Having read through this second volume, I am at a loss to explain the enigma of Kung’s self-portrait as revealed in his attitude to his Vatican opponents, whose actions are essential parts of his life story. Intransigent and seeking consensus, razor sharp frankness balanced by a conciliating respect, aware he is accused of arrogance but insisting on his willingness to be convinced of his "errors", a hermeneutic of supsicion about the motives of his opponents and a naive hope that they will see things his way- except that naivete and Kung seem oxymoronic. Throughout he takes great care to insist that his overriding concern as a theologian is with the truthfulness of truth, and the right to speak truth in freedom. In his account of his controversies with the Curia, the German Bishops and fellow theologians, he tells truth even when it damages reputations and feelings, though not I think gratuitously. But he is a profound theologian who can write with the wit and literary savvy of a seasoned journalist who knows how to press the right buttons – on people and typepad keys! But he almost always finishes by insisting he harbours no ill will towards those who clearly intended him, and caused him, professional and vocational harm – whether or not for the good of the church. And it’s hard not to believe him – and even harder not to admire his restraint towards those who engineered his vocational derailment.
This sharply intelligent, intellectually combative and unrelentingly argumentative scholar succeeds in bringing incredible clarity and lucidity to complex theological discussions. It’s this quality that makes his big books like On Being a Christian and Does God Exist? seem far removed from other theological breeze blocks of compressed dogma. As a young newly ordained Evangelical Baptist pastor I got stuck into On Being a Christian and was given a guided tour of the intellectual passions; admiration, fascination, annoyance, concentration, discovery, resistance, wonder, contemplation, the joy of learning, the labour of argument, and on many an occasion a devotion rooted in an experience that could only be called further spiritual education in the meaning of Jesus for today.
In this second volume of memoirs, there is a long description of how On Being a Christian was written. Starting off as a modest introduction to Christianity over several years it became a thoroughly researched, carefully structured, crisply written apologia to the modern world on behalf of a faith that can be lived because centred on Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, risen and the foundation of the Church’s Gospel. Kung’s approach to a Christology from below was diametrically opposed to a dogmatic, Conciliar Christology from above as defined by the Ecumenical Councils and enshrined in the traditions of Roman Catholic Dogma. Throughout his account of the writing of the book, and its reception by millions of readers, Kung insists that though he started from below, the telos point of his understanding of Jesus Christ arrives, he believes by a much more intellectually secure route, at a view of Christ not incongruent with dogmatic orthodoxy, but with necessary restatement in the light of historical criticism and modern forms of thought. The Curia clearly did not hold so sanguine a view.
This volume covers 15 years of Kung’s life, told as two strands of a plot that at times reads like the Morris West novel that was never written. The tension created by an outspoken, provocative scholar who wishes to speak truth in freedom, but as a member of an increasingly authoritarian and hierarchical church, and the self-interests of power games and at times legitimate theological criticism of an institution which must pay some attention to public opinion, - is tightened as the book reaches its climax in the final removal of Kung’s permission to teach as a Catholic theologian. What I found depressing was the utter inability of either side to communicate; the negotiating, political and diplomatic engine of the Roman church has Rolls Royce quality, but in all the negotiations and meetings, letters and interviews, there is little sense of a meeting of minds and hearts such as would result in mutual understanding.
The next post I'll try to sum up some reflections on why Kung and the Vatican simply couldn't communicate - and how, perhaps in the providence of God, which lets none of the protagonists off the hook for their misjudgements and wrong turnings, the suffering of Kung the scholar opened the way to more expansive opportunities for his ecumenical theology.