January 21, 2016 / Theology
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was only twenty-one when he wrote Sanctorum Communio, a text hailed by Karl …
March 31, 2009
In October 1965, Thomas J. J. Altizer, the famous theologian who popularized the phrase “God is dead” in America, proclaimed the death of God as the most radical affirmation of life and existence, an occasion for rejoicing.1 Altizer believed that God had completely emptied himself into the world, beginning with creation and culminating in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.2 Yet Altizer had not moved beyond God. In the forward to Altizer’s memoir, Mark C. Taylor states, “[Altizer] is the most God-obsessed person I have ever known.”3 Indeed, Altizer is an icon of our day: God seems to have died, but we cannot get over him, and in the meantime, we struggle to affirm life.
Taylor, arguably the primary heir of Altizer’s theology, has picked up on this paradox in his book, After God: though God seems to have died, we are forever in pursuit, “forever after God.”4 On the one hand, God seems to have disappeared, and the hard evidence of this absence is the human condition. As John D. Caputo says, “You and I stand on the surface of the little star and shout, ‘racism is unjust.’ The cosmos yawns and takes another spin. There is no cosmic record of our complaint.”5 Yet we cannot silence our cries; violence and death appear absurd to us, and we cannot bring ourselves to accept them. We yearn for a way out of this absurdity—we believe God has disappeared, but we are still searching.
However, in this essay I will (re)consider our attitude toward death from a Christian perspective and in conversation with Taylor’s double thesis, and I will argue for a different conclusion than that of Taylor. To explore the two meanings of being after God, I will describe how Taylor’s overall project, theory of religion, and Christological view of the world affirm the world as it is by constructing a Darwinian ontology. Taylor leaves us trapped in cycles of life, violence, and death. And though, with Taylor, Christianity affirms the natural world, I argue that the natural world as it is is neither our model for reality nor our way of dealing with death. For Taylor, death is to be affirmed as part of the ongoing cycle of life, but I claim that death remains absurd for Christians, that death is something to cry out against.
I. Taylor’s Project
Taylor’s ambition is to envision a nontotalizing system for reality, a system that allows for difference and diversity. His first impulse is therefore to move beyond poststructuralists like Derrida, who he thinks can do nothing more than criticize systems and cannot offer a positive alternative. But Taylor also wants to avoid the totalizing mistakes of various forms of structuralism, particularly religious fundamentalism.
Taylor pictures reality as a relational web of networks that is empowered by what he calls a “non-absent absence,”6 a lack or gap in Being or an “an-archy” which allows things to be rearranged and creativity to emerge. At the heart of this reality, there is a dialectical movement that does not conclude in a totalizing system but in altarity—his own neologism—which signifies (1) the endless process of alternation that overcomes the oppositions of binary and dialectical differences, (2) the unnamable trace inside every structure that keeps the structure open and incomplete, and (3) a dimension of sacrality, “which is neither simply transcendent nor immanent but is an immanent transcendence that disrupts and dislocates systems [. . .] that seem to be secure.”7
Religions are of particular concern for Taylor, because they often exhibit structural totalization, hegemony, and foundationalism, and as such, they are the ultimate enemy: “Simplistic and unbending faith in a complex and changing world carries the threat of violence and destruction.”8
Altarity, because it moves in alternation, witnesses to duplicities at every level of reality, and this can be seen as a Christology of two natures. Taylor wants to reconcile the two natures, without conflating them, by seeing reality itself as dialectical. And this is where he invokes Hegel. In Taylor’s translation of the Chalcedonian creed, Christ is said to be “consubstantial with the Father in Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in manhood.”9 Hegel takes this problem of Substance as his point of departure, and his insight is to see that the True is not only Substance, but also Subject. This means that the True consists of two opposites reconciled in one Subject, and for Taylor this means that reality itself is the dialectical alternation of difference:
When the True is finally grasped as subject, God becomes fully embodied in nature as well as history and both self and world are completely transformed. This transformation reverses the interrelated processes of desacralization and disenchantment by revealing the sacred in the midst of what had seemed profane. With this twist, secularity appears to be the fulfillment rather than the simple negation of religion.10
The point for Taylor is that Hegel grasps the dialectical nature of reality itself, which Taylor interprets in terms of the alternation of altarity.11 Thus, Taylor interprets the history of Christian theology as the alternating deaths of God, whereby God disappears either by becoming so transcendent or so immanent as to be counted among the dead. The dialectic here is, of course, immanence and transcendence, which Taylor reconciles into the altarity at the heart of reality. This alternation is also found in religion and in the natural world itself. In each of the dialectics, oppositions give way to relations, as every level of reality is seen as dialectical. I will examine each of these sites in turn.12
II. The Continual After God in the Endurance of Religion
Taylor develops a theory of religion that attempts to account for the endurance of religion in a secular age, a seeming paradox. This phenomenon becomes acute when we realize that Death of God theology, evangelicalism, and the Cultural Revolution of 1968 all emerged during the same historical era.13 However, Taylor believes that this co-emergence actually provides a clue for the true nature of religion:
Religion is an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure.14
The dialectical moments are clear here: one figures and another disfigures. The former lends life meaning and purpose, and the latter disrupts static structures. Without the first moment, life would be pure chaos without order; without the second moment, we cannot account for the emergence and development of religion. The key illustration—the co-emergence of the Cultural Revolution and evangelicalism—can now be accounted for. As cultural structures were being disrupted, the hippie and evangelical movements emerged as stabilizing structures that attempted to recover authenticity, the hippies through sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll and the evangelicals through a personal relationship with Jesus.15
Taylor also makes a distinction between religion and religiosity. Religiosity is the name given when only the stabilizing moment of religion is in play. Religiosity banishes doubt by absolutely stabilizing relativities and dividing the world into opposites of sacred/profane, religion/secularity, and so on. From Taylor’s perspective, evangelicalism is a religiosity. Conversely, true religion has two moments in it, which allows for complexity, and this is why Taylor’s own constructive religious proposal includes both structuring and destructuring.16
III. Taylor’s Pursuit After God in the Christological Divinity of the World
Similar to religion, nature also has within it this duplicitous restlessness of altarity. Because Taylor does not think religion can go away, he develops his own “Religion without God,” which consists in awe and respect for nature and its dialectical processes.17 There is in nature a dialectical force that allows organisms to evolve and the currents of life to circulate through ecosystems; Taylor calls this autopoiesis (self-creativity), whereby organisms and ecosystems inexplicably evolve and endure without external agency and are self-moving.18 Taylor’s devotion to the divinity of the world can be seen in his trust in nature’s system. Natural selection, that process in which death picks off the weaklings and deems them unfit to live, works in the same way that Adam Smith’s invisible hand guides the market, such that Taylor calls evolution the “immanentization of providence.”19
Internal to Taylor’s idea of providence is the moment of destruction. He explains that “disorder is actually necessary to [life’s] emergence, renewal, and development.” Here he is not merely describing natural processes; he is ascribing meaning and purpose to life, for this is the purpose of religion. Life is the coincidence of the opposites of structuring and destructuring, and the emergence of the new happens at the border between these opposites. Moreover, the creativity of life is not moving toward a higher purpose; its purpose is “nothing other than the process itself.” Life is the re-cycling of matter, through structuring and destructuring, powered by an elusive, immanent providence, and death is part of this divine process, an infinite movement in which humans are but a moment.20
Where does Taylor’s system leave us? It leaves us with a secular religion in which the world is governed providentially through the continual figuring and disfiguring of life. The world is not totally violent (in contrast to Hobbes’s view of nature as a “war of all against all”), but Taylor’s logic of co-evolution requires violence and death as necessary moments in altarity.21 When we raise the question of the absurdity of death, at first Taylor sounds like a voice of reason: Why are we fighting against death? It is natural. The death of one organism is needed for the life of another, and it is high time we realize this.
The natural world is obviously violent; I will not deny it. But I suggest that we not make it our model for reality as it should be.22 This is a bold assertion, but it is an assertion grounded in the Christian tradition and supported by human discontent with death and destruction. I contend that either death is absurd, and we are right to be upset by it, or death is a necessity and our protests against it are absurd.23
IV. Affirming Life
Taylor’s theory may sound attractive to those of us who feel like we have experienced the death of God in our spiritual life. If we accept his premises, we can stop projecting our wishes onto God, since they often appear to be unfulfilled, and dismiss the violence of death by subsuming it into our worldview. But I suspect that we aren’t really willing to embrace Taylor’s philosophy, that the Christian scandalization of death resonates with the human spirit. Instead of rationalizing death, Christianity maintains that death is an unnecessary result of sin. This does not mean we dismiss death—in fact, Taylor is the one who ironically dismisses death by making it “all part of the plan.” In contrast, we identify with Job, the iconic wretch of the Hebrew Scriptures, who cries out with a one-word prayer, “Violence!” and yet does not receive a satisfactory answer:
Even when I cry out, “Violence!” I
am not answered;
I call aloud, but there is no
justice. (Job 19:7 NRSV)
No reason is given to Job for the violence he suffers, but in the New Testament, Job is joined by Jesus of Nazareth, who cries from his cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46, NRSV) Christ is risen, but death is not thereby a calculated norm to affirm. We still cry out “Violence!” in solidarity with Job and Jesus, not because we lack faith, but because faith is somehow given to us. When we cry out with no response, it takes more faith to join Job than to affirm death as a natural part of the cycle of life. Because he thinks destructuring is at the heart of reality, Taylor need not cry out in discontent. It is only because Christians do not believe that the violence of death is natural that we cry out in persistence, that we are not persuaded of death’s necessity.
