Thinking Our Way to the Ultimate

by William C. Placher

William C. Placher is professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College. He spent 1994 at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 19-26, 1993, pp. 557-561. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


For theologians like Gordon Kaufman, we know what we value for the universe and for human life, and we pick the religious symbols that best serve those ends.

BOOK REVIEW:In Face of Mystery, by Gordon Kaufman. Harvard University Press, 509 pp., $39.95.

For nearly 25 years, Gordon Kaufman has been a senior professor of theology at Harvard. His earlier books, such as Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective (1968), God the Problem (1972): and An Essay on Theological Method (1975), have been important contributions to this country’s theological discussions. Now, in his late 60s, he has written his best book, tying together a lifetime of theological reflection.

Kaufman is one of a remarkable generation of theologians who were roughly contemporaries as students at Yale. Though their years in residence varied, he, Harvard colleague Richard R. Niebuhr, James Gustafson and George Lindbeck all received their Ph.D.s there in 1955, Hans Frei a year later, Van Harvey a year after that. It must have been quite a place. H. Richard Niebuhr taught them all, and one could tell a significant part of the story of that generation of American theologians as a struggle over the meaning of Niebuhr’s legacy. Frei and Lindbeck followed the Niebuhr of The Meaning of Revelation and Christ and Culture, with his accounts of Christ, the transformer of culture, and of the internal history of the Christian community.

Kaufman and Gustafson have emphasized the side of Niebuhr that took clearest form in Radical Monotheism: the Niebuhr who was most suspicious of the claim of any particular symbol or tradition to capture the One beyond the many. Kaufman, more than Gustafson, has added a political passion: a concern for feminist issues, racial justice, and the threat of nuclear annihilation or ecological catastrophe as the context for theological reflection. Indeed, Sallie McFague, a feminist and ecologically sensitive theologian, has said that hearing Kaufman’s 1982 American Academy of Religion presidential address, "Nuclear Eschatology and the Study of Religion," was an important moment in her own theological development. This new book is full of cautiously crafted theology, but that passion is never far from the surface.

"What are we to make," Kaufman begins by asking, "of the fact that Christian institutions, communities, and traditions have been responsible for so much oppression and suffering in human history?" If Christian symbols have been used at various times to oppress women, justify slavery and foster environmental destruction, then we cannot just keep using those symbols uncritically. To take their "innocence and correctness ... for granted. . . may well only add to our deepest human problems." Yet Kaufman believes that the central Christian symbols "continue to provide a significant resource for the orientation of human life." He doesn’t simply want to give them up. Theology therefore needs to be a process of "imaginative reconstruction," of rethinking and modifying Christian symbols to further the goals of human and cosmic flourishing.

That process of criticism and reconstruction will examine the related ways we think about human beings, our world and God. It will move only in cautious steps. Kierkegaard’s influence has led both neo-orthodox theology and existentialism to talk about a "leap of faith." It is a metaphor, Kaufman argues, that does not really describe the process by which we come to faith. Our belief in God "is built up, rather, out of a number of metaphysical moves and claims which, when they cumulate into a full-blown understanding of reality, and of the human place in this reality, constitute a theocentric world picture."

Kaufman identifies six "small steps" which lead to Christian faith. Each is a step of faith; none can be proven. Yet each represents an intellectual choice that is as defensible as its alternatives. Breaking the movement to faith into this series of steps not only better captures our experience; it also reminds us that there are honest faith positions that stop short of Christianity. One can take some of these steps without taking others.

The first step is "to commit ourselves to the possibility and the desirability of attempting to think through (at least in a rudimentary way) our position on some aspects of the ultimate questions about life, death, and reality." Unlike nihilists and positivists, we will look for answers to ultimate questions. Unlike the dogmatic adherents of various traditions, we will think about these matters, not just accept what some tradition proclaims to us.

To take the second step is to think about the world of our experience "as a part, and expression of, a cosmic evolutionary-historical process that characterizes or pervades all reality" rather than "as transpiring within an eternal structure of things which follows essentially the same patterns forever." Though here again he does not assert that this claim can be proven, Kaufman believes that this choice makes better sense of the historicity of human experience. Human development really does generate something new, not just new repetitions of the same old cycle. To think in terms of history and process, however, is to find the myths of ancient Israel and Christianity with their historical sense of reality, more attractive than the myths of eternal cycles common to many other cultures.

The third step involves claiming that "significant creativity occurs in this cosmos" and that "the emergence of historicity and spirit" is "a manifestation of that creativity." That accepted, "the course of biological evolution on earth, including the emergence of our own human historical mode of being, could properly be regarded as a significant clue to the ultimate mystery of things." In other words, in the cosmic process of change, genuinely new levels emerge: life, human consciousness. And somehow the possibility of their emergence is built into the nature of the cosmic process itself.

