Christianity History Islam

Hans Kung’s The­o­log­i­cal Rubicon

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Tak­en from Leonard Swi­dler, ed., Toward a Uni­ver­sal The­ol­o­gy of Reli­gion (Mary­knoll, NY : Orbis Books, 1987), pp. 224 – 230.

Edi­tor’s Note : This is a use­ful paper unlike any that we have pub­lished before, in the sense that it ana­lyzes Kung’s ear­li­er state­ment on the Prophet Muham­mad(P)more objec­tive­ly and in an unbi­ased man­ner (unlike a cer­tain group of Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies who have expressed dis­dain on Prof. Kung’s state­ment!) and gives sev­er­al rea­sons for the Chris­t­ian dilem­ma in their hes­i­ta­tion to recog­nise the Prophet Muham­mad(P) as being more than mere­ly a prophet”, as Kung brave­ly demands. We do not nec­es­sar­i­ly agree with every­thing that has been said here, nor will we issue a state­ment defend­ing what has been said, should the rabid mis­sion­ar­ies decide to make an issue out of it.

In Hans Kung’s address to this con­fer­ence he has once again proven him­self a pio­neer of inter-reli­gious dia­logue. What he has been doing through­out most of his the­o­log­i­cal career, he was doing again-explor­ing new ter­ri­to­ry, rais­ing new ques­tions in the encounter of Chris­tian­i­ty with oth­er reli­gions. Although Kung made his great­est con­tri­bu­tion in the inner-Chris­t­ian, eccle­sial are­na, he has always real­ized-and increas­ing­ly so in more recent years-that Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy must be done in view of, and in dia­logue with, oth­er reli­gions. As he has said, Chris­tians must show an increas­ing­ly greater broad-mind­ed­ness and open­ness” to oth­er faiths and learn to reread their own his­to­ry of the­o­log­i­cal thought and faith” in view of oth­er tra­di­tions. As a long-time read­er of Kung’s writ­ings, and as a par­tic­i­pant with him in a Bud­dhist-Chris­t­ian con­fer­ence in Hawaii, Jan­u­ary 1984, I have wit­nessed how much his own broad-mind­ed­ness and open­ness to oth­er reli­gions has grown. He has been changed in the dialogue.

Yet I sus­pect — and this is the point I want to pur­sue in this response — that in his explo­ration of oth­er faiths Kung’s pio­neer has recent­ly bro­ken into unsus­pect­ed ter­ri­to­ry and stands before new paths. He has been led where he did not intend to go. I think Kung in his dia­logue with oth­er reli­gions, now finds him­self before a the­o­log­i­cal Rubi­con he has not crossed, one that he per­haps does not feel he can cross. I am not sure. That is what I want to ask him.

In Kung’s pre­vi­ous efforts at a Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy of reli­gions, he inveighs against the Chris­t­ian exclu­sivism that denies any val­ue to oth­er reli­gions ; he rejects an eccle­sio­cen­trism that con­fines all con­tact with the Divine to the church’s back­yard. Yet despite this call to greater open­ness, it seems to some that Kungs on to a sub­tle, cam­ou­flaged nar­row­ness Even though he pro­pos­es that we replace eccle­sio­cen­trism with theo­cen­trism, he still adheres to a Chris­to­cen­trism that insists on Jesus Christ as nor­ma­tive” (mass­gebend) — that is, as ulti­mate­ly deci­sive, defin­i­tive, arche­typ­al for human­i­ty’s rela­tions with God.“Hans Kung, On Being a Chris­t­ian (New York : Dou­ble­day, 1976), pp. 123f. Because Christ is nor­ma­tive for all oth­er reli­gions, Kung ends up by replac­ing Chris­t­ian exclu­sivism with a Chris­t­ian inclu­sivism that rec­og­nizes the val­ue of oth­er reli­gions but insists that this val­ue must be ful­filled, crit­i­cal­ly cat­alyzed”, and find full real­iza­tion in Chris­tian­i­ty”. That God may not remain for them [non-Chris­tians] the unknown God, there is need­ed the Chris­t­ian procla­ma­tion and mis­sion announc­ing Jesus.“Ibid., pp. 113, 447 Jesus and Chris­tian­i­ty remain for all oth­er reli­gions the final norm, the only real fulfillment.

