Hans Küng’s massive 720-page On Being A Christian, published in English by Doubleday in 1976, had enormous impact on my theological life as a first-year Lutheran seminarian.
Küng, now 91 and in poor health, was a thrilling read for a 30-year-old seminarian. I had never before read a comprehensive summa, Lutheran or otherwise, and certainly never anything with such daring verve.
Admittedly, I was impressionable, giddy even. Thirteen months prior I was not even certain there was a Christ, let alone that I was called to preach about him. To that point I had been a journalist, a congressman’s speechwriter, and a minor but not entirely unimportant Kansas political appointee. In 1976 I planned to run for the legislature. But I tossed it.
That summer—the year I should have been slogging door-to-door with campaign brochures—instead found me in a seminary classroom taking Koine Greek. I had eight intensive weeks in which to acquire an 800-word vocabulary and become familiar with what I found to be an unusually awkward grammar, before I could be properly admitted. I found Küng in the seminary book store. He became a respite from Greek accent marks. Finding Küng was a solace.
Mind you, I did not know theology. I did not think theologically. I did not even know there was a “way” of doing theology (there are many ways as it turns out) or a way of thinking theologically. On Being A Christian gave me a theological framework that, I think, actually put me a little ahead of my classmates when Theology 101 rolled around that September (because Greek grammar sure wasn’t going to do it). I already had something of a structure, a form, categories and an approach. Hans Küng did that for me.
That book sent me off to read many of Küng’s previous and subsequent works until one day—about halfway through Does God Exist?—I simply didn’t care to read him anymore (I’ve always thought it was the wrong question anyway). He had begun to repeat himself. That may be the case for other readers.
A recent article assures its readers that the impact of Küng’s work is still spreading “ripples”. That may be so. He has certainly been prolific and it was a rare book that did not end up on somebody’s bestseller list somewhere. He also has a lengthy list of honors. But he isn’t much cited in other works by other authors, especially Catholic ones—not any more.
An example: In Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (1957 German; 1964 English) Küng examined the Catholic/Protestant divide over the Reformation era doctrine of justification versus the Council of Trent. He concluded there was no essential difference. Justification was a significant ecumenical study, possibly because it bothered as many Protestants as it did Catholics. Barth is said to have remarked that if Küng is correct, he owed the Council of Trent an apology.
For all that, the book did not—so far as I can tell—occasion as much as a footnote in the joint Lutheran-Catholic declaration on the doctrine of justification issued in 1999. I cannot find Küng’s work referenced anywhere in it.
What officially emerged from Lutheran and Roman Catholic studies in 1999 was agreement, bracketed with essential caveats, that issues over justification (caveats included) are, as Küng asserted, no longer dividing—implying they were not dividing in the first place. Küng said this back in 1957:
Protestants speak of a declaration of justice and Catholics of a making just. But Protestants speak of a declaring just which includes a making just; and Catholics of a making just which supposes a declaring just. Is it not time to stop arguing about imaginary differences?
The official dialog in many ways mirrored Küng’s original study, as with close reading did the outcome, but made no mention of his ecumenical labors. By then his missio canonica, his license to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian had been stripped.
As the Vatican’s official 1979 announcement phrased it, Küng evinced “contempt for the Magisterium of the Church,” and despite invitation by the Congregation for Faith and Doctrine, he simply did not care to discuss it.
When his credentials were withdrawn, that was a thunder clap for me. It was also a dilemma. Mean old John Paul II, snatching out from under me my favorite Catholic just like that, and in my last year of seminary to top it off. If Küng was my theologian, John Paul had become my pope. Where to turn, where to turn? I defer to the sainted pope these days.
George Weigel accurately predicted what would happen. In his magnificent biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, he noted that revoking Küng’s certification as a teacher of Catholic theology settled the “Küng problem.” It removed him from having any further real influence over Catholic theology. He could still teach theology and still write his books, but it would not be under Catholic sponsorship. His theological work thereafter was pretty well confined to places where progressive speculations are echoed.
That is pretty much what has happened. He became part of a theological species that did not approach Vatican II with a “hermeneutic of continuity” with the Church and her Tradition. Robert Royal, in A Deeper Vision: Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, includes Küng and some others into a “more radical group” of Catholic interpreters—Schillebeeckx, Crossan, other names—who, according to Royal, “seem not to be destined to play a lasting role in Catholic thought…” After re-reading this early Fall, I would agree.
So, in On Being A Christian the empty tomb is not empty, as Küng tells it. The empty tomb is at best mere legend, but it doesn’t matter. That, says Küng, is not the point of the Resurrection in any case.
Here Küng walked the path taken by Rudolf Bultmann (d. 1976), German Lutheran theologian and professor of New Testament. The Resurrection wasn’t corporeal or physical and hardly even glorified, or anything else in that sense. Importantly, it did not leave behind an empty tomb, meaning the Resurrection wasn’t even historical, except for the effect it had on troubled, dismayed disciples. I cannot see any real difference between Küng and Bultmann.
By then I had decided the empty tomb was real and necessarily so. I was a happy agnostic, but when I reached a reluctant conclusion that the Resurrection happened in fact and in time, that made me a Christian and it didn’t seem like there was anything else I could do. In some choices, one is either all in or completely out. The Resurrection for me made the case for being all in.
I encountered this kind of speculation at my seminary. My Theology 101 professor, another Bultmann admirer, would ask: if the bones of Jesus were discovered and dug up would it make any difference to the faith? Well, yeah, I thought it would—a big difference. Thinking very selfishly it would have meant, just for starters, I didn’t need to spend an entire summer flummoxed by Greek grammar.
The real question is: if Christ is raised, how is he raised? If the disciples did not encounter the man who had been crucified and whose body was then hurriedly dumped in a tomb, who or what did they experience? Was it a mere existential wistfulness for the man they once knew and admired, and thus the product of an over-active grief reaction? Or did the resurrected Christ meet them as the historical continuity of the crucified man, Jesus, the one who shed the confines, as hymn puts it, “of a stone cold tomb.” The Gospel accounts assert the latter.
This is where Küng failed me.
I do not dismiss Kung’s work altogether. I still find much of his early work thrilling, especially the search to find contemporary ways of expressing our old time religion. But I regret that while doing so he could not avoid slipping beyond the edge of orthodox teaching.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!