The Christian discontent with death also reconfigures our pursuit of God as anticipation, a waiting for the future, rather than as a respect for autopoiesis. This means, among other things, that because death is not the natural way for Christians, we do not use death to affirm life. And this is true not only for humans, but also for the ecosystems around us. Wolves culling each other do not reveal the heart of existence; the wolf lying down with the lamb reveals the heart of existence—this is the eschatological promise given to us (Isaiah 11:6).24 Christians do not fight to secure our life because the future is not something we obtain, but something that is given, something which comes to us.
The Christian creeds have something to contribute to our refusal to see death as an instrument for life. In contrast to Taylor’s coincidence of the opposites of divinity and humanity, Christian theology does not make God our opposite. Though we are opposed to God’s ways, this is due to sin, not our nature. To be opposed to God is to go against our created nature, and it is therefore part of the work of Christ to restore this disposition to human nature. Thus, the creed of Chalcedon (AD 451) does not direct our attention to two separate natures but to a singular person who is fully God and fully human. He is a single person in whom the divine and human wills work in harmony.25
One particular opposite between God and (fallen) humans that is appropriate to elaborate on here is how we secure the future: through human violence or through divine resurrection. Christ, in giving up his life, gave up any effort to secure the establishment of the kingdom of God. John Howard Yoder’s comments on the worthiness of the slain Lamb to receive power (see Revelation 5:12) are helpful here:
The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect, but one of cross and resurrection.26
This contrasts starkly with Taylor’s insistence that the future is what emerges from the present.27 If the makings of the future are within the present, then we are tempted to use whatever means are at our disposal to make sure the future happens. For Christians, the real does not emerge but is to come, and with this faith, we refuse to perpetuate violence. Therefore, in contrast to necessitating destruction for the future of life, Christians may respond to death by refusing to take the future into our violent hands and letting it come as a gift through resurrection. This tactic is one of patience, as Yoder notes, “The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience.”28 We are patient because death remains alien to us, and we refuse to use it as a tool to make things turn out right.
Another implication of the Christian priority of the future in relation to death is the affirmation of earthly life—we don’t go to heaven, heaven comes to us. Christianity is not an escapist strategy, and this is where we are in partial agreement with Taylor. We affirm the goodness of the world, which has not totally vanished because of sin.
Unfortunately, this has not always been clear, especially in evangelical pop-culture. A fitting illustration of this is a sampling of lyrics from the Christian pop-band Far From Home’s song, “Fly Away,” “One day I’ll see you coming back for me; And all together we’ll fly away; One day I’ll hear the trumpet loud and clear; And all together we’ll fly away.”29 This perspective betrays the witness of the New Testament. To pick one image among many, at the end of John’s Apocalypse, the heavenly city comes down to us—we do not go up to it (Rev. 21:2). The coming city can be seen as an affirmation of the resurrection of bodies and the renewing of creation: Christ does not come to make all new things, but to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
A fine example of this logic can be found in Justin Martyr’s second-century treatise On The Resurrection, where anticipation of the resurrection requires an ethic of caring for the body. He explains that a physician with an incurable patient will “allow [the patient] to indulge in his desires,” but if the physician can save his patients, he does not allow them “to indulge in what pleasures they please.” Likewise, because our bodies have a future in the resurrection, we should not allow them to waste, but should put them under the rule of Christ.30
As a final note about our orientation to the future, I suggest that our human discontent comes from a stirring of the Spirit of God, who stirs us to anticipate the future. The heavenly city, which is coming, is proleptically present, alerting us to the disparity between the way things are and the way they will be. From this perspective, we can observe Augustine’s famous remark, “our heart is restless until it rests in you,” in a certain way:31 our restlessness comes not from an absence of God, as it does for Taylor, but from the presence of the Spirit, who stirs us to discontentment with the way things are and produces a desire for the full consummation of the present work of the Spirit.32
V. Conclusion: Release from the Cycles of Alternation
Taylor’s work can only be interpreted as radically conservative in his theology, and it does not synchronize with the human discontent with death. He affirms the infinite cycles of life, as is evident in the signature at the end of the acknowledgements of After God, which appears as MCT in the form of a circle. Taylor states definitively: “[T]he end of life is life itself. In human beings, this creative process becomes aware of itself. But this awareness is always incomplete and hence must forever be refigured.”33 This is why he can do no more than affirm what is and more of the same; no release from the cycle of life and death is forthcoming. Taylor’s theory is conservative because it has a real resonance with ancient paganism, which taught that time is circular and moves nowhere, and this repetitive sense of time is something Augustine critiqued back in the fifth century. Against those who say the world “dies away and is renewed,” he says, “For once Christ died for our sins; and, rising from the dead, He dies no more. Death has no more dominion over Him; and we ourselves after the resurrection shall be ‘ever with the Lord.’”34 If we are to conclude that death is absurd, and not our protests of it, then perhaps, with Augustine, we can say of the cycle of life and death, “we have exploded these cycles.”35
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1. The question asked on the cover of Time on April 8, 1966, was “Is God Dead?” This was the second article Time featured on the “God is Dead” movement—the first one appearing on October 22, 1965—in which the view(s) of Thomas J.J. Altizer and others (Paul van Buren, William Hamilton, and Gabriel Vahanian) were aired. Of the thinkers Time mentioned, Altizer has been perhaps the most famous death-of-God theologian; his work has had the most enduring influence, and he also received severe backlash from the Time article. See Thomas J. J. Altizer, Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir (New York, NY: SUNY, 2006).
