THE DEATH OF GOD TODAY

By

Thomas J. J. Altizer
 
 
 

 What can it mean to speak of the death of God today? Is it possible to speak of the death of God in our world, in a new technological and postmodern world? Seemingly religion has never been more powerful within living memory than it is today, but this is a new religion, and not only because of its fundamentalism, but because of its independence of all genuine theoretical understanding or all truly imaginative expressions. Moreover, this new religion is seemingly inseparable from a new technological world, one embodying a truly new interior emptiness, an emptiness of everything that once was known as life itself, so that a deeper art and literature have apparently ended, and ethics itself is in crisis as it never was before. That very Nietzsche who first proclaimed the death of God simultaneously unveiled the advent of a new and total nihilism, a nihilism that is the consequence of the death of God, and a nihilism that has become our inescapable destiny. Innumerable critics know our new world as a nihilistic world, and not least so our new religious spokesmen, nothing else so clearly distinguishes our world from every previous historical world, and at no other point does our world pose such an ultimate challenge.

 Hence it is imperative that we gain an understanding of this nihilism, recognizing that it is truly new, and will transcend all of our established moral and theoretical categories. But is it possible genuinely to understand such nihilism? First, we can note its presence in the greatest expressions of our late modern literature, a literature beginning with Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky, and realizing its purest expressions in Kafka, Stevens, and Beckett, with perhaps its most total expression in Joyces Finnegans Wake. Now it is true that the deeper investigations of this literature have revealed it as a finally and ultimately affirmative power, but this is true of Nietzsches absolute Yes-saying as well, so that we confront the paradox that our new nihilism is truly destructive and truly creative at once. Of course, it can be absolutely destructive, as witness Nazism, the purest political expression of a new nihilism. But so, too, it can be absolutely affirmative, even if such affirmation is an ultimate challenge to our understanding. For nihilism in being an absolute No-saying, is so in recognition of the advent of an absolute void or nothingness, and only the negation of that void can make possible life itself.

 Thus it is necessary that if we are to understand our nihilism we must understand a new absolute nothingness or void, one truly voiding all of our manifest and established horizons, and hurling us into a truly new chaos and meaninglessness. This is a chaos that is now embedded everywhere about us, thereby inducing a truly new speechlessness and ultimate silence, as manifest not only in our new media worlds but in our new political and social worlds. Once it was asked whether poetry is possible after the Holocaust, now it can be asked if genuine poetry is possible in our world, or a genuine ethical life, or a genuine peace. Is a true or ultimate hope possible for us, and does not the very posing of such questions witness to a condition that can be recognized as a nihilistic condition?
 Yet if a truly new nihilism is at hand, is this not a genuine sign of the death of God, or the death of God in our world, a death of God that is inevitably a dissolution or obliteration of every ultimate ground? Is not an ultimate groundlessness a genuine condition of our world, and is this not truly unique insofar as it is manifest or embodied in everyone, so that there are no true havens in our world, or none unaffected by this new and comprehensive groundlessness? This can most concretely be apprehended in our new religious life, one seemingly bound to our most reactionary forces, and one apparently incapable of virtually everything that past religious worlds could realize as art and theology. Hence our new fundamentalism is itself a decisive expression of the death of God, one finally impossible in every previous world, but apparently inevitable in ours. Is there anything else in our world more actually empty than the language of our media evangelists, or more intellectually groundless than the language of our new theologies, or more imaginatively vacuous than the art of this new religious world?

 The ancient Romans could know a new Christianity as being atheistic and nihilistic at once, they could apprehend it as an ultimate assault upon all of the deepest values and grounds of their world, nor was such an apprehension foreign to early Christianity itself, as witness Paul. Here, the deepest offense of Christianity is the Crucifixion, a crucifixion that Christianity can know as the one source of redemption, a crucifixion of the Son of God, and a Son of God that orthodox Christianity can know as the fullness of the Godhead. Hence that crucifixion is inevitably the death of God, even if here crucifixion is resurrection, as enacted by both Paul and the Fourth Gospel. Indeed,  Paul and the Fourth Gospel can know that crucifixion which is resurrection as being identical with apocalypse itself, and just as early Christianity is a profoundly apocalyptic Christianity, the consequent dissolution or transformation of apocalyptic Christianity is a dissolution of that crucifixion which is resurrection. This was the greatest and most ultimate transformation of a new world that ever occurred in history, and if now crucifixion can only be manifest as crucifixion and crucifixion alone, it cannot thereby be known as the death of God, but only as the death of the humanity and not the divinity of Christ. Hence Patripassionism, or knowing the death of God in the Crucifixion, became an ultimate heresy in Christianity, and one not truly renewed until the advent of modernity.

