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B. The Function of Religious Language

Perhaps it is for reasons like these that in more recent work, in particular The Theological Imagination,3838   Subtitled Constructing the Concept of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981; hereafter TI). See also his Essay on Theological Method (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1975 and 1979). Kaufman seems to have given up the real referent. Instead, he claims that “it is an error to reify God into an independent being” (TI 38), that “To regard God as some kind of describable or knowable object over against us would be at once a degradation of God and a serious category error” (TI 244), and that

It is a mistake, therefore, to regard qualities attributed to God (e.g., aseity, holiness, omnipotence, omniscience, providence, love, self-revelation) as though they were features or activities of such a particular being. Rather, in the mind’s construction of the image/concept of God, the ordinary relation of subject and predicate is reversed. Instead of the subject (God) being a given to which the various predicate adjectives are then assigned, here the descriptive terms themselves are the building blocks which the imagination uses in putting together its conception. . . . Contemporary theological construction needs to recognize that these terms and concepts do not refer directly to “objects” or “realities” or their qualities and relations, but function rather as the building blocks or reference points which articulate the theistic world-picture or vision of life. (TI 244)

Why must we think these terms do not, in fact, denote an all-powerful, all-wise creator of the universe? As far as I can see, it is because Kaufman does not believe that there is any such thing: he thinks, so far as I can see, that the proper attitude toward this proposition is either disbelief or withholding, either atheism or agnosticism. Naturally enough, if there is no being of that sort, then none of our terms will denote a being of that sort. This is perhaps a surprising position for a theologian; a theologian who does not believe in God is like a mountaineer for whom it is an open question whether there are any mountains or a plumber agnostic about pipes: a beguiling spectacle, but hard to take seriously.3939   Unhappily, this spectacle is not at present uncommon. Compare, for example, Don Cupitt, who has similar views sometimes expressed with a certain amiable dottiness: “It is spiritual vulgarity and immaturity to demand an extra-religious reality of God” (p. 10 of his Taking Leave of God [New York: Crossroad, 1981]); he adds, “The real external existence of God is of no religious interest” (p. 96).

And why does he think there is no such person? Again, there is precious little by way of argument. He cites first “the rise of a new consciousness 40of the significance of religious pluralism”;4040   “Evidentialism: A Theologian’s Response,” Faith and Philosophy (January 1989), p. 30. second, he says in the same article, “new theories about the ways in which cultural and linguistic symbolic or conceptual frames shape all our experiencing and thinking . . . have given rise in theologians to a new self-consciousness about the extraordinarily complex and problematic character of all so-called ‘religious truth-claims,’ including those that are made by Christian faith”; third, he refers to the traditional problem of evil but with a twist: Christians themselves are responsible for more of the evil the world displays than they would like to think. (This last, sadly enough, is true, and perhaps [to take just one example] part of the occasion for modern apostasy, in the West, was the unedifying spectacle of Christians at each other’s throats in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.) It is an enormous leap, however, to the conclusion that probably there is no such person as God. In chapter 14, we’ll examine the question whether evil constitutes a defeater for Christian belief, and in chapter 13 we’ll do the same for the plurality of religions the world displays. As for the second suggestion—the claim that many now hold that “cultural and linguistic symbolic or conceptual frames shape all our experiencing and thinking”—perhaps this claim is true: but if it casts doubt on all of our experiencing and thinking, thus including Christianity, doesn’t it do the same for every other way of thinking, including the thought that it casts doubt on what we think? If so, it would seem to leave everything as it was, not functioning as a reason for being doubtful specifically about theism (or, indeed, anything else).

One might expect someone who is atheist or agnostic about God to move away from religion altogether, viewing religious devotion and belief with something of a jaundiced or a pitying eye. This is not Kaufman’s course. Instead, he argues that religious practice and devotion “still has an important function to play in life.” This function, of course, is not that of putting us in touch with a being with the properties traditionally ascribed to God or that of enabling us to appropriate the salvation in Jesus Christ that God has promised us. Rather, this new function requires that theologians should construct or reconstruct the concept of God. Religious language is still important, but it should be recast so as no longer to involve a forlorn attempt to refer to a being who isn’t there. Instead, it should be used to promote human flourishing, “human fulfillment and meaning” (TI 34). The word ‘God’ is to be associated with a symbol or image or concept theologians construct; it is their job to reconstruct the concept or symbol ‘God’ in a way that is appropriate to our present historical situation. (Thus in Theology for a Nuclear Age, he suggests that in this modern nuclear age we should think of God as “the historical 41evolutionary force that has brought us all into being.”4141   Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985, p. 43.) The word ‘God’, therefore, should no longer be thought of as referring to the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving person who has created the world; it is not to be thought of as referring to a person at all. Instead, this word is to be seen as a sort of symbol of certain states of affairs. For example, Christians have thought of transcendence as a property of God; Kaufman recommends that, in constructing the new symbol, we retain transcendence:4242   How do properties such as transcendence or aseity get related to those symbols we construct? Do we just draw up a list of properties and declare them associated with the term ‘God’? It is far from easy to see how this is supposed to work, and Kaufman doesn’t say.

