Hans Küng – the death of a “cross-thinker”

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.

Reputation damage

Before we vent our criticism regarding the churchgoers in Urk and Krimpen aan den IJssel, we should note that they have understood one thing very well. Regular church attendance is not a luxury extra for Christians, but an essential part of the Christian experience. Of course, faith is a personal matter, but believing is also a communal experience. That is why we we speak of a faith community. It is a thoroughly biblical fact that as believers we have a strong bond with fellow believers and that worshiping and singing together, and listening to the Word, is very essential.

But it was unwise of the congregations in Urk and Krimpen to ignore the Corona Rules and not to accept that, as long as the pandemic is not under control, we must content ourselves with digital church services. Church communities have a responsibility to their congregation and to all the people their members come into contact with. The argument that, despite the fact that more than 500 people were together, the one-and-a-half-meter rule was properly adhered to and other precautions were taken, does not stand up. It could have been foreseen that the strategy that was followed would lead to a lot of commotion and that the press would pounce on this “news” in large numbers.

This in itself was reason enough to fear that the reputation of the Church (and not only that of these Reformed denominations) would be seriously damaged. The damage to the church’s imago was made all the worse by the fact that some members of the church violently tried to chase away the journalists who were reporting on the event. It is easy to imagine that throughout the country there are people who, when looking at the television images, see this as confirmation of what they have long thought, namely that Christians are hypocrites who talk very piously, but in practice do not act like Christians. And this is somewhat understandable when they see people going to church who, before entering, kick and punch journalists, or even run into them with their car.

The reputation of the Christian church has suffered a lot in the recent past. We can think especially of the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church (but also in other churches). People quickly forget that the great majority of priests and pastors are beyond reproach. But nonetheless, many people still have the idea that the majority of the clergy are hypocrites.

The pastors and the church boards in Urk and Krimpen should have realized that their actions have seriously damaged the reputation of their church and of their fellow-Christians. And that also means that the name of God has been seriously discredited.

Every Christian community should remember that people are watching how Christians behave, and that Christians should literally honor their name, i.e. honor the name of the Christ whom they profess as their Lord. And this, of course, applies to every man and woman who call himself or herself Christian. No one should expect Christians to always be perfect, but if they behave in a peremptory manner that is not Christian, they damage the reputation of the Church and thus also the reputation of the Lord of the Church.

Could the church disappear?

Among the statements by Ellen White that we hear over and over again in the Adventist Church is this one: “We have nothing to fear for the future, as long as we do not forget how the Lord has led us in the past.” This statement refers to the future of the church, and over the years has encouraged many Adventists. There may at times be problems in the church, and there may be good reasons to be concerned about certain developments, but we may trust that the church will not be shipwrecked. After all, it is “God’s last church,” and, therefore, we may have the confidence that He will not abandon his church!

In this blog I will not pursue the question how we should define the term “last church,” and whether we can refer to ourselves without hesitation as “God’s church”. In any case, I think these words must be used with care, and we should guard against spiritual arrogance. I just want to pose the question whether we can be sure that the future of our church is assured. Will the church continue to grow, and continue to have a global presence? And can we be sure that the Adventist Church will still exist in some form some or another some fifty years from now?

Church history teaches us how, over time, churches and movements arose and disappeared again. This was already true in the first centuries. Take for example the situation in North Africa. At one time the church was strongly represented in that part of the world. Augustine was the bishop of the city of Hippo in North Africa. He was one of many church leaders in that region during the time when it was still ruled by the Romans. But from the fourth century onwards, North-African Christianity shriveled until it was gone. And take England. The gospel won British converts as early as in the second century. But the church disappeared again, only to make a new start in the seventh century. Countless movements and groups arose in the long Middle Ages but quietly disappeared again. And, everywhere, after that – also in the Netherlands – religious groups started, grew and disappeared again.

According to the well-known sociologist of religion David O. Moberg (born 1922), churches, like other organizations, usually go through a cycle of five different stages: (1) a movement begins; (2) formal organization; (3) maximum strength and efficiency; (4) institutionalization and increasing bureaucracy; (5) disintegration. Might this also be true of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Can we be sure that God will protect us against this?

