From the Second World War until quite recently American theology has been at least implicitly radical, at no other point does it differ more clearly from European theology, during this period there have been virtually no American theologians of repute or power who have been Church theologians, or not with the exception of ethics, always the domain of the conservative mind, and one consequence of this has been that during this period American churches have become theologically groundless, and this void has been filled by fundamentalism. The immense distance of fundamentalism from theological thinking is manifest in television evangelism, an evangelism not only requiring ignorance but above all demanding deep Biblical ignorance, and yet fundamentalism is now more powerful throughout the world than it has ever been, and vast numbers of people know religion only through fundamentalism. This is a truly critical situation, and for the theologian, an ultimately critical situation, and in one way or another American theologians have been engaged with this crisis for many years, and it is one which I hoped to meet through what I came to think of as the Evangelical Circus. Statistically, the United States is one of the most Christian nations in history, yet many American theologians are deeply persuaded that few contemporary Americans have ever encountered the Gospel, or encountered a gospel in continuity with the Bible, this is one reason for the theologianís common estrangement from the Church, but another is American pietismís deep divorce from thinking and the mind, and it is pietism which is the dominant power in modern American religion.
Upon my motherís retirement she moved to Florida, and while regularly driving to visit her there I found myself hypnotized by evangelical tents for sale beside the highway, tents which had been a primary vehicle for Southern evangelism, and which came to symbolize for me a way into the deep heart of America. The mass media has become what those tents once were, and never being able to forget what Bill Hamilton had once done theologically with television, perhaps the only time that television has truly been employed theologically, I was overwhelmed by the very simple idea of employing the mass media as a vehicle for the genuine theological minds and voices of America. At that time there were many of these, or so it appeared to me, and I had met and had long conversations with dozens of them in my American odyssey, almost all were deeply frustrated at their inability to discover a world responsive to their calling, and outraged at a public religion in America so alien to what we were persuaded was the genuine American ďsoul.Ē Certainly we could meet with responses in the classroom that we could not meet in the street, so the problem presented itself of discovering a new ďstreet,Ē a new public square which would be the very inversion of our established one, just as we sought a true inversion of our dominant media world. This was a common motif throughout the Sixties, but it had not yet been called forth theologically, or not called forth as a pragmatic possibility, and it was that possibility which began to obsess me.
Now that I was established in the New York area this possibility seemingly became concrete, from the beginning I had been entranced by the glamorous power of the City, and recognizing that it was wholly alien to our commitment, I nevertheless thought that it had deep potentiality for us, and this had already in part been realized by Arthur Cohen and others. A concrete opportunity presented itself when I discovered the feminine religious mind of the City, women religious scholars of real power who at that time were publicly unknown, all of whom were radical in their all too different ways, and in each of whom mind and voice were truly conjoined. It is very difficult to convey today the potentialities that then seemed present, foremost among them was a potential movement from the academy to the street, and having an all too vivid sense of my hopeless inadequacies in this arena, I sought assistance, and unexpectedly found it in James Morton, the Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I had gone to see him to discuss this very project, being persuaded that the Cathedral had what we most needed, not only a magnificent site, but a superb media staff and program, and fortuitously on the day that I saw him he was caught up in a controversy as to where the memorial service for Margaret Mead would be conducted, so his mind was very much upon the subject which I broached. And that was quite simply the employment of the Cathedral as the vehicle for the first act of the Evangelical Circus, one not only centering upon the feminine religious mind, but employing it to open up for the public a new religious world.
To my deep surprise, Dean Morton gave me everything that I requested, only half-seriously requesting that we not found a new church, we could employ the Cathedral on Sunday afternoons for several months, and its full staff would be at our service, including their radio and television broadcasting facilities. Accordingly, our publicity problems were solved at once, to say nothing of the marvelous venue which we had been offered, and I was overjoyed. However, I had made at least one deep mistake, in the extensive conversations which I had conducted with the four women, Edith Wyschogrod, Joan Stambaugh, Elaine Pagels, and Barbara Sproul, I had always met them alone, and when we finally met together I discovered that none of them had ever met before (this could occur only in Manhattan!), so that they became far more interested in what they could do together than in my project, and to my horror they withdrew. That was the end of concrete possibilities for the Evangelical Circus, although I continued to explore them, and this was taken seriously not only by myself, but by many wiser than I am, and one can only wonder what television evangelism would have become through such an Evangelical Circus, one bringing together Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and atheist minds, and voices from the African-American, Asian-American, and Euro-American worlds, in addition to which we intended to employ folk music, jazz and the blues to set the pace, and to set the pace for an ecstatic celebration.
