Tom Altizer

Alec Gilmore discusses the Death of God
with Tom Altizer in the summer of 1967,
  subsequently published in
New Christian, March 1968

GILMORE. To lots of people in Britain this idea of the death of God has come as a bit of a shock. Can you say in a few sentences what you understand by it? 

ALTIZER. Well first of all for the Christian today to speak about the death of God is in part a consequence of his resolution to live and exist in a modern world, and it is my conviction that ours is a world in which God is dead. Now it becomes explicitly Christian, I believe, when such a situation is greeted with the conviction that the Christ, to whom I believe the Christian is finally, only, ultimately bound, can never be absent. In other words we must exist with the realisation that God is dead, and yet with the conviction that Christ is present, and that indeed as time moves forward Christ is present in an ever fuller form.

A.G. How intelligible is this to the man in the street?

T.A. That's a very difficult question. I believe, if we speak of a Christian man in the street, that he has been living the death of God and that he has been tempted by a form of false faith; namely, to live in faith only in those moments when he has turned away from the reality of the world. 

A.G. Does that mean he then been less a Christian in church than in the street?

T.A. Yes, I think that is really true, although I would presume that self-consciously at least he has imagined himself as being more fully a Christian when he has been in church, and I am saying that this is a form of bad faith. 

A.G. How fresh an idea is this? 

T.A. I think that what is new here is the theological language. Think of the analogy of the pre-exilic situation in Israel where we had a series of prophecies which, by the way, I think were really prophecies of the death of God'; namely, the death of the God of Israel insofar as that God was known as a God of the nation, as a God of the monarchy, as a God of the land, as a God of plenty, as a God of power. The prophets really declared that this God was dead in a very real sense, and it seems to me that they were preparing the Jews for a wholly new form of faith in which they would be uprooted from their land, from their temple, from their monarchy, from their government, from their army, from their cultus, and from everything which had previously given them existence and life as a people. After the exile this then became the way out in a situation of the total collapse of the Jewish nation. And it seems to me that as Christians today we are facing the collapse of Christendom which is fully analogous with the death of the old Israel. 

A.G. Is this then the death of an idea of God?

T.A. Well I think it is much more than that. Again to revert to the Old Testament situation, from one point of view I think that we could say that at least in faith the pre-exilic God of Israel really was a God of power, a God of the nation, a God of the cultus—this was not simply an idea: in a certain sense he was actually present in that form and ceased to be so present after the exile. So I think of the present death of God theologians as attempting to perform a role in some ways analogous to the scribes and the priests of the post-exilic situation—attempting to bring together the radical prophecies of the pre-exilic prophets with a new form of faith and life in the community.

A.G. To re-interpret the thing? 

T.A. Yes, and to move out into a new life, a new form of public, communal corporate faith.

A.G. This is not new then for the man in the street. You are, as it were, theologising what he believes or what he has subconsciously believed and practised for a long time?

T.A. Yes, in part certainly.

A.G. You seem to want these people to be free from fear of the future and condemnation, and free to live in the present. But is this not what so many people have achieved without ever stopping to think that God is dead. How is your gospel good news to these people? 

T.A. Now we have an important question here: are there people who believe in God and who in their moments of belief truly live in the present? I have not the slightest doubt that there was a time when in a certain sense this was possible, but I do not believe that it really is possible any more for the man who in any real sense is living in our time in history.

A.G. But you think it is possible for him once he grasps this idea and comes to believe that God is dead? 

T.A. I believe so, yes.

A.G. So this is freedom really from a kind of over-riding tyrant concept of God? 

T.A.  Yes.

A.G. And what is new about the death of God idea is that it sets man free from this tyrant so that even in moments of belief he can live a full life?

T.A. I would want to say that it is precisely in his moments of belief that he most truly lives a full and free life. 

A.G. What about the phrase, though? Bill Hamilton says 'death of God’ is a good phrase because the religious person cannot just pick it up and say 'we have been saying this all along'; he says the phrase is 'not soluble in holy water even when uttered with extreme unction'. Is this really what you think the phrase, 'death of God', achieves? 

T.A. Well, I say it achieves that in part; not only that but I think it is important in this context, yes.

A.G. Are you not as a group of death of God theologians looking for the outlandish phrase which will make your movement hit the headlines?

T.A. Oh, no, no! We had been using this phrase for many years before it hit the headlines and not directing it to piped sources that would create the headlines. 

A.G. How do you see yourself in relation to other people? For instance, in the Preface to Honest to God John Robinson said that he thought in the years to come his book would be criticised not because it was too radical but because it was too conservative. Do you see him as too conservative? 

