Carl J. Armbruster (review date 25 August 1972)

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SOURCE: A review of Why Priests? in Commonweal, Vol. XCVI, No. 19, August 25, 1972, pp. 458-60.

[In the following review, Armbruster analyzes Küng's discussion of the priesthood in Why Priests?]

This latest book by Hans Küng is a fine piece of popularization. Not that it is unscholarly, for...

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SOURCE: A review of Why Priests? in Commonweal, Vol. XCVI, No. 19, August 25, 1972, pp. 458-60.

[In the following review, Armbruster analyzes Küng's discussion of the priesthood in Why Priests?]

This latest book by Hans Küng is a fine piece of popularization. Not that it is unscholarly, for Küng's scholarly credentials in the area of ecclesiology have been established elsewhere. But he dispenses with footnotes and references in order to develop in broad strokes his “proposal for a new church ministry” (the subtitle). To those who are well-informed about current trends in the theology of the priesthood, the book offers no startling surprises. However, both for the specialist and for the general public it summarizes and locates the cutting edge of theological thought on the priesthood. It also pushes to the foreground questions which are ripe for discussion and argument.

What does Küng say about the priesthood? First he situates the crisis of the ministry within an ecclesiological context, namely, “a nuanced democratization of the church” (p. 24). The word “nuanced” is important here, for Küng stresses that it is an analogous, even ambiguous political concept that must be critically adapted in the light of the N. T. when applied to the church. Theologically, it means “an increasing co-responsibility of all members of the ecclesial community,” which should produce a community of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” This choice of the slogan of the French Revolution to describe what the new church should be strikes me as somewhat strained and even “old hat,” though the ecclesial realities behind these political terms are well described.

As Raymond Brown has noted (America, May 20, 1972), one of Küng's special merits as a theologian is that he takes the Bible very seriously. His treatment of the N. T. ministry underscores its functional as opposed to its “official” nature, the model of flexibility it presents, the underlying concept of leadership as more basic than that of cultic priesthood, the centrality of charism, the functional rather than the historical understanding of apostolic succession, and the norm of service which Jesus proposes.

On one point, however, Küng seems too touchy, if not inconsistent, and that is his aversion to the term “office,” for he states that “church ‘office’ is not a biblical concept.” (p. 39) He prefers “function” or “service.” Yet he repeatedly refers to the ministry of leadership as a “permanent public responsibility” or uses phrases which are the equivalent (cf. pp. 43, 83, 92, 103-106, 113). If a “permanent public responsibility” is not an “office,” not necessarily in the authoritarian or bureaucratic sense that Küng fears, then I do not know what it is. As for the fact that “office” is not a biblical word, neither is the term “Trinity,” but the absence of terminology does not imply the absence of the reality designated. Just as “democratization” is an analogous term, so too is “office,” and I believe it to be sociologically and theologically apt to express the ecclesial fact of “permanent public responsibility.”

In a provocative chapter on the historical development of the theology of priesthood, Küng describes the sacralization of the ministry from the fifth and sixth centuries on, the sacramentalistic conception that developed during the Middle Ages, and the relativity of Trent's dogmatic declarations on the indelible character of Holy Orders, its institution by Christ, and the concept of Eucharistic sacrifice. This is the chapter that doubtless will raise the hackles of conservative theologians, for here Küng attacks the dogmatic bastions that defend the conservative view of pastoral renewal. For instance, in rejecting the heretofore traditional interpretation of the Tridentine doctrine of the indelible character of Orders, Küng undercuts a static ontological view and makes room for his functionalism, while at the same time he sets up the possibility of a temporary ordained ministry by a new idea of the permanency of the sacramental character. In these matters Küng tantalizes more than he expounds, for he holds unrepeatability and permanency, but does not plunge too deeply into this theological thicket. More could have been said about the peculiar nature of Holy Orders which is unrepeatable but often “received” three times by one who is successively ordained deacon, priest, and bishop. At least Küng stimulates a long overdue reconsideration of such anomalies.

His final chapter on the form of the church's ministry of leadership distinguishes between the variables and the constants in that ministry. The variables actually constitute a program for radically restructuring the priesthood. According to Küng, the church's ministry of leadership does not have to be full-time, for life, associated with social status, set aside in a sacral sphere, trained academically, celibate, or male. His point, based on the N. T. and history, is that “even today we are still too little aware of the extent to which the ecclesial community has the freedom … to shape the concrete forms of the church's ministry and leadership and too little aware of how great the possibilities are to satisfy modern man's diverse requirements in today's society.” (pp. 75-76)

The constants in the church's ministry are that it is a non-domineering service of spiritual leadership by stimulating, coordinating, and integrating the charisms of the congregation. It is flexible and pluriform in order to respond to pluriform communities. It is rooted in a personal charism, a call for the Spirit of Jesus Christ which is tested by the community. It is apostolic in its continuity with the original faith and mission of the apostles. The charism is recognized and its bearer mandated by the ritual imposition of hands in the sacrament of ordination. In short, the minister is permanently and publicly responsible for building up the congregation by means of the Word and the sacraments in an exercise of committed love.

In a final section, Küng states: “The image of the church leader today will continue to be determined essentially by the apostolic model, which in turn looks to Jesus himself.” (p. 111) Without realizing it, this appeal by Küng to the imitation of Jesus—which he makes in a passing way in several places (pp. 18, 27, 50, 115)—poses the most overlooked question in theology and spirituality today. What does it mean for a Christian and for an ordained minister to imitate Jesus? Which Jesus—the historical Jesus, the corporate Jesus, the risen Jesus? What criteria are used to validate genuine imitation and to distinguish it from superficial aping? To what extent do culture and time affect our imitation of Jesus?

John B. Breslin (review date 28 November 1976)

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SOURCE: “God and Küng,” in Washington Post Book World, November 28, 1976, pp. H1-H2.

[In the following review, Breslin praises Kung's On Being a Christian, stating that “Kung provides a skillfully argued, theologically nuanced and personally appropriated set of arguments for the liberating power of Christianity.”]

Religious bestsellers in this country usually mean inspirational books by Billy Graham or slightly kooky tracts like Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth. And even when they sell zillions of copies, they don't make the standard bestseller lists because they're sold in bookstores that are not surveyed. They do things differently in Germany, to judge by the startling success of the original edition of this theological work by Hans Kung. For months, it hovered near the top of Der Spiegel's chart, just behind Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag.

That's not likely to happen here, unfortunately, but it's just possible that the combination of Kung's reputation (both as premier theologian and as ecclesiastical maverick) and the current interest in religious questions may save this book from the fate of most theology: professional wrangling followed by popular oblivion.

On Being a Christian is most certainly theology, aimed at the head, not just at the heart, and Kung offers no excuses for raising difficult questions or for providing 80 pages of footnotes, heavily Teutonic in flavor. But it is theology of a special kind, what used to be called apologetics—a defense of, or argument for Christian belief. If that smells a bit musty to you, reminiscent of ugly black textbooks, don't be put off. Kung knows that the most serious challenge Christianity faces today, at least in the Western hemisphere, is indifference: why bother to be a Christian? And he knows, too, that other challenges, from secular humanism and the world religions, have to be faced squarely and argued with in earnest. In short, he knows his audience—university educated, religiously interested but often ecclesiastically disenchanted—what he calls, in the generalizing way of theologians, “modern man.”

For those who fit the description—and they include a large number of nominal and once-upon-a-time Christians across this country—Kung provides a skillfully argued, theologically nuanced and personally appropriated set of arguments for the liberating power of Christianity. His twin lodestars are human experience and human reason and he insists that separating them leads inevitably to a mindless subjectivism or a desiccated reactionalism. His discussion of theism turns, then, not on series of “proofs” but on a reflection about human trust. To move from such trust to Christian faith still requires a leap, but Kung's approach—in opposition, say, to Barth's—emphasizes a fundamental continuity between the two experiences.

After a brief, and necessarily superficial, excursus on the genius and flaws of the great world religions, Kung turns to the book's principal question—what is it that makes Christianity different? The answer he gives is surprising only in its simplicity: Jesus the Christ, experienced as the central figure in human history and as the decisive religious event in a person's life, alone guarantees the uniqueness of the Christian gospel. Without “an explicit, positive reference to Jesus Christ,” Kung refuses to baptize good will or good deeds as Christian, and he scorns any facile use of the term “anonymous Christian” to solve the problem of salvation outside the church. Almost two-thirds of his 600 pages of text is devoted to explicating the meaning of this central affirmation about Jesus Christ, and this core forms the most successful part of Kung's book.

As in the introductory section, objectivity remains a prime apologetic tool. Without discounting the importance of myth and legend, symbol and metaphor, Kung insists on the history that undergirds a faith commitment to Jesus Christ. To get at that historical foundation he employs all the implements of New Testament criticism, most neatly summed up in the phrase, “historical-critical method.” What that means is a systematic attempt to identify the various layers that make up the New Testament, from the particular theological visions that shaped the final written texts, back through the interpretations that were given to the oral tradition by the various early Christian communities, to the most primitive strata of all where we can perceive the outlines of Jesus's own preaching. It is not a process to cheer the hearts of fundamentalists, but it represents the majority view of contemporary Scripture scholarship. Many experts will disagree (some already have disagreed) with specific uses to which Kung puts this method, but few would quarrel with his basic approach.

What the process yields, while hardly a “Life of Christ” in the old-fashioned sense, is a fascinating portrait of Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant preacher who appeared only briefly on the Palestinian scene but who managed to throw into question most of the accepted religious, social and even political beliefs of his day. He joined no party, whether of the Establishment or of the revolutionaries, and he embraced neither the legal compromises of the Pharisees nor the world-shunning asceticism of the Essenes. He had only one overriding interest, the coming reign of God, and he believed passionately that every other human concern must be interpreted in light of that impending reality—whether it was the Mosaic Law or the structure of the family or the way individuals dealt with one another. God's kingdom, God's cause came first, but on closer analysis, Kung argues, we find that God's cause, as understood by Jesus, meant man's cause as well. “God wills nothing but man's advantage, man's true greatness and his ultimate dignity. This then is God's will: man's well-being.”

Unfortunately, the men of Jesus's time were no better than ourselves in recognizing what constituted their “true greatness and … ultimate dignity.” And when Jesus made it clear that forgiveness, service of others and renunciation of self-interest were integral parts of that well-being and that, moreover, God's special concern was for the despised and the outcasts rather than for the conventionally law-abiding, then God's reign became a threat to man's self-sufficiency and His messenger an expendable rabble-rouser.

Kung insists that Jesus went to his death precisely because of his religious messages; because the freedom and the intimacy with God that he claimed both for himself and for all who accepted his preaching were rightly perceived as undermining the elaborate religious structure of the Jewish leaders. He died like those whose cause he championed—the disinherited—and if we are to believe the most primitive Passion accounts, with a fear of being abandoned by his Father as well.

And then something extraordinary happened, so extraordinary in fact that suddenly the frightened and scattered disciples became bold heralds, the preacher now the subject of their preaching. Kung's handling of the Resurrection accounts and of their subsequent interpretations reveals in brief compass his method of dealing with complex questions. First of all, he argues convincingly from the New Testament evidence that something more than a psychic quirk or an historical ruse is at issue. Jesus died and then was experienced by his followers as being alive, but not in the manner of a resuscitated corpse. God, the Creator and Conserver of life, had bestowed on him a wholly new existence, which was quickly associated, especially in light of Jesus's own preaching, with the Jewish expectation of the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. But it was emphatically the same Jesus, and so as long as we don't become too materialistic about it, we can speak of his “bodily resurrection.” In classical homiletic style (a recurrent feature of the book), Kung returns to this basic point several times, attempting to separate the essential message from legendary and other accretions. He perhaps overplays his dismissal of the importance of the “empty tomb” or the “appearances” as evidence of the Resurrection, but he seizes the main point and presents it clearly: “The living Christ and through him the living God, who called him from death to life, are the object of the Easter faith.”

This passion for getting at essentials is, not surprisingly, the strength and weakness of this book as an introduction to Christianity. Better than any other theologian I can readily think of, Kung can read the “signs of the times,” especially when it comes to gauging the skeptical temper of his contemporaries; he also combines a wide knowledge of Scripture scholarship with a sure grasp of more philosophical theology. But in his eagerness to get back to the basic New Testament message, he often gives the impression that theological and doctrinal development over the past two millenia has largely meant distortion. One example: He is right, I think, in insisting that many of the Hellenistic distinctions (for example, person and nature, consubstantiality) used in Trinitarian and Christological formulas no longer speak to the modern mind, indeed, often confuse it. But the question remains whether a theology that remains satisfied with describing what Jesus does without asking what and who he is does sufficient justice to the mystery of Jesus and his Father as revealed in the whole New Testament. Similar questions could be raised about his dismissive treatment of the Marian doctrines and of the priestly significance of Christian ministry.

It is in specifically ecclesiastical matters, however, that Kung's cherished objectivity fails him most, to be replaced by an unpleasant haranguing tone. In an example of rhetorical overkill, he attributes the lack of a section on “prayer, meditation and Christian worship,” no doubt accurately but not very gracefully, to his time-consuming battles with “the Roman Inquisition.” Did the already enormous size of the book have something to do with that decision as well? One wonders at the buck-passing.

But Kung's achievement rises above such quibbles, if not above serious theological disagreement. He recently described himself as a “centrist,” and though more conservative Christians may scoff at such a designation, it rings true for most of this book. He reminds proponents of “political theology” that others traveled that same road, from the right, in pre-Nazi Germany, and he warns church leaders that a primacy built on privilege is neither consistent with the New Testament nor convincing to 20th-century believers.

Beyond this balancing act, however, Kung has done something much more significant. He has captured some of the liberating power of the earliest Christian preaching and translated it into contemporary terms. Belief in the Crucifixion is not very hard to come by these days (or any days): one only has to look around. But to believe that it was precisely the Crucified One whom God raised from the dead as a sign of His free and complete commitment to human kind is a staggering thought—almost too good to be true. Such faith, Hans Kung reassures us once again, is what being a Christian is all about.

Andrew M. Greeley (review date 19 December 1976)

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SOURCE: “Hans Küng: Embattled Teacher and Priest,” in New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1976, pp. 5, 16.

[In the following review, Greeley praises Küng's On Being a Christian for the author's scholarly and truthful approach.]

The controversial Swiss theologian Hans Küng has written the best defense of traditional Catholic Christianity to appear in this century. Christ Sein sold several hundred thousand copies in its German edition and was on the best seller lists in Germany for several months. It is unlikely, however, that so many American Catholics have the intellectual discipline to plow through a 720-page book on their faith, and more's the pity. They will miss what may well become a religious and spiritual classic.

Küng has earned himself the reputation of being a “radical” by being severely critical of the way authority has been exercised in Rome and by questioning some of the doctrinal foundations of that exercise of authority. In fact, however, he has always been a profoundly conservative person; his concern about the style of papal leadership and the theory behind it has been based on a conviction about the importance of the papacy—a conviction that many other less controversial Catholic theologians have long since given up.

Küng divides his large volume[, On Being Christian,] into four major sections, “The Horizon,” “The Distinction,” “The Program” and “The Practice.” The “horizon” is that dimension of human life that opens us to the uncertainty, the obscurity, but also the possibility of human life:

What can we know? Why is there anything at all? Why not nothing? Where does man come from and where does he go to? Why is the world as it is? What is the ultimate reason and meaning of all reality?

What ought we to do? Why do what we do? Why and to whom are we finally responsible? What deserves forthright contempt and what love? What is the point of loyalty and friendship, but also what is the point of suffering and sin? What really matters for man?

What may we hope? Why are we here? What is it all about? What is there left for us: death, making everything pointless at the end? What will give us courage for life and what courage for death? (author's italics)

To assert in the face of those questions that one “believes in God” is to assert that the possibility of life is more real than its uncertainties, and the openness of life a better indicator of its meaning than its ultimate closing in death. It is not a totally rational decision made by the intellect; it is rather a leap—not altogether unreasonable but surely not forced by reason—of the whole human personality in the direction of goodness and possibility.

The special “distinction” added by Christianity to this commitment is to claim that in Jesus that to which we are asked to commit ourselves has been most adequately revealed.

The “program” follows from the vision of reality to be observed in Jesus: a vision in which good and evil are inextricably mixed, with good finally edging out evil by suffering all that evil can do to it and still surviving and living again in God's power.

The cross then is not only example and model, but ground, strength and norm of the Christian faith: the great distinctive reality which distinguishes this faith and its Lord in the world market from the religious and irreligious ideologies, from other competing religions and utopias and their lords, and plunges its roots at the same time into the reality of concrete life with its conflicts. The cross separates the Christian faith from unbelief and superstition. The cross certainly in the light of the resurrection, but also the resurrection in the shadow of the cross.

If one accepts such a “program,” then one is committed to a “practice” of loving service to other human beings. The Christian will minister to others in “unconditional trust, goodness, giving, loving good will, in advance and without any compelling reasons. And in all this he will refuse to let anything deter him.” (author's italics)

It is not a new idea, but one that has not been much honored in practice, despite its antiquity. The genius of Christ Sein is not so much the new things Küng says but his way of saying old things in such new ways, so that one is struck again with the perennial novelty of their challenge. You mean we are really supposed to live that way? You gotta be kidding.

Hans Küng is anything but a romantic. He is as severe in his critique of the religions of the third world and of the currently fashionable liberation theology as he is of the exercise of power in the Roman curia. One begins to see why Küng gets into trouble: His careful integrity does not permit him unreserved enthusiasm for any human institution or any “movement.” Thus to write in the face of the current theological enthusiasm for Karl Marx that a “Christian may be a socialist but need not be one” is to strike a balance that the romantics of the day find unacceptable. And to insist that no substitute for capitalism has been able thus far to avoid making things worse is an intolerable affront to the fashionable theological left. But Küng's integrity is such that he will risk their ire as much as he risks the ire of the Vatican bureaucrats.

For all its command of the scholarly literature and all its rigorous intellectual honesty, On Being a Christian is neither a dull nor a lifeless book. Küng made the decision to let his own personality show through, to let the reader share in the excitement of his quest and the passion of his faith. One comes away from the book knowing a lot more about the challenge of the Christian life, and also with a clear picture of a priest and scholar who is doing his best to live that life no matter what the cost in professional envy and institutional isolation.

James C. Logan (review date 13 September 1978)

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SOURCE: “A Passionate Participant,” in Christian Century, Vol. XCV, No. 28, September 13, 1978, pp. 832-33.

[In the following review, Logan asserts that Küng's Signposts for the Future shows the personal side of the author's Christianity.]

Usually a collection of essays such as [Signposts for the Future] (by a leading theologian covering a wide range of topics) is a disappointment. Either the essays were written prior to the publication of a major work which says the same thing better, or the essays are dribblings left over from a major work and simply offer the publisher an opportunity to cash in. In either case, the net result is redundancy.

While there is nothing startlingly new in Küng's volume of essays it does something which his previous works do only indirectly. These essays allow the reader to see Küng—the man and the Christian—in a way which earlier books only hint at. Signposts provides a clear picture of a theologian who is intellectually candid while being a passionate participant in the church of Christ.

Part one (“On Being a Christian: Twenty Theses”) is a propositional outline of Küng's recent major work. The theses will be of considerable help for those studying the larger volume; the theological questions which arise from the earlier work persist. Küng is clearer in what he rejects than in what he affirms regarding the uniqueness and absoluteness of Jesus Christ. That Christ enables the Christian to be “truly human” is still maintained with the same ambiguity surrounding that phrase. Küng summarizes the doctrine of the redemptive death of Christ as “the fulfillment of the curse of the law” whereby “Jesus becomes the representative of lawbreakers, of sinners.” Accompanying this summary is a strong emphasis on Jesus as “a basic model of a view of life and practice of life to be realized in many ways.” To be sure, Küng is no Abelardian in his doctrine of the atonement, but neither is he Anselmian. He doesn't have to be either! But it is not clear how Jesus the “representative” and Jesus the “model” are ever brought together in a coherent interpretation of his passion and death. Nevertheless, Küng has attempted a Christology “from below” which deals honestly with many questions being asked today by thoughtful Christians. It is unclear, however, whether the task ahead is one of theological tidying up or of significant modification.

Part two really should be divided into two sections; the material has two definite foci. The first is on the Christian in society, the second on the Christian in the internal life of the church. In part two we gain real insight into the personal ecumenism of the author and his passionate commitment to the church. Küng's ecumenism has at least three dimensions. First is a human ecumenism which embraces the whole human family as well as the church. Küng rejects any ideas that Jesus was a “revolutionary” or an “enthusiast.” What Jesus called for was the strict requirement of inner freedom from possessions—a “poverty of spirit” which renounces “something for the other person, so that we do not prove to be slaves of our possessions but try to use them to serve others.”

Here is also a transreligious ecumenism. Küng demonstrates his ecumenical spirit in a most insightful dialogue with Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide about the meaning of Jesus. Third is a transconfessional ecumenism. Across the historic Protestant/Catholic divide Küng again shows his ecumenical spirit with an “ecumenical inventory,” the conclusion of which is that “being truly Christian today means being an ecumenical Christian.” Probably nowhere in the book does the irenic spirit of the man ring clearer than in the tribute which Küng presented at the funeral of his old professor, Karl Barth. No one is better prepared than Küng to appreciate the genius of Barth's formulation of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. After all, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on this very subject. Küng returns to the centrality of grace in the funeral tribute with a masterful pastoral statement sensitive to both the spirit and faith of Barth.

The internal focus upon the church deals with such matters as parties within the church, lay participation in leadership (including elections), women in the church (a short but carefully reasoned statement on their ordination), contemporary worship and finally confirmation. These are weighty theological issues with direct implications for the concrete church. Typically, Küng does not dodge the concrete by escaping into the abstract. Whatever else one may say about his theology, Küng writes to be understood and keeps a steady eye on matters of church praxis.

There are no great surprises in this book. What does greet us is the character of the theologian—a person rendered thoroughly human by his Christianity.

Gerard S. Sloyan (review date 24 November 1978)

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SOURCE: A review of Signposts for the Future, in Commonweal, November 24, 1978, p. 767.

[In the following review, Sloyan lauds Küng's Signposts for the Future.]

[Signposts for the Future] is a collection of essays, interviews, and one radio dialogue (with Pinchas Lapide) done by the priest of the diocese of Luzern who is professor of dogmatic and ecumenical studies at the state university of Tübingen in Germany. Like anything the embattled Swiss theologian writes, it is well worth examining. Primarily it shows a Catholic reminding fellow-members of his church in whatever station that their fidelity to the person and teaching of Jesus is their best fidelity to God and his Holy Sprit. A church made up of faithful such as these is worth adhering to. Its teaching is their teaching and conversely. The call Jesus of Nazareth issued was to perfect trust in God and to doing his will, which is nothing other than humanity's total well-being. The ethics or behavior of the Christian is the proof of discipleship.

The author is on the firmest ground in discussing the intra-confessional Christian questions that are his specialty. He acknowledges in a preface that the ecumenical dialogue with Jews is comparatively new to him and proves it discussing the church's origins from Israel and the gospel narratives of Jesus's trial in a spirit bordering on New Testament fundamentalism. Balancing this naiveté is a quite splendid discussion of the psychological and sociological problems attending participation in the Sunday worship currently available in Catholic and Protestant churches. Scattered through the book are certain insights of the highest quality—not least of them one by Orthodox Rabbi Lapide, on the resurrection of Jesus, who opts for a biblical and humble “I do not know” in preference to defining a priori God's saving action. A similar humility of Professor Küng on other topics marks his many withheld judgments in these thoughtful essays. Other, forceful judgments are not withheld.

Philip E. Devenish (review date June 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem, in Theological Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2, June, 1985, pp. 361-62.

[In the following review, Devenish complains that Küng's Eternal Life? fails in comparison to the first two works of the trilogy.]

In this series of nine public lectures given in Tübingen and Ann Arbor, we have the final installment, [Eternal Life?] along with On Being a Christian and Does God Exist?, of K[üng]'s “trilogy” (xvi). His basic approach parallels that taken in On Being a Christian. In the first section, “The Horizon,” K[üng] sets the “background” of his question and poses it from the point of view of medicine, contemporary philosophy, and the history of religions. He confronts the reader with a “decision” between “alternatives”: “a definitive extinguishing in nothingness or an eternal permanence in being” (68). In the second section, “Hope,” he sets out what he takes to be the Christian answer to the question of eternal life. After treating the development of the concept of resurrection in Jewish thought, he sets forth his answer of eternal life as “a new future, wholly different,” based on resurrection as “assumption into the absolutely final and absolutely first reality” of God through a consideration of the “difficulties with the resurrection of Jesus” and then discusses attendant issues concerning ascension, descent, and hell (114, 113). In section 3, “The Consequences,” K[üng] explores the individual, social, and cosmic dimensions of eternal life for people today. He closes with a brief epilogue, comprising a personal confession.

As always, K[üng] is at his best here in two respects. He can tell you clearly and even movingly what practical difference his subject makes: “A dying in gratitude—this would seem to me to be dying, not only with human dignity, but with Christian dignity” (175). He also conducts a wide-ranging and insightful dialogue with representatives of contemporary culture.

