The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response by John B. Cobb, Jr. (editor)

Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1970
Used by Permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

For the review in Theology Today click here.

Chapter 10: Process Theology and the Death of God by Nicholas Gier

Note: Nicholas Gier is professor emeritus at the University of Idaho

As ironic as it may seem to many, I will begin with the assumption that Thomas Altizerís death-of-God theology offers a solution to modern manís experience of Godlessness. Altizerís theology is founded on the conviction that the dialectic theology of the 1920ís was not dialectical enough. It is Altizerís claim that Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, and the other dialectic theologians were never able to transcend an inherited Lutheran dualism. Their use of dialectic, says Altizer, was limited to an attack on secular expressions of faith, and thus it could not offer any new vision of the sacred.1 For Altizer, any dialectical method that is not fully dialectical is not dialectical at all. Either it remains a strict supranatural dualism, Which is most characteristic of Barth, or it lapses into a monism, as it does most evidently in Tillich.2 Altizer opts for a full, radical dialectic that holds within its dynamics this "categorical imperative" of faith: If we affirm the death of God fervently enough, a new revelation of the sacred will appear. This is a solution to a Godless world, but is it a viable one? That is the question posed in this essay. It is a critical interpretation of death-of-God theology from the point of view of process theology.

There are other interpreters of the contemporary theological scene who maintain that it is process theology which offers the most viable solution to the problems of a Godless world. Mack B. Stokes, in an article entitled "The Non-theistic Temper of the Modern Mind," argues that the most effective countermeasure for a world of unbelief "can best succeed with the aid of personalistic modes of thought which are informed and enriched by some of the insights of Whitehead and Hartshorne."3 Bernard E. Meland, in a critical response to Paul van Burenís positivistic stance in an article entitled "The Dissolution of the Absolute,"4 maintains that the rejection of all traditional absolutes is part and parcel of process philosophy. However, he hastens to add that process philosophy substitutes a "vision of a More in experience" that is quite compatible with theological formulations in which we can still speak meaningfully in terms of God. 5

In an essay entitled "Post-Christian Aspects of the Radical Theology," Maynard Kaufman suggests that all the valid insights of death-of-God theology can be retained without the loss of a doctrine of transcendence. Kaufman affirms that the radicalsí emphasis on a suffering God can best be expressed in terms of the dipolar view of God that comes out of process philosophy.6 Finally, Altizer himself recognizes that it is process theology "that is expected most profoundly to challenge a death of God theology." Altizer states that he sees himself in a quite different light than his radical compatriots, who "have avoided the problem of God and have given themselves to other and seemingly more pragmatic theological tasks." He sees himself on common ground with the process theologians because they too speak directly to the problem of God. Altizer anticipates that the challenge from process theology will come in the form of its "new and potentially radical understanding of God." It is the purpose of this essay to indicate the form that such a challenge could take.


When I first proposed a comparison between process theology and death-of-God theology, one response was: "The radicals will refuse to meet you at the ontological or metaphysical level. Talk about philosophical theology is inadmissible for them. It was interred along with the body of God!" In the Introduction we have shown that Altizer must be seen apart from the radical secular theologians and their rejection of philosophical theology. Altizer accepts a Hegelian metaphysics and aims at developing a fully dialectic ontology, a task that he has done with some success in his most recent book, The Descent Into Hell. The fact that Altizer eschews the "pragmatic theological tasks" of the secular theologians and finds common cause with the process theologians in their search for a new doctrine of God betrays a sensitivity to ontological and metaphysical problems that is virtually absent in modern secular theology.

Before our proposed dialogue can be said to be on firm grounds, we must ask another even more relevant question: How do the process theologians respond to the affirmation that God is dead? The phrase "death of God" is, in many respects, an unfortunate use of words. Used as a slogan by those who must popularize and sensationalize, it has led to the detriment of radical theology rather than to an enhancement of its real contribution to an understanding of modern culture. The phrase misleads, confuses, and offends. Altizer means that God died in Jesus and that death is now being realized and universalized in modern culture. In short, it means the death of the traditional, impassive God of transcendence and the birth of a new Christ of radical immanence.

Although his apocalyptic and poetic style does joggle the strictly rational mind, Altizer does not intentionally mislead or confuse. However, I believe he does intend to offend. Altizer insists on retaining the phrase "death of God" in lieu of less shocking terms such as Godís "hiddenness," "eclipse," "absence," etc. In an article entitled "Creative Negation in Theology," 8 Altizer criticizes those who say that God is merely in eclipse or in hiding. He also rejects the views of those who say that God is beyond the capacity of human expression or that modern man is incapable of believing in God. All these formulations about Godís disappearance from modern culture, says Altizer, do not get at the heart of the matter. They simply are not radical enough. Underlying them is a sort of "fudging" liberalism, which sees clearly the plight of modern despair and Godlessness but hopes vainly for the reappearance of the traditional God of the past. This attitude among a great many secular theologians reveals an archaic mode of faith whose object is, as Altizer puts it, the "primordial God of the beginning."

A good example of such formulations is Heideggerís statements concerning the eclipse or absence of God. In Vortršge und Aufsštze he states: "But absence is not nothing; it is actually the appropriating presence of the hidden plentitude of what is past, and hence it is the collected presence of the divine things of ancient Greece, of prophetic Israel, of the sermon of Jesus. This no-more is in itself a not-yet of the veiled coming of his inexhaustible presence."9 This statement about Godís absence is completely antithetical to Altizerís intentions when he uses the phrase "death of God." Such descriptions as these are undoubtedly the reason he avoids the terms "absence" or "eclipse." We will see later in this essay that Altizer opts for a complete rejection of past forms of the sacred. The death of these past forms of God must be final and irrevocable. As Altizer states in "Creative Negation in Theology": "He is truly absent, he is not hidden from view, and therefore he is truly dead. Once we accept the death of God as a final and irrevocable event, then we can open ourselves to the full actuality of our history, as an epiphany of the Word of faith." 10 For Altizer, faith in Heideggerís God of "hidden plentitude" is not faith at all. It is simply a nostalgic yearning for a past primordial totality that can never be experienced by modern Christian man. For Altizer there is no way back to the Garden. The only way is the way forward -- through a historical movement in which all transcendent reality is being completely destroyed.

