With one simple proclamation, Thomas J. J. Altizer set religious scholarship on fire and gave Emory a name as a bastion of theological liberalism / Paige P. Parvin 96G
It is perhaps the ultimate paradox that Thomas J. J. Altizer, the former Emory professor whose radical 1960s “death of God” theology earned him a glaring media spotlight, international infamy, and dozens of personal death threats, is utterly fixated on God.
In his foreword to Altizer’s memoir released this spring, Living the Death of God, religion scholar Mark C. Taylor calls Altizer “the last theologian” and “the most God-obsessed person I have ever known.”
Altizer came to Emory in 1956, a young, handsome religion professor burning with radical ideas. During his twelve years here, he led what was nothing short of a revolution among a small band of like-minded theologians who called themselves “Christian atheists” and proclaimed the death of God as commonly known. At the height of a national controversy, some Christians called for Altizer’s death, as Emory’s president stepped forward to defend his academic freedom—a moment that would shape the University’s future as surely as it would shape Altizer’s fate.
“The truth is,” Altizer writes, “that I was given deep support throughout this period, and while I offended many permanently, and lost every hope of a foundation grant or a major academic appointment, I have never regretted the offense that I gave. A new community opened to me, a community of a wide variety of people, for this country is passionately religious, and at bottom, in rebellion at what it has been given as religion.”
Now seventy-nine, retired, and living alone in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, Altizer says his memoir represents his attempt to retrace his lifelong theological journey and “recount my own theological voids”—voids that finally led him to a deeper understanding of God.
“You have to go through the depths of darkness to realize the joyous glory of the light,” he says. “My work really means just the opposite of what everyone thinks. I’m violently misunderstood.”
Descended from General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Thomas Jonathan Jackson Altizer grew up mostly in West Virginia in a family that was “deeply Southern” and marked, he says, by madness. He did learn a love of books from his father, who told Altizer his own father also revered the printed word, with one notable exception: in a fit of rage, Altizer’s grandfather once hurled Nietzsche’s The Antichrist into the fire. Although Altizer claims he was deeply taken with Christianity as a youth, he was raised with little religious guidance, left to find his own way through reading and prayer.
Altizer attended the University of Chicago from 1947 to 1954, finishing with a PhD. During his early years there, he also served as a chaplain at an Episcopal church and was on a path to becoming an Episcopal priest. But candidates for the priesthood were required to undergo a rigorous psychiatric exam, which, as Altizer writes, he “unexpectedly and totally failed.” Indeed, a psychiatrist told him he could expect to be institutionalized within the year.
In the weeks before the examination, Altizer remembers being in a “turbulent condition,” a period when he experienced a violent transformation that would profoundly inform his work from then on.
“This occurred late at night, while I was in my room,” he writes. “I suddenly awoke and became truly possessed and experienced an epiphany of Satan, which I have never been able fully to deny, an experience in which I could actually feel Satan consuming me, absorbing me into his very being. . . . Satan and Christ soon became my primary theological motifs, and my deepest theological goal eventually became one of discovering a coincidentia oppositorium [coincidence of opposites] between them.”
In 1955, the year before he arrived at Emory, Altizer was reading in the University of Chicago library when he experienced a similar revelation—but the inverse of his encounter with Satan.
“I had what I have ever since regarded as a genuine religious conversion, and this was a conversion to the death of God,” he writes. “Never can such an experience be forgotten, and while it truly paralleled my earlier experience of the epiphany of Satan, this time I experienced a pure grace, as though it were the very reversal of my experience of Satan.”
On a most basic level, Altizer studies God not as a separate presence but as a historical force that has been transformed by death. This God began giving himself to the world at its creation and ultimately died through Jesus Christ, whose earthly demise in turn poured the spirit of God into the world. Altizer calls for a dialectical form of faith that acknowledges the coincidence of opposites: through God’s death, the sacred becomes profane, and vice versa; one cannot exist without the other. Only in modernity, Altizer believes, can we fully realize the paradox of the death of God—that the very absence of God signifies God’s presence in all things.
When the death-of-God movement began to capture national attention in the early 1960s, Altizer was one of a handful of cutting-edge New Testament scholars who were starting to garner a reputation for themselves and the University as a site of groundbreaking, even revolutionary, religious thought.
“It was as though Emory was a truly radical center, or surely it was so theologically,” Altizer writes. “Such an environment would be impossible to imagine today, but that was a time of breakthrough theologically, and above all so in America, the new America, which at that very time was becoming the dominant power in the world.”
Altizer’s death-of-God theology was featured in two TIME magazine articles in 1965 and 1966, the latter hitting newsstands around Easter with the question “Is God Dead?” in bold red letters against a stark black background. A national outcry ensued. The story prompted a record number of letters to the editor, and Altizer began to make appearances around the country, including on the popular Merv Griffin Show, which ended in a hurried exit as the chanting crowd called for Altizer’s death. He tried, he says, to use these opportunities not to lecture but to preach—to preach the death of God as “the good news” of redemption and joy. He jokingly calls himself the first televangelist.
“Tom just doesn’t use moderate words,” Jack S. Boozer, then chair of the religion department, told Emory Magazine in 1987. “We tried to get him to use another phrase than the death of God . . . But he said no, so much is at stake that there is no other way to say it.”
Despite the intended meaning of his message, Altizer did not find most audiences receptive to the news.
“I think I became one of the most hated men in America,” he writes. “Murder threats were almost commonplace, savage assaults upon me were widely published, and the churches were seemingly possessed by a fury against me.”
At Emory, where the Board of Trustees had just approved the announcement of a $25 million capital campaign, administrators led by President Sanford S. Atwood were wrestling with a serious problem. Many alumni, supporters, and representatives of the Methodist church were calling for Altizer’s immediate termination. Ultimately, however, Atwood decided to defend Altizer on the grounds of academic freedom and protected his position in the religion department. And legend has it that certain major donors—including Robert W. Woodruff and the Ford Foundation—supported Atwood, whose stance made the cover of the New York Times.
“Altizer is a professor who feels he has an idea worth discussing,” Atwood was widely quoted as saying. “He has the right to do so.”
It was a turning point for Emory. Many credit this moment—which closely followed the University’s progressive actions on desegregation—with Emory’s shift from a regional Methodist university to a national institution known for serious religious scholarship.
In 1968 Altizer departed Emory for the State University of New York at Stony Brook. There he taught English until his retirement, but he has never ceased his passionate theological journey, and many scholars of his work claim his most profound revelations and writings have occurred in the years since he faded from the public eye. Yet he is increasingly disillusioned and concerned about the current state of theology and religious life.
“This is a very dark period,” he says. “I certainly believe that never in my lifetime has the church been so paradoxical. On the one hand, it is seemingly stronger than ever before. On the other, it is weaker and more mindless than ever before. In all major denominations, fights are going on because fundamentalism is so extraordinarily powerful today. Fundamentalism is in ultimate conflict with the modern world.”
The years have mellowed Altizer very little. Still feisty and fervent in his views, he is a bit miffed at the tepid response to his memoir—though not much surprised.
“Of course it’s not going to be taken seriously in the popular world,” he says, adding with a touch of irritation, “but you’d think this Satan business would catch on.”