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Revolution in the Church

Küng first reviews the contemporary discussion of the afterlife in the fields of comparative religions, philosophy, and medicine, including life-after-death experiences, which he says are only experiences of life after clinical death and hence throw no light on eternal life. But the centerpiece of his book is a deconstructive analysis of the Biblical data behind the Christian belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. Here he says nothing that we cannot find elsewhere in modern Roman Catholic exegesis, but he tells the story in such clear and lucid prose that one hardly hears the traditional theological pillars falling. It seems, too, that he leaves the corpse of Jesus, corrupted by physical death, in whatever tomb it may now occupy.

Belief in the resurrection of the dead, Küng points out, is a late-arriving idea in Judaism, making its first appearance only around 164 BCE. Early Judaism held that the dead enter Sheol, a dark nether-world of semiexistence from which no one expected them to emerge. But during the hard years of the Maccabean revolt, a new hope took hold: that God would vindicate his faithful people by resurrecting them from the dead at the end of the world. A Jewish eschatology emerged, along with its literary expression in apocalypse, the scriptural genre that elaborated imaginative predications and descriptions of the coming catastrophe and its aftermath.

Although eschatological thinking pervaded the world in which Jesus lived and preached, he toned down the apocalyptic imagery and proclaimed that the kingdom of God was already dawning in his words and deeds. He saw himself not as God or the Messiah, but as a Jewish prophet, the definitive and authoritative voice proclaiming the denouement of history. He paid for his radical claims by being crucified under the notorious anti-Semite, Pontius Pilate, probably on Friday, April 7, in the year 30 CE.

The next event that can be dated in Christian history is not Jesus’ emergence from his tomb but the birth of the disciples’ faith in him. Shortly after he died, his followers in Galilee came to believe that God had vindicated Jesus, now miraculously alive in heaven, by designating him the future Son of Man. That hazy apocalyptic figure, imminently expected but heretofore unidentified, now took the form of a known human being. Jesus the proclaimer of the kingdom of God became the one proclaimed, soon to appear in glory.

What had happened between Jesus’ death and the emergence of Christian faith? The Gospels offer no direct access to what believers call Jesus’ resurrection. No text describes it; no one claims to have seen it. Rather, we are thrown back on the claims of his first disciples that they had some kind of revelatory experiences (“appearances”) that convinced them that Jesus was alive. Virtually all New Testament exegetes agree that the first such “appearance” was to Peter. Küng follows the scholarly opinion that it took place in Galilee, not Jerusalem, and had nothing to do with later stories that Jesus had left his tomb three days after he died. The first written testimony to faith in Jesus’ resurrection dates to twenty-five years after his death and makes no mention of an empty tomb. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, written around 55 CE, Paul says simply that Jesus “was raised” and showed himself (in whatever fashion) to his followers.8

Only some forty years after Jesus died did the story of an empty tomb make its first literary appearance in the Gospel of Mark, but even there it was not presented as proof that Jesus had physically left his grave. According to Edward Schillebeeckx, with whom Küng agrees, even if Jesus’ body could not be found after he died, that fact “had a merely negative effect: it did not lead to triumphant hope in resurrection, but to confusion and sorrow.” Peter and the other disciples came to believe that Jesus was in heaven before they even knew about the empty tomb. Only later, when they came down to Jerusalem from Galilee, did they make the empty tomb story a vehicle for the faith which had been born independently of it.9

However, by the last two decades of the first century, presumably with the purpose of making the notion of Easter more tangible, elaborate apocalyptic imagery came to dominate Gospel descriptions of Jesus post-mortem. In Luke’s Gospel, written around 85 CE, we find the risen Lord eating, and presumably digesting, a plate of gefilte fish, and John’s Gospel at the turn of the century has Jesus inviting Doubting Thomas to put his fingers into Jesus’ wounds to verify the physicality of his resurrection.

