Gordon D. Kaufman

The Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 1 (Winter 2003)

The question posed for our reflection here is whether we who consider ourselves to be Christian pacifists, committed to nonviolence, should also think of God as absolutely nonviolent. None of us has direct access to God, as we do to most of the objects about which we often speak — chairs and tables, other persons, trees and flowers and the ground beneath us, the sun and moon and stars in the skies above, great cities like Denver or New York, and so on. Moreover, there is no single consistent picture of God in the Bible or in the many versions of Christian faith that have appeared through the centuries.

In the Bible God is (as we all know) depicted both as a ferocious, arbitrary, bloodthirsty warrior who demands total destruction of his enemies (I use the male pronoun here deliberately), which are the enemies of Israel and the churches as well; and also as merciful and loving, seeking to rescue all humans from the mess they have made of life, and as requiring love and mercy and nonviolence — or even nonresistance — of us humans, in our dealings with those who seek to destroy us. Some of the biblical writers were quite as well aware as any modern agnostics that we humans are never in a position to check our claims about God directly: as is stated twice quite straightforwardly, for example, in the Johannine writings (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12), “No one has ever seen God.” God is ultimately mystery to us, and none of us is in a position to state who or what God really is. But each of us can present our own understanding of God, what we mean by that word, and why we take that position.


Our discussion here could easily become a debate about which anthropomorphisms we prefer to use when characterizing God: Is God to be thought of as basically a great and powerful warrior, fighting battles against the evils in human life? Or should God be thought of primarily as forgiving and merciful, like a loving father caring for his prodigal children? Obviously, both of these biblical images are drawn from common human experience. Neither should, therefore, be attributed to God without careful thought about the justification for using such human metaphors, and then working out the sense in which these particular anthropomorphisms might be appropriate. God is not a human being, and we become involved in human self-idolatry if we hold to an understanding of God largely based on our image of, for example, the human self.

In the traditions collected in the Bible, however, God is frequently characterized in human-like terms of this sort. God is depicted as an actor or agent who has created humans as a sculptor takes clay and makes a beautiful work of art (Gen. 2), and is described as like a king or a poet who speaks a powerful word and thereby brings new reality into being (Gen. 1); God is thought of as having plans for the future of humankind, plans that will surely be carried through as history unfolds; and so on. All of these images are constructed of metaphors drawn directly out of everyday human life and then projected — often quite uncritically — onto the divine being as proper ways to characterize God.

Christian thinking about and faith in God have been deeply shaped by these and many other such images. We do not need to deplore this utterly: it is through these anthropomorphisms that God becomes humanly appealing to us. But in our theological reflection, when we are seeking to think carefully and precisely about what we mean when we use the word “God,” we must move with great care in our employment of such metaphors or we will end up with a conception of God largely constructed in our own human image.

Awareness of these sorts of limitations in our speaking and thinking of God goes back in the Bible at least to Second Isaiah, who makes the point with dramatic (anthropomorphic) images of his own:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the . . . hills in a balance? . . .
Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, . . .
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him? . . .
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers . . .
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One (40:12, 15a, 17b, 18, 22a, 25).
I am the first, and I am the last.
My hand laid the foundation of the earth,
and my right hand spread out the heavens (48:12b-13).
I am God, and there is no one like me (46:9b).

Here the incomparability of God is driven home by metaphors reminding us that God is the creator of the world, and is thus of an entirely different order of reality than anything in all creation. Throughout Jewish, Christian, and Muslim history God has been seen — most fundamentally — as this absolutely unique reality, the Creator of the universe. But Isaiah failed to notice that despite his claim that God is utterly unlike everything else — “the first and the last,” the source of all that exists — he has in fact described God as a mighty agent or person, one who acts, a being which in this respect is similar to us humans, and thus is really not incomparable at all. The tension of this sort of anthropomorphic thinking with the idea that God is utterly incomparable with everything else gives rise to profound theological problems, such as the topic we are considering today.


This topic has itself been formulated in anthropomorphic terms. When we speak of an act of violence or taking up a nonviolent stance, we are thinking and talking almost always about particular sorts of acts and attitudes of human beings, though we also occasionally use the word “violence” in speaking of certain natural forces, e.g., a “violent” tornado. It is with reference to agents, however — willful human beings — that the notions of violence and nonviolence have their original and basic moral meanings. Does it illuminate our theological understanding when we use meanings of this sort to characterize God and God’s actions, or does this only confuse us further? I will argue that the problems these particular meanings pose dissolve away if we reformulate our basic conception of God in a nonanthropomorphic way and think of God as creativity rather than as the Creator.

