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”.]