I am now into the second volume of Hans Küng’s memoirs, Disputed Truth. In the first chapter there are two sections I’d like to mention, as they indicate his approach to theology and something I share. It’s the conviction that we do theology for the people—not only people of the church, but also for those who are perhaps seeking faith. This is part of what it means to call one’s theology ‘evangelical’.
In 1967 Küng had the opportunity to visit Lebanon and Israel and to engage in an ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue. Whilst in Jerusalem, he engaged in what he calls ‘a short but momentous conversation’. A Swiss Jewish woman from Berne approached him and said, ‘You’re a Christian theologian. Surely you can give me an answer. Here in our city Jerusalem one constantly comes across the name of this Jesus Christ. What kind of man was he? Why is he so tremendously important for you?’ (p.34)
Küng says this is the central question for Jewish-Christian dialogue. Indeed it becomes the motivating concern of his next major writing project, his wonderful book On Being a Christian. I have long considered this book one long evangelistic sermon, all 468 pages of it! Here Küng seeks to answer that woman’s question, and he does so with great passion, with extraordinary breadth of scholarship and yet a focus and clarity that allows people without a scholarly background to grasp his argument.
What I want to note here is the way in which this great scholar’s work is clearly undertaken in response to the needs of ordinary people. Küng’s earlier work was motivated by the desire to see the rift between Catholic and Protestant streams of Christianity healed, by addressing the central concerns over ‘justification’ and thus precisely what it means to be saved, to be a Christian. Here again Küng is seeking to explain the nature and meaning of Christian faith to and for those who may not share that faith.
And for all his great scholarship, he undertakes these writing tasks as a fellow-enquirer. He does not presume to know it all and hand it down to the rest of us, for our good. Rather, he invites us into a conversation and exploration.
Thus, a little earlier he explains his approach to the theme of this volume, the theologian’s quest for truth. Picking up the theme of his first volume, he now refers to ‘the need to argue freely for the truth’. (p.3) Again we find a passionate, evangelical engagement with the task of theological enquiry. This is exciting stuff:
I am convinced that the truth must be proclaimed, defended and lived out in truthfulness. I have never counted myself among the blessed possessors of the truth, who happily and proudly think that the truth is theirs. I have always counted myself more among the seekers after truth, who know that scholars, philosophers and theologians in particular must always be concerned with the truth, regardless of fashions and trends—but with all the risks bound up with the search for it.
Perhaps the most important word here is ‘truthfulness’, which contrasts with the stance of those who claim to possess the truth. It is an idea we find in the thought of the Apostle John: truth is not so much something we possess as something we do, or something we may hope to be. To be truthful in our relation to God is not so much to possess the truth as to be possessed by the truth, to be a seeker rather than a claimant, as Küng puts it.
I am convinced that this, too, is an important part of what it means to do theology with and for the people. They don’t actually want the other kind, those who ‘happily and proudly think that the truth is theirs’. It may be that for a time people are comforted by such ‘fashionable’ claims, only to discover that there is no love and no life there.
So here is another important aspect of the relationship between truth and freedom, in theology. It is not only that we must be free to pursue the truth. It is also that we must relate to and teach what truth we have been given in a way that sets free, and preserves the freedom of our people. If our ‘truth’ binds and impoverishes people, diminishing their freedom, it is not the truth of God, the truth Jesus invites us to know.