‘Christian Freedom’ and a free church

4 Aug

The idea of freedom is the central theme and motivation in Hans Küng's first volume of memoirs, My Struggle For Freedom, and is worth now a more extended reflection.It's about a deeply personal freedom, about 'the freedom of a Christian'—made possible by God's saving grace—and about the implications for the church. The strong theme in this entire volume is Küng's trenchant commitment to the church as a community free for the Gospel and its meaning in the contemporary world.

The volume begins with reflections on his childhood experiences during the rise of Hitler and the impact of the Second World War on his native Switzerland. Born in 1928, Küng was a young but politically aware child when these dramatic events took place. He identifies the struggle for freedom as the defining issue for his nation and his own life from that time onwards:

In the 1930s and 1940s there is a conflict over freedom and slavery both within politics and outside it, and this stirs me deeply, as it does everyone else in our country. For me, freedom is not something I discover later in my life. Nor does 'the search' for freedom shape my life as it shapes that of others; rather it is important for me to maintain and preserve freedom. And so in this sense, time and again there is a new 'struggle for freedom'. p. 9.

What is crucial here is Küng's sense that freedom is given and experienced already and is thus to be preserved. The struggle is not to create freedom, but rather to receive it, value it and protect it. This becomes the character of his theology also.

There are two important features in his early life that are worth noting. First, is the influence of a priest whom Küng describes as 'one man (who) was different'. p.30-31. Franz Kaufmann came to the town of Sursee as a 'youth chaplain' and remained for many years, eventually as parish priest. He is described as one who was simply a pastor: not a great preacher or liturgist, not ambitious nor one who gave himself airs. No, he was simply 'the priest', always present, seeking to guide and support the people. And it was this priest who encouraged the young Hans to identify and respond to a call to priestly ministry.

In his early formation as a priest, we come to the second vital factor. Already aware that many aspects of his training are causing him to protest, against what he experiences as a lifeless and restrictive method and content in theology, Küng sees that he has a fundamental choice. He can conform, and in doing so shut down much of his own self and vitality. Or he could protest and abandon the entire system. Or he must find a way to be free within this situation. Thus he comes to what he describes as 'a fundamental trust'. This is the very grounding of his faith, in all that is to come. He chooses to be free and responsible for himself.

No, I am neither animal nor robot. I am free at the limits of my innate character and of my determination by the environment: freedom is understood as self-determination and responsibility for myself. Though I cannot 'prove' this freedom of choice and decision, I can experience it immediately at any moment, whenever I want. p. 92.

As he affirmed and received this freedom, Küng also found that it energized him: 'insight seeps through me' and becomes 'a deep spiritual experience' (p.93). It becomes possible not only to believe, but also to move to an understanding of faith that is adventurous. In his much later work On Being a Christian Küng described this stance as 'believing trust and trusting belief'. In the following pages of the memoirs he describes this life-affirming stance as a source of joy in living. It is the freedom of a Christian, but is more than that: it is not his believing Christian ideas that creates this freedom. Rather, it is God's gift of life, to all of us. It is the recognition of this gift and freedom that enables Küng to believe, to be a Christian. A similar statement of this freedom can be found on pages 146-7.

From these foundational experiences and insights, Küng developed a theological agenda which is really quite astonishing. His early theological research was devoted to an extraordinary vision. He was convinced that the division between the Catholic and Protestant branches of the church was founded upon a mistake, a misunderstanding. Centuries later, the issues need to be addressed again and a rapprochement sought.

At the heart of the matter is the justification of each Christian, through faith in Christ—which for Luther is indeed the foundation of Christian freedom. Küng undertook a study of the Protestant doctrine of justification, in the theology of Karl Barth, and then developed a Catholic response. His argument was that, basically, the Protestant position can be affirmed by Catholic theology too, since it is scripturally grounded and it conforms with the ancient teachings of the church. Küng's dream was that a mutual affirmation of the foundations of our faith in Christ would then lead to a renewed vision of the church as the body of Christ. What was essential to this vision was, again, the idea of people who are free: free from sin and shame, and free for life in faith, hope and love. That is, a free church of free people: 'the fellowship of believers which may live anew time and again by the grace and forgiveness of God as the ecclesia semper reformanda' (the church constantly being reformed) (p.144).

This would be a church of people free for God, to engage with whatever God is calling them (us) to be and do in the present, not bound by and to the formulations and methods of the late mediaeval period, as it seemed to him his own church was—because of its essentially negative view of change and of the 'modern' world.

In the anticipation of the Second Vatican Council, Küng began to formulate this vision of a 'free' church, in a number of books and studies prepared for the Council participants and culminating after it in his monumental work, The Church. What is central to that work and to all Küng's theology here is the idea expressed in the heading of one section, 'the continuing charismatic structure'. It is not common in ecclesiology to see these two words together: 'charismatic' and 'structure'. Often, an emphasis on the church as shaped by the charisms or gifts of the Spirit is an anti-structural emphasis, and vice versa. People who have valued and affirmed the historic forms and structures have seen a 'charismatic' or 'gifts' emphasis as threatening that continuing structure. But for Küng there is a need to hold the two together. What should be continuing is a responsiveness to whatever the Spirit is doing and giving. This will not be chaotic, for it is the same Spirit who continually guides and enlivens the church. But this emphasis will enable that continuous renewal and reformation which is essential for the free church, the church free for God.

One final observation, before a comment or two. In the last sections of the book, Küng deals with the difficulties many Catholics felt after Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical on birth control, Humanae vitae. At this time there was much emphasis on the freedom of conscience. It was argued that it is always sinful to act against one's conscience. Küng quotes a certain contemporary, Joseph Ratzinger: 'Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority stands one's own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.' (p.441). This book, with this quotation from Ratzinger, was written long before Ratzinger became Pope, but already he had succeeded in silencing Küng, preventing him from teaching in the name of the church. No doubt, Küng found a certain relish in quoting him in this way, and would indeed today.

Finally, this brief comment from Küng's own reflection on the theme of freedom as a characterization of his life and teaching career. At the time of his retirement from teaching at Tübingen, in 1996 he said: 'I could not have gone another way, not just for the sake of freedom, which has always been dear to me, but for the sake of the truth.' (p.461)

Here we return to a crucial question, which one might raise all along, in evalu
ation of Küng's theology of the church and more broadly. Is this emphasis on freedom the central issue? It is and was surely a crucial concern for theology and ecclesiology in post-war Europe. It surely is in many ways a central biblical concern. Jesus speaks of the Son making us free and of the Spirit as the spirit of freedom. These sayings are, notably, in the Gospel of John. In fact Küng draws most of his scriptural inspiration from Paul, the apostle of freedom. But he might have drawn also upon John. But there we also find an emphasis upon truth and life, not only on freedom. I am interested in the relationship of truth and freedom, and the extent to which freedom needs truth, as much as truth needs freedom. For this reason, I look forward again to the next volume, Disputed Truth.

So I conclude this over-long post with deep, deep appreciation and admiration for this book, for the life of faithful ministry, scholarship and struggle reflected in it, and for the vision of freedom it sets forth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *