Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P.

Ted Grimsrud—July 24, 2011

Gordon Kaufman, a giant among 20th century Christian theologians, died at his home in Cambridge, MA, this past Friday. Kaufman, an emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School, was 86.

Kaufman was well known in theology circles as a theological liberal (he’s featured prominently in Gary Dorrien’s authoritative history of liberal theology in the U.S.). Not so well known, he was also a Mennonite. His father, E.G. Kaufman (also a theologian) was long-time president of Bethel College, a Mennonite school in Kansas.

Gordon was a conscientious objector during World War II, serving in Civilian Public Service. After graduating from Bethel, he went on to graduate studies at the University of Chicago and Yale Divinity School. One of his main teachers was H.Richard Niebuhr. After completing his doctorate, he taught at Pomona College in southern California for a few years. At that time he was ordained for the ministry in the General Conference Mennonite Church, an ordination he kept current the rest of his life. He moved on to Vanderbilt Divinity School and in 1963 joined the faculty at Harvard Divinity School, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Beginning in 1960, Gordon published a series of important theology books, most notably his In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Harvard University Press, 1993) which won an American Academy of Religion award of excellence in 1995. He kept writing well into his retirement years. His last book was Jesus And Creativity"" (Fortress Press, 2006).

I first encountered Kaufman’s theology in 1980 when I wrote a paper for John Howard Yoder’s “Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution” class at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) on Kaufman’s notion of social responsibility (drawing on his book Nonresistance and Responsibility and Other Mennonite Essays) in conversation with J. Lawrence Burkholder and Guy F. Hershberger. I didn’t really like Kaufman’s views; I felt he was compromising pacifism too much. As was his wont, Yoder did not grace the paper with comments—I would sure love today to have a conversation with him about this theme!

My wife Kathleen read Kaufman’s book God the Problem for her systematic theology class at Pacific School of Religion (taught by Durwood Foster) about five years later. I don’t remember any particular reaction that she had; I’m guessing the book did not make much of an impression on either of us at the time.

My breakthrough in appreciating Kaufman’s thought came through a close reading of a young renegade Mennonite theologian named Daniel Liechty’s challenging book, Theology in Postliberal Perspective in 1991. I was pastoring a small, progressive Mennonite congregation in Eugene, Oregon, at the time. We read Liechty’s book in our Sunday School class and had many stimulating discussions. Liechty drew most of all on the social thinker, Ernest Becker, and probably Kaufman was his second most important influence.

I especially appreciated Liechty’s discussion of authority and his use of Kaufman’s An Essay on Theological Method to make the point that all theology is human work. Our theology is not revelation from God, but it is our own constructive work. Therefore, we have no claims for special authority for any theology; we must have humility and respect as we interact with theological differences. At that point, I knew I needed to reassess my somewhat negative impression of Kaufman and pay more attention to his work.

My catalyst for delving into Kaufman’s writings came a couple of years later. We spent spring semester 1992 back at AMBS, and I took a class on contemporary theology taught by visiting Church of the Brethren prof Melanie May, a student of Kaufman’s at Harvard. We discussed Kaufman in class, and in that setting I learned to know a then precocious recent Bethel College grad, Alain Epp Weaver, who appreciated Kaufman’s theology and had the idea of putting together a Mennonite festschrift for Gordon. I talked with Alain quite a bit about that project, helped him think of who to invite, and ultimately contributed an essay to the book, which came out in 1996.

In the summer of 1994, Kathleen and I attended a Mennonite Central Committee Peace Theology Colloquium at Messiah College on religious pluralism where Gordon was a featured speaker. He did a nice job (here’s his paper, “Mennonite Peace Theology in a Religiously Plural World”), and in fact helped Kathleen especially to affirm that she could indeed remain a Christian and in the church if Gordon’s views represented a valid strand of Christian thought.

