Ephesus E symbol

Aims & Objects


Gordon D Kaufman

Notes distributed by David Simmers at a Wellington Ephesus meeting on 7 September 2003

See principally In Face of Mystery 1993  Long (500 pp), a bit ponderous and repetitious.

God – Mystery – Diversity (1996) reprints articles; chaps 4-7 (60 pp) give a good summary.

Earlier (1981) was The Theological ImaginationConstructing the Concept of God (300 pp).

God as Person? –All-knowing, all-powerful loving Creator?

  1. Believers are on the winning side - God created the world, directs history, and will ultimately bring it to his desired conclusion.
  2. We humans have a special deep rapport with God, who created us “in his image” and provides a very helpful model for us.
  3. Our relationship with God, like human relationships, depends on communication (prayer); it can evince love/trust/loyalty; and be damaged by malice/hatred/unfaithfulness.
  4. Each of us is special; the hairs of our head are numbered; each has a task to perform, a place in God’s plan.
  5. This evokes in us a powerful response: to love/serve/trust God.
  6. We have a world-picture oriented towards free, responsible and loving selfhood, in a community of justice and peace.

But there are serious problems with this symbolism.

  1. It sets up a fundamental dualism between God and his creation.  A super-self outside or beyond the vast universe is unthinkable today.
  2. God is suspiciously like a projection of our own hopes and wishes.
  3. The massive evils of the 20th century (let alone earlier centuries) make nonsense of a God who cares for each of us.
  4. God seems an authoritarian, arbitrary tyrant, beyond criticism, evoking the same dangerous behaviour in his worshippers, who do terrible things in God’s name.
  5. There is no compelling reason to assent to it – except that it is traditional.  How could we cite evidence for it?
The Task

How is God related to the universe of astrophysics which we inhabit?  (Most theology ignores this.)  Can Christian symbolism still help?  We want a new conception of God:

  •       which is relevant and credible today;
  •       which can provide an ultimate point of reference, giving meaning, orientation for our living and decision-making.

The Starting-Point – Humans as Biohistorical Beings

What sort of creatures are we?

  •       We are biological beings who have developed through evolution.
  •       We are distinctive in that we create cultures, each one with its own history.  Significantly, today cultures are flowing together.
  •       Implicit in our historicity are moral requirements.  To survive and develop further, we must accept more responsibility for our future – both of ourselves and of our planet.

We should direct all our actions towards fostering/creating a community of truly free persons, perfectly at home in the world  (what was once called the “Kingdom of God”).

But our historicity is a mixed blessing.  There are huge risks – of racism, nationalism, war, ecological disaster.  Often we want to give up.  Old issues are hard, and new issues (genetic engineering) are harder.  Will the new culture we are now creating be adequate?

The World as the Context for Human Existence

We humans find ourselves living within the incomprehensibly vast context of the entire universe.  We live In Face of Mystery.

Our attempts to understand it must be tentative and cautious.  We can, however, construct pictures of what the whole might be like.  Such pictures are not arbitrary, because they work from our best knowledge of the world – and that is considerable.  But to find meaning and guidance for action we must go further, and construct interpretative pictures.  New knowledge means that old pictures have to be revised.

Can we find a credible picture that enables us to continue to use Christian symbols?

Yes.  But it is a demanding process.  It is not a single big “leap of faith”, but a series of small steps of faith, each quite reasonable, which gradually lead us to an interpretation of the world in which we can still use Christian symbols – though often in a new way.

