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A. Mong: Hans Küng’s Humanum and the Quest for the True Religion

Essay published in the journal Dialogue & Alliance, Winter 2010 issue

Hans Küng and others have given us an interesting model to begin our work to establish peace among the religions and spread outward from them. We shall need to refine and extend that model for the third millennium.

Such beginnings are underway, as illustrated, for example, in the splendid collection of essays edited by Sumner Twiss and Bruce Grelle, Explorations in Global Ethics. We must hope and pray that the fruit of this endeavor provides the religions with important, significant, and reconciliatory things to contribute should they find a forum in the highest councils of world governance.

Hans Küng proposes the concept of humanum as the basic norm for an ecumenical theology and for judging the authenticity of a religion. [i] He defines humanum as “what is given and what it is given to do: it is both the essence and the task of humanity.”[ii] This stress on the human element is also part of the transformation of Catholicism in the second half of the twentieth century.

For centuries, the Catholic Church had opposed the notion of human rights: Pope Pius VI considered the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in the French National Assembly a direct attack against the Catholic Church. In his 1791 papal document, Caritas, he condemned the declarations on the rights to freedom of religion, freedom of the press as well as the declaration on the equality of all men as contrary to the divine principles of the church. The principle of religious freedom was a threat to the church because it considers all religions equal and insists on the separation of church and state.[iii]

It was only in the 1960s that the church accepted human rights doctrines, when John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) adopted a modern discourse on human rights which has now become part and parcel of papal teachings and bishops’ pastoral letters. Now the church has consistently stressed the protection of human rights of every person as the moral foundation for a just and peaceful society; it calls for dialogue and peaceful negotiation as means of resolving conflicts and promotes universal solidarity as the only basis for the construction of a legitimate world order.

The inalienable rights of every individual to freedom of conscience based on the sacred dignity of the human person is recognized in the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae. This is a significant theological development: the transformation of the principle of libertas ecclesiae to libertas personae.[iv] It is in this context that we can situate Küng’s concept of humanum as a paradigm shift in theology.

Küng states that in the fight for humanum, Christianity and religions in general can provide reasons why morality and ethics are more than just matters of private judgment or social norms. Religion can show that morality and ethical values are binding and applicable to all persons: “it has proved that only the Unconditioned can itself impose an unconditional obligation, and only the Absolute can be absolutely binding.”[v] And in times of human atrophy and widespread permissiveness, Christianity can establish for the conscience of the individual the importance of morality which is more than a question of personal preference. A society without norms of behavior or moral values, a minimum of binding values, cannot survive. Not only do people need basic norms of behavior, they also cannot live in a spiritual void.[vi]

This paper attempts to critique Küng’s humanum as a criterion for determining the truth and goodness of a religion. In addition, the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, who understands Christianity as the true religion, is presented to shed light on their different approaches.

Being human and being Christian

Küng in On Being a Christian hits out at official representatives of churches who lack genuine humanity and thus give the idea that being a Christian cannot be an “authentically human possibility.” He argues that the humanization of the whole person ought to be complementary to being a Christian: “The Christian factor must be made not at the expense of the human, but for the benefit of the latter.” Another important point he makes is that human nature is not static and immutable, but dynamic and constantly changing, to be seen as a social reality. At the same time, he cautions that a person’s freedom cannot be obtained solely by changing social conditions because the human being needs a basic spiritual bond and truth. In the light of this, Küng argues that if a person believes Jesus Christ to be the concrete guiding principle and model, he can live a different, more authentic human life.[vii]

Thus, through belief in Jesus Christ, human beings can develop new insights and tendencies: the disposition to commit oneself to one’s fellow men and women, to identify with the handicapped, and to fight against unjust social and economic structures. Imitating Christ leads to new projects and actions, not only universal programs to transform society, but “concrete signs, testimonies, evidence of humanity and of humanizing both the individual and human society.” The realization of the kingdom of God can come about only through the positive and negative aspects of human life as mirrored in the paschal mystery of Christ: his suffering, death and resurrection.[viii]

