Hans Küng and the Promise of Lebensvertrauen

By: Jonathan Keir

April 14, 2021

Hans Küng and the Global Ethic

Hans Küng (1928–2021) is one of those generous forebears who read a lot of bad books so that we may be spared from doing so. I will admit that the entire first half of Küng’s 24-volume collected works—the half devoted to the “home games” of mid-century Christian theology—basically failed to capture my imagination or overcome the default suspicion so common in the disenchanted milieu of my youth, namely that Christian churches in general—and the Catholic Church in particular, mired for decades in scandal, corruption, outmoded dogmatism, and creepy virginal irrelevance—had nothing whatsoever to offer us. Küng’s attempts at internal reform of fetid postwar Vatican politics ended in brave and noble failure, but luckily, the revocation of his missio canonica (license to teach) by jealous Catholic gatekeepers in 1979 was the best thing that could have happened to him.

As I discovered over a well-poured gin and Campari at his home in 2015, Küng remained deeply invested in the fate of the Church as a global institution. For all the trauma and disappointment, however, that his exclusion from the action in Rome caused him, Küng was liberated in the 1980s, thank God, to pursue his true calling, which was ultimately a dialogical or diplomatic one: the preparation of globetrotting and content-surfing youths everywhere for the century of accelerating cultural disorientation to come, and through which we will now be living without him. 

Küng’s post-Nietzschean theology offers even those with a visceral hatred of organized Christianity a Jesus they might admire—and an invitation to acquaint themselves with a 2,000-year-old tradition of Christian art and thought that they may have neglected. The essence of Küng’s vision of interreligious dialogue—including the all-important engagement with atheism and “profane” literature—can be found in its most concise form in chapter 1 of his 2010 book Was ich glaube (What I Believe): There are myriad cultural paths, Küng maintains, to elusive Grundvertrauen or Lebensvertrauen, a concept which may be translated as “basic trust in life.” It is ignorant and arrogant beyond belief to assume that Christians—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—have a monopoly on this precious civilizational commodity; all spiritual and cultural traditions at their best, Küng argues, are healthily anti-totalitarian. 

Küng’s post-Nietzschean theology offers even those with a visceral hatred of organized Christianity a Jesus they might admire.

What matters on this account is that individual human beings are offered the freedom and broad cultural education to develop a stable attachment to life or reality as a whole, and thereby to build a dynamic and lifelong relationship with this reality despite the constant temptation to let their lives go to the dogs and succumb to meaninglessness—or worse, to place their fate in the hands of a charlatan Führer

In this sense, a vital part of what it means to be a good Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, agnostic, atheist, or Jedi worshipper is the delicate cultivation of the curiosity and self-critical spirit required to explore foreign spiritual traditions in the first place, cultures which may always have something new and vital to offer us if we can summon the energy and tools to look (a kernel of post-Axial wisdom encapsulated, for example, in the unreliable but beautiful Islamic hadith “Seek knowledge even in China”). Dogma is the refuge of the scoundrel, or rather, of the scared gambler who refrains from raping and pillaging not out of any embodied sense of the wrongness of such a lifestyle, but because she calculates that tickets to heaven and hell, or other versions of extrinsic reward and punishment in non-Christian cultures, are up for grabs in our lifetimes in accordance with our degree of conformity to dictates from a higher authority. 

As an antidote to such a kingdom of superstition and fear, Küng offers us a humanistic panorama of the world’s religions in general, and Christianity in particular, which is much nearer to the “God is not great” iconoclasm of Christopher Hitchens and other bestselling New Atheists than the evil pieties that these horsemen, for all their faults and oversimplifications, rightly targeted at the turn of our century.

As an antidote to such a kingdom of superstition and fear, Küng offers us a humanistic panorama of the world’s religions in general, and Christianity in particular.

Küng’s global ethic project, however, ran into trouble, and ultimately into contemporary irrelevance, because it assumed an ever-so-slightly hucksterish guise, playing down the more sophisticated duties and pleasures of engagement with foreign cultures in favor of polite consensus. Postwar Germanic aversion to “ideologies of unity,” understandable though it was, led Küng to overemphasize the right of religious believers to maintain their affiliations if only they would sign up to the abstract values enshrined in his 1993 Declaration Toward a Global Ethic. Christians, in short, could stay Christians, Muslims Muslims, atheists atheists, and so on, without being too openly challenged to discard any of their tatty inherited security blankets. Exaggerated fears of an unwanted “world religion” bled all too easily into an anemic protectionism of sovereign faiths, instead of the cosmopolitan alliance of self-confident and self-critical sister civilizations engaged in ongoing friendly dialogues of mutual discovery and improvement that Küng’s global ethic project might one day yet become.

I could pay Hans Küng no higher compliment than to say that I learned most of what little German I know from his later writing. In an academic culture renowned for its verbosity and pomposity, Küng’s prose stands out as a beacon of Orwell-level straightforwardness (not always successfully rendered, alas, by his various English translators, but translation is of course the hardest job in the world). The reference to Orwell is more apt still, however, because Küng was a whistleblower who paid a tangible price for his convictions: Instead of simply sidestepping the Church (as a person like me has had the privilege of doing thanks to people like him), Küng was determined to reform it from within. 

Instead of simply sidestepping the Church, Küng was determined to reform it from within.

Pope Francis may finally be implementing some of the cultural and doctrinal reforms for which Küng spent 50 years hopelessly calling, but it is of course far too late to restore the Church to anything like the central place in cultural life that it once enjoyed in such countries as Küng’s native Switzerland: There is no comparison between the cultural options available to those coming into the world in the 2020s and those, like Küng, born a century earlier. The great theologian’s insistence, however, on the centrality of Lebensvertrauen—an ethos capable of uniting human beings of all cultural and religious backgrounds in fruitful exchange with one another—will survive him, and resound far beyond the confines of a moribund institutional Christianity.

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