Altizer as the third rail of academic theology

Last night, I was in a strange mood that led me to look up reviews of my work on library databases. Reviews of Zizek and Theology happened to be most easily accessible — with reviews of Politics of Redemption, the vagaries of Shimer’s subscriptions meant that I could generally verify that the reviewer had faithfully summarized the goals and approach, but the limited preview meant I was left in suspense as to how and whether the other shoe dropped… — and I noticed an interesting pattern among theological readers: a deep, visceral response to my comparison of Zizek with Altizer. The basic move is visible in Ben Myers’ review, which is not behind any kind of academic paywall and which blames me for daring to associate Zizek with a theologian he would later publicly and enthusiastically embrace. (Milbank later took it a step further in his public denunciation of me — surely my proudest achievement as a theologian — claiming that I am little more than an Altizerian.)

I don’t want to dig up old debates about my book in specific or Zizek’s relationship to Altizer — at this point, I believe it could not be any clearer that Zizek is in fact a “death of God” theologian (and a huge admirer of Altizer’s work!) and that the attempted Radical Orthodox appropriation of Zizek was based on a huge misunderstanding. What is interesting to me is this visceral revulsion against Altizer on the part of traditional theologians.

There’s always a two-step move at play here. First there is the violent disavowal, then a subsequent claim that Altizer’s work is trivial, so obviously wrong as to be unworthy of any attention whatsoever. I don’t think that the latter sentiment is compatible with the former. For instance, a lot of traditionalist theologians presumably think that Spong is a total hack unworthy of attention — but I get the sense that they’re a lot more comfortable simply laughing him off or dismissing him. With Altizer, though, the reaction just feels different. The dismissal feels like a defense mechanism, a post facto rationalization for a deeper gut reaction.

Further: With Spong, you could say he has an axe to grind, he gets his history wrong, etc., but with Altizer, there is never any level of specificity in the critique. He is simply bad. Indeed, one suspects that the critics have never even read Altizer’s work, have no idea what specific claims he’s making, what figures he’s reading — and a good thing, too, because an encounter with his work would reveal a towering erudition, a deep engagement with the most important modern philosophers, theologians, and scholars of religion, and above all an astonishing creativity.

It’s enough to make me suspect that Altizer and the “death of God” theology of the 1960s are an unassimilable trauma for academic theology.

17 thoughts on “Altizer as the third rail of academic theology

  1. Is it a job security issue? Perhaps, at the end of the day, it’s too scary for a lot of theologians to hear “death of God” without also thinking “death of theology.”

  2. Props for Winquist. I just finished an essay that engages Winquist, Altizer, and Vahanian develop a theology of homiletics–an essay that will be my introduction to my new book (more on that later). This experience of senseless abjection is my experience, too, with churchy types who read theology. If it’s not regarded by someone as “safe,” it’s not worth reading, and if the theology promises to be a significant challenge outside of the kinds of challenges one expects from feminist or black theology, it’s not worth doing.

    To tack on to your post about ecclesiology from the other day, in black theology, feminst theologies, there is usually a “church” left at the end who has a role to solve the problem or is the only hope to solve whatever problem the theologian is underscoring. For many liberal theologians, ecclesiology is just an afterthought or the stumbling block used to say, “this is why we need to talk about historical-critical readings of scripture in Sunday Schools,” or whatever. But Altizer’s radical theology does not leave much room for the church beyond evidence of the state of post-Christendom. What chuch is exactly left, when the church can only make a rendering of nihilism in our state of absolute nihilism? I get the sense that Leahy does clearly have a theology of the church, though it is much more abstract as far as I get it, but few get this far with either to make any speculations. Not sure if my meanderings are making much sense here.

    That said, I am reading through The Apocalyptic Trinity and will post something on here about it when I finally finish the book.