Being a Christian is not an addition to one’s humanity, Küng argues; thus being a Christian, one does not cease to be human and vice versa. The Christian feature is neither a “superstructure nor a substructure of the human.” Christian faith elevates the human person, preserving and surpassing the human; to be a Christian means other humanisms are transfigured and are affirmed as the human reality with all its positive and negative aspects. Christians see humanity, freedom, justice, etc., in the light of Jesus who is the Christ.[ix]

Küng calls for a radical humanism that affirms not only the good and beautiful, but integrates and copes with what is not good, untrue, and inhuman. This means that true humanism embraces sin, suffering, and death. Only the crucified Christ can give meaning to suffering and death in our human existence. And even when reason breaks down, in pointless misery, we can still find meaning in life if we are sustained by God. Faith in Jesus gives us peace but does not get rid of our problems; it makes us truly human when we respond to the needs of our neighbor.[x]

Christian tradition and human experience

Küng believes that academic theology must draw from two sources: Jewish-Christian tradition and the contemporary human experiences of both Christians and non-Christians.[xi] God’s revelation can be perceived only through and in human experiences. This means that God’s revelation encompasses human projects, events, and interpretations. Küng says “human experiences do not account for God’s revelation, rather God’s revelation accounts for the human response in faith.”[xii] Although revelation is not directly God’s word, it remains a human word and bears witness to the word of God that people experience. Thus, there is no revelation outside of human experience; and it is the specific experience of Jesus Christ who gives meaning to our lives, without which there is no Christianity. The interpretative experience is a fundamental aspect of revelation. Metaphorically speaking, revelation comes from God “above,” but is experienced and interpreted from “below” by men and women.

Another point that Küng makes is that the human experience of revelation is “always given in advance only through human interpretation.”[xiii] This means that every experience of revelation, salvation, and grace is never given purely but is interpreted and identified in advance. In short, every experience is an interpretative process by itself and is finally enriched by expressing it in language. There is no experience or faith-statement in the Bible or by the church without this interpretative framework.

Therefore, the experience of Jesus was already interpreted in advance by the biblical authors; the message of salvation was given to us colored by the experience of the synoptic gospel writers and by Paul and John. They came from a cultural milieu totally different from ours, and thus the same gospel message has to be “mediated afresh today.”[xiv] The criterion for the Christian faith is the “living Jesus of history” and not the “historical image of Jesus.” Küng believes that a historical-critical approach to biblical study “can clarify for us how the concrete contents of early Christian faith were ‘fulfilled’ through the Jesus of faith.”[xv]

Küng believes that historical-critical research can give us confirmation that the Christ of faith is also the Jesus of history. It is easy to distort the image of Christ through superstitions. Theologians have the responsibility to take seriously the religious difficulties and doubts of contemporary men and women; it is their task to defend the Christian faith against “distortions and false conclusions on the part of the church.” Thus, we have “a faith seeking historical understanding” and also “a historical understanding seeking faith.”[xvi] This means that our belief in Jesus must be historically rooted and verified. Küng insists that the findings of historical-critical exegesis cannot be ignored, evaded, or domesticated by neo-scholastic conservatism.

The second source of theology is our human experience: “the vital consciousness of men and women in the world, with their deepest problems with meaning, life and society.”[xvii] It is in the secular world that people experience alienation and crises of faith. Thus, theology must respond to these human experiences and give them a meaningful Christian interpretation. According to Schillebeeckx, “The modern person reflects on specific experiences and interprets them, often groping carefully along, in a religious sense. The ambivalent experiences that he has are both positive (in the direction of infinity) and negative (in the direction of finity), they confront the contemporary person with a decision, that is, they are a summons to and an experience with these experiences.”[xviii]

In view of the above, Küng argues that the Christian message must be translated into our world of experience; the word of God can only be meaningful when it is experienced as a liberating answer to our problems in life. Theology must establish a “critical correlation” between the Christian tradition of experience and today’s experiences, if it is to serve preaching. This requires theologians and preachers to analyze the present-day world of experience, trace the constant structures of Christian experience based on the New Testament, and relate the two sources critically. Thus, our daily experience must be present in theology in the form of a “presence” of our modern existence, the “feeling of life and contemporary impulses.” A good example is what Edward Schillebeeckx identifies as critical remembering of human suffering, the question of redemption and emancipation.[xix]

