This memoir is intended to be a return voyage calling forth those moments and grounds which occasioned or made possible that theological work which has been my vocation, a vocation inseparable from everything that I have known as destiny, hence it is not the consequence of a free decision in the common sense, just as it transcends everything that I could possibly know as myself. Never have I known a moment truly free of this vocation, nor have I ever been deeply tempted to abandon it, it is as though it is simply an irrevocable given, one simply unchallengeable, for it is deeper than anything else in myself, even if it ever remains a mystery to me. That is the mystery which I shall attempt to explore in this memoir, and to do so by seeking to unravel its history, or its history in what little I can now remember, and even if memory itself is a deep mystery, it is nonetheless inescapable, and certainly inescapable here.
Now even if theology is inescapably my destiny, I nevertheless have chosen it again and again, it is as though genuine choice is not only inseparable but identical with oneís destiny, and just as an arbitrary choice is no real choice at all, a free choice is indistinguishable from an enactment of that which one has most deeply been given, so that freedom in the common sense is simply an illusion, for it is never a consequence of that which is only our own. I was born into a family that seemingly was deeply Southern, although my mother was a Southerner only by adoption, and even if we were West Virginians, and thus border people, our family sense was most deeply determined by our descent from Stonewall Jackson on my fatherís mother side, for my fatherís fatherís origins were deeply hidden, and my late discovery of this origin came as a deep shock.
The dominant figure in our family was my fatherís mother, who was a true Southern matriarch, she had been widowed in early middle age, after having born four sons, and her husband was a self-made man, and not only self-made but self-taught, who had become a lawyer through his own power, and a quite successful one, establishing his family as among the foremost in Charleston, West Virginia. We lived in a very large house with servants, one which came to shame me because of its very embodiment of luxury, and throughout my childhood I was taught to ďwalk tall,Ē always distancing myself from everything that is ďcommon,Ē and ever aware of a deep and unique destiny. Above all I was immersed in images of Stonewall, again and again given the sense that his destiny was now my own, and while I knew little then of Stonewallís deep Calvinism, I have come to recognize that my ever fuller immersion in predestination is a consequence of my Jackson heritage. The truth is that predestination and deep power in our history are inseparable, and certainly my sense of freedom has always been strengthened by a deep sense of predestination, perhaps it is predestination that is the source of the deepest pride, but to those who know it, it is also a source of real power.
I have often agonized that insanity is inherent in my family, one uncle murdered his son, another committed suicide, and my father was a deep alcoholic throughout his adult life, nor was madness alien to our matriarch, who feigned infirmity throughout the time that I knew her, and who ruthlessly dominated her family, and none were able truly to rebel against her. This seemed to be very much a part of the society that I knew as a child, here the ďnormalĒ could only be known as abnormal, and it was surely alien to us, so that later I could respond to Captain Ahab as the very soul of America, and an embodiment of its destiny as well. However, I did grow up in a house in which books were sacred, a house dominated by a large and marvelous library, reading has always been my primary vocation and avocation, and here my father was a primary guide, for he had fully intended to be a teacher of literature, until his mother refused this path, and, indeed, his father had been a deep lover of books, who only once had violated them, when he hurled Nietzscheís The Antichrist into the fireplace (a premonition of the destiny of his grandson?). I never knew this patriarch, known as Tizer to his friends, and we were forbidden even to inquire about his origins, which in a Southern context is simply inexplicable, yet these origins were deeply Southern, for the Altizer clan of southwestern Virginia (and all Altizers descend from it), was dominated by a terror of miscegenation, hence they were forbidden to marry outside the clan, and when I visited their original graveyard, in a vast and beautiful and abandoned area now said to be cursed, I discovered that Altizer was the only name among its tombstones. Madness? Yes, but not an uncommon one in the South, and if all deep history is truly forbidden, surely ours was, except for the dominating figure of Stonewall Jackson, who vicariously gave me my name, Thomas Jonathan Jackson.
