Gordon Kaufman, Leading Theologian, Dies

July 28, 2011
Gordon Kaufman, Leading Theologian, Dies
Gordon Kaufman

Gordon Dester Kaufman, Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, died on Friday, July 22, at age 86.

A member of the Faculty of Divinity since 1963, Kaufman was a renowned liberal theologian whose research, writing, and teachings had a profound influence on constructive and systematic theology. He argued for a vision of God as the "profound mystery of creativity," the "ongoing creativity in the universe." By rethinking theology in naturalistic terms, he made significant contribution to discussions of religion and science, ecological issues, and evolution. His rethinking of the meaning of Jesus for today and his reimagination of central symbols of Christian tradition were significant for his engagement with religious pluralism and promotion of interfaith understanding.

"At the core of Gordon's theological imagination of God as mystery and creativity was his deep commitment to nonviolence, justice, and human flourishing," said Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at HDS. "He was a deeply ethical, profoundly compassionate person, so that the lively intellectual conversations I and others so enjoyed with him were always grounded by his fundamental sense of joy and duty in connection to all living things. He was a great gift to his colleagues and students, and to the field of theology."

"Gordon Kaufman was one of the steadiest members of the HDS faculty, from his arrival to his retirement, in that he was always ready to take on students, talk out issues and disagreements with colleagues, and think about pedagogical strategies," said Dean William A. Graham. "His students are teaching religion around the globe today, and much of what they do will have been influenced for the better for their work with him."

"Gordon was an exceptional teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend—a powerful influence on my thinking, writing, working, and living," said George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee, HDS dean from 1979 to 1985, and past president of Columbia University.

Kaufman was born on June 22, 1925, in Newton, Kansas. He earned a bachelor of arts from Bethel College in Kansas in 1947. He went on to earn an MA in sociology from Northwestern University in 1948, a BD from Yale Divinity School in 1951, and a PhD in philosophical theology from Yale University in 1955, with a dissertation titled "The Problem of Relativism and the Possibility of Metaphysics." He was later awarded an honorary MA from Harvard in 1963, an LHD from Bethel College in 1973, and an LHD from Carleton College in 2007. Kaufman was ordained in 1953 in the General Conference Mennonite Church. He also served on the Bethel College Board of Directors from 1964 to 1976.

Kaufman served terms as president of the New England Region of the American Academy of Religion (1979–80), and later of the entire AAR (1981–82). He served a term as president of the American Theological Society (1979–80). He was also a member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, and an active and longtime member of the Boston Theological Society.

He completed postdoctoral fellowships as a Fulbright Fellow in Tübingen, Germany, 1961–62; a Guggenheim Fellow in Oxford, England, 1969–70; an Association of Theological Schools Fellow in Bangalore, India, 1976–77; a Japan Foundation Fellow in Kyoto, Japan, in the fall of 1983; and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, 1990–91.

Before coming to Harvard as professor of theology in 1963, Kaufman taught at Vanderbilt University as an associate professor of theology from 1958 to 1963 and at Pomona College as assistant professor of religion from 1953 to 1958. He taught and lectured widely, not only within the United States, but also internationally, holding numerous visiting professorships and lectureships, including at Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong (1991), University of Oxford (1986), University of South Africa, Pretoria (1984), Doshisha University in Kyota, Japan (1983), United Theological College in Bangalore, India (1976–77), and the Institute for Teachers of Systematic Theology, also in Bangalore (1988).

After more than three decades as a member of the Faculty of Divinity, Kaufman retired from Harvard Divinity School in 1995, but continued to mentor students and to teach part-time, as research professor, until his last course in 2009.

A prolific writer, Kaufman amassed an extensive bibliography of books, articles, and reviews. Among his many published works, in which he reimagined religious concepts and constructs in ways he believed would be more constructive in the modern world, are Relativism, Knowledge and Faith (1960), Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective (1968) God the Problem (1972), Nonresistance and Responsibility, and Other Mennonite Essays (1979), and In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (1993), which won the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the "Constructive-Reflective" category of scholarly books on religion. In 1996, Fortress Press published Kaufman’s God-Mystery-Diversity: Christian Theology in a Pluralistic World. His two most recent books, also published by Fortress, are In the beginning . . . Creativity (2004) and Jesus and Creativity (2006). In these later works, he suggested that God is the "profound mystery of creativity," the "ongoing creativity in the universe."

He was the subject of a 1991 festschrift, titled Theology at the End of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman (ed. Sheila Greeve Davaney), and a 1996 volume titled Mennonite Theology in Face of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman (ed. Alain Epp Weaver). The Highlands Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought honored Kaufman at a special event in 2007 devoted to a discussion of his theological work on creativity, and those proceedings were published in the January 2008 issue of the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy.

"Gordon brought an unusual integrity to the task of theology, especially in his concern that Christian beliefs should be understood in ways that contribute to global issues of peace, to dialogue among the religions, and to environmental concerns," said Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at HDS.

A resident of Cambridge, Kaufman is survived by four children, David, Gretchen, Anne, and Edmund Kaufman, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Dorothy Wedel, his wife since June 11, 1947, died in 1998.

A public memorial service is being planned for the fall. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made "in memory of Gordon D. Kaufman" to the Mennonite Central Committee, PO Box 500, Akron, PA 17501; or to Bethel College, Development Office, 300 E. 27th Street, N. Newton, KS 67117.

—by Jonathan Beasley