  3. I’ve recently written a short article for a journal dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of John Robinson’s Honest to God. I don’t know if it had much impact in North America or elsewhere, but it sold a million copies. Although nothing like as radical or rigorous as Altizer, it articulated the ideas of Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer for a general audience.
    But as happened with other UK radical theologians afterwards (Cupitt for one), Robinson’s work came to be treated with snide contempt by the theological establishment. I remember, as an undergraduate in the mid 80s, the disdain with which Don Cupitt’s colleagues spoke of his ideas, though he was pathbreaking in actually engaging with emerging French thought. It was deeply unpleasant. There was a sense that theology didn’t even need to engage with this stuff precisely because it did not start with revelation, or the transcendence of God. Of course, this was in Cambridge, where I was also witness to the disgraceful episode of academics – including theologians – signing petitions to deny Derrida an honorary degree because he was a ‘nihilist’.
    This is merely anecdotal, but it seems symptomatic of the truth Adam expresses: the death of God theology and everything associated with it was and remains an unassimilable trauma for theology. Why else would ‘nihilism’ and ‘secularism’ become the names of the enemy? Postliberalism and Radical Orthodoxy are simply the worst manifestations of this refusal, with their attempt to domesticate or demonise the secular. It’s high time for a renewed engagement with the ‘death of God’ within theology, not because of nostalgia for the 60s, but because it at least names a site for experimentation, creativity and resistance.

  4. A couple years ago there was an SBL session I attended on an anniversary of Honest to God–and a new edition came out about that time, which was relatively inexpensive and I believe I bought it. The panel was really terrible, and they didn’t talk about the book or its impact, etc., etc., with the exception of John Cobb, who stood up and gave a very impassioned lecture on the importance of this book to his development. Later I ran into Cobb at another function and he said “I’ve never been to a book panel, especially in the SBL, where no one really talked about the book.” It may be that even those who claim to be impacted by it or influenced by it are unwilling to side with its claims or, more importantly, take up its challenges. But it’s “important for historical value.”

  5. Similarly, even in the United Church of Christ’s confirmation workbook for teenagers, the only reference to any school of theology in the entire book comes with a personal testimony from someone on the national staff of the denomination about why “God is not dead.”

  6. The ‘writing out’ of Altizer and the wider death of god from recent theological history is something I critiqued in my JCRT article ‘Did God die in the Christain Century?:
    What I discerned was that the death of god allowed a space for a revivalist ‘Jesuolatry’ to emerge, for ‘Jesus’ as a personal pietistic fetish has always been easier for the church to deal with than the question/absence/death of God.
    It also needs to be remembered that the 1960s death of Godders came to that position via Barthianism and neo-orthodoxy. Secondly all were/are very interested in culture, and especially literature and art and the existing church and theology had not come to terms with modernity nor modernism. The problem that Altizer et al raised for the church was that the death of godders not only knew their theology, they knew their continental philosophy, – but, perhaps most crucially, they also knew their modernist culture, art and literature.Further, they could preach clearly and strongly, and write with clarity, intelleigence and insight. This is why they crossed over into a wider society of what can be termed ‘silent educated nones’ who still felt culturally post/’christian’ but in the wake of Tillich and the questions of Bonhoeffer where looking for intelligent reasons not to participate.
    To write out the death of godders is to attempt to write out the death of god; and what happened is death of god theology became relocated in religious studies, literature departments, and continental philosophy. This relocation meant ecclesial theology could pretend it had never happened as it effectively dissappered from ‘mainstream theology’. Yet ‘mainstream theology’ itself effectively dissappered from the wider culture and society of ‘the death of god’, becomming a series of increasingly inward turning sectarian communities and postions. The trauma associated with ‘nihilism’ amd ‘secularity’ is a trauma arising from an academic theology and academic theologians who wished to write a theology of nostalgia and who lacked, in the main the willingness and understanding to enage with moderrnist culture and its expressions. In short, they could not read the culture they found themselves within, except to read it as an apocalyptic fall narrative wherein the church became a sect to shelter ‘the faithful’ from the questions and challenges of the post/modern age.

    The new Palgrave-Macmillan series ‘radical theologies’ that I am series editor of with Josh Ramey and Mike Zbaraschuk was established to express the 21st century versions of ‘the death of god’ and arose out of discussions centreing around and with Alitizer at Postmodernism, Religion and Culture 4. at Syracuse 2011. Not only have we published Alitizer but we also have the last ms of Gabriel Vahanian in train.

  7. The series sounds great!

    It seems to me that “mainstream theologians” have even gone so far as to write out Bonhoeffer himself, or at least to explain away the letters and papers in light of his more Barthian previous work.

