“A database for the future”

Perry Schmidt-Leukel on the late Swiss theologian Hans Küng

Not only a critic of the pope and the church: the religious scholar and theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel pays tribute in an article to the work of the well-known Swiss theologian Hans Küng to mark his death on 6 April. Küng was concerned above all with “what is actually still credible about the Christian faith today”. He also created “foundations for dialogue between the world’s religions that are far from being exhausted today”.

Hans Küng († 6 April 2021)
© wikimedia/Muesse

by Perry Schmidt-Leukel

Hans Küng is often reduced in the media to the role of a critic of the pope and the church. It was undoubtedly important to Küng how the Roman Catholic Church presents itself today. Whether it is living up to its mission of serving people and encouraging their faith. Or whether it is obstructing itself by clinging to outdated structures and traditions: to its hierarchical, even monarchical, systems; the restriction of the priestly office to the male sex; its insistence on celibacy for the clergy; its sexual morality and, as one of its results, the irresponsible attitude to contraception; its unwillingness to recognize other Christian churches as churches, and to implement and continue the impulses of reform initiated by the last Council.

And yet criticism of the church was not at the centre of Hans Küng’s extensive theological work. He was primarily concerned with what is actually still credible today about the Christian faith, and in which way. Not by the criterion of the fickle spirit of the age, but in view of our severely changed view of the world and of humanity in the wake of scientific progress; in view of our extensive knowledge of history and the historical transformations that also include Christianity; in view of our deepened knowledge of the other religious traditions and our increasing daily encounters with their followers; in view of the new challenges of a technological world and the global scale of the opportunities and threats that come with it. A faith that wishes to remain credible and to retain its liberating power must prove itself in all these fields, but also be capable of change. For, theology is not a matter of preserving and maintaining church tradition, but of searching for truth. This necessarily involves being willing to give up what proves no longer credible in order to win anew what proves convincing and meaningful. This willingness is incompatible with an insistence on infallibility. Such a perspective allowed Hans Küng to reflect anew on the central pillars of the Christian faith – the idea of God, the interpretation and significance of Jesus of Nazareth, life from faith, and hope despite all transience. It is to his credit that he deliberately expressed himself in a language that remains clear and intelligible. This may also have contributed to his stupendous impact on the international stage.

Especially after he was barred from teaching Catholic theology in 1978, Hans Küng devoted himself increasingly to the dialogue between the religions and to the “Global Ethic” project. This project points out that the various religious traditions have a fundamental commonality with regard to their fundamental ethical principles. In essence, this is an anti-relativist project in that relativism denies universal norms. As a result, the project met with broad approval among the religions, but with a certain degree of scepticism and dislike among some scholars of religious studies. Küng’s dictum “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions” became a well-known slogan across the globe. This, however, was bound to Küng’s further conviction: “No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions”. His extensive and historically oriented accounts of Judaism (1991), Christianity (1994), and Islam (2004) – all three translated into English – have laid some crucial foundations for the dialogue between these three religions that are far from being exhausted today. Yet also in relation to the dialogue with the Indian and Chinese religions, Küng contributed extremely valuable reflections which he developed in exchange with renowned specialists.

His oeuvre shows the path that academic theology should take, the questions that it has to face, and how it can do so in a rationally responsible way that is by no means accessible only to a circle of experts. His work is not for the archives. It is a database for the future.