The freedom and purpose of theology

15 Jul

I've been reading the first volume of Hans Küng's memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom. It's a great read, and so fascinating.

Küng has been one of my favourite theologians, and to read of some of his own journey as a Christian and as a thinker is great. One of the many themes is a focus on the nature and importance of theology, and how theology can enrich the life of the church—or, if it is done badly, seriously impoverish and shackle the church.

Küng was born in 1928, in Switzerland, and tells the story of his education, including the years of priestly formation in Rome. The theme running through this entire first volume is the quest for freedom: the freedom of a Christian, freedom within the church, and indeed the freedom of theology. In another post I will write more of this theme specifically, including a kind of critique, though it is interesting that Küng himself seems to have moved beyond it, by the end of the volume. The second volume, called Disputed Truth, shifts onto another theme.

One of the core issues for Küng is the freedom of theology to be theological, or perhaps the freedom of the theologian to do theology. The contrast here is essentially with the dominance of theology and theologians by church authority and church doctrine. In the background here, all the way, is the core issue which gave rise to the Second Vatican Council: the challenge for the Roman Catholic Church to come out of a medieval mindset and to engage with the modern world. This was the purpose of Pope John 23rd, in calling the Council, and it was this purpose that Küng shows was so bitterly resisted by many of the Vatican officials, and indeed by Popes ever since (with the exception of the very short term of John Paul 1st).

One way of understanding Küng's central concern is the question of the primary sources for theology. How is the content of theological understanding to be derived? Is it drawn primarily from previously existing theological formulations, creeds, doctrines, dogma, or is it derived through critical reflection upon the Bible—perhaps in some conversation with those other formulations? Küng's very clear preference for a theology derived through serious engagement with the Bible, as its primary source, is perhaps the major reason that his critics describe him as more of a Protestant than a Catholic. His argument is that it is simply a matter of doing theology properly, no matter what church we belong to. It's a matter of the freedom of the Christian, to respond faithfully to God. The alternative is for a 'theology' which simply parrots what has already been said in the past. This theology is church theology. It serves the interest and preservation (or perpetuation) of structures and powers derived from the past, but without any basis other than itself to show that it is valid, meaningful, useful, or true. It is orthodoxy for the sake of orthodoxy.

These issues pervade the book so deeply that I am not going to attempt to 'develop' the theme, from its earlier expressions during his priestly formation to his doctoral studies and early ecumenical work, and then his considerable publications just before and during the Council, which were indeed very influential, but also controversial. Rather, I will note just one or two passages and arguments.

First, it is interesting just how often Küng draws upon his devotion to Jesus. He is extremely interested  in the historical-critical study of the Bible, but mostly the Synoptic Gospels, because this provides a rich resource for his theology of the Church and its mission. And it is precisely this study which unlocks the Bible to responsive and responsible faith: it does not tell us what we must think, as if in a timeless formula. Rather it challenges us to think about how we will now respond, in our situation. That is, it affirms our freedom and responsibility as Christians.

One expression of the centrality of Jesus for this approach to theology is seen in relation to Karl Barth, with whom Küng had a long and very affirmative relationship. Barth's theology, too, has a radical Christological focus and Küng records that in his study Barth had 'a fine reproduction of the crucifixion from Grünewald's Isenheim altar.'   When Küng asked Barth why he had this, given his general resistance to pictures in churches: 'he tells me that it is a warning to theologians: how John the Baptist with his long index finger keeps pointing to the one Jesus Christ, the centre and essence of Christianity.' (p.130)  So here is the first key thing for theology: it is not about us; it is not about the church, nor even the mission of the church in the world. It is about Jesus Christ: and thus it may be about the mission of God in the world, even through the church. But first of all it is centred on Jesus Christ.

Much later, there are two passages which reflect Küng's own objectives in theological work. His passion is not theology for its own sake. He does theology for the sake of the church, for the renewal of the faith and worship of people. In this, he is (despite appearances perhaps) a deeply pastoral theologian. 

On page 185 he writes of the kinds of books he would like to write. His idea for future books is

'to achieve 'depth' by penetrating through the surface to the essentials, but without mystifying theological profundity; to aim at 'clarity', at simplicity, logicality and comprehensibility yet without any enlightened rationalism; and to show 'pragmatism', related to the subject-matter, orientated on application, related to action'.

These ideas are summed up as German depth, Latin clarity, Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.

So here are some good criteria for evaluating theological work—though not the only ones, since they relate only to the form or the nature of the argument, and not directly to its theological heart, that is, to its essential focus upon Jesus and the Gospel. Nonetheless, these secondary criteria are very helpful:

depth: offering some valuable analysis or insight into the subject matter;

clarity: enabling a simple, comprehensive and coherent argument;

practical relevance: showing how these insights relate to the real situations of people today.

We could do worse!  Then, on pages 186 & 187, Küng reflects on some ways in which 'Protestant concerns' had already begun to have an influence in Roman Catholic church life, and indeed in his own pastoral ministry in Lucerne (1957- 1959):

'revaluation of the Bible in theology and piety; the development of a Catholic popular liturgy, with the vernacular and singing by the people; a sense of the universal priesthood of all the laity in theology and practice; an increased assimilation of the church to the cultures; an understanding of the Reformation as a religious concern; a concentration of popular piety.' (Küng adds the need also for reform of both the papacy and the Curia, the Vatican office which continued the work of the Inquisition.)

In this paragraph we see again the passion for theology which actually makes a difference, and what that difference might be. The faith and life of the people is the concern here: beginning with the Bible, which has its impact in both theology and piety; worship which really involves people, in their own language, and thus evokes their own voices—singing! (This change really has happened, in Catholic churches); a sense that all the people are engaged in ministry; and the engagement of the churches with local contexts and cultures: contextuality as an expression of catholicity; and a recognition that re-formation is a constant need for the church, giving rise indeed to faithfulness amongst the people. 

So much for the objectives: but in order to do this, theology must be free. It must be free for the Gospel. It must be free to think and study and teach and preach, responding to context and relating to people and their needs and concerns. This was Küng's struggle, as the more he felt this passion for 'free' theology of a 'free' Christian, the mo
re he came up against the demands of a formulaic and anti-modern approach, which sought to stand outside and indeed above history, claiming for itself the authority of God—a God who is also outside and above history. This God and this Church, Küng argues, is not the God of Jesus: this 'word' has not flesh and does not become flesh, its theology does not help people to live their faith and it does not evoke the voices and the ministries of the people.

There is much of value here, for those of us who try to do theology and a challenge to how we do it and what we are trying to achieve. I am very grateful for Küng's books, so many of which have enriched my theological and ministry career, and also for this book which gives lots of background to those other books and to the life from which they have emerged.

3 thoughts on “The freedom and purpose of theology

  1. ‘… contextuality as an expression of catholicity’: O that more of us might catch this truth. Thanks for another great post Frank. I do hope that you make your way through Vol 2, ‘Disputed Truth: Memoirs’.

  2. Thanks, Jason. I wish I had been able to write this piece more clearly, and perhaps with a Küng like clarity of structure. There was one place where he described one of his books through the metaphor of a symphony. I was rapt: over the years I have used that metaphor to explain several of his books, and here was the master himself confirming it! He is a very clear thinker. I am amazed by his sense of personal mission, in addressing the divisions between the Reformation theology and Catholic responses.
    I will get onto the second volume, no question. Thanks again.

  3. Hi Frank – great to read of another fan of Hans Kung. And as Jason has said, Vol 2 will not disappoint. In fact, I was very pleased indeed to hear there is also to be a third volume, DV. You might like to read my non-theological review of Vol 1 written a while back. Its the first Customer Review on the page here And if I may, his “Islam, Past Present and Future” is absolutely outstanding too.
    He is a great gift to the Catholic Church, whose legacy will last generations, even if he has to live as a prophet without honour in his own house in these days.

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