How do the process theologians respond to this? First, it must be said that, strictly speaking, a process theologian cannot admit that God is dead. The organismic view of God sees him as inextricably linked with the processes of cosmic experience. In Whiteheadian terms, God is required as initial aim for each and every occasion of experience. Simply put, then, if God were dead, the universe and everything in it would be dead. Therefore, the process theologian cannot accept the death of God as a metaphysical or cosmological assertion. Altizer insists that his affirmation of the death of God be interpreted in this manner. For Altizer, a realm of transcendence that once was and once defined God is ceasing to exist. How process theology responds to this "death" of all transcendent reality is the first major problem discussed in this essay.

Despite his refusal to speak of the death of God in metaphysical terms, a process theologian, such as Cobb, will not at all reject the irrefutable evidence of the absence of God in modern culture. Indeed, as one can gather from Cobbís article "From Crisis Theology to the Post-Modern World," to live in modern culture is to live the death of God in a very real, i.e., existential, sense. Both solutions to Godlessness -- process theology and Altizerís death-of-God theology -- involve going beyond mere secularism. Both solutions go beyond an affirmation of modern culture in and for itself to a new post-modern world. Both views hold that modern man has committed himself to an inadequate mode of understanding the world. Both views inveigh against empiricism, Newtonian science, and sensationalism, which seem to have such a hypnotic grip on the mind of modern man.

Interestingly enough, the Whiteheadian view of Godlessness is quite similar in many respects to the view given by Heidegger above. The absence of God does not mean that God is completely dead; it means that he is unavailable, and what is more, unattainable by manís present mode of understanding the world. Accordingly, the process view holds that if man can see his world intelligibly again, he will again find purpose, meaning, and faith in the God that was present to "prophetic Israel" and present in the "sermon of Jesus." Both the Heideggerian and Whiteheadian views attempt to witness to Godís inexhaustible presence, which is apprehended only by an adequate understanding of the world. As Cobb affirms, "If Whiteheadís vision should triumph in the years ahead, the death of God would indeed turn out after all to have been only the Ďeclipse of God.í" 11

The "eclipse of God," then, is perhaps the most appropriate term to use in relation to process theology. If God were completely dead, modern man would experience total relativism or chaos. The fact is that we have not reached total relativism, because we are still able to communicate. There still appear to be nonrelative points of reference, points of transcendence if you will, which keep our world from lapsing into the chaos of total relativism. In reference to this point, Cobb makes this penetrating remark: "We do still live in a world formed by a past that remains alive even in its decay."12 With this statement the second major problem discussed in this essay is introduced. One of the crucial differences between the radical view and the process view is that Altizer would have us reject completely any "world formed by a past." The process view must insist on the retention of the past as a basic philosophic tenet.

The third major problem posed is the problem of the self. Presumably, the complete destruction of all transcendent reality would mean total alienation among all individual centers of consciousness. To be sure, modern man experiences alienation to a degree far greater than his predecessors did. Altizer observes quite correctly that Western man seems to have lost his former assurances of self-groundedness and self-sufficiency. To borrow the language of the existentialists, he seems to be suspended over an abyss of nonbeing. Indeed, it is Altizerís prediction that the total collapse of the autonomous self is on the immediate horizon of modern man.

It is Cobbís argument, however, that man does not, in fact, experience total alienation. He is still able to come in contact with and relate to other individuals with some success. Furthermore, he is still able, however feebly, to orient himself to a "More" in his broken experience, which seems to assure him of a transcendent reality of some sort. To rephrase Cobb, modern manís individual self is still intact and "remains alive even in its decay." While the process view remains confident that a Whiteheadian concept of the individual can lead to a new, post-modern selfhood, Altizer would have us renounce all individual claims to autonomy for the ushering in of the new, purely immanent totality that is the Kingdom of God.


Without question, the most pervasive theme in all of Altizerís thought is the call for the death of transcendence, the death of God. The destruction of all transcendent reality is absolutely necessary in order that the sacred can come alive in the flesh in a fully immanent form. The notion that God is ultimately mysterious, distant, and transcendent is the product of a fallen consciousness. In The Descent Into Hell, Altizer claims that the more divided and fallen is consciousness, the more divided and alien to each other are the centers of consciousness, and the more God will appear in a purely transcendent form. In short, a fallen consciousness can conceptualize only a fallen deity, and all notions that God is distant and alien must be dialectically reversed if we are to see a new revelation of the sacred in our time. That which engages this dialectical reversal is the affirmation of the death of God. Such an affirmation releases a formerly oppressed and fallen humanity to participate in an ever-ongoing, non-reversible dialectic, in which all reality will be pure and immanent experience and in which Jesus will be in "every hand and face," not in some past, and therefore lifeless, form. In The Descent Into Hell, Altizer claims that those who believe in the transcendent Creator God "will be totally unprepared for a Kingdom dawning at the center of life and the world."13

Maynard Kaufman agrees wholeheartedly that God must now be seen in an immanent and experiential form, but he does not see why this necessarily entails the end of Godís transcendent reality:

In terms of Whiteheadís or Hartshorneís dipolar concept of God, it is not necessary to negate the primordial or transcendent nature of God in order to perceive and affirm the consequent or immanent nature of God. But this can be done only if this doctrine of God is understood cosmologically rather than historically. The agonizing either-or quality of the wager which Altizer proposes is therefore slightly misplaced and its pathos is unnecessary. We do not simply face a choice between "the primordial and transcendent reality of God and the kenotic and immediate reality of Christ." 14

Before discussing the full implications of Kaufmanís challenge, we must present an explanation of process theologyís theory of dipolarity.