As a result of my being part of the festschrift, I was invited to present a paper at a conference celebrating Gordon’s work at Bethel College in the Fall of 1996. This happened to be my first semester as a professor at Eastern Mennonite University. The conference was great. My paper was a kind of benediction to my career of congregational ministry written in a Kaufmanian key (here are some papers from the conference, mine is found on p. 30). The highlight of the conference to me was a long conversation I had with Gordon and Dutch Mennonite theologian Robbert Veen.

By this time, I had read most of Kaufman’s books, and was especially impressed with In Face of Mystery. I was surprised with how “Mennonite” Face turned out being—especially in how it makes the life and teaching of Jesus (understood very much in a kind of pacifist sense) the core Christian message. Bethel College prof Duane Friesen, who was the main organizer of the conference, was in the midst of teaching a seminary class on Face. I talked with several of his students who were congregational pastors just beginning their seminary studies and with fairly conservative instincts, and they too were impressed with how helpful they found the book to be.

Several years later, I was able to arrange for Gordon to be part of a panel at a session at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual convention, held in Denver in November 2001. Our panel was made up of Mennonite theologians and addressed the theme, “Is God Nonviolent?” (the published version of the essays from this symposium are here). Gordon’s piece was exceptional, and certainly elicited a great deal of lively conversation. I was happy to allow him to reconnect with his Mennonite roots as he had not been invited to very many Mennonite discussions over the years.

The last encounter we had with Gordon came in the Fall of 2004. I was invited to speak at a retreat of the Mennonite Congregation of Boston. Gordon helped found that congregation in the early 1960s and several times had served for a year as the congregation’s pastor in their rotating system. Gordon invited Kathleen and me to spend the night with him, which gave us a great opportunity for extended conversation.

The time with the Boston congregation was a lively discussion about the contemporary Mennonite church. The people wanted to hear about the various controversies at my college and our Mennonite conference. We talked together about how more progressive voices might play a role in the dynamics of the broader Mennonite church. As Kathleen and I were leaving, Gordon made a point to offer me strong encouragement to continue to work in my Mennonite setting. He obviously retained a deep commitment to and interest in Mennonitism in North America, even as he gained acclaim in the broader world of academic theology.

The two Mennonite theological giants in North America, John Howard Yoder and Gordon Kaufman, both have had huge impacts on my theology—perhaps more than any other theologians. I would definitely consider myself a Yoderian more than a Kaufmanian, in part I am sure because I have chosen to do my work very much within the parameters of the church (both congregational ministry and teaching at a church-owned college) rather than in the broader academic world. I do find Yoder’s work more directly helpful in my vocation of constructing a thoroughgoing peace theology. Kaufman’s thought remains very important to me, though, as well.

And, I actually think Yoder and Kaufman complement each other in important ways. Unfortunately, the two of them did not develop much of a relationship, either on a personal or intellectual level. I don’t know why precisely, though partly it would have been because their paths rarely crossed. They grew up in different Mennonite traditions and as academics worked at different schools and in different fields. I think, though, that they must both be read and each offers important correctives to the other one’s thought.

Yoder challenges Kaufman’s tendency to diminish the biblical witness (though Kaufman certainly did value the Bible and, as I alluded to above, in In Face of Mystery, biblical teachings play a more important role than I had expected). Kaufman challenges Yoder’s tendency toward an authoritarian approach to the Bible and at least some Christian doctrines (though I would argue that ultimately Yoder’s theology is anti-authoritarian and that those who seek to accommodate Yoder with, e.g., the creeds and Augustine are misguided).

I don’t agree with quite a few things that the late Canadian Mennonite theologian Jim Reimer wrote. And I certainly disagree with his negative assessment of Yoder and Kaufman in the article he wrote many years ago, “The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology” (Conrad Grebel Review, 1.1 [Winter 1983]). However, I do agree with his placing them closer together than is generally the case. He sees them, it seems to me, as both being opposed to his own project of recovering “classical Christianity” (creeds, et al). On that point he is correct, and this is an important insight (though, of course, Reimer thinks this is a bad thing and I approve of it).

