Through a glass darkly – 47

Deaths column

We have just lived through a week of mourning following the death of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. As many tributes emphasised, the Duke of Edinburgh, the longest living consort in British history,  lived an exemplary life of public service. He was, as the Queen herself has told us, a rock and support to the Queen through almost seven decades. Unlike some royal figures elsewhere [Spain, Thailand] and unlike too many of our politicians, he was a man of decency and integrity. I am too old to have been involved in the Duke of Edinburgh awards, and, while I once met the Queen, I don’t think that I ever met the Duke.

Other people continue to share their memories of the Duke of Edinburgh and to write obituaries. But I would like to pay tribute to another ninety-year old who died this month who had a more direct influence of my life. Hans Kung was a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who died at the beginning of April at the age of 93. Kung was a one-time friend and near contemporary of the German theologian Josef Ratzinger, and they worked harmoniously  at the University of Tübingen in the 1960s. But they came to hold very different views on the church of which they were a part. Kung remarked in 2013 that Ratzinger, who had now become Pope Benedict XVI, was “living in the Middle Ages”.

Hans Kung

Hans Kung was born in Sursee, Lucerne, in Switzerland in 1928. He studied philosophy and theology at the Gregorian College in Rime, was ordained in 1954, and was appointed Professor of Theology at Tübingen in 1960. In 1962 he was appointed by Pope John XXIII as peritus, as the youngest expert theological adviser to the Second Vatican Council. At Kung’s instigation, Tübingen recruited another peritus, Josef Ratzinger, as Professor of Dogmatic Theology.

In 1963 Kung made a tour of the United States, lecturing to enthusiastic university audiences on ‘The Church and Freedom’.; and he received the first of his many honorary doctorates. In a reception at the White House, President J. F. Kennedy introduced him to group of politicians saying “this is what I would call the new frontier man of the Catholic Church”.

Hans Kung

But in the late 1960s and beyond Kung came increasingly into conflict with the church hierarchy. In a book published in 1971 Kung called into question the [nineteenth century] dogma of papal infallibility. He also expressed doubts about the practice of celibacy, proposed opening up the priesthood and the diaconate to women, and wrote that that certain current Catholic practices “contradicted the Gospel and ancient Catholic tradition and ought to be abolished”. In December 1979 Kung was stripped of his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian. He thereby lost his position in the theological school. But he continued to teach as Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Tübingen until his retirement in 1996. He also lectured widely overseas, and he wrote an impressive  number of books; on the Christian life, on Freud and the problem of God, on Christianity and world religions, on the theology of Hegel, on ethics, on Judaism, on euthanasia, on the Catholic Church, on science and religion, and on Christianity and Islam. 

I have been looking again at Kung: On being a Christian [published in  1974], one of the first Christian books which I ever bought and read, back in the early 1980s.

On being a Christian: The horizon 

The introduction clearly states that the book is intended for those who believe but feel insecure in their faith, and for those who are at a loss between belief and unbelief. In Part 1 Kung engages in dialogue with contemporary, humanist culture. He acknowledges that man wants to be fully human. He notes that the great figures of terror in recent history, Stalin and Hitler, were programmatic anti-christians. He insists that Christians can be humanist and humanists can be Christians. But he asks whether the contemporary modernisation of Christianity, where worship too often abandoned both liturgy and theology, is a sellout of the gospel. Is there  a danger that ‘the Church has lost its soul’ ? Against such criticism he writes: “In the long run it is impossible, even for the Catholic Church, to serve, for the delight of a few aesthetes and philanthropists, … as a museum of Christendom.”

Kung: On being a Christian

Kung celebrates modern advances in science, technology, medicine etc. But insists that science and technology cannot  be the key to man’s happiness. Technology cannot be a substitute for religion. Equally he rejects Marxism as a credible explanation of reality [a Weltanschaung]; noting that Marxist-Leninist practice led directly to authoritarianism, intolerance, and totalitarian attitudes. 

Kung approvingly quotes Eugene Ionesco, who wrote in 1972: “People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet , because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky …” There will always be religion, just as there will always be art. The perennial dilemma is the relationship between faith and reason. Can man only know God if God takes the initiative and makes himself known ? The idea of biblical revelation.  Or can man only believe in God if he has already known God by reason ? This question leads Kung into a detailed philosophical excursus. In which he writes approvingly of Kant’s ‘postulation’ of God deriving from man’s  self-understanding as a moral, responsible being.

