A Radical Theological Social Ontology: Altizer, Kotsko, and Irreducible Relationality

One of the most important observations that can be made when mapping out the death of God is to realise that, with the expiration of the divine life, so goes the vitality of human selfhood. The death of God witnesses, in short, the death of self.

The basic rationale behind this claim may be said to be, firstly, historical. That is, the modern period in which the death of God was proclaimed was also a time in which humanity felt most keenly a pervasive sense of alienation, isolation, and the dissolution of all meaning.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this modern period was also the time in which the definition of God as a self-enclosed, self-related, autonomous sovereign had been fully radicalised. Under the parameters of such a definition, the felt absence of this God saw the same qualities imparted onto humanity; but as these means of understanding God became most vacuous under modern human consciousness, they were similarly problematic and vacuous as a means to adequately comprehending the human.

As such, under the direction of the free use of reason, the Enlightenment would occasion the full dissolution of human selfhood through the progressive development of modern philosophy, science, psychology etc. Under these terms a full decentring of humanity from itself was effected.

In this way, commensurate with the death of God is the death of humanity – its place dissolves along with the God as the definitions of both are fully related. As such, as God died, so humanity died to itself in its own sovereignty and transcendent power.

Insofar as that death is felt to be coextensive with the death of God in modern consciousness, we may suggest theological and Christological associations with the eternal death of God in Christ.

Where we might theologically posit a vacating of transcendence in the Christ event and the dawning of the Kingdom it occasioned, might we also posit a certain solidarity between our own modern self-negation and self-death and the complete obliteration of Jesus of Nazareth’s selfhood in the crucifixion?

In this way, as Christ’s death elicits the possibility of a new creation and a new form of life – not in a literal sense, but in the sense of occasioning a new form of being-in-the-world among his followers, which takes place in his name – so we find in the death of modern selfhood the grounds for a new conceptualisation of our being-in-the-world. A conceptualisation that can only be properly formulated beyond the parameters of modern individualism and its ghettoisation of human selfhood. As Thomas J. J. Altizer writes, the crucifixion and death of God in Christ solicits,

A new creation in which the inner and outer realms are united, and the interior depths of inwardness are identical with the exterior and outer depths of every other. (The Descent into Hell, 169)

A radical theological reading and critique of human selfhood, in identifying the modern self’s death, can use such an occasion to outline the coordinates of new forms of human relation and organisation. These forms would be centred upon witnessing to the mutual co-implication of each with and in all; forms aimed at “abolishing all polarities and division” (p179) that establish a “chasm or fissure between the interior reality of selfhood and consciousness and the exterior reality of space and the world” (p197).

As such, this “new creation,” following the modern death of the self, would occasion forms of relation that know no distinction between the self and the other – or, rather, the self and the world. For, insofar as the self reaches its end, so all previous definitions and oppositions are rendered moot.

A novel and compelling suggestion on how to proceed is, perhaps, outlined in the work of Adam Kotsko. Kotsko, in his work The Politics of Redemption, presents a social-relational ontology that could conceivably form the basis of a new way of conceptualise new forms of human and non-human relation and organisation, following the death of the modern self.

In working out the nature of a post/modern humanity and non-selfhood, the imperative would be to gain a sense of our intrinsic and extrinsic relation to and being-with the world. As we die to our monadic individuality and fall into the great mass and chaos of the world and its relations, we are witness to the realisation that we are composed of nothing but relations “all the way down,” and that further, to vacate those relations is a form of and ultimately an occasion for nothing but death.

The world is a network of physical and spiritual relationships of which humanity forms a nodal point. The world is not something given or static, but continually arises out of the interactions among the singularities that make it up, and here humanity plays a special role in that human beings are able to take conscious, self-directed actions in a way that other beings are not. (Kotsko, 192)

Additionally and finally, we might say that Christologically speaking, the crucifixion, in displaying to us – to use Bonhoeffer’s terminology – “the man for others,” represents the theological and anthropological crisis point at which a new moment of absolute relationality is ushered in – the creation awaits the children of God to be revealed etc. – as the Christian senses their need to take up this way as their mode of being, feeling their position as the world thinking itself.

This mode of being, in being synonymous with a full embodiment of life in the Kingdom of God – life lived now, for others – bears an inherently outward orientation. It is a time of human self-definition rendered in post/modern terms, where the self is not self-related but understood as an actor in a great, irreducible network of relations. Further, it is life as a form of death, a form of death that is a dying-to-self, and a dying-to-self that is synonymous with a total embrace of the world and its inhabitants.

Love, as the Christian has been given it in Christ, is not an acceptance and affirmation of the other. It is rather an attack upon all distance that creates the alien and the other… (Altizer, 202)