In my language, what unites Yoder and Kaufman is that both were anti-authoritarian. Theology is something we must work at together, through conversation, and in resistance to all the efforts in the Christian tradition to shut down the conversation through authoritarian appeals to “settled” dogma. The priority is on the life and teaching of Jesus, not the later human generated creeds and dogmas. One major consequence of this priority is that authentic theology is at its ethical, a unity of belief and practice. Both Kaufman and Yoder had their entire focus as theologians shaped by World War II. Both believed that that war showed the need more than ever before for peace-oriented theological reflection. The emphasis on theology being linked with peacemaking is the genius of the Anabaptist tradition and at this most important point, Kaufman and Yoder remain two of our most useful guides.

It is a sad thing whenever we lose a mentor. I am grateful for the all too brief opportunities I had to be friends with Gordon. More so, I am grateful for all that I have learned from his writings, presentations, and conversations. I don’t imagine his theology will ever be as popular as I think it should be; it may become ever less well known as time passes. But he stands as an impressive model of a person of faith who was willing to ask all the difficult questions, to follow the evidence where it seemed to lead, and to commit his energies to encouraging human beings to know themselves as creatures who ultimately will thrive best when they live in trust toward what is an ultimately beneficent creativity that infuses the universe.

[Here is a link to an article Kaufman published in 2003, “My Life and My Theological Reflection: Two Central Themes”.]

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33 thoughts on “Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P.

  1. T,

    Thanks for your kind and warm words about Kaufman. I especially enjoyed the televised interview. So much about theology is located in the character of the theologian, and listening and watching Kaufman offered some teachable moments.

    dlaban

    1. I appreciate the affirmation, David. I think in the video we see Gordon’s passion for his work—which was good, godly work in my view.

  2. Thanks for writing this reflection on your journey with Kaufman’s work and all the links. I too was in Melanie May’s course on Contemporary theologians and was first exposed to Kaufman there, as I recall we read his book on The Theological Imagination.

    1. Thanks, Susan. As I remember it, too, we read The Theological Imagination. I was going to write that in my post but just wasn’t sure enough to risk making a mistake! That was a really fun class.

  3. What an absurd interview. Better to become Buddhist as what he says is perfectly consistent within Buddhism with its agnosticism and ability to absorb contemporary physics (including “creativity”) in just this way. Or, he should have become a process theologian whereby not only is creativity strongly embraced but actually a personal/relational concept of God. Certainly, his take on creativity (from a scientific point of view) sounds truly amateurish as he doesn’t know what to do with it except to assert it as supreme principle quite apart from any recognizable scientific (or even theological) perspective. Indeed, he seems to be a pure naive modernist in his belief in human objectivity and yet absurd in that he wants to make his sole ground of being, creativity, a God that can somehow be consistent with historic Christianity–or any other theistic religion. His philosophical theology is far more radical than Kant and especially a Hegel or a Whitehead. He doesn’t even belong to the church in a broad Schleiermacherian sense. In short, he comes off as an unbeliever in any recognizable sense and yet wants to retain some connection to the church. But why? It’s so utterly inconsistent as his views mesh much more naturally elsewhere and are thoroughly outmoded unless one has no real knowledge of contemporary physics or scientific-based theologies such as process thought.

    1. This seems a bit harsh, Jonathan.

      I’m not sure why you would begrudge someone’s desire to be part of the church. A person who is in church is more likely to hear the gospel than one who’s not, right? 🙂

      I personally think there are lots of good reasons to “retain a connection to the church” if one is truly interested in seeking the truth and following the teaching of Jesus (which I strongly believe Kaufman was)—a sense of community with others who also care about seeking the truth, a chance to sing and pray and hear sermons, being around people who model kindness and compassion, a connection with people from around the world who are also seeking the truth and trying to follow Jesus, et al.

