Friday, July 29, 2011

The Serendipitous Creativity of Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P

I had an independent study in Constructive Theology with Gordon Kaufman in Fall 2008 during my last year at Harvard Divinity School. He died the other day, and I thought it would be fitting to say a little about my time with him and his influence on me as a theologian/atheist.

Kaufman died at 86, meaning that he was 84 when we worked together. For a gentleman that old, he had an impressive amount of fight in him. I'm not sure if he remembered me fondly, as most of my time with him was spent in heated debate over the meaning of the term "God." Regardless of his opinion of our meetings, I treasured all of them, as he was someone who had spent his entire academic career establishing a firm outpost on the edges of theology, an area I was (unbeknownst to me) traveling across at that time.

Before proposing an independent study with him I wanted to impress him, so I read a few books of his I found in the Div school library. Two of his most recent books "In the beginning... Creativity" and "Jesus and Creativity," were on display in the lobby of the library, and I also found a slim volume called "Essay on Theological Method" in the stacks. The first two books were fairly recent, and developed his newfound definition of God: “serendipitous Creativity.” While I found these inspiring though very reconstructionist, his “Essay” really captivated me—in it he sets out his formal understanding of “God” as a limiting term (it always indicates an aspect of our reality that defines/circumscribes reality; it does not refer to an actual ‘thing’) and the ultimate point of reference (whatever the meaning of “God” is, all aspects of reality are relevant to it). As my own theology at the time was spiraling into abstraction, these bare-minimum yet-fundamental definitions appealed to me. And of course a lot of his theology focused on God as mystery: one of his early collections of essays is called “God the Problem” and his theological opus is titled “In Face of Mystery.”

So we met, and he was impressed that I had found and read his “Essay” and we agreed to work together in the Fall. Our meetings were contentious mostly because I was in love with his earlier work, in which he gave very little content to the concept of God beside that of mystery. In the last two decades he had become enamored with his idea of God as Creativity—for him, it gave God a role in the creation of the world and of humans (and thus of human values), and gave humans a positive orientation towards future progress. I insisted that he was not doing justice to God’s mystery (even if Creativity itself is mysterious—in the Spring of that year he taught a class with Stuart Kauffman, combining his theology of Creativity with Kauffman’s evolutionary biology on emergence). I also argued that Creativity was an ambiguous basis for ethics, as much evil could be justified in the name of progress. Clearly, I did not fully understand, because he remained pretty convinced.

In the end I focused my final paper on his early work, writing “God and the Problems of Speaking, Discerning, and Relating to the Ultimate,” a piece I intended as my groundwork for a truly agnostic theology. He gave it an A-/B+, and our final meeting was in his home on Mt. Auburn Ave. We talked for two hours, yelling at each other about the problems of reification.

I’m sure I was among the last of many students in his career. If he did remember me, it might’ve been with a fair amount of disregard—at one point, I attacked monotheism itself, saying that an ‘ultimate point of reference’ did not do justice to the apparent chaos and disunity of the world. He told me this was insanity since, without the hope of monotheism, there was no chance of making sense ever—this from a man who defined God as Serendipitous Creativity. We were two very radical theologians having it out. I will always treasure my time with him.

P.S. In my recent wedding ceremony, I sought to re-translate the traditional seven blessings in order to reflect my atheism. In two, I replaced “God” with serendipitous creativity. See #3 and #4 here.


  1. Lovely Matthew!
    He did remember you! Because I worked with him from 2007 through 2011 and he often remarked what fun it was to have you around. His memory was a little weaker toward the end, but he still had his spark and twinkle, and was ever ready for a good go-round. Thanks for sharing. (And congrats on your marriage. You two are adorable!)

  2. Some people claim Kaufman was an atheist himself, but I think they misunderstood his agnostic negative theological stance. What do you think?


  3. Hi Arnold-- Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, I agree-- anyone who calls Kaufman an atheistic is not giving due regard to his utter commitment to theology. However, I think it's important to divide Kaufman's theology into earlier and later periods. His earlier work is definitely "agnostic negative theology" as you say. Someone who calls this atheistic would have to apply the same label to Maimonides or Aquinas.

    His later work (anything that invokes Creativity) I would call something like "reconstructionist" or "religious humanist." Here I think he was trying to identify a single principle worthy of the name God and capable to serve (as I think he discussed in his Essay on Theological Method) as an "ultimate point of reference." Someone who would label this atheistic has a case, if they think that a God-believer must believe in some kind of supernatural person. For me personally, I think a theist/theologian is someone who thinks the word "God" refers to something in reality... even if only serving as a symbol for the ONE principle of reality (for Kaufman "Serendipitous Creativity").

    What do you think?