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permission to teach being withdrawn by Pope John Paul II.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
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 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. 
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
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
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
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.
 Email 24.4.2005