The book is disappointing at several key points. K[üng] bases his Christian answer to the question of eternal life on “the resurrection of Jesus.” It is not clear, to me at least, how, if at all, the events of the emergence of Easter faith imply an event of resurrection as their basis. Jesus' followers did, in fact, infer his resurrection from their encounter with the Jesus who had died. But this inference does not show that there ever was such an event. Nor does K[üng] treat this problem elsewhere.

When he discusses the character of eternal life, K[üng] can say that it is a “wholly different, unparalleled, definitive state … totally otherwise” (105). Yet he can also hold that “the consummation can be described in a dialectical movement of thought: as life, justice, freedom, love, salvation” (220). One runs across the same problem in reading Does God Exist?: K[üng] has not developed a theory of theological language that permits one to judge claims such as that eternity, “understood dialectically,” is “the temporality which is ‘dissolved’ (aufgehoben) into finality” (221).

Finally, K[üng] at one point places “‘faith’ in God, in an eternal life” in apposition (78). I am not sure K[üng] is sufficiently aware of the temptation to idolatry here or, for that matter, in making the topic of eternal life a third part of his trilogy. The first two books hang together. This one is the odd man out.

John Bierman (essay date 18 November 1985)

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SOURCE: “Rome's Blunt Renegade,” in Maclean's, Vol. 98, No. 46. November 18, 1985, pp. 5, 8.

[In the following essay, Bierman discusses Küng's contentious relationship with Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church.]

To many conservative Roman Catholics the action appeared treasonous. For many reformists, on the other hand, it seemed courageous. On Oct. 4 and 5, newspapers in Toronto, London, Madrid, Zurich, Hamburg and Rome carried the latest polemic of Dr. Hans Küng, Pope John Paul II's most celebrated and persistent Catholic critic. The two-part article was a 6,000-word onslaught on what Küng says is the reactionary and repressive policies of the pontiff and his church bureaucracy, the Curia. “The old Inquisition is dead; long live the new one,” wrote Küng. “‘Persistent doubt’ about a truth of the faith is punishable with excommunication. No one is burned at the stake any more, but careers and psyches are destroyed as required.”

Küng, 57, a professor of theology at West Germany's secular University of Tübingen and currently a visiting professor at the University of Toronto, is one of the world's most celebrated Christian theologians. But even to many of his supporters his latest attack seemed excessive. After all, Küng himself has not even been expelled from the priesthood, despite his own persistent doubts, freely expressed over the years, about such central Catholic beliefs as the Virgin birth and papal infallibility. Still, since 1979 the Vatican has forbidden him to call himself a “Catholic theologian” or to examine candidates for the priesthood. His biographer, Karl-Josef Kuschel, says it was “the blow of his life.”

The prohibition might have ended the careers of many Catholic theologians. But, said Urs Baumann, Küng's teaching assistant at the University of Tübingen, which has kept him on despite the censure, “the ban, far from detracting from his following, has greatly increased his stature.” Before the Vatican disciplined Küng, his lectures at Tübingen drew an average of 200 students; lately they have attracted as many as 1,000. As well, his widely acknowledged brilliance and his provocative books, Infallible?—An Inquiry and Does God Exist? have also guaranteed his professional survival.

Despite his fame, Küng recently told Maclean's that he was brought “to the brink of breakdown” by the Vatican's lengthy disciplinary procedures, which began in the early 1970s. Said Küng: “These are really authoritarian—even totalitarian—methods. They burn you psychologically.” Indeed, in an apparently coincidental action, the week after Küng's articles appeared in The Globe and Mail Emmett Cardinal Carter, archbishop of Toronto, issued a lengthy pastoral letter. Carter said that if the “false and exaggerated” ideas of free dissent are allowed to proliferate, “the very unity of the church is in danger.”

Küng's current status is a sharp contrast to the 1960s reformist reign of Pope John XXIII. At that time it seemed that the Swiss-born, multilingual Küng—he speaks Greek, Latin, Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch as well as his native German—was destined to become one of the towering figures of the church establishment, rather than a rebel. In fact, at 34, he was appointed official theologian to the epochal Second Vatican Council, which was convened in October, 1962, by John XXIII to “let some fresh air into the church.” But, in Küng's opinion, subsequent popes reversed the progressive tide of Vatican II on such issues as the woman's role in the church and ecumenical dialogue with other faiths. Said the Swiss theologian bitterly: “John XXIII was seen by most as the living symbol of the new papacy. Now we have again the old papacy. The difference is only that he [John Paul] has a jet.”

To laymen Küng would seem to live in a rarefied spiritual and intellectual atmosphere. His personal life is simple and rigorous. Regular jogging, swimming and skiing and a spartan diet keep the 57-year-old thinker fit. Aside from work his passion is music, from Gregorian plainsong to Stravinsky. He also has a gift for down-to-earth communication. Said Kuschel, author of Hans Küng: His Work & His Way, published in 1980 by Doubleday: “His teaching style is lively, uncomplicated and contemporary. He reaches people whom no orthodox theologian could hope to approach.”

That ability adds to his power as a critic of Rome. Although he describes himself as “the Pope's loyal opposition,” Küng makes little attempt to be diplomatic in his criticism of the pontiff. “You must remember,” he said, “that John Paul grew up first under the Nazis [in wartime Poland] and then the Communists. He does not understand democracy. Democracy for him means pornography, drugs, consumerism—all very real problems, of course, but only part of the picture. He is now busy proclaiming human rights but he does not see that we have no human rights in the Catholic church.”

Still, the acerbic nature of Küng's attacks sets him apart from other dissident Catholic theologians. Holland's Edward Schillebeeckx, whose criticisms have also caused him to be disciplined by the Vatican, argues that Küng's split with Rome is partly his own fault. Said Schillebeeckx: “Had he been more open to compromise and dialogue, it would not have happened.” Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum, who described Küng as “enormously gifted, cheerful and warm,” added, “Father Küng is very angry with what is wrong in the church; I am much more angry with what is wrong in the world.” But for all Küng's anger, Baum said, “he is essentially a reformer, not a radical.”

Many Catholic traditionalists disagree. Father Alphonse de Valk, a teaching father in Toronto, for one, commented in an Oct. 10 letter to The Globe and Mail: “If I were him, I would get out [of the church]. Anything else seems dishonest.”

But Küng says he will pursue his campaign. “You know,” he said, “I would like to work quietly, to listen to music, to live without fuss. But if I gave up, people would say, ‘It really is a lost cause.’”

Hans Küng with David Toolan (interview date 30 January 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Way Forward: Talking with Hans Küng,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXIV, No. 2, January 30, 1987, pp. 44-5.

[In the following interview, Küng discusses the current and possible future path of the Catholic Church in terms of reform and tradition.]

Last November Commonweal's David Toolan spoke with Hans Küng in New York City. Among other topics covered were issues of authority and dissent in the Catholic church today.

[Toolan:] What do you think of the Vatican's current actions?

[Küng:] If you want an explication of the context of Rome's present attitude, you have to see that the Catholic church in the Second Vatican Council achieved an integration of the two great paradigm changes after the Middle Ages. We integrated the paradigm change of the Reformation: vernacular language, participation of the people in the liturgy and the church, collegiality, people of God. … We used the arguments for the vernacular that Martin Luther employed four hundred years ago. But we were not absolutely consistent. Had we been, we would have had to introduce the marriage of priests or optional celibacy. Pushed by the American bishops especially, we also achieved the integration of the modern paradigm: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and a new attitude toward Judaism and world religions.

The principal compromise here was that, practically, the bishops were not able to integrate democracy in Rome. It is said that the church is not a democracy, but it's also not a medieval, hierocratic, pre-modern system of the ancien régime type either. The whole question today is who will ultimately come through. Will the pope and the curia be able to reimpose on the Catholic community the medieval, Counter-Reformation, anti-modernist paradigm? Or will we finally, despite this setback, move again under a new pope? I am sure that under the present pope nothing will basically move to what I would call the post-modern paradigm—which implies another attitude in most fields.

What would you say, however, if you were trying to find common ground with sensible, critical conservatives? I think of a recent book by Robert Bellah and his colleagues on American culture where the argument is made that our individualism destroys any sense of public good. Sensible conservatives—not reactionaries—are concerned about some very real weaknesses in the Enlightenment paradigm.

I think we progressive theologians could agree to a great extent with conservative thinkers on such a criticism of the modern paradigm. I am also a critic of the Protestant paradigm as divisive and destructive of the unity of believers. It has the consequence of continually dividing people into smaller and smaller churches. So yes, I think we could agree with much conservative criticism of both the Reformation and modern paradigms. I agree with the pope on many of his criticisms of modern society. But the real way is not to go back to Catholic Poland as he believes. The way is to go forward on the line traveled by those people who showed in recent decades that religion can be, at one and the same time, preserving of the old values certainly, but also liberating. I do not see a contradiction in these two functions.

But if the proposal is to go back to an authoritarian religion, then we will only succeed in alienating people within the church and also Protestant churches. I cannot imagine that the Catholic clergy, sisters, intellectuals, and even ordinary people would be willing to go back to the medieval paradigm which prescribes everything in the bedroom. Restoration is the great illusion.

Of course conservatives would claim that they are merely being faithful to the spirit of Vatican II, or to the tradition. The tension I see here seems to lie between the spirit of Vatican II and the Code of Canon Law.

The new code is precisely an expression of the medieval paradigm. For instance, the code puts women in the same state of dependency and inferiority that they suffered in the Middle Ages and before modern times. I mean it is a medieval code. The words are Vatican II but the spirit remains that of medieval clericalism, authoritarianism, and a passive laity.

Hans Küng with David Toolan (interview date 13 March 1987)

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SOURCE: “Religions of the One God,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXIV, No. 5, March 13, 1987, pp. 143, 146-47.

[In the following interview, Küng discusses the similarities and differences between the major world religions and his attempt to create an understanding among different religions with his book Christianity and the World Religions.]

World religions was the major topic of conversation last fall when Commonweal's David Toolan spoke with Hans Küng in New York City. Küng's comments on authority and dissent within the Catholic church [appear above].

[Toolan:] How did you come to write your current book, Christianity and the World Religions: Paths of Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism? It represents a new direction for you, does it not?

[Küng:] My interest in world religions goes back to my student days in Rome when I first visited North African Muslim countries. I realized that relating Christianity to world religions is an extremely difficult job to do theologically. You may recall that Chapter Three of On Being a Christian contained a big section on world religions as a horizon of Christianity. I indicated there that this relation had to be studied, well aware that I needed many years for that.

Now, after the Roman intervention—which I still find unjust, theologically unfounded, and politically counterproductive—I find myself relieved of a lot of administrative work, faculty meetings, examinations of students, and the responsibility for teaching dogmatics. It has freed me to travel, and given me the opportunity to concentrate on the subject of non-Christian religions and to write this book.

So there have been positive results from Rome's action?

(Laughter) Yes.

This may be one of the ironies of church repression. I seem to recall that Henri de Lubac wrote some of his best books—about Buddhism and atheism—when he was silenced.

Of course I'm still very much involved in the critique of the present reactionary course of Rome. But I did not want to get fixed on those problems. The issues raised by my new book are the problems of the future, the ones Christianity will have to face in its third millennium. To quarrel about birth control, admitting divorced people to the sacraments—these are really problems of the pre-conciliar church.

What do you think the central issues for the post-conciliar third millennium are?

Seen from the outside, it is obvious that many of the world's current conflicts—in Northern Ireland, in the Near East, between Iran and Iraq, between Pakistan and India, in India between Hindus and Sikhs, and previously in Vietnam between Buddhists and a Catholic regime—are heavily influenced by religious motives. I do not want to reduce the military, economic, and political conflicts to religious ones. But my thesis is that these conflicts become bloody and without pity if they are done in the name of God. And so my conclusion is that without peace among the religions there will be no peace among the nations.

If we had been able to initiate dialogues between Christians and Moslems twenty years ago when I was in Lebanon with Cardinal Willebrands and Dr. Visser T'Hooft, talking one week with Muslims and the next week with Christians, we could have avoided a great deal of bloodshed. But at that time we were not allowed to meet.

I think we see President Carter more positively today because in the Camp David Accord he really achieved something in this domain, which was possible because both he and Anwar Sadat were religiously motivated to a high degree. To a certain extent Begin was, too. This was a sign that you could have religious peace on religious grounds.

Some time ago, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told me that when he and Sadat were alone one evening going down the Nile, Sadat said he wanted to have a sanctuary in the Sinai for the three Abrahamic religions. Because, Sadat said, we will never have peace in the Near East without mutual understanding between the three religions. This is not only what is called political theology but a world political theology. It will involve all the other questions which are treated in my current book: the problems of whether Islam is a way of salvation, whether Mohammed is an authentic prophet, whether the Koran can be considered the Word of God, and so on. From these high theological positions stem more ordinary problems: the secularization of Islam and Christianity, what the law means in Islam and Judaism and Christianity. In fact, one of the difficulties with the original lectures, from which my current book is drawn, was how to bring all these complex questions into the space of an hour.

Were there any surprises in this interreligious dialogue? Agreements or understandings that hadn't been there for you before?

The whole process was a great adventure. My Tubingen colleagues (van Ess, Stietencron, and Bechert) are highly competent in the fields of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and I thought my own background in Christian theology would enable me to respond each week to their presentations. The greatest discovery in the process was that you can see Christianity in the mirror of the other religions. This became fascinating. Despite all the divergences, I saw that there were many parallels and convergences—some not at all positive. For instance, it is obvious that Roman Catholicism at present has the same problems as Islam does with religious reformation and with the Enlightenment of modern times. The current Roman regime can be compared to that of the ayatollahs of Iran who are trying to go back to medieval Islam. For both Teheran and Rome, the paradigm of authentic faith is drawn from the Middle Ages, in opposition to nearly everything that came afterward. Both try to go back to a medieval paradigm with various modern adaptations—television, helicopters, jets, and so on.

The use of modern communications means that authorities can make the organization even more centralized than things ever were in the Middle Ages.

Certainly. I found that conservative Judaism, conservative Islam, and conservative Roman Catholicism have very similar attitudes and patterns of behavior. I had a long discussion in Teheran about the case of Galileo. The Muslims defended the pope, and I defended Galileo.

In earlier periods we had Christian specialists in Islam, but Muslims never carefully studied Christianity. The Muslims I have been speaking with on my travels knew next to nothing about the application of historico-critical exegesis to Christianity. Their understanding of Christianity predates the critical approach. But when I was confronted with questions regarding the Incarnation, I was able—because of the basis I had developed in books like On Being a Christian—to explain how you can understand the title, Son of God, from a monotheistic Hebrew perspective. If the title is so understood, as it was applied to the kings of Israel and then transferred to Jesus, it does not contradict monotheism. Muslims, I found, were very interested to learn of this common Semitic background to divine sonship. It made for mutual understanding, whereas the Hellenistic background (to the definitions of the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon) made for misunderstanding.

The same was true in explicating the doctrine of the Trinity. If taken within a Hebrew context, this too could be affirmed without contradicting monotheism. In this way, two hundred years of historical-critical research affords us the possibility of giving very different answers to the old, divisive questions.

I assume that Iranian Muslims would be very reluctant to adopt a historical-critical approach to their own traditions, would they not?

Well, every religion has its neuralgic, non-negotiable points. For Judaism, it's the Land of God; for Christianity, it's the Son of God; and for Islam, it's the Word of God, the Koran. In Teheran, Pakistan, and elsewhere, I would always ask how we can understand the Koran without having to follow it literally—say by cutting off hands and so forth. How were we to understand the revelation of the Koran? Was it possible to understand the Koran as the Word of God and at the same time the word of the prophet? And what does that distinction mean? Is it possible to adapt the great message of the one God, all merciful and compassionate, to the modern situation without taking everything literally?

What was the response to that?

I think it was new for them, and presupposed that you were very positive about Islam as a way to eternal salvation, about Mohammed as an authentic prophet of God, and the Koran as a Word of God. When you had said this quite clearly, they were ready to discuss some other things.

I would say that in the world religions discussion, we are where we were fifty years ago between Protestants and Catholics: I remember that in 1957 when I wrote my dissertation on the doctrine of justification, it was commonly said that justification is the main difference between Protestants and Catholics and there's no common ground there. It was a great surprise, then, when Karl Barth wrote his famous preface to my book on justification, saying that he agreed with my interpretation. After having had so many positive experiences over the last twenty-five years, I am very hopeful that even on these difficult topics—the Son of God, the Land of God, and the Word of God in the three Abrahamic religions—we may yet arrive at mutual understanding.

I do not believe in the unity of all the religions—that is an eschatological problem—as I believe in the unity of Christianity, the unity of Judaism, or the unity of Islam. But I do believe in what I call not the unity but the peace among different religions—that we could understand each other as brothers and sisters and not as opponents and enemies. It happened before. Pope John XXIII took up what had been a matter of small, elite groups working in dialogue over several decades. The pope said let us have peace, and somehow it happened: Were the current pope to take up the interreligious dialogue, something momentous might happen again, as rapidly as it did in John XXIII's time.

Brian A. Haggerty (review date 15 March 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View, in Christian Century, Vol. 106, No. 9, March 15, 1989, pp. 290-91.

[In the following review, Haggerty discusses Küng's retrospective look at Christian theology and the development of his own theology in Theology for the Third Millennium.]

We live life forward but understand it backward, Soren Kierkegaard observed. For Hans Küng, professor of dogmatic and ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen and theological thorn in the papacy's side, the observation may apply equally well to theology. In fact, it may help explain why Küng has been at odds with Rome for so long.

In the foreward to [Theology for the Third Millennium], Küng acknowledges that he has never approached theology by doing a detailed analysis of how theology ought to be done. Rather, he says, challenged by ever-changing human experience, he has dealt directly with the substance of theology, trusting that his work would prove itself by eliciting both Catholic and ecumenical consensus. It is hardly surprising then that his work has not won acceptance from the Vatican, which has long been attached to doing theology a priori—shunning experiment and downgrading contrary experience.

Looking back on his theological endeavors of the past 30 years and the opposition he has encountered, Küng concludes that there has been a paradigm change in theology, a change in the basic model of explanation—one that has certainly escaped the attention of Roman Catholicism's theological gatekeepers. The author attempts to sketch what that change has involved and to “help religion perform a new critical and liberating function of both the individual and society.”

Küng begins by trying to clear up a number of classical theological conflicts left over from the Enlightenment and Reformation: conflicts between theology and magisterium, Scripture and tradition, Scripture and the church, and scriptural exegesis and dogma. He concludes in each case that it is not a matter of accepting one or the other, or of assigning priority to one, but of recognizing that none of these sources of Christian understanding is unconditionally reliable. Only God, who spoke to believers through Jesus Christ, is worthy of unreserved trust. However, Küng gives Scripture primacy as the source and measure of faith and theology in the church. His emphasis, though hardly startling, still leaves unanswered questions of how Scripture is to be understood and what emphasis church authority, tradition and theology should be given in interpreting it.

Küng devotes the core of the book to defining and discussing the implications of the apparent paradigm change in theology. He borrows the term from science and uses the work of American physicist and historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn to explain how knowledge emerges, progresses and evolves. A paradigm, he says, is “an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by members of a given community.” Just as Kuhn finds a connection between conceptual changes in science and the replacement of one paradigm, or model of interpretation, with another, so Küng finds a similar progress and transition of knowledge in theology. When a new paradigm arises in Christian theology, however, unlike in science, it cannot completely replace or suppress the old paradigm because Christian testimony, found in the gospel, is permanent. It is common to those who accept the old paradigm and to those who advance the new, and it calls both to judgment.

After tracing the paradigm changes in the history of Christian theology and the church, Küng sketches the characteristics of the postmodern paradigm that he believes has emerged as a guide for theological understanding. From it, he says, emerges a theology that offers a thoughtful account of faith; one that is free to profess and publish its reasonable convictions; one that honors methodological discipline and church supervision; and one that is oriented toward understanding not only other Christian theologies but other cultures, religions, ideologies and sciences. Indeed, for Küng, the world of experience provides the horizon against which contemporary theology must be done. Doing theology is no longer a matter of merely applying a timeless doctrine but of translating a historical message “from the world of past experience into our present-day world of experience.”

Theology for the Third Millennium is not a book for the casual reader. Küng is not a prose stylist; his complex treatment of the subject demands careful reading and rereading. This task is made more difficult by the way most of the chapters seem to have been forged out of pieces that have appeared elsewhere. And the book is riddled with more typographical errors and copy-editing oversights than one would expect from Doubleday. Nonetheless, diligent readers will be rewarded for their efforts. In seeking to understand his own theology in retrospect, Küng also sheds light on the work of many of his colleagues, both those who agree with him and those who do not.

Clyde F. Crews (review date 7-14 February 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Paradigm Change in Theology, in Christian Century, Vol. 107, No. 5, February 7-14, 1990, pp. 254, 256.

[In the following review, Crews discusses the exploration of pardigmatic studies by major theologians in Paradigm Change in Theology, edited by Küng and David Tracy.]

“Take my hand,” began a song in the 1953 musical Kismet, “I'm a stranger in paradise.” Those who have been off the theological planet for the past few years could substitute the word “paradigm” at the end of that phrase. Paradigmatic studies became coin of the realm in the '80s. To round out the decade, Hans Küng and David Tracy directed an international symposium of some 70 thinkers to explore the topic in occasionally exhausting detail. A gathering at the University of Tübingen brought together both Protestant and Catholic theologians, including Baum, Boff, Cobb, Gilkey, Marty, Metz, Moltmann, Ogden, Ricoeur and Schillebeeckx. The resulting text[, Paradigm Change in Theology,] provides some wonderful summations of postwar developments in science (Matthew Lamb and Stephen Toulmin) and in theology (Anne Carr and Leonardo Boff). But this book calls for intensive reading and is far from being a primer on the subject. Strangers in paradigm need not apply.

The study is divided into preparatory papers—three in systematics and four in historical analysis—and the symposium presentations themselves, covering such areas as scientific theory, biblical theology, philosophy, history and political and global issues. The symposium responded to Thomas Kuhn's nearly classic definition of paradigm as “an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community,” alongside the postmodern awareness that theology and science both go about their business paradigmatically. In addition, Küng provided a leitmotif for the proceedings with his insistent question: “Where do we stand, those of us who have to do theology with Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Gulag Archipelago at our backs?” Küng's preparatory paper is especially useful in its delineation of a series of macromodels in theology: Greek Alexandrine, Latin Augustinian, medieval Thomist, Reformation, Protestant orthodox and contemporary interpretive.

In a text as complex as this one, there are some surprisingly epigrammatic moments: “Theology,” writes Gregory Baum, “unlike the sciences, may and must learn from the unlearned.” And Tracy suggests, “We belong to history far more than history belongs to us.” While the participants became a bit recondite at times, there are dashes of reality: Norbert Geinacher points to nuclear missiles and devastated forests near the conference site, while Martin Marty notes that traditional bases of the theological enterprise—the printed text and the exclusive academic setting—are themselves undergoing rapid transformation.

Küng himself provides the best review of the symposium, masterfully assessing the differences between and commonalities among the participants. In the process he provides a catalog of the crises facing both theology and science, including the end of Western hegemony, the social antagonism of repressive structures, the undermining of solidifying symbols of a culture, and historical catastrophe.

One final and minimal irony of this book: some of the foremost theological historians met, yet in 488 pages no one thought to provide the reader with the date of the convocation—May 23-26, 1983. A slight and forgivable fact surely, but for an enterprise so deeply concerned with gestalt and contextualization, perhaps just a trifle embarrassing.

Byron C. Lambert (essay date Summer 1990)

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SOURCE: “Reflections on Hans Küng's Theology for the Third Millennium,” in Modern Age, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 157-64.

[In the following essay, Lambert outlines Küng's vision for the Church in the twenty-first century as expressed in his Theology for the Third Millennium.]

If Erasmus returned to the earth today would he be a Catholic or a Protestant? There is one who believes he would be a Küngian.

Hans Küng, Catholic theologian at Germany's University of Tübingen, whose books, On Being a Christian and Does God Exist?, provoked broad discussion in the seventies among both Catholics and Protestants, has brought his thinking of the past thirty years into focus with another book, Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View.1 Küng believes the Church is drifting into the postmodern age without any sense of where it is going and so offers a proposal to set it on a true course, one which will not only guarantee the Church's survival but also help it find common ground with other great world religions.

Küng's program calls for more than casual review, since he is regarded by many Protestants to be the Catholic of the future and a prophet of Christian restoration and unity.2 He is certainly not unrepresentative of certain Catholic thinking I have run into despite his conflict with the Curia, and so is not ignorable by Catholics either. I do not know what the Eastern Orthodox think of him, but he includes them too in his wide-sweeping trimillennial vision.

