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.

Continue reading “Altizer as I knew him: A tribute by Ted Jennings”

Publication of Altizer letters

local issue 2

Mike Grimshaw passes along the following announcement:

On the 50th anniversary of the famous TIME Magazine “Is God Dead?” cover, Radical Theologies has published This Silence Must Now Speak’: Letters of Thomas J.J. Altizer 1995-2015, edited and with an introductory essay by Mike Grimshaw.

Drawn from more than 300 e-mail letters written to friends and colleagues, these epistles are a series of meditative essays and mini-essays on religious, theological, political, and philosophical matters that are central and vital to our contemporary era. They reveal Altizer thinking though critical issues in communication with a fellowship of friends and likeminded scholars. Proclamations of intent, insights and questions they range in length from essays thousands of words long to far briefer ones of hundreds of words that raise a point of immediate interest and critical insight. Above all they are communications as the thinking through of critical questions. In these we are introduced again—and in a new format—to one of the formidable intellects of the last century of thought and theology. Altizer was and remains extraordinarily widely and deeply read. He is a scholar and an intellectual engaged in a world of words and ideas, ranging freely from the past into the present, from the present applied critically to the past.

In these letters Altizer reminds us that theology, especially radical theology, is nothing less than a continual reflexive and critical yet celebratory engagement with all of life and its possibilities. Nothing is outside the scope of theology and theological discussion. But also, in these letters, Altizer provides a crucial reminder that to attempt to do theology, to attempt to think and write theologically, to attempt to enter an understanding of modern life through the death of God, demands a deep and wide engagement with the intellectual and cultural expressions of modern life, with all that has contributed to it.

Proposal deadline extended: “Reclaiming the Pastor as Theologian”

Partially because of the United Church of Christ’s General Synod gearing up, we’re extending the deadline to submit proposals to JULY 20 for the UCC theological summit, with special guest facilitator Jeffrey Robbins.  Here’s the updated CFP:

LIVING THEOLOGY:

reclaiming the pastor as theologian

the theological summit of the UCC 2030 Clergy Network

September 13, 2013, York County, PA

PROPOSAL EXTENSION

Description / Rationale:  Theologian Thomas Altizer asks the progressive church, “Is a Jonathan Edwards possible in the church today?” This question is especially stunning, provocative, and condemning for mainline churches, especially the United Church of Christ, who claims Edwards as one of our own.  In the UCC, we may ask:  Where are our theological voices today?  Who validates or invalidates them?  Who promotes them?  Who is their audience?  Do they reflect the “ground” of the church? Continue reading “Proposal deadline extended: “Reclaiming the Pastor as Theologian””

Liturgical Ground of Radical Theology

As readers of AUFS know, we are friends with Thomas J. J. Altizer. We don’t always agree with him. Sometimes, dammit, we might even dislike him. But, so it goes with friendships, no? Today, I sent him a review I recently submitted to a journal of David Jasper’s recently published The Sacred Community: Art, Sacrament and the People of God. The review was not without its negative comments, some of them quite substantial. But David, too, is both a friend — of mine, anyway, if not the blog as a whole — and an adult, so I think he can handle it. Altizer’s emailed response, however, was of a different order, and I think a fine exhortation for others to read more (or any) of Jasper’s work.

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Friends,

I have just read an excellent review by Brad Johnson of David Jasper’s concluding volume of his trilogy on the Sacred and am moved to all too briefly respond. For many years I have been following Jasper’s work with great admiration and what most fascinates me is that he is a genuinely radical Church theologian and perhaps unique as such. Indeed, he is the only theologian who now gives me hope in the Church, and who might even lead me back to the Church. I suspect that a fundamental source of his power is that he is the only contemporary or even modern theologian of the Eucharist, and of a Eucharistic consecration that is apocalypse itself, as originally understood by Paul, and then lost in that profound transformation of the Church occurring after Paul. I am truly fascinated that Jasper so fully embodies both the modern imagination and a genuine and even original liturgical thinking, the latter apparently inherited from his father, and the former wholly his own, but here they truly coincide. I have a taste of this myself in my attempt to understand Finnegans Wake as our only purely and fully literary enactment of the Eucharist, and I have myself sought in vain for a liturgical ground of my own theology, even if it might well be present here.

Of course, Jasper is an Anglican priest, and I sense very lonely as a radical Anglican theologian, certainly I reached a dead end in attempting to become a radical Anglican theologian, and was perhaps justly rejected in my attempt to become an Episcopalian priest on the grounds of mental illness. Moreover, I have never wholly been able to escape the judgment that the only genuine theology is a Church or ecclesiastical theology, surely we non-Church theologians are very lonely even if we can give witness to a powerful theology wholly outside of the Church. Already this begins with Milton, in my judgment our most powerful Protestant theologian, who created a non-Church theology, as most powerfully embodied in Paradise Lost, but explicitly theologically enacted in his Doctrina, even if the latter is wholly ignored. Here, is an interesting and revealing fact. Milton, universally accepted as one of the greatest of all poets, wrote a full systematic theology, perhaps our only systematic theology that is a fully Biblical theology, and yet it is wholly ignored by all but Milton scholars. I understand Jasper as being in continuity with Milton, and I deeply share that with him, and if Milton was the greatest theologian of the Radical Reformation, I can thereby understand Jasper in the perspective of the Radical Reformation, a perspective that might even enlighten his liturgical theology.

I often wonder if there is any genuinely contemporary liturgical theology apart from Jasper, just as I also wonder if anyone else has even attempted an in depth liturgical theology, notice how absent this is from Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy, and yet how primal it apparently is in Eastern Orthodoxy. Is it possible that Jasper is creating a wholly new Church theology, one not only genuinely liturgical and genuinely radical at once, but one in which the truly liturgical and the truly radical are inseparable? Perhaps his theological situation is far more lonely than is mine, and for just this reason, even if potentially it might have enormous power. Perhaps what we most need is a truly revolutionary Church theology, one seemingly forever made impossible by Barth, and by all of the neo-orthodoxies, both Catholic and Protestant, and here there is a deep continuity between Catholic and Protestant neo-orthodoxy.

Perhaps only a truly radical liturgical theology will deliver us from neo-orthodoxy, if so let us bless David Jasper, who may well be at this point our only theological hope.

Faithfully,

Tom

The Self-Saving of God

I just rediscovered this strange document [below the fold] which is an abbreviation of the most important chapter of perhaps my best book, Godhead and the Nothing. Why did I do it? I have forgotten, and even though apocalypse is absent here, this motif of the Self-Saving of God may be my most vital one. This also unveils the ultimate challenge of Gnosticism which we so commonly evade, for Jonas maintains that the Self-Saving of God was created by Gnosticism and may well be its most ultimate challenge.

Even if my original studies of Blake and Hegel mute or disguise this motif, I can now recognize their dominance for Hegel and Blake, and perhaps for all of our most radical vision.

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Continue reading “The Self-Saving of God”

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.

Continue reading “Altizer as the third rail of academic theology”

The Incarnation as God’s Leap of Faith

At perhaps the pivotal moment in the Church Dogmatics IV/1, Barth poses the question Cur Deus homo? He discusses the incarnation and what it meant for God “to deny the immutability of His being, His divine nature, to be in discontinuity with Himself, to be against Himself, to set Himself in self-contradiction” (184). Continuing with these questions, Barth goes on to ask about the how the perfect, eternal, and omnipotent God could become limited, lowly, and impotent. Barth considers what it meant that “His becoming man, consisted in this determination of God to be “God against God” (184). Further on he writes, “God in His incarnation would not merely give Himself, but give Himself away, give up being God. And if that was His will, who can question His right to make possible this impossibility?” (184). This rift, this gap in the Godhead for Barth culminates in cry of dereliction on the cross. With fear and trembling, Barth wonders if this cry ultimately is a temptation that would encourage the notion that there is a “contradiction and conflict in God Himself” (185). Barth comes very close but ultimately rejects this idea because “God gives Himself, but He does not give Himself away” (185). Also, God is a God of peace not confusion (1 Cor 14:33). Despite the fact that God experiences this contradiction, “He acts as Lord over this contradiction even as He subjects Himself to it” (185). As Barth approaches the mystery of Christian theology, he stops short. He looks over the cliff but refuses to jump. At the very moment where he could ultimately embrace the death of the sovereign God, he pulls back. The sovereign God ultimately never left the control station even at the cross. Altizer once said that the death of God could help us finally come to terms with what the cry of dereliction actually meant for the Godhead. Radical death of God theologians seem to be the only theologians who actually take this question seriously.

