Gordon Kaufman and theological “orthodoxy”

Ted Grimsrud—September 18, 2011

Gordon Kaufman’s death has provided occasion for me to reflect on how his constructive theology has shaped my own. I was a pastor when I first started reading Kaufman seriously. I found his thought helpful for me in that setting. He challenged me to recognize the need to present my own theology in my sermons, Bible studies, classes, and conversations as something fallible and finite. Since all theology is human work, it is all to be held lightly. Kaufman helped strengthen my already present anti-authoritarian tendencies. [See my two earlier posts that discuss Kaufman: “Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P.” and “Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder”.]

I had the sense from when I first seriously read Kaufman that what was most important for my purposes was his understanding of theological method. To recognize that every bit of our theology is a human construction would not be to reject out of hand traditional theological “orthodoxy”—rather, it would be to demand that the received beliefs be subject to the same scrutiny as all other human statements. The received beliefs, in light of Kaufman’s theological method, did not have a privileged status that rendered them impervious to criticism, impervious to rational evaluation in light of evidence, or impervious to experiential confirmation (or dis-confirmation). But if they could stand up to scrutiny, they could still be affirmed as true. According to his method, at least, Kaufman had no basis simply to reject a belief because he didn’t like it. His approach called for a quest for genuine objectivity (recognizing that this is never fully achievable) wherein one’s theological conclusions would be based on what is discerned to be true—not based on either an uncritically accepted “orthodoxy” or a knee-jerk anti-orthodoxy.

So, when I began to teach an undergrad class, “Contemporary Theology,” aimed at upper level philosophy and theology majors, I decided to use Kaufman’s book, God–Mystery–Diversity, as a main text. For three or four class sessions, we read through and discussed this book. In general, students found it accessible enough. Some liked Kaufman’s approach, others found it a bit too challenging to their belief systems. I would like to think they all benefited from how he challenged comfortable theological certainties.

Though not all students agreed with my proposal, I tried to emphasize that Kaufman’s theological approach did not have to result in “heresy.” It simply challenges “orthodoxy” to be well grounded and defensible.

Let me try to support this comment about Kaufman’s theology with some examples from his book.

Kaufman distinguishes the discipline of theology from intellectual history, religious studies, and philosophy (we could add, say, sociology and anthropology here too) by defining theology as having God as its central concern. Now, he does not assume that it is simple and self-evident what we mean by “God” (hence the title of another of his books, God the Problem). But he starts with this definition: “God is the ultimate point of reference in terms of which all else is to be understood.”

It seems difficult to argue with this starting point. Presumably people across the theological spectrum would agree that God should be our central concern and that God stands as our central orienting point when we talk about anything else.

But then we move on and try to unpack what we mean by “God,” what we understand this “ultimate point of reference” actually to be. Again, Kaufman makes some key points that should be acceptable for those who are more “conservative” than he is. He asserts that God is a fundamentally moral reality that has to do with justice and goodness, mercy and truth.

One of our central dangers as human beings is the tendency to give “primary attention and loyalty to objectives and goals and values other than or less than God” (for example, the nation, organized religion, capitalism); that is, the central danger is “idolatry.” This concern of Kaufman’s certainly matches with the Bible. Part of the danger in making an idol of something other than God is that God’s moral dimensions (justice and goodness, mercy and truth) get compromised and manipulated to serve, say, the nation, the religion, or the economic system.

Kaufman states that God is “a standard that takes up into itself all these others, illuminating the place of each in human life and yet relativizing them all in light of that which is ultimate.” This “relativizing” is necessary to make sure that all of our human structures and belief systems in the end serve the purposes of God.

The image of a loving God can evoke gratitude and devotion, thereby breaking the spiral of selfishness. Secular appeals to rational self-interest are weak compared to the potential of the symbol of a loving God. We need a center of devotion outside ourselves.

How do we know God is loving. The second great Christian symbol, “Christ” is one fundamental source for our sense of what God is like. This symbol specifies the type of God we worship. “The only God we should worship today—the only God we can afford to worship—is the God who will further our humanization, the God who will help to make possible the creation of a universal and human community.” So we need to reconstruct the Christian concept of God in the image of the suffering Jesus.

Using the language of “symbols” to talk about God and Jesus Christ certainly is not typical of traditional “conservative” or “orthodox” Christian theology. However, Kaufman points out that if we take seriously our affirmation of the ultimacy of God alone we will recognize the dangers of even our language becoming idolatrous. To acknowledge that all language is symbolic helps us realize that all we can do is articulate human ideas about God, ideas that ever only can be symbolic. Hence, saying “God” and “Christ” are “symbols” is not necessarily implying that they are not real, it is not even necessarily implying that traditional understandings of God and Christ are wrong—it’s simply recognizing that when we talk about them we are using symbolic language.

It is thus a direct consequence of recognizing, first, the ultimacy of God alone and, second, the symbolic nature of all language, that Kaufman then talks about the traditional Christian sources of authority (such as the Bible, biblical scholarship, past theological constructs, creeds, and confessions). These remain our central sources today as well, but in learning from them theologians “must simultaneously learn to take up a critical stance against all of these in the name of that very God of whom these also had attempted to speak.”

This “critical stance” basically follows from a commitment genuinely to understand God and adjust our beliefs and practices in light of that understanding. The sources (Bible, creeds, et al) serve our quest for understanding and faithfulness, not vice versa. “It is because we are trying to understand who God is that we are interested in the Bible and creeds; it is not because we are obliged to accept what is taught in creeds and Bible that we are interested in God.”

Because theology, for Kaufman, is meant to serve “humanization” (the cultivating of justice and mercy in light of our understanding of God as loving), theological propositions are to be evaluated in terms of their contribution to human well-being. If all theological positions are in reality human positions they must be evaluated by this concern: Which human needs are met by each position? Which forms of human life are sustained and enhanced; which are downgraded or suppressed?

