Rev. Roger Haight, S.J., is a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He earned a doctorate in theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago in 1973 and has taught at Jesuit graduate schools of theology in Manila, Chicago, Toronto, and Boston. His most recent book, Faith and Evolution, was published in 2019.
Hans Küng contributed much to Christian theology during his career, first as a theologian and then as an organic religious intellectual of the world. In this short tribute, I note the two distinct roles and two distinct contributions that he made to Christian theology. He lent a strong hand in two major shifts in the understanding of Jesus Christ. Both flow from his unique character as a historically conscious religious thinker.
Hans Küng earned his doctorate in 1957 from the Institut Catholique in Paris. Rather than internalize the medieval Aristotelian synthesis, Küng was a historically conscious thinker. Beginning in 1960, he taught theology at the University of Tübingen for 20 years. He then shifted within the university to the Institute for Ecumenical Research, where he studied other religions and wrote on interreligious dialogue.
Two books are emblematic of his work in these two periods: On Being a Christian (1974) and Christianity and the World Religions: Paths of Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (1986). In the first work, Küng promoted a turn to the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, as a point of departure for understanding Jesus Christ. He then built his understanding of Christianity around Jesus Christ. In the second, by indirection, Küng encouraged the necessity of integrating a positive appreciation of other religious traditions into Christian understandings of Christ, and thus, Christianity. Over the course of a couple of decades, these two foci of attention revolutionized the discipline of Christology, the study of Jesus Christ.
Küng encouraged the necessity of integrating a positive appreciation of other religious traditions into Christian understandings of Christ, and thus, Christianity.
Appreciation of what Küng helped to mediate requires some historical background. After the definition of the person of Jesus Christ by Council of Chalcedon in 451, the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was a divine being who, in effect, descended from the heavens became normative. This dogmatic idea dominated fundamental Christian catechesis. And the more Christian teaching emphasized Jesus’ divinity in some literal form, the more it implicitly separated Jesus from the actual human lives of all the rest which, in effect, negated the point of incarnation.
Küng was among the first Catholic theologians who, after the Second Vatican Council, integrated the considerable work of exegetes on Jesus of Nazareth into the discipline of Christology. Other Protestant theologians had worked on this for some time, and Catholic New Testament scholars were beginning to take up the so-called quest for the historical Jesus. Küng’s historical sensibilities gravitated toward this work. His constructive theological imagination allowed him expertly to show a large group of readers how they could reimagine Jesus and locate him as a Jewish prophet and teacher within their fundamental Christian commitment.
His constructive theological imagination allowed him expertly to show a large group of readers how they could reimagine Jesus and locate him as a Jewish prophet and teacher within their fundamental Christian commitment.
This easy statement is more important than it seems. The shift from beginning one’s basic understanding of Jesus Christ with a dogmatic fixation on his divinity to beginning the same synthesis with a consideration of Jesus’ historical ministry represents a fundamental change of perspective. It does not change doctrine; one still has to account for Jesus’ divinity. But the new viewpoint affects appropriation of Jesus.
The second shift too requires a bit of background in order to appreciate the magnitude of the change that Küng helped to negotiate. From early on in its history, Christian faith understood itself as a new covenant with God, and it was to be communicated to the whole world. This self-understanding gradually took on various degrees of thinking that Christianity was the one true religion. Its clearest witness may be found in the missionary spirit and in the forceful ways Christianity was communicated. But modernity, historical consciousness, and a sense of pluralism gradually allowed Christians to not just understand the existence of other faith traditions and tolerate them, but also positively to appreciate them. How would this change on the ground affect a dogmatic Christian supremacy?
Once again, Küng’s dual competencies and research addressed this problem by recognizing its scope and writing about it with accustomed expertise and clarity. The question for the highly doctrinal tradition of Catholicism was deeply theological: How does a newly positive acceptance of a plurality of faith traditions affect Christian self-understanding?
How does a newly positive acceptance of a plurality of faith traditions affect Christian self-understanding?
Küng saw that the resonance of the problem was global. To address it, he first had to communicate the natural historical inevitability of a plurality of different religions. He wrote about other faith traditions within their historical context as having a spontaneous fit and natural home along with universal relevance. He then had to communicate on a doctrinal level, either directly or by indirection, how this was not a challenge to Christian faith but a natural and historical exigency that Christian theology had to embrace. Interreligious dialogue, which has its own ethics of listening and learning, does not present itself in our world as a possibility or an option but as a necessity and imperative. As the historian tends to learn more quickly than the theologian, historical context intrinsically enters into methodic theological reflection. Küng’s writing on other religions and work to develop a global ethic had the practical theological effect of communicating the idea that the whole of humanity exists in a grace-filled world.
One should not get the impression that Hans Küng single-handedly brought about these gradual—or from a longer realist perspective, quite sudden—shifts in traditional Christian theology. They have a history, and he had collaborators. But Küng possessed a combination of personality, talent, and hard work that enabled him to put these issues into the public form and mobilize people across academic disciplines and public leadership roles. He was a major theologian in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.