In Review | Books What I Believe, by Hans Küng, translated by John Bowden. Continuum, 224 pages, $24.95.
In a letter she wrote in 1962, the novelist Flannery O'Connor recommended to her correspondent a book by a young Swiss Catholic theologian named Hans Küng, adding that his views had attracted some controversy. It is safe to say that few, if any, theologians who drew attention outside of the professional guild in 1962 are still active and controversial today. Küng and his ideas have staying power.
Küng's latest book, What I Believe, was a bestseller in Germany when it appeared in 2009. The reception of the book in Europe is due in part to Küng's continuing prominence on the European cultural scene; in contrast, his profile in North America seems to have receded somewhat, although he continues to lecture in this country. Serious theologians such as Küng seem to enjoy a broader public audience in secularized Europe than they do in putatively pious America. Perhaps this is because, particularly in the German-speaking regions, there is a continuing reverence for the "Great Thinker." Or perhaps German readers, having shed their religious habituations, are hungry for reminders that religion can still matter to thoughtful, intelligent people
In any event, What I Believe has now appeared in the United States in an excellent English translation by John Bowden. In the book, Küng, now 82, provides a critical review of the "numerous spiritual elements which have matured over my life." It sums up his basic convictions, in a series of "serious informative reflections on a meaningful course of life based on personal experience." Coming on the heels of two thick volumes of autobiography, My Struggle for Freedom (2003) and Disputed Truth (2008), that were studded with names, dates, and recollections, What I Believe is briefer and more confessional. It maps Küng's religious landscape; in fact, in his preface, he compares the chapters of the book to stages of a mountain hiking expedition in which the reader joins him. And though the book is most concerned with his thinking and believing, it is also spiced with some personal details, such as Küng's fondness for My Fair Lady and daily swims, and his dislike of noise and playboys. Some readers may not be receptive to such disclosures (or to the occasional mention of awards he has received), but a thoroughly self-effacing book would have been less interesting.
The book reflects Küng's distaste for dogmatic formulations. He favors, instead, a nontechnical, even nontheological, approach, one centered on life as lived, in its mundane as well as its transcendent aspects. This is consistent with Küng's other work, which focuses on faith's encounter with atheism and nihilism. His readiness to engage with the cultured despisers of religion is particularly evident in his earlier books On Being a Christian (1976) and Does God Exist? An Answer for Today (1980).
Küng organizes the book thematically around the subject of life, with individual chapters on such themes as the joy, meaning, way, foundation, and vision of life. Küng weaves many ideas into this framework: the nature of God, religious belief, suffering and evil, the cultural dilemmas of the day, the relationship between science and religion, and the bewildering diversity of human religiosity. These ideas are refracted through Küng's personal experience. Patiently yet succinctly, Küng explains where he stands on these matters and how he arrived there. His perspective is decidedly Christocentric, yet deeply informed by other traditions of faith and practice. At the same time, he provides glimpses into other facets of his life: his practices of prayer, attitude toward mysticism, appreciation of nature, and attitude toward death.
Küng's own religious narrative centers on his experience of trust. Whether conscious or not, whether more or less reasoned out, Küng finds trust to be a fundamental human experience. Drawing on the psychologist Erik Erikson's idea of trust as "the cornerstone of the healthy personality," Küng suggests that trust is first received and then consciously embraced. The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg and others have criticized Küng's notion of adult trust as a matter of decision; for them, trust is not an active decision, but an orientation toward the object of trust. In this book, Küng holds fast to his idea of trust as a decision. Particularly evocative is his description of arriving at the insight that religious commitment is ultimately grounded in saying yes, which he sees as an act of trust. He writes that, after much intellectual struggle, he came to reject "a bottomless mistrust in the garb of nihilism or cynicism" and resolved to "venture to trust life: a fundamental trust in yourself, in others, in the world, and in the whole of questionable reality."
While Küng's emphasis on trust is appealing, it raises questions. Does he psychologize belief by linking it so closely to trust? And though Küng properly distinguishes trust from faith, it is not clear why trust leads to faith in some people while in others it does not.
