Gordon Kaufman Memorial

My colleague and friend Thomas Thangaraj write the memorial below on the occasion of the passing of his mentor and friend, Gordon D. Kaufman. Because Gordon was a friend of mine as well, I asked Thomas if he would be willing to share his thoughts more broadly and he agreed, so I am posting it on this site.

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Homage to My Guru, Dr. Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011)

By Dr. Thomas Thangaraj
Professor Emeritus of World Christianity
Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA

On hearing the news of the demise of Dr. Gordon D. Kaufman – my guru and my mentor – I could not but reminisce about how Gordon had influenced and shaped my career as a theologian, as a teacher, and as a person. I wrote about his contribution to theological thinking as such in 1996. (See: “Gordon D. Kaufman,” in A New Hand-Book of Christian Theologians, Donald W. Musser & Joseph L. Price, Eds., Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996, pp. 253 -260. Two of his major works were published after 1996, viz., In the Beginning…Creativity (2004), and Jesus and Creativity (2006). In these two later works one can detect a more naturalistic and less anthropomorphic imaging of God than before). This homage to Kaufman, however, is on a personal level.

I met Gordon for the first time in 1978 when I attended a week-long institute/seminar on Doing Theology in Today’s Context, organized at the United Theological College, Bangalore, for teachers of systematic theology in seminaries in India. I was sent from the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary at Madurai as their faculty representative. Gordon (I did not address him as Gordon those days and even until 1988, but only as Dr. Kaufman) gave the key-note addresses during that seminar. As I listened to him I was ignited with rich theological imagination, and I actively participated in the discussion after each of his presentations. Halfway through the seminar, Gordon came up to me and said: “Thomas, I would love to have a conversation with you; will you please stop by my house tomorrow afternoon for a cup of coffee?” Gordon and Dorothy had come down to Bangalore during his sabbatical leave to teach for a semester at the United Theological College and were staying in one of the faculty houses. The next day I went to their residence and Dorothy and Gordon welcomed me in, offered me some snacks and coffee, and our conversation began. Gordon appreciated my active participation in the seminar and wanted to know what my future career plans were. I held at that time a Master of Theology degree from UTC and was hoping to pursue Ph. D. work at some time in the near future. He asked about my research interests and I told him about my desire to work with Hindu and Christian traditions in dialogue with one another, especially around the concept of guru in the Hindu tradition. Then he said something that even today is incredible to me: “Would you consider Harvard?” Not knowing much about the university situation in the US and the fame Harvard had, I thought I should say yes, and I did. Gordon went on to describe how it could be an interesting project to work with him and Dr. John Carman as my guides. He promised to send me the application forms and other details; but kept telling me several times that he could not promise admission to the program! Everyone who knows Gordon also knows how candid and honest he can be! Of course, his utter honesty is not always fun to deal with. Finally in 1980, I got admitted to the Th. D. program at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), and I came to study under Gordon. I am fond of telling people that Gordon “discovered” me!

Doctoral Studies at Harvard Divinity School

During my three years of stay (Sept. 1980 – Dec. 1983) at Harvard Divinity School, I had the privilege of Gordon’s mentorship and benefitted greatly from a gentle but challenging way in which he guided my theological thinking and creativity. I was his Teaching Assistant for one of his courses as well. I can write pages and pages on my HDS experience; but let me mention only a few things. Every time I fixed an appointment and went to see Gordon in his office, it was an inspiring and encouraging experience for me. He would sit in his rocking chair and so lovingly inquire about my wife, Cecilia, and our two kids. Especially during the first year of my study when my family was back in India, Gordon would make sure that things were going well for me and my family in India. His caring and pastoral heart is something I cherished most. He will be so concerned about my welfare as a person that I would have to interrupt and tell him: “Dr. Kaufman, I actually came to see you about…so and so.” Such a caring person Gordon was. In 1980 when I joined HDS, it was not easy to get news about India in the USA newspapers. Whenever Gordon found some news about India in New York Times or some other magazines, he would bring a clipping of it to the class and give it to me. On hearing the news of his death my son mentioned how Gordon and Dorothy were family to us when we lived in Cambridge!

