I do not mourn Hans Küng alone

This is a loss. Hans Küng died Tuesday (April 6, 2021).[1] At least one[2] of the unread books on my shelves is by him. Another, his work on Islam,[3] featured in the comprehensive examinations for my Masters’ degree (in lieu of a thesis).

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [the Inquisition] had urged [Hans] Küng not to repeat his views on papal infallibility. He ignored Rome, and in October 1979, in an article published internationally, offered a highly critical assessment of the first year of John Paul II’s papacy. In December, the Vatican and the German bishops’ conference withdrew his mandate to teach as a Catholic theologian. Küng’s composure and insouciant air deserted him for a time. In his memoirs he recalled: “I, who in any situation am hardly lost for words, can’t bring myself to utter a single sentence the whole evening . . . I need tablets to sleep.”

The [University of Tübingen in Germany] supported him and created a chair of ecumenical theology in which he could continue to exercise his professorship. He broadened his remit to Christianity and other faiths in the 1980s and 1990s, publishing well-regarded books that explored and evaluated Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Chinese religions. In Christianity: its essence and history (1994), he summed up religious prospects for the third millennium: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.”[4]

The latter, his call for a global ethic among religions, is praiseworthy for its motivation, and indeed his insight that religion could form a common ground, but ultimately unimpressive as manifest, relying far too heavily on blatant constructive ambiguity.[5] It has accordingly gone nowhere.

I believe can empathize with Küng’s reaction to losing his mandate from the Vatican to teach theology. Küng must have wondered about his future, must have wondered at the possibility of his exile from academia.

We are today indoctrinated with a dogma of individualism, but I do not use the term exile lightly, for human beings are a social species. Whatever you call it, be it ostracism, shunning, exile, or something else, it is in fact a severe punishment. It is what I feel from academia. It is a death of a crucial part of being human, that part of being among people with whom one properly belongs. It is ample cause for Küng’s speechlessness, his near breakdown.[6]

That Küng’s university supported him[7] rather than turfing him out, exiling him, is a distinctly different experience from that generally today in academia. Neoliberals control the purse strings and universities are now, more than ever, even when private, subservient to power. This story would surely have ended far differently today—see, for example, the case of Bandy Lee,[8]—and this is, I believe, ultimately why Saybrook University killed its Human Science program, leaving the field dead in the English-speaking world. Institutions may pay lip service to academic freedom but they rarely guard it.

Academic freedom exists not merely to preserve a freedom to explore controversial ideas but as a means of correction, a means of highlighting flaws in what might otherwise and what increasingly has become dogma. You don’t have to agree with Küng to need him and a problem of conservatism generally (especially in the U.S., authoritarian populism, most recently known as the Tea Party and as Trumpism) is its intolerance for dissent in asserting even ill-defined dogma.

Conservatives hated Küng,[9] but the Roman Catholic Church badly needed him, even if, even today, it refuses to acknowledge that fact. Just as we should have listened to Lee, but instead Yale University fired her.[10] Just as we should be listening to human scientists.

It is not just Küng who died last Tuesday, but one of the few remaining vestiges of academic freedom.

  1. [1]Times, “Hans Küng obituary,” April 8, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hans-kueng-obituary-qvfd5wprl
  2. [2]Hans Küng, The Catholic Church (New York: Modern Library, 2003).
  3. [3]Hans Küng, Islam: Past, Present and Future, (Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2007).
  4. [4]Times, “Hans Küng obituary,” April 8, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hans-kueng-obituary-qvfd5wprl
  5. [5]Hans Küng, Global Responsibility (New York: Continuum, 2001); Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel, eds., A Global Ethic (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  6. [6]Times, “Hans Küng obituary,” April 8, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hans-kueng-obituary-qvfd5wprl
  7. [7]Times, “Hans Küng obituary,” April 8, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hans-kueng-obituary-qvfd5wprl
  8. [8]David Benfell, “In service to a psychotic delusional raging narcissist,” Not Housebroken, April 5, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/04/05/in-service-to-a-psychotic-delusional-raging-narcissist/
  9. [9]Times, “Hans Küng obituary,” April 8, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hans-kueng-obituary-qvfd5wprl
  10. [10]Len Gutkin, “Shared Psychosis; Academic Psychiatry; Academic Freedom,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/chronicle-review/2021-04-05

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