A theology which continues to proclaim the reality of God
is closed to the contemporary of the incarnation
Thomas J.J. Altizer
SIMPLY TO RAISE the problem of the direc-tion of theological thinking in our generation is to recognize the elusiveness of the meaning of theol-ogy itself. Perhaps each of us has passed through a period of theological innocence in which we thought that theology was a carefully designed structure with secure foundations. But then we gradually discovered that all established theolog-ical language, whether of conservative or liberal orientation, was receding into meaninglessness, irrelevance or banality. Like ethics and meta-physics, theology has lost its traditional ground and can now be meaningful only when it speaks against its own historical identity. Only recently the theo-logian could speak in a pseudo~existential language of crisis and renewal. Yet now we know that the very form and discipline of theology is disappear-ing beyond the horizon of our historical past. Our problem as theologians today is no longer one of speaking meaningfully or relevantly, but rather of overcoming the root impediments to speech itself.
It is seldom remarked that theology, as Chris-tians commonly understand it, is a unique creation of Christianity. Unlike its non-Christian counter-parts, Christian theology is neither a mystical nor a rational unveiling of Being. Instead Christian the-ology is a thinking response to the Word that is present upon the horizon of faith, and thus it is neither a systemization of a mythical vision nor a metaphysical or mystical system. The Christian Word appears in neither a primordial nor an eter-nal form; for it is an incarnate Word, a Word that is real only to the extent that it becomes one with human flesh. Archbishop S6derblom judged the uniqueness of Christianity to lie in the fact that here revelation has the form of a "man." No word can be accepted as a Christian word which appears in an abstract, an inhuman or a nonhistorical form. To the extent that a word lies distant from a pres-ent and a human act of faith, or to the extent that it cannot become incarnate in the immediate hori-zon of faith - to that extent it must be judged to be non-Christian. Not non-Christian in an absolute or universal sense, of course, but rather non-Christian in the moment at hand, in the actual "now" to which the Christian Word is directed.
If Christian theology can speak only to the moment before it, then the contemporary theolo-gian is forced to address a moment that dissolves the very possibility of the traditional form of faith. Lament as we may its vanished glory, the whole established order of Christendom is eroding about us. As its foundations disappear into the dark ocean of the past, we can experience only the receding ripples of its dying waves. Theology has met this challenge by a heroic if futile attempt to establish an island of faith, an impregnable fortress fully shielded from the dangers outside it, but a fortress containing a lighthouse that would direct a saving beacon to the surrounding darkness. Faith is then declared to be either a priori or autonomous. Transcending a historical ground, it is open to no human experience whatsoever. Alas, the waters of destiny have already swallowed up this celestial island. Or, at least it is no longer in view. Having vanished from our historical present, its beacon has become a mirror reflecting the vacuity of a faith that would claim to stand upon thin air.
Wholly isolated from our history, the Word of faith is now silent. Linger as we may with its van-ishing echo, we are nevertheless confronted with the necessity of either desperately clinging to a past moment of the Word or of opening ourselves to a radically new form of faith. In this situation theol-ogy can continue to maintain its traditional form only by becoming the depository of a Word that has no relevance and therefore no meaning in our world. While such a function may well be essential for the preservation of the community of faith, it must be complemented and challenged by a form of theology that dares to encounter the new world that is dawning in our era, even if such a confron-tation condemns theology to a negation of itself. Moreover, theology can preserve a Christian form only by speaking an incarnate Word that fully con-fronts the concrete time and space before it. A theology that cannot speak to its own destiny has for-feited its claim to be Christian.
There is solace for us in the fact that Israel once ~ experienced a comparable crisis. Through the cat-astrophic events of the Exile, Israel lost everything which was the source of order and meaning to an ancient people. Banished from their sacred land and traditions, the exilic Jews were forced to live without their monarchy, their shrines and temple, their cultic priesthood. Today we know that a new form of faith was born out of that crisis. This revo-lutionary faith may well have had roots in earlier traditions, and was certainly given its initial ex-pression in pre-exilic prophetic circles; but it was only after the Exile that Israel created what we know as the Bible and became a new community of faith existing in opposition to the world about it. Judaism was created out of a faith that dared to negate its original forms and structures. By turning away from a God of worldly strength and power it evolved an interior faith that could withstand the terror of history and affirm the darkness of an alien world as the creation of a Creator whom it now knew as the absolutely sovereign Lord.
