Hubris and Humility: Christian Perplexity at the Pluralism of Faith

S Parvez Manzoor

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Hubris and Humility: Christian Perplexity at the Pluralism of Faith

by S Parvez Manzoor

  Dead are theories of racial superiority; dying are notions of cultural exclusivism, but alive and well are claims of religious uniqueness. What is superstition to biology and taboo to anthropology is not anathema to the church. The scientist possesses no value-judgment, the academic shuns it but the man of faith lives for his values. To his opponents, he is a norm unto himself, an incarnation of his own supreme value, hubris. Self-worship not self-denial, they charge, is the hallmark of religious faith.

  Submission to the call of a higher authority, however, is the essence of faith. No religious consciousness is worthy of its name if it does not humble itself before the Other. In the realm of faith, the Other commands and the self obeys; Other is the Lord and self is the servant. Humility, then, lies at the heart of religion and gives sustenance to the life of faith. Hence, if faith is its own mistress, it also rides an unruly and recalcitrant conscience.

  Perhaps no other religious tradition is as plagued by the paradox of humility and hubris as the church of Rome which is (was) both imperial and catholic. And no other contemporary thinker testifies to the resources and constraints of the Catholic intellect and conscience as the Swiss theologian and clergymen, Hans Küng. For, despite his banishment (In 1979, over a row on the question of infallibility, Rome withdrew its license (missio canonica) and denied Küng the right to teach as a Catholic theologian), Hans Küng has pursued without interruption his academic career at the university of Thbingen. He has also continued to behave as ‘a priest of the Ecclesia catholica’ and ‘teach the Christian truth in Catholic breadth and depth’. Nor does Küng have, even after a lapse of 15 years, any compunctions about describing his life’s mission as ‘the teaching of the Catholic doctrine as a Catholic priest.’

  A man of immense erudition, energy and humanity, Hans Küng, more than any other German-speaking theologian, has been instrumental in shaping the English-speaking world’s perceptions of the Catholic faith. In fact, Küng’s theological and moral reflections extend far beyond his ecclesiastical concerns. Despite his estrangement from the Church, he has taken upon himself the role of the intellectual spokesman of Catholic Christianity and conducted on this basis a series of very intense and earnest dialogues with all the major challengers to the Catholic doctrine, viz. philosophy, science, ethics, Judaism and other non-Christian faiths. His creativity, vigour and endurance have been truly amazing. He is as prolific as he is profound and original.

  The volume, Hans Küng: New Horizon for Faith and Thought, was dedicated to Küng in 1993 when he celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday. It is not a Festschrift in the customary manner, nor does it provide to the uninitiated reader an introduction to his life and thought. On the contrary, it is a very erudite and demanding book which presupposes familiarity not only with Küng’s own works but also with the debate that surrounds them. As a ‘workbook’, it probes, with rigour and profundity, the wider theological, philosophical, ethical and anthropological implications of Küng’s faith and teachings and thus provides the serious student a convenient entry point to the contemporary debate in Christianity. Despite its omission of certain articles and the abbreviation of the complete bibliography that appeared in the original German edition, the present volume does supply the English reader with a more than adequate and relevant list of Hans Küng’s writings.

  The structure of the book follows Küng’s own intellectual itinerary and contains the following signposts: ‘Church; Catholicity; The Ecumenical World [the common Christian umma]; Christology and the Doctrine of God [Trinity, Incarnation etc.]; Dialogues with Judaism; World Religions; and Effects [Cross-cultural dialogue].’ The editors liken the plan of the book to ‘seven concentric circles’ where one progressively moves outward from the centre (the church) to Catholicity, to Christian unity, to dialogues with Judaism and other religions, till one reaches the outermost edge, the non-religious world. Notwithstanding the high intellectual calibre of the individual pieces, it goes without saying that much of what the volume contains is not of interest to the Muslim reader. Indeed, some of it is incomprehensible as well! By contrast, the only Muslim contribution, by Abdoljavad Falaturi, is relatively slim and meagre in form (9 pages) but incommensurably richer in substance and meaning.

  Besides being a critical survey of the contemporary religious and theological debate in which Hans Küng’s thought serves as the pivot, the book has another, more practical, aim: ‘the rehabilitation of Hans Küng as a Catholic theologian’! It is in this regard that such human sentiments, nay passions, are unabashedly made public as: “Küng’s theology has drawn and still draws on the seed-bed of his own church, in which - much to the sorrow of some of his opponents - he has put down viable roots.” Otherwise, there are petitions to the supreme authority of the Church: “Holy Father!... We appeal to your responsibility and your conscience: make good a wrong that has been done! Do not leave the rehabilitation of Küng to history! Make your personal action a blessing for the church!”. Even to the outsider, however, the following rhetorical question, posed by Heinrich Fries, is not without significance: “Is the Catholic church so narrow that it cannot tolerate a man like Küng, or is it so rich that it can dispense with him?”

