Kaufman, God, and Scripture

Two short essays I wrote for my Methods in the study of Sacred Texts: God’s relationship with Man, course.

The topic if Kaufman, how he views Jesus in relation to scripture and importance, and how he defines God. Enjoy.

Leonard O Goenaga
Professor Alvarez
REL4205
30 October 2007

Kaufman, God, and Christ/Scripture

Question One: In the chapter on Jesus, Kaufman speaks about the role of the Scripture in our reconstruction of the life of Jesus and the extent to which Scripture remains authoritative for Christians today. What is Kaufman’s view? What is the source(s) of authority for Kaufman?

Question Two: What is Kaufman’s understanding of the concept of God, particularly in terms of the dual aspect of the concept of God. After presenting Kaufman’s position, to what criticisms is Kaufman vulnerable; both from the point of view the Christian tradition and from the point of view of the naturalistic worldview he is trying to a large degree to accommodate? To what extent do you believe Kaufman succeeds in reconstructing the concept of God (or doing justice to it) and to what extent would you say he fails?

Approximately 2 ½ Pages per question.

Question One

In a world where we experience a rise in religious fundamentalism, and one where secularism and the scientific method have rooted themselves into the fabric of intellectual norms, we find an extreme tug of these two forces upon the Christian faith. A trumpeted call to the fundamentals of scripture and faith have been increasingly popular and possibly the most effective way at combating the shockwave of the age of enlightenment and scholarship in the 19th century. In this wake of fundamentalism and the wave of secular scholarship, we find the Christian faith being tugged to the point of achieving what Kaufman may find as a gap. This gap is the need to reverse the tugging into a worldview that adapts both the evolutionary scholarship of the 19th century, and the foundations of the Christian message. In this essay, I will explain Kaufman’s view on the role of Scripture, Jesus, and authority in light of the Christian message.

In order to first understand Kaufman’s view on the role of scripture in our reconstruction of the life of Jesus, we must first introduce his concept of Myth vs. Historical. Kaufman makes it very clear that “…the New Testament cannot be taken as simply and straightforwardly authoritative for contemporary theological work, even in what it says of Jesus or God.” (146). The reason why, he argues, is that the only real source we have of Jesus (the Gospels), are riddled with myths attributed to him by the early churches. These myths have somewhat snowballed with the progression of future theologians, which only attributed to the previous assertions of Jesus’ mythic form. Kaufman favors a historical view as clarified by recent historical scholarship, over the mythical Jesus, and “…require[s] us to give the historical elements in the New Testament materials priority over the mythic.” (146). Taking this historical viewpoint over the mythic, we can now analyze Kaufman’s view of the purpose of scripture. Kaufman argues, “Without the new Testament there would be no Jesus at all who could serve as a paradigm making concrete and specific the understanding of the normatively human.” (146). The NT gives us the proper image, or picture, of Jesus in which we can use to analyze (through this historical lens), the truths He teaches above the human condition. As for the Old Testament, “without the Old Testament there would be no way adequately to understand the context of faith and life which Jesus appeared,” (146).

This leads us to question Kaufman on the extent to which scripture remains authoritative for Christians today. Kaufman argues that the authority of scripture is found in the Image that it portrays of God, and the image it portrays of Jesus. These two issues, God and Jesus, are what we analyze to learn about the human condition and how we, as humans, should behave. Jesus plays a role of showing us (once again, in the historical perspective) an individual who exemplified the humane. He was the brilliant image that we may focus upon that “humanize[s]… and… relativize[s] us,” (155). He argues that this story of the historical Jesus that we may find in the scriptures “will truly humanize us, [and] enable us to come to fulfillment of our human potential;” (155). We, as theologians, must use scripture as that image in which we may focus on Jesus to receive the message of the perfected human; how we, as humans, should behave.

This leads us to one last question: What are Kaufman’s sources of authority? Kaufman first argues that we must realize we do not live in a cultural vacuum. Our biases affect our understanding, so we must place an authority in the historical study (as spawned from the 19th century) of the scriptures. With this as a basis, we place the authority of the Christian message (a proactive one) upon its central figure: the Historical Jesus. “Jesus can be used as the defining model or paradigm in constructing the image/concept of God.” (156), and by studying this image we may learn, from Jesus, how to relate with the divine reality (God), and how to behave in according to Jesus actions and the central tenets of Christian faith (love of God, and love of fellow man).

