Mere Pragmatism is Cold Comfort for Theology: A Concluding(?) Unscientific Postscript on Kaufman

This past fall -- back in the halcyon days when I blogged regularly here! -- I explored, or (better) began to explore, the late Gordon Kaufman's conception of theology as "imaginative construction" in his stunning systematic work, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology. (For evidence that my role at DET was once more than titular, you may see for yourself here).

John Dewey
By Underwood & Underwood [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons
Why would someone like me, who hangs out with dialectical theologians on Twitter by day and secretly reads neo-Calvinist websites at night (oops, didn't mean to share that bit), be intrigued by the work of a liberal Harvard theologian, whose commitments to pluralism, historicism, and cultural relativism push his theological conclusions into what some critics might deem to be post-Christian territory? My dirty secret is that I remain obsessed with theological method. But debates over formal method always are rooted in material concerns for what is heart of the gospel and, thus, the norm and impetus for theology.

To be honest, I worry about a common trend in constructive Christian thought today toward reducing theology to questions of practice -- that this move threatens to eviscerate the ontic depth, and thus the existential impetus, of Christian faith. The epistemological component of this worry comes to the fore when I confront a constructivist proposal that is as elegant, as clear, as cogent, and as consistent as what Kaufman offers us in this text. Kaufman argues that a theology that recognizes itself with full consciousness as a product of human imagination and that takes this state of affairs with full seriousness will need to re-imagine its telos as the promotion of human flourishing in this world alone, full stop. Theology muses on the concepts, symbols, and ideals of faith and how they might be ordered to better orient human experience and action in the face of the profound mystery of existence. This paradigm eschews any recourse to a supranatural revelation and to any metaphysical speculation about a super-mundane reality, whether conceived in personal or impersonal terms.

If this procedure is followed consistently, I think it must lead to a complete secularization of the theological project. From my vantage point, this means the death knell of theology; or at least, of constructive project that would hold any interest in me. Let me be clear, though: I am not not rejecting the material concerns of praxis-oriented theologies. I take the import of faith for discipleship and ethics too seriously to do that. What worries me, rather, is the reduction of theology to pragmatic concerns.

All that said, I'm aware that a risk misconstruing what Kaufman is attempting to do in this book. One might well counter: In Face of Mystery is surely a cognitive exercise, an attempt to face the human limitations and finitude of theology with honesty and humility. Maybe then I could re-frame my concern by putting it into dialogue with a secular philosopher who employed similar moves within a revisionist reconstruction of religious truth -- namely, the great American pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952).

Dewey is quite clear about his intentions in his short 1934 essay, A Common Faith, based upon lectures he delivered at Yale. Though the text doesn't seem to be in the public domain online, it would seem that some Unitarian Universalists (fittingly enough!) have offered us an excerpt that will serve us nicely as a precis for the book. Here, Dewey lays out his intention to reconstruct the notion of religious experience in strictly secular and nonsupernaturalist terms. (Please indulge my dropping in key terms like "secular" and "supernaturalist" without adequately defining them, for now.) Now whether or not this would be a fashionable mode of atheology for today, it certainly, on the face of it, seems to me like a constructive project whose aims are roughly congruent with those of Kaufman. Dewey does seem to be proffering a kind of theological naturalism that might meet the kinds of concerns of a contemporary radical pluralist.*

Dewey rejects two equal and opposite extremes in interpreting religion; in his view, both the religious traditionalists, on the one hand, who cling naively (as he sees it) to their sacred texts and traditions and the modern skeptical humanists, on the other hands, who fully embrace the modern sciences, err by conflating religion with belief in a supernatural realm. He maintains, however, that there is a third way beyond this dichotomy: We may choose to reinterpret religion as the pursuit of temporal ideals that motivate human progress. He writes:

Any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality.

But you might be questioning in your hearts: Isn't this just regular secular ethics? What is theological about any of this? Indeed. But Dewey, clearly, affirms a role for god-talk.

Suppose for the moment that the word “God” means the ideal ends that at a given time and place one acknowledges as having authority over his volition and emotion. The values to which one is supremely devoted, as far as these ends, through imagination, take on unity. If we make this supposition, the issue will stand out clearly in contrast with the doctrine of religions that “God” designates some kind of Being having prior and therefore non-ideal existence.

Dewey's proposal seems to anticipate Kaufman's conception of theology as "imaginative construction." (I have set a section of this quote in bold to highlight the affinity):

The idea that “God” represents a unification of ideal values that is essentially imaginative in origin when the imagination supervenes in conduct is attended with verbal difficulties owing to our frequent use of the word “imagination” to denote fantasy and doubtful reality. But the reality of ideal ends as ideals is vouched for by their undeniable power in action.