Küng's project is complex. I propose to examine only his notion of managing theology in the postmodern age, what he means by the Gospel and truth, and where he thinks Christianity is going in the next millennium.3


Küng holds the division of Christendom in the sixteenth century was a disaster from which the Church has never recovered. What was needed at the time was an Erasmus without the historical Erasmus's flight from commitment, a weakness which allowed the Church to be torn between Luther's fanatical excesses and Rome's blind intransigence.4 Küng, perhaps, thinks of himself as the Erasmus of today, as he calls for a revival of biblical thinking without biblicism, a renewal of tradition without traditionalism, and a restoration of Christian authority without authoritarianism.5

Küng puts it simply: the Church has lost the world. The modern age is dead; the new age, the “postmodern,” is here; and the Church has no credible relation to either. He does not want Christians to give up the triumphs of the Enlightenment—scientific method and the democratic process, but does want them to move beyond “the superstitious faith in reason and progress.” A new religiousness has taken off on its own outside the Church, he maintains, and its energies must be engaged in reconstructing the Christianity of the future.6

Küng finds Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions suggestive for what he would like to see done in Christian theology.7 Kuhn, in that now famous book, argues that new hypotheses in science arise through what he calls “paradigm changes” in scientific thought, those global shifts in theory, like Newton's and Einstein's physics, which turn science in fundamentally new directions. Although the new theoretical models build on the methodology accepted in their time, they push those systems into breakdown by creating questions beyond their power to answer. The result is that, partly through rational and partly through irrational gropings, a novel scientific insight, adequate to the questions, arises. Meeting resistance at first, it weaves a pattern of credible data around itself and becomes the only thing thinkable. Kuhn holds that no old model can be replaced until a new one is ready; and that the new model can even get shelved briefly, while the necessary psychological and institutional changes necessary to receive it get moved into place. Witness the resistance to the work of Galileo. Kuhn believes that science is now entering a new “third” phase, in which the positivist falsification method will yield to a more holistic inductive approach.8

Küng says the theological epochs through which Christian thinking has passed can be understood in terms of Kuhn's paradigm analysis.9 “Macro-paradigms” in theology can be illustrated by the Augustinian and Thomistic revolutions; “meso-paradigms” by the intermediate shifts in thinking like those surrounding the idea of grace or those in sacramental theology; and “micro-paradigms” by the debates over the hypostatic union in Christology.10 Küng acknowledges that Kuhn's theory constitutes a problem for theology, for while science can treat every paradigm as “provisory,” theology must hold to a continuing truth that doesn't so much need discovering as recovering.

Distinguishing between theological and scientific paradigm upheavals, Küng states that Christian theology is “essentially defined by its relation to history,” especially to its origins. The primal testimony, the New Testament, remains “its continual reflexive point.” All the historic creeds and theologies take as a presupposition that the Gospel as presented in Scripture is the norm of Christian thought.11 Changes in theology take place on the basis of the Gospel, but never against the Gospel, he asserts. The “norming norm” (norma normans) of the living Word always corrects all historic “normed norms” (norma normata), those creedal standards by which the Church has met the challenges to its teaching. Changes in theological history, however, in contrast to shifts in scientific history, tend to come about regrettably through defiance and condemnation, shelving new ideas by suppressing their discussion, then transforming accepted new models into iron dogma.12

What theological model is right for the postmodern era? Küng answers that it must be “true” (neither conformist nor opportunistic), “free” (non-authoritarian), “critical” (non-traditionalistic), and “ecumenical” (non-denominational). The two constants for this theology are (1) the ever-changing world and (2) the never-changing Gospel.13

In 1983, an International Ecumenical Symposium took place in Tübingen, in which Küng was a participant along with theological notables like Langdon Gilkey (Chicago), Jürgen Moltmann (Tübingen), J. B. Metz (Münster), Jean-Pierre Jossua (Paris), Edward Shillebeeckx (Nijmegen), Mariasussi Dhavamony (Rome), to name a few. The symposium took up the paradigm approach as a means of piloting Christian theology through the postmodern crisis. Kuhn was invited, but could not be present; Stephen Toulmin, of Chicago, a student of developing scientific concepts and critic of Kuhn, was present and helped shape the discussions.14 It was concluded by all present that while no one theologian or theology can create a paradigm change, every theologian must face the question of whether his thinking meets the paradigm expectations of his time.15 The symposium believed there were some matters that “we don't have to argue about anymore”: the polycentrism of the political world, the ambiguous powers of technology for good or ill, persisting social antagonisms, the weakening of the belief in progress, the threat to the university world and “book” culture by the spread of specialization, the jolt to Christianity as the one, true religion, and the awakening of suffering minorities, especially women.16 From the distance of just six years one can see the costive leftward tilt of such ecumenism.

Further illustrative of the quite un-Erasmus-like extremes to which the conferees gave utterance was the outline of the four dimensions which are to be translated into theological reality: (1) the biblical, in which theology must remain true to the “one constant” of the Gospel while subjecting Scripture to historico-critical exegesis and de-masculinizing biblical terminology; (2) the historical, in which the universal relativism of liberal humanism is replaced with “the relativism of a universal network of connections” (time reconceived as a “web” instead of a “line”) and in which there will be created a viable symbiosis (!) between history and the environment with a view to world peace; (3) the ecumenical, in which Christian thought moves from a denominational-controversial style to an inclusive, “relatively absolute” (!) style, reading the Scripture in the “Indian” (Far Eastern) manner and paving the way through an “inner Christian ecumene” for a future ecumene of all religions; (4) the political, in which is born a new whole-world political consciousness. The symposium couldn't decide whether European or Latin American liberation theology would prevail in the struggle against fringe colonialism, but agreed that there had to be theological diversity in the postmodern paradigm. Küng summarizes the ethos of this new “critical ecumenical” theology as both Catholic and Protestant, traditional and contemporary, Christocentric and ecumenical, scholarly and practical.17 No Christian point of view, whatever its origin, is to be left out of the communal process.


Putting aside Küng's summary of the ethos of critical ecumenical theology, from which it would be difficult to demure, given its limitless inclusiveness, if one takes up the “no longer debatable” assumptions that the International Ecumenical Symposium accepted as operative for postmodernism and the four dimensions which the conferees said must be translated into theological reality, one is puzzled about the shape of the paradigm under discussion. Is there a clue as to which of the postmodern leitmotifs is fundamental to the rest? Most models of understanding which alter history seem, in retrospect, to have been determined by seminal work in a single arena of thought, or even by a single figure: the apostolic age, the work of Augustine, or Aquinas's recovery of Aristotelianism. We deal here with what Jacob Burckhardt aptly called “the theory of storms.”18 Paradigm changes are immensely complex, this the symposium confessed.19 Yet in the tabulation of “musts” the symposium asks postmodern theology to take up some issues which seem less than paradigmatic; in fact one might ask whether the whole set together constitute a credible paradigm. What mysterious mustering of ontic shocks does “the relationism of a universal network of connections” point to? What epistemic metamorphosis is a “relatively absolute” style of ecumenical conversation coming to grips with? Does the advocacy of an “Indian” way of reading the Bible or de-masculinizing biblical terminology amount to anything more than surrender to current politico-expository rages? How permanent is the concussion of specialization on the life of high culture? Isn't the damage to intellectual life more in the way of a “capitulation of the clerks”? Isn't what Küng and the symposium ask theology to do, despite their objections to the domestication of Christianity by Western culture, really a step toward the assimilation of Christianity to a vague, even Eastern religionism?

What is postmodernism? Used first as an appellative for changes in architecture … àla Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, it then invaded the other arts to denote anything anti-traditional, even nihilistic. Küng uses the term simply as a heuristic device, although preferring the term “ecumenical” to describe the presuppositional changes through which the world is moving.20 Modernity's confidence in enlightened reason, science, and progress is giving way, he says, to something not yet nameable. Central to this change, however, is a world religious crisis. The duty of theologians, thus, is to “sublate” the repressed dimensions of modernity, especially those of religion, “to produce a new, liberating, enriching effect.”21

Postmodernism, thus, is little more than a tag for something ambivalent, even indeterminate.

Are immediately visible alterations in scientific theory, social arrangements, or political enthusiasm portents of global shifts in human consciousness? If they are, can they be programmed for? It is vital to recognize the challenges to faith that arise, but can one build a heilsgeschichtliche technique which will enable the Church to meet religious assaults for the next one thousand years? Even the next one hundred? One can be pardoned for being skeptical when programs like those of Küng are put before the Christian public.

What “world” is Küng talking about? We cannot blame Küng for missing the recent tidal shifts in the communist world, but were there not signs of a boom in the world market economy during the eighties? Surely, it was not unknown in 1983 that technology was changing the character of labor. The symposium drops not one tear over family disintegration in the West. How were these issues missed?

What “theologians” is Küng talking about? Küng is no stick-in-the-mud. He confesses that theological subjects and locales can change: “[N]ot only the university, but the case community can be a place for theology.”22 Non-academic types can participate—industrialists, engineers, seamen—anyone who has a serious theological interest. Yet he appears to set aside as of no consequence the thinking of rapidly growing fundamentalists, evangelicals, and traditional Catholics. Shouldn't the Church in its entirety be represented at ecumenical paradigm conferences? “Ideological opponents are neither to be ignored nor labeled as heretics,” he asserts.23 Where, then, are the exegetical scholars like F. F. Bruce and George Eldon Ladd, the theologians like Bernard Lonergan and Carl F. H. Henry, the historians of thought like Russell Kirk and Thomas Molnar, journalists like William F. Buckley and George Will, scientists like Stanley Jaki?

What “theologies” get included? Where do the humble sects come in—the Mennonites, the holiness alliances, the charismatics? Do fringe groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Mormons have a word of faith for the ecumene? Küng's proposals seem addressed to a very exclusive circle whose thinking is congruent with the outer limits of mainline Protestantism. Küng has even less longitudinal sympathy, the kind that embraces the triumphant dead. Augustine, Aquinas, yea even Peter and Paul, are all to be brought under the corrective ordination of the new paradigm.24

Most conservatives would share Küng's belief that the death of religion expected in late modernity (Marx, Nietzsche) has not taken place and that what is at issue is not “forgetfulness of being” (Heidegger) but forgetfulness of God (Buber).25 This presupposition, however, is hardly enough to warm one up to Küng's ecumenism.


“There can be no true Church without a true theology,” he announces. Christianity needs “a thinking account of faith that seeks and says Christian truth in truthfulness.”26 These statements present Küng's first criterion for the new theological paradigm.

All theological truth is to be measured, he writes, by “the Gospel.” Even the New Testament must be measured by the Gospel, since the New Testament is a collection of apostolic and sub-apostolic responses to the original oral kerygma concerning Christ. In fact, according to Küng, the New Testament is the first instance of adapting the Gospel to a thought-world receiving it and thus provides a model of how Christians of every age are to rethink the Word of God in terms of the ever-changing paradigms controlling their discourse.27 Küng couldn't be more specific:

The common key experience of salvation in Israel and Jesus as coming from God is never given “pure,” but always through varying modes of interpretation, through varying sorts of concepts and images, schemata and models of understanding. These can be concepts such as “Son of Man” and “Son of God,” images such as the descent into hell and the ascent into heaven, individual schemata such as bloody sacrifice of atonement and ransoming of slaves in the doctrine of redemption, whole models of understanding such as the apocalyptic vision of the end of time…: they all derive from a past world of experience and language, which for the most part no longer speaks directly to us.28

What needs to be done?

… [T]he crucial point is that … the Gospel … once again be heard afresh and understood. … Theology, then, is interested not just in a simple “application” of a supposedly eternal doctrine, but rather in the “trans-lation” of a historical message … into our present-day world of experience.29

He asks,

What then should decide the issue in the crucial first-and-last questions affecting man and humanity? The biblical experiences, the Christian message, the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself. For this Christ Jesus is in person the “essence of Christianity,” the “Christian message,” the “Gospel” itself, indeed God's “Word,” “made flesh.”30

The test of all theological truth, then, is the Gospel. But what is the Gospel? Scanning Küng's language at this point is a test in reading. In one statement above the Good News has a threefold character: (1) “biblical experiences,” (2) “the Christian message” (“Gospel” is in apposition to this?), and (3) “Jesus Christ himself.” The phrases in the series, by no means identical, move as if by subliminal direction from experience through speech to personal reality as if one were doing the most obvious thing in the world. Küng teases logic while weaving a spell in order to say that Christian truth is a non-propositional Person: “for this Christ Jesus is in person the ‘essence of Christianity’. .. the ‘Gospel’ itself.”

What is gained by metamorphizing the kerygma into a numinous presence, even if the presence is that of the living Christ? Well, it removes the embarrassment of propositional revelation for one thing. God can thus reveal himself immanently within human experience; and since, on Küng's terms, human experience is already saturated with pre-understandings which shape revelation as it arrives, the Gospel is always relative to its time. If the New Testament writers use the only apparatus available to them—the legendary-miraculous, their schematic cannot be binding on us. To be faithful to Saints John and Paul we must use non-supernaturalistic keys to unlock the Word for our day.

Küng's principle, however, undermines his assertion that the Gospel brings all theologies under judgment. The nominalism of his formative notion does just the reverse of what he affirms: it focuses the weight of interest on the interpreting instead of on the thing to be interpreted. If this is the case, are age-old narratives and concepts ever disposable? Does not continuity in Christian belief, on its nearer, more accessible human side, mean we have to focus on all interpretive models, not just our own, as a way to discovering the aletheia of Scripture? Surely, if the older models were so potent a source of discovery in their time, shouldn't something of rare perspicacity be left over in them by which we can be enriched? If the Church includes the mighty dead in glory, would not churchly continuity suggest we are in interpretive communion with Christian experience in all its catholicity?

More directly, one can raise the epistemological question of how we can “experience” Jesus apart from all authoritative criteria of faith, such as are found in the canonical texts. Abandoning these, how does one know, in publicly persuasive terms, that he is in touch with the “Living Word”? When is a “presence” the Presence?

Küng protests that he does not want to break with tradition, only decalcify it.31 The Gospel will take care that old paradigms are not wholly repressed.32 The antique modalities, however, must never get in the way of the living Christ nor be equated with his truth.33 The criterion has to be “understood in and through the experiences that believers have had, in very different ways, in this history with their God.”34 The truth of Scripture can only be revealed to faith. We must bring faith to the testimony, we cannot get it from the testimony.35 One asks what kind of credulity is here being demanded of the seeker that couldn't with equal justification be demanded were he confronted with the Zend-Avesta?

Most orthodox Christians could accept Küng's position that the Bible is a gathering into one the many experiences believers have had in history with their God; but if “experience” is taken as something nonverifiable either historically or rationally, even the most sympathetic reader must fall into bewilderment.

It is clear that Küng is using the word truth axiologically. He treats truth sheerly as a value.36 His program is addressed not to the intellect but to the will. He has no criterion of truth to offer but that of being reasonable and open. When is one's faith a “true” faith? Why, when it is trusting. The fundamental a priori of all knowing, he argues, is trust.

… [T]he very act of having this basic trust reveals an original rationality, an inner reasonableness: a basic trust that in this so broken world can be experienced as a gift.37

Has Küng happened on a new Cartesian certainty? I reason as if I could, therefore I can! If he has, he vitiates his discovery by adding that this rationality is “original” (does he mean a founding act of consciousness or something simply unique?); or further, when he describes this trust as “inner reasonableness” (is reasonableness ever anything but “inner,” or does he mean “innate”?); and still further, when he states that this basic trust is a “gift.” Does he mean a “given”? But Küng ranges from the discursive to the devotional with mystifying agility.

Küng's implicit usage contradicts his explicit teaching. The truth in Christianity, he is declaring, is its ethical adaptability to the changing paradigms of discourse through the Christian's ineffable relationship to Christ. It is on the basis of this judgment that we are to go on agreeing with all the rest he says. But to say this is to be propositional not numinous. Dare we then go on to believe that there are only propositional truths about Christianity, but none in Christianity?


In the third, climactic section of his book, “A New Departure Toward a Theology of the World Religions,” the true telos of Küng's critical ecumenism comes into view. He asks the question, “Is there one true religion?”

His answer? From the outside (i.e., objectively) there are many true religions; from the inside (subjectively) there is only one—mine.38 There is no neutral position from which one can see which religion is the true one.39 What then can one do? Confess his “historically conditioned position” and say, “Since I cannot possibly take all the paths at the same time, I'll take the one I know.”40 We must realize, Küng argues, that real Christians, after all, have never believed in Christianity, but in Christ. The living Word is their regulative theological principle.41 Forgetting this, Christians over the centuries have fallen into untrue religion. Prophets have had to arise in the Church and “enlightened ones” outside the Church to call the faithful back to this truth, “among whom the prophet Muhammed and the Buddha should no doubt be included par excellence.42

There is no Christianity-in-itself, no Buddhism-in-itself, he advises. No given configuration of a religion should be considered its one holy form.43 During its history a religion wears many faces. Is the real for religion, then, the apparent? Once again Küng's theology hovers on suicide, for if a religion is whatever it happens to be at a certain time and place, then there are no untrue versions into which that faith can fall, nor need any prophets arise to correct them.

The intentio of his theology is consistent when he winds up by saying that Christianity, like all religions, is in via (“on the way”). In the end, he pronounces, no religion will be left standing, only “the one Inexpressible, to whom all religions are oriented.”44

But wait. There is a test for true religion, one to which every religion must submit. A religion is true, he tergiversates, when it promotes human flourishing—when it creates social solidarity and tolerance, when it replaces ecclesiocentrism with philanthropy, when it relativizes religious constitutions for human good:

This means that the more humane (in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount) Christianity is, the more it appears to the outside as a true religion.45

And so the pragmatist, not the existentialist, test prevails.

I have not seen the German edition of Küng's book, so I cannot be certain what word is being translated by Heinegg to give humane in English. Judging from Küng's approach, I am sure that the sentimental-humanitarian reading is accurate. It is clear Küng cannot understand at least one strand of New Testament theology if he thinks the Sermon on the Mount is humane. It is true that in the opening beatitudes certain qualities of life, like poverty of spirit, meekness, and purity of heart are praised, but thereafter the severest burdens of discipleship are imposed on the believer, even to the climactic, “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”46 “Humane” for whom?

Küng shows only a conventional knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which are based on the profoundest pessimism about the nature of existence and hold that deliverance from the horrors of karma is achieved by the nihilation of consciousness (moksha). The Buddha's originality consisted in offering a way of meditation which made the vigors of yoga sutra and the tortures of Jain asceticism unnecessary. What Christianity, with its assumptions about the goodness of creation and the meaningfulness of history, can have to do with such acosmic religions is difficult to understand. One would have expected Küng to begin his “synthesis” by an approach to the theistic faiths of the East, like Parseeism and Sikhism.

Is Küng's critical ecumenical theology Christian, or Christianistic—something imitative of Christianity, an attempt to restore the appearance of apostolicity, yet alien to apostolicity at the core?47

Küng may think of himself as an Erasmus at heart, but he is no Erasmus in style. Learned, prodigiously energetic, he writes repetitiously and cumbrously. What he needs are the opposite virtues of restraint and elegance to approach the Erasmian ideal.

If Erasmus were alive today would he be a Catholic or a Protestant? Who knows? I think he would not be a Küngian.


  1. Translated by Peter Heinegg (New York, 1988). Hereafter to be cited as “Küng.”

  2. I belong to a religious movement originating largely in nineteenth-century rural America, the broad aims of which were a plea for Christian unity on the basis of the New Testament alone. Some present-day adherents of the movement believe Küng is speaking their language.

  3. To be fair to Küng it might be more accurate to say, “where Christianity should go in the future,” since Küng, in spite of the book's title, makes no claim to be spelling out a thousand year program. Yet if his dream of a single world religion comes to pass, it will take at least another thousand years, and then some, to bring about, if the past two thousand years tell us anything about religious progress.

  4. Küng, pp. 20-46.

  5. Ibid., pp. 2-8.

  6. Ibid., pp. 3-10.

  7. Chicago, 1962.

  8. Küng, pp. 129-131, 147.

  9. Küng prefers “models of interpretation” for “paradigm,” but rarely uses his preferred expression.

  10. Küng, p. 134. I am not prepared within the limits of this paper to debate the appropriateness of Küng's taxonomic illustrations, but suspect they could be vigorously challenged.

  11. Vatican II calls Scripture “the soul” of Christian theology, Küng points out. Ibid., p. 17.

  12. Ibid., pp. 155-160.

  13. Ibid., pp. 164-168.

  14. Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evaluation of Concepts (Princeton, 1972).

  15. Küng, p. 173.

  16. Ibid., pp. 175-177.

  17. Ibid., p. 206.

  18. Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom: Reflections on History, edited by James Hastings Nichols (New York, 1943), p. 79.

  19. Küng, p. 173.

  20. Ibid., p. 2.

  21. Ibid., p. 9. Religion in the modern period has, Küng states, “for thoroughly understandable reasons, been ignored, tolerated, repressed, and persecuted,” but will rise in the postmodern paradigm to “play an important, though more diffuse role.” Ibid., p. 10.

  22. Ibid., p. 174.

  23. Ibid., p. 205.

  24. Küng says traditional theology is to be included in the postmodern ecumene, yet he pans the Thomistic metaphysics in which he was schooled.

  25. Küng, p. 7.

  26. Ibid., p. 161.

  27. Ibid., p. 167.

  28. Ibid., pp. 167-168.

  29. Ibid., p. 168.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Ibid., pp. 154-60.

  32. Ibid., p. 158.

  33. Ibid., p. 159.

  34. Ibid., p. 167. “… God writes straight even in crooked lines and can reach his goals by way of our humanity and historicity without doing any violence to human beings.” Ibid., p. 55.

  35. “Anyone who experiences Scripture this way, as the Gospel in faith, becomes certain that the Bible is interpenetrated and filled with the Spirit, that it is truly ‘inspired.’” Ibid., p. 63.

  36. Emeth in the Hebrew and aletheia in the Greek, he points out, mean fidelity, constancy, reliability. Ibid. The question of truth, he says, aims at more than pure theory; the truth is never only established in systems of true propositions, “as opposed to which all others are false,” truth is at the same time a praxis, a way of experience. If religion promises an ultimate unity of meanings for living, then “the True (verum) and the Good (bonum) … overflow into one another in religion; and the question of the truth … is at the same time the question of … valuableness.” Ibid., pp. 238-39.

  37. Ibid., p. 202.

  38. Ibid., p. 248.

  39. Ibid., p. 250.

  40. Ibid., p. 254.

  41. Ibid., p. 251.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Ibid., p. 223.

  44. Ibid., p. 255.

  45. Ibid., p. 253.

  46. Matthew 5:48 (KJV).

  47. Is Küng's theology a revival of the modernism of Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell? A number of the old marks are there: the desire to bring Catholic thought into line with Protestant higher criticism, the demand for a wholly naturalistic/immanentist account of the origins of Christianity, the notion of revelation as man's interpretation of his religious experience, opposition to propositional revelation, the test of truth as fruitfulness for life and society, and so on. Frederick Copleston finds the clue to modernism in the assumption that the human mind cannot transcend the sphere of consciousness. Loisy, Copleston says, held that Christianity promoted the ideal of humanity and was passing into the religion of humanity. See Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. IX. Maine de Biran to Sartre (Garden City, 1985, c1974), p. 247.

Hans Küng with Nathan Gardels (interview date Spring 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3609

SOURCE: “The New Ethics: Global Responsibility,” in New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 44-9.

[In the following interview, Küng details his ideas for the future of religious understanding and a common world ethic.]

[Gardels:] Is this the last modern century?

[Kung:] I would be more radical than that. Strictly speaking, modernity ended in 1918. World War I shattered the belief in inevitable progress toward peace and prosperity, “the end of history,” as Hegel put it. And the hegemony of Europe—cradle of the Enlightenment and the secular ideology of Reason—began splintering with the breakdown of the colonial system and the devolution of power to several centers including America, the Soviet Union and China.

And, already by 1918, the bad faith of nihilism, the moral detritus of modernity, had become the key concern of writers and intellectuals.. .

Yes, after all, Nietzsche, who died in 1900, had already pronounced that once the supreme value of God was discarded, other values would also disintegrate, leaving only unbounded power to fill the void.

At the end of the 20th century, mass consciousness has caught up with the historical facts and the cutting-edge, turn-of-the-century intellectuals. Now, the malaise of spiritual homelessness and moral arbitrariness afflicts the whole civilization. Fragmented and morally confused, we are enmeshed in an epochal paradigm shift—from the modernity we have found wanting to a new “post-modern” constellation.

Especially with the ecological imperative, the entire world now realizes that modern progress threatens our survival. In our interdependent world, everyone senses that we need “global standards” and “universally binding ethical norms.” Yet, modernity itself is incapable of generating a new, unifying world ethic to save us from ourselves. From the beginning, modern scientific and technological thought has proved incapable of providing the foundation for universal values, human rights and ethical criteria.

The response of some to this age of devolution and what you call bad faith has been to seek a return to the certitudes and centers of pre-modernity. The Ayatollah Khomeini is an example of the Islamic quest for a return to premodernity. Another example is Pope John Paul II, who, it seems, wants the whole world to resemble Polish medieval Catholicism.

But the church's strategy of re-evangelizing post-communist Europe through a program that denounces western democracy as nothing more than consumerism, hedonism and materialism—instead of unambiguously affirming freedom, pluralism and tolerance—will not work. It is the clerical delusion of a prudish pope that appeals to the youth of Eastern Europe about as much as communism.