In the final part of his scene-setting introduction Kung addresses the question of Christianity and the other world religions. He anticipates later writers like Lammin Sanneh by noting that “several centuries too late …  the attempt is being made to liberate Christianity from its European-American, Latin-Roman wrappings”. If all religions contain truth, what makes Christianity the truth ? He agrees with modern theologians who believe that men can attain salvation in other religions. But, he insists, “the question of salvation does not make the question of truth superfluous”.

On being a Christian: The distinctiveness of Christianity

Kung emphasises that Christianity is founded on Christ, God’s last and decisive ambassador. Being a Christian does not just mean standing for all that is true and good and beautiful. It means a belief that Jesus is decisive and definitive for man’s relations with God.

But the question then is:  Which Christ ? We have the Christ of piety, the “holy infant so tender and mild”. We have the Christ of dogma, whose nature caused such problems for the Church Councils [as they sought to define Jesus in terms of Hellenistic thought]. We have the Christ of the enthusiasts, from flagellants and Anabaptists of the Middle Ages to modern day charismatics and Pentecostals. And there is the Christ of literature. Here Kung notes that writers can often be “more alert, more perceptive, and more sensitive than the theologians”.

Kung emphasises that Christ is a historical person, not a myth. But he acknowledges the uncertainties: Bethlehem or Nazareth ?; the nature [and the historicity] of the gospels. Kung notes the Protestant emphasis on the Bible; the Orthodox emphasis on tradition; the Catholic emphasis on the Church. He argues for a combination of faith and of knowledge. He recalls that Jesus was a Jew. And he regrets the historical hostility between Jews and Christians. He acknowledges the real theological differences, but welcomes the contributions of Jewish scholars to understanding Jesus.

On being a Christian: The Program

Jesus did not belong to the ecclesiastical and social establishment. Jesus was not a priest. And he was not a theologian. His style of teaching is popular and direct. He preaches that the Kingdom of God is imminent; it will come, not as judgement, but as grace for all. Not only sickness and suffering, but also poverty and oppression, will come to an end.

The Jesus of the gospels is not the sweet and gentle figure of hymnody. He is not a prudent diplomat. In the gospels he is an unarmed, itinerant preacher and a charismatic healer. He preaches a non-violent revolution. Not as a monastic retreat from the world. Was Jesus an Essene or a Qumran monk ? Kung demonstrates clearly that Jesus was very different from these dualist ‘sons of light’. Equally, he is very different from the pious legalism of the Pharisees. “Pharisaism lives on in Christianity … but it is contrary to the spirit of Jesus.” 

The central cause of Jesus is the kingdom of God; a kingdom of love and joy and peace. Jesus expects the kingdom to come in the immediate future. Does this promise of the kingdom still hold good after two millennia ? It will not come about by social revolution.

Jesus’s miracles cause more problems for modern man than his teaching. The miracles are not scientifically tested documentaton. The healing miracles often involve curing the possessed; the exorcism and defeat of devils. Some of the miracles may be anticipated portrayals of the risen Christ. The word used in John’s Gospel is signs. In that gospel the different signs point to Jesus as ‘the bread of life’, as ‘the light of the world’, as ‘the resurrection and the life’. What is demanded is not faith in miracles; but faith in Jesus. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Jesus expects [demands] a fundamental re-orientation of man’s life towards God. This is metanoia, translated as repentance but meaning conversion. Based on an unshakeable confidence in God; which is described in the Old Testament as faith. Humanity replaces legalism. We are to love God, and to love our neighbour. And our neighbour is the person who needs our love. This love will involve forgiveness, without limits; and service, that is humility; and renunciation. Jesus has a particular concern for the weak, the sick, and the neglected; for woman, for children, and the poor.

Jesus got involved with irreligious and immoral people; tax collectors and sinners. Table fellowship meant more than politeness; it meant peace, trust, fraternity. Must the sinner first make an effort to receive grace ? For Jesus grace comes first; acceptance comes before repentance. 

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom. He did not found a church. His disciples are a mixed bunch; we are not even sure of their names. Their role is to be ‘fishers of men’.

