Remembering Hans Küng, Interreligious Explorer

By: Leo Lefebure

May 6, 2021

Responding to: Hans Küng and the Global Ethic

Remembering Hans Küng, Interreligious Explorer

At the fourth convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona in 2004, the leaders of the parliament presented an award for lifetime contribution to interreligious relations to Hans Küng. As he accepted the award, he looked back on his career and commented that in hindsight it was providential that Vatican officials under Pope John Paul II had removed his authorization to teach Catholic dogmatic theology. This had freed him to explore the resources of other religious traditions and do the research that led to his proposal of a Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, which had been debated and adopted at the convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993. It was later amended to include ecological concerns at the 2018 meeting of the parliament in Toronto.

Küng had made a dramatic entry onto the theological scene in the late 1950s with a dissertation that boldly argued for the compatibility of the teaching of the Council of Trent on justification with the views of his compatriot Karl Barth. Küng pioneered a model for ecumenical—and later, interreligious—understanding by locating the usage of important terms in different language games. He pointed out that Catholics and Protestants frequently used the same words in different senses to refer to different realities and experiences, and the resulting misunderstanding prevented true dialogue. 

Küng pioneered a model for ecumenical—and later, interreligious—understanding by locating the usage of important terms in different language games.

Many in the theological world protested that there could not possibly be agreement between Trent and Barth, who early in his career had become famous as an anti-Catholic polemicist. While some Protestants insisted that Küng had misunderstood the great Swiss theologian, Barth himself wrote the foreword for the book and acknowledged the accuracy of Küng’s presentation of his views, though Barth also questioned whether they were really as compatible with the teaching of the Council of Trent as the young scholar claimed. From the other side, some Catholics demurred that Küng had not properly understood the Council of Trent’s teaching; but others, including Karl Rahner, defended Küng’s interpretation as legitimate. 

Küng went on to write significant works in ecclesiology, especially with regard to the renewed vision of the Catholic Church proposed by the Second Vatican Council. He challenged the monarchical view of the papacy, called for wider participation in decision-making in the Catholic Church, and called attention to areas where official Catholic teaching had changed. I remember him commenting with a twinkle in his eye that it had been infallibly defined that no one outside the Catholic Church could be saved. Since this was no longer the teaching of the Catholic Church in the middle of the twentieth century, Küng proposed that the Catholic Church should drop claims of papal infallibility and instead speak of indefectibility. The Roman authorities were not persuaded by his argument and revoked his authorization to teach dogmatic theology as a Roman Catholic theologian. (In the aftermath, a joke circulated that he had new business cards printed announcing that even though he was not a “Catholic theologian,” he was nonetheless “Catholic and theologian.”) 

Küng went on to write significant works in ecclesiology, especially with regard to the renewed vision of the Catholic Church proposed by the Second Vatican Council.

Küng was indefatigably curious about other religious traditions. In his pioneering book, Christianity and World Religions (first German edition, 1984), Küng engaged in dialogues with scholars of Islam (Josef van Ess), Hinduism (Heinrich von Stietencron), and Buddhism (Heinz Bechert), on a level of detail that few earlier Catholic systematic theologians had approached. He continued this project in a sequel on Christianity and Chinese Religions, co-authored with Julia Ching. In each exchange, Küng responded to the other scholar’s presentation of the religious tradition by seeking points of contact and convergence with the Catholic tradition, always looking for common ground. 

Küng was at times criticized for his procedure because it can be misleading to frame another tradition primarily in relation to one’s own theological positions. Religious traditions are extremely diverse; presenting other paths with a view to comparison with Catholic dogmatic theology inevitably frames them in a manner familiar to Catholics, which may be rather foreign to the practitioners of the other religion. On one occasion Küng quoted Nicholas of Cusa’s affirmation that God is “not-other” to a Buddhist, proposing a fundamental similarity to Buddhist teachings of non-duality; the Buddhist responded, “But you as a good Catholic theologian do not mean it in the same way as Buddhists.” Amid laughter in the room about his status as a “good Catholic theologian,” Küng replied, “I wish you would tell the pope that.”

Presenting other paths with a view to comparison with Catholic dogmatic theology inevitably frames them in a manner familiar to Catholics, which may be rather foreign to the practitioners of the other religion.

Critics noted that Küng assumed that the perspectives of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment were universally authoritative for other traditions. Nonetheless, practitioners of other religions expressed profound respect for his efforts to understand their heritage. I recall that when Küng responded to a paper from a Buddhist scholar at a dialogue at Purdue University in 1986, the Buddhist scholar commented that he felt like he had been responded to by a Buddhist! 

One of the most memorable exchanges at this conference came when Masao Abe responded to Hans Küng’s moving proposal based on 1 Corinthians 15: In the end, God will be all in all, and there will be no mediators. Abe responded that he could accept this vision on one condition: that it be accepted as an absolutely realized eschatology; right now there are no mediators. Küng was clearly taken aback and was not quite sure how to respond to his provocative Buddhist interlocutor. In other contexts, Küng rejected Abe’s Mahayana Buddhist interpretation of the hymn in Philippians 2:5–8; for Abe this hymn manifests the self-emptying (kenosis) of God in ways a Mahayana Buddhist can resonate with. Küng vigorously protested that the hymn affirms only the kenosis or self-emptying of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and does not say anything about an alleged kenosis of God the Father. In response, Abe quoted Karl Rahner, who affirmed that the kenosis of the Son manifests the kenosis of the Father. Küng then shifted his attack, charging that Rahner was either monophysitic or Hegelian and asked Abe who brought the Son back to life if the Father had also been emptied!

I recall that when Küng responded to a paper from a Buddhist scholar at a dialogue at Purdue University in 1986, the Buddhist scholar commented that he felt like he had been responded to by a Buddhist!

After extensive research on the Islamic tradition, Küng retrieved a historical thesis of Adolf von Harnack and Hans-Joachim Schoeps that Islam was a new development of the trajectory of early Jewish Christianity. Küng challenged Christians to view Islam not as a Christian heresy but rather as a legitimate Christology related to early Christians in the Arabian Peninsula. While many scholars were reluctant to accept this proposal, many Muslims appreciated his efforts to understand their tradition and present it in a sympathetic light.

Perhaps Küng’s most lasting legacy is his thesis: “No world peace without peace among religions, no peace among religions without dialogue between the religions, and no dialogue between the religions without accurate knowledge of one another.” This set an agenda for interreligious explorations.

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