2. Altizer’s joy was proclaimed vicariously through Time Magazine, October 22, 1965.
3. Mark C. Taylor, “Foreword,” to Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir (New York, NY: SUNY, 2006), xi.
4. Mark C. Taylor, After God (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 240, 377.
5. John D. Caputo, Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), 17.
6. Mark C. Taylor, Tears (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1990), 119.
7. Taylor, After God, 127; 128. Also, his view of reality as a web is evident in the choice of cover design of After God, a map of the internet. Taylor sees the Internet as a model for a non-totalizing system of the whole.
8. Ibid., 26.
9. Ibid., 150.
10. Ibid., 153.
11. This interpretation of the death of God differs from Altizer’s; in the latter, God emptied himself into creation at a certain point in history.
12. Ibid., 163, 154-155. The modern pattern of the deaths of God moves from deism to romanticism, liberalism to neo-orthodoxy, neo-orthodoxy to the death of God, and finally, in our day, the death of God theology gives way to a new transcendence in neofoundationalism, including, especially, evangelicalism.
13. Ibid., 1-2.
14. Ibid., 12.
15. Ibid., 13; 12, 7; 241-280.
16. Ibid., 4. Although Taylor’s theory of religion has many nuances and should be assessed on its full terms, for the purpose of this essay, we most need to understand the two moments of structuring/stabilizing and destructuring/destabilizing.
17. “Religion without God” is the title of chapter 7 of After God.
18. If there is any doubt that I am misinterpreting Taylor here, I point out that he calls this process “bootstrapping” (Ibid. 319),
19. Ibid., 319-21; 337.
20. Ibid., 328-9; 317; 356.
21. Ibid., 338.
22. I am not denying the theory of evolution in my critique of Taylor; I am only refusing to accept that evolution and the cycle of life speak the final word about the way things should be and will be.
23. I would like to thank Ben Suriano for helping me formulate the antithesis this way.
24. The faith- and hope-oriented suggestions I am making cannot be simplistically transposed on to the ecosystems of the earth. This problem is a pressing one, but here all I can do is gesture toward Romans 8, in which Paul testifies that all creation groans in birth pangs until the children of God are redeemed, suggesting that the redemption of the natural world is somehow tied up in the redemption of humanity, and conversely, that the agony of the world is somehow tied to human sin.
25. Diotheletism, the doctrine that Christ has two wills, a divine will and a human will, was not affirmed until the council of Constantinople of 681, but it is faithful to the logic of Chalcedon.
26. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 232.
27. For just a sample of the occurrences of “emerging” language in Taylor’s work, see his section in After God entitled “Emergent Creativity,” 329-347.
28. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 232.
29. The lyrics to this song can be obtained here: http://www.christianlyricsonline.com/artists/ffh/fly-away.html
30. Justin Martyr, On The Resurrection, trans. James Donaldson, Alexander Roberts, Ante-Nicene Christian Library vol. 1. Reprint, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 299.
31. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991), 4.
32. I am indebted to Craig Keen for this observation.
33. Taylor, After God, 346.
34. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Markus Dods (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1950, 1978, 1999, 2000), XII.17, XII.13. Augustine is quoting part of 1 Thess. 4:17.
35. Ibid., XII.20.
Thomas J. Bridges
Thomas J. Bridges lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with Jeanne, his bread-winning wife. He is a PhD student in the Marquette University Department of Theology, where he studies the borders between theology, philosophy, and social theory. He blogs (along with J. David Belcher) at www.laperruque.wordpress.com, and he is awaiting the eschaton so he can get some rest.