T.A. I hesitate to say that of Bishop Robinson, but I certainly think that to judge by his public writings he is very much to the right of us, though we nevertheless regard him as an ally.

A.G. What about the other death of God boys? Vahanian, for example? 

T.A. I think it is quite clear that Vahanian is a conservative and fully committed to the reality of what he calls the biblical God or the transcendent God. 'God is dead', for him, is a statement about contemporary culture, not about God himself. 

A.G. You are, are you not, closest to Hamilton?

T.A. I am certainly closer to Hamilton than to anyone else in this company. I think in many ways we work on different sides of the street and do different things rather than fundamentally disagreeing with each other. 

A.G. But is the death of God movement still a real movement? Some people seem to feel that it has now had its main explosion and is going to fade away. 

T.A. Well what you should be aware of, and probably are not in England, is that there are a large number of other younger American theologians — Catholic, Protestant and Jewish — who by one means or another are death of God theologians, and their work is only gradually coming to the attention of the theological world. Many of them are young men and they are just publishing their writings, but there are a fair number of these and in many ways I feel closer to them even than I do to Hamilton.

A.G. I think the word ‘atheism' causes confusion to many people, because an atheist is a person who does not believe in God and they cannot quite understand how you can have a Christian atheist. Can you say how you see the difference between yourself and a conventional atheist?

T.A. Well I have to take the paradoxical position here, and one that is constantly attacked, but I nevertheless adhere to it, that there is no such thing as a conventional atheist. There is only one kind of genuine, consistent, resolute   atheism   and   that is Christian atheism. I think that atheism does entail, if you like, an act of faith, a kind of leap; and that it is only Christianity which makes possible such an act of faith, though now we are seeing that Judaism can do it. 

A.G. Are you saying then that if a genuine act of faith is made in loyalty to truth, or in a search for truth, Jesus Christ is in some way present in it?

T.A. Yes, but we have to draw a radical distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.

A.G. Could the Christ of faith be present even in a denial of the existence of Jesus?

T.A. Oh yes, and I think we can speak far more responsibly here. It is my belief that in fact the man Jesus has disappeared from our history; that in fact there is no way to the historical Jesus, and the movement of Christ into his post-Jesus form inevitably entails the negation of the human Jesus or the historical Jesus. 

A.G. So can you come to the Christ of faith through the historical Jesus or not?

T.A. This becomes rather subtle if only in terms of language. I do not think that the Christ of faith appears apart from the negation and transcendence of the historical Jesus.

A.G. Is this one point where you would part company with Christian tradition in general, in that Christian tradition would say that you come to the Christ of faith through the Jesus of history? 

T.A. Not really. You see I don't believe much of what is commonly spoken of as Christian tradition. For example, when we speak  about  the  historical  Jesus,   we  are speaking of something which only became real 150 or 200 years ago or less. 

A.G. Are you then trying to establish your continuity with an earlier past? 

T.A. Yes.

A.G. How much earlier? 

T.A. Well, I think that the Christian tradition by the very process of its development has progressively negated itself. There is a radical difference between the faith of a sixteenth century Christian and the faith of a second century Christian. So I am attempting to recover certain motifs of the Christian tradition that have been lost or shunted aside or have been subterranean, which I think have become real in our world and must be appropriated by Christian theology.

A.G. So you are concerned with tradition — you are concerned with continuity? 

T.A. I am very much concerned with continuity.

A.G. And it is because you are concerned with continuity that you want to break away from certain things in which you think we have gone astray? 

T.A. That's right.

A.G. Where next do you see the Church in all this?

T.A. I believe that just as the pre-exilic cultus and priesthood and monarchy and shrines and festivals of Israel died or were transformed, so the traditional established forms of the church are dying and must die, to make possible new life. 

A.G. But you are for the church? 

T.A. Yes. But I cannot bring myself to speak of a new church if only because the word ‘church' inescapably finds me, and I suspect almost everybody else, in the past. I do believe it will be possible for the Roman Catholic Church to evolve into a radically different kind of church. I think the Protestant is called to be a kind of advance guard who has cut his existing lines with the church to exist fully in the  world in ways which are seemingly non-churchly. We have already seen this in people like Harvey Cox and Gibson Winter who are calling for the death of just about everything which the church once meant. This seems to me the general Protestant way. 

A.G. Can we then take one or two specific points. What about the resurrection? Do you in fact say and believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead?

T.A. Oh yes. There is such a difference between the English and the American theological situation at this point. I scarcely know any American theologians who believe that.

A.G. That he rose from the dead? 

