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.