Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Hans Kung (1928 - )
Few Roman Catholic theologians have received as wide a recognition in the 20th century among Christians of all kinds as has Hans Kung. However, in the light of new movements in the community of faith, his work strikes one as curiously unaffected by events outside his Church.

Why has he received such widespread attention? Perhaps it's the sheer breadth of his learning and interests which has attracted so many people, from the ranks of theologians to the ordinary person in the pew. His many books have covered an enormous range. His mind is clear and keen - though I must add that he uses more words than I would think necessary to make his points.

Two aspects of his life and work have captured the imaginations of many:

  • As an eminent scholar, at one time considered a bright and rising star in the Roman Catholic Church, he stands out for having criticised and challenged the idea that Christian authority can be absolute. In his Church this takes the form of the so-called infallibility of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). His book Infallible? An Enquiry (1978) led to his official permission to teach being withdrawn by Pope John Paul II.

  • Working from a Christian community which (officially at least) regards itself as the only organisation which can mediate "salvation from sin", Kung has championed the position that the scope of ecumenism is far wider than the Christian denominations. In his view, the ecumenical calling of the Church embraces the whole earth, including other faiths and the so-called secular world.

Born in Switzerland, Kung studied in Rome until 1955, during which time he came into contact with top theologians of the day. His studies continued in Paris until 1957, when he gained his doctorate with a dissertation on Karl Bath's doctrine of justification.

Having been recognised as a major intellect, Kung won the chair of Fundamental Theology at Tubingen University. But his refusal to revoke the challenge of his book on papal authority led to him leaving the post and moving to the independent Institute for Ecumenical Research at Tubingen University. He is no longer considered an official representative of Roman Catholic theology there.

He helped in the preparation and presentation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5). Perhaps it was the Roman Catholic Church's subsequent retreat into ongoing conservatism which has gradually driven Kung further and further away from the official line on other Christian churches and faiths.

But it seems to me that Kung has substituted the Bible as an absolute authority in place of the Pope. It's hard to be sure. Kung (writing in German) has a complex style of expression. He uses sequences of words which convey an apparent meaning. But when they are carefully analysed, their meaning is often less clear, and frequently opaque to me.

So when he says that in relation to the world there can be no absolute standpoint, and that our perceptions can't be purely objective, one might be forgiven for thinking that he is open to the possibility that all truth is provisional. But it turns out not to be so.

Robert Ashton writes that Kung's position

... has more to do with the nature of man than that of truth. We are only what we are; evolved animals still washed by hormones, feelings, incomplete perceptions (we see a narrow range of electromagnetic spectrum, hear a narrow range of the audio spectrum, feel gross but not fine changes in temperature) and generally filter all our perceptions and their subsequent conclusions through a broad set of filters. [1]

The only valid response is to trust that what we experience has meaning. Rationality can't prove that there is meaning in the creation, but it can support that contention. This trust, therefore, is a matter 

� of human reason � of the whole, concrete, living man, with mind and body, reason and instinct, in his quite particular historical situation, in his dependence on traditions, habits of thought, scales of values, with his interests and in his social environment (1978).

Quite what this sentence means, I'm not sure. Ashton suggests that Kung

... is simply pointing out that we must each arrive at our understanding, or trust, of the purposefulness of existence through our own experiential filters. It is not within a human to perceive outside his own being and this being is, in the old phrase, a flawed vessel.

More fundamental, however, is Kung's conclusion that the foundation of all faith is the Bible, because it has survived for  so long. The historical Jesus is not important "as he really was" but rather as a "tool" to help verify the faith as handed down over the centuries. 

I fail to understand this. If the Jesus of history is a tool, on what or who is Christian life based? On Paul, perhaps. Or perhaps on the teachings of the gospel writers? It seems that for Kung it is based upon "the internal lives of men and women" (Ashton).

If Christians don't have an historical residue (at least) which allows some knowledge of a real person, then why should the teachings of the early Church have any greater validity than any other teachings? And why should Christians of the first century be any better at interpreting reality than Christians today? 

Yes, our experience of life is directed and enlivened by our intuitive, emotional responses to it - including to Jesus. Many let the die fall and rest there, without having another throw. But I think that reason, whether we reason well or badly, is the final arbiter, the executive, of our personalities. Experience is powerful and often effectively determinative. But that it is therefore right does not follow. Nor does truth necessarily follow either from strong feelings or from the most vivid visions.

Along the same lines, I fail to understand what I think is Kung's approach to the resurrection of Jesus. He can't, it seems, deal with the implications of an event for which there is insufficient evidence to bestow upon it the description of "good history". Instead he writes in an oblique manner which seems to say something, but in fact says very little: 

Jesus did not die into nothingness. In death he died into the incomprehensible and comprehensive absolutely final and absolutely first reality � God. 

I wonder if there's any excuse for such writing?

In the 1980s, Kung turned to consider theological method and the
realisation that the real world - as contrasted with the artificial world of the Roman Curia - demands a new theological paradigm. This paradigm acknowledges a pluralistic reality, one which has multiple sources of valid knowledge. None of these sources is necessarily better than any other. 

But we should recognise that Kung will (as far as I can tell at the moment) nevertheless maintain that Christian truth is "better" or "more complete" than any other.

So when Kung maintains that the relationship of Christianity to world religions is ecumenical (by which he means the whole inhabited earth) he at the same time says that exclusivity and superiority are not viable responses, that nobody possesses the final truth. Theologians of all faiths should, he thinks, start co-operating and stop competing.

Kung's most recent emphasis has moved from theology as such to the global responsibilities of Christians. In this his political interests have become explicit.

He calls for ethics in a global world to become global. If this is to happen, every faith must start with self-criticism since none has access to absolute truth. Because global peace must inevitably incorporate the religious dimension, there must be peace between religions. His project therefore aims at a multi-disciplinary study of religions.

He hopes that a global ethic will emerge out of the interaction between religions. Such an ethic should, he thinks, be grounded on an "Absolute" and not on anything human beings can invent or derive.
[1] Email 24.4.2005

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