This is what Kung oposed in On Being a Chris­t­ian. From recent con­ver­sa­tions and from his con­fer­ence paper, I think that he is now not so sure about these ear­li­er chris­to­cen­tric, inclu­sivist claims that insist on Jesus as the final norm for all. I sus­pect that, like many Chris­tians today, he stands before a the­o­log­i­cal Rubi­con. To cross it means to rec­og­nize clear­ly, unam­bigu­ous­ly, the pos­si­bil­i­ty that oth­er reli­gions exer­cise a role in sal­va­tion his­to­ry that is not only valu­able and salvif­ic but per­haps equal to that of Chris­tian­i­ty ; it is to affirm that there may be oth­er sav­iors and reveal­ers besides Jesus Christ and equal to Jesus Christ. It is to admit that if oth­er reli­gions must be ful­filled in Chris­tian­i­ty, Chris­tian­i­ty must, just as well, find ful­fill­ment in them.

From my read­ing of his paper, I see Kung stand­ing at this Rubi­con, at river’s edge, but hes­i­tat­ing to cross. Let me try to explain.

Muham­mad, More Than a Prophet ?

In his efforts to urge Chris­tians to rec­og­nize Muham­mad as an authen­tic prophet, Kung can only be applaud­ed. Most Chris­t­ian the­olo­gians in dia­logue with Mus­lims hes­i­tate to dare such an admis­sion.See David Kerr, The Prophet Muham­mad in Chris­t­ian The­o­log­i­cal Per­spec­tive,” Inter­na­tion­al Bul­letin of Mis­sion­ary Research, 8 (1984), p. 114 But in rec­og­niz­ing Muham­mad as a prophet, Kung seems to me, is implic­it­ly affirm­ing Muham­mad as more than a prophet” — that is, as a reli­gious fig­ure who car­ries out a role anal­o­gous to that of Jesus Christ.

Kung admits that as a prophet Muham­mad is more to those who fol­low him…than a prophet is to us.” He is a mod­el”, an arche­type, for all Mus­lims — he through whom God has spo­ken to humankind.” Such an under­stand­ing of Muham­mad, how­ev­er, is essen­tial­ly the same as that of the ear­ly Jew­ish chris­tol­ogy that was lost and that Kung seeks to retrieve. This ear­ly chris­tol­ogy, this pic­ture of Jesus — as viewed by his first dis­ci­ples — which, as much as we can tell, most like­ly reflects Jesus’ own view of him­self — saw Jesus as a prophet, as the escha­to­log­i­cal prophet, as he who was so close to God that he could speak for God, rep­re­sent God, medi­ate God. But this is basi­cal­ly the same descrip­tion of Muham­mad’s role. There­fore, in its ori­gins, the Chris­t­ian view of Jesus was essen­tial­ly the same as the Mus­lim view of Muham­mad : they were both unique reveal­ers, spokesper­sons for God, prophets.

Kung’s own chris­tol­ogy enables Chris­tians to go even fur­ther in affirm­ing anal­o­gous roles for Muham­mad and Jesus. Kung rec­og­nizes the truth and valid­i­ty of the Chal­cedon Hel­lenis­tic chris­tol­ogy, with its stress on two natures, one per­son, pre-exis­tence. Yet in his own chris­tol­ogy as pre­sent­ed in On Being a Chris­t­ian, in his own efforts to inter­pret what it means to call Jesus Son of God and sav­ior, Kung relies what is much more of an ear­ly Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian, rather than a Hel­lenis­tic, model.