Trust is fundamental for Küng, but it must be refined by rational scrutiny. He is impressive throughout the book in expressing the importance of knowing for him—and for the religious life as he sees it. Belief must be rationally accountable: "All that is absurd—unexplained, infantile, from the backwoods, reactionary—is alien to me." Yet while Küng prizes reason, he opposes rationalism. At heart, Küng is a moderate, favoring balance over excess. Thinking and feeling belong together. He has an appetite for inclusiveness and wholeness, but not at the price of wishful thinking. For example, Küng is wary of what passes nowadays as spirituality, because of its randomness. Like the laborer in Robert Frost's poem "Mowing," for Küng "anything more than the truth would seem too weak."
Küng sees the contemporary Zeitgeist of the West as marked by secularism, pluralism, and a tendency to superficiality. Contemporary notions of ethics have been shorn of religious or metaphysical underpinnings, and current ethical norms are vulnerable to appropriation for private or trivial ends. He discerns a preoccupation with phenomenon, structure, and function over values, meanings, and norms. These tendencies have had institutionally destabilizing and cognitively unsettling effects on religion.
In Küng's view, institutional religion's predicament is partly of its own making. Often, its adherents have chosen the wrong battles to fight, such as science and democracy. At the same time, he sees its adversaries as victims of their own prejudices, tending to judge and condemn religion on the basis of its obscurantist and fanatical pathologies. Their animus is abetted by ignorance of basic information. Küng points a finger here at ethologist Richard Dawkins, branding him "smugly unenlightened."
Küng believes that religion's prospects depend on an ability to confront honestly its vulnerability to perversion and distortion, which often leads to the legitimation of violence. Is this a realistic hope? Can it be achieved through the unsentimental, rational scrutiny of historical traditions, through ecumenical dialogue, or through declarations? These actions may not be enough, but Küng would say that the prospect is bleak without them. Notwithstanding religion's shortcomings, Küng believes that it has virtues compared to the religionless life: it is nonelitist and broadly accessible, it speaks symbolically and emotionally as well as rationally, and it possesses continuity through its traditions. It addresses questions of origin and destiny, provides strength and security, and gives voice to an "unquenchable longing for a better world."
The book says relatively little about Küng's Global Ethic project, an undertaking with which he has been engaged for over twenty years, and which has been commended by Pope Benedict XVI. The Global Ethic is a set of shared ethical principles that Küng has developed, which draw on diverse religious traditions throughout the world. Küng's statement of these principles was adopted by representatives of practically all the world's religious traditions at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1993. Subsequently, Küng established a foundation (the Global Ethic Foundation) in Tübingen, Germany, to promote the Global Ethic and explore its application to various fields of activity such as pedagogy, economics, politics, and cross-cultural understanding. Concurrently with this work, Küng produced a series of substantial studies on each of the Abrahamic religions, briefer studies on Asian religions, and a documentary film series for television on the major religious traditions. He does refer to the Global Ethic project at various points in What I Believe, but without much elaboration. Küng also occasionally describes how his spiritual practices and theological understandings have been shaped by traditions other than his own. It would have been welcome to learn more about how someone who has devoted so much effort to the comparative study of religious traditions has been shaped by the experience.
It would also be interesting to know more about how Küng aligns his priestly vocation, his beliefs, and the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. He spends little time in this book on the details of his long-standing differences with the Catholic Church hierarchy—all well-documented in his autobiographies. Here he summarizes his opposition in simple terms: "My criticism of the church in particular comes most deeply from suffering over the discrepancy between what this historical Jesus was, what he preached, lived out, fought for and suffered for, and what is today represented by the institutional church and its hierarchy." His loyalty to the Catholic Church comes through clearly, but it would have been intriguing to glimpse more fully how that loyalty has endured decades of controversy.
What I Believe is personal without being idiosyncratic, reasoned but not rationalized, judicious though not ponderous. Behind it lies decades of study and reflection, and they lend weight, unobtrusively for the most part, to what Küng has to say. Though one may not share some, or even many, of its author's interpretations, choices, or commitments, What I Believe remains an engaging, often eloquent, portrait of personal belief.
Bradley Shingleton, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School (MTS '78) and Duke University Law School (JD '82), practices international law in Washington, D.C. His publications include Dimensions of German Unification (Westview, 1995).