In Face of Mystery

Gordon Kaufman, Harvard University Press, 1993.

Reviewed by Alan Goss, SOF NZ Newsletter #12, July 1995

In this monumental work the Professor of Divinity at Harvard University offers readers a thorough-going reconstruction of the Christian world-view. He does this on the premise that a major function of religions, and theologies, is to present human beings with visions of the whole of reality.

Kaufman reminds us that the traditional Christian model or worldview where God is perceived as a quasi-personal reality "out there", who has a purpose for us and tasks for us to do, who loves and cares for each one of us, is now to be found wanting, even though this picture may evoke from us a powerful response. A powerful cosmic agent can become_and indeed throughout history has often become_an authoritarian tyrant. The author painstakingly and with passion reconstructs, not a swept-up fresh coat-of-paint version of the old, but a radically new world picture from a Christian perspective.

To be fair, Kaufman doesn't reject or downgrade the familiar traditional symbols, e.g. Christ, creator, trinity etc., (our downfall has been to reify, i.e. to make "a thing" of them, to literalize them); rather he reinterprets them and shows how they can fit into and give meaning to this reconstructed model of God, the world and our place in it.

Kaufman contends that we need a new conception of God that resonates with our modern human experience. He explores in depth the evolutionary and historical development of life on planet Earth which provides a clue to the ultimate mystery of things and which can be regarded as "meaningful" and "good". Devotion to God (traditionally Creator/Lord/Father) consists in the attempt to live in rapport with the movements of life and history that provide the actual context of our human existence. It is to attempt to be in tune with what we discern as the nature of things, to live and to work "with the grain" of the universe as apprehended in our part of it. Our received traditions about God are therefore inadequate, even destructive, of human life and the environment. God can no longer be imagined as a personal being in the heavens above with whom we interact. Our personal relationship with God (the ultimate reality and mystery, which is trustworthy) is to be found most fundamentally in and through our interpersonal relationships with our fellow humans, and our care for the environment.

This is a very important book and, as the author concedes, a very daunting read! (461pp). A popular version would be helpful.

It is a timely follow-up to Tomorrow's God covering similar ground and showing how the traditional Christian symbols (esp. Christ, incarnation, Holy Spirit) need to be interpreted. They no longer fit in the overall cast of life and must change in decisive ways if they are not to die out. This calls for momentous changes by the churches - in worship, in ministry, in the sacraments, in many hymns and our attitudes to the bible. It will only happen, says Kaufman, if there is a recognition that this is a life-and-death matter for the churches. Sadly this recognition seems to be slow in coming.