It is difficult to say whether or not Kaufman may find success in bridging the
wide gap of scientific secularism and the Christian message of salvation and forgiveness, but his message on the focus of the humanness of Jesus is alluring none-the-less.

Question Three
When one hears the word God, several images pop into mind. One may envision the traditional folklore like image of an old wise man, adorned in pure linen robes, a snow-white beard, and a welcoming smile. Others may conjure up other anthromorphic terms, such as “Mighty Warrior”, “King of Kings,” and “Lord of Lords”. Others may even see the absence of a being, and instead refer to the transcendental philosophical ideas and words to describe God: Absolute Love, The Most High, The Alpha and the Omega, etc. To Kaufman, “all speech to and about God, and all “experience of God,” is made possible by and is function of the constructive powers of the imagination,” (22). These people perceive of God within their cultural imaginative worldview, and this culture and language leads to man’s desire to explain God in his own anthromorphic and philosophical terms. This is the initial point Kaufman draws upon to further explain his understanding God, and His (or its) meaning.

One problem off the start that traditional Christians may find with Kaufman’s arguments is the removal of focus from God to the human. This isn’t to say that the focus is on oneself; quite the contrary. Kaufman speaks of God as merely a symbol, or an image. He speaks of God as the focal point of idealistic goods that appear polar opposites of man’s tendency to focus on himself/herself. This symbol of God, and all the unselfish and humble ideas it represents, can break through man’s tendency to be egocentric; which lead to man’s exploitation of each other, war, violence, suppression, etc. God acts as the symbol or image to this ultimate reality that allows us to shift our focus on the historical message of the Gospel; loving one another. These symbols, as traditionally defined with the words ‘Lord’, ‘ruler’, and other such ruling and judicial terms, are merely an attempt by humans to portray that character of God as organizing humanity for a common God.

To Kaufman, God “functions as the principle focal point of an overall world-picture, and it is in terms of that interpretive frame that it is to be understood,” (37). Kaufman is quick to explain the two types of God, which for clarity sake I will define as the Traditional God and the Symbolic God. To Kaufman, “God is to be understood not primarily as a ‘free-standing’ separate or distinct ‘object’ or being (a mistake into which we are often led by our imagery), but as an important constituent of, and simultaneously a function of, an overarching view,” (32). In this, we find the Traditional God as the one we derive from Christian tradition; i.e. the Judge, the Creator, the Ruler, etc. To Kaufman, God does not take this sentient figure, but is rather expressive of an inner idea. God is still to be understood as “the ultimate focus of life and human devotion,” but God is really more of a second form, which I define as the Symbolic God. This symbolic God “unifies, and represents in a personification what re taken to be the highest and most indispensable human ideas and values, making them a visible standard for measuring human realization,” (32). On one hand, Kaufman dismisses what’s traditionally envisioned as God (the philosophical-anthromorphic being), and instead replaces it with the ultimate reality of humanity in selfless love, and the ultimate in human values and ideas.

The arguments against Kaufman’s view are enormous. Although he may be trying to bridge the gap between traditional Christianity and modern day scholarship, he may only be feeding the fire fuel. The Christian argument against this is immense, as Kaufman argues for the “need to be able to focus our devotion, our reflection, and our activity on that which grounds and fulfills our humanity,” (41). To the Christian, the contraction of God from the all-powerful personal being to a mere symbol is absolute idolatry. Christians may argue that Kaufman seeks to replace the real living God, with a mere symbol to be interpreted by inner desires. The reduction of God, and growth of the human, is a difficult pill to swallow. Christians are also left asking about cosmic judgment, afterlife, and the central issue: Forgiveness of Sin. As for the naturalist order, the argument is much simpler. Kaufman’s argument takes the image of God, and begins to slightly blur its edges. After various degrees of blurring and fading of who (or what) God is, one may lose focus until God is merely blurred into the background. This is to say that God loses his/its importance, and the naturalistic may argue that God plays no real role besides a symbol, and should be cut away as a middleman.

Although I understand that Kaufman is aiming at God, and aiming at livening a modern day explanation of God, he only seems to fuel radicals further. Although his attempt may be to build a bridge, his borderline heretical definition of God, and the passive symbolic role it plays, only strengthens the arguments on both sides of the shore.

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