Dr Küng’s Fiasco

Alasdair MacIntyre

  • Does God exist? by Hans Küng, translated by Edward Quinn
    Collins, 839 pp, £12.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 00 215147 2

When the name of a present-day Catholic theologian becomes familiar to the larger reading public, it is rarely because of his theology. Most often it is because he has been made vivid as a character in one of those miniature scenarios about religion which still fascinate the ostensibly secularised mind. Jean Daniélou’s fine book on the doctrine of the Trinity passed largely unnoticed: his death in circumstances which suggested that there might be a scandal to be unearthed secured the immediate attention of journalists all over the world. Edward Schillebeeckx’s work on Christology was not news until he was summoned to Rome. Then he was at once conscripted as a character in that so often rewritten melodrama – Brecht’s Galileo is the canonical text for our time – The valiant searcher for truth oppressed by Inquisitors.

Ecclesiastical life is now much duller than spectators of these carefully staged plays are led to suspect. A case in point is that of Dr Hans Küng of Tübingen University, about whom it was widely reported – in the New York Times, for example – that he had been forbidden to teach by the authorities in Rome and by his bishop. Had this indeed been the case, the massive response of sympathetic protest and indignation would have been both intelligible and warranted. But what in fact took place was not a dramatic imposition of inquisitorial restraints on a scholar. Dr Küng occupied a chair of Catholic theology in which he could only discharge his duties by teaching not just about Catholic theology – which could be done perfectly adequately by a Protestant, a Jew or an atheist – but as a Catholic theologian. ‘Catholic’ in this last sentence could of course be replaced by ‘Roman Catholic’; and the simple fact, albeit one that he himself has not yet noticed, is that Dr Küng is not in the required sense a Catholic. He is quite clearly a Protestant.

I do not say this only because he rejects the dogma of Papal Infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council and accepts the validity of Protestant ministries and sacraments. It is also the case that his definition of ‘catholicity’ is both explicitly and implicitly Protestant. To be ‘catholic’ is in Dr Küng’s view to be united with the Church of all times and all places: ‘there is no doubt that a number of those who describe themselves as Protestants or evangelicals can be and are in fact catholic in this sense’ (The Church Maintained in Truth, 1980). To be ‘catholic’ in this way turns out, however, also to be compatible with rejecting much of what the Church has done or said in many times and places, since Dr Küng rejects many of the Roman Catholic Church’s deeds and utterances before, during and after the First Vatican Council. ‘All’ does not, as Dr Küng uses it, mean all and in fact ‘the Catholic Church’ to which Dr Küng gives his allegiance is a highly personal and idiosyncratic construction, as perhaps one would expect from a Protestant theologian. By contrast, Roman Catholic theology has taken as a defining characteristic of Catholicity in the present the systematic acceptance of certain conceptions of authority and obedience, a classical exposition of which is to be found in The Spirit of Catholicism, a book by one of Dr Küng’s predecessors at Tübingen, Karl Adam. To blame the Catholic Church for not abandoning these conceptions in its dealings with Dr Küng is a little like chiding the Third International for not adopting the principles of John Stuart Mill in its dealings with Lukacs. And when therefore John Paul II – who, like Evelyn Waugh, as Randolph Churchill remarked to an earlier Pope, is himself a Roman Catholic – did not respond to Dr Küng’s appeals against the requirement that he no longer teach as a Catholic theologian, he did only what rational consistency required.

What kind of a Protestant is Dr Küng? He makes it clear in the present book as elsewhere that he is not a follower of Karl Barth: that is to say, he does not believe that our only authentic knowledge of the true God is that God’s self-revelation, a self-revelation to be received only by faith. But he equally repudiates the natural theology of neo-Thomism and indeed of St Thomas himself: ‘There is ... no two-level reality, consisting of a “natural” substructure of truths of pure reason and a “supernatural” superstructure of truths of pure faith.’ The task which Dr Küng sets himself is that of showing that the exercise of reason presupposes faith of a certain kind and in so doing affords to Christian faith its argumentative justification.

The major structures of Dr Küng’s complex thesis are fairly clear. Either God exists or He does not. All the attempts to provide logically compelling arguments from premises which it would be unreasonable for anyone to deny to the conclusion that God exists break down at some point. But so also do all attempts to provide logically compelling arguments to the conclusion that God does not exist. It might therefore seem that we are faced with the alternatives either of agnostic indecision or of making a non-rational choice. But agnostic indecision is ruled out because we cannot avoid choosing either to believe that God exists or to believe that God does not exist. Our lives will necessarily embody one alternative or the other. Why then are we not left with the alternative of making a non-rational choice?

Dr Küng’s answer to this question rests on a prior thesis about what he takes to be an even more fundamental universal human choice, the choice between nihilism and what he calls ‘fundamental trust’. He approaches his characterisation of this latter choice by drawing upon the views of certain modern writers on the philosophy of science, such as Karl Popper and Wolfgang Stegmüller, who have stressed the place of decision at the bases of scientific reasoning. Dr Küng takes himself to be doing no more than extending their line of thought when he concludes that reason always requires a foundation in a fundamental trust in reality and that therefore to reject such a fundamental trust in reality is contrary to reason. The nihilist who rejects this trust is thus, in Dr Küng’s view, convicted of irrationalism. If the choice between believing that God exists and believing that God does not exist is approached on the basis of a fundamental trust in what Dr Küng calls ‘uncertain reality’, ‘there can be no question of a stalemate, of remaining undecided between belief in God and atheism’. For fundamental trust in uncertain reality is only justified if God exists and to treat fundamental trust as unjustified is to fall back into irrationalism. Moreover, when we do first come to believe, we seem to receive, on Dr Küng’s account, a further confirmation of God’s existence: ‘For what cannot be proved in advance I experience in the accomplishment, in the very act of acknowledging what I perceive. Reality can manifest itself in its proper depth; its primary ground, deepest support, ultimate goal, its primal source, primal meaning, primal value, are laid open to me as soon as I lay myself open ... The last and first reality, God, is thus seen more or less as the guarantor of the rationality of human reason.’ Without belief in God, that is, to trust in reason would be unreasonable.

