The American thinker Thomas J. J. Altizer (born 1927) had a major impact on theology in the last half of the 20th century. Best known as the exponent and developer of "the death of God," his work was little understood in his own time.
A descendant and namesake of Stonewall Jackson, Thomas J. J. Altizer was born September 28, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; his father was a distinguished attorney. He grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, and graduated there in 1944 from Stonewall Jackson High School. After one year at St. John's College he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Following Army service he enrolled in the College of the University of Chicago from which he graduated with honors in 1948. In 1951 he received the M.A. in theology at the divinity school and in 1955 the Ph.D. in history of religions at the Graduate School of the University of Chicago. His principal mentors during his graduate course were Joachim Wach, Mircea Eliade, and Paul Tillich.
From 1954 to 1956 he taught at Wabash College, and in 1956 he went to Emory University where he taught in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts and in the Graduate Division of Religion. In 1968 he became professor of English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Retaining his position in English, in 1970 he became chairman of a new interdisciplinary unit in religious studies at Stony Brook. He had already launched a rigorous program of thinking and writing about theology.
No American thinker in the last half of the 20th century worked more productively or with greater singleness of purpose toward the realization of his theological vision than Thomas Altizer. From the beginning that vision encompassed the restoration and realization of the biblical Christian apocalypse and the extension of the claims of that apocalypse to a dialogue with other world religions, notably Buddhism. Seeing Christendom as the historical negation of what had been announced in and by Jesus as the end of history (viz., the Kingdom of God), he saw in the modern "death of God" the historically actual realization of the primal apocalypse, the conscious realization that God had emptied himself of all absolute, transcent otherness and entered fully into the identity and difference of the human cosmos. This kenosis (self-emptying), enacted in the Incarnation, had, after centuries of Christian misreading, been realized through the dialectic of history, over which a wholly immanent God prevailed despite the Satanic interventions of Christendom and its orthodox theologians.
The dialectic of the biblical apocalypse—that of the identity of God, of the difference of God from himself and the world, of the world from itself and God—had been preserved and renewed in the epic traditions of the Western world, in Homer and Virgil and above all in Dante, Milton, Blake, and Joyce. Without eschewing—indeed emphasizing—its biblical basis, Altizer's theology thus saw in the conditions of modern consciousness the ultimate fruition of original Christianity, the perfection of Jesus's re-presentation of God. That fruition marked the end of history as known to Western consciousness and, in religious terms, the beginning of the universal (but not absolute) religion.
The power and subtlety of Altizer's work were as little understood by professional theologians as by those in the popular media. That resulted largely from his having distanced himself critically from the two major options of 19th and 20th century Protestant Christian theology. While considered a "radical" by everyone, Altizer steadfastly rejected the liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries (Schleiermacher, Harnack) and its claim to ground Christian faith in the religio-ethical personality of Jesus to which we have access by historical research. Just as steadfastly he rejected the 20th century rejection of liberalism by neoorthodox or neo-reformation theology (Barth, Brunner): in Jesus we have the Word of God thrown into the human condition as an alien word about and of the Wholly, Absolute Other. In high transcendence of these options, Altizer fashioned his theology by utilizing the linguistic forms of Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche and the substance of the Bible, mediated by the arts: epic literature, music, painting, and sculpture. The professor Mark Taylor rightly wrote, "When the history of twentieth century theology is written, one of its major chapters will be devoted to the work of Thomas J. J. Altizer."
As of 1997 Altizer had written eleven major books. Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology (1961); Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred (1963); The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966); The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (1967); The Descent Into Hell (1970); The Self-Embodiment of God (1977); Total Presence (1980); and History as Apocalypse (1985); and The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. (1970), in which ten contributors evaluated Altizer's theology and he responded. In Thomas W. Ogletree's The Death of God Controversy (1966) Altizer's theology is evaluated and compared with that of two other "radical" theologians in the 1960s—William Hamilton and Paul van Buren. William Robert Miller in The New Christianity (1967) sets Altizer in the context of modern religious thought. In America and the Future of Theology, edited by William A. Beardslee (1967), Altizer both commented on the future of theology and had his own contributions to that future commented on by others.
The subtlest and most penetrating evaluations of Altizer's last three books are to be found in two major review articles: Charles E. Winquist, "Thomas J. J. Altizer: In Retrospect," Religious Studies Review (October 1982) and Mark C. Taylor, "Altizer's Originality," Journal of the American Academy of Religion (September 1984).