The fourth step goes a bit further, to see "the trajectory eventuating in the creation of human historical existence" not "as a metaphysical surd but rather as grounded in the ultimate nature of things, in the ultimate mystery." That this creative process produced human beings is not a fluke but somehow in accord with the deepest structure of how things are.

Fifth, Christians choose to use "God" as the symbol for the ultimate mystery of this creative process, so that "life must at all points be lived in awe and respect before the ultimate mystery of things. But now this mystery is apprehended as profoundly humanizing as well as relativizing: it is a mystery, therefore, that can be loved as well as feared, a mystery within which we can feel at home." The symbol of God, Kaufman maintains, points with particular effectiveness at once to the ultimate mystery and to the relativity of all human expressions of that mystery.

Sixth, "we introduce the symbol ‘Christ’ as a major interpretive category into our theistic world picture." By "Christ," Kaufman means (and claims that at least parts of the New Testament mean) not just Jesus but "that larger, more complex reality surrounding and including and following upon the man Jesus: the new Christian community with its spirit of love and freedom, of mutual sharing and forgiveness of one another." Peter Hodgson’s God in History, Mark Kline Taylor’s Remembering Esperanza, and a number of feminist projects have recently made similar claims. To speak of Christ, for these theologians, is not to speak of one person as savior, and in particular not of one male person, but to say something about a process emerging in the whole life of a community. In taking this sixth step, Christians affirm that the "tendency toward the human and the humane (toward ‘Christ’) in the ultimate nature of things" which has existed since the beginning of time "has become evident and clear only now in the new order of relationships just coming into view" in the Christian community To be sure, "any community which becomes a vehicle in history of more profoundly humane patterns of life" can be a part of this new order, but the events around Jesus have at least a kind of priority as its first clear manifestation.

Christians, then, are people who have decided (1) to think about ultimate questions, (2) to think about them in terms of evolutionary process rather than static order, (3) to think of that process as creative of life and consciousness, (4) to think of its creativity as directed to humanness and humaneness, (5) to use the symbol "God" for the mystery of this process, and (6) to believe that the meaning of the whole process becomes clear in the events surrounding and including Jesus of Nazareth.

The third step, with its claim about creativity may be the crucial one for the nature of Kaufman’s particular project. Traditional theology has thought of creativity as presupposing a creator. If human history has the elegant shape of a well-formed pot, then there must be a potter at work in the fashioning of it. Kaufman rejects this model as no longer credible—and dangerous besides. Since "our modern concept of the universe is of a selfcontained, intradependent whole, the idea of a God who is ‘outside’ the universe is scarcely thinkable today." Moreover, "the conception of the all-powerful cosmic agent can easily become ....a notion of an essentially authoritarian tyrant" demanding unquestioning obedience and thus the excuse for holy wars, persecutions, inquisitions, crusades and tortures.

Kaufman therefore favors an alternative model of creativity as emerging from the serendipity of history. In a good basketball game or a good conversation, the players or speakers "create" something beyond themselves and something genuinely new that none of them could achieve as individuals. Yet we do not look for some creator outside the process; the creativity emerges from the interactive process itself. Analogously, Kaufman sees no need "to think in terms of some ‘cosmic person’ out there somewhere"; his God lies in the mystery of the cosmic process itself. Bultmann’s project of demythologizing, he thinks, didn’t go far enough, for he still spoke of an "other side" or "other world" to which mythological language, however inadequately, points. But this is the only world there is, and creativity comes out of the interaction of forces and agents within it.

But does that process embody as much direction, advancement, and reason for hope as Kaufman wants to claim? Spinoza, who identified God with the cosmos even more unambiguously, concluded that it made no sense to see any teleology at work in nature. Spinoza’s universe simply is—without direction, purpose or goal. Gustafson, with whose work Kaufman’s has much in common, would dismiss Kaufman’s faith that the cosmic process is somehow oriented to humanness and humaneness as unjustified anthropocentrism. "We can say," Kaufman writes,

of the cosmic and historical process which has brought forth human life on earth (paraphrasing Job): ‘Though it slay us—as individuals, even as whole communities—yet will we trust in it.’ For we believe and hope that the cosmic trajectory which has brought us into being is drawing us onward toward a humane ordering of life.

Really? The cosmic process alone?

In all the vast cosmos, after all, we have little knowledge of what has been thrown up anywhere but on the third planet of the minor star we call the sun. In the evolutionary process on this earth, the fittest survive, and, even if we humans do not blow ourselves up, the cockroaches may yet outlast us all. Does the process, overall, really point to humanness and humaneness? If there isn’t a writer or a director, why assume that the play makes any sense, let alone that it will have a happy ending?