One of those whom I was counting upon for this venture was Charles Long, a true preacher and black theologian, we had been graduate students together at the University of Chicago, and I was wholly unprepared when he enacted a deep curse upon me at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. This occurred at a reception given by the leaders of the AAR and the Society of Biblical Literature, and then as opposed to today these leaders were heavyweights rather than lightweights, but all of us were deeply shocked when suddenly, Chuck, in a drunken rage, began chanting in what was apparently an African language, directing these chants at me with a furious glare, later explaining that these chants were a deep curse that never could be undone. Afterwards Chuck and I and Ray Hart engaged in a long and heated conversation in Rayís hotel room, and I learned that the curse had been given because I had refused to offer the sustenance that Chuck had once so needed, a sustenance that only a fellow Southerner could offer, and when I replied that I was then so depressed and withdrawn that I could offer no one assistance, he replied with justice that this is no excuse.
After a disastrous first marriage, at that time I thought that I was happily married, my wife, Alma, was a brilliant and beautiful woman, and while deeply religious was ever more fully drawn to a pagan theology and praxis, which was creating deep tensions between us, but tensions that I was persuaded could be resolved. Yet when I returned to Long Island after that curse, Alma almost immediately left me, even leaving the children largely in my care, and for a reason that was wholly inexplicable to me. Soon I was engaged in a deep conversation with Mircea Eliade about this, Mircea was very close to Chuck, and he not only understood ďmagicĒ as no one else did, but he had no doubt of its contemporary reality, as fully manifest in his fiction, so that it was Mircea who first suggested to me that it was Chuckís curse which had ended my marriage, and both Mircea and his wife, Christenel, were close to Alma. Of course, this is not to relieve me of responsibility here, but this disaster for me is an apt paradigm of what for the theologian is the full integration of understanding and praxis, there is nothing which we can genuinely understand that does not have a deep impact upon us, and even if a disastrous impact, as it commonly is, religious or theological understanding is wholly unreal if it is removed from praxis, or removed from a deep and overwhelming impact upon us.
Hence I was persuaded that it is not possible to be a genuine theologian without being open to damnation, nor could I easily teach radical theology, I almost never employed my own books as classroom texts, and my one attempt to publish a textbook of radical theology culminated with virtually no sales. Yet I had no doubt of the deep power of radical theology in our world, and I could even see this power as being virtually universal in our new world, most of us theologians were then absorbing that power from a seemingly secular world, and just as the theologian could discover a deep theological power in the philosophical thinking of a Hegel, a Nietzsche, a Heidegger, or a Wittgenstein, everyone can be open to its power in our literature and art, or even in our history itself. My book on Eliade had attempted to demonstrate that it is his theological thinking which is the real source of his power as an historian of religions, while this alienated most of his followers who were establishing their own credentials as non-theological historians of religions, it certainly never alienated Mircea himself, and while I believe that he played a major role in the genesis of the American death of God theology, that role continues to baffle me. This problem becomes most concrete for me in what I regard as his most baffling public statement, and that is when he declares that the theology of ďthe death of GodĒ is extremely important because it is the sole religious creation of the modern Western world (Mircea Eliade: Ordeal by Labyrinth, The University of Chicago Press, 1982, page 151). What could he possibly mean by this? He is certainly not simply referring to my theology which was the only death of God theology that he knew, nor do I believe that he was referring to anything that we commonly think of as theology, but rather to a uniquely modern vision in which there is a full and total coincidentia oppositorum of the sacred and the profane.
It was through Eliade that I had my deepest sense of religious calling, one which culminated in what I believe was a genuine initiation, but which I can now recount as though it were only a dream, and a dream of a contemporary shamanic initiation. Not long before his death I had come to Chicago to give a lecture at a philosophical conference at Northwestern, and we had planned that I would have a long session with Eliade on the Saturday following this, but on that early Saturday morning I found myself stranded on the South side after a long evening with a faculty friend at the University of Chicago, no public transportation was available to take me to my hotel room in Evanston, and suddenly in a deserted street I was visited by a strange company of eerie figures dancing about me and beckoning me to accompany them. This I did, and even ecstatically so, to what destination I cannot remember, but when I did wake up the next morning I was on the floor of a graduate studentís room where I had been taken for recovery. Slowly I made my way to the Eliadeís apartment, and Mircea immediately greeted me with the inquiry as to whether I had been well cared for by the ďghosts,Ē this was no light question from one who so deeply believed in them, for ghosts are the spirits of those dead who never leave us, and I now realized that these ďghostsĒ were instruments of Mirceaís, and instruments of my initiation.