The Gospels all point towards Jesus’ death. Things changed when he went up to Jerusalem. Jesus was baptised, but neither he nor his disciples baptised before Easter. Kung is not worried whether the Last Supper was a ritual Passover Meal [as Mark says] or not [as John says]. His violent end was the logical conclusion of his proclamation and his behaviour; he was seen as a heretical teacher, a false prophet, a blasphemer. Jesus’s death on the Cross suggested that the Law had conquered. The peculiarity of his death is that Jesus is forsaken by men, but also totally forsaken by God.

On being a Christian: The new life

It is only after Jesus’ death that this new movement started. After an [apparent] complete failure and a shameful death, emerges an explosive message and a new community in the name of the defeated leader. The earliest New Testament writings [Paul’s letters]  never mention the virgin birth, nor the descent into hell nor the ascension, but firmly proclaim the resurrection of the crucified Christ as the centre of Christian preaching. Jesus is a living person, encountered by his disciples.

Kung notes: this is a work of God; his being raised [passive] rather than his resurrection [active]. He insists that both resurrection and raising are pictorial, metaphorical terms. In Luke’s gospel and in Mark’s supplement the Easter appearances and the ascension take place on the same Easter Day. Only Acts of the Apostles mentions forty days between Easter and Ascension; forty being an important Biblical number. Again, it is from Acts that we have the story of Pentecost [50th day]. Which was celebrated in the first 3 centuries only as an extension of the Easter celebrations.

Kung notes the development of the Easter tradition. And that Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb. But Kung insists that the empty tomb does not by itself prove the resurrection. The Easter faith is oriented to the living Jesus himself. “Without Easter there is no Gospel … no faith, no proclamation, no Church, no worship, no mission to Christendom.”

Jesus’s death on the cross remains problematic. There is a diversity of interpretation at many levels. The distinction between ransom, representation, and sacrifice [Passover, covenant, expiatory sacrifice] is blurred. The work of Jesus on the cross was interpreted in the Latin West by means of juridical concepts; the need to restore God’s honour, to make restitution. “The idea of the death on the cross as an expiatory sacrifice, understandable enough for Jewish Christians at the time, is only one and not the most important model for the interpretation of that death.

Kung explores the link to suffering. The book of Job is about the incomprehensibility of God in time of suffering. Jesus does not explain suffering, but endures it to the end.His death only acquires a meaning with his resurrection to new life with God. Suffering, even though it can seem like being forsaken by God, can also become the point of an encounter with God. The Christian looks in suffering to the one who secretly sustains him even in nothingness, loneliness, and despair.

Kung looks in detail at the birth narratives. And notes that extraordinary events are traditionally associated with the birth of the founders of religions. “Today it is admitted, even by Catholic exegetes, that these stories are a collection of largely uncertain, mutually contradictory, strongly legendary, and ultimately theologically motivated narratives, with a character of their own.” 

The Virgin Birth presents a particular problem. The emphasis moves from virginal conception to virgin birth. “Both doctrines had something to do with the negative valuation of the sexual act on the part of the Fathers of the Church.”

The veneration of Mary is relatively recent. The efficacy of praying through Mary comes from the 12th century. The dogma of the immaculate conception dates from 1854; the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary dates from 1950. From the time of Pius IX the popes have promoted Marian devotion. Marianism and papalism go hand in hand, and give each other mutual support.

On being a Christian: Community of Faith

The Bible did not drop out of heaven [unlike the Koran]. The books of the Bible were written and collected on earth. Which explains the shortcomings and mistakes, confusions and concealments. “I do not believe first in Scripture … I believe in God who revealed himself in the history of Israel … and finally in a liberating message in the person of Jesus.”

The Holy Spirit is unintelligible to many people today. He is the Spirit of God himself, self-bestowing but not controllable, life-giving, a source of power. The Latin Church proclaims the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son [filioque]; the Eastern Church proclaims the procession of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. “An unnecessary controversy.” Kung insists that any formulation of the Trinity must not cause us to  abandon the monotheistic faith.

For Kung the church is simply “the community of those who believe in Christ”. He notes that the Germanic language words [German kirche, English church, Swedish kyrka] derive [not from curia, as Luther supposed] from the Byzantine Kyrike, meaning ‘belonging to the Lord’. But the Romance languages [Latin ecclesia, Spanish iglesia, French église, Italian chiesa] derive from the Greek ekklesia meaning ‘assembly, called out from’. 