In the theology of Charles Hartshorne, the primordial nature (PN) of God is that determinable potentiality which underlies the actuality of the world that has already been realized in a determinate form. It comprises a unity that transcends the manifold of the cosmic process; it is the one from which the many is derived; yet, it remains independent and unaffected by the derived plurality. The PN transcends our present reality in the sense that it contains the possibilities of an infinite number of worlds, of which our present world is only one possibility. The PN is the abstract constituent of all possible reality, and therefore it must transcend any form of particular, historical reality. In other words, the PN is a universal object for all possible subjects of experience, actual or not yet actual. It is the divine object in and for the divine subject, which is Godís consequent nature (CN).15

By positing an abstract nature of God, Hartshorne has introduced an aspect of God that is independent, complete, transcendent, and absolute; yet, he calls his view of theism "surrelativism." An absolute in a relativistic metaphysics seems to be contradictory. However, Hartshorne is a shrewd logician, and he resolves the apparent contradiction ingeniously. Together the PN and CN of God comprise all reality whatsoever. Together they are all-inclusive. But, as Hartshorne affirms, "the all-inclusive in its inclusiveness cannot be absolute," because the CN of God contains things that are finite, contingent, and changing. But since the PN and CN together include "all things, they can perfectly well include something absolute." 16 This "something absolute" is the PN of God. Since the PN contains all possible experience, it lacks no possibility; it contains an infinity of possibilities. In this sense it is complete and absolute. Hartshorne writes: "The absolute can exist in the supremely relative, in serene independence, serene exemption from relativity."17 "Surrelativism," then, does not hold that everything whatsoever is relative. "The Divine is to be conceived as relative beyond all other relative things, but this relativity itself must have an abstract character which is fixed and absolute." 18 If everything in the world were relative, the word "relative" would be empty of meaning. Unless something were necessary and absolute, nothing could be significantly contingent. This is the logical basis for Hartshorneís forceful insistence on the irreducibly dipolar nature of reality; each and every form of reality is defined and limited by its polar opposite. This is also the reason why process theology must retain a doctrine of transcendence.

The PN of God, though an absolute, is not seen as a "beyond" -- something utterly transcendent and alien from our experience. This "above and beyond," "distant and cold" type of transcendence, against which Altizer so bitterly inveighs, is not present in process theology. There is no completely sovereign Creator God who is removed from the processes of life -- no oppressive authority of the wholly Other. "The PN," says Hartshorne, "is not before or apart from but with all process."19 Thomas W. Ogletree, in an excellent essay entitled "A Christological Assessment of Dipolar Theism," develops this point further: "When Hartshorne speaks of the absolute pole of the divine being, his intent is not to isolate God from process, but to identify one of his aspects with those factors which are the precondition for there being anything whatever. . . . In this function, he is independent of the contingencies of process, even while he is embodied in them."20

The Whiteheadian conception of the primordial nature of God also combines these notions of independence and intimacy. For Whitehead, God is intimately related to our experience in every moment, for he is responsible for the eternal ordering of all possible actual experience. In short, it is precisely because of Godís eternal ordering of possible experience that a tomorrow appears, or, for that matter, that the next actual occasions in my personal experience are continuous with the present ones and not a part of the asphalt street outside my window. It would be difficult in my mind to conceive of a concept of God in which he would be more near, more related, or more intimate. Cobb writes: "I suggest that the otherness of God expresses itself, paradoxically if you will, in his absolute nearness. Every other entity can be somehow distanced, either as temporally past or spatially separate, but Godís presence is absolutely present. He is numerically other, and qualitatively, incomprehensibly other. But this other is spatiotemporally not distant at all." 21

Edward Farley, in his book The Transcendence of God, describes Hartshorneís view of transcendence as "unrivaled superiority." It is a form of transcendence that cannot possibly be viewed as a physical separateness or alien otherness. Indeed, it involves just the opposite. The PN and CN of God include together all reality; nothing could be separate or beyond ordinary reality, as was thought in the traditional formulations. Parley states: "Transcendence for Hartshorne thus does not mean mystery, otherness, independence, or beyondness, but rather, superiority."22 God in his PN is unrivaled because he is free from the contingency of actual experience without being beyond it. God in his PN is superior too because he contains all possibilities whatsoever within his nature. Contrary to the traditional views, God is transcendent not because he is the absolutely perfect being, but because he is the most perfect being. In other words, his perfection does not lie in pure attributes derived from the via negativa, but in those attributes derived through the via eminentia. For God in his CN is the most "perfect" sufferer and the most perfect participant in all experience whatsoever. In direct contrast to traditional notions of God, God is unrivaled not because he is free from all desire, but because he experiences all desires and finds divine satisfaction in each of them.

In Hartshorneís formulations, the PN of God is the divine object of all experience, while his CN is the divine subject of all experience. The PN is everything in potency and possibility, but nothing in actuality; the CN is everything in actuality, but nothing in potency. The PN contains an infinite range of possibility; the CN is comprised of a finite actuality. The CN of God is the cumulative actual being of the cosmos at any given moment, as apprehended by God in his PN. In an obvious sense, the finitude of actuality that comprises the CN is far less than the range of possibility available in the PN. In a subtler sense, on the other hand, even the most trivial item of actuality, let us say a rock, is "more" than all the PN put together, simply by virtue of its existence and actuality. However, that one item of actuality owes its present status and will derive its future status from the eternal ordering character of the PN of God.

Again we see the irreducibly dipolar nature of process theism. The polar aspects must work together in a dialectic -- a dialectic that never closes and never reaches a synthesis; for, if it did, dipolarity would collapse into the nonpolarity of sheer actuality or sheer possibility, either of which would mean the end of ordered reality as we experience it.23 The dialectic does close in Altizerís vision; transcendence empties itself and pours itself into immanence. The PN empties itself completely into the CN. A world of sheer actuality, pure experience, is the result. The dipolar view of reality must insist, however, that one needs both the abstract, highest common factor of potential reality and the concrete, de facto actuality of the present moment. Central to the logic of dipolarity is the conviction that nothing can have meaning in pure form. Pure actuality is just as meaningless as pure potentiality. Each must be seen in contrast with the other. The essence of all actuality, according to Hartshorne, is to be non-exhaustive of potency, and this potency is the result of the infinite range of possibility that the PN of God offers.