This occurred over the following two hours, and I was given a truly new sense of mission, and that initiation entailed a deep bonding with Mircea, one in which I could name him as my father, and when I was later greeted by Christenel, I could respond to her as Ďmotherí. If only now, I deeply knew that I was not alone, that there truly is a communion of the saints, and the saints are everyone, or everyone who is alive, but here life is life only through death, and while every student of religion knows that here life is only possible through death, now I knew that I had actually been initiated into this, and thus openly initiated into my own vocation. Mircea knew my vocation more deeply than anyone else whom I knew, and he had recognized it almost at once, and as a genuine master he had always allowed me to find my own way, but it was only all too gradually that I realized that my way was not ultimately different from his, and this realization occurred most concretely in this initiation. Thus I believe that there are ways in which I have been his surrogate, and not only his but the surrogate of many others as well, for theology is truly a communal enterprise, thereby deeply differing from both poetry and philosophy, and as a communal project it is directed to a public or universal world, and this in a way that has become impossible for both our philosophy and our poetry.
Another initiation was given me in Seoul, Korea, and this one truly strange, I had been there one summer as a visiting professor at Ewha University, and once again I was continually on television, largely because a repressive political situation gave few outlets for their mass media, and they seemed to be delighted to discover in me an innocuous surrogate. This did bring me a certain public attention, and shortly before I was to leave a major political figure contacted me with an invitation to visit a new Korean cult, an apocalyptic one, and one apparently open to my own thinking (I was known there as a Buddhist-Christian theologian). When I arrived with a close friend who would act as my interpreter, I was immediately taken to their master, who turned out to be a middle-aged Korean housewife, with no advanced education but who some months ago had suddenly begun to chant in exotic languages, languages which had been discovered to be Sanskrit and Chinese, and when recorded and transcribed they turned out to be full versions of the Buddhist Scriptures. Following this, a new revelation occurred, this time in Korean, and a fully apocalyptic revelation announcing the immediate advent of a universal apocalypse. She greeted me with a deep bow, and while this is common in the Far East, this one clearly had a special meaning, which became concrete when she announced to her followers that she had already called me two thousand years ago, then naming me as Paul, my mission was then to bring the Buddha to the West, and my mission now was to be her instrument in opening the world to a universal epiphany of the Buddha, and she herself she confided to me was the apocalyptic Buddha.
Clearly her followers took her with deep seriousness, and they seemed to comprise a Korean elite, by this time the world knew of an apocalyptic Korea if only through Sun Moon, but this was a Buddhist as opposed to a Christian apocalypticism, although each are universal in their scope. This Buddha commanded me immediately to fly to San Francisco, there to publicly announce the imminence of the final coming of the Buddha, whence I was to proceed to Washington where I was to preside over their new world center, for we would soon be overwhelmed by millions if not billions of eager seekers. Needless to say I betrayed this command, perhaps I have betrayed every genuine command, and if this was a comic rather than a genuine command, it is not without a deep irony, or deep irony for me, because I believe that theology itself now has some such vocation, and this belief has deepened as my vocation has evolved. Of course, we have been flooded with counterfeit ecumenical theologies, and ecumenical cults of every possible kind, but if nothing else these demonstrate the hunger that now is present, a hunger ruthlessly denied or evaded by our Church theologies, with the all too significant exception of the Roman Catholic world.
No more revolutionary theological event has occurred in the twentieth century than the Second Vatican Council, one truly reversing the First Vatican Counsel of the nineteenth century, now the Catholic Church has truly entered the modern world, but as Eastern Orthodox theologians know so deeply, it was the Catholic Church which created the modern Western world, and did so through what the Eastern Christian can recognize as a truly atheistic theology. I shall never forget that when I was introduced as an atheistic theologian to Joseph Brodsky, he immediately said that of course I was, since all Western theologians are so. The contemporary Catholic theologian has not only unveiled the God of modern scholasticism as an empty and alien God, but demonstrated what a deep betrayal this is of an authentic Catholic tradition, here an anti-Catholicism is seemingly far deeper than it is in the Protestant world, but this very ďanti-CatholicismĒ can be understood as a deep Catholicism, and one in genuine continuity with its deepest roots, so that for the first time in the modern world we are witnessing the birth of a Catholic theology which is a Biblical theology, and just thereby a deeply contemporary theology as well. Already Tillich recognized that a new Catholicism is ending the historical role of Protestantism, hence Tillich sought to bring together Catholic substance with the Protestant principle, but this had already occurred in a new Catholic theology, and one which promised to be most radical in America itself.
