- Gordon Kaufman Interview
Gordon Kaufman, emeritus professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, has been a member of the Cobb-Abe Buddhist-Christian dialogue since its inception in 1987. As he mentions below, that experience has profoundly affected his work as a theologian and his conviction that theology is an activity of “the imaginative construction of a comprehensive and coherent picture of humanity in the world under God.” This perspective has characterized his work from Systematic Theology (1968) through his more recent In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (1993). Rita Gross and Terry Muck, coeditors of Buddhist-Christian Studies, explored with Gordon the important role Buddhism has played in his theological construction.
Buddhist-Christian Studies: Does religious pluralism present Christian theologians with a unique task?
Gordon Kaufman: Yes. Through most of Christian history theologians have argued that God revealed Godself to the Christian church in a way unlike any other religious group. Christians had the truth about human beings, their nature, their deepest problems, and solutions to those problems. Now, especially since World War II, a much greater consciousness of the significance of other religious traditions has grown among Christians. The unique challenge to Christian theologians is: What do we as theologians say to believers about what to do with this old tradition of uniqueness and infallible truth?
Are Buddhist ‘theologians’ faced with a similar challenge in their communities?
Are there specific features of either Christian theology or Buddhist theology that make either one of these religions more able or less able to step up to the challenge? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these two religions when it comes to the issues religious pluralism raises?
I don’t want to speak for the Buddhist tradition in this respect. But I will say that both traditions have adapted to many different cultures around the world and there is a kind of flexibility in these traditions that gives hope. Christian monotheism, for example, is sometimes seen as contributing to exclusivism. But monotheism can be seen as including the notion of one source and ordering principle working in all of life, and that means we are all equal within the world and all related within the world to each other. And that leads to a central teaching of the Christian message: what God requires of us is that we be reconciled with those brothers and sisters from whom we are alienated. The simple Christian demand that we love not only our [End Page 43] neighbors but also our enemies now becomes a very powerful mandate if connected up with that one high monotheistic principle.
Is there a certain commensurability between the way Buddhist and Christian theologians do their work?
Let’s start by defining the terms. I don’t use the phrase ‘Buddhist theology’ but ‘Buddhist reflective thinking.’ This is less loaded than ‘theology,’ the study of God, but I have no objection if others want to call it Buddhist theology. Now, regarding ‘commensurability.’ I don’t regard myself as a good enough scholar of the history of religion to use that phrase. I’m a little suspicious of it because I am deeply impressed with the difference in lifestyles and commitments and value orientations that different symbols in various religious traditions promote. Thus I don’t want to assume there is a basic commensurability. The basic requirement for the Christian theologian is that we be open to all human beings. Then we’ll see what commensurability there is.
So it’s not so much a cognitive category as an attitude or an approach—a common, human desire?
Not necessarily a common human desire. I suspect there are strong motivations in all human beings, at least in many, not to be ‘open’ to all other persons. Many simply identify with the groups they are in and are not concerned much about others. I do say that there is a strong Christian imperative to enter into loving relationship with strangers, and whether that is true or not on the other side is for me to find out.
How important is it to find out?
Very important. It may have been that in earlier times we could continue to live in...