We need to choose our priorities: either Christianity’s central concern is its presentation of indispensable truths for the sake of eternal life or its ministry of reconciliation among all humankind. Kaufman decisively chooses this second “central concern” and concludes, the theological essential is this: “How shall we build a new and more humane world for all the peoples of the world?” This is not simply an American Christian question. Rather, it unites Americans, people of the third world, Christians, Buddhists,. western-style democrats and those of other political persuasions.

Because theology is meant to serve the work of humanization in a broad sense, Kaufman insists that we need an honest discussion and evaluation of theological positions “in terms of what is directly and publicly available to all, rather than in terms of [one’s] own ideology.” This is necessary for debate to proceed. Denial of the basic criterion of accessibility is itself dehumanizing.

To summarize, this is how Kaufman construes the task of Christian theology:

(1) Christian theology should start by paying close attention to the Christian tradition’s proposals regarding human life and the world. This means, of course, taking with utmost seriousness biblical teaching, the formal creeds and doctrines churches have formulated—but also voices of dissent throughout history. This long conversation over how Christians understand God and human life lived in response to this understanding provides the framework for all contemporary Christian theological work.

(2) Christian theology must seek to discern present-day understandings and practices regarding human life and the world. These present-day understandings should be approached in light of the Christian tradition’s understandings and symbols. That is, Christian theology always works in light of its past convictions even as it accepts responsibility to interpret and respond to present-day life.

(3) We must reconstruct our theology as necessary to provide for adequate orientation that will help us live fruitfully in the present. The Christian tradition is seen as ever-evolving, dynamic, always involved in adjusting to new circumstances. It is not violating the best practices of Christian theologizing to reinterpret the tradition and rethink various theological assertions—in fact, this is how Christian theology remains faithful to what has preceded it. But this rethinking is always to be done in conversation with the tradition, not independent of it.

(4) Do not claim direct and unique divine authorization.Recognize that, as always, theology is human work. Theologians and broader Christian bodies have the task of drawing conclusions, making proposals, suggesting courses of action. Christians must act and take responsibility for pursuing paths that seek to enhance humanization in faithfulness to their loving God. But in taking such responsibility, we must never mistake our best efforts to represent God’s intentions for human life as direct revelation from God. Our best efforts remain our best efforts, and we must remain totally self-aware and honest that they do not have direct authority from God.

(5) Christian theology, when it makes concrete proposals for thought and action, must always see each proposal as only one proposal among many. As such, each proposal always stands in need of criticism and correction. Our proposals are contributions to on-going conversations and discernment processes. The quest for truth and faithfulness requires constant revision and a spirit of openness to various other perspectives.

So, in the end, I believe, Gordon Kaufman’s greatest contribution as a theologian may well be his insights about theological method. He helps us remember our own finitude and fallenness, crucial prerequisites for faithful constructive theology—no matter where we might stand on a liberal/conservative theological spectrum.

2 thoughts on “Gordon Kaufman and theological “orthodoxy”

  1. Ted, this is a wonderful summary of a seminal Anabaptist theologian. Gordan is already missed. I hope there are true Mennonite thinkers who can carry on where he left off.

  2. Ted, my response to the very helpful post has been much delayed as I rolled ideas around in my head and was diverted by other tasks, but I read it with interest. I note that response was sparse, but I hope that we may pursue the issues involved.

    In my journey, I have come to affirm a number of the points you (and Kaufman) make. At EMS, the foundation course was Systematic Theology; at Perkins it was Theological Method. I believe Yoder’s basic course at AMBS was theological method. I agree that we need to recognize the humanity of our theological efforts—as Schubert Ogden phrased it, “Theologians are not saved by [the perfection of] their works but by grace as is everyone else.” I also agree with the necessity for carefulness of language and being clear about what we reference when we use the term ‘God.’ I have a limited grasp of language as symbol for what we talk about as the basis of Christian faith. In my recent teaching experience, I found students using ‘icon’ as a way of talking about God.

    The question I most want to address in terms of your and Kaufman’s theological systems relates to the foundational grid and the resulting premise. If I understand Kaufman’s thought about the mystery of God, he uses as his foundational grid the results of science and posits God as the factor of CREATIVITY that is empirically observable. In this essay, you observe that he concludes that the endpoint of theology is human well-being and this leads to the conclusion that “God is a fundamentally moral reality that has to do with justice and goodness, mercy and truth.” What seems vague to me is how the premise about God leads to the conclusion.

    I have recently re-read Albert C. Outler’s Who Trusts in God:Musings On the Meaning Of Providence. Outler traces reflections of human concepts of God in theological history and as I understand him posits that ‘God’ refers to human awareness—intuited more than deducted—that structured in the empirical reality is an element of providence. I find some similarities with Buber’s concept of God as referring to a sense of The Other in human experience of life in our reality. Outler would rule out interaction with God that affects discrete events in the world in which we live. I think that negates many of the events manifest in Jesus ministry and of results of prayer of Christians of all ages.

    As I have had an introduction to your thought in Theology as if Jesus Matters, I sense that you, with Kaufman, ultimately end with theology as a moral system based on Jesus as the revelation of God. While I am comfortable with this as a basis for moral theology, I am less certain what your base grid is or how you—and Kaufman—build your conclusion from your base grid.

    In my own musings on these questions, I have concluded that the foundational grid for theology needs to be the full range of human experience. It needs to take into account the vast accounts of religious experience in many cultures including the biblical accounts. It would factor in but not be limited to scientific observation. This allows for full appreciation of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and reliable reports of miracle and answered prayer and avoids the reduction of theology to establishment of moral principles.

    Ted, what am I missing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s