The true religion

Küng asks this question, “Is there one true religion?” From the outside (i.e., objectively) there are many true religions; from the inside (subjectively) there is only one. Christians over the centuries have fallen into untrue religion. Prophets have had to arise in the Church and “enlightened ones” outside the Church to call the faithful back to this truth, “among whom the prophet Muhammad and the Buddha should no doubt be included par excellence.[xx] Küng says a genuine religion must have an orientation to the human element, but that does not mean that it must be reduced to “merely human.” Religion is convincing when it succeeds in bringing out the “human element against the background of the Absolute.”[xxi]

Churches reacted against freedom of religion and conscience. Thus, humanism called upon the often rather unchristian churches to translate into reality what were truly Christian values such as freedom, equality, fraternity, and human dignity. Küng argues that “For it was precisely by being religiously and ecclesiastically emancipated in modern autonomy that the human element could once again find a home in the domain of Christianity – before all other religions.”[xxii]

Thus, according to Küng, insofar as a religion serves the virtue of humanity, supports human beings in their dignity, and allows them to gain meaningful and fruitful existence, it is a true and good religion. But if religion spreads inhumanity and hinders human beings in their human identity and meaningfulness, prevents them from achieving a meaningful and fruitful existence, it is a false and bad religion.[xxiii]

In view of this, all religions reflect again the demands of human nature; this human element is given to all men and women; it is a general criterion that holds for all religious beliefs. And all religions will continually remind themselves of their “primal, peculiar essence” as found in their sacred writings and saints. Time and again, their prophets and reformers will remind them if they have been untrue or violating their own essence. The original essence unique to every religion is a general criterion by which each can be measured.[xxiv]

Thus, in Küng’s view, a religion is true when it promotes human flourishingwhen it creates social solidarity and tolerance, when it replaces ecclesiocentrism with philanthropy, when it relativizes religious constitutions for human good: this means that the more humane Christianity is, the more it appears to the outside as a true religion. It is a pragmatic assessment and not an existential one.

Küng asserts that in the Christian faith, the specifically Christian criterion coincides with the general ethical criterion of humanity. The Sermon on the Mount is a proclamation of a “true humanity.” This new humanity implies a “more radical way of being human” as demonstrated by solidarity with one another and also with one’s opponents. This also implies that Christians enter into fellowship with members of other religions as well. Küng says that the more humane Christianity is, the more Christian it is. Thus, “true humanity is the prerequisite for true religion”; and “true religion is the perfecting of true humanity.”[xxv]

Küng also makes it clear that the truth in Christianity does not exclude the truth in other religions. They are all conditionally true religions as long as they do not contradict the essential Christian message; in fact, other religions can “complete, correct and enrich the Christian religion.”[xxvi] In the end no religion will be left standing, not even Christianity, Küng asserts, but the one “Inexpressible” to whom all religions are oriented. Even Jesus Christ will no longer stand as a separate figure; Paul says, “When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will (also) be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

The Golden Rule

Küng believes that humanity is entering a new phase in history and its very survival requires a radical paradigm shift—a world ethic for humankind to survive in the recent economic, social, political, and ecological crisis. There must be a minimum consensus, he insists, for societies to survive; this minimum consensus provides the foundation of moral obligation to do good and not evil.

This choice to do good “is the one unconditional in all that is conditioned that can provide a basis for the absoluteness and universality of ethical demands, that primal ground, primal support, primal goal of human beings and the world that we call God.”[xxvii] This basic consensus can be found in the “Golden Rule” which is shared by all major world religions. Küng views Kant’s categorical imperative as the modernization and secularization of this golden rule, and thus can be shared by non-believers as well.[xxviii]


Critical reflection

Küng’s main thesis regarding the authentic religion is that only a religion that promotes true humanity can be true and good. This can lead to misunderstanding and opposition because members of other religions stress that religion is about the relationship between the individual person and the divine and that Küng’s anthropocentric thesis undermines this relationship. On the one hand, representatives of Eastern religions may see Küng’s humanum as merely a product of Christian liberal thinking. On the other hand, there are people who want to renew the Christian faith that has been weakened by the liberal influence on the church; they see Küng’s affirmation of the humanum as another idea from the Enlightenment. Perhaps Küng sees this resistance as a retreat from public responsibility; but for these theologians, Christians can only make an impact on society by the “particularities of their distinctive heritage.”[xxix] Thus, the effort to find common ground with the secular world or other religions belongs to the legacy of the Enlightenment or modernity which is disappearing.