The omens are not favorable, especially in Western countries. Just this past week I read in a magazine that leaders of the Church of Canada fear that their church will virtually disappear within twenty years. Such reports are becoming ever more frequent, coming from numerous countries. Secularization and church-leaving continue to increase at an alarming rate. While there is still much interest in spirituality, there is less and less interest in institutionalized Christianity. And what the impact of the current pandemic on the church will be is still a big question mark.

The influences that lead to a decrease in the membership of many churches are also making themselves felt in the Adventist Church. In numerous countries, the church remains at previous levels only because of migration. But even among the “new members” the same developments can already be observed that previously decimated the number of “original” members. Globally, the church has problems with the retention of its members. Some forty percent of newly recruited members have disappeared after a relatively short time. A large proportion of our young people disappears or never joins the church of their parents. Many congregations no longer grow or simply disappear.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that we must fear for the future of our church. But at the same time, I refuse to be fatalistic or to be content that “it will last for as long as I will live.” But the church can only have a future–in whatever form or size–if it succeeds again in being relevant in what it says and (especially) does. That will require changes-probably very radical changes. Not everyone will be happy about that. It involves risks. That means, among other things, that we will have to let go of certain ideas and traditions, become fully inclusive, and initiate new things. But we can only overcome our fears for the future of the church if we have the courage to change course, with the goal of (to use a classic Adventist term) recovering “present truth.”

Was Ellen White a “con artist”?

More than four decades ago Ronald Numbers dropped a bombshell into the pond of Adventism with his book Prophetess of Health. He revealed how Ellen G. White was far less original in her ideas about health and health reform than most Seventh-day Adventists believed at that time. He carefully documented how she had “borrowed” her views on health from contemporary “health reformers.” This squarely contradicted her claim that she learned what she wrote from what God had shown her in her comprehensive 1863 vision about that topic. I remember that, at that time, Numbers’ book did not bother me all that much. I was fascinated rather than shocked. As gradually more information about Ellen White’s borrowing from other authors emerged, the accusations of plagiarism became louder. But these accusations were not new. Earlier critics of Ellen White had already pointed out that Ellen White copied large chunks from other books, without giving due credit to the original authors. But when Walter Rea and others documented in great detail the prophet’s reliance on other sources, this began to put serious questions in my mind about the genuineness of her prophetic gift. And I was much concerned about the unfair and unsatisfactory manner in which the church attempted to answer much of this criticism.

I was actually more profoundly affected by the book I read in the past week: Ellen White: a Psychobiography, by Steve Daily (Page Publishing Inc., 2020). The denominational employment and membership status of the author in the Adventist Church is not at risk, since he left Adventism some ten years ago. But while he was a member and employee of the church he had already very clearly voiced his doubts about the way in which Ellen White had manifested her “prophetic” gift. In his recent 360-page book he goes far beyond what he earlier wrote about Ellen White. What is new about this approach to her person and work is his attempt to analyze what kind of person she was and what motivated her to do the things that she did. Daily does not only have a background in theology but also in psychology. And this, he feels, makes him qualified to write this psychobiography. His conclusions, if correct, are highly disturbing. He pictures her as a “pathological liar” and as a “sociopath”. Moreover, his portrait of Ellen shows a woman who wanted to be in charge and used her “visions” as tools to criticize, or even remove, church leaders who opposed her. Her plagiarism was unethical, fraudulent, and at times even criminal, and the way she tried to hide or explain her extensive use of other authors, was utterly dishonest. Moreover, much of what she wrote proved to be false and the church’s leaders were to a large extent guilty of turning a blind eye to her practices or covering things up, for fear that exposing Ellen White for the fraudster that she was, would create shockwaves among the church members. The prophet prescribed a strict code of conduct and detailed dietary rules for others, but very often did not herself abide by these principles and, though aspiring to have a leading role in the temperance movement, she was at times addicted to alcoholic substances. Moreover, Ellen White and her husband James enriched themselves, and after James’s death, Ellen lived in an increasingly lavish way. Through the years she “earned” a massive royalty income, and found extra sources to enrich herself, but she left many unpaid creditors behind when she died. And so Daily’s list goes on.