Is there any reason to believe that our contem-porary Christian crisis is less than that of the ancient Jew in Exile? Just as the Jew was born out of a passage through the death of his own sacred history, may we hope that a new Christian will be born out of the death of Christendom? First, we must recognize that our theology thus far has only partially responded to Tillich's call for theological contemporaneity. The modern Christian theologi-an has been not unlike those postexilic scribes and priests who codified Israel's laws and traditions, assembled and then gradually canonized a scrip-ture, and appropriated the prophetic revolution so as to make it the living foundation of Judaism. In other words, the theologian has for the most part performed the priestly role of remember-ing the Christian past. His function has been one of recollecting the past so as to relate it to the pres-ent. Yet increasingly the theologian has been forced to play the Proustian role of searching for a lost time, of desperately attempting to remember a time which has been forgotten, and thus he has been sorely tempted to isolate the Word of faith from the seemingly faithless reality of our present.
Apparently the contemporary theologian is being forced to confess that he can no longer perform the role of recollection. He has discovered again and again that he cannot even speak the words of the Christian past. He knows that something has happened, both to himself and to our history, that makes it impossible either to recollect or to repeat the words of Christian history. Like a victim of amnesia, he has forgotten his name, his place of origin and his past. Nevertheless he knows very well who he is not. For he knows that he is not a Christian in any sense that could be drawn from the creeds and confessions of the historic church. This is the past that he has lost. Being unable to find the past alive in the present before him, he has gradually but decisively said No to a past which he cannot live and in so doing has given his own witness to a Word demanding to become incarnate in the present. Strangely enough, such a theologi-an does not hesitate to confess his faith in the Christian Word itself. It is the very necessity of that confession which impels him to negate all past forms of faith. Having already chosen a living Word, he has no choice but to negate' every word that cannot become incarnate in the present.
One of the new theologians, John B. Cobb, Jr., once remarked that the secret of modern theology is that it has no doctrine of God. We might add that whatever contemporaneity is present in modern theology derives from its mute witness to the death of God. More recently the Christian theologian has been forced to acknowledge that it is not simply an idolatrous God whom the Word of faith must negate. Rather it is the God who is present in Christian history, the God whom we ourselves worship insofar as we live in the past, who must die to make possible a faith that would live in the d present. A radical theology that confesses the death of God is not simply a theological form of atheistic humanism or naturalism. Indeed, and unlike all non-Christian forms of atheism, a Christian confession of the death of God is a response to the real absence of God himself. It is precisely because we are the inheritors of a history in which God was actually present that we must speak of the concrete actuality of God's withdrawal from our time. To speak the name of God in a time of his withdrawal is nothing less than blasphemy, a blasphemy that profanes the holiness of God and makes a mockery of a faith that once gave witness to his presence. We do not allow God to be God when we pronounce his name in his absence.
Yet the Christian cannot follow Buber in speaking of the eclipse of God. Such language betrays a nostalgia for a time that is past or a yearning for a future which is not yet present. Also, a mere remembrance of God or a passive waiting for God must be disengaged from the reality of the present. A faith that is open to the moment before it, that is to say a Christian faith in the Incarnate Word, must either speak to that moment or exist in silence. A Christian mystic or a "knight of faith" who acts in the world may choose a vocation of silence. But Christian theology cannot continue to remain silent, if only because it is called to speak the Word of faith. Moreover, a proclamation of the Incarnate Word can never be simply a negation of history, even if the history which it confronts is a radically profane moment of time. A final No--saying to history is a renunciation of the incarnation, a refusal of the Word which has actually become incarnate in our flesh. A theologian who cannot affirm his own destiny - the actual moment of time in which he exists - has ceased to be Chris-tian.
Perhaps the most distinctive theological sign of our situation is that theology itself is coming to confess that ours is a time in which God is dead. Thus far the theologian has been unable to speak with clarity of the death of God, but a lack of clarity is an inevitable consequence of the initial expres-sions of a new and radical theological movement, a movement that must begin by attacking the very possibility of "God language" in our situation. Now that we have learned that we can no longer speak about God we must learn how to speak of the actuality of his death. For to refuse to speak about the death of God is to turn away from the moment before us, to evade the brute reality of our history and therefore to foreclose the possibility of speaking the Christian Word which is present in our midst. If ours is truly a history in which God is no longer present, then we are called upon not simply to accept the death of God with stoic fortitude but rather to will the death of God with the passion of faith. A faith whose ground lies in the presence of the Word in history has no choice but to open itself to the full reality of history. When we face a moment of history in which God is dead, Christian theology must proclaim the death of God if it is to witness to the Word of faith. No longer may we linger with the dying echoes of God's former pres-ence; we must confess that God has truly and actu-ally died before we can speak the Word which is present to us.