Küng did not elaborate on the idea of humanum as it applies to biblical studies, ethics, and politics nor did he give concrete suggestions as to how it can be implemented in real life. Leonard Swidler, however, sees human life in three connected aspects: practical, cognitive, and spiritual. In the cognitive aspect, we seek to understand and express in various ways our perception of the world and life experiences; in the practical area, we seek to “affect and effect” the world; and in the spiritual aspect, we discern the deeper meanings of our experiences and of the world. This spiritual or in-depth dimension of our life, our imagination, and feelings plays an important role; it brings into consciousness the images and emotions of our daily experience. All the three areas of our life must be well integrated so that we can live a holistic life.[xxx]

John Cobb questions whether Küng’s humanum is an adequate basis for the needed ethos because it does not go beyond anthropocentricism. He argues that the discussion of humanum reveals that Küng is a child of the Enlightenment. It is important for Cobb to affirm human dignity without the anthropocentricism and individualism of the Enlightenment. He is right to suggest that Hinduism and Buddhism can help to do just that.[xxxi] An alternative model to Küng’s Humanum is Cobb’s “person-in-community” which embraces both humans and other creatures. This would counteract the individualistic tendency of humanum.[xxxii]

Cobb also argues that the weakness of Küng’s humanum comes from its close link with “Enlightenment individualism and dualism,” and other religious traditions are resistant to it. He claims his idea of “persons-in-community-with-one-another-and-with-other-creatures” is more acceptable to other religious and secular communities because of its “communitarian character of personal life and its embeddedness in the natural context.”[xxxiii] Cobb is concerned that an ethos that originates from an individualistic and dualistic philosophical tradition is destroying the developing countries; he believes that the strengthening of human communities is more relevant than Küng’s humanum for improving the lives of people, especially in the third world.

Having discussed Küng’s understanding of humanum as the criterion for a true religion and its shortcomings, we now turn to Joseph Ratzinger, who presents a different philosophical-theological approach and supports the claim of Christianity as the religio vera.

Historical character of Christianity

Ratzinger stresses the historical character of Christianity; he points to the character of Christianity as a monotheistic religion and the unhistorical nature of mysticism which expresses itself in symbols. In mysticism, the experience is all that counts; this experience or content transcends everything temporal. Christianity, on the other hand, is a divine calling, a relationship that is historically dated; it is a “faith in an event” according to Jean Danielou. Mysticism and some non-Christian religions have the trait of being unhistorical in that “they revolt against concrete time” and they long “for a periodic return to the mystic time of origin.” Christianity is a historical faith, “a path whose direction we call progress and whose attitude we call hope.” [xxxiv]

In spite of his stress on the historical character of Christianity, Ratzinger recognizes that the attempt to establish Christology firmly on the historical foundation has created a dilemma in modern theology. The push to make Christology “accurate” and “demonstrable” cannot succeed because it limits the phenomenon of Christianity: to confine Jesus in history is to limit our faith in him and his influence on our life. Faith in Jesus is a personal experience of the apostles and thus cannot be reduced to the “demonstrable.” To escape from the dilemma of the historical altogether, as Hegel and Bultmann did, is also a futile attempt, according to Ratzinger.[xxxv]

We are thus given two courses in this historical dilemma: the first is to reduce Christology to history and the second is to escape history entirely, abandon it as irrelevant to faith. Ratzinger summarizes it as: Jesus or Christ? He remarks that modern theology starts by turning away from Christ and moving towards Jesus as a historically comprehensible figure. Later, Bultmann took the opposite direction by returning to Christ.[xxxvi]

So it is a question of Jesus versus Christ; we turn to Jesus who is love and move away from Christ who represents dogma. According to Harnack, the decisive break occurred when the preaching of Jesus was transformed into the preached Christ who demanded faith and became dogma. Jesus proclaimed the message of love and displaced Pharisaical orthodoxy with the simple trust in the Father and the brotherhood of humankind. But later this had been substituted with the doctrine of the God-man; and so brotherly love, which is salvation, was replaced by a doctrine of salvation. Thus, the conflict began. The battle cry now is back past the preached Christ to the preaching of Jesus; back to the “unifying power of love under the one Father with all our brothers.”[xxxvii]

Ratzinger recognizes that many people are now attracted to the humanity of Jesus, the most human of all human beings, whose “humanity seems to them in a secularized world like the last shimmer of the divine left after the ‘death of God.’”

Jesus remains a symbol of hope and trust which gives us courage to go on, but nothing more. Thus, believing only in the humanity of Jesus is part of the theology of the “death of God.” Ratzinger is astonished to find that those who had been critical are now willing to accept uncritically a theology without God so as to appear to be progressive. He thinks that the attempt to pursue theology without God is a manifestation of an uncritical attitude.[xxxviii] Perhaps this is a criticism of liberal theologians like Küng and others.

The attempt to construct a pure Jesus is intrinsically absurd, in Ratzinger’s view. At the same time, “mere history creates no present,” it only confirms what happened in the past. The romantic approach to Jesus is just as futile as the flight to the kerygma. For Ratzinger, “Jesus only subsists as the Christ and the Christ only subsists in the shape of Jesus.” And we should put more trust in the presence of the faith which has endured for centuries, a faith which aims only to understand who and what this Jesus really was.[xxxix]

Faith and culture

Ratzinger prefers to talk about “interculturality” instead of “inculturation” because this term presupposes that a culturally naked faith can easily be transferred into another culture even if they are alien to each other. This, according to him, is artificial and unreal because faith is never culture-free, and at the same time there is no such thing as a religion-free culture. Only when cultures are potentially universal and are open to others can interculturality take place and lead to fruitful forms. The openness of all people to others is hidden in our souls and touched by truth. We cannot see all religions as superstitions, and at the same time it is also wrong to think that all religions are good, one, and the same.[xl]

In Dialectics of Secularization, Ratzinger states that to discuss human existence, it is absolutely necessary to take into account the intercultural dimension. Such discussion cannot take place exclusively within the Christian framework or Western rational tradition, although they claim to be universal. But in fact, they are only accepted by a small proportion of humanity. Küng believes there is a common universal principle that binds people, humanum; Ratzinger thinks there is no uniformity within the individual cultural spheres, only “profound tensions within their own cultural tradition,” which is obvious in Western countries. Secularism and Christianity continue to exert influence on people; at times they are willing to learn from each other, at other times, they reject each other.[xli]

Ratzinger insists that we cannot simply allow religions to remain as they are; religions have to move with history and cannot be confined to a museum, as it were. Such a view is unrealistic because “the meeting of cultures and the gradual growing together of the separate geographical areas of history into one common history of mankind are grounded in the nature of man himself.”[xlii] It would be unfair to deny technological progress and the spread of modern civilization to other people. Hence, it would also not be right to deny the gospel to others. This is Ratzinger’s rationale for mission, but he admits that we must proceed in our mission with more sensitivity to the others’ traditions.

Primacy of the particular

Joseph Ratzinger admits that Christian belief is not just concerned with the eternal and “other worldly” but “with God in history, with God as man.” Revelation bridges the gulf between the temporal and the eternal, between the visible and invisible.[xliii] Jesus is that person in whom God comes to meet us (John 1:18). Ratzinger points out that what seems to be the most radical revelation, the disclosure of God in Jesus, is also the most extreme of obscurity and concealment. What he means is that God has come so close to us that we can kill him: the “death of God” is now part of our human history and he ceases to be God for us. Perhaps many would think it might be easier to believe in the “Mysterious Eternal,” as in some Eastern religions, than to “give oneself up to the positivism of belief in one single figure and to set up the salvation of man and of the world on the pin-point … of this one chance moment in history.”[xliv] But Christianity is fundamentally a belief in a person.

