(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In the introductory matter to The Gospel of Christian Atheism, Thomas J. J. Altizer claims that ecclesiastical traditions, which he considers archaic, are inadequate to meet the spiritual needs of Christians. As he sees it, the radical challenge is to find a new Christian life and theology that are grounded in hope. To accomplish this, it is necessary to turn away from the traditional God and to focus instead on Christ in this world. Although it sounds almost paradoxical, the death of God is a message of “good news.” Altizer faults institutional Christianity for its priestly, legalistic, and dogmatic interpretation of the Bible and states that contemporary Christianity is repressive and out of touch with the human condition: “Ecclesiastical tradition has ceased to be Christian and is now alive only in a demonic and repressive form.” For Altizer, what is needed is a “total union with Jesus or the Word” and a repudiation of the “God who is the sovereign Creator and the transcendent Lord.”

In his first chapter, Altizer discusses the incompatibility between a “primordial Christian God” and an “incarnate or kenotic [evolving] Christ.” When Christ is born, God becomes incarnate in him and no longer exists in his primordial form. God is dead, and the unfallen world no longer exists, so that a quest to return to that earlier state is doomed. The radical Christian rejects the God who alone is God and renounces all attachment to the past. Chapter 2 describes how Christianity betrayed Jesus when it fixed him in time and made him the eternal and cosmic Word, which made him lose his immediacy and his evolving nature. The radical Christian’s Jesus operates in the world as the union of God and man and is himself love. The transcendent God is dead and the kenotic Jesus lives.

In the third chapter, Altizer discusses the Christians’ alienation from their theological heritage, which is expressed in dead and archaic language, and expresses the need for a wholly new form of speech, one...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Cobb, John B., ed. The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970. Responses to Altizer’s theology from Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish theologians; critiques from Zen and “process theology” writers; and Altizer’s responses to those remarks. Includes an essay from Mircea Eliade, who influenced Altizer, and a bibliography of Altizer’s writings.

Greenfield, Trevor. An Introduction to Radical Theology: The Death and Resurrection of God. New York: O Books, 2006. Overview of the ideas of Altizer and Hamilton, and a response that reestablishes the primacy of the transcendent God as Judge and Creator.

McCullough, Lissa, and Brian Schroeder, eds. Thinking Through the Death of God: A Critical Companion to Thomas J. J. Altizer. New York: State University of New York Press, 2004. Excellent collection of essays, both positive and negative, on Altizer, valuable because many of the essays were written after the early controversy about the death of God.

Ogletree, Thomas W. The Death of God Controversy: A Constructive Explanation and Evaluation of the Writings of Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, Paul Van Buren. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1966. Discusses Altizer’s debts to Friedrich Nietzsche, G. W. F. Hegel, and William Blake, his coverage of the relationship between Eastern religions and radical Christianity, and his tendency not to discuss the role of God’s grace.