The Revd Prof Mark Lindsay discusses Catholic controversialist Prof Hans Küng’s resistance to dogmatic certainty and openness to doubt.
On 6 April, the great Catholic controversialist, Professor Hans Küng, died at the age of 93. As widely censured as he was respected, Küng represented for many people all that was good, bad, and frustrating about modern Catholicism. The youngest of the expert advisors (the periti) appointed by Pope John XXIII to Vatican II, Küng came to symbolise not only the hoped-for renewal of the Church, but also the disenchantment and frustration, when that renewal was not ultimately forthcoming.
He died, that is to say, as a symbol of potential but also of challenge, and thus as a representative of all the things that powerful structures always fear.
In this brief reflection, I wish neither to provide an obituary for Hans Küng, nor even offer a tribute to him. There is much in his teachings with which I disagree, and as for obituaries, there are others far better placed than I to write them. No, here I wish more modestly to take up just one aspect of Küng’s multi-faceted legacy from which I believe the Church institutionally, and Christians individually, can learn with profit.
And that is, Küng’s resistance to dogmatic certainty, and his openness to doubt.
In 1979, following an almost decade-long – and very public – argument over his book Infallible?, Küng’s teaching credentials (though never, it must be said, his priestly orders), were rescinded by Pope John Paul II, on account of the Swiss theologian’s opposition to the – in ecclesiastical-historical terms – ‘new’ dogma of papal infallibility. (The dogma had only been promulgated in 1870, at the First Vatican Council.)
Popes, said Küng, could in fact get it wrong!
The up-and-coming star of Vatican II was now something of a pariah – lauded by much of the Protestant world as a new Martin Luther, and condemned by significant parts of the Catholic world as a new…Martin Luther!
Küng’s removal from his teaching office was, however, something of a blessing in disguise. It set him free, over the next four decades, to explore and express theological opinions that pushed the boundaries of both Christian orthodoxy, and Roman dogma – from sexual ethics, euthanasia, and the ordination of women, to the non-existence of hell, and the possibility of salvation through other religions.
But for all this, Küng denied that he was a heretic.
As he told Der Spiegel magazine in late 2013, ‘I’m not a heretic, but a critical reform theologian who, unlike many of his critics, uses the gospel instead of medieval theology [or] church law as his benchmark.’
It is here that I think Christians, and the Church generally, can learn something important.
Because one of the more fruitful aspects of Küng’s career was his persistence in asking questions, and his refusal to accept the traditional responses just because they came from the traditional authorities. He allowed himself, that is to say, to suspend judgement, to suspend certainty, and to entertain constructive doubt. Yet it seems to me that very many of the rest of us in the Church struggle to give ourselves this permission to doubt.
Why else do we fill our Easter 2 sermons, year after year, with insistent pleas that Thomas should not be called ‘doubting Thomas’, if we are not in fact afraid of doubt?
The fact is, no matter how loudly and persistently the Scriptures urge us to live by faith, we crave certainty; we crave the safe assurance that we don’t just believe, we know!
The tragedy, though, is that the pastoral and the missiological consequences of this craving can be devastating. What comes of certainty, when we find ourselves facing inexplicable trauma, for which there is neither rhyme nor reason, and for which the fake assurances of theological platitudes – ‘God won’t give you more than you can handle’ – sound in our ears like nothing so much as pastoral obscenities?
What evangelistic use is certainty, when we see the hackles of the non-churched world rightfully raised by Christian spokespeople’s dogmatic insistence that Christianity has a monopoly on this-worldly truth and next-worldly hope?
The point, of course, is not that we should disbelieve – Hans Küng did not lose his faith, and nor do I advocate any of us doing so either! Rather, the purpose of doubt and uncertainty; the point of being willing to ask questions over and over, and of refusing the comfort of the well-rehearsed answers, is that it protects us from hubris, and trains us towards humility.
As the sixteenth-century Puritan cleric John Robinson famously wrote, ‘There is yet more light and truth that God has to break forth…’ We do yet not know it all, and nor will we ever. This was something that Hans Küng – and, dare I say it, many of the other great theologians, from Barth back to Anselm – not only accepted, but also welcomed.
Seeking to contain the inexpressible, ineffable God within the boundaries of inflexibly doctrinaire truth claims leads not only to an hubristic, idolatrous image of God, but – just as devastatingly – to tone-deaf pastoral care, and an arrogantly colonialist missiology.
In short, whether we accept his theological conclusions or not, what Hans Küng can teach us is that doubt and uncertainty are neither expressions of disbelief, nor even of a wavering faith, but are, on the contrary, expressions of productive humility.
By doubting, by asking questions, and by refusing to allow ourselves to be stifled by misplaced certainty, we are set free to encounter the yet more light and truth of God’s fulness. We are freed from the oftentimes crushing burden of needing to ‘have it all together’. And we are liberated from the arrogance of claiming to know more, and better, than our neighbours.
There are, perhaps, few better legacies that Hans Küng could have left us.
By the Revd Professor Mark Lindsay
This article first appeared in the May edition of The Melbourne Anglican (TMA)