Continue reading “The Incarnation as God’s Leap of Faith”

Review of Jennings’ Transforming Atonement

Jennings’ Transforming Atonement is an excellent work. Unlike other liberation theologians that generally focus on ethics or politics, Jennings’ political theology of the cross is grounded in Biblical exegesis. In Part I he focuses upon the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and death along with Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed and the sinners of society.

I want to focus this review on the last chapter of Part 1 and last chapters of Part 2. Many Christians view Jesus’ death as a peace offering to appease a wrathful God that hates us. Jennings argues quite persuasively that it is humanity that needs to be reconciled to God, according to Paul. Humanity is angry and “we are the ones who have a “beef” with God” (128). However, God takes the initiative to reconcile us. God has come in Christ to remove our alienation from God.

In chapter nine, Jennings asks “[w]hat are the implications of the theology of the cross for our understanding of God?” (199). Jennings worries that older formulations tried to protect the Godhead from the death suffered by the Son by insisting that only Jesus’ human nature was impacted by crucifixion. However, this splitting apart of Jesus’ two natures potentially threatens the unity of the Godhead. [That’s why it’s always been no surprise to me that Lutheran theologians have been able to proclaim that God is dead since they tend to err in the other direction away from these Nestorian Christological formulations]. This would contradict the Biblical witness that God was “present in the fate of the crucified Messiah” (203). This splitting apart of the Godhead ultimately encouraged the idea that the Father was “an agent rather than as sufferer” (203) in the death of the Messiah. Jennings then briefly reviews other theologians who have likewise critiqued the idea of an impassible God such as: Whitehead, Bonhoeffer, Kitamori, Moltmann, and Altizer.

Jennings then turns to discuss Heidegger’s famous remark that “only a God can save us” and Derrida’s critique of the sovereign God of onto-theology. Jennings writes, “only with the idea of a nonsovereign God, a vulnerable God, indeed a God who can die, can humanity be rid of the dreams of invincible power that has consigned our history to violence and suffering” (213). Jennings recognizes that his position is very close to Altizer’s gospel of Christian atheism, which is the idea “that God is emptied into history as the coming sociality of mutual care, of justice, generosity, and joy” (214). This coming community is the only thing that can save us.

In the closing chapter Jennings discusses different atonement theories. He argues that there is no orthodox reading of the tradition. He rejects satisfaction metaphors because satisfaction can function as a substitute for justice, not to mention the whole notion is unjust even if Christ’s death was voluntary. Next, he takes aim at forensic metaphors which he believes betray the Pauline distinction between law and justice. Substitution will not do because it underemphasizes the important ethical implications of the cross. Instead Jennings favors Soelle’s idea that Christ represents us temporarily but is not a substitute for humanity. Although he appreciates liberation theologians’ re-interpretation of the patristic tradition, Jennings is doubtful that these new readings share much in common with older ransom models. Finally, the Abelardian theory is inappropriately individualistic and might encourage abuse since God wills Jesus’ death to demonstrate God’s love.

Jennings believes that all three theories have holes and that any sort of attempted synthesis is doomed to fail. What is ultimately sacrificed is “the divine claim and call for justice” (223). Moreover, what mattes is not a theory but “a confrontation with all systems of arrogance and violence, of domination, and death, of privilege and prestige, that holds humanity hostage” (229).

This work is a bold attempt to argue for an updated political theology of the cross. Although I did not focus on the more exegetical chapters, his mastery of Pauline literature is simple amazing. He is able to navigate deftly through the epistles and to demystify so much of the jargon to explain the heart of the Pauline message. Theologically I am drawn to this work as it weaves together quite convincingly two of my favorite theological traditions: radical death of God theology and liberation theology.

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. Continue reading “Altizer on Philosophical Atheism and Gnosticim”