What is the relation between the local church and the universal church ? Kung insists: “The local church is the the church and can fully represent the cause of Jesus Christ.” The church is the whole community of God’s people; offices and office-bearing are not important. There is no need for a priest as mediator. The church should be a community of brothers and sisters; it cannot be a patriarchal power structure. It is better to speak, not of office, but of ministry. The word ‘priest’ is never used in the NT for those who exercise a ministry in the Church. 

Paul writes of charisms which [given by God] serve the congregation. He never speaks [in authentic letters] of ordination nor or presbyters. But, after Paul’s death, institutionalisation could not be avoided. With the emergence of presbyters and bishops. “It cannot be maintained historically that the bishops in a direct and exclusive sense are the successors of the apostles.”

Does the Church need a universal leader, a Pope ? Roman Catholic ecclesiology has always been reactionary and hierarchical. Hence the 1870 definitions of papal primacy and papal infallibility. While the Catholics venerate the Pope, the Orthodox venerate tradition, and Protestants the Bible. There have been parties in the Church from the time of Corinth. The Church must exist to serve the surrounding society. “There is nothing about the Church which perfect, which is not imperilled, fragile, questionable, which is not constantly in need of correction, renewal, and reform.”

On being a Christian: Practice

People can be put off by the Church; “an unevangelical and externalised ritualism which is still tied to the medieval, baroque tradition … to a rigid, authoritarian, unhistorical, unbiblical textbook theology.” But, Kung insists, breaking away from the church leads only to isolation, or to a new institutionalising. In a renewed church, bishops would be appointed openly by clergy and laity; equally the pope would be elected by clergy and laity; priests would be allowed to marry if they so wished; and women should be given dignity, freedom, and responsibility. In spite of the forces of resistance and inertia, we must not give up.

On being a Christian: Being human and being Christian

Being a Christian is not just about self-denial and self-renunciation. It is about a new orientation, a new approach to life, with Jesus as our guiding principle and our living model.

What is ultimately important ? Churches influenced by Calvin have stressed the importance of ‘works’ in everyday life. Which has led to an emphasis on achievement; and seeing man as an economic unit. Kung insists that this attitude is a threat to man’s humanity. “A man can be a marvellous manager, scientist, official, or skilled workman, be generally credited with playing his part brilliantly, and yet fail completely as a human being.

Christian freedom means freedom  from dependence on the false gods which drive us on to new achievements: money or career, prestige or power, or whatever is of supreme value for us. We know that life has a meaning not only in successes but also in  failures.

Finally, Kung offers suggestions as to what Christian freedom means in our culture:

*  willingness to renounce rights without compensation

*  willingness to voluntarily use power for the service of others

*  willingness to practise freedom from the consumption of possessions

Consumerism is self-defeating.  “New needs are created as soon as the old ones are satisfied … luxury goods are classified as necessary consumer goods.” Uncontrolled economic growth widens the gap between rich and poor countries; and creates feelings of envy, resentment, and hatred, and also despair and helplessness.

In summary, to be Christian means to be fully human.

By following Jesus Christ, man in the world of today

can truly, humanly live, act, suffer, and die

in happiness and in unhappiness, life and death,

sustained by God and helpful to men.”


A better global order

I first read this book in the 1980s. It was the second Christian book I ever bought. [The first was by Don Cupitt ! A friend at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, made a telling comment about ‘baby and bathwater’.] Re-reading it, I am hugely impressed by both the breadth and the depth of Kung’s writing. Back in the 1980s and again now I find this book a magisterial and engaging account of the Christian faith. Written for the most part in accessible language. [Though I am not sure about ‘theonomy’.]  And I am very struck by the way in which Kung anticipates stuff  [other books] that I have been reading during this past year; he touches on the problem of suffering, on the dangers of clericalism, the origins and nature of Marianism, the meaning of the Cross, and the need for the church to escape from its medieval, Latin-Roman wrappings. It is easy to see why the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy were so disquieted by him. But I was saddened to see a shabby obituary of Kung in Echoes, a Roman Catholic forum, written by George Weigel, which accused Kung of being an anti-papal show-pony. The truth may be that, as the Church Times obituary noted, he was a Roman Catholic and he was a distinguished theologian. But he was not a Roman Catholic theologian. 

April 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: