The Genesis of God

This review by Ian Stubbs originally appeared in the June issue of the U.K. SOF Internet Newsletter "Portholes". It was reprinted in the New Zealand SOFN Newsletter #24

The Genesis of God, A Theological Genealogy by Thomas J.J. Altizer (1993) . John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky.

I'm sitting in Pizza Express in Islington. There's a buzz of conversation around the young clientele. I'm reading Genesis of God. I have two problems, what does this book mean and what can it possibly mean for these people here?

Genesis of God is not an easy book. It is heavily philosophical and theological. It assumes some prior knowledge of a range of literary and philosophical works (some of which I have in my collection, though still with the bookmark after the first couple of pages!) It is written in an erudite and at times (for me) inaccessible style. But I think it's worth the effort. A bit like eating a pizza, you need a sharp knife and to work around it a bit, find and enjoy the softer, juicier bits and come back to the hard crust.

Altizer is one of the founding fathers of the 'Death of God' school. He is a radical theologian whose theology is founded on the loss of the transcendent God which he sees as the hallmark of the modern age. His project is the theological implications of this loss which is the great realisation of the contemporary world exposed by literary heroes such as Milton, Blake and Joyce.

The first person to spell out this loss, claims Altizer, was Hegel. Building on ideas of Kant, Hegel developed the notion of the processes of the mind shaping reality rather than the reverse. Hegel is the first philosopher to propound the notion of the imminence of God. This theme was taken up by one of the young Hegelians, Feuerbach. Just as modern philosophy can be understood as a continuing commentary on Kant and Hegel so Altizer's theology is a continuing commentary on that of Hegel. It is also one that he brings into a dialogue with the poet Blake, his lifelong passion. This book, along with an earlier work Genesis and Apocalypse are fuller developments of earlier work summarised in William Blake and the Role of Myth in the Radical Christian Vision published in 1966 in Radical Theology and the Death of God.

In traditional theology, especially as seen in Augustine, (and reflected in neoplatonic philosophy) the answer to human alienation lies beyond the soil of human experience. Finite humankind is alienated from an infinite God through the Fall. This alienation is reversed by the creative act of God in Jesus who is the source of grace and abundant life. The answer to suffering, alienation and finitude is faith in the infinite love of God. "Believe", says Augustine, "in order that you may understand". God holds within Godself, and holds out to us, eternal life or eternal death, at the same time. Altizer following Blake identifies the traditional, transcendent God with Satan or Selfhood. He holds death within the promise of life.

Altizer argues that modernity has given birth to a very different reversal, the actual dissolution of the transcendent God. The fullness once associated with the Godhead is, as it were, emptied out and become imminent. But the God that is now "in us" is not the old "full of life God" but the God who is constantly "emptied out". We can no longer speak of God as "is" at all. In Jesus the self-sufficient "other" God self-annihilates thus reversing or redeeming God's satanic form. The crucified God is Christianity's great gift to the religious experience of humankind. This self-emptying God, the crucified God, must at the same time be the God who "is not".

Altizer points up a distinction between this understanding and some forms of Buddhism. In the latter there is a progressive detachment from the fallen and distracting world of experience back to an ultimate Reality which exists in and through itself and which the mystic knows as quiescence. The kenotic God of Christian faith cannot be known in quiescence only in activity -- in transformative outpouring, in a Kingdom which is dawning.

God "who is not" is the new creator and redeemer because it is out of the nihilism of contemporary life that comes our creativity -- our best science, our deepest expressions of imagination, our greatest poetry. Here perhaps we come back to the young people in Pizza Express. Altizer explores his theological ideas with reference to Blake. For Blake it is not reason which will change people's lives but imagination and vision. The new theological task is how to help them and others like them to make works of art out of their lives and the life of society. But, as Blake cautioned, it doesn't come cheap...

"I rest not from my great task To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the Immortal Eyes Of man inwards into Worlds of Thought, into Eternity, Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination."

Ian Stubbs