      I don’t think even having an “amateurish” view of creativity or being a “pure naive modernist” or being “absurd” in trying to link one’s understanding of God with “historic Christianity” or being one who “comes off as an unbeliever in any recognizable sense” [to you!] should be enough to disqualify one who wants to be part of the church from doing so. In fact, I would respect such a person and expect that I would benefit a great deal from Sunday School conversation with them (as I did with Kaufman and have with other similarly-minded people).

  4. I think Kaufman’s legacy will experience understatement for a very brief time. As Einstein’s modernist understandings paved the way for spectacular ideas in quantum physics, so has Kaufman’s theology laid a fantastic and bold vision of theology for contemporary minds to address the ultimate concerns of today.
    Ted, thank you for this eulogy.

  5. Hi, Ted–Thanks for posting. How did you hear about Gordon’s death? I’ve gone on-line, but can’t find an obituary.

    1. Hi Alain. I haven’t found anything on line, either. Mennonite Weekly Review will be publishing an article this afternoon.

      I received an email Saturday that Lin Garber sent to MennoNeighbors that included this note sent to the Boston Mennonite congregation by their pastor:

      “Gretchen Kaufman sent me an e-mail yesterday afternoon informing me that Gordon passed away at 1:50 on Friday July 22 (five weeks after he was first admitted to hospital.) Gordon died at home. All of his children were involved in his care at the end, including his daughter Anne, who lives in Nepal, and his son Edmund who is on the west coast. Gordon was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at the end of June and received hospice care upon release from the hospital.”

  6. I had the opportunity to study with Gordon in 2008 at Harvard Divinity School, in a course titled “Creativity and God.” It was co-taught by biologist Stuart Kauffman and was to be Gordon’s last. It’s worth noting that he described himself as an atheist at that time, and his argument that personal, intervening deities are incompatible with modern scientific evidence convinced me to also give up my belief in gods.

    I found this to be an extremely courageous view. Gordon continued to advocate for the power of the “god” concept as an intentional object, an organizing framework for ethics based on the bio-historical movement of creativity (in three forms). But, with Kauffman, he regarded this “god” as a mathematical notion, that of emergence, and not a being. If only other theologians would have the same fortitude to adopt this revolutionary view.

    1. Thanks, Jason. I wish I could have been in that class with you! As much as I appreciate Gordon’s theology, I do find it a bit cold and impersonal. Maybe we need a Kaufman/Buber synthesis—or, as I guess I am trying to do, a Kaufman/Yoder/Buber synthesis….

  7. Ted, thanks for your careful analysis of Gordon Kaufman’s evolution regarding his changing concept of God. I have little to add, except Gordon has greatly influenced my thinking, spurred by “sitting” in his class at HDS in ’83 on “Constructing a Concept of God.” There aren’t many theologians that took natural history as serious as Gordon. And rather than becoming consumed with analyzing the bookends of Jesus life (i.e., his birth, death and resurrection), Gordon focused on Jesus’ life and teachings, and thus left a message for all of us to emulate. So, who will take up Gordon’s challenge to continue to keep theology fresh and inspiring, but also one which is thoroughly biohistorical. Keep up your good work, Ted.
    Carl S. Keener

    1. Carl, I agree that Gordon is a model for theology that takes science seriously. And I know of at least a few scientists (such as you!) who were able to appreciate theology a lot more because of his work. But your question is kind of depressing, in a sense. Who is taking up Gordon’s challenge?

