Reading Altizer’s apocalyptic theology

November 18, 2021

From the November-December 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Lew Finzel and Ron Kelch

“Is apocalypse finally understandable by all of us, and even if we cannot imagine or understand an absolute apocalypse, can we know it as the most ultimate gift, even if thereby it actually terrifies us? Although many can respond to the promise of apocalypse with an ecstatic joy, others and perhaps the wisest among us can only respond with genuine dread, and historically apocalyptic enactments are commonly destructive, even if they have been ultimately creative in our greatest revolutions. And this is the supreme challenge of apocalypse, those ultimate revolutions, which apocalypse alone make possible, revolutions seemingly impossible today, but so, too, did they appear to be impossible when they first occurred.”

 The above is the conclusion of Satan and Apocalypse (SUNY, 2017) by the renowned “Death of God” theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer. As we were discussing his latest work, which appeared after he was 90 years of age, Altizer (1927-2018) died on Nov. 27. He made quite a splash when Time magazine explored his work in 1966 with the question “Is God Dead?” on the cover. Lew discovered The Gospel of Christian Atheism in a used book store and bought it due to his interest in the works of Blake and Nietzsche, both of whom are featured in all of Altizer’s work. A third thinker, Hegel, was someone Lew hadn’t looked into at all. Altizer became a first conscious exposure to Hegel’s dialectic.

Satan and Apocalypse reveals the intersection between the death of God in Blake and Hegel, between Blake’s revolutionary vision and Hegel’s dialectic of Manifest Religion. In that section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the religious community is a two-fold, self-contradictory spirit. The social individual in Manifest Religion is still bound to picture-thinking–God taking human form, reconciling with “evil” by taking on humanity’s sins.

Picture thinking, in which Spirit is resurrected through God’s corporeal existence and death, cannot face the necessity of evil. It is totally selfless and “good.” The resulting “Holy Spirit” is as well an absolute Being with no “other,” a self-consciousness of pure thinking, which recognizes the divine as a thought manifested in the community. It is self-centered and “evil.” Good and evil are different but at the same time identical as moments of the same spirit. Their identity and difference can only be transcended through spirit as the movement of the concept, which is incomprehensible to picture-thinking.

Altizer doesn’t engage Hegel’s critique of picture-thinking in distinction from the self-moving concept which concludes the Phenomenology, but presents an apocalyptic view of how the play of opposites resolves itself in Manifest Religion: “the absolute self-alienation of God…Absolute Being becomes its own ‘other,’ thereby it withdraws into itself and becomes self-centered or ‘evil,’ yet this is that self-alienation culminating in death, a death that is the death of the alienation of the alienation or evil of the divine Being” (48).

JESUS ALSO AN APOCALYPTIC THINKER

Thus, for Altizer, Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This vision was quickly driven underground but continually reappears in the Christian epic tradition (Dante, Milton, Blake…) and in theology and philosophy (St. Paul, St. Augustine, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche…) Altizer singles out Milton as the most self-conscious poet who was, at the same time, totally absorbed in the 17th century English Revolution.

Altizer sees the English Revolution as possibly “the most radical of all revolutions” reflected in radical sects like Quakers, Levelers and Ranters, with their “Lenin,” Cromwell. Altizer doesn’t want us to forget this Revolution, which provided initial impulse for the transformation of science, art and philosophy (21-2).

Altizer, noting that counterrevolution soon solidified after the civil wars, is keenly aware of a tendency towards “transformation-into-opposite,” though he doesn’t use that term. Yet reading only Altizer all the time is unsettling for lack of fully confronting dualities in actual history. Look at the same 1640s-50s period in England as seen by historians, rather than theologians. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker see a great divide between Cromwell with “his propertied allies” and the “radical voices of the many-headed hydra–the Levellers and the Diggers, the soldiers and sailors, the urban rioters and rural commoners” (The Many-Headed Hydra, Beacon, 2000, p. 72). Though suppressed by Cromwell, the commoners’ ideas such as exactly who owned England, kept re-emerging.

How does Altizer’s “absolute apocalypse” address the ideas and aspirations of the deepest layers of the population in a revolution? How can those openings for new human possibilities overcome the dread resulting from so many soured revolutions that have turned into their opposite–barbarous, totalitarian monstrosities?

CREATIVE ASPECTS OF REVOLUTION

After World War One—restarted in WWII, capped off by the Bomb—our age has really upped the ante on the need for clarity about Altizer’s “ultimately creative” aspect of revolution. Hegel aimed for such clarity, not alone with respect to the contradiction within Manifest Religion, but the concept that ever moves through contradiction–pure thought’s dialectic of freedom. Witnessing thought’s power of the negative in the French Revolution, sweeping away a European institutional framework that in some ways went back to the fall of Rome, Hegel meant for his dialectic of the self-moving concept itself to make a difference. To make a difference after the purely negative fury of the French Revolution produced a factional “absolute freedom and terror.” The positive result, Napoleon, was merely the winning faction, with no comprehension as to how new mediating positive social institutions emerge out of thought’s power of the negative.

LIVING IN AN ‘AGE OF ABSOLUTES’

One thing for sure: humanity can no longer mechanically rely on war and revolution to shake up the stultifying, finite national social framework. Hegel, in his time, may have entertained such a view, but ours, as Raya Dunayevskaya put it, is “an age of absolutes,” demanding going into Hegel’s dialectic in-and-for-itself to confront the question now of “what happens after the revolution?”

Lenin, who did return to Hegel’s dialectic, marveled that Hegel’s absolute in the Logic is greater than the vulgar materialism of post-Marx-Marxists and, rather than concerning itself with the “divine,” is almost wholly on method. However, even Lenin was primarily concerned with the power of the idea to make revolution and not the dialectic’s import after the revolution, when new dualities confront a given reality that demands further development of the idea of freedom on a new foundation.

What makes Hegel so contemporary is that his absolute Idea as new beginning never bows to any given reality but holds fast to the positive in the ongoing creative power of the negative. Many discard Hegel’s Logic on the dialectic itself in favor of exploring the depth of critique in Phenomenology of one or another moment of human development, in the manner of Altizer with respect to Manifest Religion. However, the Phenomenology, the conclusion of which turns to the self-moving dialectic, was merely meant as an introduction to the Logic.

The great Hegel scholar, H.S. Harris, whose Hegel’s Ladder (HL) is the unmatched monumental study of the Phenomenology, warned those who failed to follow Hegel beyond the realm of “experience” to “pure thinking.” At stake is the difference, in Altizer’s terms, between “absolute apocalypse” and Armageddon. As Harris put it against the post-Hegelians’ tendency to dismiss the Logic: “It has no answer to the active missionary forms of self-styled ‘science’ or of ‘faith,’ which will take us to Armageddon in their zeal; and no means of humanely comprehending the empirical sciences that will make Armageddon feasible for the rival zealots” (HL vol. 2, 742).

The urgency of Harris’ perspective couldn’t be more timely, when so many are feeling the dread of humanity’s impending collapse into fascist nationalism, war, and total destruction of the life sustaining capacity of the planet.

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