Kaufman fudges just a bit at this point. God, he says, "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." So while Kaufman thinks that God isn’t a "cosmic person out there somewhere" and that Bultmann didn’t go far enough because he posited an "other world" to which myths point, nevertheless the universe isn’t quite the only reality: there is an "underlying reality" or "ultimate mystery" that "expresses itself" throughout the universe. To be sure, it’s hard to imagine anyone being more cautious than Kaufman here. "Mystery" gets assigned no personal qualities, and it isn’t one entity, let alone one agent, in the world. Yet a mystery remains tantalizingly behind the process, and one wonders if we have moved quite so far from Bultmann’s appeal to another world as Kaufman claims. And if Kaufman qualifies his position here, is it perhaps because the cosmic process alone isn’t enough to warrant trust, much less worship?

A more basic question about Kaufman’s method also emerges from his talk of this ultimate mystery. He believes that all our religious symbols are inadequate to express it. To take any religious symbol as basic and nonnegotiable is therefore a form of idolatry—taking a particular image for the divine reality that lies beyond all images. Therefore Kaufman says that we have to be constantly criticizing and reformulating our religious symbols in the light of the contribution they make to human flourishing and (remembering ecological concerns) the flourishing of the universe in all its parts. We should use the symbol God "functionally," to refer not to any particular ideas about God "but rather to that reality whatever it might be which draws us on toward full and responsible humaneness."

The problem with such theological functionalism is that the ethical goal seems a given, in terms of which we interpret and evaluate the theological symbols. We know (somehow) what we value for the universe and for human life, and we pick the religious symbols that best serve those ends. Religious ideologues of the left and the right are often accused of using religion to foster a political agenda. Substitute "moral" for "political," and, in a very sophisticated way, that seems what Kaufman is saying we ought to do. Kant lies not too far in the background.

Alternatively, one might say that religious symbols (or myths or narratives or languages) so shape the way we understand the world that they quite fundamentally form what we value for human beings and the cosmos. Our ethics comes out of our theology, not the other way round.

To put the issue like that of course oversimplifies both sides. Kaufman knows that religious symbols evoke connotations and creatively juxtapose ideas in ways that change the way we think even about our basic values. And any plausible critic of his position has to acknowledge all the evil that has been done in the name of religion, and the need for critical examination of religious symbols and their use. Still, theologians differ on the priorities, and those differences constitute one key way of sorting out contemporary theologians.

For functionalists like Kaufman or Peter Hodgson, Sallie McFague or John Hick, another agenda finally provides the criteria for evaluating theological symbols. "If the story of Jesus," Kaufman remarks at one point, "provides significant insight into and orientation for today’s human life and problems, christology can and should continue to have an important place in our theological reflection and our religious devotion; if not, it should be allowed to fall away. For nonfunctionalists like George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, James Cone or (this can be a tricky case) David Tracy, nothing outside the Christian symbols (or stories) can provide anything like objective criteria for evaluating them, and we do our religious thinking, however critical, within the context of the symbols and stories of our particular tradition. They define what counts as most real and most worthy of value.

My own vote goes for the nonfunctionalists, for a variety of reasons. First, I just don’t know where to get reliable criteria for evaluating religious symbols. Kant, perhaps the greatest theological functionalist, thought he could prove the rationality of a particular set of moral principles, and therefore pick the religious symbols that served those principles best. Can we now be as confident of having a solid place to stand, clear standards of humanness and humaneness, as we evaluate the symbols of religious traditions? If not, perhaps better to begin with a religious tradition whose particularities our situation of religious pluralism will make it impossible to ignore than to start with an unexamined set of values somehow supposedly prior to any set of religious symbols.

Second, I would raise these questions: Is theological functionalism faithful to what religious traditions really mean to say, to the reasons they have such power for us? Do we lose the power of the claim that an itinerant Jewish preacher who taught about love and was murdered by the political establishment of his time was God become human flesh if we turn out to mean only that it’s useful to say that? Can we say of the ultimate mystery, "Though it slay us, yet will we trust it," if we do not flesh out the identity of that mystery with nonfunctionalist content?

Even if one disagrees with its conclusions, however, this is a major book by a major theologian. I especially admire the moral tone of Kaufman’s voice. Early on, having admitted the difficulty of speaking of ultimate mystery at all, he adds, "This does not mean that it is not worth saying, that it is just empty talk... I do have some things to say, but. . . I want it understood from the outset how problematic all of this is, how uncertain; but however uncertain, these are matters worth attending to, worth trying to understand as well as we can." Kaufman is unafraid to be—to use two of his favorite adjectives—both human and humane, honest about both his caution and his passions, and in that he provides even those of us who disagree with him with an admirable model of how to be a theologian.