  8. Ted, thanks for sharing your personal relationship with Kaufman. I wish I’d had an opportunity to spend as much time with him as you did. In one way, though, I have. I’m a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School and Kaufman’s constructive theology is the subject of my dissertation. I’ve been a student of his work for about ten years and as such, I’ve been in constant conversation with him through his writings. I can’t predict what kind of impact my own work will have, but if I can help it, Kaufman’s work will not fade away. If all goes well, my dissertation will become a book. Perhaps you’re aware of the book that just came out this year–In Face of Reality: The Constructive Theology of Gordon D. Kaufman–written by Thomas A. James (Alain Epp Weaver was kind enough to let me know it was coming out in print). The fact that James not only wrote a dissertation on Kaufman but then found a publisher for his dissertation indicates that Kaufman remains an important voice in theological circles. I hope that you and I meet some day so I can hear more about what Kaufman was like in person. From all accounts, he was incredibly gracious and kind. I’m sorry that I won’t have the opportunity to interact with him except through his writings. Please give his family my sincere condolences.
    Myriam Renaud

    1. I am delighted to hear of your work, Myriam, and look forward to seeing what you come up with in your dissertation. I have heard of the James book but haven’t seen it yet. I agree with you that those of us who appreciate Gordon’s work need to work ourselves to keep his ideas alive.

  9. Ted, I along with others express my appreciation for your reflections on Kaufman’s theology and your own journey in conversation with his thought. I personally interacted with him only once at a Mennonite Graduate Student Fellowship held at Harvard. Your reflections fill in a gap in my own awareness and trigger some thoughts and questions.

    As a missiologist who has lived with questions about the intercultural communication of the biblical message, and perforce from that quest forced to wrestle as an amateur in the disciplines of theology—biblical and systematic—and cultural anthropology, the questions Kaufman addressed remain germane to my own search for understanding. I find your post brings to the fore two critical questions for theology: 1. What we talk about when we use the term ‘God’ and the believability of that concept, and 2. How that understanding fits the picture of a loving God revealed in Jesus who calls us to nonviolence.

    With regard to what we talk about when we use the term ‘God’ I am convinced of Kaufman’s point that we cannot talk about God as material object such as could be studied as other than ourselves as is done in the realm of science but can only speak of human experience and the resulting interpretation of what we can know about total reality through that experience. Because of that construct, I may disagree—I know so little of his total work—with Kaufman’s limitation of the concept of God to the mystery of creativity deduced primarily if not solely from the categories of natural science. In my view, one needs to include in the data of human experience that witnesses to interaction with a power as a personal other in prayer—demonstrated in Jesus—and the possibility of response from that other. Pure materialists find this concept untenable, but I think they deny a significant part of human experience. However, I have little problem with Kaufman’s contention against conceiving God in anthropomorphological terms, though I wonder what this does with Jesus key reference to God as loving Father. My first surmise is to consider it a metaphorical symbol to denote one way we experience the personal power present with but not equivalent to the material world.

    In regard to this question, I found Duane Friesen’s statement akin to my own understanding: “The word “God” functions for us as an inclusive way of poetically expressing the wonder and mystery of the entire cosmos, and the deepest longings and concerns of humans within the cosmos.” I understand religion to be a cultural phenomenon that represents the central core of meaning and value by which people interpret and guide life and ‘God’ becomes a linguistic symbol that represents an important dimension of how we experience total reality. One of my mentors, Albert C. Outler deals with this dimension of human experience in the category of “the mystery of divine providence” and proposes that “all serious ‘God-talk’ is apophatic and parabolic—best understood not in syllogistic conclusions but through analogies and parables which prompt insights that allow for rational reflection (Who Trusts in God: Musings on the Meaning of Providence, p. 74). Outler would, I believe, rule out a God who responds to human petition and manifests power to do miracle, but at least he keeps open the possibility of a personal God in a way that I’m not sure Kaufman does.

    This has gotten too long and I shall not say much with regard to the second issue that emerges in your reflections, i.e., how our understanding of God as nonviolent can be sustained in view of the violence present in nature and the violence of the OT. I have been facing this issue in the current SS studies of Joshua and Judges. I believe that these stories need to be understood in the light of their probable being written near after 621 B.C.E. at the end of the Israelite monarchies and during the early part of the Babylonian Exile. They represent Israel’s effort to construct a historical identity and interpret God ± 600 years after the fact. Jesus said, “You’ve heard it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you . . . ” that they got it wrong. I don’t know of any place in the OT that we can find the words, “Hate your enemy,” but the stories of violence embed that message. As we work theologically, I think we must assume that their God-concept was in error.