Now let us turn more directly to Altizerís death-of-God theology. In his pivotal remarks above, Kaufman contends that the dipolar view of God makes the metaphysical "death of God" unnecessary. In Altizerís view there will be a total cosmic reversal. There will be an actual ontological change in the universe, a change that occurred in a particularized form in Jesus and is now becoming universalized in the modern world. That which was originally transcendent is now becoming immanent; two formerly separate realms of reality are now becoming one: the sacred is now in the midst of the profane. If the logic of dipolar theism is sound, it shows us that there need not be this death of God or the coming eschatological reversal for which Altizer so fervently calls. According to the dipolar view, the PN and GN of God work together simultaneously; and, moreover, there was never a time when they did not so act. Furthermore, transcendence in the process view, either Whiteheadian or Hartshornian, does not at all have the distant and unrelated characteristics of the type of transcendence that Altizer rejects. As we have observed earlier, it is difficult to conceive of a form of transcendent reality that could be more in our midst or nearer to the actuality we now experience.

Not only does the theory of dipolarity make Altizerís cosmic reversal unnecessary, it also makes any ontological or fundamental cosmic change impossible. Indeed, there is always ontic change: the possibilities of the PN are always becoming actualized in Godís CN. But there could never be a time when the PN could empty itself of all possibility. First, the mutual incompatibility of the manifold orders of possibility would prevent such a once-and-for-all actualization; but second, and more important, is the fact that the PN of God is inexhaustible. The PN could forever empty itself of possible orders of existence and still retain an infinitude of potentiality. Therefore, in no sense whatsoever could the primordial transcendent nature of God become fully immanent. The PN could never be "left behind in an empty and lifeless form," as Altizer would see it. The Incarnation then, in the process view, is not a "total and all-consuming act"; the "whole reality of Spirit" never becomes "incarnate in its opposite." A transcendent reality could never become pure actuality or a reality only "as it is immediately experienced and perceived."24 Process theology would indeed give complete measure to the fullness of the divine reality that appeared in the Incarnation, but this in no way exhausts the PN of God, who is, as Hartshorne puts it, "the self-surpassing surpasser." The fullness of the divine that appeared in the Incarnation would be surpassed by an even fuller epiphany of the sacred at a future moment in time.

With regard to the related doctrines of Incarnation and Christology, there is a crucial difference between the two views. While a Whiteheadian would hold that God has always had an incarnate form (the CN), Altizer proposes that God, previously not incarnate, became incarnate in Jesus. Incarnation is an actual event in the history of Spirit: God "empties" himself completely of his transcendent form and is now becoming totally incarnate in the world. In a sense, a process Christology could be termed kenotic. The Whiteheadian God "empties" himself of a manifold of possibilities for the actual experience of the world. Altizer, however, interprets this term in a far more radical sense. For him, kenosis is a total process in which a pure transcendent reality is becoming pure actuality. Runyon has aptly termed it "Incarnation without a stopper."

This is a point at which I believe Altizer has misinterpreted Meister Eckhart. In The New Apocalypse, Altizer claims that Eckhart anticipated the death-of-God theology with the first thoroughgoing kenotic Christology.25 Eckhart saw the Godhead as eternally begetting the Word in the soul of each individual. Altizer rightly interprets this as a kenotic view -- the pouring out of transcendence into immanence. We cannot, however, interpret this as a complete emptying of the primordial Godhead. In fact, a further reading of Eckhart would show that the Godhead is inexhaustible and remains intact despite the eternal generation of the Son. It would be inconceivable for Eckhart to say that the Godhead would eventually be "empty and alien." Accordingly, this interpretation of Eckhart would then be more compatible with the process dipolar view. The primordial Godhead is never lost in an empty and lifeless form. The Godhead could never be exhausted by any particular actuality; it could never be exhausted by eternal generation into immanence; it could never be limited by any particular world because it would hold within itself all possible worlds.

Runyon has also called Altizerís view a "monolith of immanence." By systematically eliminating every form of transcendent reality in a nonreversible dialectic of pure experience, Altizer has brought many problems to the fore. It is not too surprising that they are the same problems inherent in Hegelian metaphysics. First, we must recognize that the Hegelian view holds a doctrine of strict internal relations. Such a view maintains that everything, including universals and God, are subjects of experience and hence are concrete and actual. There are no externally relatable objects, no terms of experience that do not serve as subjects also. An entityís true nature and identity are seen only in the complex of relations (all internal) that it experiences.

It is also true with the process view that an entityís nature is determined primarily by its relation to other entities; indeed, the whole of Hartshorneís philosophy turns on the concept of reality as a social process. Reality is a living organism whose parts have no reality outside of the organic environment. Yet there must be something more. As Runyon says of Altizer, there must be an "Archimedean point of reference," or otherwise "God has no dialectical reality apart from us as well as in our midst, no reality apart from the world as well as in it. Therefore, there is no basis from which to create what I would call genuine historical existence."26 There must be some objects of experience to which entities can relate themselves externally. Otherwise, a world of pure experience degenerates into a Heraclitean flux of meaninglessness or a Hegelian determinism, where possibility is seen as necessity.

Hartshorne contends that the absolute idealists mistakenly identified the all-inclusive with the absolute, and "through this identification, they lost their insight into the inclusiveness of the supreme."27 The supreme to which Hartshorne refers here is his own concept of the primordial nature of God, which we have discussed above. The PN is absolute because it always retains its self-identity; as Hartshorne says, it never "acts out of character."28 The self-identity of Hegelís Spirit was lost when Spirit, originally primordial and deficient of actuality, decided to unfold itself for a world, and, according to the laws of the dialectic, could never return to its original state of self-identity. According to Hartshorne, an all-inclusive, pure actuality such as Hegelís is the least absolute reality there can be. Absoluteness and completeness are meaningless in actuality; these terms can apply only to potency and possibility. Actuality is always incomplete, contingent, and finite.

