Altizer Is Not Dead

Everyone who knows Emory knows the name Thomas Altizer.

The fiery young religion professor was author of one of the most turbulent chapters in the university’s history—the national uproar over the 1966 Time magazine cover asking “Is God Dead?”, which featured Altizer’s provocative New Testament scholarship. It was a pivotal moment for Emory leaders, who were buffeted from all sides by furious demands for Altizer’s termination, and worse.

The fact that they held their ground on the principle of academic freedom eventually acquired the status of a watershed for the institution, becoming a story told to successive Emory generations like a fireside fable. (Emory Magazine even reprised the Time cover in a 2006 issue on religion.)

And Altizer himself became the stuff of legend. His almost mythic position in the annals of university history was no doubt helped along by the fact that he left Emory soon after the Time firestorm, going up north to teach at Stony Brook University, and later retired to what people inevitably refer to as “a home in the Poconos,” adding further to the mystery of the man.

The significance of the Altizer affair was paid homage during our recent 175th anniversary celebration, when he was named one of the 175 Emory makers of history and his story was featured in a full-page New York Times ad highlighting a handful of events that helped shape Emory as an institution of integrity.

But most of us, including myself, no longer thought of Altizer as a real-live person; despite his continued presence in theology circles, including a memoir published in 2006, his long absence from Emory had somehow relegated him to a shadowy giant of the past.

Which is why it was especially exciting when he accepted an invitation to attend, in the flesh, the anniversary events, even arriving a few days early to preach in Cannon Chapel and speak to religion students at the behest of the Office of Religious Life. Make no mistake: Altizer is very much alive. Spirited and vigorous as ever, with his shock of white hair and strident voice, he brought his time at Emory back to life, too, reminding present-day listeners what was at the heart of the matter—a passionate search for theological truth. Emory, he insisted, was a restless, radical place in the 1960s, a place where revolutionary New Testament study was causing ripples among theologians all over the world.

Not everyone can be as radical as Thomas Altizer. But we can honor that tradition by recognizing those among us who take risks and make sacrifices in search of new knowledge and truth. Take our cover subject, Jay Ewart 03L, who signed up for a pro bono death penalty case as a first-year lawyer and spent the next seven years relentlessly pursuing legal strategies to keep defendant Troy Davis from the death chamber. Although he ultimately lost that fight, Ewart’s journey alongside Davis is one of courage and commitment, unexpected friendship, and finally facing the most radical thing a human being can: a life fading away.

Then there is Frank Main 86C, a Chicago newspaper writer who quit the newsroom for a while in favor of shoe-leather reporting in the city’s toughest neighborhoods. His months of investigation—which put him in regular contact with thugs, cops, and grisly crime scenes—not only won him a Pulitzer Prize, they resulted in articles that could, over time, expose and weaken the criminal network that supports violence on the streets.

And there’s also Tiya Miles 95G, professor and winner of the remarkable MacArthur “genius grant,” a prize that will help foster her surprising study of some of the most overlooked relationships in history—the connections among Native Americans and African American slaves.

The study of religion stars once again in this magazine, too, as we turn to Candler School of Theology for a look at how Bible interpretation can get twisted and misused, particularly in the public realm of politics. We think Altizer himself would be pleased by the notion that Emory still strives to provide rigorous, challenging theological education built on a broad base of diverse works, views, and voices. Some might even be—yes—radical.

Speaking of Altizer, that’s him on this page, seeing for the first time the New York Times ad with his picture and his story, which has come full circle. By chance, I had the somewhat surreal experience of showing it to him on the day of the 175th anniversary convocation, and I am grateful that my friend Ann Borden of Emory Photo/Video had the presence of mind to take a picture of it. I guess photographers know better than anyone else that moments like that one—even though they may be long remembered—are gone in a flash.

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