    Regards,

      1. I wanted to say more in response to your good thoughts, John. I think I mostly agree with what you say when you affirm Kaufman’s view that we can’t treat God as a material object to study—but also that Kaufman might be too natural science-centered in his reflections. However, I was pleased and encouraged when he goes on in In Face of Mystery to draw quite explicitly on Jesus’ message when he gets to the fullest statement of his own constructive views.

        I think Kaufman’s own views did not allow room for a personal God, but I don’t think one has to come to that view by following his general method. I want to write sometime soon about Kaufman’s theology and biblical faith, and why I think I can affirm both.

        On the “nonviolent God,” I linked in my original post to the series of short essays in the Conrad Grebel Review [the essays are here] on this theme. Kaufman’s reflections there sketch how he approaches your question about the violence in nature, et al, and the call to a theologically grounded pacifism. I don’t know that he ever wrote more about this elsewhere. What he said in our symposium was quite helpful but had to be kept very brief.

        Personally, I have come to the same conclusion you have. One way I’d say it is that we have to choose between believing what Jesus believed about God or believing that the OT in every sense is historically and theologically accurate. This is an easy choice for me to make—partly because I don’t see anything in the Bible itself that recommends that we read it as perfect.

    1. Ted, I did not find a way to respond below your further thoughts, so I enter my response here.

      Ted, I appreciate your response to my comments. If I understand Kaufman rightly through your explanation “he goes on in In Face of Mystery to draw quite explicitly on Jesus’ message when he gets to the fullest statement of his own constructive views,” Kaufman would accept Jesus teaching as the basis of and the authority for moral theology. I do not find in this an acceptance of Jesus’ and the New Testament’s claim that Jesus uniquely manifests God’s presence and power in history for the salvation of humanity not only by teaching a exemplary ethic but also by manifesting God’s reign as power for deliverance and healing. You say that you “want to write sometime soon about Kaufman’s theology and biblical faith, and why I think I can affirm both.” I anticipate with considerable eagerness to see how you handle this issue, one that I continue to see as a normative issue for Christian faith. I find it gratifying that we agree on how to respond to the Old Testament view of God.

      1. John, I do suspect that your notion of “salvation” and Kaufman’s would be quite a bit different. I suppose one question from a perspective like his would be whether you understand “power for deliverance and healing” to be compatible with modern scientific understandings or not. I would think with a Kaufmanian theological method one could affirm their role in our understanding of Jesus and salvation insofar as they are compatible.

        I appreciate your encouragement concerning some reflections on Kaufman’s theology and biblical faith. I hope to at least get started on that this Sunday. I try to restrict my blogging mainly to early Sunday mornings—it may take a couple of sessions to write this one. My focus will be mostly on Kaufman’s methodology, more than on his constructive conclusions.

  10. Thanks, Ted, for your thoughtful writing on Gordon Kaufman. In light of what you have written, and considering the fine responses, it might be time for you to call a conference on Kaufman — or on Kaufman & Yoder & Buber! I fear that in our circles such an event might be taken over by Yoderians, so why not an international conference on Kaufman and the theological imagination hosted by your school, or Bethel or Harvard?

    1. Scott, I agree that we need a conference on Kaufman. I also would fear that if it was Kaufman/Yoder it could be taken over by Yoderians and be more a debate rather than exercise in mutually enlightenment.

      Yet, I think there are (at least) two main kinds of Yoderians—(1) those who are interested in Kaufman too and perhaps even see K. and Y. as complementing each other (this would be my category) and (2) those who deeply dislike Kaufman’s work and perhaps even see Yoder and Kaufman representing mutually exclusive theologies. A conference that encouraged those in category #1 to participate while not encouraging those in category #2 might be interesting.