What can it mean to say that God is dead? First, we must acknowledge that we are not simply saying that modern man is incapable of believing in God, or that modern culture is an idolatrous flight from the presence of God, or even that we exist in a time in which God has chosen to be silent. Nor is it p05-sible to say that these words must mean that the Word of God transcends all human expressions of faith or that the true God is above the God of metaphysics and religion. A theological statement that proclaims the death of God must mean that God is not present in the Word of faith. Insofar as the theologian speaks of the death of God - and actually means what he speaks - he is speaking of the death of God himself. He is saying that because God has disappeared from history he is no longer present for faith. But he is truly absent, he is not simply hidden from view, and therefore he is truly dead. Once we can accept the death of God as a final and irrevocable event, then we can open our-selves to the full actuality of our history as an epiphany of the Word of faith.
But must not these words be dismissed as blasphemous and non-Christian? Or as mythological and non-sensical? How can it be possible that God himself has died? Earlier we remarked that the Christian Word appears in neither a primordial nor an eternal form. For it is an incarnate Word, a Word that is real only to the extent that it becomes one with human flesh. Accordingly, the Christian Word can neither be identified with an eternal God nor understood as the particular expression of an unchanging deity. We Christians are called upon to be loyal only to Christ, only to the Incarnate Word who has appeared in our flesh, and therefore we should already have been prepared for the appearance of Christ without God. We know that Christ is present in the concrete actuality of our history or he is not truly present at all. Rather than abandoning Christ by renouncing our history, we must confess that God has died if this is the path to the fully profane moment of our time. But we cannot meet our time if we remain bound to a God who no longer appears in time and space. It is precisely by freely willing the death of God that we can be open to our time and thereby open to the Christ who is always present, the Word that has actually become united with our flesh.
Only the Christian can truly proclaim the death of God. For only the Christian is open to the Incar-nate Word, a Word unfolding itself in the concrete processes of time and space, and therefore a Word that is liberated from its source in the primordial Beginning. Just as Christianity is the only religion which has abandoned a primordial paradise - and thus negated the universal religious quest for the lost time of Innocence - so Christianity is the only religion which has fully opened itself to Experi-ence and affirmed the concrete factuality of time and space as the locus of redemption. So likewise Christianity alone among the world's religions accepts the Fall as an ultimately real event, as an event which has transformed the structure of the cosmos and initiated the full actuality of history and experience. We cannot say that Christianity is the only religion proclaiming the incarnation - on the contrary, many of the higher forms of oriental religion witness to the transition of Spirit into flesh, or of the sacred into the profane, with a depth and subtlety unrivaled by Christianity - yet Christianity is unique insofar as it proclaims that the Word has kenotically emptied itself of Spirit in becoming em-bodied in flesh. Until this day Christian theology has refused a consistently kenotic Christology. Yet an open confession of the death of God can be our path to the Christ who is fully Christ, the kenotic Christ who has finally emptied himself of $pirit in wholly becoming flesh.
No, we must not allow an orthodox theology to deny that the proclamation of the death of God can be a Christian confession. The radical theologian will insist that a theology which continues even in our time to proclaim the reality of God is closed to the contemporary reality of the incarnation. A Christian theology of the incarnation cannot view the Word as eternal and unmoving,. or inactive or impassive, or unaffected by its own movement and process. The Christian Word moves only by negat-ing its own past expressions. Unlike all forms of non-Christian religion, Christianity celebrates a Word that becomes fully incarnate in a fallen time and space. Furthermore, the Christian Word is a forward~moving process, a Word seeking an escha-tological End that transcends a primordial Begin-ning. But the very fact that the Christian Word is a Word moving forward rather than backward to Eternity means that it is a Word which is perpetu-ally moving beyond its own expressions.
Thus neither the Bible nor church history can be accepted as containing more than a provisional or temporary series of expressions of the Christian Word. If the Word is a living Word it cannot be confined to a moment of the past just as it cannot be awaited as a revelation of the future. The contemporary Christian knows that the biblical and traditional images of Christ are no longer meaningful to him. Nor can he seek the lost humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, he is perhaps now losing the ability to speak the name of either "Jesus" or "Christ." Yet even if the Word has become unnam-able it is not unspeakable, for we speak the Word when we say Yes to the moment before us. The theologian must speak to be Christian, but the very fact that he cannot speak the traditional words of faith need not mean that he is thereby refusing to be Christian; it may rather mean that he is prepar-ing himself to speak the Word that is present in our time. William Hamilton has spoken about a "new" essence of Christianity, a new meaning of Christi-anity which has appeared at a time in which God is dead. Not only does Christianity now have a new meaning, it has a new reality, a reality created by the epiphany of a fully kenotic Word. Such a reality cannot be wholly understood by a word of the past, not even by the word "kenosis" for the Christian Word becomes a new reality by ceasing to be itself only by negating and thus transcending its previous expressions can the Incarnate Word be a forward-moving process.