How, one asks, can the purveyor of such a repressive religious attitude criticize Islam's xenophobia, its theocratic conception of politics, its rigorous sexual morality and the exclusion of women from public life?

Yet the other response to pre-modern orthodoxy is hardly more attractive. For the most part, the alternative has been to float uncommitted amidst an ultra-modern potpourri of beliefs, content with radical pluralism or relativism, the anarchy of trends, the methodological “anything goes” and the indifferent attitude that “all is permissible.” This has been called “post-modernity” by social critics like Jean François Lyotard, but is, in fact, characteristic of the disintegration of late-modernity.

Such an apologetic modernism, with its fixation on the fleeting present, offers no contribution to a new set of ethics that transcends the morally confused paradigm of modernity.

The mechanisms of modernity can displace a past ethic, but they cannot themselves produce a new ethic or, in an age “beyond good and evil” as Nietzsche properly called our modern times, even provide a justification for ethical behavior. Reason cannot rehabilitate what it has destroyed; more science and technology cannot correct the defects and repair the damage done by science and technology.

What we need now, above all, is to strive for a new basic consensus of integrative human convictions that are commonly accepted and applied across all situations and in all contexts of this fragmented world.

As the secular age runs out of steam because its unity has splintered, would you say that we are now in a pre-religious moment much the same as Rome was in its decadent twilight? Having hit bottom in the void, are we perhaps prepped for the birth of a great, unifying religion rooted, for instance, in an ecological imperative?

Well, I would say that the passing of the modern paradigm gives religion a new chance. In an age beyond good and evil that is also an age of unprecedented technological capacity that can destroy the environment and disrupt genetic integrity, it seems doubtful that we can survive without a set of absolute moral limits on human freedom.

Only a dimension of judgement that is transcendent, that provides accountability to a higher authority—in short, a responsibility to God—can provide the basis for the absoluteness and universality of ethical demands.

To be sure, a non-believer can be a moral person. He may decide not to kill others or destroy the natural environment, but that is a hypothetical imperative conditional to his interests; it is not “categorical,” as in “thou shalt not” under any circumstances.

After the 20th century—with its world wars, mass exterminations, mass-destruction weapons and ecological catastrophes—who can believe in a naive humanism that trusts the Kantian “ought”—the innate imperative to do good in each of our hearts?

Never before has mankind had the technological capacity to end life on earth. In such an age, the metaphysical question raised by Albert Camus—“why not commit suicide”—is now faced by humanity collectively. Why should we respect the genetic heritage of humankind? Why not destroy the rainforests or deplete the ozone layer? Why should there be life at all?

Only religion can answer that question. The unconditional moral imperatives that will preserve life can only come from an Absolute that provides over-arching meaning and that embraces and permeates individual and human nature. Religions can present their ethical demands with an authority man does not have.

I'm not calling for the naive God of Sunday school “who sees you.” I'm speaking of a higher authority to which we are accountable and responsible for our actions. An authority that is not the Pope, not the President, not the Party, not professional success, not Science and not the Market.

However, I do not believe that a new unifying religion will emerge. Rather, I see a new set of universal ethics, based in the humane convictions of great world religions. In the post-modern era of communications, economic complexity and interdependence, ethics must again become public instead of merely personal.

What would be the moral substance, so to speak, of this world ethic?

The ethical goal for the third millennium is “planetary responsibility.” That is the slogan for the future.

Such an ethic is, above all, the opposite of the reigning ethic of success whereby any means of behavior is justified by the end result of profit, power, enjoyment or the good life.

Such an ethic also cannot be what is called a mere “dispositional” ethic, where absolute, abstract values such as justice or love are concerned only with purely inner motivation of the person without regard to concrete consequences in the real world. This kind of ethic is ahistorical and apolitical. It can be a kind of moral isolationism.

When I say an “ethic of responsibility,” I mean it in the sense that Max Weber did. Such an ethic asks realistically about the foreseeable “consequences” of our actions and takes responsibility for them.

To be sure, without a personal ethic, the ethic of planetary responsibility could easily collapse into an ethic in which the ends justify the means. And without an ethics of responsibility, personal ethics would decline into self-righteous inwardness. A situation without norms is morally blind; norms without a situation are empty.

Relating this to the post-Modern Age, I would agree with the philosopher Hans Jonas, who argues that the threat of economic and population growth to Earth's biosphere requires the human species to adopt an ethic that reveres nature and limits freedom in the present for the sake of long-term survival.

How does this view differ from eco-theology, pre-Christian Pantheism, or even Japanese Shintoism where, in effect, the sacred is the equilibrium of a whole natural world that would fall into destructive imbalance if limits are transgressed?

There is much with which I agree concerning the notion of ecological equilibrium.

The monotheistic, prophetic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have much to learn from Shinto and some Indian religions that emphasize the cycle of cosmic birth and death over the reality of the person.

The prophetic religions should take nature more seriously and not concentrate so much on the person. In the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Koran nature is background. There were six days of creation, then everything else is about the human being.

Yet, for me, it is not enough to believe only in nature. I think there is a great neglect of the individual in some of the Far Eastern religions.

If one believes, as many adherents to polytheistic Eastern religions do, in a cosmic equilibrium as the ultimate reality, an equilibrium without a core or an accountable center, it is not clear where the notion of personal responsibility comes from.

This seems clearer in the Abrahamic religions, where there is one source of authority, one God who judges our actions.

True, there are different ways to see ultimate reality that imply different imperatives for individual and collective behavior. But many Indians would say that they are just as monotheistic as the Judeo-Christian culture and Islam. They believe in one ultimate reality that stands behind all their gods; who can be compared, though they have more natural gods, to saints or prophets. In the Chinese Confucian tradition, heaven is the center. The will of heaven is decisive for the behavior of the human being.

In Japan, where religions are not exclusive, there are very strong social ethics from the Confucian tradition and from Buddhism, with its ethics of compassion.

Yet, despite these differences, it is my argument that all the world's major religions share a humanum—a humane ethical code that, while rooted in the divinum, or absolute, of a particular concrete religion, is common to all and the minimum requirement of any faith.

Whether Bahai, Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Moslem, Shintoist, Sikh or Zoroastrian, all share in their basic beliefs a conviction of the fundamental unity of the human family and the equality and dignity of all human beings; a sense of the sacredness of the individual person; a sense of the value of human community; a recognition that might is not right, that human power is not self-sufficient and absolute; a belief that the force of inner truthfulness and of the spirit ultimately has greater power than hate, enmity and self-interest; a sense of obligation to stand by the poor and oppressed; a profound hope that good will prevail in the end. All world religions place a distance between man and his bestial drives.

The task of theology today, as in the past, is to place this humanum in the post-modern historical context so that it is ethically meaningful.

During modernity, a process of reflection and self-criticism moved all religions toward the direction of this common humanum. For example, the inquisitorial practices with fire and torture were removed from Catholicism, which then embraced the notion of human rights born in the French Revolution; human sacrifices were eliminated in Indian religious practices and, in several Moslem countries—though obviously not in those that remain two paradigms (the Reformation and the Enlightenment) behind—the doctrine of jihad, or Holy War, was moderated, penal codes reformed and respect for the rights of women and non-Moslems enhanced.

In the post-modern millennium, I am convinced the preservation of human rights, the emancipation of women, the realization of social justice and the acknowledgement of the immorality of war will become leading convictions of all major religions.

How is what you propose any different than syncretism, the facile synthesis of religions, or the indifferent pluralism of tolerance—relativism really—that accepts all things equally?

I am not proposing mere tolerance, religious coexistence or indifference, but a truly ecumenical approach in which the new global ethic can be supported by all religions from within their own tradition.

Ecumenicism is based in a critical attitude toward one's own religious traditions, but also a steadfastness of belief that one's own religion is the true religion.

My belief that Christianity is the one true religion in no way excludes truth in other religions. Indeed, it allows their validity insofar as their message does not directly contradict the Christian message.

The humanum I respect as unconditional I respect because of my belief in the Christian God. On this solid foundation of faith, I am able to look at my own religion critically and engage in dialogue with other believers about the establishment of a new moral order, an ecumenical world order that embraces the ethic of responsibility.

In such an order, the motivation to conform to moral norms, the degree of compulsion and, indeed, the meaning of one's participation in a common moral order must come from within a specific religious tradition.

What might the rules of the new moral order be as mankind heads toward the next century with our Promethean ambitions intact?

I think there are several general ethical rules.

First, there must be no scientific or technological progress that, when realized, creates greater problems than solutions; for example, the eradication of hereditary illness by genetic manipulation.

Second, the burden of proof that a new technology won't cause social or ecological damage must rest upon the authority—government or corporate—that approves the innovation.

Third, the common good should have priority over individual interest, as long as human rights and personal dignity are protected.

Fourth, the more urgent value of survival must have priority over a less equal value such as self-fulfillment.

Fifth, the ecosystem must have priority over the social system.

Finally, mankind must abide by the rule of reversibility. In technological innovation, irreversible development should occur only when absolutely necessary. For example, operations involving gene surgery could irreversibly alter the genetic information system in a person, and germ-line engineering could have fateful effects on countless generations to come.

You've called for an ecumenical world in the first post-modern century. Yet, the world is embroiled in war and conflict involving Islam, Judaism and Christianity in the Middle East.

What can the ecumenical approach bring to the intractable moral dilemmas of the Middle East?

The nations involved in the Middle East conflict, and here I include the US as well as Israel and the Arab nations, represent the great world religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

As prophetic religions they have much in common. All three are of Eastern Semitic origin; all are prophetic in character (a belief in creation and in an ultimate redemption), and all claim Abraham as their ancestor.

If they were to reflect on this origin, they could make an extremely important contribution to world peace.

Of course, there are essential differences between these three prophetic religions. Judaism focuses on God's people and land, Christianity on God's Son and Messiah, Islam on God's word and book. These differences cannot and should not be concealed.

A union of these great world religions is not necessary for peace. In any case, a single world religion is an illusion.

What we need, though, more than ever after the crisis of the Gulf War, is peace between the religions. I cannot repeat often enough that there can be no world peace without religious peace; no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.

All prophetic religions—Islam, Judaism and Christianity—believe in one and the same God, the God of Abraham.

These three religions believe in the one God who tolerates no other gods, powers, rulers and figures, but who is not just the God of one people but of all peoples, who is not a national God but Lord of the world, who wants the well-being of all peoples.

Jews, Christians and Moslems hold fast to a basic prophetic ethic: humane demands for justice, truth, faithfulness, peace and love—which are claimed as requirements of God himself.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been shaped by the prophetic criticism of the unjust and inhuman circumstances under which humiliated, enslaved and exploited people must live—there can be no worship of God without respect of human beings and human rights.

We can see that there is a very real foundation for an ecumenicism of the three religions which together form a monotheistic world movement with an ethical focus. This relationship could be called an Abrahamic ecumenical movement. I am convinced that there will be no peace in the Near East, and no resolution of the Palestinian question, unless this Abrahamic ecumenical movement can be made an effective factor in world politics. How else can anyone guard against the religious fanatics in all camps?

But the most difficult question of all is: How will a solution be found for the city of Jerusalem, which in the course of its three-thousand-year-old history has known so many overlords; a city that is holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians and that even secular Jews and Moslems do not regard with indifference?

The destiny of Jerusalem in world history is to be holy to all three Abrahamic religions at the same time. And to all three because of Abraham. In addition, there are also “holy” ties to Jerusalem that are specific to all religions: for Jews it is the city of David, for Christians the city of Jesus Christ and for Moslems the city of the prophet Mohammed.

Jerusalem is not just a piece of land; it is a religious symbol. But religious symbols need not necessarily be politically exclusive. Some people have called for an internationalizing of Jerusalem; Tel Aviv could be Israel's capital, Ramallah that of the Palestinian state. But perhaps there is yet another solution. The Palestinians are seeking a political identity, are claiming self-esteem, and want their own flag. Why, in a new age, shouldn't peaceful coexistence be possible so that two flags can wave over Jerusalem: the Jewish flag with the star of David and the Palestinian flag with the crescent?

This could be the first element of an overall political and religious solution for Jerusalem; why shouldn't the symbolic Old City become the capital for the state of Israel and the state of Palestine—since a new division would be nonsense in economic, political, social and religious terms?

Jerusalem could be a capital that, for the well-being of all, is not divided. Would that be so unheard of in history? A city with two flags? Don't the standards of Italy and of the Vatican now fly over Rome, which was similarly disputed?

A second element in the future status of Jerusalem could be provided by a differentiation between the capital and the seat of government, which need not necessarily go together. As with Bonn and Berlin in Germany, why couldn't the Old City of Jerusalem, which is the symbolic section, be the neutral capital for Israel and Palestine? The Israeli center of government would remain in Jewish New Jerusalem and the Palestinian center of government could be formed in Arab New (East) Jerusalem—each center of government on its own territory, not separated from the Old City. Specific conditions could be negotiated. Where there is an ethical will to make peace, there is usually a political way.

But how, in the center of Israel, can the question of the old Temple site, the Haram el-Sherif, be incorporated into a peaceful solution? Let me venture a constructive suggestion—a third element in an overall political and religious solution for Jerusalem. The three Abrahamic religions need a religious symbol, a common holy place, as a great sign that all three worship the one God of Abraham and therefore have something fundamental in common that could overcome all divisions and all enmity.

Peace, founded on common faith, could be symbolized in a common holy place. The fact is that there already is a sanctuary for the one God of Abraham: the “Dome of the Rock,” a unique holy place on the old Temple site of Jerusalem that is often wrongly called the Omar Mosque, although it is not in fact a mosque. According to Jewish and Moslem tradition, the Dome of the Rock commemorates not only the blinding of Abraham's son Isaac but also the creation of Adam. And, too, these religions believe the Dome will be the scene of world judgement.

Is it so utterly absurd to believe that after a religious and political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Moslems and Christians could pray to the one God of Abraham at this holy place? In this way the Dome of the Rock would be a Dome of Reconciliation for the three religions that derive from Abraham.

Is all this an illusion? After the war the cards are being reshuffled, and it will be even more difficult to win the peace than to win the war. Violent aggressive emotions have been let loose—almost as in the Second World War. But a more sober mood will follow on all sides—just as after that war. Humanity as a whole, like individuals, seems to learn only from bitter experiences. Will we all become mature enough to arrive at a new peaceful order in the Near East after this catastrophic Gulf War, just as a new peaceful order arose in Europe after the Second World War?

Alan Race (review date 16 August 1991)

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SOURCE: “Credo in Unum Humanum,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 16, 1991, p. 27.

[In the following review, Race asserts, “Hans Küng's Global Responsibility aims to provide a rationale for overcoming the tragic fissure between peace and truth, both within and between the world religions.”]

While the moral summons to peace ought to instil friendship between the religions, their neurotic desire for the absolute truth, as the respective traditions have symbolized and defended it, has driven them to war. If religions have historically placed a premium on truth over peace, then the declining state of the globe now cries out for a reversal of priorities. Hans Küng's Global Responsibility aims to provide a rationale for overcoming the tragic fissure between peace and truth, both within and between the world religions. It is an extension of his earlier Christianity and the World Religions (1984), where the author was in dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Since then, Küng has engaged more seriously with Judaism and the Chinese religions. His resulting aspiration has become a threefold slogan: “No survival without a world ethic. No world peace without peace between the religions. No peace between the religions without dialogue between the religions.” Given the world's radical plurality, the conceptual difficulties of a “world ethic” seem virtually insurmountable. But Küng's boldness lies in the belief that, among all human systems, the world religions still represent the best loci for discovering the foundational values needed for our survival. As the abysmal record of the religions and the modern critique of religious belief tell against such boldness, each strand of this triple chord begs further examination.

First, Küng repudiates the Nietzschean prediction that humankind is moving “beyond good and evil.” We are now post-moderns, he believes, in the sense that global survival demands a “new, differentiated, pluralistic and holistic synthesis,” beyond the confrontational ethics and politics endemic within modernity. If the limitations of the modern technological experiment have become abundantly self-evident in the degradation of human and ecological life, Küng believes that only through the religions' grounding the finite human conscience in the sense of the divine unconditional can the impasse be transcended. While this move is not a return to religious orthodoxy (for it is religion purged of exclusive prejudice in truth, and of inhumaneness in morality, that Küng is advocating), it nevertheless allows religious ethics a serious place in the painful transition from autonomous ethics to shared ethics. The point is not unreasonable, in spite of the secular philosopher's claim that religion has only ever sanctified existing ethics post hoc. But Küng overstates his case by claiming that the religions provide an unambiguous ground for morality. Most characterizations of postmodernity assume that there is no unambiguous anything; and this is surely right. Even the religious belief in the world's essential contingency points in the same direction.

The second strand of Küng's chord is an expansion of a lecture he gave at Unesco in Paris in 1989. He specified the shared ethical goal between the religions as the humanum, an ecumenical criterion of basic human dignity shared by all the religions. Yet as the religions define what is truly human differently within their respective traditions, the question of their relationship at the theological level cannot be lightly abandoned. Küng knows this and therefore embarks on the difficult road of combining what he calls “steadfastness” to one's own tradition with “maximal openness” to others. So he eschews exclusivism, because it indicates a fortress mentality; inclusivism, because it spells death by another's embrace; and the pluralist view that all religions are the same underneath, because it leads to indifference. His view that the religions might correct and complement each other nevertheless jars with his Christian retention of Christ's finality. It is not wholly clear whether Küng's theological desire to uphold even a mild form of the finality of Christ is methodologically compatible with the “rough parity” between the religions that genuine dialogue demands. There is no reason for thinking that the assumption of parity leads inexorably to the forgetting of truth.

The first two strands of the chord present a flow of argument as punchy as any that this troubling Swiss Catholic has ever produced. By comparison, the third strand is rather disappointing. It amounts to a research plan for writing world history from a new religious perspective. In the circumstances of post-modernity, where the religions are assuming a continuing importance, the necessity for a new historical perspective cannot be gainsaid. The religions are going to need information of the patterns of continuity and discontinuity that historical study yields. Former examples, which Küng discusses, are too aprioristic (Hegel), or pessimistic (Spengler), or fail in the face of the evidence (Toynbee). Distinguishing the Near Eastern Semitic religions and the Far Eastern Chinese and Indian religions, Küng believes the future lies in understanding their differences and commonalities. If the purpose of religion is salvation/liberation, rather than simply arriving at the correct mental picture of the Godhead, then the analysis would unearth the achievements that could be harnessed as experiential data for a world ethic. It may be that, as John Hick believes, the religions have probably produced good and bad in about equal measure. Even so, such a new historical analysis would provide a semi-empirical backing for any proposed world ethic.

Global Responsibility, as the title implies, is Utopian. HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, who has written the preface, hopes that it will “stimulate a more determined search for a shared belief in the beauty and value of this planet Earth as our common and unique home in the vastness of the universe”. Küng's vision is not yet so green as that. But endeavouring to unite peace and truth in the service of the humanum prises open a new way of being religious fully compatible with that greater green awareness. It would add to history's tragedy not to take up the invitation.

Raymond Carr (review date 12 September 1992)

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SOURCE: “Paradigms Lost and Found,” in Spectator, September 12, 1992, pp. 36-7.

[In the following review, Carr outlines Küng's investigation of Judaism in his book by the same name.]

Hans Küng is Professor of Ecumenical Theology and Director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Tübingen. The thesis of his long and learned book (90 pages of dense footnotes) is that religion, rightly conceived, offers humanity its last chance for peace and justice in what he terms the post-modern world. There can be

no peace among the nations without peace among the religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions; no dialogue without investigation of the foundations of the religions.

The present book[, Judaism,] is the first volume of a trilogy that will investigate the foundations of the three great monotheistic world religions which share a common founding father in Abraham: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It is their shared belief in one God, the ‘Abrahamic ecumene’ that can be the basis of a new world order.

For his investigation of Judaism Küng takes from the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, the notion of ‘paradigm shifts’. Paradigms are those ‘entire constellations of beliefs, values etc’ which are shared by a ‘given community’. Just as in the exact sciences hypotheses are discredited in the light of new discoveries and replaced by new hypotheses which fit the facts, so religions suffer great sea changes. In Küng's hands the history of Judaism becomes a drama as each paradigm is replaced by a new constellation, a new world outlook.

Thus the paradigm of the kingdom of the priest kings, David and Solomon—that Jewish, golden age which was revived in the state of Israel with the star of David on its flag—collapses to be replaced, after the Babylonian exile (586-538 BC), by a new paradigm: the theocracy of the Jerusalem Temple. The prophets who have thundered against the worship of false gods and called for repentance are domesticated and subordinated to the teachers of the law. The strict observance of the law (circumcision, ritual slaughter, prohibition of mixed marriages, etc) becomes the core of Judaism with cultic life centred on the Temple of Jerusalem. Judaism persists as a religious community within a Roman province. It no longer needs a state. Rebellion against Rome to re-establish the lost independent state brought the destruction of the Temple (70 AD) and the prohibition of entry into Jerusalem for circumcised Jews. With the religious capital gone, cultic life is decentralised. The local synagogue replaces the Temple. The local rabbi the Temple Priest. This is the ‘mediaeval paradigm’ of the diaspora based on Torah piety (the Torah contains the revealed will of God) and the ritualisation of everyday life according to the instructions of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Judaism has become a closed circle, a society cocooned in its ritual practices, alien to the Christian world. And Jews are persecuted by Christians as the murderers of Christ. The collective guilt of the Jewish people was not formally rejected as slander until the Second Vatican Council.

How can Jews, Küng asks, escape from the segregation they sought for themselves, which was then forced on them by the anti-Semitism of the Catholic church in the Middle Ages? Assimilation is the last paradigm. Jews can escape from the ghetto as citizens of the modern state. Moses Mendelsohn's (1729-86) escape, as both a Jew and a card-carrying member of the European Enlightenment, served only to reveal the dangers of assimilation. Jews like the poet Heine converted to Christianity as the ‘entrance ticket to European culture’. The Holocaust was to prove that there was no such entrance ticket.

Professor Küng's chapters on a possible Jewish-Christian dialogue is heavy going, as the excellent translation struggles with the opacity of the German original. All enlightened scholars of both faiths have long acknowledged that Jesus is inconceivable outside the Jewish world of his time. The Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, called Jesus his great brother. But for less enlightened minds difficulties persist. Jewish strict monotheism finds it difficult to accept Christ as consubstantial with God and a member of the Trinity. But for Küng there is no need for the doctrine of the trinity and the incarnation; all that matters is belief in the one and only God and acceptance of the ‘liberal’ message of Jesus Christ.

Fundamentalism, with its refusal to face up to the common problems of the post-modern world, precludes dialogue. Far from facing up to these problems, Orthodox Judaism turned its back on the modern world and remained stuck in the ‘mediaeval paradigm’. A Jew who substitutes for Torah piety and the strict observance of the law a fixation on the Holocaust and commitment to the state of Israel is a lost soul. For the resilient reader there is an informative account of the attempts to reform and modernise Judaism, particularly in the United States where more Jews live than in the state of Israel. The Orthodox negate modernity: Liberal Reform Jews seek ‘assimilation to modernity’. But reformers have a hard time, as the eminent Jewish rabbi, Louis Jacobs, found out to his cost in London when he dared to treat the Torah as an historical document.

If Orthodox Judaism is a stumbling block to dialogue, on the Christian side there is the Catholic church. It is not merely that mediaeval Catholics invented modern anti-Semitism. Popes have, and still do, inhabit a mediaeval world. Pius XII's pontificate, with his concern to preserve his church as an institution by concordats with dictators whose human rights record was deplorable and his silence on the Holocaust, constitutes a ‘Christian tragedy’. The present Pope, from the ‘provincial city of Krakow’ has ‘no understanding of modern life’. He uses ‘the practices of the Inquisitors’ to muzzle liberation theology. His blind opposition to contraception condemns the Third World to starvation, and, according to Küng, endows Catholic Poland with the highest rate of abortion in Europe as the main method of birth control. The process of self-criticism that is the premise of dialogue is ‘hardly to be found at present on the part of official Roman Catholicism’.

No wonder Professor Küng warms to the great Jewish prophets. Much of his own message will be rejected or misunderstood, and not only by Rome. Jews must not harp on the Holocaust but exercise forgiveness; Christians, particularly Germans, must not forget or ‘relativise’ their guilt, but assimilate it. Only then is reconciliation possible. As for the Middle East, only the dovest of doves can accept his message: a ‘sovereign Palestine state’ and the acknowledgement that Israel has no sovereign rights over Jerusalem. There can be no peace in the Middle East ‘unless the Abrahamic ecumene can be made an effective force in world politics’.

This demands the abandonment of the exclusive fundamentalisms that have set—and still set—nations at each others' throats. For Küng there must be an act of repentance for the past record of Christians as crusaders and persecutors. Only by concentrating our minds on the common message of the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, and the Qu'ran may we discover what Mr Curdle in Nicholas Nickleby called ‘a kind of universal dovetailedness’. As our economies, so our faiths must converge if the ‘Abrahamic ecumene’ is to serve the ethic of the post-modern world.

I sense in my ecumenical friends a certain animus against the Enlightenment. For Küng the ‘substitute Gods’ of the Enlightenment—reason and faith in humanity—have nothing to offer the post-modern world, having made a hash of the modern one. Ecumenicism is not only a message of hope; it can be seen as one of the defensive responses to the post-Enlightenment erosion of the simple certainties of traditional faith: belief in the resurrection of the body which makes the loss of loved ones tolerable; fear of hell fire which encourages right conduct, in this world. Küng would have us believe that on death we will be admitted ‘into God's incomprehensible, all-embracing reality’. The old faiths may have been simple to the point of absurdity. But at least they were comprehensible.

Ronald Modras (review date 31 October 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, in America, Vol. 167, No. 13, October 31, 1992, pp. 332-34.

[In the following review, Modras asserts that Küng's Judaism will not change the course of Judaism or Mid-East politics, “But here is a book that religious leaders and theologians in all three Abrahamic communities can read with profit, a book that all interested laity can understand.”]

Publishers are known for hyperbole. When the dust jacket claims this is the “most important book written by a Christian about Judaism in this century,” it sounds exactly like that mix of audacity and gall known in Yiddish as chutzpa. But when one skims the notes, the subject index and the page upon page of authors cited, even so bold a claim suddenly appears quite plausible.

For any other scholar this encyclopedic tome[, Judaism: Between Yesterday and Today,] would be the work of a lifetime. For the Rev. Hans Küng, it is but the first part of a trilogy, with books to follow on Christianity and Islam in the same programmatic scheme of creating a foundation for what he calls “Abrahamic ecumenism.” His productivity long ago warranted Küng the reputation of being a one-man cottage industry, but there is a passion behind this particular effort whose reasons may not be immediately apparent.

A clue, I believe, is to be found in the 1990 prologue to this trilogy, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. There Küng recounts lecturing in Beirut, when Lebanon was still the Switzerland of the Middle East. When he asked why there were no Muslim scholars on the program with him, he was told that it was “too soon” for such dialogue. Now that it is too late, Küng looks with apprehension to Jerusalem, as he insists repeatedly that there will be no world peace without religious peace, and there will be no religious peace without religious dialogue.

The method Küng honed in his years of inter-Christian dialogue, he now employs on behalf of the Abrahamic ecumene. He outlines in detail what Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold in common and where they differ, not only with respect to monotheism but to Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and basic ethics. Here with the Hebrew Scriptures as with the New Testament, Küng espouses and elucidates the consensus of critical-historical exegetes. He espouses as well, however, Thomas Kuhn's concepts of paradigms and paradigm shifts and translates them from the sphere of the natural sciences to religion and theology.

Kuhn described a paradigm as the constellation of beliefs and values shared by a given community. The passage of time and new circumstances create crises that generate new epoch-making constellations. Holding that this is the case not only in societies but in communities of faith, Küng divides Jewish history into five major paradigms: tribal (Moses); monarchic (David); the second-temple priests (Ezra): the rabbis of the Talmud and Middle Ages, and the modern paradigm of assimilation. He sees the Holocaust as the end of the modern paradigm and the creation of the State of Israel as the entrance into a new epoch, a postmodern paradigm yet to be developed let alone named.

Amid all these paradigm shifts, Küng asserts that the abiding substance of Judaism resides in the conviction that Israel is God's chosen people who have been given a promised land. The operative words here are Israel, people and land. Most notably not law, or at least not law in the sense of the 613 commandments the rabbis have drawn from Mosaic (written and oral) tradition. Here Küng will surely be attacked for presuming to define what is and is not essential to Judaism. Even the Vatican has accepted the principle that Jews should be allowed to define themselves. Küng is consistent, however, in his arguments from biblical history, Enlightenment values and modern praxis. He is willing to confront the champions of rabbinic orthodoxy the same way he does their Roman Catholic counterparts, both of whom he sees as locked in analogous medieval paradigms.

After a survey and interpretation of history, Küng takes up, in equal parts, questions and challenges of the present and future. He looks at issues like the Holocaust, Zionism, disputes between Jews and Christians today (Jesus, Paul, the meaning of messiah, divine sonship, Trinity) and, above all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here Küng demonstrates that interreligious dialogue and overcoming historic hostilities are not equivocal concepts.

On the issue of the Holocaust he is anything but vague in reproaching Pope Pius XII for his silence and the German bishops for their capitulation to the Nazis. Although a Swiss earning a living at a German university, he pulls no punches in laying the primary blame for the Holocaust not only on Germany's ruling elite but on the masses as well. “Adolf Hitler,” he writes, “was neither an ‘accident’ in German history nor a ‘decree of fate.’ Adolf Hitler came to power with the broad assent of the German people, and for all the hidden criticism was supported to the bitter end by the majority of the population with a loyalty that is still terrifying even today.”

Protestant churches fare no better in Küng's analysis, and he charges both the United States and his own Switzerland with an effective indifference to the Holocaust. No nation or church, he concludes, can claim innocence. Acknowledging the need for remembrance, he goes on, however, to make a plea for forgiveness that is not altogether clear. (Forgiveness of whom? Of the perpetrators? Their children? Do Germans born after 1945 need to forgive?) He then criticizes those Jews for whom the Holocaust has become a fixation, a substitute for religion and, even worse, an excuse to deny Palestinians their own autonomy and human rights.

Küng appeals for a “critical solidarity” with the State of Israel. He insists on its right to exist and upbraids the Vatican for refusing to grant it diplomatic relations. But he is unstinting, too, in criticizing the leadership of the Likud block that until recently ruled Israel, particularly Menachem Begin (whom he labels a “former terrorist”), Ariel Sharon (a “warmonger”) and Yitzhak Shamir, whom he indicts for obstructing the peace process for the sake of a “greater Israel.”

The positions he advocates are those of the Israeli left (the Mapai Party), Abba Eban and the so-called “Jews of Conscience” who are ready to trade land for peace. Küng faults Yasser Arafat and the P. L. O. as sharing in the responsibility for making Jerusalem a powder keg. He sees Israel since 1967 as the armed Goliath, guilty of disproportionate use of deadly weapons against stone-slinging (like David) Palestinian boys. In Küng's view, the aftermath of the Gulf War offers an unprecedented opportunity for solving the Palestinian issue; but, as matters stand now at least, it is primarily up to Israel.

In what unfortunately appears almost like an afterthought, Küng concludes his book with a discussion of how to justify and understand God after the Holocaust. In it he repents of his earlier flirtation with a Hegelian God of process and distances himself from the Rev. David Tracy (a “suffering God”) and Jurgen Moltmann (a “crucified God”). The classical view of God as omnipotent is just as indispensable as divine justice and compassion. Meaningless suffering cannot be understood theoretically, he concludes, only endured with trust.

In a book of such monumental proportions, it would be niggling to cavil at the occasional typographical errors in the English translation (the millions of other victims of the Nazis were Slavs, not slaves) or to suggest other areas for development. It is unfortunate, however, that Küng did not treat of the supposed Jewish-Masonic conspiracy against the church, which so exercised European Catholics in the 1930's. There is no denying the need to differentiate, but the efforts in those years to create a Catholic Poland, for example, are evocative of efforts by contemporary Jewish fundamentalists to create a Jewish state along pre-modern lines.

It is fundamentalists of every stripe whom Küng takes out after in this book, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is doubtful that he will convince any orthodox Jews of the ambiguity of law. It is doubtful, too, that many political figures involved in the mid-East conflict will take kindly to proposals offered by a theologian. But here is a book that religious leaders and theologians in all three Abrahamic communities can read with profit, a book that all interested laity can understand.

It just may foster the cause of dialogue within the Abrahamic ecumene. That would certainly argue for its being the most important book on Judaism any Christian has written in this century. It would certainly make it Küng's most important book to date.

Eugene Fisher and Jack Bemporad (review date 29 January 1993)

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SOURCE: “Opportunities Missed,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXX, No. 2, January 29, 1993, pp. 29-30.

[In the following review of Judaism,Fisher and Bemporad complain that “Jewish readers—with good cause—are likely to find [the work] insensitive and inaccurate.”]

When a scholar of great stature enters a new, albeit related field of endeavor to his own, it is an event of significance for both his usual followers and those in the field itself. For the potential for creative insights is great. So it is with anticipation that one approaches Küng's monumental volume on Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. Küng attempts here a critical survey of all of Jewish history and thought, as well as an analysis of and major contribution to the present historic dialogue between Christians and Jews.

As he notes in his introduction, Küng utilizes “paradigm theory” as a means of organizing the enormous body of literature and history with which he deals. Similarly, he states in the same context, “for the first time in my books of this length I have taken care to make use of additional teaching aids (such as charts and graphs) … to make it easier to grasp the composition and conception of this long and multi-level book.” There are, then, methodological innovations in the text that will be of interest to scholars.

The volume is divided into three general sections. The first, the “Past,” describes Jewish history and literature from its ancient “Tribal” and “Kingdom” paradigms to what Küng surprisingly believes is Judaism's “modern paradigm”—“assimilation,” symbolized for Küng by Moses Mendelssohn, whose descendants converted to Christianity. The second major section, the “Present,” deals with such matters as Christian guilt for the Holocaust; Zionism; Jewish-Christian “disputes” (e.g., Jesus as historical figure and as Messiah; what caused the split between Jews and Christians; “self-criticism” of each tradition in the light of the other); and the ways in which selected modern Jewish thinkers have sought to confront modernity (Abraham Heschel, Joseph Soloveitchik, Abraham Geiger, Louis Jacobs, Zacharias Frankel, and Mordecai Kaplan).

In the third section, Küng offers future “possibilities,” beginning with “postmodern” Judaism and what he feels is its unresolved “conflict” between “life” and “law.” Here, he invokes especially Martin Buber, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judith Plaskow, and Eugene Borowitz, leading up to a discussion of “Paul against the Law?” and “The Future of the People of God.”

After a lengthy political excursus on the Middle East conflict, a discussion already dated by the defeat of the Likud in the 1992 Israeli elections, Küng briefly ponders Holocaust theology and Jewish and Christian theology “after Auschwitz,” using a single lecture given by Hans Jonas in Tubingen as a virtual foil over against which to show his own theories of creation and theodicy. Both the subject and Professor Jonas deserve more thorough treatment than Küng here allows.

The volume concludes with an epilogue titled, “No New World Order without a New World Ethic.” While the lesson offered here is potentially important, its presentation is again dated, this time by the author's reliance on the 1991 Gulf War as its guiding paradigm. In retrospect, the Gulf War has assumed less awesome significance than Küng accorded it at the time.

As the reader is doubtlessly beginning to suspect by this point, the present reviewers came away from this volume with a feeling of being let down by its eminent author. While the volume's heft and voluminous academic apparatus give it the appearance of a major work, we cannot recommend it even as a popular introduction to the several fields that it undertakes to survey, much less a useful scholarly one for professionals in those fields. Pondering why this is so has led us to the following reflections.

First, Küng's aim may simply have exceeded his reach. A clue to this can be seen in the schema we outlined above. In the first section, for example, he attempts in a bare two hundred pages to summarize virtually all of Jewish history since Abraham, adjudicating in the process innumerable highly complex textual and historical questions that have consumed generations of scholarly endeavors. While one may impute the failure of the resulting presentation to limitations inherent in the “paradigm theory,” his “Notes,” for all their length, reveal a critical thinness of research.

On numerous topics where entire literatures exist in creative tension and debate, Küng tends to rely on one or two volumes, seldom explaining why he has chosen one particular school over another, or, in some cases, even indicating the existence of multiple alternative views. One example: the contention that “the” synagogue formally “excommunicated” Jewish Christians. Küng represents this alleged expulsion as a historical given, going on to editorialize that “the excommunication of Christians by Jews preceded the persecution of Jews by Christians.” In fact, however, the excommunication claim is highly controversial in current scholarship. And, ironically, the sole article cited by Küng to support his claim was actually written to refute it.

Second, the amount of attention Küng is able to give to many of the complex issues he raises is simply not adequate to enable him, even with the creative use of charts and lists, to do justice to them. Twenty-five pages, for example, is not sufficient to present (and sit in judgment upon) the entire history of the Zionist movement. One hundred pages provide minimal scope in which to treat the intricacies of Hebrew biblical history. Three pages are not adequate to define the issue of Paul and the Law. And, certainly, three sentences are not sufficient discussion to preclude the Jewish people from using their own Hebrew term, Shoah, for what happened to them in World War II.

This last example brings us to our third and most delicate reflection. It is the tone of the volume. We have talked now with several Jewish scholars who have read the volume and all have had a similar reaction. First comes a sense of puzzlement. Why does the author appear so negative toward Judaism? So judgmental? Examples abound. Modern Jewish Orthodoxy is written off as “Pharisaic-Talmudic … faithfulness to the letter,” while Reform is reduced to “the assimilation paradigm.” Jews are accused of a lack of “readiness for forgiveness” after the Holocaust, the latter in direct contrast with Christian forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount. And what is one to say of Küng's affirmation that “contrasts between Jesus and Pharisaism … led to Jesus' arrest and death” or his reduction of Rabbinic Judaism to “casuistic trivialization” and the “purely formal aspect of the practice of the law,” in which there was “no freedom for open criticism of the Torah” (presumably oral as well as written)?

Such examples of needlessly harsh rhetoric sadly are not rare in this volume. At some risk of being considered insufficiently respectful of Küng's well-established reputation, we must report that Jewish readers—with good cause—are likely to find this volume, which purports after all to present their faith and their traditions, to be insensitive and inaccurate. However well-intentioned the author was in taking up this study and however excellent some individual sections may be, the final product as a whole does not live up to its promise.

Robert H. Bryant (review date 17 March 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, in Christian Century, Vol. 110, No. 9, March 17, 1993, pp. 299-301.

[Bryant is professor emeritus of constructive theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minnesota. In the following review, he praises Küng's Judaism for its scholarly merit and its accessibility to the general reader.]

Hans Küng, director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research at the University of Tübingen, is internationally recognized as a foremost participant in ecumenical dialogue. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Karl Barth at a time when that topic was still unusual for a Roman Catholic scholar. Since then he has continued to foster friendly Catholic-Protestant exchanges around the world. By his critical-historical and systematic studies on the church, the dogma of infallibility and other traditional teachings, he has continued to embody the progressive spirit of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II. He has thus inspired those who would follow in that way but provoked the ire of more cautious Catholic hierarchs.

This book[, Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow,] is the first volume in an ambitious trilogy titled The Religious Situation of Our Time. The second volume will be on Christianity and the third on Islam. Küng describes the conviction motivating the trilogy: “No peace among the nations without peace among religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions.”

Küng challenges not only Christians and Muslims but also others to “see how the basic conflict between tradition and innovation is dealt with and resolved in Judaism.” He invites Christians who view Judaism as only “a past Old Testament” to understand the text as an “independent entity with amazing continuity, vitality and dynamism.” He painstakingly surveys “the transitory and the abiding” in that religious-cultural movement from its beginnings to the present. “The one passion which drives this book on,” notes the foreword, “is a concern to understand the foundations, the development and the future opportunities of Judaism in the transition to a new world era.” He seeks to describe Judaism as a “comprehensive living unity,” thereby not only challenging existing preconceptions but also encouraging “growing mutual understanding.”

Just as Küng has previously used paradigm theory as a key to interpreting the history of religions, so in this volume he identifies the cultural and religious constellations or paradigms that have shaped Judaism throughout its 3,000-year history: the tribal (in premonarchical time), the kingdom, the theocratic (in the postexilic period), the medieval (associated with the rabbis and the synagogue), and the modern assimilation paradigms. Küng demonstrates a broad knowledge of past and contemporary scholarship as he moves through this expansive tapestry. His extensive endnotes add a fine stimulus to those who wish to explore his many original and secondary sources.

This book is valuable both to scholars and to those interested in learning more about Judaism's past or present. With the help of numerous assistants thanked in the preface, Küng made the lengthy text more accessible by including bold-face headings and subheadings as well as numerous graphs and summaries.

I found part two (“The Challenges of the Present”) and part three (“Possibilities for the Future”) particularly interesting. In these Küng deals empathetically but also forthrightly with many of the most critical issues for those engaging in post-Holocaust dialogue, including the Israeli-Palestinian land dispute, the danger of the Holocaust's becoming a fixation, and understanding God and suffering after Auschwitz. He is also quite critical of the Persian Gulf war and its aftermath. Finally, he presents “presuppositions for peace in the Middle East.” His hope is that every synagogue, church and mosque will contribute to religious understanding. “For that we all need a vision, … imagination, courage and indefatigable, creative commitment.” He amply demonstrates these attributes.

Clark M. Williamson (essay date Summer-Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: “The Christology of Hans Küng: A Critical Analysis,” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. XXX, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1993, pp. 372-88.

[In the following essay, Williamson traces Küng's Christology and explains the difficulty of using such a Christology to further a Jewish-Christian dialogue.]


The purpose of this essay is to criticize Hans Küng's Christology in light of his intention to develop a Christology that will support a theological conversation with Jews and contribute to mutual understanding and cooperation. Upon analysis, Küng's is a historical-Jesus Christology, in which Jesus' identity is formed by locating him at the center of a quadrilateral conflict with four ideal types of Judaism. This historical Jesus is the criterion and base for Christian truth. The conclusion is that such a Jesus does not serve the development of mutual understanding with Jews and that a different christological model is required for that purpose, as well as for the task of formulating a Christology appropriate to the gospel. A Jesus who “shatters” and “overcomes” Judaism will not serve Küng's stated purpose. What is required is a Christology that locates Jesus firmly within the context of the covenant between the God of Israel and the Israel of God. Jesus Christ must be understood in terms of the graciousness of the God of Israel and as a gift to the church from the God of Israel and the Israel of God.

Among contemporary theologians who have given serious and sustained attention to the issue of Christology, Hans Küng is among the few who are clearly aware of the history of the church's teaching and practice of contempt for Jews and Judaism. The purpose of this essay is to question the adequacy of Küng's Christology to his stated awareness of the problem of Christian anti-Judaism. The question is put to Küng's Christology, rather than to other aspects of his theological work, because how theologians understand the church's confession of Jesus Christ will disclose their theological stance on Jews and Judaism.

When we turn our attention to Küng, our initial expectation is that here we will find some reflection on Christology that is both aware of the problem of Christian anti-Judaism and addresses it. Unquestionably, Küng knows there is an issue. He not only claims that “[t]he sufferings of the Jewish people begin with Jesus himself.”1 He also realizes that Jesus was a Jew who was active among Jews, that his name “Yeshua” (“Yahweh is salvation”) was Jewish, and that his prayers were Jewish. “His message was for the Jewish people: but for the entire Jewish people, without any exception.”2

Küng also makes it clear that the history of relations between Christians and Jews has been “largely a history of blood and tears.”3 He recites the history of massacre and pogrom, of the annihilation of 300 Jewish communities in German-speaking lands in the years 1348-1349, of the expulsion of Jews from all major Western European countries during the Middle Ages. He notes, to the church's chagrin, that neither the Protestant nor the Catholic Reformation effected any change in this regard but, rather, humanism, pietism, and the Enlightenment did. He does not devote explicit attention to the ambiguities of these movements in this regard. He deplores the continuing efficacy of “a recalcitrant anti-Judaism in Rome and Moscow” as well as in New York and argues that Christian anti-Judaism was a necessary, if not sufficient, cause of the Nazi program of Judenvernichtung: “… without the almost two-thousand-year-long pre-history of ‘Christian’ anti-Judaism which also prevented Christians in Germany from a convinced and energetic resistance on a broad front, it would not have been possible!”4

With regard to how relations between Christians and Jews might change, Küng contends that the time has come for Christians “to ‘convert’ themselves: to an encounter …, to a theological dialogue with the Jews, which could serve not ‘mission’ and capitulation but understanding, mutual help and cooperation, and—indirectly perhaps—even a growing understanding between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”5 Küng sees evidence of the possibility of this theological dialogue in heightened appreciation of the First Testament on the part of the church and of the Second Testament on the part of the rabbis. Judaism, too, has changed, says Küng, in the “decreasing influence of casuistic and legalistic piety,.. . and an increasing importance of the Old Testament in contradistinction to the earlier universal emphasis on the Talmud.”6

Küng's apparent lack of awareness of the role of Christian anti-Judaism in renaming as “Old and New Testaments” what had previously been known as “the scriptures” seems odd in one committed to transforming relations between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust.7 His view of Judaism as having been overly concerned with “casuistic and legalistic piety” betrays unfortunate and inaccurate conceptions, conceptions that seem to remain unchanged in his most recent work, Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, where Second Temple Judaism is described as a “constriction of religion” characterized by legalism, ritualism, and clericalism.8

Yet, the theological dialogue is most likely to founder on the point of the significance of Jesus. Küng hopes that, in response to a “Christian readiness to reach understanding,” Jews might be willing to “extend an historically objective judgment, genuine understanding and perhaps even a valuation of the person of Jesus.”9 Citing several instances of the Jewish rediscovery of Jesus, beginning in the nineteenth century, he hopes that Jews and Christians can engage in dialogue about Jesus not “from above,” but “from below,” based on the historical Jesus. This would entail seeing Jesus from the viewpoint of his Jewish contemporaries.

The importance of this proposal to Küng's theology cannot be overestimated. In stating what he has in common with Edward Schillebeeckx, Küng asserts: “The source, standard and criterion of Christian faith is the living Jesus of history.”10 Lest there be confusion as to what he means by the “living Jesus of history,” Küng makes it clear that Christianity “is based primarily on the historical personality of Jesus of Nazareth who was seen as the Christ of God.”11 The kerygmatic character of the Gospels does not allow a reconstruction of his biographical or psychological development, nor can critical historical research prove that the man Jesus is the Christ. Nonetheless, asking the hard historical questions is essential in order for theology to establish what it can know “about the Jesus of history with scientific certainty or great probability.”12 It was, after all, this historical Jesus who was experienced and proclaimed as Lord and Christ.13 Fortunately, agreement among those who conduct research into his life is “quite extensive.”14

In his The Church—Maintained in Truth, Küng persists in insisting that the historical Jesus is Christian truth. Christian confidence in God and in God's future “is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God's fidelity to his people can be read.”15 In Jesus of Nazareth, God's “ultimate, decisive call, God's definite truth about himself and man, found expression.”16 Hence, the church is maintained in truth “whenever Jesus himself and not some other secular, political, or clerical figure remains the truth for the individual or the community.”17 Jesus “personifies, he is the truth that leads to life.”18 Unlike the prophets whose words were freshly inspired each time they spoke, Jesus “speaks and acts continually in virtue of his unity with God.”19

Küng does not explain how he can move from not being able to provide a biography of Jesus to being able to comment on how he acted “continually.” Nor does he clarify how he acquires critical-historical confidence with regard to Jesus' “unity with God.” Nonetheless, he affirms that the criterion for what is true in the church can be nothing but Jesus Christ himself, in the sense of the critically reconstructed Jesus of history.20 Christian truth is essentially historical truth.21 The church is maintained in truth whenever “Jesus himself is and remains the way, the truth, and the life for the individual or for a community” and when and where discipleship to him and his way is present.22Jesus himself is the criterion and basis of Christian truth; he is Christian truth.23

Küng has asked this question in essentially the same way over the course of his career: “Is the Church we have really backed up—in its essentials, not in its inessentials—by the message of Christ?”24 As later, he professes that, in spite of the kerygmatic nature of the sources, they produce remarkably clear and consistent answers that “speak to us with the original words of Jesus.”25

What we learn from our historical-critical inquiry, says Küng, is that the nuclear, pivotal idea controlling all of Jesus' preaching is that of God's basileia, God's reign.26 What Jesus meant by God's basileia is distinguished by contrasting it with what was meant by other groups at the time. Unlike the rabbis, Jesus had in mind “a powerful sovereign act of God himself,” not something achievable by faithful adherence to the law.27 Unlike the Zealots, Jesus viewed the reign of God as “a purely religious kingdom,” not an earthly, national theocracy.28 Unlike the monks of Qumran, the basileia of Jesus is “a saving event for sinners,” not a vengeful judgment on them.29 Nor did Jesus' proclamation offer a new, improved moral code for people to follow; instead, it demanded “a radical decision for God.30 In his life and works, Jesus is both the great sign of his times and the sign that the old aeon has passed away with his coming.31 Küng quotes Kasemann approvingly on the authority with which Jesus taught:

To this there are no Jewish parallels, nor indeed can there be. For the Jew who does what is done here has cut himself off from the community of Judaism—or else he brings the Messianic Torah and is therefore the Messiah. … The unheard-of implication of the saying testifies to its genuineness. It proves, secondly, that while Jesus may have made his appearance in the first place in the character of a rabbi or a prophet, nevertheless, his claim far surpasses that of any rabbi or prophet; and thirdly, that he cannot be integrated into the background of the Jewish piety of his time. Certainly he was a Jew and made the assumptions of Jewish piety, but at the same time he shatters this framework in his claim.32

In spite of the promise with which we began this study of Küng, so far we have found nothing that deviates from the structure of thought of, for example, Harnack's Christology. He asks the same questions that Harnack did and receives the same answers to them. To this point, Küng's is not, in any sense of the word, a post-Holocaust reflection on the question of Christology. At the same time, it is remarkably innocent of recent scholarship on the Judaisms of the first century. Since the time of the earliest adversus Judaeos literature, the doctrine of the church has been the pay-off doctrine of Christian anti-Judaism, the point at which the cash value of the anti-Judaism of all the other doctrines, particularly Christology, is redeemed. This remains true for Küng's doctrine of the church.

