The Faith of Hans Kung

Hans Kung, now an old man of 92 struggling with Parkinson disease, is a Christian. He believes in God, he believes in Jesus as the anointed, the Christ, the son of God. This belief runs through all his writings and is outlined in detail in “On Being a Christian”, in my opinion, his greatest book.
          He has been a controversial figure for decades and he deserves to be better known by Unitarians because in his life, in his preaching and in his theological writings he shares many of the principles which we value, freedom of conscience, freedom for men and women to work out their own beliefs, a critical acceptance of the sciences, a deep respect for the other semitic religions and for the other great world religions.

Why is he Controversial.

He is controversial because of his strong independent personality which in part, at least, is a product of his German speaking Swiss background where many political decisions are made by direct votes in the cantons each year and where Catholic parishes have always elected their parish priests.
          Above all though he is controversial because the conclusions of some of his theological studies and, particularly, of his investigation of Catholic Church history have brought him into deep conflict with the Papacy and the papacy's civil service, the Roman curia.
          Kung was not alone in diagnosing the profound crisis which was developing in the Catholic Church in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Aspects of this crisis were the erosion of the balance between the power of Church councils and the pope in leading and ruling the church after the proclamation of papal infallibility in 1870.
          The role of the Holy Office in controlling the thoughts and writings of Catholics and the complementary role of the index, a list of books which Catholics could only read with the permission of a bishop. A rigid system of training priests based on neoscholasticism and biblical literalism which took no account of the changed world in which these priests would be working.
          A church which had been in defensive mode ever since the Reformation, viewing almost every development in science, medicine, politics, philosophy and theology as a threat.
          As Kung began his training for the priesthood in Rome in 1947 the effects of this wariness about all human progress had plunged the church into a crisis so deep that even members of the Curia felt that there had to be renewal and reform if the church was to have any relevance for modern human beings.
          Ordained in 1954 Kung was appointed professor of dogmatic theology in Tubingen in 1960. In 1962 he, along with Joseph Ratinzer and Yves Congar were appointed theological experts to the bishops at the Vatican council which Pope John XXIII had summoned shortly after his election in 1958. By the time of its abrupt closure in 1965 the council had made impressive attempts to meet the challenges of the times and to modernise liturgy. Attempts to diminish the role of the Curia were frustrated by the sudden closure, the issue of clerical celibacy had not been discussed and the issue of family planning was transferred to a papal commission.
          When the commission on family planning reported in 1966 it recommended changes in the Church’s teaching. This advise was ignored and in 1968 Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” reiterating the church’s ban on any form of artificial contraception. Kung would later describe this as a second Galileo moment in the history of the Catholic Church. Several national bishops conferences proclaimed that the encyclical did not take precedence over a couple’s right to make conscientious decisions about family planning. Many priests, Kung included, advised couples to ignore “Humanae Vitae”. In large measure they did and for many Catholics personal conscience rather than papal dictate would henceforth be the basis for other moral and religious decisions.
          “Humanae Vitae” was presented as an infallible teaching of the church and this set the scene for Kung’s more considered reaction to the encyclical. He examined again the whole doctrine of Papal infallibility and in 1970 published “Infallible? An Enquiry” The scope of this book went far beyond the contraception issue to attack the retrenchment in the Vatican since the Second Vatican council, the role of the Curia and the whole dogma of Papal Infallibility which, in Kung's view, had been forced upon the Church after many bishops who opposed it had withdrawn from the first Vatican Council in 1870 one hundred years to the day before the appearance of Kung’s book.
          For these radical views Kung would in 1979 loose his licence to continue to teach Catholic theology. during the papacy of Pope John Paul the second. He would continue to teach ecumenical theology until his retirement in 1996 and he remains to this day a priest in good standing.
          Kung named the first volume of his autobiography “My Struggle for Freedom” freedom in Church, nation, theology and personal life. He has clung on to the freedom he has achieved through difficult times and he has rejected offers which would have carried him to high office in the Church rather than abandon the beliefs and the personal integrity to which this freedom has led him.
          Through this freedom he has moved away from the neoscholastic perennial philosophy of his college days to “a positive fundamental attitude to this questionable ambivalent reality of the world and myself ”. His is “a historical critical theology which investigates both the Bible and the history of dogma critically and takes the original message and fate of Jesus as criterion”.
          This phrase is very important for it is Kung’s adherence to this method which has led him into the conflict already described and to the Christian beliefs mentioned briefly at the start of this talk. I will elaborate on some of these beliefs

Trust “Positive Fundamental Attitude”