Thus, according to Ratzinger, the most fundamental feature of Christian faith is its personal character: “I believe in Thee.” “It is the encounter with the human being Jesus, and in this encounter it experiences the meaning of the world as a person.”[xlv] The Christian belief in God is first of all a belief in the pre-existing logos, which is not a neutral consciousness but a person. Thus, the Christian option for belief in the logos is an option for the “primacy of the particular as against the universal.” The Christian faith is above all an option for the human being as the “irreducible, infinity-related being.”[xlvi]

Ratzinger stresses that the particular is more than the universal; thus, the unique person is not just an individual but the ultimate and highest thing. The Christian sees man and woman not an individual but a person, and it is here that we see the primacy of particular over the universal. This means also that the Christian faith is more than just monotheism; it is the belief in the triune God.[xlvii]

Question of truth

In Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger acknowledges that Christianity’s recognition of other religions as a preparation for the gospel is perceived as a sign of arrogance. The dominant attitude of most people today is that all religions with all their multiplicity of forms can actually lead us to the divine.[xlviii] This attitude known as relativism is an ideology that he relentlessly seeks to discredit. Ratzinger’s theology of religions is in stark contrast to Küng’s, who insists that a religion is true when it promotes human flourishing. It is a fact that there are varieties of religions and the question of truth seems illusory, Ratzinger recognizes. However, there is this commonly shared religious experience; the various religious traditions are also related spiritually with each other. Regarding this, Küng speaks about the golden rule that exists in all major religious traditions, as we have seen.

In Many Religions—One Covenant, Ratzinger also argues that interreligious dialogue is possible only if we enter deeply into discovering the truth; skepticism and pragmatism do not unite people. We need to respect the beliefs of others and be ready to search for the truth in the other, for such truth can correct and lead us. Ratzinger admits that we do not possess the whole truth about the divine, and thus we need the help of others in our earthly pilgrimage.[xlix]

Ratzinger makes the interesting point that giving an absolute value to a religion is not peculiar to monotheism alone; it also applies to mysticism and enlightenment. Everyone makes an absolute claim for what they believe to be true, not just Christians. There are those who follow someone like Radhakrishnan, who teaches the relativity of all religions and at the same time gives this experience of mysticism an absolute value. This is no less arrogant than the Christian claim to be the one true religion. Enlightenment, too, gives rational knowledge an absolute value—scientific knowledge becomes the only valid knowledge and it denies the absolute value of religious belief, which is actually a different kind of reality.[l]

People now substitute practice for truth, and that is why the whole axis of religion is displaced. To lay claim to truth for one religious belief appears to be presumptuous today, Ratzinger laments. The focus is now on the “kingdom” or “regnocentricity” which all religions must move towards. Hence, it is not necessary for all religions to move closer to one another, but towards the center, which is the kingdom. He believes this movement towards the kingdom will deprive religions of their content of “any object or point of reference.”[li]

Religions cannot stand still, Ratzinger insists, in a world that is moving with history. The Christian faith carries within itself the heritage of other great religions and opens it to the Logos, to true reason which can make possible a synthesis of rationality and religion. Christian missions must understand other religions more deeply and accept them at a more profound level, and other religions must recognize that their best elements can flourish when they are pointed towards Christ. In this way, we can proceed on an intercultural search for the common truth.[lii]

Following the teaching of St. Augustine, Ratzinger states that Christianity is not based on myths or justified by political exigency but it is related to that divine presence that can be perceived by reason. Christianity is religio vera in the sense that it is not based on poetry and politics like the pagan religions, but on knowledge. For Küng, as we have seen, it is the human element that is the decisive factor concerning the truth of religion. Ratzinger argues that Christianity is the worship of the “true God,” and enlightenment is part of this religion; it embodies “the victory of demythologization, the victory of knowledge . . . and the victory of truth.”[liii] It appears to be intolerant because it refuses to accept relativism and the interchangeability of gods or to be used for political purposes. But for Ratzinger, Christianity is not just one religion among others, but it represents the victory of perception and truth.

Ratzinger asserts that the Christian faith is convincing, and its success in the early years of its foundation was due to its connection of faith with reason. Charity is the foundation of its belief—loving care for the suffering, poor, and the weak. This is its inner power—love. The synthesis of reason, faith, and life makes Christianity a religio vera. He believes the only way to resolve the crisis of faith in Christianity in modern times is for love and reason to come together as the two pillars of life: “the true reason is love, and love is the true reason.”[liv]

This is obviously very different from Küng’s approach, which regards religion as true as long as it promotes human welfare. He believes that insofar as a religion promotes the dignity of human beings, helps people to live a meaning and dignified life, it is a true and good religion. It seems that Küng has substituted practice for truth.