Since Jesus himself is the basis and criterion of Christian truth and apparently did not found a church, Küng is at some pains to “back up” his claims for the church in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. He admits that Jesus did not call a church or separate his disciples from the rest of Israel, nor did he contrast them as a new people of God with the ancient people of God.33 “The Church … is therefore a post-Easter phenomenon.”34 Is it, therefore, an illegitimate development, something that should not have happened? No! In spite of the difficult nature of the sources, nonetheless, the Gospels are concerned with Jesus' pre-Easter preaching and teaching “down to the last detail” and therefore show us how Jesus himself really laid the groundwork for the emergence of the church. Particularly, since Jesus foresaw that Jerusalem would reject him and his message “and that instead the heathen would be called to the eschatological feast, he proclaimed a new people of God, one not based simply on ethnic origins.”35 The origins of the church rest not only in the message of the pre-Easter Jesus but also in the whole history of his life and ministry. This, plus God's act of resurrecting him, “turned the group of those who believed communally in the risen Jesus into a community of those who, in contrast to the unbelieving ancient people of God, could claim to be the new eschatological people of God.”36

Küng's claims that Jesus foresaw his rejection and the coming of gentiles into the church call seriously into question his protestations to be engaging in historical-critical inquiry. His contrast of the new, believing community with the old, unbelieving community is inherently works-righteous: We can claim to be the new people of God because we do the good work of believing. His old/new contrast is also inherently supersessionist in its implications—but more on this later. The question raised here by this aspect of his work is whether the identity of the church is bought at the price paid by the Jewish people of no longer being God's eschatological people.

Küng's answer to this question is a highly dialectical “yes-and-no,” but he proves unable to sustain the dialectic. Whether a dialectical response to this question is even appropriate is a good question. Why not a plain affirmation of the covenant between God and Israel? Since a major plank of traditional Christian anti-Judaism held that the Jews (they) were rejected when the gentiles (we) were elected—hence, that Jews are religiously out of business and have no business continuing to exist as Jews—one would think that a serious post-Holocaust theological enterprise would avoid reinforcing this position. Instead, such a theology could formulate a new christological rule, to the effect that every proper christological statement will make it clear that the covenant between God and Israel is affirmed.37

Küng's first question in his discussion of the church as the people of God is this: “Beyond Judaism?”38 Was the church really more than the Zealots or the Pharisees? Yes. The disciples of Jesus saw themselves not only as the true but equally as the new Israel.39 Küng overlooks the fact that in the Second Testament neither “true” nor “new” ever modifies “Israel.” Many things therein are so described, but Israel is never one of them. Despite a total lack of supporting evidence, Küng concludes from the “fact” that the disciples saw themselves as the true and new Israel that they were.

“They were already the new Israel, even if externally little different from the old.”40 The earliest disciples retained Jewish forms while giving them entirely new content, which “new content was bound, sooner or later, to burst the bounds of the old forms.”41 The seeds of separation from Judaism lay in baptism, in the communal service of prayer, in the eschatological meal, in the leaders of the community, and in its living fellowship of love.42 Hence, the development of a gentile Christianity freed from Judaic laws was made possible.43 In this historical process “the ways of Israel and the Church totally diverged. Yet the two remain, whether they like it and know it or not, undissolubly bound together. This is inevitable, since the Church claims to be the new Israel, the new people of God.44

The clear import of Küng's answer is: Yes! Beyond Judaism! He does not specify that the opposite of true is false, that if the church is the true Israel, Israel must be the false Israel. One might interpret Küng as meaning just that. Alternatively, one could argue that a simple affirmative statement carries no negative implications, that to say that the church is the true Israel is not to say that Israel is the false Israel. If so, however, in what sense is the church “beyond Judaism”? Nonetheless, according to Küng, this development of the new people of God in contradistinction from the old one is the fault of the old people of God, specifically of the majority's rejection of the message of the disciples. Thus did the Jews make it inevitable that the church would describe itself as the true and new Israel.45 Confusingly, however, Küng goes on to say that the ancient people of God still keeps its name, “even after Christ,” and the church remains linked to Israel: “Gentiles are only the grafts on to the old stem.”46 The spirit is inclusive, the logic exclusive.

Further, Küng retains some of the hoary themes of the adversus Judaeos ideology. He asserts that Israel's history “is a story of repeated failures and betrayals, backslidings and loss of faith: a story of sin.”47 This sin resulted in total crisis and destruction of the state, interpreted by the prophets as God's judgment on and rejection of a faithless people, as well as of God's mercy and renewed election of them. What is wrong with Küng's view here is more the emphasis on what is said than in what is said itself. Israel gets credit once again for having a history that is a “trail of crimes,” not for continually producing a remarkable record of prophetic self-criticism.48 If Christian religious history is any clue, we might contend that every such history is a history of failure. Whatever else be the case, Christian history vis-à-vis Jews, women, colonized-now-third-world people, and racial and ethnic minorities in Christian cultures is, beyond doubt, a failure.

We find the second classic theme of anti-Judaism in Küng's description of the so-called “late Judaism.” In this “nationalistic, rabbinistic, hellenistic, and apocalyptic” Judaism we have nothing but “misinterpretations” and “misunderstandings of the idea of the people of God.”49 Doubtless this, which is clearly Judaism for Küng if anything is, needed to be superseded by the “correct” understandings.

Third, Küng accords to the covenant between God and Israel only a provisional validity. Israel's function is to prefigure the church; it “provides a contrast with the people of the new covenant.”50 The difference of the new people from the old one is that its word of revelation “is no longer a provisional one, but the final and definitive word.”51 The promise given to the new people of God is eschatological; it “cannot be reversed.” Küng does not discuss Paul's claim that the promise and call of God to Israel are “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). He simply declares of the new promise that it is “definitely guaranteed by a better covenant between God and his people …”52 “Thus,” concludes Küng, “the old covenant, image and parable of the coming covenant, is confirmed and at the same time dissolved and exceeded.”53 In Hegelian fashion, it is aufgehoben in Jesus Christ. This is a historical-developmental version of traditional supersessionism, not new to the late twentieth century, and long subjected to searching critique.54

There is no point in leaving a misimpression. Küng seriously wants to overcome the anti-Jewish legacy of the Christian tradition. He unquestionably affirms that all that will suffice from Christians in this regard is “a radical metanoia, repentance and re-thinking.”55 He wants things to be different. However, it does not occur to him that the place to start doing the rethinking is at the beginning, with the structure and method of his Christology and the manner of his appeal to the historical Jesus. He still pictures a Jesus at odds with and overcoming all kinds of Judaism and on this basis expects to be able to criticize anti-Judaism. This is a well-intended but self-defeating effort. It leaves him contradictorily claiming that Israel did not lose its special position as the people of God after Jesus' death and that “solely faith in Jesus Christ … decides who belongs to the people of God.”56 He cannot have it both ways.

In his later work, On Being a Christian, and in its shortened version, The Christian Challenge, Küng takes up the christological task again in a way that differs in detail, but not in method and structure, from what we have already seen. After dealing with the challenge of modern humanism and of the other religions, Küng turns his attention to Christianity, asking what about it is special. His answer is: “this Jesus himself, who is known even today by the ancient name of Christ.57 He is “ultimately decisive, definitive and archetypal for man in all his dimensions.”58

By “Christ,” Küng is still at pains to show that he means not the Christ of piety or of dogma or of the enthusiasts or of literature, but the “real” Christ, the Jesus of Nazareth whose “history can be dated.59 Despite uncertainties as to exactly when he was born, when he died, and where he came from—“not particularly relevant” matters60—and despite the fact that we cannot write a biography because we know how the Gospels arose and that they are “committed testimonies of faith meant to commit their readers,61 nonetheless, we can ask and answer questions about the historical Jesus. Using all the pertinent methods of biblical study, including the criterion of dissimilarity,62 we can reconstruct “the typical basic features and outlines of Jesus' proclamation, behavior and fate.63 Such a historical-critical research into Jesus can neither provide reasons for faith nor destroy faith, says Küng; it does enable us “to give an account of our faith.64 Apparently, Küng means here, as was noted previously, that such critical inquiry can “back up” faith or show that certain strongly held views can be warranted. That seems quite like giving reasons for faith.

Before moving into his attempt at describing the historical Jesus in On Being a Christian, however, Küng discusses the relation between Christianity and Judaism. He says nothing here that he has not said before. He describes the “history of blood and tears,” asserts the Jewishness of Jesus, claims that Christians who are anti-Jewish are anti-Jesus, and asks about future possibilities for relations between Jews and Christians, specifically suggesting that Jews and Christians should discuss Jesus and that, “if … we start out from Jesus of Nazareth as man and Jew, we shall be able to go a good part of the way together with an unbiased Jew.”65 The description of Jesus that follows, however, differs from the ones we have already seen by being more finely tuned. Jesus' identity now is located not only by the method of dissimilarity but, as a result of it, by placing Jesus in a “simultaneous quadrilateral conflict” with all kinds of Jews of his time.

Jesus was (1) not a member of the establishment, ecclesiastical or social. He was not a high priest, not an elder, not a scribe, not a Sadducee.66 He rejected their Hellenistic lifestyle, their conservative view of the law, and their conservative theology, and he did not care about the religiopolitical status quo.67 Unlike the conservative-liberal establishment, he was sustained by an intense expectation of the eschaton.

Although he expected radical change, Jesus was (2) not a revolutionary, one of the Zealots; “we cannot make Jesus a guerrilla fighter, a rebel, a political agitator and revolutionary or turn his message of God's kingdom into a program of politico-social action.”68 Instead, Jesus “waits for God to bring about the cataclysm and proclaims as already decisive the unrestricted, direct world dominion of God himself, to be awaited without violence.69 A political, social revolution is not, for Jesus, the alternative to the system. Jesus condoned neither the goals of the Zealots nor their path to these goals.70

Yet he also rejected (3) the equally radical if extremely different alternative offered by the monks of Qumran: emigration, the great refusal, repudiation of the world. Jesus was not an Essene. In spite of some similarities to them and perhaps some connections between Qumran and the beginnings of Christianity, Jesus was not “a religious.”71 He rejected altogether their isolation from the world, their bifurcation of reality, their legal fanaticism, their asceticism, their hierarchical order, their monastic rule, their elitism.72

Jesus would not identify with the establishment in his society or revolt against it or leave it. Would he, then, (4) compromise with it? No. He was not a Pharisee. Pharisees followed the way of moral compromise, says Küng.73 Küng recognizes that the reason that the Pharisees are the chief opponents of Jesus in the Gospels is because they were the sole party to survive the great revolution against Rome in the years 66-70 C.E. and were, therefore, the foundation of the subsequent development of Judaism.74 Nevertheless, he insists on viewing the strife between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels as historical: “The conflict with the Pharisees was bound to come to a head, since there was so much in common between the two sides.”75 In spite of what they had in common, “Jesus was not a pious legalistic moralist.”76 He acted against the law when he thought it important to do so, placed himself above it, recognized no ritual taboos, was no ascetic, was not scrupulous about observing the Sabbath, and opposed self-righteousness.77 The Pharisees “look for honors, titles, adulation, and put themselves in God's place. They build monuments to the former prophets and kill those of the present time.”78 Finally, it is their piety and morality itself that stands between God and the people and for which they become Jesus' worst enemies.79 In all of this, it is obvious that Küng takes the picture of the Pharisees in the Gospels at face value, regarding it as a historically reliable account. That precisely this is what we may not do has been ably argued by several scholars.80

Fitting into none of the categories of his society, culture, and religion, “Jesus is different.81 “Despite all parallels in detail, the historical Jesus in his wholeness turns out to be completely unique—in his own time and ours.”82 This view of Jesus as “completely unique” by virtue of standing at the crossroads of a four-way conflict with Sadducees, Essenes, Pharisees, and Zealots is repeated unchanged in Küng's most recent work.83 Consequently everything about him was improper, libelous, scandalous to any devout Jew.84 He relativized the law and the temple. Despite his total alienation from his society, “love of one's fellow man is present everywhere in Jesus' proclamation.”85 Interestingly, Küng has to introduce that last remark with a “nevertheless.” Jesus advocated not merely love of the neighbor but, even more, of the enemy, and it is this that is typical of him.86 This and his openness to such non-Jews as Samaritans differentiates him from the Pharisees. He was also a partisan for the handicapped and the poor. Indeed, the God of Jesus was unlike the one whom Küng calls “the God of Judaism.” This latter God, according to Küng, could only forgive the sinner who had already become righteous.87 Jesus' God forgives sinners as such, “loves sinners more than the righteous.88 Jesus is here pictured as preparing the way for Marcion. Is this a Jesus with whom an unbiased Jew is supposed to be sympathetic? Küng's Jesus hardly differs from the Jesus of the anti-Jewish tradition; this Jesus lived, died, and taught in conscious and consistent opposition to Judaism. So does Küng's.

Jesus, unique and thoroughly alienated from all kinds of Jews and Judaism except those looked down upon by all the official representatives of the community, both was aggressive toward all sides of the religious world and, in turn, was attacked by all of them.89 He was brought to trial for having “offended against almost everything that was sacred to this people, this society and its representatives.”90 He called into question the law, the society, the cult, and the identity of the people in his love for the stranger. Inconveniently, for Küng's point of view, love for the stranger is commanded in the Torah (Lev. 19:34). How could love for the stranger overthrow the law that commanded it? In any case, Küng contends that Jesus “shattered the foundations, the whole theology and ideology of the hierarchy.”91 As a result, he incurred the hostility of virtually everybody, “of rulers and rebels, the silent majority and the loud minority.”92 He proclaimed the ancient God of the patriarchs, not the God of late Judaism.93 Yet, he spoke of this God differently, as a God of redeeming love, “a new God: a God who has set himself free from his own law, … not a God of God-fearers, but a God of the godless.94 This is a different God, one not of law but of grace.95 Jesus “constantly addressed God as abba.96

This explains why Jesus' whole career is marked from the beginning by a foreboding of death.97 He was “murdered” on the true religious charge that he assumed a sovereign liberty with regard to law and temple, questioned the religious system, and proclaimed God's mercy.98 It is needless to ask whether the Jews or the Romans murdered him, says Küng, without explaining why the Romans would have cared about a figure so totally at odds with other Jews theologically. In any case, “It was the law which sought his death,”99 says Küng, blaming it on a reification. Yet, the one whom the Jews rejected was raised from the dead and warranted by God. God “approved of his proclamation, his behavior, his fate.”100 In his total alienation from all the Judaisms of his time, he was “confirmed” by God, “justified” by God, “put in the right” by God, acknowledged by God to the world.101

In the most extensive study yet done in English of Küng, the point is clearly and repeatedly made that in his understanding of and relation to God Jesus was brought into direct opposition to Judaism: “[I]n the last analysis the whole battle between Jesus and Judaism would come down to the question of God.”102 His understanding of God “forged the battle between Jesus and Judaism,”103 setting the stage “for the final struggle between Jesus and Judaism.”104

What can we say of Hans Küng's Christology in light of his concern for the reconstruction of Christology after the Holocaust in a way that is appropriate to the gospel of Jesus Christ and no longer anti-Jewish? Is Küng's Christ not precisely the superseder of Judaism, Christ the supplanter who creates a “new” Israel in place of the old, and, at the same time, the champion of the new against the old? Surely, in spite of Küng's commitment to overcome anti-Judaism, we cannot but answer this question in the affirmative. Just as with the classical tradition and its liberal revisionists, so with Küng, Jesus “shatters” Judaism and warrants its displacement by the creation of another people of God that is the new and the true Israel.

Is Jesus' significance for Christians tied up with his having done this “good work” of delivering us from Judaism? It is precisely because Jesus was “different” that the Jews rejected him and God “justified” him—certainly God justified him (according to Küng) in his difference.

Do Küng's claims about the historical Jesus go beyond what we can responsibly claim to know? Obviously, Küng knows full well the problem with the Gospels as sources of historical knowledge, yet on the basis of them he regularly contends that Jesus experienced God in a certain, immediate way, that he always did so, that he experienced himself as God's son and advocate, as God's final and unsurpassable prophet, that Jesus' whole life was totally dedicated to God, that he lived entirely in virtue of the One whom he called “abba,” that he was always faithful to God's will, and that he “foresaw” the temple's destruction and his own death. Küng never tells us how he knows these things, because he cannot. He merely asserts them and, on that basis, attempts to “back up” his Christology.

Are the claims that Küng makes about Jesus appropriate to the Christian faith? It would seem not. The gospel is the promise of God's love graciously offered to each and all and the command of God that justice be done to each and all of those whom God loves. Küng's Christology fails to do justice to Judaism in Jesus' time or in the present. It merely repeats the images of Judaism that have long been known to be merely pejorative and lacking in historical authenticity.105 The commandment against bearing false witness applies also to theologians. Also, by stressing as he does Jesus' immediate relation to God, like Schleiermacher and Harnack, he makes of Jesus the “perfect believer,” the one with whom we believe, not the one in whom we believe.

Is Küng's Christology intelligible? Not unless a “completely unique” historical figure is intelligible. One cannot think the idea, if it is one, of a totally unique historical person, at least not in the empirical-historical sense in which Küng speaks of Jesus' uniqueness. Indeed, no one would ever know how in any way to hold such a figure as significant. There would literally be no analogies in terms of which to appropriate the meaning of a totally unique figure; one is dealing here, rather, with a total anomaly, someone so strange that nothing could be made of him. Nor, by the way, should anything be made of the claim that the Jews “rejected” this “completely unique” person. Nothing else could be done with the “completely unique,” except that even “reject” is too strong here; the “completely unique” would necessarily be completely puzzling to everyone. Such a unique figure is docetic, a shadow of a concrete human being.

Two further intelligibility questions arise. First, how can a “completely unique” Jesus serve as the “source, standard, and criterion” of Christian faith? How can he be “the truth”? How can he be both definitive and totally undefinable? Functioning as the criterion and being completely unique are incompatible, with the possible exception that the outcome could be that nothing could possibly be true. Second, Küng appeals to Jesus in differing ways, depending on what he needs to acquire from his “source.” He sometimes invokes Jesus' message, sometimes his person (his awareness of God), sometimes his whole history. Finally, that which is the “source, standard, and criterion” is itself in turn warranted by the resurrection, in which God “backs up, acknowledges” the historical Jesus' message, person, and history, and particularly his conflict with all kinds of Jews and Judaisms. God vindicates Jesus against all his opponents in the simultaneous quadrilateral conflict that was his life. As a warrant-structure, this is simply confusing. Also, it raises the question whether Jesus Christ is not more than any mere norm to Christian faith.

What clues toward reconstruction do we find in Küng? In his desire to overcome anti-Judaism and in his conviction that a complete rethinking and a radical metanoia are necessary, he is certainly correct. In his case, continuing as he does the methodology and warrant-structure of, for example, Harnack, and making the same assumptions as to the question that Christology must answer, such a rethinking is not forthcoming. That we need precisely such a rethinking is the point of which Küng makes us keenly aware.

This rethinking must begin on two fronts. The first has to do with historical scholarship on the Judaisms of the early first century. The scholarship on which Küng relies presents a now largely discredited and highly pejorative view of what he continues to call “late Judaism.” The new scholarship, which sets forth a more balanced and nuanced picture, needs to be consulted by theologians interested in the “most likely story” that can be told of the historical Jesus.106 Küng's disparaging remarks about the God of “late Judaism,” for example, must now be resolutely set aside as false and inaccurate.107 In this context, another question has to do with what one thinks one is doing when one is trying to reconstruct critically the figure of the historical Jesus. Küng is typical of modern, liberal theologians in his effort to “back up” Christology by reference to putative empirical statements about Jesus; the purpose of historical-critical inquiry for him is to warrant Christology by establishing the “picture” of Jesus that will serve as the “norm” for theology and ecclesiology. It is a very different thing to engage in what James H. Charlesworth terms “Jesus research,” the purpose of which is not to warrant any Christology but to develop the most reliable historical picture we can of the Jesus whom we already confess to be the Christ. This effort, motivated by no need to set Jesus over against Jews and Judaism, situates him within the context of Judaism and within the covenant of the God of Israel with the Israel of God. It frees historical criticism from coming up with the “right” results and “frees” the historical Jesus to be himself, a first-century Jew. It also allows Jesus to correct the anti-Judaism of our Christologies, a correction that pointedly does not happen in Küng's “historical-Jesus Christology.” Whether such a correction is allowable within a typical “historical-Jesus Christology” is trenchantly, if unintentionally, raised by Küng.

Although it moves ahead into the next point, a word about what can serve to “warrant” Christology must be said. If Christology is, as I contend below, an attempt to ask and answer one complex set of interrelated questions, questions about who God is, how we are to understand ourselves, and what role Jesus Christ plays in these two questions, then any attempt to warrant Christology would have to ask and answer the questions whether the one whom we say is God really is, whether the way we are given to understand ourselves is indeed true, and whether Jesus Christ, in fact, is the savior who confronts us with the truth about ourselves. Appeal to the Jesus of critical-historical reconstruction cannot warrant christological claims, although appeal to the Jew Yeshua ha Notsri can contradict anti-Jewish claims made on his behalf, if Jesus is seen within the covenant between the God of Israel and the Israel of God. Whatever Jesus was, he was that Jewishly. No Christology appropriate to him could possibly be anti-Jewish.

The second point has to do with more strictly methodological and theological issues; it raises the question of what we are doing when we are doing Christology. Küng apparently takes the christological question to be a question about the Jesus of historical reconstruction, and he is at pains to produce a Christology that answers this question, telling us who Jesus was (it is to be noted that the christological confession is always in the present tense), how he was related to God, how he was in an empirical-historical way “unique,” and what he did, which was to overcome Judaism and create in its place a “new Israel,” the church. I take my own bearings from a set of fairly diverse theologians (Paul Tillich, Schubert M. Ogden, and Paul M. van Buren) who disagree on much but agree that the question that Christology seeks to answer is not “who was Jesus?” but a complex question having to do with how we understand ourselves in relation to God, the neighbor, and the Israel of God. That is, the questions Christology answers are: Who is God? Who are we? What is the meaning of Jesus Christ to us? The answers are: God is the God of Israel, who justifies the ungodly (including gentiles). We are those who, through the church's witness to Jesus Christ, learn that the only appropriate way in which we can understand ourselves in any ultimate sense is in terms of the unfathomably free love and total claim of the God of Israel. Jesus Christ is the risen Jew from Nazareth who, through the witness of the church, continues to confront us with the promise and command of the God of Israel.

Tillich gives us the insight that any Christology that is merely a “Jesusology,” that makes claims of perfection (such as being the “perfect believer”) for a finite and relative historical figure, always ends up being another oppressive heteronomy to be imposed on other faiths—and particularly on Judaism.108

Ogden powerfully argues that any appropriately Christian Christology must be understood as a “re-presentative” Christology, in which what it means to have Christ as our Lord is existentially the same as having the God of Israel as God. Paul's intent, says Ogden, is to affirm that the disclosure of God in Jesus Christ “is the decisive re-presentation to all mankind of the same promise and demand re-presented by the Old Testament revelation (cf. Rom. 3:21).”109 The word addressed to us in Jesus Christ “is precisely the same word” that had been previously “re-presented through ‘the law and the prophets.’”110 Along with this goes the insistence that the significance of Jesus Christ be understood utterly in terms of the graciousness of the God of Israel. God saves us by grace alone in total freedom “from any saving ‘work’ of the kind traditionally portrayed in the doctrines of the … work of Christ.”111 Although Ogden does not make the application explicit, this includes the good work of overcoming Judaism and saving us from it.

From van Buren, a post-Holocaust Christology with any hope of being adequate learns that the only context in which our language about Jesus Christ makes any sense is that of the covenant between the God of Israel and the Israel of God and that the one whom we call Christ is the Jew Jesus of Nazareth through whom God calls into existence the church.112

As far as I can see, to encounter Jesus Christ in the witness of the church is to encounter the God of Israel, maker and redeemer of heaven and earth. This Jesus, whose very name proclaims that “Yahweh is salvation,” is the one through whom, by the witness of the church, we are laid bare before the maker and redeemer of heaven and earth, the God of Jesus Christ, of Paul the apostle, and of the people Israel. More specifically, the role of Jesus Christ in relation to gentile Christians, whether of Teutonic derivation (as Küng) or Celtic (as Williamson), is fundamentally different from his role in relation to the Jewish people. What Jesus of Nazareth did for his followers was to call them back to the God of Israel whose basileia had been promised to them. What Jesus Christ through the church has done and continues to do for the Küngs and Williamsons of this world has been to call us away from Wotan and Thor, Maeve and Fergus, to the God of Israel and to the Israel of God. Paul, for example, spoke little of the typical Jewish notion of “returning” (shuv) to God because he was trying to persuade his gentile followers to “turn” to God in the first place. That is, rather than being the one who drove a wedge between the gentile church and the Jewish people, the proper role of Jesus Christ is that attested by Ephesians: to bring gentiles in out of the cold of being “without God in the world,” aliens to God's grace and promise, and to bring gentiles into the family and household of God (Eph. 2:11-22).

