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.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Trading in God for Good, part 2 -- Replacing "God" with "Sacred"

           I began to let go of “God,” during my last year at Harvard Divinity School during Tamsin Jones’ class on Modern and Post-Modern Responses to Religion. Jones introduced me to Richard Kearney’s (then-unpublished) Anatheism. The book is an exploration of possibilities for understanding and relating to God after the ‘death of God.’ To me, the basic idea behind post-death-of-God theologies is that a God that can be totally conceptualized is not worthy of the name “God.” If God is the linchpin to your metaphysical theory, then clearly you are treating God as a linchpin, and not as an infinite Other that transcends even the very notion of “being.” The question “Does God exist?” simply makes God an additional item amongst the set of existing things. If God is related to infinitude, then even the word “God” is doing this reality a disservice—it is at the very least grammatically limiting.
Kearney draws on the Abrahamic faiths and post-onto-theological thinkers to propose a surplus/Stranger approach to “God.” The surplus/stranger is that which is outside of our understanding, our sense of the world, our sense of what’s expected. To free God from the limits of our philosophical systems is to allow God to be mysterious, alien, unpredictable, unexpected. By posing God as “the unexpected,” “the extra,” and especially, “the other,” Kearney is committed to seeking/finding God outside of the institutions (and words) in which He is normally encountered. If God is Stranger, then God can (and should) manifest in ways that are not normally labeled “God.”
            Throughout his book, Kearney regularly uses the phrase “the sacred” instead of the word “God.” For me, this was an eye-opening, life-changing piece of rhetoric. “The sacred,” as a term that expresses ‘godliness’ outside of the grammar of a proper noun, is an important step towards freeing God from the tyranny of the word/concept “God.” While Kearney’s anatheism returns again and again to God (“anatheism” literally means “again-theism”), he inspired me to find in “the sacred” my first atheistic substitution for “God.” In “the sacred” I found a powerful new synonym for “what matters” that did not rely on the word “God.” I like to use the word “sacred” in the context of “I hold this as sacred,” or “This is sacred to me,” (read more on my notion of the sacred here). It provides me with the vocabulary to express my ethical orientation towards my experience of the world. It is my new “password”—through unpacking the word “sacred” I discover what I believe matters in life, what I believe is worthy of human care (attention, time, money, energy).
Of course, “sacred” has two notable flaws, which I will work through in the next few posts.
1)      It’s a word primarily associated with religion. Many people will tell me that the very term “sacred secular” is an oxymoron. Can it be separated from its primarily religious context?
2)     Like the word “God,” (and also the word “Good”), “Sacred” is just a sign used by a speaker to point at whatever meaning they invest in it.  The content of “sacred” is entirely up for grabs.

Stay tuned…

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Trading in "God" for "Good"? Part 1 -- Losing Faith in "God"

I          Faith in “God”
            Since I came out as an atheist a year ago, I have been searching for a word, or words, to place at the center of my ethical/existential thought. In these posts, I will trace my steps from “God” to “Sacred,” and subsequently give an account of my current struggles with the word “Good,” as a candidate for central term. My interest in all of this is examining what word(s) might serve best as a common way to enter/center conversations on what matters in life, what is worthy of human care.
            I lost my faith in God years before I lost my faith in “God.” I probably stopped praying regularly around 2004, and yet graduated from Harvard Divinity School five years later with a higher degree in Theology. Why did I continue to pursue theology (talking about God) after my relationship with God had crumbled? I often like to use the metaphor of a mobile (like the kind that would hang above a crib). A mobile hangs from the ceiling, and holds a variety of items in dynamic balance. The crucial part of this balance is the single ring from which all the items ultimately hang. (A pic or two to help you visualize) For me, “God” was that ring. If I wanted to have a conversation that activated an individual’s sense of intense care for their existence, human life, human relationships, and other matters of ultimate meaning, “God” was the word from which to hang the conversation. As a teacher, I found that “God” was the short-cut through which otherwise unreflective students would feel motivated to make grand statements about human existence and ethics—thus the appeal of “God” for me as an educator.
            Personally, I stayed faithful to “God” because I needed a central term that represented my encounter with life and reality as a whole. These were my “reconstructionist” years, in which I believed in God, but defined God as anything but “a supernatural personality with power.” Instead I dabbled in pantheism (God is all), panentheism (God is all, and then some), and Mordecai Kaplan’s original Reconstructionist theology (God is the natural force that makes for salvation). All of these theologies staved off atheism, but did little for my relationship with the Jewish religion. They afforded me the ability to continue to talk about God meaningfully, but never to relate to God actively. None of them brought me back to prayer or dialogue with God, which to me are the lifeblood of religious activity.
            These theologies failed to revive my religiosity because they treat God as a password, rather than as a living being. If “God” means a lot, but it doesn’t mean “a supernatural personality with power” then the word has clearly been degraded— as Rabbi Adam Chalom of Congregation Kol Hadash of Chicago likes to challenge, “If by ‘God’ you mean ‘love,’ then use it in a sentence—‘I God You?’” (For more on my disappointment with an impersonal God (Aka God2), see my series on State of Formation, part 1 and part 2). Joking aside, it is generally harder (and rarer) to use these altered meanings of "God" in everyday life and language (besides in the sentence "God is..."). 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Matt Lowe's Humanist Sheva Berachot (for Jewish Weddings)

1)      We are blessed by the fruit of the vine, by which we mark and share our joy together.

2)     Glorious is each thing, for “all things are beautiful in their time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

3)     We are blessed by the serendipitous creativity of evolution that produced humans among an almost-infinite variety of creatures.

4)     We are blessed by the generational chain of human life, by which we receive and pass on our life and our values. We are blessed by the serendipitous creativity of evolution that produced humans among an almost-infinite variety of creatures.

5)     May humanity rejoice in its work to make the world safer for all children. We are blessed by the work that transforms the world and expresses our hope for future generations.

6)     Let us gladden the loving couple, so they may enjoy gladness like the legendary gladness of paradise. Praised be the ones who gladden the loving partners.*

7)     Praised be those who increase joy and gladness, loving partners, exultation, song, pleasure and delight, love and great-love compassion, peace and friendship. May we work and hope for the day when, all over the world, all people regardless of religion, race, class, gender and orientation will hear the voices of joy and gladness, voices of loving partners, the jubilant voices of those joined together in love, the voices of young people feasting and singing. Praised be the ones who cause loving partners to be glad together.*

*by Rabbi David Gruber, with edits