Once and only once I addressed the Virginia Military Institute, which continues to regard Stonewall as its true founder, speaking on a solemn occasion in its Chapel, one dominated by an ikon of Stonewall, and I had been introduced by the President of the Institute as the first descendent of Stonewall to speak here, and this only after I had been escorted by VMIís Chaplain to the grave of Stonewall, where I laid myself above his body and prayed for his spirit to inspire me. Then before this solemn assembly, all in full dress uniform, I proclaimed the death of God in the name of Stonewall, not a sound could then be heard, and the program ended as though nothing untoward had occurred, later to be followed by a party lasting almost until dawn, and I sensed that this was, indeed, a genuine celebration of Stonewall. For it has been my experience that the death of God resonates far more deeply in the South than elsewhere in the country, perhaps because the South has been so obsessed by God, and unlike New England where Puritanism is little more than a distant memory, an American Calvinism continues to reign in the South, or, at least did so throughout my experience of it, and if this is manifest in a uniquely Southern literature, it is no less manifest in a genuinely Southern theology, and here, once again, I accepted my destiny.
Although my home was little more than nominally Christian, I was seemingly obsessed by Christianity throughout my youth, assembling my own little chapel where I fervently prayed, but I had no real religious guidance at all, being forced thereby to find my own way, and that has continued throughout my life, except insofar as I came under the deep influence of religious masters, but this was primarily through reading, and when I did attempt first a monastic and then a ministerial vocation, I I simply failed. While a theological student, I was chaplain or acting vicar of an interracial Episcopalian mission in Chicago, then the only one of its kind, we were virtually ignored by all church authorities, who then had little interest in such ventures, and when the time came for me to be given a psychiatric examination as a prerequisite for my candidacy for the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, an examination which I unexpectedly and totally failed, I was informed that I could not possibly be a pastor, and my experience in this mission was simply irrelevant. That examination had been conducted at the Northwestern Medical School, given by a psychiatrist who had published a huge tome on psychological testing, said to be the most authoritative in its field, and a variety of tests and interviews had resulted in the judgment that I was truly mentally ill, and could expect to be in a psychiatric institution within a year. At last I had received scientific confirmation of my madness, and while this came as a terrible shock, my beloved professor, Joachim Wach, insisted that it was an act of both providence and grace, for I had no true vocation for the ministry, but did have one for theology, and that could now be most effectively conducted outside the Church.
Shortly before this examination, I was in a turbulent condition, while crossing the midway I would experience violent tremors in the earth, and I was visited by deep depression, one that had occurred again and again throughout my life, but now with particular intensity. During this period I had perhaps the deepest experience in my life, and one that I believe profoundly affected my very vocation as a theologian, this occurred late at night, while in my room, when I suddenly became truly possessed, and experienced an epiphany of Satan which I have never been able to deny, an experience in which I could actually feel Satan consuming me, absorbing me into his very being, as though this were the deepest possible initiation and bonding, and the deepest and yet most horrible union. Few who read me know of this experience, but it is not accidental that I am perhaps the only theologian who now writes of Satan, and can jokingly refer to myself as the worldí s leading Satanologist, indeed, Satan and Christ soon became my primary theological motifs, and my deepest effort has always been to discover a coincidentia oppositorum between them.
It is not often realized that radical theology can come out of deep experience, this is clearly true of Blake, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, just as it is of Paul, Augustine, and Luther, and I have come to suspect that most who are indifferent to radical theology are alien or immune to deep experience, and above all alien to that solitude which I have come to identify as a deep ground of genuine theology, and even if every way is finally a truly individual way, in a world in which theology has virtually come to an end, solitude is inseparable from a true theological vocation. Hence it is not accidental that there are no genuine graduate theological schools today, just as there are no real theological journals, although at this point theology might be looked upon as the forerunner of a universal cultural transformation, one which perhaps already dominates our world, and if the disappearance of theology is a sign of this new world, that might well harbor the disappearance or invisibility of all genuine solitude.