The Hegelians, though, will persist. Why do potentiality and possibility need to be transcendent? Why cannot all possibility be contained in an eternal subject whose dialectical unfolding will "iron out" mutually incompatible possibilities? Why cannot possibility be simply an inner mode of pure actuality? Why cannot possibility arise out of the contraries inherent in each moment of actuality? Why cannot universals or eternal objects -- those terms of which all entities partake -- become concrete and actual as well? In sum, why is not the locus of possibility actuality itself?

For process metaphysics it would be inconceivable to restrict the locus of possibility to that which has been actualized or is being actualized in the present moment. It is true that what will happen in the next moment is determined in large part by the previous and present state of things actualized; but each new moment, according to process thought, is also open to the infinite range of possibilities contained in the PN of God, which transcend the limited possibilities contained in previous actual states. In the process view, to be limited only to that which has been actualized is to be impoverished; in fact, there would be no novelty or freedom in life at all. The Whiteheadian God orders possibilities for occasions of experience, but this by no means completely determines the course of their subjective experience. It would seem that the case with the Hegelian system is quite the opposite. As the Hegelian scholar John N. Findlay states: "Actualities are, however, real necessities in the sense that, the conditions and circumstances being what they are, no other outcome is possible. Real possibility is therefore . . . inseparable from real necessity." 29

If we are to avoid the inadequacies of the philosophies of pure experience -- either the sheer determinism of Hegel or the sheer indeterminism of Heraclitus -- we are compelled to posit a range of infinite possibility that is always more than the actuality of our present or our past. This transcendent aspect of reality would contain an infinite number of possible objects of experience, which, if actualized at once, would prove mutually incompatible. No amount of Hegelian dialectic or synthesis could reconcile such anarchy and chaos. For process thought the concrete and the actual are superior, but the primordial ordering of possibilities by the abstract nature of God is absolutely necessary for continued existence, order, and satisfaction. Whiteheadís eternal objects have no significance or reality whatsoever unless they are seen in relation to particular occasions of experience; yet they are mandatory for experience to continue. Again we have argued ourselves into a dipolar view of reality; again we must conclude that if this dialectic of dipolarity is synthesized, as it is in Altizerís or Hegelís world of pure experience, we then close ourselves to an adequate, logical, and intelligible view of reality.


Certainly one of the most controversial topics in contemporary theology is the relationship between faith and history. Has the past event of Christ redeemed all time? Can one derive authentic existence from a past time and a past happening? Does historical research and criticism have any real relevance for Christian faith? The responses to these questions could be polarized as a thoroughgoing denial from the radical theologians and an enthusiastic affirmation from the new school of Pannenberg and, as we shall see, the process theologians as well. The radicals, following the Barthian disdain for an exclusive use of the historical-critical method, think that it is the overwhelming acceptance of this method as a valid means of investigating reality that is indicative of the death of God in our time. Nietzsche was the first to give this argument radical expression. Jacob Taubes elaborates: "It was Nietzsche who discovered (what Hegel and his pupils may have known but did not admit) the driving force behind the passion of historical research: the death of the Christian God. Historical research, Nietzsche observed, works only as a post mortem, dissecting the body for the sake of anatomical study and writing an obituary."30

For Bultmann the Christ event is something that must happen ever anew; the past forms of faith cannot give us spiritual sustenance or lead us to an eschatological mode of existence. Authentic existence is one that is fully oriented toward the future; it always stands before man as a future event and cannot be grasped in terms of philosophical or historical analysis, but only existentially. For Bultmann, one must cut himself off from all past forms of religious security before a truly Christian mode of existence can be realized. "Philosophical analysis can show that my present is always determined by my past. If that is true, my freedom is always a relative rather than a radical freedom. For to be free in a radical sense, I must be freed from my past. This radical freedom can only be a gift, for every endeavor to become free is an endeavor of the old man who is determined by his past."31

Bultmann, with his program for a present- and future-oriented theology, sets the stage for much of radical theologyís views on the relevance of time and history for Christian faith. One of the most pervasive themes in Altizerís writings is what he discovered in his study of Blake and Nietzsche: A prophetic hatred of memory.32 With Nietzsche the aversion to all past events is shown in his condemnation of the "It was." The ‹bermensch, according to Nietzsche, will someday have it within his power to declare, "Thus I willed it," instead of merely, "It was." For Altizer the preoccupation with memory and recollection is a sign of allegiance to the transcendent God of the past, the God whose death must be willed ever anew.

This thoroughgoing rejection of past events also includes the complete repudiation of all past forms of the sacred. These, says Altizer, are only objects of idolatry and formalized religion. Allegiance to such forms leads one away from the only true form of the sacred, that found in the immediate moment and in the midst of the profane. Moreover, each new moment in the dialectic of experience carries a new epiphany of the sacred that completely negates its predecessor. In essence then, past events are seen as instances of transcendence -- that which is alien and removed from the fullness of the immediate moment. From the preceding sections we have become well aware of Altizerís aversion to all forms of transcendence. It is Altizerís hope that the radical Christian, once freed from the past, will be finally "liberated from every reality that appears beyond the human hand and face." 33

Accordingly, God must come to fullness and die in each succeeding moment. His death is repeated eternally, for we can never return and expect to receive spiritual life from past forms of the sacred. The sacred reality is not gained by a "recollection" of past sacred events, but by a repetition of a real sacred event in the present moment. In Altizerís view, past, present, and future all collapse into simultaneity. Altizer refers to Nietzscheís concept of the Eternal Now, where "Being begins in every Now." As with Kierkegaard, faith and contemporaneousness are identified. God begins and perishes in every "Now." The full implication of this view is that there is no special time or place where the epiphany of the sacred occurs; it occurs everywhere and in every moment: the sacred center is everywhere and sacred time is anytime. For Altizer the fullness of faith is reached by a total immersion in the sheer actuality and the pure immediacy of the here and now.