  8. Mike G., yes, your article on the Christian Century is really interesting, as I’ve told you before. When I was doing my doctoral research it was really interesting to see how the death of God theology really took off in the magazines published at the time, especially Motive, the United Methodist Student movement magazine. Even Thoms Oden got in on it in Motive, writing praise for Altizer and Vahanian. But when it became convenient for him to become a conservative, that’s how he made his career.

    Consequently at the AAR in Chicago I sat next to a young woman on the CTA bus who worked for the Christian Century, who asked me where I was a doctoral student when she saw the AAR/Chicago bag I was carrying. I mentioned your article to her and told her about my research interests. Her response: “The death of God? In The Christian Century? Really? Never heard of it.”

    That being said, if we think about our “Big Name” theologians, most would agree that, for example, David Tracy is an important figure. But I only know a handful of people who have read Tracy or know what he is about but lots of people know and respect what he is and who he is, especially Catholics. Someone wrote an article a few years ago claiming that the reason why Tracy has never been called out by Catholic doctrinal witchunters is because they don’t know how to read him, and that his writing is so obscure that he has successfully subverted criticism. It also probably helps him on this front that his three-volume opus that he’s been working on for the last 20 years just never seems to be finished–it’s the Chinese Democracy of theology. But this is not true of Altizer, for whom folks have been more than happy to criticize without knowing anything, probably because he was willing, fervently, to get his message out into the media, and is constantly writing and producing material.

    The first time I saw Altizer speak was at Lebanon Valley College, a few years before I started working there, for his debate with Caputo that eventally led to the Caputo/Vattimo book, After the Death of God. There were some locals protesting with pickets outside, and I made the mistake of asking why they were protesting, and I asked if they actually read the books and they all said no. I didn’t expect them to say yes, but we all see the ridiculousness of protesting something you don’t know about, but yet this is accepted behavior among our academic colleagues.

  9. You make an excellent point Chris about the magazines. In the 1950s and 1960s the magazines were where a lot of very interesting theological discussion occurred- and they were far more open to radical theology than we would suspect. I have been working my way through back issues of Theology today, The Christian Scholar, Religion, etc and have been delightfully surprised with what was there. What made them important is that they were written for the educated laity and the general clergy- yet included complex and challeneging philosophical and theological ideas. Another surprising source is the cold war culture journal Encounter. See my History of Religion article:
    Two important things arise out of Encounter. Firstly the influence of Ignazio Silone on William Hamilton and secondly the way the emergent secular theology was discussed as part of Cold war culture- as an alternative to both communist atheism and the rise of western zen.

    As for Bonhoeffer, yes he has been recaptured as a type of ‘accepatble Barthian’- and yet the whole drive of barthianism- and neo-orthodoxy- was that it was meant to ‘unacceptable’- and that is why Barth’s commentary of Romans was such a theological hand grenade. Really the worst thing Barth did was to write a systematic theology, in the same way that Tillich’s Systematic Theology was his worst work because in doing so both were attempting to domesticate their radical theology into ecclesial acceptance.

  10. Wow, thanks for invoking and then posting about Winquist. He is an extraordinary voice, and greatly missed. And I agree with Adam about not only Altizer’s closeness to Zizek but also to how intensely most forms of theology want to bury it.

  11. Hill, I would highly recommend you read Genesis and Apocalypse which is the closest Altizer comes to offering a ‘systematic theology’.

  12. That is one of the problems, I have always felt that there needs to be a good collection of “greatest hits” that was done with Rahner’s work, though that would be difficult to do because of his style, where theological terms collapse into one another. Genesis and Apocalypse is key, Total Presence is a great book.

    For me, I read the Gospel of Christian Atheism in college but I don’t think I really began to grasp the ideas until I read The Descent into Hell, one of his overlooked books.

    I am really enjoying The Apocalyptic Trinity right now.

    I spent some time working through Leahy, and while I am clearly not smart enough to get what exactly he is up to, what I have been able to get from it has been helpful for getting Altizer’s later work, I think it’s fair to say that he has influenced him more than any other contemporary thinker and has taken him up as a challenge.

    Also: Lissa’s chapter in the edited volume Thinking Through The Death of God is hands-down the best introduction and summary out there.

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