While a student at the University of Chicago (1948-1954) I experienced
solitude and genuine friendship simultaneously, and this has largely been
true throughout my life, but as a theological student I was then somewhat
unique, rebelling against the liberal Chicago theological tradition, being
forced to teach myself Kierkegaard and Barth, and in desperation moving
from the theological field to the history of religions, where Joachim Wach
always understood that my real vocation was a theological and not a historical
one. This boomeranged when I was denied a graduate fellowship on
the ground that I was disloyal to the Divinity School (yes, this was the
McCarthy era), and even when I was the first to complete the history of
religions doctoral exam with distinction, this was never recorded in my
university record, it is as through I was invisible as a Divinity School
student, and I have come to pride myself on being their most disloyal alumnus,
even if as a radical theologian I was a rebirth of the early Chicago theological
tradition, a tradition always hidden from us. Of course, the most
distinguished Chicago theologian was Henry Nelson Wieman, and he did have
an impact in my day, but not as a radical theologian, which he certainly
was, but rather as a process or dipolar theologian, even if this is alien
to Wiemanís work. Only very gradually was I able to discover the
radical religious and theological tradition of America, American historians
with the exception of Perry Miller have done an excellent job in disguising
this, but this is a tradition with which I have come to identify, even
if its deepest American ground is alien to me, a ground truly resurrected
in the revolutionary work of D. G. Leahy.
My deepest religious conflict in my Chicago days was between my Protestant and Catholic poles, one originally given me by the Episcopal Church, and soon I became ravaged by what Anglicans call Roman fever, I attended or attempted to attend mass daily, was instructed by the university Catholic chaplain, read voluminously in Catholic literature, and was deeply frustrated by the impossibility then of studying Catholicism at the University of Chicago. Yet one of my professors, Coert Rylaarsdam, spent long sessions with me guiding me into a Catholic-Protestant union or synthesis, to which he was committed, even urging me to become a Jesuit so that I could properly prosecute this vocation, yet I soon realized in these days prior to the Second Vatican Counsel that it was impossible to be a Catholic theologian in America, and Walter Ong even informed me that the Society of Jesus deterred its most brilliant members from becoming theologians because truly creative theological work was then forbidden. Of course, it was soon forbidden in Protestantism even as it was becoming possible in Catholicism, and if there is now no real Catholic-Protestant theological dialogue, this is because we are largely bereft of Protestant theologians, for as Tillich foresaw, Protestantism can survive only as the Protestant principle, a principle even now being incorporated within Catholicism.
This was the conflict that was the driving force in my masterís thesis, ďNature and Grace in the Theology of Augustine,Ē for I had become persuaded that the deepest division or dichotomy between Catholicism and Protestantism derives from their deeply opposing conceptions of nature and grace, and just as Augustine is the deepest theological influence upon both Catholicism and Protestantism, it is at this very point that this influence is most dichotomous, and my thesis was that the dichotomy between nature and grace is the true center of Augustineís theology, and one which has never been resolved. Indeed, an understanding of this dichotomy is extraordinarily difficult, and just as Augustine was largely the creator of a uniquely Western theology, this is a theology inseparable from deep dichotomy, and if Aquinas did resolve this dichotomy, this alone could account for my continual alienation from Thomistic theology, and perhaps account for the alienation of Thomism from the modern world. All too significantly it is Augustinian rather than Thomistic theology which is deeply alive in modernity, and this is true both in the beginning and in the ending of modernity, as witness Luther and Nietzsche, here dichotomy is deeply real, and I became persuaded that this is the clearest route into our deepest theological ground. Nietzsche had become a deep influence upon me already as a freshman in college, one that only increased as my work progressed, so that Nietzsche is a deep although hidden presence in my masterís thesis, and just as my latest work explores the deeply Augustinian ground of Nietzscheís thinking, my earliest work explored Augustine within a Nietzschean perspective, and if Augustine philosophically and theologically discovered the subject of consciousness, Nietzsche discovered the dissolution of that subject, and if only here philosophical and theological thinking are truly united.