One thing I valued most in Gordon was his utter honesty. The first paper I presented in the doctoral colloquium at HDS was a disaster. I could sense that there was something wrong. So I went to Gordon the following week and opened the conversation by saying: “Dr. Kaufman, my paper was bad; wasn’t it?” Gordon immediately told me that it was really bad. Then he went on to tell me what exactly was wrong with my paper and my learning from him started on a strong foot. Later I gave to him a paper I had presented at a different seminar and asked him for his comments, criticisms, and suggestions. He was so ready to give his comments after carefully reading through it that I rewrote that paper four times and every time he so willingly offered his comments. I owe a great deal to Gordon for the bit of clarity and precision that one may find in my writings.

I served as his Teaching Assistant for his course on Introduction to Theology. One day after class, Gordon asked me whether I could do a brief presentation in the next class on my own theological journey from conservative/fundamentalist thinking to liberal/liberational thinking. Since he had found it interesting, he thought it would be interesting and informative to students in our class as well. I told my story in class and the students seemed to enjoy it. At the end of the class a group of them asked me in private whether Dr. Kaufman might do something like that and present to us his own theological journey. So I went to see Gordon in his office and asked whether he could. Gordon was totally shocked. He paraded excuses after excuses for his not talking about himself in the class. His excuses included “I have never done this before,” “this will be very immodest,” and even “Thomas, you are good at this; I am not.” After several minutes of back and forth discussion, he agreed. When he presented his journey in the next class, the students saw a different Gordon – a living, struggling, and loving human being; and some of the students had flooded eyes! Gordon was so pleased with what he did that he met me during the next class and gave me a hard copy of his presentation. The later writings of Gordon do show his comfortableness with narrating his life’s journey and his personal experiences.

When I was working on my dissertation, Gordon’s guidance and help was immeasurable. He took time to read carefully through every sentence that I wrote (including commas and semicolons!) and offered me the most penetrating questions and helpful suggestions. Since I was keen to finish the Th. D. program in the shortest time possible and return to India, he worked with the same speed and same diligence to read through the chapters of the dissertation. I still remember vividly what he would tell me when I submitted a chapter to him on a Monday: “Well, I will read through this and we can meet next Monday to discuss, or if you want we can do it this Friday.” Every time I had a discussion with Gordon about a chapter and returned home, Cecilia would ask me: “What happened in the meeting with Dr. Kaufman? You look all excited and hyper!” Every meeting with him was an inspirational experience and was a hop-step-and-jump to the next chapter!

Professorship at Candler School of Theology

Gordon and I kept in touch after my return to India. After five years of teaching in India, I had the privilege to invite Gordon in June 1988 to an Institute for Teachers of Systematic Theology in the various seminaries in India. I had organized this 10-day Institute with Gordon as the main speaker. Gordon and Dorothy traveled to India and saw me at work with my colleagues in India. This was the time when Gordon sat me down and told me, “Thomas, now you should address me as Gordon, please!” I agreed. Gordon was very pleased with what I was doing in India and also was sad that I was going to leave all this work and accept a faculty position at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA. When I applied for the job at Emory, I did put Gordon as one of my references and he sent a good reference for me. But after he had sent that reference to Emory, he wrote to me in India that he had sent a good reference but only hoped that I would not stay too long at Emory but would return to India and continue the good work I was doing. I had taken Gordon’s advice seriously and asked Emory not to put me on tenure track but take me as a visiting professor for a few years. When the invitation to Emory came to me on June 10, 1988, Gordon was with me at the Institute for theological teachers that I had organized in Bangalore, India.

Thus I was a Visiting Associate Professor of World Christianity at Candler School of Theology for four years and in 1992, my family and I returned to India. Our son, a freshman in American College, Madurai, India, and our daughter, a junior in High School found themselves two years behind in Science and Math in comparison to Indian students and we had to make the most difficult decision of returning to my job at Emory. Thanks to the generous welcome from Emory, we returned and I was re-appointed on tenure track. Gordon’s and my own vision of my working in India was shattered to pieces in this move back to the US, and I went through a period of questioning and doubting my own vocation as a theologian since I had always imagined myself as a theologian in India. I needed serious rethinking of my vocation as a theologian. I went to Gordon for help. I stayed in his home during a weekend (thanks to Dorothy’s generous hospitality), and had several sessions with Gordon to regain my sense of vocation – now as a “global” theologian. Gordon was extremely helpful to me in this process.

I had the privilege of contributing an essay to a Festschrift for Gordon edited by Sheila Devaney, titled, Theology at the End of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman (1991). Gordon read through my essay and wrote the most appreciative letter for what I had done in that essay taking his theological method seriously into account. He also suggested that I make that essay into a book-length statement. I took his suggestion to heart and thus came my book, The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission, Nashville, Abingdon, 1999. When the Festschrift was released I had the great honor of speaking about him and place a ceremonial shawl (ponnaadai) on him in that ceremony during AAR annual meeting. Gordon continued to inspire me in my work as a theologian and as a writer. I met him whenever I got a chance to be in Cambridge or at the AAR annual meeting.

A Day with Gordon in 2011

When Gordon wrote to me that he had beginnings of Alzheimer’s, I was totally shocked and deeply sad. My immediate thought was to rush to Cambridge and spend time with him before the disease advanced further. Yet, I contacted my classmates at Harvard. There were four of us who joined the Ph. D./Th. D. program in 1980 who were all students and admirers of Gordon – Jerry Soneson (Professor, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls), Melanie May (Professor, Colgate Divinity School, Rochester, NY), Luis Rivera (Professor and Dean, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago), and me (Visiting Scholar, Oklahoma City University, Oklahoma City, OK). We decided to spend a day with Gordon and he was very pleased. So on April 17, 2010, we traveled to Cambridge from our respective places and met Gordon around 9 a.m. in his house. Gordon welcomed us with great joy and we had a lively and non-stop conversation with him till 12:00 p.m. We talked about our past, our present interests, and our future hopes. Gordon was very happy and of course at times he had difficulty remembering persons, events, and books he had read. But one thing that impressed me most was Gordon’s strong sense of hope for a better future. While we four were lamenting over the continuing racism in the US and a revival of casteism in India, Gordon was full of hope that in ten generations or so these “isms” would disappear! His trust in the “Creativity” that undergirds, sustains, relativizes, and humanizes the universe was very clear.

We all went to a Thai restaurant at Harvard Square (Gordon’s favorite) and had lunch there. When the lunch and conversation ended, it was 4:00 p.m. It was clear that Gordon was physically tired and we decided to walk back to Longfellow Road continuing the conversation along the way. One bit of a conversation I had with Gordon as we walked back saddened me most. Gordon said, “Thomas, I do not write anymore, you know?” I asked, “Why Gordon? Do you feel tired and weak?” He answered, “Thomas, I have no ideas; my mind is blank.” It was literally so painful to hear Gordon say those words. The Gordon we know is a man bubbling with ideas – new ideas, fresh ideas, creative ideas, challenging ideas, and disturbing ideas. One can trace easily how from his Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective published in 1968 to his most recent book, Jesus and Creativity (2006), Gordon had continued to think afresh and anew at every stage. His openness to new ideas and theologies, either from women, African Americans, Japanese philosophers, or Third World theologians is simply astounding.

Gordon has been far ahead of his contemporaries in his theological thinking that the world is not yet ready to accept his challenges and work with his ideas. A real “shaking of foundations” happens in his theology. At times Gordon wondered whether he had made a significant impact on the global theological community at all. I said to him on that day: “Gordon, you know why there are no Kaufmanians? You taught us all that theology was one’s own “imaginative construction,” and that one should not uncritically rely on any form of “authority” but do one’s own difficult and arduous task of constructing a relevant and meaningful theology for our times. We have taken that to heart. If we have, do you think we will be quoting you in our work? NO! I am a Kaufmanian because I am trying to do what you taught me and trained me for – imaginative construction!” Gordon gave a big laugh! That laughing Gordon will stay in my mind for ever, and he will continue to inspire me in my work as a theologian while I grieve over his physical absence.

I send my heartfelt condolences and sympathies to all who mourn over his death, especially his children and his grandchildren. May we all be comforted and consoled in knowing that we were all blessed immensely by his life, his writings, and his work, and we are thankful to God for this marvelous human being named Gordon D. Kaufman!