I don't think we have to get to deeply into Dewey's pragmatic interpretation of truth and knowledge to get the gist of what he is doing here.

Despite such affinities, though, I doubt that Dewey shares Kaufman's (I'm tempted to say) almost mystical awareness that our lives and, indeed, all of existence is rooted in profound mystery -- a mystery he more typically in his later work would name as "creativity." Kaufman gets at this notion in a conversation recorded in 2009 (see below).

At some level, all of this makes sense to me. I wonder, though, how potent a force for motivating behavior one's god concept could actually be if one admits it is simply a fabrication of the human imagination. And on a more personal note, I will tell you that four elderly members of my extended family are facing severe health problems, and I'm finding questions of life and death and how religion impacts them unavoidable. If I were forced to accept Kaufman's conclusions full-stop, I might decide it's simply time to walk away from constructive theology for good and shift my efforts to what would be (in my case, at least) a more useful endeavor, like community organizing or advocacy.

* Kaufman's project is theoretically nuanced and complex, drawing from a wide array of resources: cultural anthropology (Geertz), Contintental and analytic philosophy (e.g., Kant and Wittgenstein), and the natural sciences. Though there are passing references to John Dewey, William James, and Richard Rorty, he does not seem to lean, at least that explicitly, upon the American pragmatists. But I'm finding a good deal of consilience (sorry, I couldn't afford dropping in that term) between his project and their projects, from my non-specialist readings in this area.

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Anonymous said…
Thank you for this illuminating post! What would you say are the essential texts in theological method? Say I have to write a question/compose a bibliography on method for a comprehensive exam (maybe this is less hypothetical then I'm making it out to be...) what would you suggest?
Thanks for reading! As for method, it depends how broad you want to go. Of course, issues of method have dominated modern theology from the get-go. If you want to go that broadly, I can commend this list from the University of Chicago Divinity School -- it's a bit revised from the one we used for our comps back in the day:

TH3: History of Modern Religious Thought
Descartes, Meditations
Pascal, Pensees
Voltaire, ‘Pascal’ (Philosophical Letters)
Rousseau, Creed of a Priest of Savoy (Emile)
Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, selections from Bk 4
--Reasonableness of Christianity
Hume, ‘Miracles’, ‘Of Particular Providence and a Future State” (Treatise)
--Dialogues on Natural Religion
Spinoza, Theological and Political Treatises
Lessing, Theological Writings
Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
Schleiermacher, Speeches on Religion
---Christian Faith (Intro and paragraphs 32-41, 46-105)
Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (Intro and Part 3)
Newman, Essay on the Development of Doctrine
Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments
Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity
Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Harnack, What is Christianity?
Loisy, Gospel and the Church
Troeltsh, ‘Essence of Religion’, ‘The Dogmatics of the History-of-Religions School,’
‘Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,’ ‘Significance of the Historical
Jesus for the Life of Faith’
Buber, I and Thou
Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption
Barth, CD 1/1, intro and ch 1
Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol 1 (Intro and Part One)
Rahner, Hearers of the Word
--Foundations of the Christian Faith, chs 1-4
Von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, vol 1
Livingston, Modern Christian Thought from the Enlightenment to Vatican II

Now if you're looking for something more narrowly focused on developments over the past several decades, here are a few essential texts I think you might want to consider including (the caveat being, of course, that any such list has intrinsic limitations):

Kaufman. An Essay in Theological Method
Tracy. Blessed Rage for Order
---- The Analogical Imagination
Tanner. Theories of Culture
Taylor. Erring
Milbank. Theology and Social Theory
Ogden. The Reality of God
Fulkerson. Changing the Subject
Lindbeck. The Nature of Doctrine
Ruether. Sexism and God-talk
Frei. Models of Theology
Kelsey. The Uses of Scripture in Theology
Boff. Theology and Praxis
McFague. Models of God
Carter. Race: A Theological Account
"I might decide it's simply time to walk away from constructive theology for good and shift my efforts to what would be (in my case, at least) a more useful endeavor, like community organizing or advocacy."

Seems to me community organizing and advocacy is what the church should have been doing all along in the first place.

(What is up with the "see below" in the penultimate paragraph?)
Indeed, David! Only so many hours in the day, though. Thank god there's social media at least. And blogs like this one. :-) (But seriously, of course, I'm not off the hook for trying to help actual people, no matter how many online petitions I might share.)

The "see below" refers to the embedded video link, though the intervening paragraph might have muddied up that connection.
Ah! I subscribe to the posts, and the video wasn't included in that.
(Paging IT Department....)

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