The truth is that I was unable to revolve or even truly conclude my masterís thesis, perhaps this is simply impossible, but that very blockage was a deep turning point for me, and I became convinced that I simply could not work within our existing theological traditions, hence I had a real theological reason for entering the study of the history of religions, for I became convinced that a new theological ground could be discovered by way of a voyage to the East. While this is seemingly a commonplace in full modernity, no theologian had chosen this path, and even today we are virtually bereft of genuine East-West theologies, or, insofar as they exist, they have come from the East and not the West, and at no other point is there a greater rift between the rhetoric of our theological discourse and its actual accomplishments. Of course, I was a rank amateur in the history of religions, never learning the languages that I should have, Wach tolerated this because he knew whom I was, but I did make a serious attempt to understand Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, and while this was wholly for a theological purpose, I continue to be persuaded that is a genuine route into a truly new theology. And how rich Buddhist philosophy is, it is simply a disgrace that it continues to be alien to our philosophical world, and if the West only discovered Buddhism in full modernity, it is now overwhelming in postmodernity, or overwhelming to all who can think.
I did not meet Mircea Eliade until after I had left Chicago, but our initial encounter was a deep one for me, I shall never forget how he described to me what was intended to be his magnum opus, a work ranging through the deepest expressions of both literature and religion, and seeking to demonstrate therein a full and pure coincidentia oppositorum of the sacred and the profane. No one whom I have known has influenced me more deeply than has Eliade, certainly I owe him an incalculable debt, but perhaps his deepest gift was his very support, no one else has encouraged me more deeply, or opened more vistas to be discovered, vistas inseparable from a truly new theology, and Eliade more than any theologian knew the deep necessity of such a theology if Christianity is to survive. So it is that Eliade knew the radical profane as no theologian has, but he could know it by way of his very knowledge of the pure or radical sacred, and if this is a knowledge which has become impossible in modern Christianity, Eliade as an Eastern Christian could know the death of God as having its origin in the advent of Western Christianity, yet Eliade as an archaic theologian could know a primordial death of God, one deriving from the very advent of religion, or in the advent of the distinction and opposition between the sacred and the profane. This is an opposition and distinction now ending, hence the ending in our time of religion itself, or of genuine religion, but Eliade could know this ending as advent itself, and as the advent of a coincidentia oppositorum of the sacred and the profane.
Certainly such a coincidentia oppositorum is a deep ground of all my work, so if only at this point I am a genuine Eliadean, and this makes possible a theological incorporation of the radical profane, whose purest thinker is Nietzsche himself, and, at this time, while teaching at Wabash College, I came under the impact of Eric Hellerís interpretation of Nietzsche. Indeed, in June of 1955, while reading Hellerís essay on Nietzsche and Rilke for the seventh time in a library at the University of Chicago, I had what I have ever since regarded as a genuine religious conversion, one in which I deeply experienced the death of God, and experienced it as the act and grace of God Himself. Never can such an experience be forgotten, and while it truly paralleled my earlier experience of the epiphany of Satan, this time I experienced a pure grace, as though it was the very reversal of my experience of Satan, now I knew that ďSatanĒ was dead, and had died for me. The identification of God as Satan was Blakeís most revolutionary vision, but at that time I had only begun an exploration of Blake, and had no explicit awareness of any such identification, so that I could not then name that God who is dead as Satan. But I could know God as the God who is truly dead, and at bottom I knew that this is a true theological understanding of God, and one demanding a transformation of theology itself, so that I was impelled to reverse my deepest theological roots, and that entailed a reversal of that Barthianism which I had so deeply absorbed. This occurred over many months when I returned to Indiana, spending most of my evenings intensively thinking about Barth while drinking bourbon and listening to Lotte Lenyaís original recording of ďThe Three Penny Opera.Ē Somehow I was purged, or think that I was, for there are those who continue to identify me as a Barthian, and it is true that Barth is the only modern theologian whom I profoundly respect.