What seems to be at stake here is a claim that human individuals and communities need a center of orientation and devotion outside themselves and their perceived desires and needs if they are to find genuine fulfillment. (TI 35–36)

God symbolizes that in the ongoing evolutionary historical process which grounds our being as distinctively human and which draws (or drives) us on toward authentic human fulfillment (salvation). . . . And ritualized devotion to God in religious cult as well as in the private disciplines of prayer and meditation still has an important function to play in life. (TI 41)

More generally:

“God” is the personifying symbol of that cosmic activity which has created our humanity and continues to press for its full realization. Such a personification has a considerable advantage for some purposes over abstract concepts such as “cosmic forces” or “foundation for our humanity in the ultimate nature of things”: the symbol “God” is concrete and definite, a sharply defined image, and as such it can readily become the central focus for devotion and service. . . . “God” is a symbol that gathers up into itself and focuses for us all those cosmic forces working toward the fully humane existence for which we long. (TI 50)

Speech about the Christian God as “real” or “existent” expresses symbolically this conviction that free and loving persons-in-community have a substantial metaphysical foundation, that there are cosmic forces working toward this sort of humanization. (TI 49)

The Christian image/concept of God, as I have presented it here, is an imaginative construct which orients selves and communities so as to facilitate development toward loving and caring selfhood, and toward communities of openness, love, and freedom. (TI 48)


The idea, so far as I can grasp it, seems to be this. Perhaps there is no such person as theists have traditionally believed in. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to continue to use the term ‘God’ and, in fact, to continue to utter many of the very same words and phrases and sentences as do those who believe in God; done properly, this will promote human flourishing. How, exactly? Perhaps as follows. We realize, first, that there is probably no such person as God. We are then free to select a concept/image ‘God’ and associate with it certain properties—existence and transcendence, perhaps—and use that symbol to symbolize such things as that the world is hospitable, to at least some degree, to distinctively human aspirations, goals, needs, and desires. We are to say such things as ‘God is real’, meaning that in fact there are forces in the world that contribute to human flourishing. (We should add, I suppose, that the devil is also real, thereby symbolizing that there are forces working against human flourishing.) We are to say ‘God is independent of us,’ meaning thereby that a community or person needs a focus of interest outside itself to flourish. (Perhaps we should add that ‘We are justified by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ,’ thereby symbolizing the fact that we do not always feel guilty, or ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,’ thereby meaning that things are now more propitious for human flourishing than they have been at some times in the past.) And saying these things will itself promote human flourishing.

Can we take any of this seriously? This is not a matter of pouring new wine into old wineskins: what we have here is nothing like the rich, powerful, fragrant wine of the great Christian truths; what we have is something wholly drab, trivial, and insipid. It is not even a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; it is, instead, throwing out the baby and keeping the tepid bathwater, at best a bland, unappetizing potion that is neither hot nor cold and at worst a nauseating brew, fit for neither man nor beast. Furthermore, this rehashing of secularity under the guise of ‘reconstructing’ Christianity encourages dishonesty and hypocrisy; it results in a sort of private code whereby one utters the same phrases as those who accept Christian belief but means something wholly different by them. You thereby appear to concur with those who accept Christian belief; in fact, you wholly reject what they believe. You can thereby patronize the person in the pew (who has not reached your level of enlightenment) but without paying the cost of unduly disturbing her. The fact is such double-talk is at best confusing and deceptive, contributing only to misunderstanding, dishonesty, and hypocrisy. Wouldn’t it be vastly more honest to follow the lead of, for example, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, or even Madalyn Murray O’ Hair, declaring forthrightly that there is no God and that Christianity is an enormous mistake?

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