The Gospel stories about Jesus’ appearances after his death cannot be harmonized with one another, whether regarding the places or times or the persons on hand. Luke, for example, had no qualms about saying that Jesus ascended definitively into heaven both on Easter Sunday night and then again some forty days later—proof, according to the village atheist, that the Gospels are frauds, and evidence, according to the fundamentalist believer, that God is indeed mysterious. New Testament exegetes argue that the authors of the Gospels used these apocalyptic tropes not to describe historical events but to express in imaginative and symbolic language their belief that Jesus was somehow alive with God and would someday reappear. Later generations took the images as literal fact, thereby providing iconographic material to centuries of artists and serious conundrums to centuries of Christians unfamiliar with apocalyptic literary genres. (Was the fish metabolized by Jesus’ resurrected body?)

But if we follow Küng and the liberal consensus in demythologizing the resurrection of Jesus, what does Christianity have to tell us about eternal life? Very little, it would seem, or at least very little that we did not already know. In the absence of any “proofs” such as an empty tomb or physical appearances, all one is left with is the belief (which for Küng is equivalent to a hope) that somehow Jesus went to heaven, with or without his physical body.

Küng’s book, in fact, turns into an exhortation to hope that Jesus is somehow with God and therefore that life has an ultimate meaning. If you follow the God of Judaism, Küng writes, you believe that in his loving omnipotence he will not let your life fray into nothingness. And if you believe that the same God gave Jesus eternal life, then you have a concrete pledge that your hope will be fulfilled. Free yourself, on the one hand, from the Platonic promise that your soul alone will survive; and forget, on the other hand, about taking literally the resurrection “of the body,” as if you could be sure to get all your molecules back. Believe, rather, that if there is a God, he will save the whole of you, however that be defined.

Küng acknowledges that there are no proofs that eternal life is actually available; but neither can one prove it to be impossible. A lack of proof, he argues, does not necessarily render hope in immortality irrational. What he does is shift the question of immortality from the narrow ground of what can be rationally proven to the broader field of what is “existentially meaningful.” Thus he writes: “One can hold that there is eternal life only in an act of trust, founded, of course, on reality: a trust justified in the face of reason and therefore perfectly reasonable.” Küng uses “justified” in a soft sense: hope in immortality, he says, “does not have cogent rational proofs at its disposal, but it does have attractive reasonable motives.” One of those motives, he asserts, is the desire for an ultimate meaning to life, and it can lead (although he does not tell us how) to a “reasonably justified decision” to affirm that eternal life is an available reality. In effect, then, Küng offers a reconstruction of Pascal’s wager.

Küng’s book is often powerful and moving but I find something missing. It is not that he refuses to confront the stark alternative to the hope in eternal life. On the contrary, he is a model of Unamuno’s dictum that a faith that does not dare to doubt is no faith at all. Hans Küng has done more than his share, in a lifetime of work, to challenge the apocalyptic and mythical content of Catholic folk religion in the name of the best scientific scholarship that can be brought to bear on the Bible and the theological tradition; and he has consistently risked his own career in order to unmask the ideological power structures that inform so much of the Roman ecclesiastical order.

But it seems to me that in all his theological efforts, Küng (or, for that matter, the liberal consensus) has pushed Catholic theology to the limits of its own language. In fact, he has brought it to the point where one can ask what its teachings have to offer that cannot be found outside the scope of its experience and discourse. For example, the hope in immortality he evokes is certainly not peculiar to Catholicism or Christianity. Nor is it an exclusively religious doctrine: we find it in pagan philosophy from the Greeks onward, even in thinkers who did not believe in a personal god. Surely, leaving Jesus’ alleged resurrection aside, you can still postulate and hope, with or without the buttressing of rational argument, that there is an ultimate meaning to life and that you will share in it after you die.

