Monthly Archives: April 2021

Hans Küng: Dissent

Hans Küng, an influential and controversial Swiss Roman Catholic priest and theologian, has died this week at age 93. Hans Küng, was the youngest theologian to participate during the 1960s at Vatican II , a most remarkable event of the 20th century, that sought to bring Roman Catholicism into a more robust dialogue with the modern world. Küng was an avid proponent of such reforms, though many Roman Catholic faithful believed that he had gone too far, as evidenced by Pope John Paul’s censure of  Küng, when the latter directly challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility (among other things).

Hans Küng, popular yet maverick liberal theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, as a young priest and spokesperson at Vatican II.

My introduction to Hans Küng was through one of his many writings, namely his widely popular 1974 book On Being a Christian, that my mother had bought. On Being a Christian was one of the first theological books I read cover-to-cover during my senior year in high school, about a year after Küng had been officially censured by the Pope. My mom’s copy of the 700+ page book is filled with my vigorous underlining with a red pen. It was a fascinating dive into many of the things of which I had questions about, in what it really meant to be a Christian, soon after I had read through the New Testament, for the first time. From Küng I learned about the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and different theologies of the cross.  It was startling to realize that a great deal of what Christians often believe comes from tradition first-and-foremost, and only secondarily from a close examination of the Scriptures, and Küng was direct enough to say that. On Being a Christian ranks as one of most sweeping and accessible theological classics of the 20th century. Most of the more heavy topics went way over my high school teenage head, but it impressed me that Küng avoided dense theological jargon, making it a very engaging read. I was most impressed by Küng’s conviction that ‘Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, finally authoritative, decisive, archetypal, is what makes Christianity what it really is’ (p. 174)

Nevertheless, I soon realized that Küng was a maverick and progressive liberal when I got to his chapters regarding the possibility of salvation outside of the church. Previously, the 16th-century Council of Trent was clear enough: “no salvation outside of the church,” and that meant that Protestants were all roasting away in you-know-where.

Now, Vatican II had settled on a “concentric circle” approach to how far salvation might extend towards non-Roman Catholics. Of course, Roman Catholics were at the center of the circle, whereas Protestants, like myself, were in the next circle outside of that, being “separated brethren.” Other circles were added at different levels to accommodate those of other religions and even atheists. The basic idea was that the closer you were to the center of those circles, the higher the likelihood you might be saved, and the farther away you were from the center, the less likely you would be saved.

Küng’s approach, however, took me by surprise, adding a twist to the official position of Vatican II. He suggested that various Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. could indeed be saved, as long as they were faithful to their own various religious traditions. This seemed to me to push back against the very uncompromising teaching of the Bible, as taught in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Perhaps God might find ways to reach others who have yet to hear the Gospel, through means that we in our limited human perspective can not fully understand, such as through dreams, etc. But Küng’s approach, that sought to honor the religious efforts and good works of non-believers, appeared to undermine the very principle of Scriptural bedrock teaching, that we are not saved by our religious efforts, but rather by the gracious and saving work of Christ alone.

On top of that, I read Küng’s most confusing section about the resurrection. While Küng affirmed a belief in “resurrection,” he simultaneously rejected the empty tomb. How Küng was able to reconcile that belief with the witness of Scripture was beyond me (see Richard Bauckam’s review of Küng’s seminal work).

Though well-intentioned, it has always appeared to me that progressive attempts to “modernize” Christianity, to make the faith more palatable to contemporary sensibilities, do so at a cost of diluting some of the great foundation truth claims of historically orthodox Christianity. This is true, not only of the Protestant mainline tradition, in which I was raised, but also in progressive elements of Roman Catholicism, the theological home where Küng dwelt. So, it really was not a surprise that then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), who had once been a close ally and friend of Küng’s at Vatican II, later sought to aid in Pope John Paul II’s censure of Küng, believing that Küng had simply gone too far.

I have a copy of Küng’s memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom, that a friend has given me, that I had been hoping to read one day, before Küng died. Alas, this did not happen. Küng did much to help Vatican II, as a reform movement within Roman Catholicism, to succeed as well as it has, and his positive contributions, of which there are many, deserve such hearty recognition. For example, Küng was extraordinarily gifted, being one of the first Roman Catholic theologians to address a group of prominent astrophysicists on the relationship between faith and science. Küng was also prominent in starting a dialogue between Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians over the nature of justification, breaking the ice in a conversation that had been stalled for over 400 years. Küng was also outspoken in his views regarding priestly celibacy, as he understood the mandated practice as being against Scripture and contrary to the historic tradition of the church. He also criticized Rome’s ethical policy that prohibited artificial birth control.

However, Küng’s tendency in certain other areas to push historic, orthodox boundaries to the breaking point serves as a painful lesson to anyone who believes that you can simply rewrite fundamental doctrines of the faith, and pretend that you are somehow still “preserving” the faith once handed down to the saints, over the centuries.

It simply does not work.

A “faith” that merely pretends is merely wishful thinking that lacks any substance behind it. Both the faithful in the churches and critics outside of Christianity will see through a supposed “faith” that pretends certain things to be true, when in fact, they are not. Dissent, when it effectively serves to undermine orthodoxy, produces more confusion and mindless wishful thinking than anything else. However, dissent, when properly engaged to steer the church back onto its proper course, is something to be commended. May the positive elements of Küng’s dissent be remembered more than his negative elements of dissent.

