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  • Mystery, Reality, and the Virtual: The Problem of Reference in Gordon Kaufman’s Theology
  • Thomas A. James (bio)

In a classic article, philosopher William P. Alston argues that nonrealism, “though rampant nowadays even among Christian theologians,” is “subversive” of theistic faith.1 Among contemporaries guilty of succumbing to this philosophical bogey, Gordon Kaufman is singled out as an especially illuminating example. Alston notes that in the essays that make up God the Problem, Kaufman makes use of a distinction between the “available referent” of theistic language and its “real referent,” the former indicating the actual object of religious experience and responses, and the latter appearing only as the “I-know-not-what” that ultimately grounds them. By the time Kaufman writes In Face of Mystery, Alston suggests, the real referent has dropped out altogether as theologically insignificant, giving way to the language of “mystery.”2

It is not clear that Alston has read the intent of Kaufman’s latter work correctly, however. Indeed, as I will argue here, it is the work embodied in and proceeding from In Face of Mystery, including clarifications published in In the Beginning . . . Creativity and Jesus and Creativity, that attempts to bridge the yawning gap between what he earlier called “the available” and the “real.” In order to see this, I suggest, it is crucial to avoid prejudicing beforehand what is to be taken as the content of the real. In other words, Alston’s criticism holds only if God must be taken as a discrete (and probably person-like) entity that can be singled out from among others—a notion that is at least problematic within even the most orthodox strands of theistic tradition. It is just this specification that Kaufman disavows in order precisely to resolve the problem of reference in a broadly intelligible way.

In this essay I will consider Kaufman’s efforts on this topic alongside the more forthrightly realistic but also highly revisionary theology of Bernard Meland and the nonrealist theology of Charley Hardwick. I will make a case that Kaufman’s constructivism and Meland’s empirical realism are both forms of what I will call “indirect” reference, where theological language is realistically reinterpreted by means of substantial revisions in content. [End Page 258] “God” refers, but not to what its ordinary usage seems to imply, nor in the straightforward manner in which empirical references are normally made. Both theologians, we will see, utilize the notion of divine “mystery” not just as vague hand waving but deliberately and precisely both to critique literal, direct references to God and to warrant departures from them. That neither of them is nonrealist will be evident from their deep differences with respect to Charley Hardwick’s theology.

After making such a case, I will argue that both Kaufman and Meland fail to carry this project of indirect reference through adequately, however: Kaufman in the end fails to specify what he means by God’s reality as distinct from generalizations about world processes; and Meland comes very close to collapsing divine reality into a discrete object that impinges, however mysteriously, on the subject. Though Kaufman’s more recent work strives for realism on the issue of reference, then, he doesn’t achieve it; and though Meland’s theology is attentive to mystery, it verges on a direct if not quite literal description insofar as it traces the lines of causal efficacy back to a discrete, identifiable object. So, Kaufman and Meland jointly outline a dilemma for projects that attempt to hold to indirect reference: is God identifiable as an ontologically distinct being, or is God transcendent mystery, beyond the presence-to-hand that characterizes individual identifiability? Indirect reference tries to hold somehow to both horns of the dilemma, to insist that God is a reality but to resist reification, but it is not immediately clear how this can be done. In the final section of the essay, I will briefly develop the outline of a constructive response that seeks to resolve the difficulties of both constructivist and empirical realist theologies by interposing a concept drawn from a strand of process thinking (i.e., Henri Bergson) and developed by thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Mark C...


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pp. 258-275
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