      I myself am not much of a conference-caller, plus I don’t know if there is enough interest in Kaufman in our rather isolated area to sustain a conference. It seems to me that Richmond, IN, might an ideal central location and has plenty of noted theological liberals close to hand….

      1. If we had it here, it would not be on the Kaufman-Yoder conversation but likely something more exclusively focused on Kaufman. I would like to see “The Naked Theologian” present something, also the author of the new Kaufman study, Gary Dorrien, and perhaps some writers from both Kaufman Fests and ????

        If you are really not planning to throw a conference, shall I explore the possibility, including funding sources, here “where plenty of noted liberals are close at hand”?

      2. What about holding it at Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre ? There are nonMenno professors here at Toronto School of Theology interested in Kaufman’s work, not just us Mennonite students. In my thesis I am working on Yoder and Kaufman (and two others) in a collaborative dialogue for the purposes of mutual enlightenment on my topic.

  11. I am curious that Jason heard Gordon identify himself as an atheist. In my frequent conversations with him that begin in the fall of 2009 and ended five days before he died, he did not identify as an atheist. I distinctly remember Gordon saying “I consider myself a Christian.” He said this because he knew that some Christians would not consider him a Christian. In his writings as well, I think Gordon is clear that he identifies as a Christian of the Mennonite variety. My understanding of his work is that he hoped to make Christianity relevant for today’s world given today’s particular challenges rather than a challenge to Christians to abandon it completely.
    My relationship to Gordon arose out of my role as pastor of the Mennonite Congregation of Boston. I had the privilege of meeting with him regularly (about every 4-6 weeks) and considered the possibility of sitting down with him to discuss a variety of topics one of the perks of my position!

    1. I noticed that part of Jason’s comment, too, Nancy. I don’t know if he’s paying attention to this discussion. But if so, Jason, I would be curious if Gordon actually used the term “atheism.” I would be surprised if he did—that sound too definite!

      I think that just because, as you say Jason, Gordon affirmed the continued value of use of the “god concept,” that he would not literally call himself an atheist—though he would, as Nancy noted, be seen as one by many who explicitly believed in a personal God.

    2. Thanks for this response, Nancy.

      I too found Jason’s comment about Gordon’s “atheistic” claim curious.

      However, in debates about God-talk, I have heard Kaufman use the signifier “a-theism” in a constructive and creative way, suggesting not the death of God as much as the fading and failing of old models of theism and therefore the need for new, imaginative constructions of the Christian faith that might cohere with our bio-historical understandings. One can be an atheist about the existence of an Old Extra-Historical Personal Deity who swoops down from the third heaven into history and humanity with promises of magic, not mystery, and theological claims that something called super-nature trumps the grace of creation and creativity and still call oneself a contemporary Christian.

  12. QUOTE: “I had the opportunity to study with Gordon in 2008 at Harvard Divinity School, in a course titled “Creativity and God.” It was co-taught by biologist Stuart Kauffman and was to be Gordon’s last. It’s worth noting that he described himself as an atheist at that time, and his argument that personal, intervening deities are incompatible with modern scientific evidence convinced me to also give up my belief in gods.” This discussion of elevating this man saying he was a great theologian is ignorant, foolish and false teaching. The bible is the inspired word of God.

  13. Susan, why not explore with Toronto the possibility of hosting a Kaufman conference? We can indeed hold one in Richmond, Indiana, as Ted suggested, but Toronto could be a much nicer venue. You will want to explore both funding and a local staff to plan and carry out the logistics.

  14. It is wonderful to discover this spirited dialogue. I too studied with Gordon in the 1980s at Harvard, and continue to think of him as my greatest teacher and a dear friend. I now work in health care ethics where his method of theological construction offers immense possibilities. If a conference is to come, I hope to hear of it (Richmond is easy for me).

    The care and thought reflected in these postings is immensley heartening. I know Gordon wondered about the lasting impact of his work. This tells me he need not have worried.

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