While working as a deacon in Berlin in 1953 he got involved in a deep conversation with a non Christian musician about the meaning of life. This conversation seemed to undermine his “apparently unshakable philosophic basis” He writes “...evidently it is impossible to demonstrate the meaning of life and my freedom rationally. If I am to be honest with myself, that puts into question the whole rational substructure of my faith which I had assumed to be certain.”
          Later in the middle of a conversation with his spiritual adviser about this problem he had what he describes as a spiritual experience, something he believed came either from deep within him or from outside or above.
          He writes:- “What suddenly dawns on me is that an elementary choice is being asked of me, a venture of trust. This is the challenge to say Yes. Instead of abysmal mistrust venture a fundamental trust in this ambivalent reality. Instead of fundamental mistrust, venture fundamental trust in yourself, in others, in the world, in life, in questionable reality generally. And meaning shines out, makes things clear, becomes light”
          “I have experienced that the answer lies in fundamental trust. Without this fundamental trust, any Christian faith is left hanging in the air. Without confidence in life there is no true life”
          He accepts that this cannot be demonstrated rationally. He loves swimming and uses a swimming analogy to drive home the point “... that water will support my body as it supports other bodies cannot be demonstrated by a swimming course on dry land, however skilful; it can be experienced only when I am swimming. Without venturing to trust myself to the reality of the water I will never experience how it bears me, me too, here and now.”
          This principle has guided Kung’s life and work ever since though he does not deny that life’s experiences have from time to time caused him to doubt it. He defends the principle by stating that it has enabled him to live a meaningful, ethical life and if in the end he dies into nothingness rather than into eternal life he feels his life will have been better for having made this choice to trust.

Faith.

Kung is careful to point out that this trust is not to be equated with religious faith. There are, he writes people whose trust in life is based on a religious faith.
          People who describe themselves as believers but have no trust in life, in human beings or in themselves. People who have a trust in life, without at the same time possessing a religious faith. Atheists can, he asserts, lead an authentically human, humane and in this sense moral life from this fundamental trust.

God

From the bible, studied in the light of two centuries of historical, critical method, Kung has formed a deeply spiritualised understanding of God “immanent in the world and at the same time omnipresent also in chance and disaster, completely respecting the laws of nature and my freedom whose origin he himself is”.
          Kung is uninterested in the question of whether God can be understood personally or apersonally but rather in whether he can be addressed or not.
          “Why? Because in the end the possibility and meaningfulness of prayer and worship depend on that and both of these are essential to my spirituality”

Jesus

“Who is a Christian?” Kung poses this question in “What I believe”. He answers his own question thus “A Christian is .. someone who throughout his career makes an effort to orientate himself or herself practically on (this) Jesus Christ. No more is required.”
          This quotation summarises in a few words the content of “On Being a Christian” published in 1974. This Jesus is, he asserts, a challenging model for our relationship with our fellow human beings and with God himself and he has become the orientation and criterion for millions of people all over the world”.
          For Kung, Jesus was the person who defied categorization, who in the words of another theologian “burst open all the schemes”. He was a Jew but highly critical of the Jewish hierarchy, not a revolutionary but more revolutionary than the revolutionaries, not a priest but closer to God than the priests, not a monk but freer from the world than any monk. Different, unique for his time and for all time. In Kung’s opinion it was his challenge to the religious and social system and particularly his driving money changers from the Temple which led to his arrest and a Roman belief that he was a political revolutionary which led to his crucifixion.
          His death should have been the end of the matter but, in Kung’s opinion, a conviction soon developed in his followers, provoked by spiritual experiences, that his death was not the end, that he was with God. This was, for Kung, the real resurrection, not the legendary stories of empty tombs or of a return to life in time or space. And those in whom this conviction formed were, in time, to profess it openly and to pass on his teaching despite all the dangers it exposed them to.
          For Kung this is what sets Christianity apart. He compares Jesus to Moses, to Confucius, to the Buddha, to Muhammad, all of whom lived full lives, were men of substance who saw their teachings widely accepted and believed in their lifetimes, who died in old age. Without any such advantages the teaching and the example of Jesus’ life were to reach and become the orientation of millions of people only after a shameful death on a cross. He (Jesus) “became the embodiment of his own cause, the embodiment of a new life and a new lifestyle”
          Kung states:
“ In this sense as a Christian I believe not only in God but also in Jesus Christ, the one sent by God. No emperor, no philosopher, no statesman, no general, he is the Christian model of life in person.”
          Hans Kung’s beliefs are the outcome of a lifetime living by principles that Unitarians value highly, freedom of conscience, freedom of enquiry, respect for the positive content of all religious beliefs. I believe that his story and his writings have great relevance for Unitarians.


Tony Shine                              28th June 2020
Dublin Unitarian Church



Bibliography


“What I Believe” Hans Kung Published September 2010.
Still available as a Hard cover or Kindle book on Amazon.co.uk.


“Why I am Still a Christian” Hans Kung. Published in 2005.
Not published as a eBook but some copies, new and second hand,
still available on Amazon.co.uk.


“On Being a Christian” Hans Kung Published 1974.
Hard Cover. Some copies still available on Amazon.co.uk.
Some paperback copies also available on Amazon.uk.com
A long book and not an easy read though worth persevering with in my opinion.




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