Steps of/to Faith   These steps are:

  1. We are willing to go beyond “bare facts” to ask “What is really important for human beings?”  i.e. to try and think through and beyond facts to ultimate questions about life, death, and reality.  GK calls this seeking the “metaphysically real”.
  2. We see the universe as an evolutionary-developmental process.  (Most religions have seen it as essentially static; today we do not.)  In this process, humans now play an active role.
  3. We see this process as one of “serendipitous creativity”.  It is not a linear, purposive teleologically guided progression, a drawn-out act of creation by a purposive God.  Rather evolution takesunexpected turns as some forms or practices turn out to be especially suited to their environment and flourish, while others disappear.
  4. Within the larger cosmic evolutionary-historical process we see a significant trajectory which has resulted in the emergence of human life and values.  Thus they are “grounded” in the serendipitous creativity of the ultimate mystery.
  5. We see this process as God. “God is to be understood as the underlying reality (whatever it may be) – the ultimate mystery – expressing itself throughout the universe and thus also in this evolutionary-historical trajectory (of particular interest to us humans) which has produced humankind.  Seeing this process as God involves personal commitment to furthering this process, thus achieving a rapport with the actual cosmic-evolutionary movement in which we live.  (Using the concept God also links us to past humans who have likewise been committed to humanisation.)
  6. We see “Christ” as the key to both God and the human.  “Christ” is not just Jesus, but the whole movement which sprang from his life.  And compatible movements which have arisen in other cultures.


Thus a thoroughly contemporary understanding of human existence and the world – a modern myth – provides cosmically grounded orientation and hope (though not certainty) for the future, motivating humanity to take steps in faith toward its own fulfilment, toward taking responsibility for itself, its future, and its world.  In Biblical terms, we are dealing with grace (serendipity) and promise (direction) of a more humane future (the Kingdom).

“With the image/concept of God, we humans attempt to symbolize that which grounds our humanity, that which makes possible our very existence, even while driving us, or drawing us, beyond what we now are.  On the one hand, thus, the word “God” stands for something objectively there, a reality over against us that exists whether we are aware of it or not: we did not make ourselves; we were created by cosmic evolutionary and historical processes on which we depend absolutely for our being.  On the other hand, however, the word “God” functions as a symbol within our minds . . . as we shape and form ourselves in accordance with images and symbols to which we are devoted. . .  As a focus of devotion, this unifying symbol can bring order and meaning into the whole of life, providing values which facilitate the assessing, disciplining, and transforming of both communities and individual selves.  Thus, precisely through its functioning subjectively, in and through our minds – as a focus for consciousness, devotion, loyalty, sacrifice - the symbol “God” has important objective effects, becoming a powerful incentive toward and support for the emergence of full historicity in individuals and communities, in this way contributing to God’s continuing historical activity.”  (IFoM p.320-21)

Do you feel that this image/concept of God can adequately perform the functions of the traditional “personalist” image?

What appeals to you about it?  In what respects do you find it difficult/problematical?


“God is to be understood as the underlying reality (whatever it may be) – the ultimate mystery – expressing itself throughout the universe and thus also in this evolutionary-historical trajectory which has produced humankind.  Seeing this as God involves personal commitment to furthering this process, thus achieving a rapport with the actual cosmic-evolutionary movement in which we live.”

Kaufman’s Personal Convictions

“This book expresses four dimensions of my own faith and piety:

  •       my deep sense of the ultimate mystery of life;
  •       my feeling of profound gratitude for the gift of humanness and the great diversity which it manifests;
  •       my belief (with this diversity especially in mind) in the continuing importance of the central Christian moral demand that we love and care not only for our neighbours but even our enemies; and
  •       my conviction that the principal Christian symbols continue to provide a significant resource for the orientation of human life.
“[May] the profound awe which we feel before the mystery from which all the magnificent diversity [of the universe] streams, begin to expand into a deep love and loyalty to that mystery, to expand , that is to say, into faith in the God who truly humanizes yet thoroughly relativizes us all.”

One Ephesian’s Convictions

  •       It is important to fulfil one’s potential.  Only so do we flourish.
  •       One can only be fulfilled if others are fulfilled as well.
  •       We must be aware of - and accept - our limitations.
  •       We are shaped by the past and can help shape the future.
  •       Christian symbols have been helpful, but are now creaking.