To pro­claim Jesus as divine, as the incar­nate Son of God, means, Kung tells us, that for Chris­tians Jesus is God’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive”, the real rev­e­la­tion of the one true God,” God’s advocate…deputy…delegate…plenipotentiary.“Kung, On Being a Chris­t­ian, pp. 390f., 440, 444, 449 But, again, this is basi­cal­ly the same role that Muham­mad ful­fills for his fol­low­ers. There­fore, from a Chris­t­ian per­spec­tive, Mus­lims in speak­ing about Muham­mad as the seal of the prophets” and Chris­tians in speak­ing about Jesus as son of God” are try­ing to make essen­tial­ly the same claim about both fig­ures. I think, there­fore, that Kung should agree with Ken­neth Crag­g’s argu­ment that the Islam­ic notion of prophet­hood and the Chris­t­ian notion of incar­na­tion, from very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and with very dif­fer­ent images, are say­ing the same thing : that their founders were close­ly asso­ci­at­ed” with God and were sent” by God, and are utter­ly reli­able rev­e­la­tions of God.Ken­neth Cragg, Islam and Incar­na­tion,” in John Hick, ed., Truth and Dia­logue in World Reli­gions : Con­flict­ing Truth-claims (Philadel­phia : West­min­ster, 1974), pp. 126 – 139

So I think that Kung might go a fur­ther, log­i­cal step in what he can say about Muham­mad. He points out that if Jesus is under­stood accord­ing to the mod­el of ear­ly Jew­ish Chris­tian­i­ty as God’s mes­sen­ger and rev­e­la­tion, Mus­lims would be more able to grasp and accept this Jesus. I am sug­gest­ing that if Jesus is so under­stood, then Chris­tians would be more able to accept Muham­mad and rec­og­nize that in God’s plan of sal­va­tion, he car­ries out a role anal­o­gous to that of Jesus. If, fol­low­ing Kung’s keen insights and sug­ges­tions, Mus­lims might be able to rec­og­nize Jesus as a gen­uine prophet. Chris­tians might be able to rec­og­nize Muham­mad as tru­ly a son of God”. (And if the title son of God” is under­stood, as Kung com­mends, not so much as God’s onto­log­i­cal” son but as God’s reli­able rep­re­sen­ta­tive and rev­e­la­tion, per­haps Mus­lims would be more com­fort­able in using this title for Muhammad.)

But for Chris­tians, for Prof. Kung to make this move, to rec­og­nize the par­i­ty of Jesus and Muham­mad’s mis­sions, would be to step across a the­o­log­i­cal Rubi­con (as it would be for Mus­lims as well!). I’m not sure if Kung feels will­ing or able to make this step. I think I can put my fin­ger on the chief rea­son for his hesitation.

How Is Jesus Unique ?

The chief stum­bling block in Chris­t­ian dia­logue with Islam is not, as Kung sug­gests, the per­son of Jesus and his rela­tion­ship with God.” In his paper Kung has con­vinced me that Jesus’ per­son and rela­tion­ship with God can be so under­stood as to allow for the per­son of Muham­mad to share in this same rela­tion­ship — in Mus­lim ter­mi­nol­o­gy, both are prophets ; in Chris­t­ian terms, both are sons of God. The prob­lem comes not from the way Kung under­stands Jesus’ rela­tion­ship to God, but from the exclu­sivist adjec­tives he feels must qual­i­fy that rela­tion­ship : Jesus is not only a prophet but the final, nor­ma­tive prophet ; he is not only son of God but the only, the unsur­pass­able son of God. (Mus­lims, with their insis­tence that Muham­mad is the seal of the prophets, reflect this same prob­lem. Here I am address­ing my fel­low Christians.)

This, I sug­gest, is the piv­otal, the most dif­fi­cult, ques­tion in the Chris­t­ian-Mus­lim (as well as the Chris­t­ian Buddhist/​Hindu dia­logue): Is Jesus the one and only sav­ior ? (For Mus­lims : Is Muham­mad the final prophet?) Is Jesus God’s final, nor­ma­tive unsur­pass­able rev­e­la­tion, which must be the norm and ful­fill­ment for all oth­er rev­e­la­tions, reli­gions, and reli­gious figures ?

As I sug­gest­ed before, Kung in his ear­li­er pub­li­ca­tions, would answer all these ques­tions with a firm yes. Although all reli­gious fig­ures can be said to be unique, for Kung Jesus’ unique­ness is in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­go­ry ; Jesus is God’s nor­ma­tive, ulti­mate cri­te­ri­on for judg­ing the valid­i­ty and val­ue of all oth­er rev­e­la­tions. Kung express­ly warns against plac­ing Jesus among the arche­typ­al per­sons” that Karl Jaspers has iden­ti­fied through­out his­to­ry ; Jesus is ulti­mate­ly arche­typ­al.Kung, On Being a Chris­t­ian, p. 124 It is this insis­tence on Jesus’ absolute, nor­ma­tive unique­ness that keeps Kung from going fur­ther in his recog­ni­tion of the val­ue of oth­er reli­gions. Muham­mad may be a prophet ; but he can­not be more than a prophet”, as was Jesus. If oth­er reli­gions are valid, Chris­tian­i­ty pos­sess­es absolute valid­i­ty.“Ibid., p. 114 If oth­er reli­gions are ways of sal­va­tion, they are so only in a rel­a­tive sense, not sim­ply as a whole and every sense.“Ibid., p. 104

If one press­es Kung’s most Chris­t­ian the­olo­gians for the cen­tral, the foun­da­tion­al, rea­son why they main­tain this absolute, nor­ma­tive unique­ness for Jesus, I think the only real rea­son they can give is an appeal, per­haps indi­rect and uncrit­i­cal, to the author­i­ty of tra­di­tion or the Bible. This is what scrip­ture affirms of Jesus ; this is what tra­di­tion has always taught-there is no oth­er name” by which per­sons can be saved (Acts 4:12). There is one Medi­a­tor between God and human­i­ty, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus is the only-begot­ten Son of God” (John 1:4). True, Kung’s On Being a Chris­t­ian, attempts to give some empir­i­cal ver­i­fi­ca­tion of this tra­di­tion­al asser­tion of the supe­ri­or­i­ty of Christ’s rev­e­la­tion. As I have attempt­ed to show else­where, how­ev­er, seri­ous objec­tions can be raised to his claims that with­out Christ the oth­er reli­gions can­not real­ly adapt their spir­i­tu­al­i­ties to moder­ni­ty”, to the demands of our world-affirm­ing tech­no­log­i­cal age. I am not at all cer­tain, as Kung sug­gests, that with­out the gospel the oth­er reli­gions are caught in unhis­toric­i­ty, cir­cu­lar think­ing, fatal­ism, unworld­li­ness, pes­simism, pas­siv­i­ty, caste spir­it, social dis­in­ter­est­ed­ness.“Ibid., p. 110 ; see also pp. 106 – 119 ; and Paul F. Knit­ter, World Reli­gions and the Final­i­ty of Christ : A Cri­tique of Hans Kung’s On Being a Chris­t­ian,” Hori­zons, 5 (1978), pp. 157, 159 So the chief rea­son, it seems, for claim­ing the final­i­ty and nor­ma­tiv­i­ty of Christ over all oth­er reli­gious fig­ures remains the inner-Chris­t­ian, tra­di­tion­al one : this is what the Bible and tra­di­tion have always maintained.

I believe that Kung along with many oth­er Chris­tians, how­ev­er, is feel­ing the inad­e­qua­cy of these tra­di­tion­al claims. I think he is on the brink of sug­gest­ing that such claims for the uni­ver­sal final­i­ty and nor­ma­tiv­i­ty of Christ may not be an essen­tial ele­ment in the Chris­t­ian wit­ness to all peo­ples. Yet, from his con­fer­ence paper, I am not sure. For instance, when he tells us that For Chris­tians, Jesus Christ and the Good news he pro­claimed are the deci­sive cri­te­ria for faith and con­duct, life and death : the defin­i­tive Word of God (Heb. 1:1ff.)” and that Christ is the defin­i­tive reg­u­lat­ing fac­tor for Chris­tians, for the sake of God and human­i­ty”, is he using the phrase for Chris­tians” as a restric­tive qual­i­fi­er ? Only for Chris­tians ? Would he be ready to rec­og­nize that for Mus­lims, Muham­mad is the defin­i­tive Word of God”? For Bud­dhists, Bud­dha is the defin­i­tive reg­u­lat­ing fac­tor”. In such a view, Chris­tians and Mus­lims and Bud­dhists would still have to wit­ness to each oth­er. Jesus, Muham­mad, and Bud­dha would all have uni­ver­sal rel­e­vance for all peo­ples. But there would be no one, final, nor­ma­tive rev­e­la­tion for all oth­er rev­e­la­tions. If King is say­ing this, he is say­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent from what he has said in ear­li­er pub­li­ca­tions. He has crossed a the­o­log­i­cal Rubi­con. But has he ?

Cross­ing the Rubi­con from Inclu­sivism to Pluralism

I am ask­ing Kung as well as oth­er the­olo­gians (e.g., John B. Cobb) — for greater clar­i­ty on this Rubi­con ques­tion” con­cern­ing the unique­ness and final­i­ty of Christ. Such clar­i­ty is need­ed by both fel­low Chris­tians and non-Chris­t­ian part­ners in dia­logue. Although Kung echo­ing Arnold Toyn­bee, does well to exco­ri­ate the scourge of exclu­sivism”, is he per­haps uncon­scious­ly advo­cat­ing a more dan­ger­ous, because more sub­tle, scourge of inclu­sivism ? As Leonard Swi­dler has point­ed out, authen­tic, real dia­logue can take place only between equals…par cum pari.“Leonard Swi­dler, The Dia­logue Deca­logue,” Jour­nal of Ecu­meni­cal Stud­ies, 201 (1983), p. 10 But no mat­ter how much truth and good one rec­og­nizes in anoth­er reli­gion, if one enters the dia­logue con­vinced that by God’s will the final, nor­ma­tive, unsur­pass­able truth for all reli­gions resides in one’s own reli­gion, that is not a dia­logue between equals. It is, as Hen­ri Mau­ri­er attests from years of expe­ri­ence in African inter­re­li­gious dia­logue, a con­ver­sa­tion between the cat and the mouse.“Hen­ri Mau­ri­er, The Chris­t­ian The­ol­o­gy of the Non-Chris­t­ian Reli­gions”, Lumen Vitae, 21 (1976), p 70

It seems to me that an inclu­sive chris­tol­ogy, which views Christ and Chris­tian­i­ty as hav­ing to include, ful­fill, per­fect oth­er reli­gions, is real­ly only a shade away from the the­o­ry of anony­mous Chris­tian­i­ty” so stout­ly crit­i­cized by Kung the the­o­ry of inclu­sive Chris­tian­i­ty” may not assert that oth­er believ­ers are already Chris­tians with­out know­ing it ; but it does affirm that these believ­ers must become Chris­tians in order to share in the full­ness of rev­e­la­tion and sal­va­tion. Kung has called per­sons of oth­er reli­gions Chris­tians in spe” (in hope) who must be made Chris­tians in re” (in fact).Hans Kung, The World Reli­gions in God’s Plan of Sal­va­tion,” in Joseph Neuner, ed., Chris­t­ian Rev­e­la­tion and World Reli­gions (Lon­don : Burnes and Oates, 1967), pp. 65f It seems to me that Kung’s eval­u­a­tion of Rad­hakr­ish­nan’s Hin­du tol­er­ance might apply to his own under­stand­ing of Chris­t­ian tol­er­ance : It is con­quest as it were by embrace in so far as it seeks not to exclude but to include all oth­er reli­gions.“Hans Kung, Does God Exist ? An Answer for Today (New York : Dou­ble­day, 1980), p. 608

Does Kung will hold to such an inclu­sive chris­tol­ogy and the­ol­o­gy of reli­gions ? Does he real­ize its pos­si­ble harm­ful effects on dia­logue in the way it implic­it­ly but assured­ly sub­or­di­nates all oth­er reli­gions to Christianity ?

