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From our archives: Feast of reason

06 April 2021

Professor Hans Küng, one of the advisers to the Second Vatican Council, who subsequently fell foul of Rome over his questioning of the tradition, has died, aged 93. In this Church Times article from 1984, David L. Edwards reviewed Küng’s book Eternal Life?


Professor Hans Küng in 1970

Professor Hans Küng in 1970

WHEN the highest authorities of the Roman Catholic Church pronounced shortly before Christmas, 1979, that Professor Hans Küng was no longer to be regarded as a theologian teaching the Catholic Faith, the loss was not Küng’s. Obviously the Vatican’s decree caused great pain. In the preface to this new book, Küng thanks his friends in many countries who “enabled me to survive intellectually and finally to continue working at theology”. But he did survive.

Indeed, as his preface continues, in the end his new status brought him work “in an even greater freedom and with a broader vision”. Tübingen University gave him security as a professor; large audiences there, in West Germany. and abroad gave him an attention all the greater because of his conflict with the Vatican; and, above all, his new independence encouraged him to find more of his material as a theologian not in the dogmatic textbooks but in modern European philosophy, science, poetry, and drama.

The Vatican might stop him teaching the Catholic Faith officially. It could not stop either his vocation or his brilliant success in teaching a Christianity which had come to terms with the questions of secular man. Many will think it the Catholicism of the future, at least in Western Europe and North America.

His new book is in the same mood as On Being a Christian (largely an answer to Bonhoeffer’s question: “Who is Christ for us today?) and Does God Exist? (largely an answer to the atheism of the European tradition which climaxed in Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud). Much of it is an exposition of the challenge, with footnotes which assemble a rich and strong assortment of relevant secular literature; and the positive conclusions are presented in language and with arguments which will make sense to the educated laity.

Throughout, a sense is conveyed of an utterly honest and rigorous intellectual quest into some of the supremely important questions confronting humanity. Here theology has escaped from the sacristy to become a discipline able to illuminate the human condition because it is able to absorb all that is relevant in the surrounding culture, including both thought that is militantly anti-theological and the great Christian tradition, Catholic and ecumenical.

“Do you believe in a life after death?” That is the question which this book tackles. Faced with it, “even theologians are embarrassed” (as Küng observes) and parish preachers are often far from clear. Rabelais, dying in 1553, said that he went to look for “a great Perhaps”. Later Europeans in moments of frankness (not at funerals) have inclined to think that when you’re dead you’re dead. No wonder that in our culture the Church stumbles or mumbles instead of the old, confident proclamation of the Four Last Things!

Theologians, preachers, and laymen willing to take trouble over a great scholar’s book will all be fascinated by Küng’s response to this very formidable challenge — by his admissions of the near-impossibility of language or thought about a realm beyond space and time; by his recognition of the historical circumstances in which mankind’s great religions arose; by his critical approach to the Christian Bible, including the Easter narratives; by his abandonment of traditional Catholic teachings (or at least popular ideas and practices) about purgatory and hell; and by his assured faith that we can know that Jesus lives and therefore that we all can be raised into that glory of the Father which is the “absolute and final salvation”.

Without the resurrection of Jesus (a truth which does not depend on the literal accuracy of all the reports of the events), we should — Küng believes — be left with evidence which is thoroughly ambiguous. He does not explore the ambiguities of psychical research, but he does give us some of the statements made by people who thought they were dying but floating away above the deathbed. And he points out that such experiences have also been reported from situations which had nothing to do with the “hereafter” but everything to do with the use of drugs or with mental illness or with extreme physical distress.

Experiences open to everyone without bringing religion into it are always open to a reductionist interpretation. The claims of religion to reveal eternity are, of course, also open to contradiction — but, as stated here in a presentation of the New Testament’s claims, the call to faith is at least not obviously irrational or detached from the facts. The centrality of the Easter experience is stressed, and argued for, with a passion all the more impressive because the style is that of the lecture room, not the pulpit.

So what about “the resurrection of the body”? It means, Küng says, the raising of our existence which needs a physical and social basis into that life which is eternal because divine. It is rightly contrasted with the indefinite continuation of my naturally immortal soul or my good self.

And what about “purgatory”? It means, Küng says, that God purges as he glorifies — and that is something we all need.

And what about “hell”? It means, Küng says, the infinitely serious possibility that, being free, I may refuse to be purged in order to be raised into that glory — and that would mean my choice of eternal death. But Küng rightly stresses the “all” which comes to be the main theme in the symphony of the New Testament. Certainly he will have nothing to do with the idea that God will torture people for ever because of an error in their beliefs before death. God is love, eternally triumphant love.

Those who turn away from such arguments with the excuse “I’m not religious” are to be pitied, Küng says — because they are like people who shut themselves out from the musicians’ invisible palaces with the plea “I’m not musical.” But he is also sure that the claims of religion have often been made the excuses for the spread of superstition to the advantage of the priests and for the encouragement of hatred and cruelty associated with the condemnation of the bulk of humanity to the everlasting tortures of hell.

While he refuses to listen to the excuse “I’m not religious,” he certainly does not refuse to listen to criticisms of the corruptions of religion, including Christianity and Catholicism. He does not make “I’m not heretical’’ his own excuse.

In his final section, he gives us glimpses of the life style which is possible for Christians who believe in this purified version of the faith. It is now, he shows, possible to die in dignity, not approaching my own or another’s earthly end as if it were a total disaster to be avoided at any cost. (He makes an eminently sensible plea not for euthanasia but for the refusal to prolong life artificially in certain circumstances). And it is, he shows, possible to struggle for the Kingdom of God “on earth as in heaven” without the disastrous illusion that I can, if I am clever and ruthless enough, engineer an earthly paradise.

Traditionally we tend to think that books originally in German are “speculative” rather than sober, “extreme” rather than cautious. But Küng, while belonging to German culture with all his being, is far more familiar with theology written in English than is normal for his profession in his place — and that is no accident, since he values a cautious sobriety. Indeed, his book is less speculative than Professor John Hick’s Death and Eternal Life, the last major English book in this field.

Traditionally we do not gorge ourselves at table at Easter. But here is a book which is a seasonal feast for mind and soul.

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