1.       Morality

For Christians, Christ gives precision to what is demanded if the great humanising process is to go forward.

Christ” is not just Jesus, but a symbol for the whole human trajectory towards love, respect, commitment, justice etc.  It means non-violence and self-sacrifice: love; example; persuasion; laying down our lives.

2.       Mystery

·         emphasises that we can’t and don’t know everything;

·         prohibits us from ever thinking that we have attained the final truth  “God thoroughly relativizes us all.”

·         Requires us to always be tentative, exploring, open to others.

Though we should try to understand as much as we can.

3.       Myth

Some possible definitions.

  •       Poetical language to convey feelings or values (rather than facts) that cannot be adequately expressed in prose. (Cupitt; Geering)
  •       Anything that gives a role to supernatural agencies - Thus Bultmann and his programme of demythologisation.
  •       Metaphorical language, to point to something real which is otherwise indescribable.(Borg, Spong)
  •       A construction, interpreting and building on what we know to provide a framework in which we can understand it and relate to it. (Kaufman)

4.       Truth

I.    Statements about God can’t be true

a)      They don’t refer to any thing (non-realism) (Cupitt, Geering).  They are expressive of our attitudes and values.  We create these values, and inject them into, the natural world which in itself is neutral.  It’s hard to argue with those who don’t accept our values.

b)      These statements can be demythologised to refer to the existential decision we may make to enter into authentic existence  (Bultmann)  But what if you don’t feel you need a more authentic existence?

II.   Statements about God refer to what people (can) experience.
Crudely, God is a real but invisible being who makes himself known to some sixth sense.  Sadly, some of us can’t feel him.
c)      God is real and known in moments of transformed perception, of connectedness with all that is. ‘Earth is ‘filled with the glory of God’.                                (Borg, Spong)

III.  Statements about God are a reasonable interpretation of reality.

d)      We believe that the biohistorical process is not entirely neutral, but by its very nature has a direction of which we can become aware and to which we can  relate.                  (Kaufman)

Questions for Discussion

Does Kaufman’s approach (d) make “God” “real” rather than “unreal”?

Does it represent a useful step beyond (a), (b), and (c)?

As well as                     God        Kaufman redefines such terms as

Father                           Son,                  Spirit                 Trinity

Creation                        Salvation           Kingdom

Sin                                Forgiveness

Death                           Resurrection

Faith                             Grace

Vocation                       Piety.

And thinks that the traditional terms can continue to be used.  Does this indicate a degree of . . .

5.     Dishonesty?

“If one emphasises abstract metaphysical concepts about a “cosmic movement” to the exclusion of more anthropomorphic and personalistic imagery, the concept loses its religious power. . . In liturgical or homiletical situations, or in performance of pastoral activities intended to strengthen the church as a cultic community devoted to Christ, it would hardly be appropriate to raise such [metaphysical] issues; and theological writing directed to such uses could well skirt around them also.

“Although pastors need to be clear about who or what they themselves understand God to be, their work is not primarily analysis of the meaning of God-talk or propagating a particular theory about God.  It consists, rather, in helping people orient their lives and deal with their problems from a perspective of commitment to God.  This involves, above all, using the language and symbolism of faith . . . in such activities as leading public worship, counselling etc.  If pastors use this language with circumspection and intelligence, they can reasonably expect that members of the congregation will get a sense of what it is like for this language to serve as the framework within which living and thinking and acting are understood.  When one’s objective is to learn a language, the most important thing is to put it into use, not to take apart its fundamental symbols, posing various new alternatives.  Such activities would be, in this context, counterproductive.

“This does not mean that pastors can ignore the theological task.  There are many occasions when they are obliged not simply to call on God in prayer but to attempt to explain who or what God is; and it is certainly important that, as leaders of congregations, they understand, and are able to interpret to their congregations and others, what can properly be meant today by the religious symbolism they are using.”

Why does Kaufman take this line?  Is he justified?

For any problems or issues with this website, email the webmaster