Process theology must part radically at this juncture. This problem about the status of past time constitutes one of the most decisive points of disagreement between process theology and death-of-God theology. For Altizer the past, with its tendency to enslave us in priestly forms of religion, is simply an enemy. Time and history appear to be reduced to nothing, if Altizer remains true to his insistence on the Nietzschean Eternal Now. If present, past, and future are simultaneous, then past time is lost and unredeemable.

T. S. Eliotís discussion of time is relevant at this point. In the Four Quartets he writes:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

("Burnt Norton," I.)

But man in fact does not live in an eternal present; his existence is bound by time and history. Even the saints and mystics, though able "to apprehend The point of intersection of the timeless With time" ("The Dry Salvages," V) must return periodically to a time-bound world -- a world determined by time past and time future.

Menís curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension.

("The Dry Salvages," V.)

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

("The Dry Salvages," II.)

Man redeems the time by living in it, clinging to the dimensions of past and future time. "Only through time time is conquered." ("Burnt Norton," II.)34

In History and Hermeneutics, Carl E. Braaten criticizes Bultmann for not recognizing the "ontological priority of historical reality," and for refusing to accept the fact that it is "the nature of faith to look to past fulfillment as well as future possibility." 35 Braaten represents the other side of the controversy regarding the relationship of faith and history. Faith need not necessarily be identified with contemporaneousness. The fullness of the reality present in such past events as the Incarnation and the Crucifixion is available for Christian men living in our present time. Ogletreeís formulation of such a notion is apt and penetrating: "The Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ is an eschatological occurrence. It actualizes in advance the goal of the forward thrust of history. This means that the movement of history cannot exhaust the significance of that which has already occurred. . . . Rather than negating all previous forms of the Word, new manifestations of the living Christ in human history always have an essential and positive connection with the Word which was in Jesus."36 These thoughts are central also to the new school of Pannenberg, in which Christ is seen not as ending time and history but actualizing a new order of history in which men participate and find their redemption. Christ redeems the time, and "only through time time is conquered."

Past events, then, are but the prefiguration of future ones. The first of Eliotís Four Quartets opens with these lines:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Similarly, process philosophy sees present, past, and future as distinct but inextricably linked. Simply put, the process view virtually turns on the concept of the retention of all past forms of experience. For a Whiteheadian such as Cobb, the past has an objective ontological status.37 Not one occasion of past experience is lost; hence, all past time is recoverable and redeemable. Past time is redeemed because it is intimately linked with the formation of present and future moments. The experience of an actual occasion is a selective synthesis of the totality of the past. Each and every occasion of past experience passes into an immortal form that can then be used for the ordering of future occasions. In short, past time is used again; it enriches future moments of experience. Cobb phrases it in this way: "All real relations are the reenactment in the new experiences of elements of old experiences. . . . The past always profoundly affects the becoming present .."38 The only way to the future is through the past. Arguing against the concept of an Eternal Now, Edward Farley contends: "If time is real, future cannot be reduced to the state of present, for the very meaning of present depends on the open possibility of actualizing future states."39

Both Altizer and the process view have a concept of eternal dying. For Altizer, however, that which dies, dies completely; it cannot be ontologically constitutive of the living present or future. Whiteheadís actual occasions do come into being and perish, but they remain continuous with and constitutive of time present and time future. In other words, an actual occasion experiences a peculiar sort of dying: it passes into Godís memory as an immortal object for future experience. While in the process view experience dies for posterity, in Altizerís view the experience of the "Old Aeon" must die completely.

By virtue of this intimate relationship between all modes of time in the process view, we are assured of a fairly well ordered continuum of experience. Each and every occasion of past experience is retained in memory -- the memory of God -- so that it becomes an integral part of the ordering of future experience. As a result, the cosmos is becoming ever more complex and richer due to the accumulation of past events and past values. Altizer would hold that the richness of experience is due solely to the intensity of feeling and conviction with which we thrust ourselves into the "Now." The Whiteheadians would no doubt affirm this also, for concepts about the intensity of an actual occasionís feelings are an integral part of process thought. A Whiteheadian would hasten to add, however, that the fullness of the moment we face with conviction and feeling is also due in large part to the richness of the past to which that moment is related.


Perhaps the most pervasive assumption in the Occidental philosophical tradition has been that there exist unique individuals capable of acting responsibly and morally in an ordered, temporal continuum. It will become clear later in this section that process thought is one of the twentieth centuryís most sophisticated expressions of this assumption. Altizer, on the other hand, contends that it is precisely this assumption, more than any other, that impedes manís search for a truly sacred reality. Altizer, much like Karl Barth, his predecessor in dialectic theology, believes that autonomous man absolutely precludes the man of faith. In Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology Altizer states, "Insofar as man has become an autonomous being, he has become an alien from God." 40 In The Descent Into Hell he admonishes us that the apocalyptic call of faith will pass us by as long as we affirm the inherent reality of a private center of consciousness.41 A will strong enough to affirm the death of an autonomous, transcendent God is identical to a will strong enough to renounce all claims to an autonomous selfhood.

According to Altizer, the typically Western notion that there exists a God who is self-causing and self-sustaining is the product of a fallen consciousness. The ontology that laid the basis for this doctrine of God also gave form to a concept of the individual, which is seen as self-causing and self-sustaining. The concept of God and individuals as autonomous and self-contained is a unique product of the Western consciousness. In fact, as Leroy T. Howe has observed, the modern (fallen) sensibility is prone to affirm everything that has empirical substantiality as being self-grounded.42 Such an affirmation, according to either Altizer or Barth, cannot be held by the man of radical Christian faith. Altizer states, "Religion must necessarily direct itself against a selfhood, a history, or a cosmos existing immediately and autonomously as its own creation or ground."43

Theologians such as Barth and Altizer do not make these harsh judgments without good reason. As a product of a fallen consciousness, Western philosophy has held tenaciously to the ontological primacy of selfhood and individuality. In modern times, however, this had led to an ontology of alienation. Our modern situation seems to indicate quite clearly that the more modern man stresses the integrity and uniqueness of selfhood, the more he facilitates the operation of those psychic forces which tend to undermine mental and emotional stability. The more he stresses his autonomy, the more he lives the horror of the death of God -- a life of total alienation. The modern situation is indeed ironic: While Western man is being driven more and more to existential despair by self-consciousness and increased self-awareness, he nonetheless abhors the thought of the loss of his individuality and consciousness. That which is the source of fallen manís deepest despair seems to be his most prized possession.