Given the constraints of time, I cannot spell out all the reasons for making this change in our thinking, but I will mention one important consideration.17 The traditional idea of God as the Creator of the world (as is well known) stands in sharp tension with the understanding of the origins of the universe and of life widely accepted in scientific (as well as many other) circles today. Let us consider one aspect of this tension a bit. According to current scientific thinking the evolutionary process had to reach a high degree of complexity before such qualities as consciousness, voluntary actions, moral responsibility, and the like could come into being; and that took many billions of years. Personal agential beings like us humans did not exist, and could not have existed, before billions of years of cosmic evolution of a very specific sort, and then further billions of years of biological evolution also of a very specific sort, had transpired. This means that the notion of a person-like creator-God at the beginning of things really cannot be thought in connection with modern evolutionary theory. In my view, however, this does not mean that if we accept an evolutionary account of the origins and development of the universe, we must give up the notion of God as the foundation of all else. For although this implies we should cease thinking of God anthropomorphically as the creator, good reasons to employ the notion of creativity (a descendant of the biblical idea of creation) in our thinking of God remain available to us.

In contrast to the notion of a creator, the idea of creativity — the coming into being through time of the previously nonexistent, the new, the novel — continues to be plausible today: indeed, it is bound up with the very
idea that our cosmos is an evolutionary one in which new orders of reality
come into being in the course of increasingly complex temporal developments. Creativity, in this modern evolutionary sense, remains profoundly mysterious; and the coming into being of the truly new and novel — the totally unexpected, the unforeseeable — suggests a movement beyond all specifiable causes and conditions (a movement that really cannot be accounted for); it seems to involve, thus, a kind of coming into being “from nothing,” creatio ex nihilo (as the ancient phrase has it). “In each quantum jump,” as Holmes Rolston put it, “there is a little more of what was not there before, . . . where before there was nothing of that kind.”18 “Creativity” is thus a name for what is a profound mystery to us humans, a name that identifies a feature central to
cosmic and biological evolution.

Thinking of God as creativity draws us into a deeper sensitivity to God-as-mystery than did our religious traditions with their talk of God as the Creator. This earlier concept seems to imply that we know there is a cosmic person-like, agent-like being behind and before the world in which we find ourselves. But if we think of God as creativity we are not driven to postulate any such anthropomorphic being either behind the world or in the world. What we do see and know is that new and novel realities come into being in the course of temporal developments — in the physical cosmos, in the evolutionary development of life, in human social and cultural history. It is this mystery of ongoing creativity, I suggest, that today can quite properly be considered as the ultimate point of reference in terms of which all else is to be understood, that in terms of which human life should therefore be basically oriented, that which today we should regard as God.


Let us return now (very briefly) to our question, Is God nonviolent? What are we to make of the fact that the physical world, as we today understand it, simply could not have been brought into being without the exercise of massive physical forces, including violent events of many different sorts — exploding stars, cosmic “black holes” that swallow up everything in their vicinity, on planet Earth volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and so on, nature “red in tooth and claw” — all of which continue today? This violence, it would seem, is deeply connected with the creativity manifest in the world, but there is no reason (according to evolutionary theory) to think of this as the deliberate expression of a self-conscious violent will — the problem we are discussing here today, a problem that arises when we think of God’s creativity in the traditional anthropomorphic way. Rather, we should see all of this as the creative beginnings and underpinnings of a remarkable process in our universe that has eventuated in the creation of life, and then much later in the creation of agents capable of self-conscious action and of making moral judgments about such matters as violence and nonviolence.

The creativity at work in our universe — in the course of bringing us humans into being — has brought us to a point where we can entertain the possibility of living in a moral order that is nonviolent, can deliberately choose to work at bringing about such an order, and can train ourselves and our children to live and act in nonviolent ways (however unlikely the realization of such a dream may be). In the processes through which our humanness was created, activity, attitudes, and behavior of the sort we call loving emerged and came into focus; and in our human corner of the universe capacities and needs for agape-love gradually became important and prized (at least in some quarters). So in and through our specifically human interrelation with creativity — with God — loving, caring attitudes and activities have become a significant feature of life; nonviolent agape-love was created as God and humankind interacted in the evolution of life on planet Earth. This development, quite unlike what occurred in the interrelations of creativity (God) with many other spheres of the cosmic order, is — at least in the judgment of those who count ourselves as Christian pacifists — of great significance.

Why and how have Christians (as well as others) come to such convictions about love and nonviolence? Here (in conclusion) I shall refer again to the Johannine texts with which I began. In the Fourth Gospel after the writer points out that “No one has ever seen God,” he goes on to say, “the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” And what is it that is made known through Christ about the divine creativity? In 1 John 4, just before the text about God never having been seen, the writer points out that “love is from God [i.e., from creativity]; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God . . . , for God is love” (4:7, 8b). And he goes on to say — after reminding us that “No one has ever seen God” — that “if we love one another, God [loving creativity] lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (4:12). Christians are those who have become especially aware that agape-love is one of the most precious gifts of the divine creativity to humankind, and some Christians have come to believe that this nonviolent love can itself be creative of a new future for humans, and should thus be made the center of life.

Gordon D. Kaufman is Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr., Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.