My ques­tion takes on a sharp­er focus in Kung con­clud­ing that we stop think­ing in terms of alter­na­tives — Jesus or Muham­mad” — and start think­ing in terms of syn­the­sis — Jesus and Muham­mad, in the sense that Muham­mad him­self acts as a wit­ness to Jesus.” I am not sure just how Kung does or can under­stand that and”. Is it the and” of equal­i­ty (like Son and Spir­it”) or the and” of sub­or­di­na­tion (like law and gospel”)? Pre­vi­ous­ly, Kung would have had to come down, I believe, on the side of final sub­or­di­na­tion inso­far as he has insist­ed that Christ is God’s final norm for all per­sons of all times. But I am not sure what he would say today.

My final ques­tion is more of a per­son­al request. In ask­ing for more clar­i­ty, I am real­ly ask­ing Hans Kung to step across the Rubi­con. I believe that his own chris­tol­ogy, as well as his own doc­trine of God, implic­it­ly allows him to do that. I sus­pect that the press of inter­re­li­gious dia­logue has also made the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cross­ing more urgent.

Might I also point out that in mak­ing the cross­ing, he would be in good com­pa­ny. Oth­er Chris­t­ian thinkers have moved from an ear­li­er inclu­sivist posi­tion of view­ing Chris­tian­i­ty as the nec­es­sary ful­fill­ment and norm for all reli­gions, to a more plu­ral­ist mod­el that affirms the pos­si­bil­i­ty that oth­er reli­gions may be just as valid and rel­e­vant as Chris­tian­i­ty. They have admit­ted that oth­er reli­gious fig­ures, such as Muham­mad, may be car­ry­ing out, in very dif­fer­ent ways, rev­e­la­to­ry, salvif­ic roles anal­o­gous to that of Jesus Christ. Among such thinkers are not only Ernst Troeltsch and Arnold Toyn­bee, but also a num­ber of Chris­t­ian the­olo­gians who have more recent­ly shift­ed from an inclu­sivist Chris­to­cen­trism (Christ at the cen­ter) to a plu­ral­ist theo­cen­trism (God/​the Ulti­mate in the cen­ter): Raimun­do Panikkar, Stan­ley Samartha, John Hick, Rose­mary Ruether, Tom Dri­ver, Aloy­sius Pieris.Raimun­do Panikkar, The Unknown Christ of Hin­duism (Mary­knoll, N.Y.: Orbis, revised edi­tion, 1981); Stan­ley J. Samartha, Courage for Dia­logue : Ecu­meni­cal Issues in Inter-reli­gious Rela­tion­ships (Mary­knoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1982); John Hick, God Has Many Names (Lon­don : Macmil­lan, 1980); Rose­mary Ruether, To Change the World — Chris­tol­ogy and Cul­tur­al Crit­i­cism (New York : Cross­road, 1981); Tom Dri­ver, Christ in a Chang­ing World. Toward an Eth­i­cal Chris­tol­ogy (New York : Cross­road, 1981); Aloy­sius Pieris, The Place of Non-Chris­t­ian Reli­gions and Cul­tures in the Evo­lu­tion of Third-World The­ol­o­gy,” in Vir­ginia Fabel­la and Ser­gio Tor­res, eds., Irrup­tion of the Third World. Chal­lenge to The­ol­o­gy (Mary­knoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1983). See also Paul Knit­ter, No Oth­er Name ? (Mary­knoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1984).

Grant­ed Prof. Kung’s respectabil­i­ty and his influ­ence, and giv­en the cau­tion and thor­ough­ness with which he makes all his the­o­log­i­cal moves, I feel that if he were to cross the Rubi­con to a more plu­ral­ist the­ol­o­gy of reli­gions that does not need to insist on Christ or Chris­tian­i­ty as the norm and ful­fill­ment of oth­er reli­gions, he would be, once again, a pio­neer lead­ing oth­er Chris­tians to a more open, authen­tic, and lib­er­a­tive under­stand­ing and prac­tice of their faith.

But I ask you, Hans Kung, do you think such a new direc­tion in Chris­t­ian atti­tudes toward oth­er reli­gions, such a cross­ing of the Rubi­con, is pos­si­ble ? And would it be pro­duc­tive of greater Chris­t­ian faith and dialogue ? Hans Kung's Theological Rubicon 26Endmark

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