  Not all the topics treated in this immensely rich and rewarding work, it has been suggested earlier, merit the Muslim reader’s close attention. Quite exceptional, then, is the solitary but sterling contribution by Abdoljavad Falaturi which reflects on the problem of ‘Christian Theology and the Western Understanding of Islam’. To start with, Falaturi’s immediate response to Hans Küng’s recent work, Christianity and World Religions (English edition: Collins, London, 1987; paperback re-issue by SCM Press, London, 1993) which claims to be a ‘dialogue with Islam’ is that ‘it is not a dialogue with Islam but with Islamic scholars’ (Exclusively Western but most notably Josef van Ess). Hans Küng, in other words, has yet to carry out his dialogue with Islam. His forthcoming book on Islam, one feels, should give an indication of whether Küng intends to encounter ‘Islam’ through the mediation of a living Muslim scholar or whether he will continue to rely on his Orientalist mentors.

  Falaturi, on his part, does not deliver a critique of Küng’s book, or dwell on its individual faults. Instead, he concentrates on its ambition to act ‘as a model example of both an apt Western understanding of Islam and a well-disposed Christian theological position on it.’ Unfortunately, the basic moral prerequisites of a ‘dialogue of religions and cultures’, namely ‘the attempt to understand conversation partners as they understand themselves’ and, on a religious level, the inner preparedness ‘to concede that the love and mercy of God is also to be found among those of other faiths and is not present only among those who share one’s own beliefs’, are not always present in Western/Christian responses to Islam. Far more pervasive are cultural and emotional factors, the negative attitudes towards each other from the starting point, which render every Christian-Muslim dialogue a truly daunting experience.

  Even more problematic and frustrating is the situation on the academic, particularly theological, level. For, Falaturi makes it perfectly clear that ‘in their present form and status the phenomenology of religion and comparative religion are a specifically Western achievement, and the scientific vocabulary developed to this end is not value-neutral. The necessary concepts, propositions and arguments have been derived predominantly from Christian theology and Western spiritual life or have been oriented on new forms of it.’ (His italics. One may further underscore this point by noting that one of the ‘classics’ of phenomenology of religion, Rudolf Otto’s paradigmatic The Idea of the Holy (First published in 1917; English translation published by Oxford University Press, 1923, Re-issue, Pelikan Books, 1959) appears, to the unconditioned Muslim reader at least, as an undisguised apology of the Christian doctrine. Indeed, even later phenomenolgists are not free from the Christian bias. See our review of W.C. Smith’s What is Scripture? in MWBR, XIV:4 (Summer 1994), pp 3-8.)

  The main problem of the dialogue, and the logical starting-point of any phenomenological discussion, Falaturi believes, should be the realization that religious phenomena and religious experiences do not belong to easily transferable mental categories. Hence, due recognition must be given to the fact that Christianity and Islam present two different models of faith, each of which has its own significant claim. Falaturi then delineates his own phenomenological portrait of Islam as ‘the firm conviction that the revealed guidance corresponds as a light to that “orientation on God” which God has given on their way to human beings, as the only vehicles of the divine Spirit, by their justly created nature (fitra), is of decisive significance for the Islamic system of faith; here is a consistent correspondence between creation and revelation. So guidance is not something forced on human beings from outside. Rather, within the framework of divine mercy it is a necessity without which human being will not be in a position to attain the highest goal, the presence of God.’ The point, quite simply is that Guidance as God’s mercy is to Islam what divine love and salvation are to Christianity. ‘Neither of them’, he asserts further, ‘can be transferred to the other.’

  According to Falaturi, these fundamental phenomenological difference entail that apart from the completely irreconcilable christologies of Islam and Christianity, even other central concepts such as scripture, faith, religion, prophecy etc. take on different meanings. Thus, while scripture in Christian theology largely looses its significance under the shadow of Jesus, in Islam, as a manifestation of God’s mercy and guidance ‘it represents the possibility of being addressed directly by God and thus of experiencing God consciously anew.’ Another point of capital importance in any Christian-Muslim dialogue is the fundamental rejection of the biblical accounts of prophecy on the part of the Qur’an which, in Falaturi’s opinion, ‘should give a historian freed from the pressures of apologetics occasion to revise the ill-considered thesis that the Qur’an is written off by the Bible.’