All of this lies beneath the writing of my first book, Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology, sometimes I wonder if the deep awkwardness of the book derives at least in part from its hiding of this ground, and the book does give testimony to the forces that were tearing me apart, dichotomous forces seemingly making theology impossible, or, at least, impossible here. It was written while I was teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, where I came under the deep impact of Walter Strauss, Gregor Sebba, and John Cobb, and also under the impact of the New Testament scholars William Beardslee, James Robinson, Robert Funk, Hendricus Boers, and Norman Perrin, all of whom became progressively radical while at Emory, it is as though Emory was a truly radical center, or it surely was so theologically. Such an environment would be impossible to imagine today, but that was a time of breakthrough theologically, and also the time in which America became the dominant power in the world, and if America was now the new Rome, we sensed that a deep destiny had been thrust upon us. Most concretely, theology must be liberated from its deeply German theological ground, and that was now occurring in a uniquely American Bultmannianism, one reversing its original neo-orthodox ground, Emory was the center of that Bultmannianism, and at this time it was New Testament scholars who were our most radical theologians. Paradoxically, it is a deep understanding of the New Testament itself which is the most open and decisive way to a transformation of theology, for it is precisely here that one most concretely realizes that reversal of Christianity which Christendom effected, and just as it was the very discovery of an original Biblical language and world that became the deepest threat to all established theology, now Biblical scholarship for the first time was becoming truly theological, and ironically doing so most fully at the very center of the Bible belt.
Demythologizing was most deeply directed at an original Christian
apocalypticism, it is an historical recognition of that apocalypticism
which impels such demythologizing, but again ironically, this very demythologizing
occurs in a deeply apocalyptic world, and a deeply apocalyptic American
world, here, too, occurs a coincidentia oppositorum, one which never occurred
theologically in Europe, and when it occurs in America it inevitably led
to the deepest theological upheaval. Certainly my work is inseparable
from that upheaval, but in the sixties this seemed to be occurring universally,
that was a time which was seemingly universally apocalyptic, and deep conservatives
such as Eric Voegelin were responsible in identifying apocalypticism as
the deepest assault upon all order and authority, just as Norman O. Brownís
Loveís Body appeared to many of us as a pure expression of our apocalyptic
destiny. That was a time when American radicals could identify America
itself as Satanic, Satanic in its imperialism, its capitalism, its racism,
and its demonic war in Vietnam, yet America was nevertheless vibrantly
alive, and most alive in its very radicalism, which then pervaded not only
all of the arts, but theology itself, which helped to drive older theologians
such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich to a new conservatism.
I could rejoice when Tillich once declared to me that the real Tillich
is the radical Tillich, and at that time no reputable theologian would
openly confess to being conservative, but then and now the battle was most
openly and most deeply waged in the Catholic world, and just as Catholic
conservatives can identify both Teilhard and Rahner as Satanic, it is a
new Catholic theological thinking which is now the deepest theological
threat, but in the sixties Catholic and Protestant radicals were united,
and much of my deepest support came from the Catholic world, and above
all so from a Trappist monastery in Georgia which was my primary site of
a retreat which is truly refreshment.
Upon the completion of Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology, I recognized that I had to return to Eliade, and to do so by writing an Eliadean theological book, a book whose original title was ďThe Dialectic of the Sacred,Ē and it was intended to lay the groundwork for a theological coincidentia oppositorum. This book, too, was under the impact of my Emory friends and associates, and most openly so in its literary interpretations, literature and theology was then a promising new field, and while it has come to nothing in the theological world, it is richly present in literary studies, as I fully discovered when I later embarked upon a study of the Christian epic. Yet for the first time it was now Nietzsche who was the center of my theological thinking, and what is most radical in my book on Eliade is its identification of Nietzscheís vision of Eternal Recurrence as a genuine renewal and resurrection of a uniquely Biblical Kingdom of God, it is just thereby a coincidentia oppositorum of the radical sacred and the radical profane, and precisely thereby a resurrection of a uniquely Biblical vision. This is the book which most openly establishes the foundations of my theological work, and I could know this even at that time, and if this is a book which is deeply dependent upon another, that other is not only Eliade but even more deeply Nietzsche himself, and I continue to be persuaded that Nietzsche is our deepest uniquely modern theologian.