The church

According to Ratzinger, there is a dynamic impulse inherent in Christianity—it is not simply a network of institutions and ideas, but a living faith that develops again and again within the church. The dynamic of the conscience and the silent presence of God in our religion guide us along towards salvation. We have to continue searching for God’s will, which is not fossilized in dogmas and institutions.[lv]

Ratzinger reminds us that theology has an essentially ecclesiastical identity and it is not simply the private opinion of one person. The church as a living organism endures amid changes in history, but the idea of one theologian fades into insignificance rapidly. Thus, theologians must work in the “vital milieu” of the ecclesiastical community, and theology can remain historically relevant only if it acknowledges and participates in this environment. Ratzinger claims that the church transcends the narrowness of individuals and thus can provide the condition that makes theological activity possible. He acknowledges that historical research and human sciences are privileged partners of the theologians, and he also calls for inner participation in the “organic structure of the Church.”[lvi]

Küng, however, thinks of himself as a modern Erasmus when he calls for a revival of biblical thinking without biblicism, a renewal of tradition without traditionalism, and a restoration of Christian authority without authoritarianism. Erasmus was “the first conscious European, the first militant friend of peace, the most eloquent advocate of a humanistic ideal warmly disposed toward the world and mind.” He was “the irresolute Anti-Luther, the rationalistic early Enlightenment figure, the classical humanist”; he believed that we can be “authentically human by being a Christian, and be a Christian by being human.”[lvii]

A year before he died, Erasmus wrote to Luther: “Thus I put up with this Church, until I see a better one; and she is forced to put up with me, until I myself become better.”[lviii] Perhaps Küng thinks of himself as a loyal critic whom the Catholic Church must learn to accommodate. He says he has always understood his theological work as a service to the Roman Catholic Church.


The emphasis on humanum in theological investigation can be seen as part of the Nouvelle Théologie, which ascribes an important role to history which had earlier been relegated as secondary to theological abstractions and speculations. This means that the “old theology” or neo-scholasticism took dogmas as its point of departure and through deduction arrived at new insights that were compatible with the tenets of faith.[lix]

Hans Küng, the avant-garde theologian, was keen to abandon this closed thinking and to resist this “unworldly notional system.” He appeals to a positive theology which has its sources in the Bible and the concrete life of faith, and believes that valid contribution to Catholic theology can only be carried out through critical source analysis.[lx]

Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is able to embrace the difficult challenge of meeting diverse understandings of spiritual truth while defending the Catholic faith. He offers a more comprehensive and profound outlook regarding the theology of religions than does Küng’s stress on the human element.

Nonetheless, examining the thought of Ratzinger, one finds that many of his theological insights are not contrary to Küng’s more liberal outlook, although their approaches are different. Ratzinger stresses the particularity and primacy of the Christian religion; Küng highlights the universal dimension of humanum as the criterion for true religion. Thus, their theological approaches can be summarized as particularity versus universality. The theologies of Ratzinger and Küng can complement each other and enable us to grasp more deeply the nature of the Christian

[i] The concept of humanum is not new; it is related to the theology of deification found in the writings of St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius in the second and third centuries: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). Deification is a “process towards achieving authentic humanum in Christ.” To put it simply, becoming human is related to becoming divine. Humanization is also one of the main purposes of creation and one can attain salvation only through the world and human history. Human life and work is at the centre of the historical process towards humanization. This involvement in history means that human shares meaning and serves the purpose in history as it moves toward fulfillment. See Nikos A. Nissiotis, “Secular and Christian Images of Human Person,” Theologia 33, Athens 1962, p. 947- 989; Theologia 34, Athens 1963, 90-122. Jaroslav Pelikan states that “The coming of that man in the flesh could be called ‘the incarnation of the Logos and the deification of humanity.’” See The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), 46.

[ii] Hans Küng and Julia Ching, Christianity and Chinese Religions (London: SCM Press, 1989), 114.

[iii]José Casanova, “The Sacralization of the Humanum: A Theology for Global Age,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Fall, 1999), 22.

[iv] This means moving from the freedom of the church to the freedom of the person. See José Casanova, “The Sacralization of the Humanum,” 22. Ratzinger stresses that the value and dignity of the human person can only be protected on the foundation of God who “stands over against us, so that religion, being human, is in the last resort a relationship – love – that becomes a union.”(T and T 45). See Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 45.