  Consistent with the phenomenological and dialogical sensitivity is Falaturi’s observation that Islamic theology has developed no vocabulary for a scientific assessment of other religions. Regrettably, he notes further, Muslim theologians are not fully cognizant of the otherness of Christian theology, ‘which to the present has spread its wings into all the humanities.’ Nor do they have any inkling of its spiritual power, its scope and its massive involvement with the dynamics and problems of the secular world. Hence, not only with a view to a fruitful dialogue but also in its own interest, even if purely academic, Islamic theology need to enter a new scientific phase and familiarize itself with Christian theology. Few thinking Muslims will, of course, dispute this conclusion.

  Even if Hans Küng’s pioneering work Christianity and the World Religions, concludes Falaturi, is not a dialogue in that there is no conversation in it with the living representatives of Islam, it does have an attraction of its own: Islam - seen from outside - is presented in the categories of Western thought and there are reflections on it from the perspective of Christian theology. Thus, ‘despite all the resentment that Muslims may nurse at such an attempt, the achievement and significance of the work remains undisputed.’ The disturbing aspects of the study emanate not so much from the perception of Hans Küng the Catholic theologian as from that of Hans Küng the representative of Western Machtmensch who declares without the least compunction: ‘But let us admit that Islam continues for us primarily alien, politically and economically more threatening than Hinduism or Buddhism, and at any rate a phenomenon which we find it difficult to understand.’ To this Falaturi gives the following, thoughtful yet unambiguous, retort:

‘How can a Hindu, a Buddhist, or in particular a Muslim dialogue partner carry on a serious dialogue when they know from the beginning that in the eyes of the Christian participant they are seen as “threatening” or even very threatening? For what reason is the dialogue now being carried out? To diminish the threat? Is that an aim of the dialogue? And who is threatened and for what reasons? In this way, will not any basis for a dialogue on equal footing be ruled out right from the start?’
  It is obvious that in Küng’s dialogue with Islam much more than mere theological sensibility is at stake. The problem of the rapacious ethic of industrial society, and its viability in a truly universal system, also looms large in his vision. He is further distressed by the possibility that Muslim opposition to Western science and technology may create a permanent rift between North and South. That the Islamic commitment also entails active struggle against all forms of oppression and injustice causes him merely parochial worries. Thus, Falaturi is obliged to point out most emphatically that Islam as a religious system does not represent any anti-Western propensity. Rather, the thrust of its revival is directed against the pseudo-values of the permissive modern culture which Küng himself describes as ‘inappropriate both for Islam and Christianity.’ Despite everything, however, both Küng and Falaturi appear to be in agreement that the common challenge for Christian and Islamic theology lies in creating, within the matrix of ‘a new ecumenical paradigm of secularity viewed against a religious background’, a third way between ‘either’ and ‘or’.

  There can be no doubt that Abdoljavad Falaturi’s intense reflection on the intellectual and spiritual context of Muslim-Christian dialogue is both sensitive and bold. He has responded to Hans Küng’s initiative at the Christian-Muslim dialogue with energy, creativity and humanity. From now on, every future effort to extend the scope of this dialogue is under obligation to take into account the full import of Falaturi’s vision.

  One of the most vigorous challenges to Hans Küng’s theology, unnegotiably committed to upholding the ‘uniqueness’ of Jesus, comes from the members of ‘the pluralistic theology of religions’ group. In their opinion, Küng’s view presents an insurmountable obstacle for the Christian dialogue with other religions. The most audible, and cogent, voice in this critical chorus is that of John Hick, even if such esteemed thinkers as Wilfred Cantwell Smith also belong to the pluralist school. The challenge of the pluralistic theology is best expressed by the metaphor ‘crossing the theological Rubicon’. It should be understood, according to Paul Kittner, as: ‘To cross it means to recognize clearly, unambiguously, the possibility that other religions exercise a role in salvational history that is not only valuable and salvific but perhaps equal to that of Christianity; it is to affirm that there may be other saviours and revealers besides Jesus Christ. It is to admit that if other religions must be fulfilled in Christianity, Christianity must, just as well, find fulfilment in them.’