 But then it was renewed with an ultimate power, so that the orthodox theologian can know modernity itself as a truly and wholly atheistic world, and even if modern atheism does not become fully actualized until the French Revolution, in the nineteenth century it becomes ever more fully identical with modernity itself. Yet this century culminates with the advent of a full and comprehensive nihilism, a nihilism which is certainly an atheistic nihilism, and one only made possible by a uniquely modern realization of the death of God. Yet a revolutionary poet such as Blake and a revolutionary philosopher such as Hegel can know the modern realization of the death of God as the renewal of the Crucifixion itself, a crucifixion which is apocalypse, and an apocalypse which is an absolutely new and redemptive world. Conservative critics can know such apocalypticism as a truly nihilistic apocalypticism, and this reaction to a truly modern apocalypticism can be found throughout the worlds of theology, and if all of our theologies share anything in common, it is a refusal of apocalypticism. That refusal was never so total until the twentieth century, that very century which is the most nihilistic of centuries, and twentieth century theology is a profound reaction against our nihilism.

 Can that ultimate course be reversed today, and reversed by a theological acceptance of the death of God, an acceptance of the death of God as an absolutely redemptive event? Something like this surely occurs in Blake, Hegel, and Nietzsche, but could it genuinely occur today? Yet is there any way truly out of our darkness which is not a journey within it, and even a journey into the depths of our darkness, one which can be known as a decent into Hell, but a decent into Hell which is inseparable from redemption itself? All language about Hell has now virtually disappeared from our religious and theological worlds, which is yet another sign of their alienation from our world, but is any ultimate journey possible today which is not a journey into what our ancient religious worlds have known as Hell? And would that not be a journey into the death of God, a death of God alone releasing our uniquely modern Hell, or our uniquely modern nothingness, or our uniquely modern nihilism? Yes, nihilism is our destiny, and even an absolute nihilism, but if that nihilism can truly be accepted and affirmed, then it can be transformed in that affirmation, and transformed so that we are no longer its victims, but far rather its creators. This is that creative nihilism which we can encounter in a Blake or a Joyce, and even if it can now no longer be known as nihilism, it is impossible apart from a voyage through nihilism, just as in the deeper and purer expressions of the New Testament resurrection is only possible through crucifixion. Now just as our theologies have lost that resurrection, thereby they have lost crucifixion itself, or the deepest actualization of the Crucifixion.
 That is an actualization to which we are now being called, and so called by our nihilism itself, and if our nihilism is an inescapable nihilism, it nevertheless can be transcended, and it is just such a transcendence which we can apprehend in the greatest expressions of the modern mind and imagination. Is that now a transcendence which is becoming possible for all, or possible for all who do not wholly perish in our nihilism, or are not wholly frozen in our new emptiness and impotence? Clearly such a transcendence could only be a resurrection from the dead, but is not our new impotence and emptiness a new and even total death for us, and is a way through that death possible apart from a total acceptance or affirmation  of that death itself? Is this not the very way that we can apprehend in the depths of Christianity, and in the depths of Buddhism, too, and even if this way is now being ignored or refused by our ecclesiastical and theological spokesmen, is not that refusal yet another sign of our emptiness and impotence?

 Theologians frequently draw a distinction between a soft Christianity and a hard Christianity, one paralleling William James distinction between the healthy-minded and the sick soul, a soft Christianity being one which is innocent of the depths of evil and sin, and a hard Christianity being inseparable from such depths. Certainly a descent into Hell could only be manifest and real in a hard Christianity, which perhaps makes it unreal to the majority, but if nihilism is now inescapable for everyone, then everyone even if unconsciously is now undergoing a descent into Hell. A call to a participation even now in the death of God is a call to an awakening to that descent into Hell, one which is finally inescapable for us all, and one which is now our only hope for a transcendence of that Hell. The Christian can know such participation as a renewal of the Crucifixion, one which occurs in the anamnesis of the Eucharist, just as it occurs in an actual self-negation or self-giving. But now that self-negation can only actually occur upon a universal horizon, an horizon in which a total emptiness is all in all, and which most manifestly expresses itself in a universal nihilism.

 If that nihilism is our destiny, and an inescapable destiny, then so, too, is the death of God, but a death of God which can be known as a renewal of the Crucifixion, and therefore as a renewal of that crucifixion which is resurrection. Hence this destiny can finally be known as a redemptive destiny, one occurring in that apocalypse which is crucifixion and resurrection at once, but precisely thereby an apocalypse which is an actual apocalypse, and an apocalypse occurring in the brute reality of the world itself. That is an apocalypse which our manifest traditions have wholly lost, but it could be occurring today, and even occurring in that nihilism which is dissolving all of these traditions. For such a dissolution is essential for a real apocalypse to occur, hence it must be accepted and affirmed if we are to become open to a real apocalypse, or open to an apocalyptic crucifixion which is an apocalyptic resurrection. Here, we can finally only say Yes, and say Yes to that absolute death which is absolute life, or that absolute No which is absolute Yes

 

 
 

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