, of course, would be an Hegelian negation of negation, but that poses the deep question of whether or not this absolutely new thinking truly transcends that Hegelian thinking which is the deepest thinking of modernity, and thus truly and absolutely transcends modernity itself. Is a true and absolute postmodernity possible, and even possible now? While heaping scorn upon all manifest forms of postmodernity, Leahy has made an ultimate wager upon the total presence of an absolute postmodernity, and has given himself to this wager as no thinker other than Nietzsche has thus far done.
Here, he clearly does transcend Hegel, but does he thereby transcend that deep Catholic ground which he so clearly claims? Let us recall that Catholicism arose with a dissolution of primitive Christian apocalypticism, one which is comprehensively reenacted in Augustines City of God, and that all orthodox Catholic theologians have been purely non-apocalyptic. If the first Catholic apocalyptic theologian was Joachim of Fiore, Joachimism has been a profound heresy in Catholicism, and one which is perhaps renewed in Leahy. Certainly Leahys apocalypticism is inseparable from his radical Catholicism, but is something like a purely theoretical expression of late medieval Joachimism present in Leahys thinking, and one which a Catholic magisterium must inevitably identify as deep heresy? Leahy refuses any such identity, but is the God of Novitas Mundi and Foundation the Catholic God, or a God which any form of Catholic theology could recognize as God? Even if Foundation can claim that Catholic sacra doctrina is now for the first time the very form of thought (page 27), just as it also claims that ontology essentially identifies the absolute itself for the first time, so that God is now absolutely understood (page 121), is this a genuine possibility for the Catholic God? Once again this is seemingly a repetition of an ultimate Hegelian claim, one which Kierkegaard could know as the ultimate offense of Hegelian philosophy, but must the genuine Catholic inevitably know this as an ultimate offense of Leahys thinking?
Both Novitas Mundi and Foundation pose an ultimate challenge to Catholicism, and not only to Catholicism but to Christianity itself, for nothing is newer than that pure theological thinking which is here enacted, one in which a pure philosophical thinking and a pure theological thinking wholly coincide, and one which is manifestly an embodiment of a truly new world. At no point is this challenge more forceful than in that radically new understanding of matter and the body itself which is embodied here, just as nothing is more ultimately new than an enactment of the body itself in pure thinking, this is the very point at which Leahy is most manifestly an ultimately new thinker, and ultimately new both philosophically and theologically. Yet it is precisely here that Leahy can be understood to be an authentically Catholic thinker, and probably if not certainly the first purely Catholic thinker in history. Surely this is the first time that the Incarnation has been absolutely central in Catholic thinking, the first time that matter and Spirit have been so deeply and wholly conjoined, and so much so that now Spirit is the body itself (page 96), and even if this is an apocalyptic consummation of the totality of history, never before has such a Catholic consummation actually been conceived, although there are those who would see it has having been imaginatively enacted in Dantes Paradiso and Joyces Finnegans Wake.