  The Anglican John Hick is even more outspoken in his advocacy of a God-centered rather than a Christ-centered faith: ‘The Idea of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ are in fact incomprehensible to most people. In comparison, a non-traditional Christian faith can be genuinely simple and yet profound. Consider the belief that there is an ultimate Reality which is the source and ground of everything; that this Reality is benign in relation to human life; that the universal presence of this Reality is reflected (‘incarnated’) in human terms in the lives of the world’s great spiritual leaders; and that among these we have found Jesus to be our principal revelation of the Real and our principal guide for living.’ (The Metaphor of God Incarnate, p 163)

  The pluralist objection is motivated by ethical considerations and emanates from a utopian vision of a world community of faith(s). From this perspective, the idea that Christianity, or even biblical faiths, have a monopoly on religious truth, proclaims the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, ‘is an outrageous and absurd religious chauvinism.’ Other objectors, such as Gregory Baum, have argued that Küng’s stress on the centrality and uniqueness of Jesus, his ideological ‘rhetoric of exclusion’, favours a division of the world into ‘Christians’ and ‘non-Christians’ and that this language affects the way the church thinks and treats ‘outsiders.’ Indeed, it makes the church ‘vulnerable to evil’. Baum also refers to the persecution of the Jews as a classic example of this ‘rhetoric of exclusion.’ Küng has been criticized even on historical grounds in that his assertion about the uniqueness of Jesus cannot be substantiated by the exercise of the historical method.

  Kenneth Brewer has summed up the whole pluralist debate in ‘The Uniqueness of Christ and the Challenge of the Pluralist Theology of Religions’ (Kuschel and Häring: pp 198-215). Indeed, he has recapitulated Küng’s basic argument and even tried to defend his exclusivist position. Neither the Küng’s argument, nor Brewer’s defence, however, are sufficiently alert to the philosophical antinomy of ‘history’ and ‘norm’, the clash between historical reflection and the determination of standards of truth and value, which was introduced in the Christian debate by Ernst Troeltsch and which since then has continued to plague Christian reason. Indeed, the Church’s main argument against Küng’s Christology, articulated by Cardinal Höffner, has been precisely this, namely that Küng’s method ‘from below’ and his emphasis upon functional categories reduced Christ’s uniqueness to that of any religious reformer! Further, Küng’s reasons for postulating the uniqueness of Jesus and his comparisons with other founders of religion are so schematic and slanted that these can only be accepted as statements of faith. By no means do they count as ‘facts of history.’ (Needless to say, Küng is outrageously perverse in the case of Islam and envisions the mission of the Prophet as ‘world conquest’ and the establishment of an ‘expansionist state’!)

  The unconventional Festschrift dedicated to Hans Küng is thus a conventional example of Christian hubris, just as John Hick’s The Metaphor of God Incarnate is that of its humility. Earlier, Hick had acquired instant notoriety by presenting a collective work, The Myth of God Incarnate (SCM Press, London, 1977), which asserted that the conception of Jesus as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is mythological, and hence, cannot be accepted as literal truth. Though the book did not say anything that the biblical scholars had not already discussed in learned journals, its popular format and combative posture did help generate a lot of controversy. The present volume sums up the earlier debate and presents its argument against literalism with scholarly calm and ecumenical pathos.

  The impartial Muslim reviewer may sum the main insight of ‘de-incarnationist’ theology as the, belated, realization that the Jewish expression ‘son of God’ is metaphoric, that it denotes no ontological relationship, no participation by the person so named in the divine nature. Rather, it connotes a moral state. The doctrine of incarnation, then, represents a transformation of the Jewish (monotheistic) moral metaphor into a Greek (polytheistic) metaphysical theory. Moreover, none of what the Church proclaimed of Jesus, according to Hick, would have been acceptable, indeed even comprehensible, to him. In short, Hick wants to give up some of the historical, and historicising, ‘truths’ of the Christian tradition for the recovery of the Transcendent. Lest some Muslims misconstrue Hick’s revisionist theology as a rehabilitation of the Qur’anic criticism of incarnationist Christianity, it is merely proper to point out that his excessive emphasis on religious pluralism, and his Ibn-‘Arabian language of Transcendent Reality, smacks more of existential pantheism than of the Qur’anic transcendentalism. For the Muslim reader, however, Hick’s book is particularly informative, and instructive, of the historical and ideational matrix within which primitive Christianity’s radical departure from Hebrew monotheism took place.

  For the Muslim, far more challenging than Christian hubris and far more encouraging than Christian humility is the prospect of a radical ethical discourse on our common humanity. Hans Küng’s pioneering effort at the formulation of a global ethic, no matter how tentative and how problematic, deserves to be lauded and supported by the Muslim. The declaration, presented in Küng’s and Kuschel’s edited volume, A Global Ethic, was formally adopted by ‘the Parliament of World’s Religions’ in September 1993. Of course, to the votaries of political realism it appears as hopelessly utopian and naive document. And yet, though one may squabble about its legality, one may question the legitimacy of the adopting body, one may raise a thousand objections against its individual provisions, one cannot disclaim its need. The goal of a universal Gemeinschaft may be far, and it may even turn out to be a mirage, but the path leading to it has to be trodden. The discourse of Global Ethic may be taken as a humble step on that path and a conscientious movement in that direction.

  The motivation for a universal ethic is quite simple. Everyone recognizes that we are already living within the world wide web of a global society (Weltgesellschaft), though as yet there are no signs of a universal community (Weltgemeinschaft). Our reality, which is increasingly shaped by world politics, world technology, world economy and world civilization cannot therefore do without a world ethic. In utopian discourse, the terminology itself causes problems: Global Ethic (not ‘ethics’ as it refers to the system or the ‘science’ of morals) represents the English counterpart to the German ‘Weltethos’ and the French ‘éthique planétaire’) and conveys the idea of universal norms of conduct in a global society. However, according to its proponents, a global ethic means neither a global ideology, nor a single global religion that transcends all existing religions, nor a syncratic amalgam of all religious traditions. Nor does a global ethic, assures Hans Küng, seek to replace the high ethics of the individual religions with an ethical minimalism. Prior to the presentation of his draft, Küng also realized that the declaration of a global ethic must neither be a duplicate of the United Nations’ ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, nor a casuistic moral sermon, nor a philosophical treatise, nor a religious proclamation, nor indeed a political manifesto.

  In substance, the Declaration makes ‘a fundamental demand that every human being must be treated humanely’ and affirms ‘commitment to a culture of non-violence’, ‘commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order’, ‘commitment to a culture of toleration and a life of truthfulness’, and ‘commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.’ It avoids programmes of social and political action but accepts the fundamentally political category of citizenship when it remonstrates that ‘no person should ever be considered or treated as a second-class citizen’! It certainly lives up to its promise of being concise, intelligible and inspiring. Significantly, no dissent was ever expressed concerning its desirability and need, just as its opening statement that ‘Every human being must be treated humanely’ met with universal approval. For all its shortcomings, it represents a significant declaration of the ethical intent of our age. A sober Muslim critique of its contents may come later, an active Muslim involvement has to be immediate.

  Hans Küng also situates this quest for a global ethic within the social and cultural context of ‘potmodernity’ and its key themes: ‘polycentrism, war and peace, critique of civilization, the women’s movement, the ecumenical movement’ etc. His own kulturkritik thus highlights the following issues:

- Science, but not wisdom to prevent the misuse of scientific research.
- Technology, but no spiritual energy to bring the unforeseeable risks of a highly-efficient macrotechnology under control.
- Industry, but no ecology which might fight against the constantly expanding economy.
- Democracy, but no morality which could work against the massive interests of various individuals and groups in power.
  To an outsider, however, much of this criticism appears gratuitous, especially so when one realizes that Hans Küng has no policies to recommend but that he is content with the annunciation of a nondescript ethic as a ‘solution’ to the above mentioned malaise! What evidence is there to suggest, however, that the world becomes a better place when men of cloak, or turban, take the helm? 

It is in this spirit that the Muslim sensitivity may finally be given vent. The Muslim is not opposed to utopian schemes, nor is he averse to the formulation of any global ethic. He may endorse all these and yet be discontent. It is because his moral conscience demands more than a world ethic; it longs for world-order. For, to have an ethic is also to get involved - willy-nilly - with politics and with the questions of power and responsibility. Who has power over technology and hence bears the responsibility of letting it play havoc with our lives? Who owns the industry that destroys our habitat? Who preaches democracy but practices no morality? These are the questions which the Muslim would like to interject into the discourse of world ethic.

  There is no doubt that in working for a common humanity, in dreaming about a universal Gemeinschaft, in dealing with both the hubris and humility of Christianity, the Muslim will find Hans Küng a formidable and charitable partner.


Works Discussed in this Essay: 

HANS KÜNG: New Horizons for Faith and Thought. Ed. by Karl-Josef Kuschel & Herman Häring. SCM Press Ltd, 26-30 Totenham Road, London N1 4BZ, 1993. Pp 402. £25.00 (HB). ISBN 0-334-02546-X.

A GLOBAL ETHIC: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Ed. by Hans Küng & Karl-Josef Kuschel. SCM Press Ltd, 26-30 Totenham Road, London N1 4BZ, 1993. Pp 124. £5.95. ISBN 0-334-02561-3.

THE METAPHOR OF GOD INCARNATE. By John Hick. SCM Press Ltd, 26-30 Totenham Road, London N1 4BZ, 1993. Pp 180. £9.95. ISBN 0-334-02541-9.

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