T.A. Yes. There is one I believe in this country, Niebuhr of Harvard, who is known as the most conservative of American academic theologians, and who is committed to the reality of the resurrection. You know, he is the only one I can think of who is in this position in the whole country. 

A.G. That would not be true of the people in your churches; they believe that Jesus rose from the dead?

T.A. Oh, the churches are a tough thing to deal with. There are a great many good church people who have discarded a great deal of church dogma, particularly at this point. See, in this country we are very different from you. So many people belong to churches here — the majority apparently—and that includes a great many who are not really orthodox believers but still practising churchmen and often men of good faith; it is a very complex situation.

A.G. Yet in spite of that I think you would say that Christ is present in the new humanity, and that he meets you in every human head and face. Now many people would share this view, but they would believe it because they believe in a God who is apart from all this. Do you want to get rid of this God too? 

T.A. Oh yes.

A.G. You do, quite clearly. In fact, you believe he has gone? 

T.A.  Yes.

A.G. Is your Christian atheism then just a dressed-up version of traditional im-manentism? You seem to us to be saying that God is only there in us, in life, in nature, in things and if these go God goes. 

T.A. No, I am very different from this, insofar as I believe in a dialectical forward moving process of the divine. I think that God himself once truly existed as transcendent lord, and by means of a process of self-negation negated himself as transcendent lord and became Christ. If you like, the divine being moves from a transcendent to an immanent form. 

A.G. So that before the incarnation this transcendent lord existed, and if I ask you when he died, you will say that he died at the crucifixion?

T.A. Yes. Though I do not mean to isolate his death at that point in time. I think you have to understand that God negates himself in creation and there is a continual forward moving process which in a certain sense is consummated in the incarnation but which will not finally be consummated until the apocalypse.

A.G. So the transcendent God is still in existence in a way?

T.A. I think that in a way the transcendent body of God still does exist, but it exists as a kind of empty, alien form of transcendence, and the only God whom we can truy know is an alien, empty, hosstile repressor God.

A.G. And you thnk his purpose is to die?

T.A. Yes, and die totally; which I believe cannot fully occur or be fully consummated apart from the apocalypse. 

A.G. Then how do you square this with the resurrection narratives? 

T.A. I think that really what faith in the resurrection has often meant has been a regression to the God who negated himself. 

A.G. You mean that having got rid of him we have done all we could to bring him back?

T.A. That's right — and I think for the most part what we call faith in the resurrection (insofar as resurrection is linked with ascension) is bad faith. But if you want to speak of a different form of resurrection, namely a resurrection meaning not a movement back to heaven but a movement forward into earth and history, then I very much accept it.

A.G. At times when I read your book it seems to me that you are pre-occupied with this idea of the distant and non-redemptive God.

T.A. Maybe, but I quite freely accept that charge because I believe that this is the only God as God whom we can truly know in our time; namely, the distant, alien and repressive God.

A.G. You don't think we in our time can know the suffering God? 

T.A. I do not think we can know the suffering God as God—again, words are very, very important; images are very, very important.

A.G. Do you think that the efforts of preachers among their congregations to rediscover Christ, not as exalted Lord but as a suffering Christ, are doomed to failure? 

T.A. Oh no, not at all. I think what you have to do is to dissociate this Christ from that which we know as God. 

A.G. Do you think people really are forced to be pre-occupied with this exalted Lord concept?

T.A. I think it is inescapable except insofar as we are liberated by faith in Christ from such a God.

A.G. Let me put a personal question to you. Do you think there is anything in your own make-up which makes you want to react against power, and does this drive you to this extreme picture of God, and make it difficult for you to believe in a different kind of God?

T.A. I don't know, but I think all of us in the west at least are living a kind of Oedipus complex by one means or another, always in a certain sense having to kill the father in order to be truly man, and I just cannot see how any of us can truly live unless we undergo such murder.

A.G. One last question. What do you see now to be the future development of the death of God theology? Be a prophet and look forward and tell me what might happen.

T.A. Of course, I don't know. I am not a prophet. I have no vision of the future. But I think it is already clear that what we know as traditional Christian theology has had its day and will only live among reactionary groups; they may perpetuate themselves in a sectarian form but that will be all. Instead I think we shall get a substantially new form of theology, a new form of faith, a new form of worship, and a new form of community.

At the time of this conversation Dr Thomas J. J. Altizer was associate Professor of Religion at Emory College, Atlanta, and the author of The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Collins). Alec Gilmore was minister of West Worthing Baptist Church and on the editorial staff of Lutterworth Press.

© Alec Gilmore 2014