How much of what Steve Daily asserts is true? From what I have learned over time, it cannot be denied that, unfortunately, many of the facts that he mentions are true or are at least credible. The extensive endnotes testify to the fact that the book is well researched. Other recent books have also revealed that both Ellen and James were not in all respects the spiritual giants that they have often been made out to be. Gerald Wheeler, for instance, in his biography of James White, shows how James had a dubious reputation as a wheeler-dealer, who was constantly involved in all kinds of commercial activities. In several of his fascinating books Gilbert Valentine has painstakingly described how political and manipulative Ellen could be in trying to impose her ideas on the church’s leadership, and how both James and Ellen were at time rather unpleasant (to put it mildly) towards their colleagues. I look forward to seeing more research concerning some of the issues that Daily highlights. It is important that we know what is true, what cannot be fully substantiated and what may perhaps been have been exaggerated. At first sight Steve Daily appears to have done a good job in providing the sources for his assertions, but I wonder to what extent he may been selective in the use of his sources.
All these aspects are important, but what upset me as I read the book was its aggressive tone and the constantly repeated accusation that Ellen White was a crafty liar and deceiver, who enriched herself in very dubious ways and was a “con artist” in optima forma. I wonder whether those epithets are justified. Was she indeed the kind of wicked person who persisted in a life-long project of deception? I find that hard to believe. It seems to me that the book manifests a kind of aggressive disdain for the object of its research that appears (at least to me) to go beyond objective scholarship. Should the psychobiographic approach perhaps also be applied to its author?

The key question is, I think, whether this will have a major impact on the church and how the church must/will react. I believe that different segments of the world-church will be impacted in different ways. The reality is that most Seventh-day Adventists world-wide know very little about Mrs. White and have read nothing or very little of what she wrote. Even in the Western world most of her books are bought by a relatively small minority. The vast majority of the members of the church will never hear of Steve Daily’s book and will not be impacted. On the other hand, there is a much smaller, but influential (an often vocal), group that will immediately characterize Steve Daily’s book as the revengeful attack of a frustrated ex-Adventist and will insist that it must simply be regarded as part of Satan’s shrewd intentions to undermine, where he can, the work of “the Spirit of prophecy”.

However, there is also a third segment, namely of those who over time have become aware of the various sensitive issues surrounding Ellen White (and her husband), and who are increasingly skeptical about the way her writings have been, and are, used to steer the church in a particular direction and to support traditional doctrinal positions, in particular with respect to end-time convictions. Many pastors, teachers, leaders at all levels, and other thought leaders, are part of this segment of the church. They will read Steve Daily’s book and will ask the kind of questions that I mentioned above. And they demand satisfactory and honest answers. To provide these answers is not just a short-term necessity, but has long-term implications. Daily’s book is not the first or the last evaluation of Ellen White’s ministry, but adds to an ever more detailed and worrisome picture of her. It is a picture that cannot be ignored.

I continue to believe that Ellen White played an important role in the genesis of the church to which I belong. I continue to see evidence that her work has been an important factor in the growth and development of Adventism. I believe her books, however they may have been written, have nurtured the faith of many church members. But I also realize that she was far from perfect. She lived in the Victorian era, in nineteenth century America. She was an imperfect child of her times, and associated with other imperfect people, who together built the church. I am convinced that, in the past, church leadership should have been much more open about the aspects of her work that were questionable and about things she said and wrote that are best forgotten rather than being creatively justified. To rectify the official, but distorted and at times mythical, image of Ellen White, that has been presented to the church and has been vigorously defended, will not be easy. It will demand courage and will cause a lot of discussion and even confusion. But it is, in my view, the only long-term approach that will save the church from further embarrassment. The only way to keep this third segment of the membership in the Adventist fold, is to remove the “sacred canopy” that has long been put over Mrs. White; to bring her down from her unjustified pedestal, and honor the memory of her person and work in a way that is appreciative of her contributions but also historically accurate.

