This is part two of a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.
- Profane prosperity
As many New Things in intellectual life wind up, Radical Theology and the Death of God feels, in its anomie and consolation both, utterly of its very specific time. Their analytic philosophical language (either God is or is not, either the language of worship is factual or false) hadn’t yet been buffeted by Continental anti-foundationalism, nor anything like Derrida’s formulation of God in the language of desire rather than fact. Hamilton’s distinction between “God” and “world” bespeaks the cerebral, slightly anxious tone of Karl Barth and a discomfort with paradox. The book mentions Vatican II zero times, nor the experience of Third World Christians.
For his part, Alitzer seems ready to enter a dark night of hopeless (or, literally, objectless) hope, but he doesn’t speak of the Desert Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, or any other apophatic Christians, who a thousand years earlier had found rich spiritual meaning (and consolation) in negation and the non-objectification of God. Likewise, though he began his career writing on eastern mysticism and Biblical eschatology, Alitzer’s repeated insistence in the “radically profane” nature of modern life shows no awareness of Buddhist ideas of the identity of the noumenal and the phenomenal. This is extra-surprising because he refers to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s idea that “a religious life which would respond to the death of God cannot direct its prayer and mediation to a transcendent or numinous realm, but instead must open itself to a divine ‘center’ that fills the whole body of the cosmos, and a ‘center’ that has no existence apart from the movement of the cosmos itself.” This inward-not-upward motion completely eludes him in his insistence on dialectics: to fully enter the world, he believes, spirit had to cease to be. His heartbroken insistence leads him to muddle very separate ideas of the forgetting of, the ignorance of, the non-existence of, and the phenomenal presence of the transcendent.
Crucially—and this was the lesson for me the reader—Alitzer and Hamilton also share a very early-60s assurance that capitalist liberalism would keep its promises, and was in the process of creating a “grownup” society of generalized human thriving. This consoles Hamilton—at last, outgrowing our primitive need for a God who’ll fix things!—and depresses Alitzer, but they both accept it. They believe the hype about their own time, and frame their spiritual questions solely in the language of their own time. They even share the same bland assurance that the “Negro movement” will renew the church’s tradition of engagement with the world. Radical Theology is thus an odd mixture of liberal optimism and classic paranoia—in the sense of externalizing one’s anxiety onto outside objects. Instead, as history as shown, liberalism failed to keep its promises, and the social contract that once suggested universal well-being (or even American well-being) has been frayed to virtually nothing. Perhaps we “need” transcendence—and a radical vision of the present—after all.
Final reflections—on “the death of God” and our present era—in Part 3.