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).
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.