Altizer as I knew him: A tribute by Ted Jennings

[Note: Ted Jennings shared this text with a circle of friends who are mourning the recent death of Thomas J.J. Altizer. It is published here with his permission.]

When I first came to Candler School of Theology at Emory in 1964 I heard stories of Tom Altizer and his motorcycle, subsequently sabotaged I believe. I became aware that many of my favorite professors were part of what was then known as the Altizer circle (Boers, Hoffmann, Mallard, Runyon, and a couple of others) who exchanged papers they dared not publish on radical theology. After 1965 (when I had become president of the student body) I organized a debate between the philosophical (but very conservative) theologian on the Candler faculty and Tom. It filled the largest venue then available at Emory, complete with press. In the course of setting that up I had my first conversations with Tom, whose energy was matched only by his unfailing kindness and generosity.

Later, when against my better judgement I started the PhD program at Emory I took his seminar on Dialectical Theology. It was astonishingly rigorous. We all rebelled when he said we had to read for the following week, Hegel’s Greater Logic (we settled on the Phenomenology of Mind) But in that seminar he also insisted that it would be impossible to be a theologian without working through Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans. Since I had come to the study of theology through the writings of the early Barth, I took heart that perhaps I too might one day become a theologian.

I was already deeply engrossed in his theological project (although or because it was not mine). In 1968 I went to study in Germany with Moltmann, Kasemann and Küng but was hard at work on what I thought would be my dissertation, a juxtaposition of Cobb and Altizer as quintessentially American theologians. Tom, whom I had selected to be my doctoral advisor, scotched the idea. “You should not waste time writing about me”, he said,” do your own thing”. When I was in Tubingen Hans Küng asked me to take over his seminar to explain Tom’s theology. My German wasn’t up to the task, so Kung graciously came to my rescue and translated my English. It would be many years later when I defied Tom’s advice (now my friend as well as mentor), and wrote the essay on him for the Handbook of Modern Theologians. Fortunately, he liked the article and forgave me for writing about him.

Alas, when I returned to Emory from Germany, he had accepted the offer to go to Stoney Brook (an offer provoked by the publication of his book on Blake, that he often said was his best) where he remained until his retirement. So I had to choose another advisor, or rather committee of advisors, for it took a lot of very smart and radical folk to take the place that he had held. Nevertheless, we continued in correspondence over the decades. And I think I can say that I have read everything he ever published, some of it before it was published.

For many years our face to face encounters were limited to the times we were both at the AAR. I most remember the encantatory prose of his presentations, the hyperbole of his pronouncements. But also the glad reunions, although I tended to avoid the growing “Altizer circle” that gathered then about him. Although I loved Tom I have never been a groupie. When Emory began to honor a distinguished graduate of the Division of Religion I was the first recipient. I met Tom on the way to the reception. He insisted on coming with me. As it happened my book on the Man Jesus Loved (a bit scandalous I suppose) had just come out. He stalked about the crowded room thundering like an ancient prophet, demanding to know if there were any, any at all, queer theologians present! With his loud voice and volcanic vitality, I imagine he intimidated any and all in that rather sedate crowd. But it was also his expression of no holds barred solidarity, of extravagant friendship. God how I loved that man!

When I told him that more and more I was teaching required courses in New Testament he said, well of course, that is what a theologian must do. Turns out he had taught Bible in his position of Professor of Literature, every year!
As he moved into retirement my inbox would be flooded with his latest musings about radical theology and his own self- criticism (much too severe in my estimation). I often had to just put the musings, and essays into a file to be read later. I had too much on my plate to deal constantly with the smoking lava of his overflowing intellectual vitality.

In my required doctoral seminar all PhD students had to read a number of theologians inluding always a big book of Altizer’s (he once insisted I was getting them to read books of his that were too difficult, I should choose something more accessible – said the man who tried to get us to read the Greater Logic). But a great many of the students found his work as challenging and as wonderful as I did. And in the last few days they have written me to say how deeply transformed they were by the experience; how grateful they remain.

Over the last few years Lissa has sent me some new works of Tom’s to endorse. Fortunately, it was always incredibly creative and innovative material. He just never stopped his explorations into the terrain opened up by the divine self-negation. Our theologies are markedly different, but he has always been present in everything I have done. He even wrote a recommendation for my book on the Apostles Creed despite, or because, it seemed so far distant from his own trajectory. My engagement with contemporary European philosophers as the true inheritors of Paul reflects his insistence that the gospel had to migrate out of Christianity into the world, since what called itself Christianity had become the worship of a demonic absolute, a betrayal of the gospel.

A few years ago I had him come to CTS to lecture, in part at the insistence of my doctoral students who had come to recognize and appreciate not only the novelty but the daring rigor of his many contributions to theological thinking. He was astonishing as always, roaring with holy madness about the abyss, the apocalypse and Satan. You would have to go back to Medieval mystics to find any theologian or Christian thinker as intoxicated with God as he was, as obsessed to the point of, well, madness. I learned the importance of Christocentrism from Barth, I learned how terrifying and joyous that could be from Tom Altizer.

Unfortunately, he will be remembered only as a, or the, death of God theologian. And imagined to be in some stupid way an atheist. It wasn’t that he believed too little, if anything he believed too much, more than most any theologian has ever dared to believe.

A few years ago he had a session at the AAR on Death of God Theology with Slavoj Žižek (yes Tom kept absolutely current and engaged). I was unable to attend, being in another country. I sent a paper to be read. I confessed that, while I almost never went to church, I always did on Good Friday, to make sure, as my young buddy said, that God was still dead. Among other things I said/wrote was that with the way God is invoked in public reactionary speech in America today (long before the Trumpian nightmare) the problem with death of God theology is not that God is dead, but that God is not yet dead enough.

Tom understood himself, as he said at my home in Chicago, to be an evangelist; he wanted to do the obverse, I guess, of Billy Graham crusades. For a heady moment that dream had seemed almost possible. But what he continued to write was too difficult, too intense and demanding, for popular appreciation, or for Time magazine. Yet an Evangelist he was, of the good news of the divine self- giving without remainder or return. It was a gospel that shaped not only his rigorous thinking and extravagant prose, but also his life, his capacity for unstinting friendship. Now more than ever we need his voice, his dynamism, his daemon, his friendship. Our loss is irreparable, our debt without measure, our gratitude boundless.