This is indeed the modern dilemma, and Altizer, I believe, is quite justified in his attempts to salvage a sacred reality by returning to what in essence are Hegelian concepts of individuality and of what it means to be ultimately real. Altizer makes it quite clear in The Descent Into Hell that his view does not lead to a dehumanization of man. On the contrary, he would claim that it is the traditional view of an autonomous man and a self-contained God that has led to a dehumanization of man and the desacralization of flesh and world. Altizer would hold that his view leads to an eschatological existence in which Blakeís full "humanity divine" is realized.

In a sense, Altizer is just as doggedly consistent as was Barth. Both have experienced the disdain and rejection of the contemporary sensibility because they hold to assumptions that seem quite incompatible with a modern scientific mode of viewing reality. What both Barth and Altizer demand is the preservation of the absolute sovereignty of the sacred reality. Such dogged theological consistency has proved unpopular and unacceptable to the modern mind, because by preserving the absolute sovereignty of the sacred, they in turn were compelled to deny the ultimate reality of the world and individuals. For Altizer, reality is God as all in all; anything less than that is not fully real -- it is a fallen view of world and of God. God is (becoming) all reality; God is (becoming) "world." Leroy T. Howe attempts to understand Altizerís view with this statement: "From a Christian standpoint it is less blasphemous to identify world and God, than to proclaim the worldís absolute autonomy."44

The process view does hold to the autonomy of the world and the individual. Accordingly, God is not absolutely sovereign at all; he is, in many respects, limited and restricted. At this point the two views reach a definite impasse. Once more, the difference runs as deep as the opposing philosophical views of the "world" that the two theologies hold. Altizerís view, thoroughly idealistic, must insist that the world is but a creation of mind or Spirit. The world is then secondary and derivative; it has no ultimate reality. For the process view ultimate reality lies precisely in the world of the particular -- the myriads of actual occasions that have ontological status in and for themselves. If the world of particularity has it own autonomy, the absolute sovereignty of God cannot be a meaningful concept.

Again an impasse is reached between the two views on another point. Altizerís dialectic of the sacred has a definite and final end. A key word for Altizer is "total." The kenotic view of Incarnation means an eventual "total" emptying of the transcendent divine nature into a world of "total" immanence. In this sense the death of God is a "total" and irrevocable event. Similarly, God becoming all in all in a totally immanent Christ is a total process. In the New Apocalypse there will be nothing that is not the new sacred reality; there will be total and universal redemption.

Both the process view and Altizerís view are teleological and finalistic. However, telos in the process view is seen at the level of the actual occasion and its own particular subjective experience and end. For Altizer, the telos is seen at the level of all-encompassing Spirit, which is moving from a primordial form to its final form of "total flesh" in the New Apocalypse. All process has a final end: the sacred reality as all in all in a wholly concrete form. For the Whiteheadian, process is eternal; teloi are particular and not universal. In process thought, no event can be labeled final, total, or irrevocable.

The ethical implications of the foregoing discussion lead us to yet another impasse between the two views. A distinction can be drawn between a concept of a partially selfless love that has a definite relationship with past events and a strong concept of the individual (the process view), and a totally selfless love based on a renunciation of the reality of selfhood and the elimination of all that is not related to a thrust into the immediate moment with total conviction (Altizerís view). In essence, Altizerís view calls for the end of all traditional forms of ethics. In The Descent Into Hell he states: "A fully eschatological faith must repudiate traditional moral language. Above all, it must negate and transcend the language and form of the moral imperative." 45 Altizer believes that individual ethical decision can no longer have any significance; everything must be seen in terms of a total, universal commitment.

The pervasive ethical emphasis of radicals such as Herbert Braun and William Hamilton is to be contrasted to Altizerís unequivocal call for a suspension of the ethical. These radicals would seek to dissolve theology into an anthropocentric ethic. They speak so exclusively about personal encounter, the I-Thou relationship, that God and the sacred are reduced to some dimension of human existence, a notion quite antithetical to Altizerís intentions. Speaking solely in terms of the human dimension is also inadequate for the process theologians. According to them, such radicals as Braun and Hamilton are too exclusively humanistic. The process view, with its panpsychism and its cosmological emphasis, insists not only on an ethical openness to man but also on a sympathetic participation with the whole cosmos. In process thought we see a balance drawn between the individuation required for responsible ethical action and the sense of relatedness to the "All" that participation in the cosmic whole requires.

For Altizer the experience of cosmic love requires the negation of all individuality, all forms of selfhood, even, as we have seen, the selfhood of God. All this is required if one is to participate in the cosmic dance of life and energy in the immediate moment. This dance is the redeeming event, and it seems that for Altizer it is the only thing that ultimately matters. Other selves and societal responsibilities, in the last analysis, appear peripheral and unimportant. In the dance of the New Apocalypse there are no "other selves"; in fact, there is no "otherness" whatsoever. In The Descent Into Hell, Altizer states: "Accordingly, visions of a new apocalyptic compassion must inevitably appear in the form of madness or chaos to all those who can still find life or hope in an individual center of consciousness." 46 Earlier in the book he maintains that his view does not call for a "simple anarchism" or a "simple denial of law and authority," but it means the "absolute reversal" of all law and authority.47 I would suggest, however, that it will be difficult for the conventional mind not to interpret this as a radical anarchism.

In our time the call for self-annihilation and absorption in the moment is indeed a tempting one. But, if we are to model our new Adam after Zarathustra -- he who no longer negates nor sets limits -- we have not only the possibility of a radical ethic of sacrificial love but also the possibility of a life of moral holiday. A Dionysian sacrificial love is not a responsible love. Leroy T. Howe believes that Altizerís view contains a "renunciation of every quest for genuine and lasting polis," and "that all things are becoming one, through God and not man, absolving individuals of every obligation to develop personhood in community."48 Process thought offers a basis for a personalistic ethics that would be an alternative to Altizerís call for an ethical life of self-annihilation. Process theologians are persuaded that a post-modern selfhood can be maintained in spite of modern alienation and despair. The challenge, then, of process theology would be not so much in its radical conception of God, as Altizer anticipated, but rather in the fact that it strongly upholds the ultimate reality and integrity of the individual.



1. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "The Sacred and the Profane," in Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, eds., Radical Theology and the Death of God (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1966), p. 147.

2. In his most recent book, The Descent Into Hell (J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970), Altizer admits that even his own theology has not been sufficiently dialectical. He mentions those who criticize his previous work as being Gnostic and dualistic and confesses that they have some ground for their criticism. The Descent Into Hell, however, appears to be a concentrated effort to construct a theology which is fully dialectical.

3. Mack B. Stokes, "The Non-theistic Temper of the Modern Mind," Religion in Life, Vol. XXXIV (Spring, 1965), p. 257.

4. Paul van Buren, "The Dissolution of the Absolute," Religion in Life, Vol. XXXIV (Summer, 1965), pp. 334-342.

5. Bernard E. Meland, "Alternative to Absolutes," Religion in Life, Vol. XXXIV (Summer, 1965), p. 346.

6. Maynard Kaufman, "Post-Christian Aspects of the Radical Theology," in Thomas J. J. Altizer, ed., Toward a New Christianity (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1967), pp. 353-357.

7. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "Introduction," in his Toward a New Christianity, p. 13.

8. Thomas J. J. Altizer, "Creative Negation in Theology," The Christian Century, Vol. LXXXI (July 7, 1965).

9. Martin Heidegger, Vortršge und Aufsštze, 2d ed. (G. Neske, Pfulligen, 1954), p. 183. Quoted in Charles E. Scott, "Heidegger, the Absence of God, and Faith," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XLVI (July, 1966), p. 366.

10. Altizer, "Creative Negation in Theology," p. 866.

11. John B. Cobb, Jr., "From Crisis Theology to the Post-Modern World," in Altizer, ed., Toward a New Christianity, p. 249.

12. Ibid., p. 245.

13. Altizer, The Descent Into Hell, p. 189.

14. Kaufman, "Post-Christian Aspects," p. 357.

15. The terms "primordial nature" and "consequent nature" are primarily Whiteheadian terms. Hartshorne usually makes a similar distinction in the nature of God with such terms as "absolute-relative" or "necessary-contingent." I am indebted to Charles Harts-homeís article, "Whiteheadís Idea of God," in Paul A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (Tudor Publishing Company, 1941), for some of the material in this section. Using a Hartshornian piece on Whitehead may be confusing the issue somewhat. I am quite aware of the differences between Whitehead and Hartshorne concerning a process doctrine of God. This section deals primarily with Hartshorneís view, but some reference is also made to distinctively Whiteheadian emphases.

16. Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (Yale University Press, 1948), p. 86.

17. Ibid., p. 120.

18. Ibid.

19. Hartshorne, "Whiteheadís Idea of God," p. 532.

20. Thomas W. Ogletree, "A Christological Assessment of Dipolar Theism," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XLVII (April, 1967), p. 96.

21. John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology (The Westminster Press, 1965), p. 243.

22. Edward Farley, The Transcendence of God (The Westminster Press, 1963), p. 154. Italics mine.

23. Lewis S. Ford has called to my attention that the theory of dipolarity is not really dialectical, for, although the two poles reciprocally require one another, they are not necessarily in tension with one another, let alone being contradictory. This tension and contradiction of opposites is, of course, quite central to Altizerís theology. For the purposes of comparison and dialogue, however, we will let this minor objection ride.

24. Altizer, The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (Michigan State University Press, 1967), p. 75.

25. Ibid., pp. 67-68.

26. Theodore Runyon, supra, pp. 54 f.

27. Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity, p. 94.

28. Hartshorne, "Whiteheadís Idea of God," p. 531.

29. John N. Findlay, The Philosophy of Hegel (Collier Books, 1962), p. 215.

30. Jacob Taubes, "On the Nature of the Theological Method," in Altizer, ed., Toward a New Christianity, p. 223.

31. Rudolf Bultmann, Review of Schubert M. Ogden, Christ Without Myth, (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1961), in The Journal of Religion, Vol. XLII (July, 1962), p. 226.

32. Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (The Westminster Press, 1966), p. 50.

33. Altizer, The New Apocalypse, p. 143.

34. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1943).

35. Carl E. Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, Volume II of New Directions in Theology Today, William Hordern, gen. ed. (The Westminster Press, 1966), p. 66.

36. Thomas W. Ogletree, The Death of God Controversy (SCM Press, Ltd., 1966), p. 80. Italics mine.

37. John B. Cobb, Jr., "Ontology, History, and Christian Faith," Religion in Life, Vol. XXXIV (Spring, 1965), pp. 270- 287.

38. Cobb, "From Crisis Theology," p. 248.

39. Farley, The Transcendence of God, p. 134. Compare with Blake: "I cast futurity away, and turn my back upon that void Which I have made; for lo! futurity is in this moment." Turning from the immediate moment is error. It is wrong for manís curiosity to search "past and future and cling to that dimension. The radical Christian must find "futurity" in the present moment. Cf. Altizer, The New Apocalypse, p. 195-196.

40. Thomas J. J. Altizer, Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology (The Westminster Press, 1961), p. 198.

41. Altizer, The Descent Into Hell, pp. 196-203, 209-210.

42. Leroy T. Howe, "Altizer on Selfhood: A Critique," The Christian Advocate, Vol. XI (Aug. 10, 1967), p. 8.

43. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 34.

44. Howe, "Altizer on Selfhood," p. 8.

45. Altizer, The Descent Into Hell, p. 145.

46. Ibid., p.210.

47. Ibid., p. 147.

48. Howe, "Altizer on Selfhood," p. 8.




Viewed 5316 times.