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being withdrawn by Pope John Paul II.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
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
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. 
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
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
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 …
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
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
and not on anything human beings can invent or derive.
 Email 24.4.2005