A first problem with these contentions is to understand in what sense they are intended to constitute an argument. Since Dr Küng allows that nihilism cannot ‘be refuted rationally’ and that ‘the hidden reality of God is not forced on reason,’ we need some account of why it is rational to follow through the steps of Dr Küng’s reasoning from premises to conclusion. We are given none. And hence we do not know what kind of mistake we would, in Dr Küng’s view, be making if we rejected one of his premises or one of his transitions from premises to conclusion. It seems clear, for example, that we could not be disregarding evidence or committing a logical fallacy or going against the balance of probability. Yet he still wants to assert that it is reasonable to follow through his line of argument and this implies that it is unreasonable not to. But in what way unreasonable? Until we have been told this, we have been told nothing.

Suppose, however, that we ignore this point and examine Dr Küng’s argument using the established canons of argument. Three salient points emerge immediately. The first is that Dr Küng fails to consider whether the kind of warrant which we require if we are to believe on rational grounds that God exists and the kind of warrant which we require if we are to believe on similarly rational grounds that God does not exist may not differ from each other in significant ways. Generally, when questions of existence are in doubt, the onus of justification lies with those who maintain that something of such and such a kind does exist, and generally therefore it is reasonable to continue to believe that there are no beings of the relevant kind, until those who assert that there are produce adequately good reasons in support of their assertion. The best possible reason for believing that there are no unicorns is that nobody has as yet produced adequate good reasons for believing that there are any. It would be wholly inappropriate and misleading to suggest that until someone produces in addition independent conclusive arguments by appeal to which the non-existence of unicorns can be demonstrated, the question of the existence or non-existence of unicorns remains from the standpoint of rationality an open question. Hence when Dr Küng allows that the avowal of the existence of God ‘is not founded on reason’ by any compelling arguments, he does in fact provide atheism with all the argument that it needs – unless he can show, as perhaps it can be shown, that the question of divine existence is not one of those where the onus of justification lies with those who assert rather than with those who deny such existence. But Dr Küng ignores this question.

Secondly, the form of Dr Küng’s appeal to philosophers of science such as Popper and Stegmüller suggests an imperfect acquaintance with the debates to which they were and are contributing. It has indeed been powerfully argued from more than one point of view that all rational justification must terminate in an appeal to some set of first principles or to some framework which cannot itself be further justified; and Stegmüller has certainly advanced the view that a personal decision of conscience underlies the acceptance of those principles which define what is to count as evidence for or against those beliefs which are defended by an appeal to evidence. It is even possible to read the first edition of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as endorsing something a little like Stegmüller’s view in those passages in which Kuhn speaks of the natural scientist’s acceptance of a new paradigm as often involving ‘a decision’ that ‘can only be made on faith’.

It is, however, quite crucial to notice at once, not only that the view stated by Stegmüller and sometimes ascribed to Kuhn has been subjected to serious and powerful criticism by other contemporary philosophers and historians of science, such as Dudley Shapere, but also that the whole account of rational justification which gives rise to it has been rejected by many philosophers, notably by C.S. Peirce and those who have learned from him. Dr Küng gives his readers no sense that he is intervening in a complex and far from closed debate: he simply plucks from that debate without argument those views which fit neatly into his own thesis. The philosophically innocent reader who is told that in Stegmüller’s work ‘these two great trends of contemporary philosophy meet: existential philosophy ... and analytical philosophy’ will naturally enough believe that he is being presented with the accepted outcome of recent debates and not with a highly controversial and completely unargued interpretation of their significance.

Thirdly, even on a charitable reading of Dr Küng’s own argument it fails. For if it is the case that our trust in rationality is unjustified if we do not believe that God exists, then adding to our stock of beliefs the belief that God exists – without being able to advance any additional independent justification for that belief – does nothing at all to provide justification for our trust in rationality. We will have simply added one more unjustified belief to our stock of unjustified beliefs. Thus Dr Küng has given us no good reason for believing that God exists. What is the source of this fiasco? Perhaps it is in part that Dr Küng nowhere in this vast and prolix book discusses in any depth or detail at all the nature of rational justification; and in part perhaps that he nowhere discusses in any depth or detail at all what specific kind of claim is made when it is asserted that God exists. As a result, his work is markedly inferior to that of a number of recent philosophical writers in this area whose achievement Dr Küng feels free to overlook: Robert M. Adams, Peter Geach, Anthony Kenny, Terence Penelhum, Alvin Plantinga, James Ross and Richard Swinburne, for example, have all made contributions far too substantial to be thus ignored. Dr Küng’s enormous apparatus of bibliography and references gives no evidence that he even knows most of their work, even when he cites some relevant titles – of those I have listed only Penelhum’s name appears in his index.

This therefore is a book well-designed for nobody. It does not meet the standards required for it to be of interest to those who are actively participating in contemporary philosophical debates about theism. It is not for the professionals. And it does not discharge the obligations necessary for it to be a reliable guide for those outside these debates who want to become well-informed as to how they are progressing. It is not for the amateurs either. But reading this book was not entirely without theological significance for me. Whenever in future I try to imagine what Purgatory will be like, the thought of having to reread Dr Küng’s book is certain to recur.