CONSTRUCTING A BELIEVABLE GOD
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 Imagination – Constructing the Concept of God (300 pp).
God as Person? –All-knowing, all-powerful loving Creator?
But there are serious problems with this symbolism.
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:
The Starting-Point – Humans as Biohistorical Beings
What sort of creatures are we?
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:
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:
“[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
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.
· 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.
Some possible definitions.
I. Statements about God can’t be true
II. Statements about God refer to what people (can) experience.
III. Statements about God are a reasonable interpretation of reality.
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
And thinks that the traditional terms
can continue to be used. Does this indicate a degree of . . .
“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