On a broader scale, it is clear that religious experience is available outside Catholicism and Christianity; and for many people natural human experience, with no religious or transcendent dimension, is satisfying enough. What, then, does Catholicism claim to provide that cannot be found beyond its boundaries? I am not asking about the subjective aspects of experience, be it natural or religious (its felt quality, psychological genesis, personal meaning, and so on). I am asking an objective theological question: what does Catholicism claim that makes it unique, essentially different from non-Catholic religions and non-religious humanism?

The usual answer to this question comes under the rubric of “supernatural revelation,” God’s free communication of himself to his finite human creatures in a definitive and binding way. According to the Catholic theory, God’s personal revelation of himself can be articulated in human language (scripture, theology, and so on) that is ever incommensurate with God himself and therefore always reformable; however, the authentic sense of revelation is infallibly interpreted by those whom God in this revelation appointed to be his official teaching authority: the Roman hierarchy.

That is why the Catholic Church is not bothered if the scientifically controllable evidence of scripture does not show, for example, that Jesus thought he was divine. “According to the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Baum has written, “the authentic interpretation of Scripture is discovered in the ‘apostolic tradition’ preserved in the church by those entrusted with his task, namely, the bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome, the pope.”10 Nor is the Church’s confidence shaken even if it cannot be shown from scripture that Jesus intended to set up such an apostolic tradition or its infallible interpretation.

In other words, the Catholic argument from revelation seems to end up either begging the question (the infallible interpreters of revelation must first interpret revelation as constituting them infallible) or taking refuge in a quasi Protestantism that throws believers back on their personal experience of God’s revelation. But if one follows the second path, as the liberal consensus is often accused of doing, the same circularity of revelation of himself is what brings faith about; yet only from within faith can the believer know that there has been revelation and what has been revealed.

Over and above the scientific gains that the Catholic liberal consensus has made, its major achievement has been to rediscover the ineluctability of this hermeneutical circle of revelation and faith. Some would say that the consensus has simply reinvented the Protestant wheel; others, that it has gone further and jumped aboard the Protestant cart. In any case, this rediscovery seems to be bringing the Church to what can be called the end of Catholicism, that is, to the limits of what it can say about God and the human condition.

Take the example of the afterlife. Since, as Küng shows, it is impossible to prove that there is anything beyond the grave, hope in immortality is necessarily circumscribed by a condition of unknowing, a kind of “pious agnosticism,” which is a recognition that one cannot know rather than a refusal to find out. Such unknowing does not preclude hope in an afterlife but simply keeps it honest. Even the Christian believer who takes Jesus as his or her model is still thrown back on the same finite information as the nonbeliever, and the same human tasks: providing for one’s own needs, overcoming one’s selfishness, making the social and political order more human. In this view Christianity might turn out to be, in the best sense of the term, a myth, the kind of “truth” (Nietzsche would say “error”) that inspires some people to do what all human beings should do: be sensitive, intelligent, reasonable, loving, and just—in short, finite and historical. Hope in an afterlife and in the resurrected success of Jesus might be the kind of myth that is indispensable for some human beings to carry on their lives.

But the qualities of their lives would seem to be the point. No one denies that religious experience, as defined by those who have it, provides a sense of transcendence, whether or not that sense has objective ontological validity. But even in such experience the underlying issue remains that of working out a decent life before as well as after death. And if faith works to that end, who would want to fault it? It helped the Israelites escape from Egypt; it is central to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Eliot’s Four Quartets. It inspires Polish workers in their struggle for justice, and has added both an incentive and a corrective to liberation movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Even though the liberal consensus has pushed Catholic theology to the point where it seems to break down, Catholicism continues to go on. In some measure this is attributable to the Church’s quiet but momentous shift of emphasis from orthodoxy to “orthopraxis” since the Second Vatican Council. For centuries the Church presented itself as the bastion of truth about Jesus and God, and as the infallible interpreter of scripture and tradition. But now that the very presuppositions of that infallibility are being questioned, the Church, without abdicating orthodoxy, is gradually recasting itself more as the guide to moral action, almost (but not quite) as if it had come to agree with Wittgenstein: “I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life.”11 The Church’s gradual shift of concern away from theoretical questions and toward social, political, and moral issues like nuclear warfare, abortion, and liberation theology—whatever one thinks of the positions—is, I believe, one of the major consequences of the undoing of traditional theology.

