Readerís Report for the State University of New York Press
Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Death of God Today: A Memoir
December 9, 2004
2. What do I like most about this manuscript?
Thomas Altizerís The Death of God Today: A Memoir is quite simply an extraordinary work. Not only is it an intellectual autobiography of one of the leading theological minds of the twentieth-century, but it is also a genuine theological and philosophical text in its own right. What is perhaps most unique about this book is that it does not confine itself to being a solely personal account of Altizerís fascinating life history; instead, it adroitly weaves together an account of the principal themes and concerns that have occupied his thinking the past fifty years with illuminating reference to a life that has for decades been at the center of intense controversy and intellectual significance. Altizerís acumen and erudition are nothing short of staggering, and The Death of God Today only bears this out further, and in such a way as to be inspirational rather than intimidating to the reader. In fact, this is what I appreciate most about Altizerís memoir, namely, that he has arguably achieved that which he has long sought, namely, to render his highly sophisticated thinking accessible to a general reading audience. This is no mean accomplishment as Altizerís writing is incredibly demanding and often abstruse. Of course, this is due in large measure to the very thinkers with whom he is constantly engaged, and who are also prone to such difficulty in comprehension. But here lies precisely the strength of Altizerís oeuvre: not only does he thoroughly take up and continually think through a history of ideas that daunts many if not most readers, even those within the theological, philosophical, and literary communities, but he does so in an original and provocative way. The Death of God Today is thus more than a mere memoir; it is an important theological work in its own right. I found it to be an absolutely riveting read; indeed, I read the entire work in one sitting, and found myself rereading sections of it soon after. I have been reading Altizerís work for over half my life and believe that I have read nearly all his published and most of his unpublished writing, in addition to knowing him personally as a teacher and later as a friend for twenty years now, and I can truly say that this is without question his most personal, revealing, and accessible work to date. It is sure to excite many and bring old readers to reconsider this important thinking and new ones to discover for the first time a pathway that has forever altered the terrain of theological reflection.
3. What is your greatest concern(s) about this manuscript?
Overall, the manuscript needs very little done in terms of revision. I do not recommend any changes in content, nor that Altizerís unique style of writing be altered in any way. There are places where the grammar and punctuation could be improved, but this will fall naturally under the purview of the copyeditor.
4. In your estimation, is the topic significant and important? Does the topic address a question central to a particular field of study?
In my opinion, there is no more pressing matter than addressing the problem of nihilism in contemporary thinking and society. The ďdeath of GodĒ is the radical theological (as well as a philosophical) response to this problem. Altizerís memoir beautifully contextualizes the death of God both existentially and theoretically, thereby rendering this crucial concept accessible on a number of registers. Though the death of God is obviously the paramount theme of the work, Altizer engages a number of other important theological topics as well. In particular, what struck me was his treatment of the damnation and predestination, themes absolutely central to Christian theology but which have been all but abandoned in the past century except by the most conservative and reactionary theologies. Altizer does not, however, merely reassert their significance for theological thinking; rather, he radically and innovatively reconceives their meaning in light of the advances of late modern thought. In doing so, the question of ethics and its greatest affrontóthe absolute nihilism of the Holocaustóare taken up with startling and disturbing poignancy. But this only allows him to forcefully confront the problem of nihilism in what is for many perhaps the most obscure aspect of the death of Godóthe absolute affirmation and joy that is now possible as a result of this liberation from an oppressive transcendent Godhead. Altizer concludes his memoir on this highest note but only after taking the reader through a consideration of prayer and the concept of absolute abyss. These are all crucial concerns to theology, but The Death of God Today: A Memoir extends beyond just the theological field. Those interested in philosophy and literature will also be interested in this work, as well as those concerned with Asian, and particularly Buddhist, thought. Indeed, this work reveals Altizerís early and abiding engagement with Asian thinking, and reinforces the fact that part of his project of developing a systematic kenotic theology is predicated on also being among the first to think the possibility of a Buddhistic Christian theology, one that endeavors to realize the universal nature of a genuine theology and overcome the limitations of any particular cultural expression or form.
5. Does the author bring forth something of intellectual importance in the texture of the work?
Altizerís style is the hammer that drives home the nail of his theological-philosophical message. As my remarks above hopefully make manifest, Altizerís work is without question of vast importance. But this is so in part because his singular style of dialectical expression, which is wholly necessary to convey what is an essentially dialectic theology. While apparent throughout the manuscript, this is most evident perhaps in ďMemoir VII: Yes and NoĒ wherein the simultaneous negation and affirmation that attends the death of God is fully expressed. The dialectical texture of Altizerís corpus of writing is reflected in The Death of God Today but in a clear and direct manner that enables the reader to fully enter into its depths without becoming entangled and lost.
6. What are the competing books in this field, if any?
I know of no contemporary work with which The Death of God Today: A Memoir can be compared. In terms of both content and style, this work stands alone, and marks a truly significant moment in intellectual history. Indeed, if there is a parallel work it may well be Augustineís Confessions, ironically Altizerís favorite theological book.