On July 22nd, Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman died in his home. His was a very lengthy career (spanning nearly six decades) which was dominated by two lifelong obsessions: the problem of God and the place of humanizing moral ideals in the world. His unusually tenacious focus on these themes led to many twists and turns, breakthroughs and blind alleys, in his thinking; but it eventuated in a remarkably innovative theology in which God is construed as the creativity which pervades the world (rather than a creator who lords over it) and which is expressed in trajectories toward the humane. Kaufman’s God is a non-anthropomorphic God which supports and I believe deepens our commitments to global justice and sustainability.
I had the pleasure of hosting Professor Kaufman during his one and only visit to Union Seminary in Virginia for a speaking engagement at the Howie Center for Art, Science, and Theology in 2009. During one of our conversations, he mused wistfully on the fate of constructive theology in the academy, and wondered aloud if in a generation there would be an audience for much of the ground-breaking theological work done by colleagues during his lifetime. This provoked me to reflect with him about the recent and future reception of his own work. He was somewhat gloomy about this, but he did express hope that at some point the tide would change and people would return to what he regarded as the most important theological issues of our time, and that perhaps his books would have something to say.
In the weeks since his death, I have thought a great deal about Kaufman’s legacy. What will he be remembered for? Are there lines of inquiry within his oeuvre that are likely candidates for further development and refinement by theologians coming after him? During the introductory remarks of his Howie lecture, he noted that he had been preoccupied with two important concepts throughout the latter half of his career, but had never before linked them in a single piece of work like he was about to do during the next hour. These two concepts are imagination and creativity. The ultimate reality behind and within the universe (God) is creativity, and the way we creatively engage the world, and find room for affirmation of the divine within it, is imagination. I tend to think that his legacy is somewhere in the entanglement of these two concepts: what we can hope for, Kaufman wanted to say, is grounded in what is. In more overtly political terms, the world and the way of life together we are trying to construct, though it is not read off of current circumstances, is an expression of what divine creativity is really producing, in, through, and in some cases in spite of us.
How could we develop these ideas? I have suggested in my book on Kaufman (In Face of Reality, 2011) that a primary burden of his work is to provide a persuasive account of the reality of God. Though I don’t develop the thought in the book, I’m convinced that if we are concerned to connect human aspirations for just and sustainable conditions of life to the real, we need to develop a concept of the real which both grounds hope in perduring conditions and leaves room for contingency (or for the unexpected, the event). How can the idea of God do both? How can creativity, with its wild, aimless fecundity, not overwhelm us, turning us into mere occasions for, or perhaps ciphers of, a cosmic Process which rolls on eternally, producing no true events but only simulacra of itself? In the end, Kaufman urged that we have to admit that creativity is horrific as well as humanizing, and that we should not worship creativity as such. Rather, we should commit ourselves to those features of creativity which support human agency (which does produce the new in the form of “history”) and its (best) projects. My concern with this response has always been that it looks like anthropocentrism is being re-introduced at just the critical moment. Who are we to limit the real, or even the good, to that which supports, sustains, or even enhances the human?
Still, I don’t want to be plowed under by the avalanches of creativity, either. I don’t want to be in the thrall of the real, but rather to be sustained and challenged in the face of it so that I may be opened to the event as it occurs. In other words, a theology should be about the real, but it should orient us to the creative event, the moment of breakthrough to a new kind of life. My own preference at this point (and if Kaufman has taught me anything, it is that I will be free to change my mind when the adventure of thought demands it) would be to draw on the work of various thinkers of the virtual (perhaps as divergent as Gilles Deleuze and Quentin Meillassoux) as a way to develop a concept of divine reality in a way which parallels but differs slightly from Kaufman’s. The virtual is the slew of potentials which are present to each moment but which do not overwhelm it. The virtual conditions the event, but it doesn’t constrain it, or cause it. Rather than being the effect of the virtual, the event is its expression, a manifestation of what it can do.
If God is the virtual, then the event is her child. The event may not always be humanizing, and so a theology of the event cannot be attentive merely to human concerns. Rather, it must name and foster configurations of human life which respect and value expressions of the divine in all of their ungrounded plurality. Human agency still has a necessary role, but it is a responsive, attendant role: we are to keep ourselves open to grace, and to respond to its expressions where we find them. As Kaufman knew, this kind of openness requires imagination: it takes imagination to see what creativity can do—in other words, to grasp creativity as creative. The event never appears to those who cannot imagine things being other than they are. It is not a force, nor a destiny, but only a possibility. The open-endedness of history was perhaps Kaufman’s dearest hope. A virtual theology in the spirit of Kaufman would not relinquish it.
Thomas A. James is Assistant Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary and author of In Face of Reality: The Constructive Theology of Gordon D. Kaufman (Pickwick Publications, 2011).