Neither Metaphysics Nor Anthropology: More from Kaufman on Theology

Freedom of Speech, by Norman Rockwell
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What is theology even about? What is the telos of this intellectual practice? In the first chapter of his distinguished work of systematics, Gordon Kaufman succinctly situates his approach to theological method -- distinguishing it from three other common views of the discipline.

In the Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology, By Gordon F. Kaufman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

In traditional dogmatics, theology has been conceived as the science of God -- or, to expand that, the explication of Christian truths about God, world, and self that are given through divine revelation. Conversely, many theologians of the Protestant West, in the wake of Kant and Schleiermacher especially, have reconceived the theological task (or reduced it, as critics like Karl Barth would say) in terms of an anthropology of religious experience. To be sure, Kaufman in significant respects is heir to that latter tradition, but his own proposal qualifies and complicates that approach:

The central question for theology is not merely, or even preeminently, who or what God is, or how God is to be distinguished from the idols; nor is it what humanity is, and what the central problems of human existence are (p. 15).

Note the sections I have set in bold, for emphasis. The "not merely" phrase, I think, shows that Kaufman is conceding that talk about the being of God is ingredient to the theological task, or at least to his approach to theology (for Kaufman doesn't disallow the validity, say, of non-theistic or even atheistic conceptions of theology). The issue is how to situate god-talk, and the way to do so is not to conceive it as a positive science or an analysis of "truths" to be taken on external authority. Nor, however, is theology reducible to the phenomenology of religious experience. To clarify:

It is not primarily a speculative question, a problem of knowledge, at all (ibid.)

Thus Kaufman also distinguishes his method, which he labels "imaginative construction," from the attempt to found theological claims upon a framework of speculative metaphysics, as some have attempted to do with along the lines of Hegelian or process theologies. One potential problem with such a metaphysical understanding of theology, I think Kaufman would agree, is that in our pluralistic cultural and intellectual milieu, such a philosophical framework or worldview would be as controversial and contestable as the theological statements it ostensibly would validate.

Most fundamentally, it is a practical question. How are we to live? To what should we devote ourselves? to what causes give ourselves? Put in religious terms, How can we truly serve God? What is proper worship? (pp. 15-16).

In other words, theological construction is a cultural practice meant to orient and direct human existence in the face of inscrutable mystery. As human nature is not static, this commitment means that theologians must articulate new perspectives on the meaning of life that fit the needs and possibilities own their own contexts. Since our own milieu in the late modern West is characterized by a radical pluralism of religious, nonreligious, and even anti-religious perspectives -- and that is all to the good, in Kaufman's view -- theology must needs be an open-ended process of mutual discernment.

In short course through these statements, Kaufman has tagged what we might see as the four major approaches to theological method, built upon four distinct understandings of theology's object: 1) the being of God proper; 2) human religious experience (whether conceived more in empirical or transcendental modalities, or perhaps both); 3) theology as a concern framed by metaphysics -- a general, rational account of all that is; and 4) theology as an imaginative construction within a specific cultural, linguistic, and intellectual milieu. Exemplars of each type of method have been manifest in distinguished North American theologian's of Kaufman's generations: Robert Jenson, David Tracy, Schubert Ogden, and Kaufman himself, respectively. Such thinkers have trained many of the working academic theologians today, and the legacy of each approach remains viable in the contemporary context. (My foregoing statements about the foregoing ideal types are, of course, a bit simplified, let the reader understand. Each of the four thinkers mentioned has a more complex and nuanced account of all four aspects of theological work. But I can't do justice to all of that here.)

Kaufman's constructivist and pluralist proposal, as I read it so far, sounds to me kind of like the religious equivalent of an old-fashioned New England town meeting, as represented iconically in the famous Norman Rockwell painting above. One would hope, though, this dialogue would be more irenic and less cantankerous than its political parallel, but that is a subject that would require another post to explore.



L.R.E. Larkin said…
Scott, I've never even heard of Kaufman (at least from what my exhausted mind is trying to recall). What drew your attention to this book? And, will you be saying more? Is Kaufman worth the average person reading? These questions make me think you left me too curious :D

Also, fwiw, your book selections often fascinate me; you truly do an excellent job with your purchases :)
Hi Lauren. Kaufman taught theology at Harvard Divinity School for about 30 years, and he was an ordained Mennonite minister. He was one of the leading liberal-revisionist theologians of the past several decades. I think I must have first read him (a little bit) in a seminar with Kathryn Tanner, though I don't think it really took at the time. His name popped up in several things I was reading in grad school, including stuff by Hans Frei's Models of Theology and Tanner's Theories of Culture. In both those instances, his work served as the paradigm case of the liberal thinker who seeks to interpret Christian faith against the broadest possible background of human experience. I have been eyeing this book at bookstores for probably a decade or more, and was aware of its scope and impact.

I'm not sure whether it would be your cup of tea or not -- though I don't consider you to be "the average person" (just saying). This is straight up university-style theology, with a keen eye on ongoing developments in the social sciences and philosophy. But he is a remarkably lucid writer and, as far as I can tell, very consistent in applying his overall perspective to the tasks of systematics. I could perhaps point you to some shorter pieces that might help you decide whether to go further. I don't know much about secondary sources, but you could check out the eulogy for Kaufman at Fred Sanders' blog from several years ago. It is quite fair-minded, I think. Kaufman also contributed a short essay to The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, edited by John Hick and Paul Knitter. An early monograph, quite short, which outlines his basic approach is his Essay in Theological Method. The current book I'm reading is thorough and clear, but also quite long -- 500 pp. I value this work because it is the clearest example I've ever seen of a theological method that is transparent and consistent in embracing religious pluralism as our cultural reality and in conceiving theology as a constructive discipline by which human beings seek to make sense of life. Anyone who would attempt to understand theology, it seems to me, as somehow rooted in revelation -- in actual knowledge of the divine other -- would need (somehow) to answer Kaufman's challenge. Sorry to be so wordy. And thanks for reading. :-)
L.R.E. Larkin said…

THANK YOU for the generous reply. You answered all of my questions and the ones I was forming as I read your reply. When you wrote,

"I value this work because it is the clearest example I've ever seen of a theological method that is transparent and consistent in embracing religious pluralism as our cultural reality and in conceiving theology as a constructive discipline by which human beings seek to make sense of life. Anyone who would attempt to understand theology, it seems to me, as somehow rooted in revelation -- in actual knowledge of the divine other -- would need (somehow) to answer Kaufman's challenge."

I thought, "This. This is what I was looking for in reply, the answer to the 'why'" and certainly your review was hinting at or heading there. I'm intrigued by the concept you put forth in the end of your reply to me because with the class I'm teaching this year, I face not only the reality of Christianity and pluralism through the likes of Keith Ward, but also have to pastorally navigate student questions and pushback pastorally and I find that I am more often in an uninformed position than an informed one. What you've written about Kaufman makes me think that I'd like very much to get my hands on that essay (i'll hunt it down) and maybe eventually the book to help supplement my section (and my knowledge) on religious pluralism.

Again, thank you for writing and replying :)

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