Therefore, Jesus Christ is never properly attested, either in the witness of the church or in the critical christological reflection of theologians, unless it is made quite clear that, when we say that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” we can never do so without saying that this is so “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11). Nor may we ever forget that the One whom Paul calls “God the Father” is the “God of Israel,” who is theologically unthinkable without the “Israel of God.” That is, if Jesus Christ is a gift to the church from the God of Israel, an entirely correct theological proposition, then he is also by the same token a gift to the church from the Israel of God. Jesus Christ took form in the people Israel and is inseparable from the covenant between the God of Israel and the Israel of God. If God is not faithful to that covenant, a faithfulness that supersessionist teaching denies, then there is no ground for Christian hope in God's faithfulness. If God's grace does not continue to be extended to Jews as Jews after the time of Jesus Christ, then the gospel of God's gracious justification of the ungodly is untrue for gentiles. If this God rejects Jews because their history is a history of sin, what can we expect of God after a Holocaust in which all the killers were Christian? Christology must in each of its statements give voice to the grace of God, never to the works-righteousness implicit in anti-Judaism.

That there is much more to be worked out in a Christology is a point of which I am keenly aware. What I have tried to indicate (and merely that) in this last section is a suggestion of a starting point and direction for a post-Holocaust Christology.


  1. Hans Küng, “Introduction: From Anti-Semitism to Theological Dialogue,” in Hans Küng and Walter Kasper, eds., Christians and Jews, Concilium, vol. 8, no. 10 (New York: Seabury Press, 1974/5), p. 9.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid., p. 10.

  4. Ibid., p. 11.

  5. Ibid., p. 13, his emphasis.

  6. Ibid.

  7. “The very concept of a New Testament as distinct from the Old may well go back to Marcion's repudiation of the Jewish scriptures” (Norman Perrin, New Testament: An Introduction [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974], p. 331).

  8. Hans Küng, Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, tr. John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 109-111.

  9. Küng, “Introduction,” p. 14.

  10. Hans Küng, “Toward a New Consensus in Catholic (and Ecumenical) Theology,” in Leonard Swidler, ed., Consensus in Theology? (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980 [co-published as J. E. S. 17 (Winter, 1980)]), p. 6, his emphasis.

  11. Ibid., p. 7.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid., p. 8.

  14. Ibid., p. 11.

  15. Hans Küng, The Church—Maintained in Truth: A Theological Meditation, tr. Edward Quinn (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), p. 11.

  16. Ibid., p. 12.

  17. Ibid., p. 20, his emphasis.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid., p. 28, his emphasis.

  20. Ibid., p. 40.

  21. Ibid., p. 41.

  22. Ibid., p. 65.

  23. Küng seems to be foundering here, as do many theologians, on his collapse of the distinction between the meaning of truth and its criteria. What he is saying might be put as: “Jesus is a necessary condition of truth,” whereas I would want to say that “Jesus Christ is a sufficient condition for the criteria of truth.” The two statements are very different. Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of the church's criteria but certainly more than any mere criterion.

  24. Hans Küng, The Church, tr. Ray and Rosaleen Ockenden (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), p. 43.

  25. Ibid., p. 44.

  26. Ibid., p. 45.

  27. Ibid., p. 48, his emphasis.

  28. Ibid., p. 49, his emphasis.

  29. Ibid., p. 51, his emphasis.

  30. Ibid., p. 52, his emphasis.

  31. Ibid., p. 57.

  32. Ibid., p. 58, quoting Ernst Kasemann, Essays on New Testament Themes, Studies in Biblical Theology 41 (London and Naperville, IL: SCM, 1964), pp. 37-38.

  33. Ibid., p. 73.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid., p. 75.

  36. Ibid., p. 76.

  37. Paul M. van Buren formulates precisely such a rule in his A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality—Part 3: Christ in Context (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1988), p. xix.

  38. Küng, The Church, p. 107.

  39. Ibid., p. 108.

  40. Ibid., p. 109, his emphasis.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Ibid., pp. 109-110.

  43. Ibid., p. 111.

  44. Ibid., p. 113, his emphasis.

  45. Ibid., p. 114.

  46. Ibid., p. 115.

  47. Ibid., p. 118.

  48. Of course, those alert to issues of sensitivity might find it callous of any Christian theologian, after the attempted “Endlösung der Judenfrage,” to say of the Jewish people that theirs is a history of sin.

  49. Küng, The Church, p. 119.

  50. Ibid., p. 123.

  51. Ibid.

  52. Ibid.

  53. Ibid.

  54. See, e.g., Ernst Troeltsch, Die Absolutheit des Christentum und die Religionsgeschichte (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1929), pp. 1-20.

  55. Küng, The Church, p. 138.

  56. Ibid., p. 145, his emphasis.

  57. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, tr. Edward Quinn (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976), p. 123, his emphasis.

  58. Ibid.

  59. Ibid., p. 148, his emphasis.

  60. Ibid., p. 149.

  61. Ibid., p. 153, his emphasis.

  62. Ibid., p. 159.

  63. Ibid, his emphasis.

  64. Ibid., p. 161, his emphasis.

  65. Ibid., p. 174, his emphasis.

  66. Ibid., pp. 178-179.

  67. Ibid., p. 180.

  68. Ibid., p. 187.

  69. Ibid, his emphasis.

  70. Ibid., p. 190.

  71. Ibid., p. 195.

  72. Ibid., pp. 196-201.

  73. Ibid., p. 202.

  74. Ibid.

  75. Ibid., p. 206.

  76. Ibid., p. 207.

  77. Ibid., p. 252.

  78. Ibid., p. 209.

  79. Ibid., p. 211.

  80. See, e.g., E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987); and Jacob Neusner, From Politics to Piety (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973).

  81. Küng, On Being a Christian, p. 212, his emphasis.

  82. Ibid. Needless to say, the expression “completely unique” is redundant.

  83. Küng, Judaism, pp. 319-336.

  84. Küng, On Being a Christian, p. 252.

  85. Ibid., p. 255.

  86. Ibid., p. 258.

  87. Ibid., p. 273.

  88. Ibid., p. 274, his emphasis.

  89. Ibid., p. 278.

  90. Ibid., p. 291.

  91. Ibid., p. 293.

  92. Ibid., p. 292.

  93. Ibid., p. 296.

  94. Ibid., p. 313, his emphasis.

  95. Ibid., p. 314.

  96. Ibid, his emphasis.

  97. Ibid., p. 319.

  98. Ibid., pp. 336-337.

  99. Ibid., p. 339.

  100. Ibid., p. 382.

  101. Ibid.

  102. William F. Buggert, “The Christologies of Hans Küng and Karl Rahner—A Comparison and Evaluation of Their Mutual Compatibility” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 1978), p. 109.

  103. Ibid., pp. 109-110.

  104. Ibid., p. 110.

  105. George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Three Centuries of the Common Era: The Age of the Tannaim, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927-30).

  106. A representative, but far from exhaustive, list of relevant titles includes: James H. Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 1988); James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990); Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988); John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti- Semitism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1987); Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977); Bernard J. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1988); and E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).

  107. See, e.g., Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, p. 108.

  108. This is one of the crucial points in Tillich's discussion of “final revelation”: Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 135-137.

  109. Schubert M. Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1963, 1965, 1966), p. 202.

  110. Ibid., p. 203, his emphasis.

  111. Schubert M. Ogden, Christ without Myth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p. 145.

  112. van Buren, Christ in Context, p. 5.

Larry A. Green (review date 2 March 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today, in Christian Century, Vol. 111, No. 7, March 2, 1994, pp. 231-32.

[In the following review, Green calls Küng's Credo “worth the effort.”]

If Hans Küng's 21st book[, Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today,] were listed on a computer disk, its file name might be Küng.sea, indicating that this is a compressed file in the form of a “self-expanding archive.” Compression shrinks computer files to use less space on the disk. To make the files usable again, they must be expanded. One of contemporary Roman Catholicism's best-known theologians, Küng has created a compact reader with far more content than its 190 pages would suggest.

Küng introduces each of his six chapters with an example of Christian iconography. He then draws on his admirable mastery of biblical, scientific, psychological and artistic arguments to compare that traditional image of faith with a contemporary conception. Küng writes for people who want to believe, but cannot do so in the manner of earlier times. “Too much has changed in the overall constellation of our time. Too much in Christian faith seems alien, seems to contradict the natural sciences and the humanities and indeed the humane impulses of our time. This book is meant to help here.” Each article of the creed, therefore, is explored both from the perspective of contemporary concerns and in its historical context. The reader is confronted by Küng's thoroughly modern hermeneutic. For example, in his treatment of the resurrection, Küng observes, “The Easter event is not determined by the empty tomb but at best illustrated by it.”

Küng also examines the creed in relationship to ethical issues. Woven into the discussion of eternal life is a provocative treatment of the meaning of dying. Referring to the artificial prolongation of life, he notes that “the end of life is also, more than hitherto, made a human responsibility (not a whim!) by the same God who does not want us to foist on him a responsibility which we ourselves can and should bear.”

Credo is an important resource for theologians, students and any Christians who would like to revisit the creed with an eye toward revitalizing their faith through understanding. This is a book that seeks to bring a solid biblical interpretation to the creed while avoiding “an esoteric or sterile dogmatic interpretation.” It is meant for those “who already believe,” but to be understandable, “as far as possible, also for those who do not believe.” Declares Küng: “Despite all my sorry experiences with my church, I believe that critical loyalty is worthwhile, that resistance is meaningful and renewal possible, and that another positive turn in church history cannot be ruled out.” Read Küng.sea. Expanding its compressed ideas will be worth the effort.

William P. George (review date 18-25 May 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Promise of a Global Ethic,” in Christian Century, Vol. 111, No. 17, May 18-25, 1994, pp. 530-33.

[In the following review, George briefly outlines A Global Ethic, developed by the Parliament of the World's Religions and edited by Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel, and briefly compares it to John Paul II's encyclical on Roman Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor.]

“Come together in unity. Speak in profound agreements. May your minds converge (in deep consensus). May your deliberations be uniform and united in your hearts. May you be firmly bound and united in your intentions and resolves.” In this way a Hindu sacred text (Rig Veda X-191, 2-4) encourages and blesses its hearers. Despite its complexity, politics and even pratfalls, one could argue that the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago last summer was vivid testament that exhortations believed to be divinely inspired sometimes find their mark.

The full significance of the parliament, which drew 6,500 participants from virtually every religious community, is not easily assessed. But one tangible result was a 20-page consensus statement on a global ethic. Given the fact of religious diversity, which too often degenerates into bloodshed, one can hardly imagine a greater challenge. Even with this achievement, one is left to ask just what has been accomplished and what it all means.

Whatever the merit of debating the existence of a genuinely universal moral order and the possibility of articulating a global ethic, the fact of immense human suffering, endemic poverty for hundreds of millions, deep and protracted violent conflicts, oppression and exploitation of several kinds and ecological devastation ought to be its context. If multiculturalism, antifoundationalism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, etc., are to be the formal terms of scholarly ethical debate, then its matter ought to be such things as child prostitution in Thailand, domestic violence in the U.S., the destruction of the world's great rainforests, racial and tribal violence in South Africa, the present horror in Rwanda, and religious and ethnic warfare in Bosnia.

And things may be getting worse. Perhaps it is the onset of end-of-the-millennium fever, but writers like Paul Kennedy, in Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, and Robert Kaplan, in a recent Atlantic article, have painted the global future with Hobbesian and Malthusian brushes. For all but a more or less insulated elite, the world will not, they fear, be a pleasant place to live.

The framers and the first signatories of the Global Ethic are acutely aware of such foreboding, as well as of present horrors. The ethic is introduced by a jeremiad against the evils of the age—poverty, women and men estranged from each other, massive injustice, and especially aggression and hatred in the name of religion. Those who gathered in Chicago have experienced many of these first hand. The repression of the parliament's most illustrious participant, Tibet's Dalai Lama, may stand for all the rest.

In the face of these global problems, what is the Global Ethic about? What does it try to do? Most important, why ought anyone take it seriously? Given its brevity, the declaration may not answer such questions satisfactorily. For that reason the commentaries [included in A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World's Religions] by Hans Küng, who drafted a major part of the document, and his Tübingen colleague, Karl-Josef Kuschel, are helpful. Küng recounts the genesis of and the process leading up to the finished document and discusses its key points. Kuschel places the parliament and declaration in historical context by reminding the reader of advances in interreligious dialogue since the first parliament a century ago. He also discusses the collapse of Eurocentric Christian modernity and the polyreligious situation of our time. Taken together with the declaration, these two essays explain the intent of the Global Ethic, its limitations and its promise.

Küng's commentary helps clarify what the declaration is not: it is neither an ethical system nor a philosophical treatise. It is neither a sermon nor a political declaration. It is not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights dressed up in religious garb, not “a global ideology or a single unified religion beyond all existing religions, and certainly not the domination of one religion over all others.”

Rather, this global ethic is “a fundamental consensus on binding values, irrevocable standards, and personal attitudes.” As Küng explains in the preface, the consensus “does not reduce the religions to an ethical minimalism but represents the minimum of what the religions of the world already have in common now in the ethical sphere.” Even the declaration title—“ethic” rather than “ethics”—is crucial. “Ethics” connotes a philosophical or theological theory that the declaration does not purport to present.

The declaration consists of two texts, a short “Introduction,” drafted by an editorial committee of the “council” for the parliament, and “The Principles of a Global Ethic,” drafted by Küng in Tübingen. The fact that there are two texts is a story in itself, having to do with the history of the declaration and its purpose (the Chicago-based committee wanted a short statement; Küng insisted on a longer text). This is a story that, unfortunately, I must bypass. As presented in this Continuum edition, the two texts together make up the Global Ethic.

The longer text, dealing with principles, is simply structured (although Küng points out that how he arrived at this structure was no simple matter). After noting the crises we collectively face, the declaration states that there can be “no new global order without a new global ethic.” A new phase in our history requires a new vision; laws, prescriptions and conventions alone will not do. Joint responsibility for the new ethic issues in “a fundamental demand: every human being must be treated humanely.”

This demand—the linchpin of the ethic—is then articulated as “a principle which is found and has persisted in many religious and ethical traditions of humankind for thousands of years,” namely, “What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others! Or in positive terms: What you wish done to yourself, do to others.” The Golden Rule is then expressed through four “irrevocable directives”: commitment to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life; commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

These directives, each of which can be stated negatively (“You shall not kill!”) or positively (“Have respect for life!”), are then given further, but by no means complete, specification. For instance, the commitment to truthfulness enjoins the media to respect and stand up for human rights. The fourth directive urges men and women “to resist wherever the domination of one sex over the other is preached—even in the name of religious conviction.” Of special note in the section on nonviolence (the first directive) is the opening left for self-defense. Küng explains that this was of concern especially to Muslim representatives at the parliament.

The closing section of the declaration, titled “A Transformation of Consciousness,” urges further consensus on specific issues such as those arising in the biomedical sphere. This search for further agreement is to build upon the declaration's principles. This final section also urges “the various communities of faith to formulate their very specific ethic”—something that Küng calls, perhaps tongue slightly in cheek, an “enjoyable task.” Finally, the declaration calls upon all women and men of good will to undergo a conversion of heart.

Readers of all traditions may quite legitimately quibble over or contest any number of points, or note lacunae in the text as it stands. But as both the text and the commentaries make perfectly clear, the declaration is only a first step on the road to a full global ethic. Indeed, for some strange reason, the parliament's own official title, “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” (emphasis added) appears in the table of contents of the Continuum edition, but not on the title page or cover. Its openendedness may be its most significant feature, and in many respects its most problematic. The declaration left at least two tasks unfinished: one is clearly stated, the other implied. The stated task is for various religious communities to work out their own specific ethic, one that builds upon the consensus statement. Besides carrying on dialogue among themselves in order to resolve their differences, religious communities should also, one can infer, engage and learn from institutions and communities not explicitly religious or those wishing to distance themselves from religion.

An example of greater specification of the ethic within a particular tradition is John Paul II's encyclical on Roman Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, which arrived on the scene five weeks after the parliament. Some argue that this long-awaited document was prompted by the same concerns that occupied those responsible for the emergence of the Global Ethic, namely, concerns for a perceived loss of moral bearings on a global scale. A careful comparative study of the two documents would be revealing; some brief observations must do.

While the papal document lacks specifics, Roman Catholicism's well-known proscriptions of artificial means of contraception, direct abortion and other “intrinsically evil acts” are amply and forcefully reaffirmed. With this “hard line” in view, juxtaposition with the Global Ethic is instructive. It exposes the large gap that can loom between the Global Ethic and the developed ethic of a particular tradition, a gap of both content and degree of consensus. It is safe to say that not everyone who signed the Global Ethic would fully ascribe to the substantive views of Veritatis Splendor; the encyclical has failed to meet with unanimous approval even within Roman Catholic ranks.

To get a further sense of the extreme and in some respects strange tension that can exist between the minimal consensus of the declaration and the maximal ethic explicated by a particular tradition, I encourage the reader to puzzle over this fact: the Vatican's representative to the parliament, along with Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and other Catholic leaders, signed their names to a document drafted by Hans Küng, whom the Vatican declared some years ago to be no longer a Catholic theologian; it is highly doubtful that Küng could return the favor and sign his name to Veritatis Splendor.

The nature of the tension between the Global Ethic and further intracommunity explication is even more visible in John Paul II's recent remarks. In keeping with Veritatis Splendor, he recently criticized a draft document of the upcoming International Conference on Population and Development, set for Cairo, because of its view of abortion and sexuality in general. “There is a tendency,” the pope has said, “to promote an internationally recognized right to access to abortion on demand, without any restriction, with no regard to the rights of the unborn.”

Although the core of the Global Ethic is the formal norm “treat human beings humanely,” the declaration never ventures to say whether fetuses count as human beings or what humane treatment of prenatal life ought to entail. One hardly wonders at this silence; after all, as Küng explains in his commentary, a key operative principle guiding his drafting of the Global Ethic was a capacity to secure consensus. One can easily imagine why neither abortion nor prenatal life is mentioned anywhere in the text.

Silence about entailments of the Golden Rule might be golden: the lack of specificity in the Global Ethic may be its strength. While the principles enunciated by the ethic do not directly affirm John Paul II's stance on abortion, neither do they close it off. As a result, the pope and in principle other traditions can have it both ways: they can affirm a moral consensus with other religious communities on vague, formal, visionary principles while retaining their own distinctive moral stance. Unity and distinctiveness all at once—the very thing the parliament wanted to affirm.

But herein lies an enormous task as well. If greater explication is not to end in the total fracture of moral consensus, the various communities will have to stay connected through mutual exchange—in order both to challenge and to be challenged. John Paul II's explication of directives concerning respect for life and sexual ethics may challenge other religious traditions, but Roman Catholicism needs to listen to these traditions as well.

All consensual partners to the Global Ethic must stay in touch with those organizations, institutions and patterns of life that are less explicitly religious or even intentionally removed from religion. This is the second of the declaration's unfinished tasks. Insofar as the declaration calls upon all women and men of good will to join in the realization of a global ethic, a connection is clearly envisioned between those who gathered in Chicago last summer, those who will gather in Cairo in September, and those who gathered for the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit two years ago. What does not emerge clearly from the declaration is the sense that religious traditions can learn a great deal from those whose moral viewpoints are not explicitly grounded in claims of transcendence.

To an extent, this apparent lack of receptiveness is understandable. As Küng points out, the declaration is a self-critical document. Religiously minded people and communities need first to reflect upon and repent of their own instigation of and participation in the violence, social disruptions and ecological destruction that mark our age. Second, the declaration's ethic should not be confused with either politics or law. “An ethic,” Küng explains, “is primarily concerned with the inner realm of a person, the sphere of the conscience, of the ‘heart,’ which is not directly exposed to sanctions that can be imposed by political power.”

But neither should a religiously grounded ethic be separated from politics and law. And this is not simply because, as Küng points out, “a global ethic should … have relevance at the economic and political level and support efforts towards a just ordering of the economy and of society.” Rather, I suggest that politics and law can, in their inner dynamics, illuminate the very nature of the Global Ethic—even with its religious grounding.

Particularly striking is the mutually illuminating relationship between religion and law. As the eminent legal historian Harold J. Berman has argued in Faith and Order: The Reconciliation of Law and Religion and elsewhere, law in various cultures is infused with a moral underpinning more or less equivalent to the Decalogue of Judaism and Christianity. This underpinning, as Berman describes it, is strikingly similar to the parliament's ethic. In other words, law and explicitly religious claims may provide distinct avenues that converge and arrive at roughly the same global ethic.

One clear example of law's intersection with religion in search of an ethic is in human rights law, a new and rapidly developing area of international legal doctrine and practice. As Küng points out, the Global Ethic is meant to affirm the International Declaration of Human Rights without simply repeating it. But perhaps an equally notable example is the Law of the Sea. The result of the most complex and extensive negotiations in history (1970s and early 1980s), this multilateral treaty is due to take legal effect in November 1994.

The Law of the Sea is instructive for several reasons. Like the Global Ethic, formulation of a new sea law was based on consensus—a novel procedure in international negotiations. Furthermore, its content clearly converges with that of the Global Ethic. The movement toward a new sea law in the 1970s was intimately linked to demands, especially from the world's poorer nations, for a new and more just international economic order. The Law of the Sea might thus be construed as a “secular” attempt to explicate the Global Ethic's religiously grounded second directive: “commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.”

The philosophical crux of the negotiations was the “common heritage of humankind” (“mankind” during the negotiations), a novel legal concept applied to the riches of the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction. This concept clearly implies a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.

But the relevance of this concept to the Global Ethic runs deeper still. As Küng explains, and as the declaration makes clear, the Global Ethic is to be explicitly religious in its grounding—though the absence of God-talk, primarily out of deference to Buddhists, will be noteworthy for many. By contrast, the ethic captured by the Law of the Sea is explicitly nonreligious. Indeed, international law has long been suspicious of religious discourse for the same reason as the parliament: religious belief has been, and continues to be, a scandalously frequent ingredient of violent conflict.

Nevertheless, the Law of the Sea—especially the common-heritage concept—is arguably religious despite itself. It is difficult to explain what it means to say that the earth is humankind's heritage without any sense of a transcendent source of that great gift. Thus, while the Global Ethic is religious but makes a sidelong bow to politics, economics and law, the Law of the Sea is explicitly political, economic and legal but with an implicit religious core.

The Law of the Sea is instructive for another reason. While the common-heritage concept gained clear consensus as a negotiating principle at the Law of the Sea Conference, the move toward practical explication of the concept brought sharp and sometimes acrimonious division as individual states and ideologically committed blocs pursued their own versions of the truth about who owns—or ought to own—the earth. As a vision of a world where sharing triumphs over greed, ecological devastation and massive disparities of wealth, the common-heritage concept was fine; realization of that vision is another matter. As the Law of the Sea moves toward implementation, its detractors (primarily in the U.S., which during the early Reagan years pulled back from the negotiations and refused to sign the final text) have renewed their attack (like one in a recent William Safire column). Thus we see in the world of law the same sort of tension, sometimes to the breaking point, that we well might find in the movement from consensus on the Global Ethic to greater intracommunity and intercommunity explication of its principles.

But failure to realize a vision—fully or even in part—does not falsify the vision itself. In a world in which fragile ecosystems and ozone shields heed no political boundaries, the vision of a unified global community sharing and caring for one earth rings true. Continued exploitation of the earth and its denizens, human and nonhuman alike, render the vision truer still. In a similar way, the Global Ethic's vision of a world in which human beings are treated humanely and the earth is treated with respect is made no less true when children starve, when dissident voices are silenced by the torturer's tools, when poison fills our waterways and the air.

The fullest significance of the Global Ethic resides, then, in the journey from vision to realization, from aspiration to implementation. One might say that the ethic is the journey. The Global Ethic, Küng points out, is rooted in the existing commitments of the various religious communities. But moral failure on a massive scale—a failure of vision and a failure to realize that vision—is real as well. If an ethic rooted in religious conviction is also to be rooted in reality, then it ought to say something about moral failure—not just its fact, but how, or at least whether, redemption precisely from a transcendent source (which, Küng argues, is not foreign to Buddhism) might be sought. The Global Ethic might have said more about this, for religious traditions have spoken on the theme for a long time. Put in Christian terms, what I find lacking in the Global Ethic is a vigorous doctrine of grace. Without such emphasis one in fact wonders just how deep the ethic's desired religious grounding can go.

Still, as an ethic primarily of aspiration the declaration is both remarkable and necessary. Its real story is found, however, not in the commentaries by Küng and Kuschel but before us, in continual divinely aided efforts to specify and clarify and especially to act.

The story is told of a French general returning from his last Middle East campaign with the seedling of a wonderful olive tree. The first morning back, he delighted in presenting his gardener with the seedling and telling of the joy that ripe olives had brought to him when he was far from home. The gardener was dismayed. “But sir,” he said. “I have heard of these trees. This seedling will not bear fruit for 75 years!” “In that case,” the elderly general replied, “do not wait until after lunch to plant it.”

