Eccentric visionary and radical theologian Thomas J. J. Altizer created napkin-scribble icons to God’s mysterious demise at Atlanta’s Dark Horse Tavern in the mid-1960s, Carl McColman once told me; 40+ years later, Brittian Bullock and I would sit in the same bar pondering the same thing.
Now, about four years after that, I’m once again thinking of the death of God – the crisis in the life of God, God’s mysterious disappearance from the stage of history and even faith; the self-abnegation of God in Christ; the emptying of ‘the Sacred’ into ‘the secular,’ the ultimate kenosis that makes the here-and-now holy.
Feeling nervous around all this talk about theothanatology? You’re not alone. In a 2006 Emory Magazine article, Altizer himself said he felt “violently misunderstood” in his ideas and intent. “My work really means just the opposite of what everyone thinks.”
Altizer’s is, you see, a conversion story for our age:
Descended from General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Thomas Jonathan Jackson Altizer grew up mostly in West Virginia in a family that was “deeply Southern” and marked, he says, by madness. He did learn a love of books from his father, who told Altizer his own father also revered the printed word, with one notable exception: in a fit of rage, Altizer’s grandfather once hurled Nietzsche’s The Antichrist into the fire. Although Altizer claims he was deeply taken with Christianity as a youth, he was raised with little religious guidance, left to find his own way through reading and prayer.
Altizer attended the University of Chicago from 1947 to 1954, finishing with a PhD. During his early years there, he also served as a chaplain at an Episcopal church and was on a path to becoming an Episcopal priest. But candidates for the priesthood were required to undergo a rigorous psychiatric exam, which, as Altizer writes, he “unexpectedly and totally failed.” Indeed, a psychiatrist told him he could expect to be institutionalized within the year.
In the weeks before the examination, Altizer remembers being in a “turbulent condition,” a period when he experienced a violent transformation that would profoundly inform his work from then on.
“This occurred late at night, while I was in my room,” he writes. “I suddenly awoke and became truly possessed and experienced an epiphany of Satan, which I have never been able fully to deny, an experience in which I could actually feel Satan consuming me, absorbing me into his very being. . . . Satan and Christ soon became my primary theological motifs, and my deepest theological goal eventually became one of discovering a coincidentia oppositorium [coincidence of opposites] between them.”
In 1955, the year before he arrived at Emory, Altizer was reading in the University of Chicago library when he experienced a similar revelation—but the inverse of his encounter with Satan.
“I had what I have ever since regarded as a genuine religious conversion, and this was a conversion to the death of God,” he writes. “Never can such an experience be forgotten, and while it truly paralleled my earlier experience of the epiphany of Satan, this time I experienced a pure grace, as though it were the very reversal of my experience of Satan.” (You really should read the whole article here.)
I’m not going to summarize Death-of-God theology for you here; instead, I’m going to show you some videos in Altizer’s own words, as he discusses the implication of this radical Event for the life of the world. He is joined here by Slavoj Žižek, superstar Lacanian philosopher and cultural trickster (whom you might recognize from Pete Rollins love-fests or perhaps from Welcome to the Desert of the Real, often paired with The Matrix DVD commentaries of Cornel West and Ken Wilber).
Without further ado…let the out-pouring begin!
I, for one, am looking forward to Altizer’s latest book, The Apocalyptic Trinity, out on Christmas Eve.