Nonetheless, the future of Catholicism as an intellectual and not just as an activist enterprise has become a pressing issue. Perhaps the current regime in Rome will slap a few more wrists in a futile effort to stop the liberal movements launched by the Second Vatican Council. 12 But it is more likely that, as the Church approaches the beginning of its third millennium, things will continue to follow the trajectory of the last two decades: an entrenchment of conservative forces in their shrinking pockets of power; the vigorous advancement of liberal exegesis and theology in scholarly circles; and the equally vigorous pursuit of the social gospel where issues of politics and morality are concerned.

But there is a further possibility as the liberal consensus continues to push Catholic theology to and beyond its limits. Could the Church shelve even its purified belief in Jesus’ resurrection and still remain itself? The direction of Küng’s reinterpretation of the resurrection has been to move through the traditional apocalyptic legends and beyond them toward a more rational hope in a somewhat vaguely defined immortality. But what would happen if liberal theologians abandoned apocalypse altogether and returned full circle to the preapocalyptic faith of the prophets with its intrinsic moral, social, and political concerns? On that hypothesis we might have found Hans Küng writing, “As far as one can know, when you’re dead, you’re dead—and the same holds for Jesus. Rather than hoping him out of the tomb, leave him there and try to lead the kind of life that got him to his grave. The rest, whatever it may be, is out of our hands.” That would be Pascal’s wager in reverse.


The Revolution in the Church November 22, 1984

The Revolution in the Church November 22, 1984

  1. 8

    The thesis that Easter faith first arose with Peter in Galilee is based on such texts as Mark 16:7, John 21:1ff., Luke 22:32, and Matthew 16:18 and is presented, for example, by Schillebeeckx, Jesus, pp. 385–390, Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception…, pp. 106 ff., Reginald H. Fuller, with some slight modifications, in The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 34f., Ulrich Wilckens, Biblical Testimony to the Resurrection: An Historical Examination and Explanation, trans. A.M. Stewart (Edinburgh, 1977), passim—to name but a few. The thesis the empty tombs contributed nothing to Peter’s original faith is becoming common teaching in the Church. See Richard P. McBrien’s book Catholicism, widely used in American Catholic universities (Winston Press, 1980), vol. 1, pp. 411–417.

  2. 9

    Schillebeeckx’s statement is from his Interim Report on the Books “Jesus” and “Christ” (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 87. He draws on the position of John E. Alsup, The Post-Resurrection Appearance Stories of the Gospel Tradition (Stuttgart, 1975), pp. 85–107. A growing body of Catholic exegetes think the gospel stories of the empty tomb originated in a cult legend. See Ludger Schenke, Auferstehungverkündigung und leeres Grab (Stuttgart, 1968), pp 56–93, and Bas Van Iersel, “The Resurrection of Jesus—Information or Interpretation?” in Concilium, X, 6 (Dec. 1970) pp. 54–67.

  3. 10

    William Baum, Creativity and Fidelity, p. G-4. On the Catholic doctrine of revelation, see Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad, 1978), pp. 117–126.

  4. 11

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G.H. von Wright in collaboration with Heikki Nyman, trans., Peter Winch (University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 53e. On the questioning of infallibility, see Hans Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (Doubleday, 1983) and The Church—Maintained in Truth (Random House, 1982).

  5. 12

    After Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Faith, had recently condemned Marxist trends in Catholic theology, seven proponents of liberation theology, including Clodovis Boff and Antonio Moser, were removed from their teaching positions at two universities in Rio de Janeiro. Ratzinger’s condemnation and a response from Professors Leonardo and Clodovis Boff have been published in Il Regno (Bologna), April 1, 1984 (no. 504), pp. 220–223 and April 15, 1984 (no. 505), pp. 193–196.

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