The seedling of a new Global Ethic with its vision of a new world order requires transplanting. With so many climates and soils, and so much harsh weather ahead, it must be replanted and tended with care. We may not live to see it bear fruit, but with our world in such pain and agony, we ought not wait until after lunch to begin planting.

Thomas W. Currie III (review date January 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today, in Theology Today, Vol. 51, No. 4, January, 1995, pp. 618-24.

[In the following excerpt, Currie states, “Earnest, eager to resolve doubt, anxious not to give offence, Credo is remarkable in its breadth of learning, yet is strangely non-threatening, hardly disturbing to either the faithful or the unbelieving.”]

[Daniel L. Migliore's The Lord's Prayer: Perspectives for Reclaiming Christian Prayer] delights in no small part because it invites us more deeply into the gospel and enables us to see connections there that cast new light on the world. Unfortunately, Hans Küng's book, Credo, has neither this intent nor this effect. As the sub-title indicates, Küng seeks not so much to understand what faith believes as to “explain” the faith. In so doing, his “explanations” aim at a world in which the “Christian faith seems alien, seems to contradict the natural sciences and the humanities and indeed the humane impulses of our time.” By employing the insights of depth psychology, recent findings in cosmology, biology, and chaos theory, and in conversation with other great traditions (for example, Protestantism and Greek Orthodoxy), as well as other great religions, (for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism), Küng hopes to translate the insights of the Apostles' Creed into the language of a post-Kantian, post-Darwinian, even post-Einsteinian world.

In undertaking this project, Küng enlists in the honorable ranks of those who would make use of new insights to unfold the gospel's story. The question, however, is whether Küng, in so earnestly seeking to be understood by present-day culture, has not made its approval the criterion for what is permissible to be heard in that story. Earnest, eager to resolve doubt, anxious not to give offence, Credo is remarkable in its breadth of learning, yet is strangely non-threatening, hardly disturbing to either the faithful or the unbelieving. Küng's finding that the virgin birth does not lie at the center of the gospel he calls a “momentous decision.” The resurrection appearances are for him “probably … inward visionary events and not external reality.” Who is God? “God is the all-embracing and all-permeating ground of meaning of the world process, who can of course only be accepted in faith,” a definition, one might note, which is unencumbered by reference to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, much less the disturbing singularity of the Word made flesh.

Although Küng seeks to answer the concerns of a remarkably diverse number of conversation-partners, his primary audience appears to be those same “cultured despisers” who, having gone to school in the Enlightenment, can pick apart the church's failings and contradictions without breaking into much of a sweat. These folk, he thinks, are embarrassed by talk of miracles, saints, and human sinfulness and need reassurance that committing to the faith will not implicate them in something foolish. Credo is happy to oblige on almost every count, finding in Jesus Christ that “guide for Christians” in whose company “it should be possible to achieve a psychological identity for oneself in the face of all imprisonment in anxiety, and also social solidarity against all resignation in face of compulsive pressure.” So it is that the gospel makes sense in the world and proves its usefulness in its ability to help people lead satisfying, fulfilling lives.

And just so fails to wound or to heal.

Credo is a nice book written by a nice man. His gifts of interpretation, especially in art history and philosophy, are striking, just as his diligence is everywhere apparent. If the faith could prove itself by the breadth or depth of its range of knowledge and culture, this little book would be a masterpiece. But the gospel does not give itself to us in that way, but, as Küng himself knows, in the not very nice form of a man dying on the cross, a man who was put there, after all, by nice people who were, for some reason, terribly offended with him. His story has embarrassed more sophisticated cultures than our own, and it may well be that our own culture's salvation will be found not in the “explanations” that render that story harmless but in the offense and contradictions that story exposes.

Donald G. Bloesch (review date 2 October 1995)

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SOURCE: “A Jesus for Everyone, A Christ for None,” in Christianity Today, Vol. 39, No. 11, October 2, 1995, pp. 40, 42.

[In the following review, Bloesch calls into question Küng's historical focus on the life and teaching of Jesus, instead of Jesus's preexistence as a member of the Trinity, in Christianity, although he praises the book's comprehensiveness.]

In [Christianity: Essence, History, and Future], which the author presents as the culmination of a lifetime of study and reflection, noted Catholic theologian Hans Küng undertakes a comprehensive theological history of Christianity, showing its biblical roots and global implications. Küng differentiates the ceremonial and doctrinal embellishments of the Christian faith from its essence—the historical person of Jesus Christ. Küng seeks to get beyond a “Eurocentric” understanding of the Christian religion to a “universal historical view” that nevertheless maintains continuity with the original New Testament message. He sees Christianity not as an outmoded traditionalism but as a “radical humanism”—“being human to the full.”

He calls for a Christology from below—beginning with the historical life and teachings of Jesus rather than the creedal interpretation of the early church, where he discerns a shift from the New Testament paradigm to the Hellenistic paradigm in which the faith was articulated and in some instances drastically altered by Greek ontological categories. He believes that a Christology from below also has ecumenical promise, for it would facilitate dialogue with Judaism and Islam, both of which could never accept Hellenistic Christianity and the Trinity.

According to Küng, the process of Hellenization created a church burdened by hierarchy, ritualism, and creedalism. The call to discipleship, which characterized the ministry of Jesus, was overshadowed in the patristic church by a mounting concern for right doctrine. He expresses unhappiness with the medieval paradigm of the church, which tightened the grip of hierarchy with its emphasis on papal supremacy. He is grateful to the Protestant Reformation for rediscovering the gospel of justification by faith and recovering prophetic spirituality as opposed to mysticism and ritualism. He believes, however, that the present age necessitates a global spirituality and a global ethic that will still focus on Jesus but now in relationship to other world teachers and prophets.

While appreciating the comprehensiveness of Küng's vision and the lucidity of his proposals, I have real difficulties with his analysis and interpretation. First, Küng shows himself at odds with the apostolic church by making the Jesus of history the final criterion for faith. Whereas the apostles and theologians of the early church proclaimed the preexistent Christ incarnate in human flesh, Küng's emphasis is on the life, death, and teachings of Jesus as determined by historical research. He disputes both the preexistence of Jesus Christ and the dogma of the Trinity on the grounds that they represent deformations of New Testament faith. While it is certainly true that the fathers of the church resorted to philosophical terminology in elucidating the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity, a powerful case can be made that both Nicaea and Chalcedon resisted and countered the Hellenization of the faith. Küng sees Jesus as “God's eschatological prophet and emissary” rather than God himself in the garb of humanity.

Küng proposes that we move from the Enlightenment paradigm focused on the historical-critical study of Scripture and the moral teachings of Jesus to a postmodern paradigm focused on universal religious experience and global values. He believes a binding ethical consensus can be reached through interreligious dialogue. While maintaining that Christianity is the “one true religion,” he also is ready to acknowledge that there are “many true religions” in the sense that salvific truth can be found in all the world religions, though it is supremely embodied in Jesus Christ—at least for Christians. Küng calls for a postconfessional, ecumenical paradigm in which Christianity breaks out of its cultural insularity and enters into fruitful conversation with the other great world religions. Our goal should be a “pluralistic holistic synthesis.” Küng can be faulted for subverting the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the interest of cultivating interreligious peace and saving the planet from ecological destruction.

I can appreciate Küng for his appeal to the New Testament over church tradition, his penetrating critique of papalism and Marianism, and his warnings against sacramentalism and ritualism. I must take exception, however, to his reduction of the faith to the original teachings of Jesus and the facts of his life and death (though these certainly belong to the fuller perspective of faith).

The author's Christology from below fails to do justice to the church's teachings of the Incarnation and the Trinity, both of which are solidly anchored, though not precisely elucidated, in the New Testament. Küng urges sensitive Christians to create an ecumenical global paradigm if the church is to maintain its relevance and avoid the risk of becoming insular and sectarian. But is not our task as biblical Christians to develop the ecumenical implications of the Reformation or evangelical paradigm, which Küng acknowledges to be basically faithful to the New Testament? Christians need to enter into dialogue with fellow Christians in order to advance the truth of the gospel and the cause of church unity, and here we would do well to listen to Küng. Yet we must insist that unity will come only when we identify with the apostolic interpretation of the gospel already given in the New Testament and amplified and clarified in the confessions of the early church and the Protestant Reformation.

Robert P. Imbelli (review date 21 October 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Christianity: Essence, History, Future, in America, Vol. 173, No. 12, October 21, 1995, pp. 23-4.

[In the following review, Imbelli calls Küng's Christianity “a monumental, if flawed, achievement,” and goes on to delineate the book's problems.]

In the course of a theological career of almost 40 years, Hans Küng has performed singular service to Christian theology and ecumenical understanding. His early works of the 1960‘s on the church helped prepare and promote the reform movement of Vatican II. His major works of the 1970’s, On Being a Christian and Does God Exist?, attempted to set forth the meaning of Christian faith in God and his Christ and to engage in sympathetic but critical dialogue with believers and non-believers alike.

Most recently Küng and his Institute for Ecumenical Research in Tübingen have embarked upon an extraordinary undertaking. Under the rubric of “No World Peace Without Religious Peace,” Küng is seeking to further religious dialogue through a writing project that will comprise a trilogy of volumes on each of the “Abrahamic faiths”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is not a “least common denominator” ecumenism. Küng wants to identify the distinctive parts of the different faiths, precisely in order to further understanding and draw upon deep commonalities of these religions, even in the midst of difference.

The first volume of this project, Judaism, appeared in 1992, and now the volume on Christianity has just been translated into English. With its 800 pages of text, 115 of endnotes and 20 of indices, Christianity bears all the marks of Küng's virtues: stunning erudition, moral passion, provocative honesty and sometimes unrelenting polemics. In sum, the work is a monumental, if flawed, achievement.

As its title indicates and its insertion into the wider project dictates, we have here no detached academic study of Christian origins and history. This review of 2,000 years of Christian history, whose pace is frenetic even for its length, serves a further purpose: “To understand the present more deeply,” indeed, to show “how and why Christianity became what it is today—with a view to how it could be.” A reformist and ecumenical agenda, animated by the dichotomy between Christianity and the modern world, underlies the analysis and structures the “Questions for the Future” with which Küng peppers his text. These “Questions,” variously framed and often posed to challenge each of the three Abrahamic religions, propel the exposition forward and recapitulate its almost prophetic passion.

Küng has two strategies. He first seeks to identify the distinctive “essence” of Christianity. As he had done at greater length in On Being a Christian, Küng holds that this essence lies in the commitment to Jesus Christ as Messiah and Son of God and the confession that in his life, death and resurrection we have the abiding center and norm of Christian faith. He then traces the manifestations of this essence in history by employing the concepts of “paradigm analysis” and “paradigm shift,” which he borrows from Thomas Kuhn, the American philosopher of science. Küng postulates that five paradigms of beliefs, values and techniques have structured Christian consciousness to the present. He designates them as Early Christian Apocalyptic, Early Church Hellenistic, Medieval Roman Catholic, Reformation Protestant and Enlightenment Modern.

Each of these paradigms, which continue to be influential, has succeeded in conserving the abiding substance of faith and transmitting it to new ages and cultures. On the other hand, each has also hardened and hindered the expression of that faith. On the threshold of the third millennium, now a new ecumenical, postmodern paradigm is called for. And Küng, with the considerable resources of the Tübingen Institute at his command, is its prophet!

The entire enterprise appears at once daring, perceptive and problematic. As Küng's book on Judaism has been severely critiqued by Jewish scholars, so his book on Christianity will be by Catholic theologians. For example, the transference of the tool of “paradigm analysis” from the scientific to the religious sphere runs the risk of superficiality. Küng is not content to speak merely of theological paradigms, but rather of paradigms of Christianity that embrace dauntingly disparate cultural, political and economic factors. Küng's extension is so wide that the schema becomes progressively less illuminating, until “paradigm” finally loses any explanatory suggestiveness and becomes merely an umbrella term for designating a particular era, like modernity.

Regarding theology, Küng is excessively wary of ecclesiastical institutionalization, even as he concedes its inevitability, and is too distrustful of dogma. He is very uneasy, for instance, about the doctrine of the Trinity, which he finds unintelligible to Christians and an ecumenical obstacle to the other Abrahamic religions. Like the great 19th-century Protestant theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, to whom he devotes a masterful essay, Küng seems to see the doctrine of the Trinity as no more than an appendix to the substance of the Christian faith.

It is not surprising, then, that Bernard Lonergan, S. J., the foremost analyst of doctrinal development in Catholic theology, merits no mention in the more than 900 pages of the book. Also not mentioned is the work of Küng's former Tübingen colleague, the Catholic theologian and bishop, Walter Kasper, who has written significant studies of the doctrine of the Trinity as the distinctively Christian understanding of God. Moreover, Küng's presentation is so thoroughly laced with anti-Roman polemic, maximizing the failures and infidelities of the hierarchy and downplaying anti-Catholic prejudice and persecution, that even the historical exposition becomes skewed. One sad consequence of this, and indeed of the vitriolic dismissals of the present pope as simply a “restorationist,” is that the postmodern elements of John Paul II's program are not even acknowledged. Küng fails to draw upon them to support his own criticisms of modernity and his hopes for an emerging global ethic of responsibility.

The English translation of the book, though generally fluent, is marred by too many typographical errors, including even mistakes in referring to the paradigm designations themselves. In addition, the word “future” has been added to the English title. This latter term is not just publisher's exaggeration, since Küng does discuss questions and orientations for the future, but it does camouflage Küng's announced intention to devote a second volume to the issue of Christianity's present and future. In the meantime, no matter the astringency of the current volume, Christianity remains vintage Küng and will enliven the theological debate as we approach the coming millennium in the never dull company of Tübingen's Professor Maximus.

Theodore C. Ross, S. J. (review date 20-27 December 1995)

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SOURCE: “Küng's Synthesis,” in Christian Century, Vol. 112, No. 37, December 20-27, 1995, pp. 1250-51.

[Ross is a lecturer in historical theology at the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago and Mundelein Seminary of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. In the following review, he asserts that Küng's Christology in Christianity derives from his desire to reconcile Christianity with Judaism and Islam.]

Hans Küng is both predictable and unpredictable. He is scholarly yet populist, fascinating yet shocking, hopeful yet desperate. And his latest book[, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future,] gives every indication of being one more Küng battlefield. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will be neither pleased nor amused. The very first page sets the book's tone and direction: “Don't many people even in our ‘Christian’ countries and especially Catholic countries associate Christianity with an institutional church greedy for power and lacking in insight, with authoritarianism and doctrinaire dictatorship, which so often breeds anxiety, has complexes about sex, discriminates against women, refuses to engage in dialogue and treats with contempt those who think differently?”

Though all the Christian traditions are Küng's target, he saves his most destructive and loudest salvos for his own, the Church of Rome—as he has for more than 25 years. Many things he writes here repeat what he has said in previous books and articles.

Küng sees massive crises in the whole of Christianity, and where there is no real crisis he does his best to create one. The solution for all these problems must be radical: unshakable faith in the person of Christ. But the churches, Küng contends, have replaced Christ with the Roman system, Orthodox traditionalism and Protestant fundamentalism—indeed, with ecclesiasticism in general.

For Küng the churches have made a cat's breakfast of Christianity, and only the sacred scriptures can give us the essence of Christ's vision. He is hardly the first to claim the Bible for the renewal of Christianity. The Friars of the 13th century, Luther in the 16th and the Second Vatican Council in the 20th all went back to a biblical base. But the rub, as any historian knows, is the interpretation of these scriptures. What is the correct interpretation?

Küng gives the impression that he and many in the Tübingen school have seen the light. Theirs is the true biblical eye-opener. Much of the first quarter of the book involves conclusions drawn from scriptural interpretation. But these conclusions are very much influenced by Küng's goal in writing the book: he aims to create a synthesis of the three great monotheistic religious systems—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He has written a volume titled Judaism. After this book, he plans to complete the trilogy with Islam. Küng wants all three faiths under one umbrella. Locating paradigm shifts is the essence of his method, and his interpretation of scripture is crucial to give his synthesis credibility.

The person and nature of Christ is the key to Küng's theory. He goes to great pains to ground Christology in the Christ of the Jewish Christians. In Küng's low Christology, Christ was not pre-existent with the Father in the act of creation or in anything else. This view of Christ is key to reconciling Christianity with Judaism and Islam. Though Küng's theory is exciting, he railroads any authorities whose positions contradict his own, even if these are inspired writings accepted as canonical by the faith community.

His three whipping boys are the papacy (as would be expected), the idea of a pre-existent Jesus, and the Gospel of John, whose prologue comes under special fire. He gives the creeds a very low priority because they oppose his interpretation of certain passages of the New Testament. He would go so far as to say that the Koran's Christology is more accurate than that of the Greek councils.

As usual, Küng is brilliant and exciting, but many of his positions, such as his defense of Gnosticism, reflect his hang-ups and bêtes noires. He sees Gnosticism as a healthy reaction to the privileged and dominating hierarchy of bishop, priest and deacon.

Using paradigm shifts, Küng unfolds the whole story of Christianity. Many of his observations are fascinating and challenging, especially his contrast of Luther and Erasmus, his accusations against Luther for replacing argument with ardor and wrath, and his criticism of Luther for expecting too much from the church (does Küng recognize himself in that observation?). Calvinism and Anglicanism are among the other traditions that come under his scrutiny.

Küng's insights on the contest between faith and reason that marked the Enlightenment are excellent. In analyzing the trauma of the French Revolution, as well as the Restoration, he shows a church struggling with modernity. Science and scientists, philosophy and philosophers are studied for the most part in the context of the church's weakness. He sees the church as judge, but not as victim.

Despite Küng's many virtues, the reader is constantly tempted to tell him what Riviere told Claudel: “Show me that the church and not just you holds this. What am I to make of a church misunderstood by all except one?”

John P. Galvin (review date June 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Christianity: Essence, History, and Future, in Theological Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2, June, 1996, pp. 363-65.

[In the following review, Galvin criticizes Küng's Christianity for “the thin description of the essence of Christianity, the general aversion to high Christology (even in John) and to trinitarian theology, the reticence in speaking of soteriology, and the frequent glossing over of complex issues through rhetorical questions and appeal to simplistic alternatives [which] prevent the work from achieving its objective of fostering deeper understanding of the Christian faith.”]

This massive volume[, Christianity,] is but the second of a planned trilogy. Preceded by Judaism and soon to be followed by Islam, it is part of a grand project, supported by the Bosch Jubilee Foundation and the Daimler-Benz Fund, for promoting world peace by fostering peace among religions through an interreligious dialogue rooted in investigation of each religion's foundation. Yet even the trilogy will not complete the project, for Küng reserves for a future work a treatment of the Church in non-European areas and a full presentation of his proposals for Christianity's future. Accordingly, apart from a systematically important but brief account of the essence of Christianity, the present volume is largely devoted to an analysis of Christianity's history.

K[üng]'s basic thesis is relatively simple. Freely adapting Thomas Kuhn's conception of paradigm shifts to the exigencies of his historical material, he argues that Christianity's essence, which can never exist in pure form, has been embodied over the course of Christian history in five distinct paradigms, each of which originated in a particular historical-cultural context, and most of which have survived to the present, despite having been superseded in later situations by a new paradigm. Since the specifics of a given paradigm do not pertain to the essence of Christianity, such elements ought not to be sources of division among Christians or of conflict with other monotheistic religions.

As K[üng] understands it, the essence of Christianity lies in its concentration on the person of Jesus Christ, crucified but raised to eternal life with God. Though always in danger of compromising monotheism, obscuring openness to the activity of God's Spirit outside the Church, and degenerating into sterile preoccupation with dogmatic formulas, concrete and practical orientation on Christ constitutes Christianity's specific identity amid the vicissitudes of its history.

The bulk of the book presents the five paradigms which K[üng] detects in the history of Christianity. K[üng] does not seek to be exhaustive, but to locate the emergence of each paradigm, provide information about its major exponents, and diagnose its chief strengths and weaknesses. This approach allows him to range widely and yet be selective in choosing historical topics for examination.

At the origin, closest in time and apparently also in spirit to Jesus, stands the apocalyptic paradigm of early Jewish Christianity, which combined faith in Jesus as the Messiah with continued observance of Mosaic ritual law. Enmeshed in conflict with other tendencies within Christianity even in the New Testament period, Jewish Christianity survived the destruction of Jerusalem but receded from clear historical view in the centuries which followed. The only paradigm unable to maintain its existence to the present, it nonetheless offers resources for interreligious dialogue with Jews and Muslims because of its uncompromising fidelity to monotheism.

The rival and immediate successor to Jewish Christianity, the ecumenical Hellenistic paradigm of Christian antiquity, also originates in the New Testament period. Inaugurated by Paul, it reaches its theological heights in Origen and continues to exist to this day in the Christian East. Responsible for developing a fixed rule of faith, a New Testament canon, and a monarchical episcopate, it tends to shift emphasis from concrete orientation on Christ to speculative theological questions and is inclined to identify its embodiment of Christianity with the essence of the faith.

Even greater problems in this regard are detected in the third paradigm, that of medieval Roman Catholicism. Developing theologically from Augustine through its peak in Aquinas to contemporary Roman theology, and marked from Leo I through the Gregorian Reform to Vatican I by increasing claims on behalf of the papacy, this form of Christianity has also lasted to the present, though not without compromise of the basic message of the gospel. The fourth paradigm, that of the Reformation, is discussed with particular focus on Luther; while presented in more sympathetic terms as a long-overdue prophetic reform of Western Christianity based on the priority of the Word of God, it is also criticized for tendencies toward fragmentation into a variety of churches and for periodic reliance on civil authorities.

The final paradigm is that of modernity, originating in the 17th century but fully developed only in later political, philosophical, economic and cultural revolutions. Exemplified theologically by Schleiermacher, this paradigm represents a needed rethinking of Christianity in a new age, but is often weakened by excessive stress on reason, uncritical belief in progress and ominous tendencies toward nationalism. The need thus arises for a sixth paradigm, of a contemporary ecumenical nature, which K[üng] finds foreshadowed by Pope John XXIII and Vatican II but thwarted by subsequent reactionary developments within Catholicism. Sketching the outline of that paradigm—likely, one suspects, to hark back to Jewish Christianity with its relatively low Christology and undeveloped ecclesial structures—is a task for a future volume.

Written in an irenic spirit, K[üng]'s book is intended for a wider public, and persevering readers will enhance their knowledge of church history. In view of the wide range of the work, K[üng]'s reliance on secondary literature and on his earlier publications is inevitable. But the thin description of the essence of Christianity, the general aversion to high Christology (even in John) and to trinitarian theology, the reticence in speaking of soteriology, and the frequent glossing over of complex issues through rhetorical questions and appeal to simplistic alternatives prevent the work from achieving its objective of fostering deeper understanding of the Christian faith. The tone of the book is lowered by its carping at anything associated with Pope John Paul II. That there is more to the essence of Christianity than is claimed here undoubtedly complicates Christian dialogue with Judaism and Islam, but an interreligious consensus in which at least one party is unable to recognize its own faith would be of very limited value.

Bruce Bawer (review date Winter 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Christianity, in Hudson Review, Vol. L, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 697-98.

[In the following excerpt, Bawer traces the different shifts in Christianity which Küng's Christianity presents.]

Godsey, Taylor, and Borg seek to help readers move beyond narrow dogmatism to an understanding that the essence of Christianity is not about dogma but about spiritual experience. This is also a key part of the message of Hans Küng's Christianity: Essence, History, and Future. Küng, the Swiss architect of Vatican II who may be the greatest theologian of the century but who is currently persona non grata at the papal palazzo, has produced a magisterial, scholarly 900-page treatise that is at the same time thoroughly accessible to general readers. Though it covers a lot of historical and theological ground, the book's main point is a simple one which recalls Brian Taylor's observation that “religion is just a form”—namely, that while Christianity's predominant form has undergone many radical shifts over the centuries, from the early Christians' apocalyptic paradigm to the early Church's Hellenistic paradigm (which survives in today's Eastern Orthodoxy) to the medieval Roman Catholic paradigm (which led to present-day Catholic authoritarianism) to Reformation Protestantism (which bequeathed us Protestant fundamentalism) to the “Enlightenment modern paradigm” (which is embodied in liberal modernism), the “abiding substance of faith”—namely, the person of Jesus Christ—has remained the same.

These paradigm shifts, Küng argues, have been necessitated by changes in human society; his purpose is to suggest the nature of the shift needed to bring Christianity successfully into the new millennium. Too often, he notes, past paradigm shifts have occasioned acrimony and bloodshed; Küng seeks peaceful transition into a period of global ecumenism when Christians, Jews, and Moslems (he has written substantial books about each of these faiths) live together in mutual respect, understanding, and edification. Drawing on its author's voluminous knowledge of religious history and showcasing his enormous erudition, this book mounts a cogent argument for the proposition that radical theological change, far from representing a betrayal of the Christian past, has been the rule throughout the annals of Christianity and is unavoidable today if the essence and vitality of the faith are to be preserved.

Additional coverage of Küng's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 53-56; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 66; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

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