Altizer on Philosophical Atheism and Gnosticim

Below is a recent of Thomas J.J. Altizer’s letters to friends. Here, in an engagement with some recent Roman Catholic studies of gnosticism and atheism, he touches on the relationship between contemporary philosophical atheism and the gnostic tradition. I am posting this here in hopes of stirring some discussion on the topic amongst AUFS readers.  – APS

Dear Friends,

I have long sensed that a most important and yet most elusive topic is philosophical atheism, being shocked that what I regard as the best books on it are largely ignored, so I would like to speak about two of these in this letter. First is God in Exile by Cornelius Fabro, Fabro is an Italian priest- scholar who is the primary translator of Kierkegaard into Italian, and who headed a Vatican commission on atheism. This book is a scholarly study of philosophical atheism from Descartes to the present, and there is assembled here a truly remarkable scholarly bibliography, and while Fabro is openly a Thomist, he has a genuine openness and depth in dealing with his subject. What I find most exciting in this book is its enactment of the actual history of philosophical atheism, apprehending it as a truly evolutionary movement, with each of its succeeding expressions known as an essential and necessary consequence of its predecessor, and with its inevitable culmination in Heidegger and theological atheism (yes, there is a brief section on The Gospel of Christian Atheism). Its beginning with Descartes is essential, and while Descartes is certainly not an atheist, Fabro can know the Cartesian Cogito as a purely autonomous reason, hence a revolutionary reason initiating for the first time in history a genuinely atheistic thinking.

The second scholar I wish to recommend is Cyril O’Regan, an Irish philosophical theologian who now holds the distinguished professorship of theology at Notre Dame, and who is embarked upon an extraordinarily important multi-volume history of modern Gnosticism. Already he has given us perhaps our finest study of Boehme, Gnostic Apocalypse, and the best book of its kind on Hegel, The Heretical Hegel, one decisively calling forth the pure and total heterodoxy of Hegel, the greatest and most influential heterodoxy ever created. But the book that I would most recommend to you is Gnostic Return in Modernity, this gives us an extensive presentation of his project, and despite his identification of me as a Gnostic, this is one of the most creative critiques of my theology. You may ask why cite a scholar of modern Gnosticism in a letter on philosophical atheism, but O’Regan can unveil modern Gnosticism as the most powerful expression of modern atheism, for it unthinks Godhead itself in the purity of its Gnosticism, as most manifest in Hegel himself. And O’Regan’s critical analysis of Hegel’s atheism is far more astute than its counterpart in Eric Voegelin, for it enters the depths of Hegelian thinking, and actually thinks its atheism through its own thinking. In Gnostic Return in Modernity there is not only a brilliant analysis of modern Gnosticism, but a critical demonstration of its incredible power and impact, unveiling modernity itself as a profound expression of Gnosticism.

Now virtually all modern Catholic thinkers assault modernity, and commonly do so as an expression of atheism, but these scholars profoundly understand the atheism that they assault, and each creates a truly new understanding of that atheism. Indeed, I would identify their work as the finest studies of modern atheism, and of modern philosophical atheism, which is far more powerful than is commonly known, and also far more influential, although this seems to be unknown to the world at large. Certainly our contemporary popular atheism is inconsequential in this perspective, and also incredibly shallow, so that most are unaware of a truly powerful atheism. Moreover, these books call forth a modern atheism that is as powerful if not more powerful than any other expression of modernity, and O’Regan is also engaged in a study of modern imaginative atheism as expressed in a Blake or a Joyce, giving us a modern philosophy and a modern imagination that is profoundly atheistic. Of course, the modern Papacy has continually assaulted modern atheism, an atheism that the present Pope can know as an ultimate nihilism, and one that has overwhelmed the world itself. Just as Nietzsche and Heidegger have given us our most powerful understanding of nihilism, each can know nihilism as a consequence of the ontotheological event of the death of God, and one that has become embodied as our ultimate destiny.

Your Christian atheist comrade,


5 thoughts on “Altizer on Philosophical Atheism and Gnosticim

  1. “Of course, the modern Papacy has continually assaulted modern atheism, an atheism that the present Pope can know as an ultimate nihilism, and one that has overwhelmed the world itself.”

    I am pondering over this sentence. Perhaps I associate the papacy with an atheism that apprehends Parousia by virtue of its doctrinal self-understanding of its station in the church and as the head of an Ordinary Time which continually prevents the Kingdom of God from actally commencing; the Feast of Christ the King collapses into an infancy Advent every Fall.

    May I ask what specifically you are referring when you mention the current pope? His interest in reversing the secularization of Europe (as evidenced from his selection of title as “Benedict,” the patron saint of Europe)?

  2. Thanks for posting this. I share his esteem for O’Regan, but Fabro’s book is new to me. I wish Altizer would spell out a little more fully his evaluation of D.G. Leahy sometime, too. The precis he gives in a few pages in History as Apocalypse is incredibly helpful for accessing Leahy’s thought, which is so dense and difficult — I confess to wondering at times if he is not a lunatic, but in any case he’s not just a lunatic. Novitas Mundi is incredibly hard, but quite rewarding too; however, it was only Altizer’s esteem that made me go back for a second look. Faith and Philosophy likewise is worth the work, but Foundation: Matter the Body Itself is almost impossible, and full of intimidating semi-gematria that can easily make the eyes glaze over. There are at least two other works listed on Amazon that I have not looked at. I do not know whether Altizer addresses Leahy’s more recent work anywhere.

    Apologies if this seems to edge off-topic.

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