Despite the fact that I had published two books and many articles, I still had not become a genuine writer, this I believe occurred with the writing of my third book, The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake, and I wrote it while on sabbatical in Chicago, where I established a deep relationship with Eliade, which continued until his death. Tillich was also an envigorating presence, and it was then that I met Langdon Gilkey who became the staunchest defender of the new radical theology, but this was a time of theological breakthrough for me, for I was working upon the most radical of all Christian visionaries, and discovering an inspiration which I had never known before, attempting to identify myself with Blake, and finding that a radical and total reversal of all Christian imagery and symbolism is the very way to its resurrection for us, a resurrection which has already occurred, and is even now our deepest ground. Now it is not insignificant that theology has deeply resisted our profoundest visionaries, all of them have been deeply heretical, and it is heresy and not unbelief which is the deepest theological enemy, and if this appears to be absurd in a seemingly Godless world, it is only in the modern world that deep vision has become deeply forbidden, and most forbidden by theologians, even if this largely occurs only by ignorance or indifference. Certainly there is every reason for condemning Blake, and if he is the true inaugurator or a uniquely modern imaginative world, he is just thereby the inaugurator of a uniquely modern religious world, a new world or new apocalypse that is simultaneously Christian and universal at once.
At first I could find no publisher for my Blake manuscript, and in returning to Emory I was caught up in a new theological fervor which was beginning to grip the country, and so I wrote The Gospel of Christian Atheism, which immediately became a theological scandal, perhaps simply because of its title, for there is little evidence that more than a few have actually read the book. And so far as I know for the first time a book was published in which its publisher included a deeply negative criticism on its very jacket, yet I admired its publisher, The Westminster Press, which was then a major theological publisher, and it surely took courage for them to publish this book. A storm had broken out even before it was published, initiated by The New York Times and Time magazine, but their articles were remarkably responsible, and a Time editor called me to check with me exactly what they said about my theology, and despite its necessary brevity I could only concur. The truth is that journalists commonly read the new theology more responsibly than did many if not most theologians, and for almost two years radical theology was at the forefront of the mass media, it was as though the country itself was possessed by a theological fever, and a radical theological fever, one in which the most religious nation in the industrial world had suddenly discovered its own deep atheism, and while it was accidental that this should focus upon a few theologians, it is not accidental that such a discovery occurred, or that it has subsequently passed into a mass amnesia.
Throughout this period my deepest comrade was William Hamilton, we had corresponded for many years, but only fully came to know each other when he invited me to visit his theological seminary where he was under deep attack, we then forged an alliance, which subsequently resulted in a publication of several of our articles under the title of Radical Theology and the Death of God. While we are very different theologically, we also share many common motifs, and it was Bill who most effectively goaded me in the direction of a fully kenotic or self-emptying theology, but Bill is a genuine pastor as I am not, and also one who mastered more than any other theologian the new world of the mass media, having created and conducted a national CBS weekly television series on the death of God, and no doubt this was a major factor in evoking the theological scandal which occurred soon after this. Frankly, both Bill and I are preachers, but I am a Southern preacher as he is not, we often appeared together publicly, each speaking as preachers, and each evoking both positive and deeply negative responses, I sensed that I could be hated much more deeply than Bill, indeed hated more purely than any other theologian, but Bill could often win us acceptance, and he surely could write for the public as I could not. Yet I was much more deeply supported by friends and colleagues than was Bill, as witness the response of our respective institutions, for Emory supported me in this time of crisis, and did so under intense public and private fire. Legally, Emory is a Methodist institution, and the Southern Board of Methodist Bishops demanded my immediate dismissal, just as a great many alumni and friends of Emory publicly declared that they would cease all support of their university if I were not fired forthwith.
It is also true that when the President of Emory refused to dismiss me, and this was reported on the front page of The New York Times, the Ford Foundation immediately sent some of their executives to Emory, beseeching us to accept new grants, whereas previously Emory had virtually always failed in its Ford Foundation applications. Administrative calculations later reached the judgment that Emory had lost and gained about an equal amount because of the scandal, and later than that their alumni magazine published a long article on me which advanced the thesis that the scandal and its surmountal had made Emory into a national institution, be that as it may, theology then enjoyed a national attention which is inconceivable today, and a world attention as well, books and innumerable articles appeared about American radical theology throughout the world, and our books were translated into many languages, except, of course for French, for France is the most theologically reactionary country in the modern world, which no doubt played a role in the birth there of the Deconstruction movement.