Not everything in the Swiss theologian's output is controversial, says Robert Letellier
Hans Kling: Breaking Through By Hermann Haring, SCM Press £19.95
WIf E ATEVR ONE'S PERSONAL reactions Or opinions might be. the name and role of Hans Kiing as a modern theologian occupy a unique and challenging position on the world stage. He has written some 50 books over the past 40 years which have been read by millions of people throughout the world. At least two of them, The Church (1967) and On Being A Christian (1974), have become classics of modem theology. Others. like Infallible? An Enquiry ( 1970) and Why Priests? ( 197 1 ) remain bywords for daring questioning and speculation. His position as a troublesome questioner was consolidated in the world's eyes on December 18. 1979, when his official permission to teach as a Catholic theologian was withdrawn by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith: his controversial questioning was now compounded by notoriety.
This book by Hermann Haring, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Nijmegen, and a pupil of Kiing, has been written to celebrate the 70th birthday of the famous theologian. The author points out that the book is not a biography of Kling, but a "a reconstruction and interpretation of his theology". He goes on to observe that the events of 1979 are unavoidably symbolic, however, not only because the personal issues have still not been satisfactorily resolved (and inevitably predetermine the reactions of many to !Ong). but also. rather more importantly, because these events still reflect the current state of the Church. The Church and its reform have always been Kung's concern from the beginning. and it has secured him the universal role as a symbol of dispute.
Haring's book fulfils an invaluable purpose in that it presents, both chronologically and analytically, a survey and an interpretive synthesis. Nearly the whole of Kiing's corpus has been translated into English, so the arrival of this "handbook" provides an excellent tool for theological investigation. The volume is divided into ten chapters which trace the progress of Kung's development as a writer and thinker. Each chapter is further split into many subsections.
and there is a consistent balance between the unfolding of Kting's ideas and critical reflection on them. The absence of an index, however, is an inexplicable omission. and a major setback to the usefulness of this book for research.
From the beginning Kling has been involved with critical engagement with those outside the church. His first significant work was a study of the famous German Protestant theologian, Karl Barth: he moved on immediately to concerns about the reunion between separated Christians. and then to several studies of the Church and the issue of reform, all in the context of the Second Vatican Council. It is very interesting to note that at this early stage he produced a study of
Thomas More (Free
dom in the World,
1964), as if to espouse the type of patron he felt his work required. This was subsequently confirmed in his work on Erasmus of Rotterdam, another critic of the ecclesiastical status quo, but one who wanted to see the Church reformed from within, not divided.
It has been Kting's concern for "truthfulness", "freedom" and "reform" that have characterised his intellectual approach. Of course it has led to controversial discussion about the Church's perception of truth, its interpretation and its transference into determinative concepts and structures, that has resulted in his position as an uncomfortable thinker (papal infallibility and the meaning of orders obviously come to mind). But it is interesting also to consider other aspects of Kiing's writings. His passion for unity has led him into sustained dialogue with other faiths, especially Judaism. Most recently his quest has turned to environmental issues, and has seen the emergence of his theology of "the Global Ethic". No fewer than five books since 1990 have addressed this issue. Another neglected aspect of his output has investigated non-religious thinkers whose ideas have been of decisive importance for the twentieth century (like Hegel and Freud), great Christian thinkers, and the fruitful interplay between religion and the arts. Mozart is for him "a trace of the transcendent", and he has devoted two of his books to literature and religion (looking at authors like Pascal. Dostoyevsky and Kafka), as well as studying modem German writers he feels have a special concern with humanism (Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Heinrich Boll).
But it is the witness of the Church in today's world, the power, truthfulness, relevance and viability of this witness, that is Kiing's overwhelming concern: his diagnosis of a synthesis of the split he perceives between reality and God, and between reason and faith, remain perhaps his great achievement. Even if one does not always agree, one must admit his depth of learning and the earnestness of his search for what is right. And, if nothing else, he teaches us that we should never be afraid of asking questions.