Clearly this has not yet occurred, or not yet openly or publicly occurred, but it may be occurring nonetheless, and just as I have received deep support and not opposition from the Catholic world, this could be said of all of our theological radicals, who have frequently been inspired by a deep Catholic radicalism. That Catholic theological radicalism is commonly unknown in the secular world is simply a scandal, but it is certainly not unknown in the Vatican, and it is of great significance that the known intention of the Vatican to reign in contemporary Catholic theology and higher education is simply impossible to execute, and nowhere is this truer in America, and if America is the center of a new Catholic wealth and power, it is not one that can be intimidated by the Vatican, or by any ecclesiastical power. Yet this is most true in our imaginative and intellectual worlds, and just as the deep transformation of the American Catholic university world since the second world war is seemingly miraculous, there has simultaneously occurred a deep transformation of the American Catholic mind, and nowhere is this more fully embodied than in D. G. Leahy. I first met Leahy when he came to my office at Stony Brook seeking a job, a job that I was in no position to give him, but he left in my hands a manuscript entitled ďNovitas Mundi,Ē and while this appeared to be and is in fact forbidding, there was something about his presence and voice that captivated me, and that night, when I was once again visited by insomnia, I arose and for some strange reason began reading ďNovitas Mundi,Ē and I have never been the same again.
That reading was something like a conversion, or the occurrence of a deep calling, one seeming to have little to do with my previous calling, but this is untrue, for Leahy is a profoundly theological thinker, even if he is a thinker who is philosophical and theological at once, and his thinking intends to be the most revolutionary thinking in history, and it is a genuine apocalyptic thinking, and the fullest and purest apocalyptic thinking that we have been given. While these motifs are only openly present in Novitas Mundi in its three appendices, these appendices incorporate the most original and radical thinking in the book, and it is these which most decisively open the way to his next book, Foundation: Matter the Body Itself. That is a book containing long excursions into my own theology, excursions transcending my own in terms of their sheer power, and even if they reveal my theology as a ďblack mass,Ē they reveal it as nothing else does, and therefore I can only greet them with celebration. But what can one say about David Leahy as a human being? Who is this one who more deeply than anyone else in the West has unthought selfhood itself, and more deeply and comprehensively than anyone else not only called forth but actually thought an absolutely new world, and thought it in that ďthinking now occurring for the first timeĒ that appears through the name of D. G. Leahy? Is this the name of anyone at all?
Perhaps someday I shall only be known as the one who discovered Leahy, or first brought him public attention, but it was only through years of intense reading and thinking that I could truly become open to Leahy, and while I saw a good deal of him during those years, and was constantly trying in vain to help him secure a real academic position, I ever knew him as a deep mystery, for this is one who is not only a pure thinker, but one whom I believe is a saint as well. It has been a very long time since we have known holy thinkers, and the mere fact that so many of his followers know Heidegger as both a holy and a revelatory thinker is scandalous in itself, but the deep thinker has always been known as a holy thinker in the East, and this has been true in the West in Neoplatonism, our longest continuous philosophical tradition. Leahy would reverse Neoplatonism, as every radical Catholic thinker has done, and while this is only partially accomplished by Augustine and Aquinas, it occurs fully and totally in Leahy, who if only thereby stands forth as a deep Catholic thinker, and above all so in his pure and total thinking of body itself. Here, deep body is a truly holy body, the Body of the Eucharist itself, but it is precisely thereby an apocalyptic body which is the body of an absolutely new universe, and yet a body which is now pure thinking itself. I think that it is simply undeniable that this is a genuinely Catholic thinking, but a Catholic thinking that is a universal thinking, and therefore one fully unveiling the truly revolutionary ground of Catholic thinking itself.
