A Look Back

Ultimate Unknowing

Gordon Kaufman in 2003. HDS Photograph

Gordon Dester Kaufman, Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, died on July 22, 2011, at the age of eighty-six. A member of the Faculty of Divinity since 1963, Kaufman was a renowned theologian, prolific scholar, and beloved teacher who influenced several generations of HDS students. Because he argued for a vision of God as the “profound mystery of creativity,” and the “ongoing creativity in the universe,” many students with artistic proclivities (including poets and writers) gravitated toward him. Thus, it seems fitting to include Kaufman’s voice in this particular issue. The following is an excerpt from his 1991 Convocation Address, “Mystery, Theology, and Conversation,” published in volume 21, number 2 of the Bulletin.

[T]o say, “It is a mystery,” does not, in fact, tell us anything specific about the subject matter we are speaking of or seeking to understand. Rather, it simply calls attention to something about ourselves: that at this point we are moving to the limits of our powers, and thus we may easily become confused or misled. The word “mystery” is a warning that our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking are not working well here, and that special rules in our use of language should therefore be followed: take unusual care; beware of what is being said; the speaker may be misleading you; you may be misleading yourself; attend to what is being said with a sort of critical sensitivity to its problematic character. When we introduce the concept of mystery into our theological work, there is no suggestion whatsoever that we may now let down the bars of a thoroughly critical employment of our faculties; on the contrary, we are alerting ourselves to the necessity at this point to employ our critical capacities to their utmost. . . .

. . . The only possible check against the monumental deceits which our religiosity is capable of working on our gullibility—and on our desire for certainty in a terrifying world—is the constant reminding of ourselves that it is indeed mystery with which we humans ultimately have to do; and therefore we dare not claim certitude with respect to our ideas of the right and true, the good and the real, but must acknowledge that in these things we men and women always, in fact, proceed in faith as we move forward through life into the uncertain future before us. Precisely because of the mystery, we must give a prominent place in our vision of reality to forthright acknowledgement of our ultimate unknowing with respect to the deepest questions of life and death; precisely because of the mystery, we must engage in relentless theological criticism of our human faiths, their symbols, and the practices they inspire; precisely because of the mystery, we must undertake disciplined but imaginative construction of a vision of the world to which we can give ourselves—in faith—with some measure of confidence.

1991 Bulletin issueHarvard Divinity Bulletin, volume 21, number 2 (1991–92)

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