Gordon Kaufman, leading theologian, dies

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Gordon Dester Kaufman, Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, died on Friday, July 22, at age 86.

A member of the Faculty of Divinity since 1963, Kaufman was a renowned liberal theologian whose research, writing, and teachings had a profound influence on constructive and systematic theology. He argued for a vision of God as the “profound mystery of creativity,” the “ongoing creativity in the universe.” By rethinking theology in naturalistic terms, he made significant contribution to discussions of religion and science, ecological issues, and evolution. His rethinking of the meaning of Jesus for today and his reimagination of central symbols of Christian tradition were significant for his engagement with religious pluralism and promotion of interfaith understanding.

“At the core of Gordon’s theological imagination of God as mystery and creativity was his deep commitment to nonviolence, justice, and human flourishing,” said Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at HDS. “He was a deeply ethical, profoundly compassionate person, so that the lively intellectual conversations I and others so enjoyed with him were always grounded by his fundamental sense of joy and duty in connection to all living things. He was a great gift to his colleagues and students, and to the field of theology.”

Kaufman was born on June 22, 1925, in Newton, Kansas. He earned a bachelor of arts from Bethel College in Kansas in 1947. He went on to earn an MA in sociology from Northwestern University in 1948, a BD from Yale Divinity School in 1951, and a PhD in philosophical theology from Yale University in 1955, with a dissertation titled “The Problem of Relativism and the Possibility of Metaphysics.” He was later awarded an honorary MA from Harvard in 1963, an LHD from Bethel College in 1973, and an LHD from Carleton College in 2007. Kaufman was ordained in 1953 in the General Conference Mennonite Church. He also served on the Bethel College Board of Directors from 1964 to 1976.

Kaufman served terms as president of the New England Region of the American Academy of Religion (1979–80), and later of the entire AAR (1981–82). He served a term as president of the American Theological Society (1979–80). He was also a member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, and an active and longtime member of the Boston Theological Society.