Other prominent influencers in the Christian movement have also died within the past month, but who were significantly more orthodox and less controversial in their thinking than Küng. John Polkinghorne (1930-2021) was a world-class, Cambridge-trained physicist, who shocked his colleagues when he left the world of science to embark on a path towards Christian ministry in the Anglican church. Polkinghorne’s work to integrate science with Christian faith has helped many Christians reconcile what many others believe is irreconcilable.

Argentinian evangelist Luis Pulau (1934-2021) was in many ways the “Billy Graham” of Latin America, who preached the Gospel to millions, and who became a unifying figure for evangelical Protestants all across Latin America, in the latter half of the 20th century. I will never forget hearing Luis Pulau speak at Urbana 1984, when he addressed the vexing topic of Christianity and other religions, one of the topics that so energized Hans Küng. Pulau reminded his listeners, including me, that there is a good answer for those who worry about the salvation of those who have yet to hear the Gospel:  Genesis 18:25 asks, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Luis Pulau’s answer was a resounding “YES,” and that has been good enough me.

The following illuminating 2009 interview with Hans Küng, before he became debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, while Benedict was still Pope, gives a flavor of Küng the man, Roman Catholic critic, and thinker.

Franklin Graham Supports COVID Vaccinations…. And Gets “Cancelled” For It By Some of His Followers?

I just got my first COVID-19 Moderna vaccine.

Some of my Christian friends, however, are a bit nervous about the vaccines. Sure, there are genuine concerns. But most of these concerns, upon closer examination, are unwarranted.

Hesitancy about using vaccines has a variety of factors behind it. A March 2021 Pew Research study observes that about 33% of Black Protestant Christians are wary of taking a COVID vaccine. The same study observes that about 45% of White Evangelical Christians are either cautious or dead set against any COVID vaccine.

So it comes as no surprise that when Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, and an influential spokesperson for many evangelical Christians today, announced his support for taking COVID vaccines, the reaction from some of his most ardent followers was swift and furious. Like Graham, I have relatives in my family line who served as medical missionaries, where the administration of vaccines have saved countless numbers of lives. Nevertheless, some denounced Graham as promoting a “devilish lie.” Some of Graham’s critics believe that taking the vaccine is a sign of taking “the mark of the beast.” However, a careful reading of Scripture shows that taking “the mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation, is a loyalty oath, and not something that can be forced upon someone by someone else. It would appear that bad interpretation of the Bible is just as much a pandemic as is COVID-19.

Furthermore, when people use Bible passages like 1 Corinthians 6:19 (“Do you not know that you body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…“), that is really a misuse of the Bible. You might as well decline the use of any modern medicine, if you plan to be consistent with that way of thinking. Paul even recommended that Timothy take some wine to remedy the latter’s health ailments (1 Timothy 5:23). So it seems odd for Paul to suggest that if he really had in mind a prohibition against all forms of medicine.

Others are hesitant about such vaccines because of suspicions about government programs.

Others are unsure, because as in the case of the Moderna vaccine that I took, these mRNA vaccines are so new and have not been tested across millions and millions of people. However, the mRNA vaccine technology is not as new as people think, having undergone a number of other successful test trials in other applications over the past several decades.

Then there is the long held distrust of the medical establishment by the “anti-vax” movement, which is totally against vaccines of any and all kinds.

Critics of vaccines do have at least one point to make in their arguments, and it is an important one: No vaccine is entirely risk free.

When I went to get my vaccine, I was asked a whole list of questions, to make sure I was the right candidate to receive the vaccine. Not everyone should take the vaccine, because of certain side effects. But the percentage of people who should not take the vaccine is very, very small. For most people who do experience side effects, those side effects are relatively mild and do not last for long. If people have questions about their use of a vaccine, they should consult their doctor. If their doctor does not offer good answers to these questions, then that might be a strong signal suggesting that it is time to find a new doctor.

But while no vaccine is entirely risk free, that is true with just about everything in life. I know of many people who think nothing of it to hop into a car, and drive across town to run an errand or go to work. However, the likelihood of getting into a life-threatening automobile accident is orders of magnitude higher than is experiencing a life-threatening injury from a vaccine. Still, I see thousands of people driving in their automobiles all of the time. Furthermore, taking a COVID vaccine is much, much safer than being exposed to the COVID virus itself.

I have come to learn that vaccine hesistancy is not just an American evangelical Christian thing. A large percentage of secular Europe is more skeptical of vaccines than is the American evangelical Christian community. I have also seen paranoia at the other extreme, too, where some people are so freaked out by COVID-19, that they will wear a mask while driving in their car…. even though no one else is with them!!

Yesterday, Christians in the West celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus, along with the hope of Christ coming once again to right all wrongs and heal all diseases. Yet unless Jesus returns in the near future, the likelihood is that mass COVID vaccination programs will continue to be effective in reducing the pandemic, and life should return to a more regular pattern of normalcy.

COVID will never fully go away. Yet the same is true about the 1919 Spanish Flu, based on the N1H1 virus, that killed millions of people, in the wake of World War One, a century ago. Descendants of the 1919 N1H1 virus still exist today, though they typically come in a more muted and less deadly form. Still, getting a yearly flu shot goes a long way towards making the flu more of a nuisance and less deadly than it was when 50 million people died a hundred years ago, when fewer treatment options and no effective vaccines were available then.

Aside from the health factors, Christians really should support COVID-19 vaccination, for the simple reason that such decisions impact their witness to the truth of the Gospel. For if Christians get the reputation that they are highly susceptible to conspiracy-thinking that goes against science, then the next generation of young people will be only more and more inclined to judge the Christian faith itself as yet just another conspiracy theory that should be rejected.

Let us help our young people have more confidence in the truth of the Gospel… and not less.

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