[v] Hans Küng, Global Responsibility (London: SCM Press, 1991), 87. Küng has said that modern science and technology have proved to be incapable of providing the foundation for universal values and human rights. See Global Responsibility 42.

[vi] Küng argues that human beings cannot tolerate a spiritual vacuum; it is thus being filled by substitute values: “Instead of the age old five Cs of true religion, Creed, Cult, Code, Conduct, and Community, the mundane five Cs of pseudo-religion: Cash, Condominium, Country Club, Credit Card and Car.” See Hans Küng, Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics (Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, 1998), 274.

[vii] Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (London: Image Books, 1984), 530-531.

[viii] Ibid., 552-553.

[ix] Ibid., 602.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] In Theology for the Third Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1988), Küng reviews favorably Edward Schillebeeckx’s works, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology and Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord. Schillebeeckx’s writings reinforce Küng’s own theological presuppositions in his On Being Christian and Does God Exist: An Answer for Today. He believes there is a “fundamental hermeneutical agreement” between him and Schillebeeckx. See Theology for the Third Millennium, 108.

[xii] Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 109.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.,110.

[xv] Quoted in Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 111.

[xvi] Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 112.

[xvii] Quoted in Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 116.

[xviii] Ibid., 117.

[xix] Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 118, 120.

[xx] Ibid., 251.

[xxi] Ibid., 241.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibd.,244.

[xxiv] Ibid., 245.

[xxv] Ibid., 252-253.

[xxvi] Ibid., 254.

[xxvii] Hans Küng, Global Responsibility, 53.

[xxviii] Küng says, “What I mean by this can be demonstrated relatively simply by means of that Golden Rule of humanity which we find in all the great religious and ethical tradition. See Hans Küng, Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, 98.

[xxix] John Cobb, “Inter-religious Dialogue, World Ethics and the Problem of the Humanum,” in Hans Küng: New Horizons for Faith and Thought, edited by Karl-Josef Kuschel and Hermann H__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__äring (London: SCM, 1993), 287.

[xxx] Leonard Swidler, “Interreligious and interideological Dialogue: The Matrix for All Systematic Reflection Today” in Leonard Swidler, ed., Towards a Universal Theology of Religion (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1988), 30.

[xxxi] John Cobb, “Inter-religious Dialogue,” 291.

[xxxii] Chris Sugden believes that the challenge to the gospel is to discover the significance of the individual. He also asserts that the biblical understanding of humanity is of “persons-in-community.” God’s response to human problem was to establish a new community; His way of salvation was through starting a family, “Abraham and his seed.” See Chris Sugden, “Called to Full Humanity: A perspective from Western Europe.” Transformation 15, (January 1, 1998), 28-29.

[xxxiii] John Cobb, “Inter-religious Dialogue,” 292.

[xxxiv] Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 40, 44. See also Karl Rahner, Foundation of Christian Faith (New York: Crossroad, 2010), 138-175.

[xxxv] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 144-145.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 145.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 146.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 147.

[xxxix] Ibid., 148.

[xl] Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 64-65.

[xli] Joseph Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas, Dialectics of Secularization (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 73-74. Ratzinger and Küng would agree that faith is a fundamental human attitude; it is indispensable in our life, otherwise nothing would function. Human life would be impossible if we cannot trust and rely on others’ prior experience and knowledge. See Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 81 and Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 514-517.

[xlii] Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 76.

[xliii] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 27.

[xliv]Ibid., 28.

[xlv] Ibid., 47.

[xlvi] Ibid., 111.

[xlvii] Ibid., 113.

[xlviii] Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 22-23.

[xlix] Joseph Ratzinger, Many Religions – One Covenant (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 109-110.

[l] Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 30-31.

[li] Ibid., 73.

[lii] Ibid., 78-79.

[liii] Ibid., 170.

[liv] Ibid., 183.

[lv] Ibid., 54.

[lvi] Joseph Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 105.

[lvii] Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 19-20.

[lviii] Quoted in Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 46.

[lix] Jürgen Mettepenningen, “Yves Congar and the “Monster” of Nouvelle Théologie,”

Horizons, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2010), 54.

[lx] Ibid., 54-55.