I learned yesterday of the death of Gordon Kaufman, Professor of Theology for many years at Harvard Divinity School. He was 86. Gordon was my teacher, occasionally my pastor at the Mennonite Congregation of Boston, and over time, became a friend. We were both Mennonites although we came from different branches of the Mennonite family and it is a testimony to his commitment to the Mennonite tradition that he remained one until his death.
He was a towering presence at HDS in the 1980s. His booming voice and incisive intelligence were intimidating. The first class I took with him was “Constructing the Concept of God” that worked out some of the details in his The Theological Imagination. Already by that point, he had become quite insistent that Christian theology had to remake itself in the face of the scientific worldview and jettison concepts and modes of thinking that no longer made sense in the twentieth century. His Essay on Theological Method remains an insightful discussion of how to do theology and the reality that theological thinking is a human enterprise. He and I had several lengthy discussions about the continuing importance of traditional symbolism and language, and the possibility that such language might remain lifegiving even in a very different historical context.
Gordon was one of the best teachers I ever had. His command of a seminar room was masterful. He could take a barely adequate student paper that introduced the material at hand, and use it create a discussion that dealt with the major points of the reading at hand, as well as help students learn to ask better questions. I am still amazed at his ability to generate movement in a two-hour seminar session. Whatever analytical skills I have were honed in his classes and by his responses to my writing.
It was also moving to join him on Sunday evenings for worship. He was one of the founders in the 1960s of the Mennonite Congregation of Boston, to which I belonged in the 1980s. He remained the theologian there, but he was also comfortable being with somewhat more “typical” Mennonites, families, singles, college and graduate students. One of my fondest memories is of a service in the late 1980s. The Society for Christian Ethics was meeting in Boston that weekend, and John Howard Yoder surprised us by visiting our service. The worship leader had planned some sort of song that including holding hands and walking around in a circle. Seeing Yoder and Kaufman together in that way was both amusing and a testimony to the power of grace.
We saw Gordon over the years when we returned to Boston, and at the occasional meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Our last meeting was a lovely breakfast we shared one morning when Gordon was the plenary speaker at the Southeastern Academy of Religion meeting. We spent time catching up; he remained genuinely interested in our life journeys. I had always hoped to have another such conversation with him one day. Alas, that is not to be.