This week, on Tuesday 6 April to be precise, one of the greatest theologians of our time died. Hans Küng breathed his last last breath at the age of 93 in his home in Tübingen, Germany. He was a Roman Catholic, but his many (and often voluminous) books were also read by Protestants. In one of the many obituaries which appeared this week in the newspapers, he was rightly called “the opposition leader within the Roman Catholic Church”.
Those who want to know more about Küng’s long, and full, life should read his autobiography of three thick volumes, the last of which appeared in 2013. When he was still working on it, he fervently hoped that he would be given enough time to finish that work. He received that time!
At the age of 11, Küng already wanted to become a priest. His wish was fulfilled in 1954, at the age of 26, and he remained a priest all his life. This was not without its hurdles, because he came into conflict with his church. He studied theology, obtained his doctorate four years after being ordained as a priest, and soon became a lecturer at the University of Tübingen, where he obtained his doctorate at the age of 30 with a dissertation on the theology of Karl Barth. One of his fellow students, and later a colleague, in Tübingen was Joseph Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI. Their theological paths separated more and more as the years went by, with Ratzinger leaning more and more in the conservative direction and Küng developing in the opposite direction.
Küng and Ratzinger were not the only well-known theologians with roots in Tübingen. Jan Paulsen, the former president of the Adventist world church, also spent there several years there and obtained his doctorate at the same university. [There may be Adventists who find it questionable that an Adventist leader should have such an academic background; they do well to realize that the current world president, Ted Wilson, also received a doctoral degree from a non-Adventist university].
Initially, Küng was highly regarded in his church. He became one of the Pope’s leading theological advisors during the Second Vatican Council. But the love of the Catholic hierarchy for Küng cooled quickly afterwards, especially after the publication of his book Infallible in 1970. In this book he made it clear that he had great reservations about the way the papacy had developed. He also rejected other aspects of Catholic doctrine, such as compulsory celibacy for priests. Küng’s book ended up on the desks of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The final result was a kind of inquisition in which Küng lost his “teaching license”, i.e. he was no longer allowed to teach theology on behalf of his church. He remained at the University of Tübingen throughout his life, but without this ecclesiastical seal of approval.
Hans Küng remained a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church. You could call him a “cross-thinker”. I was reminded of the beautiful Dutch word Dwarsdenker, when I bought the new biography of Erasmus this week, written by historian Sandra Langereis. She called her work: Erasmus: Dwarsdenker. [It is hard to find an exact equivalent of this word in English; "cross-thinker" is the best I can come up with.] The famous Dutch philosopher, theologian and linguist Erasmus was a contemporary of Luther. He was in many ways a church reformer, but he never left his church. Hans Küng was also such a “cross-thinker”, a “reformer” who remained loyal to his church. It is a combination that strongly appeals to me. Of course, there can come a point when someone has to leave his church for conscience sake, but never before he/she has done everything in his/her power to change the church’s thinking and actions from within.
Every denomination needs such “cross-thinkers”: critics who love their church and want to remain loyal to it. This can cause great problems for the person involved, as, for example, “cross-thinker” Desmond Ford experienced in the Adventist Church. Johannes A. van der Ven, a Dutch professor of practical theology, once wrote that the church is always in need of reformation but that reformation will never take place without conflict. “In fact,” he writes, “the reformation of the church depends on conflicts and their balanced treatment. The absence of conflict is often a sign of low frequency and meagre intensity of interactions between members in the church” (Ecclessiology in Context; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p. 381.) While it is true that a community cannot exist without a considerable degree of consensus about what it wants and what it is, disagreement can have a healthy influence, and need not threaten the unity of the church. Differences of opinion force a community to reflect on what and who she is. It is therefore also important for a community to create channels for the expression of the opinions of “cross-thinkers.”
There is certainly a field of tension. Those who are members of a church or who work in a church must pay attention to what the church says, but at the same time the church must also listen to what individual members say. Hans Küng has during his entire working life lived and worked with this tension. His church and many others have been greatly enriched by it.