A Mentor Remembered

Katie Ford and Sarah Sentilles
Katie Ford and Sarah Sentilles. Photos/Josh Emmons, Hillary Maybery

A memorial service for the late Gordon D. Kaufman, Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. Professor of Divinity Emeritus at HDS, was held in Harvard's Memorial Church on October 31.

Katie Ford and Sarah Sentilles studied under Gordon Kaufman a decade ago when they were enrolled in the MDiv program at HDS. Ford, MDiv '01, went on to become a poet and professor of English, and Sentilles, MDiv '01, earned a ThD from HDS in 2008 and became an author, teacher, and artist. Both Ford and Sentilles dedicated books to Gordon Kaufman—Ford a collection of poems titled Deposition, and Sentilles her most recent book, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. They were together in Portland, Oregon, in early October, remembering Kaufman and his influence on their art, theologies, and lives, and asking each other the following questions:

KF: What passage from Kaufman's work do you most treasure or recall?

SS: I own every book Gordon Kaufman wrote, and most pages are starred and underlined and dog-eared, but if I had to choose a favorite passage, it would be this, from An Essay on Theological Method, originally published in 1975:

"[T]he theologian is essentially an artist. . . . The finished product of the theologian's constructive work is not, like many works of art, essentially something external to the artist, an optional object available in the public arena to be viewed or heard. Rather this work of art is to be lived in: it is the very form and meaning of human life which is here being constructed and reconstructed."

Kaufman helped me claim myself as an artist and as a theologian, and he taught me to see the two vocations as connected. Some theologians are wary about connecting art and theology, fearing that understanding theology as an artistic practice relegates God to the realm of the imaginary and reduces theology to make-believe. Kaufman wrote and taught against this fear. His view that theology is an imaginative, constructive task made me want to be a theologian. Both artists and theologians are engaged in world-making activities; both artists and theologians make things that make a difference. And if, as Kaufman argues, you understand God as serendipitous creativity, then when you make things, you participate in that creativity.

I don't know how many people know this, but Kaufman was, himself, an artist—a woodworker. His home was filled with extraordinarily beautiful, useful, complicated objects he made—tables, bed frames, dressers.

KF: Kaufman's work was the first theology I read that admitted it was, by nature, an attempt at constructing a reverent and comprehensive view of the world. All other Christian theologians I had studied at the Divinity School presented their systems with dogmatic certainty, even if they asserted themselves rhetorically as systems of "belief" and not "knowledge."

In GodMysteryDiversity, Kaufman said our "sense of absoluteness connected with our religious convictions will be weakened" once we admit our beliefs are human creations and not revelations handed down from on high, and that this "weakening" was actually an act of faith. Many willfully misunderstand his theology as a loss of faith, but through it one gains a God who is beyond comprehension, and a human who is humbled and less likely to do theological harm.

Kaufman was dogged about the fact that absolute statements about God are not only theologically foolish, but that they can become engines of violence.

SS: Is there a particular conversation you had with Gordon that changed you in some essential way?

KF: We took a walk in June of 2010, and Gordon would light up whenever he saw children, especially babies. He talked about the amazement of their utter vulnerability, and kept saying "hello" to children as we passed them. In the end, I think his theology came from a true love of the human.

I was asking him all kinds of theological questions, knowing it might be the last time I ever saw him. He was deeply pained by his increasing memory loss, and I know he didn't remember me as his student with much specificity. When I asked him if he remembered our conversations together during an independent study I had with him in 2001, he said, "Not really, but I remember it was very important." It was moving to me that he retained some sense of how transformative my experience with him was. His teaching was, in fact, the most important I have ever received. 

SS: One afternoon he told me that part of his work is to help people see they are in cages of their own making, and that they can leave those cages at any time. I was in the ordination process at the time, trying to become an Episcopal priest, and I was working at a church and struggling to find my place there. I thought he was talking about the people at the church where I was working, but I eventually realized he was talking about me. I was the one in the cage, and I had trapped myself in my own ideas about what my life should look like, about what my faith should look like.

KF: What is one of your last experiences of Gordon before he died?

SS: My last experience with Gordon was sitting with you in his backyard in the summer of 2010, and he asked if you would read one of your poems out loud and go through it with him line by line. You read "Ark" from Colosseum:

We love the stories of flood and the few

told to prepare in advance by their god.

In that story, the saved are

always us, meaning:

whoever holds the book.

What a fitting last poem to have read with the person who taught us about the dangers of certainty, of thinking you can know the mind of God, of believing you can speak for God. The last conversation I remember having with him before he was ill was about being a conscientious objector during World War II. I told him I was amazed that he stood against the frenzy of war as a pacifist, and he insisted he did only what was natural for him to do because he was surrounded by a faith community of pacifists—the Mennonites—and was not alone in his decision not to kill. Gordon had a matter-of-fact sense of justice and lived his life accordingly. That is the greatest lesson he taught me: what matters is not what we believe, but how we live and how our lives affect other living beings and the earth itself.

KF: The last email I had from Gordon was on April 26, 2011. My husband and I had a baby in December of 2010, and I wrote Gordon to tell him about her. He wrote, "I'm delighted you now have a baby to play with. It should be some of the best experience you'll have in your life—bringing up a child . . . be sure you come by with the baby next time you are around here." I am grateful his writing remains in the world for us all, old and new humans alike.