The church needs leaders who are willing to engage in this painful process. Some members may leave the church, feeling betrayed by the fact that things were covered up and that the members in the pew were kept in ignorance about serious problems that were long known to the more initiated. But it will help many Adventist believers–who are now moving towards the back door of the church, because they do not receive answers that they feel are honest–to stay with the church. These members can play an essential part in keeping the church strong and credible in the time to come.

Church for sale

The city of Utrecht has a large number of beautiful churches. If you are looking for a list of all the church buildings in this city, you can find a very complete overview on Wikipedia. On that list you will see that these church buildings date from different times, from the early Middle Ages to well into the twentieth century. But then it stops. No new churches have been added in the twenty-first century. You also see that quite a few churches have recently been given different uses. Some have been converted into apartments, or have been given a cultural purpose. For example, the Buurtkerk church, the construction of which began as early as the tenth century, now houses the Museum Speelklok. Another medieval church, the Geertekerk, is mainly used for congresses and other meetings. Unfortunately, in the last column of this Wikipedia overview, where the current status of the church is indicated, a large number of Utrecht’s houses of worship is labeled with the word: Demolished. Behind that word is often a great deal of tragedy. At one time, these churches served as the home base of a religious community. Often the members of the church were emotionally attached to their building, but they experienced how the membership continued to decline and how it became increasingly difficult to survive as a congregation. Eventually, there was no other option but to sell their building. Sometimes it could be given a different purpose. Often it ended up in the hands of a project developer who had commercial plans, and an apartment building arose after the church building had been demolished.

Today, I read in my newspaper that yet-another large church in Utrecht is about to disappear, namely the St. Joseph Church. It is a neo-Gothic building of considerable size that was built in 1901 and restored in 1997. The church has beautiful stained-glass windows and an organ with great cultural-historical value. The organ was built around 1872 for an evangelical church in Barmen, Germany, and purchased by the St. Joseph Church in 1919. But now the church, with its furniture and organ, is offered for sale by a Utrecht estate agent. Whoever buys the property is expected to find a suitable destination, and this means it will not automatically go to the highest bidder. This is not always the case when a church is put up for sale, but St. Joseph’s is Roman Catholic property and Catholics are generally more picky about selling churches than most Protestants. Ideally, when a Catholic church goes up for sale, they would like to see another faith community purchase it for Christian worship. The Seventh-day Adventists in the Netherlands bought a few years ago, at a reasonable price, a Catholic church building in Oost-Souburg in Zeeland (for the congregations of Middelburg and Vlissingen which merged) and an attractive modern Catholic church in the Mariahoeve district of The Hague.

The sale of the Utrecht St. Joseph Church fits into an unfortunate pattern. Many church buildings disappear or have been given a different role as a result of the decline of most Christian denominations. But with the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands, this process is going faster and is more dramatic. A large number of parishes, spread across the country, cease to exist or merge with other parishes. Often several parishes share only one priest, who has time for little else beyond funerals, wedding services, and baptisms. Due to financial concerns the governance structure of the Dutch dioceses has been drastically cut back in recent years. In short, it is going downhill with Dutch Catholicism. We see the same pattern in a number of other countries.

How do we as Adventists understand at this? This development does not fit with the traditional interpretation of certain prophetic portions in the Bible. Adventists have always proclaimed that the end-time coalition of God’s enemies will be led by the Roman Catholic Church. I must confess that I gradually left that view many years ago, even though I still have objections to quite a few aspects of Catholic doctrine. And I do not deny that the Roman Catholic Church has often played a very questionable role in history (and certainly in the Middle Ages). But today there is nothing to suggest that Catholicism is getting stronger and wants to go to war against other Christian believers. In our postmodern age of secularization and church-leaving, other Christians are not our enemy, but we—-with all our differences—-should present a united front against the forces in our world that want to dismiss the Christian faith as outdated.

No, I do not applaud the sale of the St. Joseph church in Utrecht. It is a shame that yet another place of worship is disappearing in this beautiful city.