The Contemporary Jesus

Thomas J.J. Altizer, State University of New York Press, 1997; $19.95 in the U.S.

Reviewed by John Klopacz of California, in SOF NZ Newsletter #22, July 1997

The author himself sees this book as "the culmination of many theological studies over a long period of time," (p. ix) and so it may serve as a convenient introduction to the major themes and concerns found in Altizer's writings of more than thirty years. This book is not, however, "an easy read." Altizer's prose is dense and allusive, and requires close reading and careful unpacking. It is a book to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" slowly.

Altizer dedicates this attempt to bridge the gap between New Testament scholarship and "our imaginative visions of Jesus" (p. xi) to the memory of Albert Schweitzer. The man, called by Don Cupitt "the first post-Christian Christian," appears to frame Altizer's book.

In the first chapter, Altizer introduces an apocalyptic Jesus and our contemporary theology "generated by the ending of a Christian world" (p. 9). He then turns to the Jesus Seminar (Chapter 2), which he sees as "a quest for the original Jesus in the absence of all theological perspective" (p. 26). (At recent meetings of the Seminar, however, I have seen a more conscious engagement with the theological issues.) He then turns to an examination of Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus, (Chapter 3), the Gnostic Jesus (Chapter 4) and the Pauline Jesus (Chapter 5). In his discussion of Paul, Altizer returns to Schweitzer, the scholar and disciple of both Jesus and Paul.

The centre and, for Altizer I suspect, the heart of this book is his discussion of the Catholic Jesus (Chapter 6), the Protestant Jesus (Chapter 7), and the nihilistic Jesus (Chapter 8). In these chapters, Altizer turns from historians and theologians to heretical poets, novelists and philosophers: Dante, Joyce, Milton, Blake, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche. As someone who came to theology by way of literary criticism, I find these chapters the most engaging. Altizer reads these classic authors with fresh insight and illumines the apocalyptic element within each.

Altizer discovers the loci of theology in the coincidentia oppositorum, or dialectical unification of real opposites, and in the cross. In this respect, Altizer may be considered a type of Hegelian, but his thought owes as much to the Johannine and Pauline strains in Christianity and to Buddhism. According to Altizer, "Buddhism has been essential" (p. xi) to his theological quest, and he discusses the Buddhist Jesus in Chapter 9. As Buddhist thinkers are master analysts of the self, or rather no-self, this chapter should be especially interesting to Network members engaged with Cupitt's recent books.

In the tenth and concluding chapter, Altizer returns to Schweitzer's historical Jesus, who "comes to us as one unknown, without a name." He introduces us to an "anonymous" Jesus, who emerges from "a humanity whose depth is indistinguishable from its surface or mask" (p. 187). It is nearly impossible to summarize this final chapter for here Altizer turns apocalyptic seer: "Yes, a new total presence is dawning in our midst, but it is a total absence of everything we once knew as either world or humanity. Ours is surely an apocalyptic situation" (p. 204).

John Klopacz