Once this is accepted, then revolutionary thinking itself acquires a new meaning, for if throughout modernity Catholic thinking is our most reactionary thinking, it is now apparently reversing itself, and just thereby becoming a more truly Catholic thinking, and not only Catholic in its new universal horizon, but Catholic in its centering upon body and world, and if a new natural theology and a new revelatory theology are now not only inseparable but also indistinguishable, then a truly if not absolutely new Catholicism may well have arrived. This was certainly a deep hope of many of my Catholic friends and associates, and it is fascinating to me that today it is apparently only in Catholic circles that deep hope survives, and if ours is the most deeply conservative world in full modernity, and one in which every real hope can seemingly only appear and be real as fantasy, it is Catholicism, the most truly fantastic world of modernity itself, one giving us our purest and most comprehensive illusions, that now is giving us a real hope, one that has wholly perished in Protestantism, or can survive in Protestantism only in its most sectarian and other-worldly expressions. Perhaps nowhere else is the deep irony of history so clearly manifest today, but it is also ironic that we should simultaneously know such a universal secularity and such a comprehensive religiosity, and if this is truly foreshadowed in the Roman Empire and the Hellenistic world, it is the Catholic Church that is the embodiment of that world, and if imperialism has become universal in the modern world as it never did in the ancient world, such a process may be occurring religiously today, but if so it can occur only by way of a deep and universal religious revolution.
The fact is that religious revolutions have occurred many times in our past, and if the axial revolution which occurred between the eighth and the fourth centuries BCE is the deepest revolution which has ever occurred, this is clearly a religious revolution, even if it comprehensively occurred throughout consciousness and society. There are scholars who believe that the very word Ďreligioní is a deep betrayal of that which it seemingly evokes, and that as a word and concept it became meaningful only with the full advent of a deeply secular world, and above all so in its dualistic division between the religious and the secular or the sacred and the profane, but it cannot be denied that this is a deep motif of ancient Christian theological thinking, even if alien to the Bible itself. Many if not most of us theologians were attempting to think through this very division after the second world war, and Barth had created modern dialectical theology by positing an absolute dichotomy between religion and faith, at no other point has Barth been more influential, just as at no other point did he seem to betray himself more deeply in embarking upon his Church Dogmatics. So at this time in America Tillich was more influential than Barth in the theological world as a whole, and although Tillich as opposed to Barth never succeeded in establishing a theological school, he had a deep impact, indeed, and perhaps most so in the birth of a uniquely American atheistic theology. At no other point has American theology been so unique, but this I believe is the reflection of a uniquely American experience, one truly embodied in our deeper literature, and one which we intended to evoke at a conference at Emory on America and the future of theology. I was often ridiculed because the influences upon me were clearly more European than American, but Leahy is not irresponsible in looking upon my theology as a culmination of a uniquely American thinking, and if Ray Hart could inspire me with the wilderness tradition in America, I have ever regarded Moby Dick as the deepest American epic, just as I came to believe that the death of God first enters full and comprehensive historical actuality in America, and it was H. L. Menckenís great book on the American language that allowed me to see that this fully occurs in our language itself. Nothing is more unique about American poetry than its deep atheistic ground, and if this drove Eliot to Europe, it was the Christian and American Eliot who created a coincidentia oppositorum between the sacred and the profane in Four Quartets, and one which is already present in The Wasteland. I remember Eliot remarking at the University of Chicago that the Church of England had succeeded in inoculating the English against Christianity, and I must confess that England has long appeared to me as the most profane of nations, and the one which has most succeeded in betraying its own religious revolution. But did a religious revolution ever occur in America, surely the first separation between Church and State is less than that, or is it? Is it this separation which is a deep ground of a uniquely American atheism or secularism, and one which can be most deeply religious in that very separation, or even in a truly new dichotomy between the religious and the secular or the sacred and the profane?
Such questions are still being debated, but all passion now seems
absent from our debates, as witness not only our political but our religious
world, theology once thrived in passionate debate, debate so passionate
that it could culminate in torture and execution, but now our debates are
civil, indeed, so civil as to be passionless, as though they could not
possibly have a deep effect. But if they cannot have a deep effect
they cannot be deeply important, and perhaps nothing is deeply important
today, or so it would appear, unless this very absence is deeply important.
The overwhelming difference between our academic meetings today and those
of a generation ago is significant, we then knew intense debates lasting
throughout the night, and these made possible a deep and intimate meeting,
just as they called forth genuine rancor and controversy, and if that now
seems like a vanished world, has there also vanished any hope or expectation
that thinking and the imagination can deeply and actually affect the world?
Is religious revolution only an academic category, one of interest only
in a purely academic inquiry, or, is it in fact occurring in the world,
and in our world, even if only occurring invisibly?