Hans Küng

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Chris McDonnell CT May 21. 2021.


To continue after a brief interruption…

My absence from this column happened to coincide with the passing of the theologian Hans Kung who died in early April at the age of 93. Many column inches were written on his extraordinary life for he was indeed an extraordinary man.

Critical of the Church he loved, he remained loyal through many tribulations, a priest in good standing in spite of his harsh treatment by those in authority. He just continued to ask questions that promoted thought and reflection. In consequence his licence to teach theology at a Catholic University was withdrawn by John Paul II in 1979. It would have been an act of generosity had that been restored in recent years in recognition of his significant contribution to the theology of our time. Some 17 years earlier John XXIII had named him a peritus, an expert advisor at the start of the Vatican Council. That visionary Bishop of Rome recognized in Kung those qualities that undoubtedly foreshadowed the prophetic nature of the man that we came to know through his teaching and extensive written publications in subsequent years.


Coincidental with the life of Kung has been that of Bob Dylan, the American singer and song writer who reaches his 80th birthday next week. He too, in his own way, is a prophet. Through his song writing he laid out the signposts for a journey of exploration and change, One verse of the Times They are a Changin’ has these words:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'

In many ways those few words sum up prophesy. Seizing the moment, the prophet alerts his listeners to opportunity for change, the one-off chance to follow a new direction. He also recognizes that so often the prophet is ignored, his words rejected as they fall on deaf ears. But with the passing of time, their validity is recognized and truth is acknowledged.

This was the experience of Jesus who as John records in Chapter 4 of his gospel that a prophet has no honour in his own country' (John 4:44). Luke tells us that Christ also said 'no prophet is accepted in his home town' (Luke 4:16-30).

It is true that on many occasions strangers listen to us when those closest to us turn away.

Yet still the words of prophesy echo down the years, taking us from where we are and indicating where our journey might lead us if we but listen. Another song of the 60s, sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, the Sound of Silence, reflects on the need to listen.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light, I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets
are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"
And whispered in the sound of silence

For that is what the prophet does, he dares to disturb our silence, to ask questions and to suggest ways that we might follow to achieve fulfillment.
The voice of the prophet often leads to discomfort, raising issues that we try to avoid lest they disturb our peace. In our own time, those who address the problem of climate change are experiencing a similar response. Their voices, raised in warning for the sake of all of us, challenge us to reconsider our pattern of living, asking awkward questions relating to values and judgments that we would prefer not to hear. Yet still they persistently nag at us, saying ‘listen before it is too late’. Ours is the first generation to have the issue drawn so graphically to our notice and may well be the last that has the opportunity to do something about it.

The Prophets of the Old Testament told a story for their people, trying to reflect in practical terms their perceived will of God for their lives. The voice of John the Baptist, in fulfillment of Isaiah, brought to the attention of the people to Jesus the Nazarene. His was a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.

Those who bring to our attention the teachings of Jesus earn the title of prophet by the example they show us, by the strength of their voice and the courage of their actions. We prophesy by what we do as much as by what we say. Sifting through the lexicon of contemporary Christian names, men and women come to mind whose lives tell us a story of fortitude and courage, pointing the direction that we might follow. To some we accord the honorific of saint, others pass our way without that acknowledgement but they have no less an impact on our lives. Their prophecy is just as real, if only we take the time to notice it. The prophet is one set aside, one chosen from the people with intent to tell the story. In the book of Deuteronomy we read “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.”

Extending beyond our Christian commitment, other faith traditions have their prophets, those whose example of how we might live tells a story and offers inspiration.

Recognising this, on his retirement in 1996, Kung established the Global Ethic Foundation at Tübingen University to promote co-operation and dialogue between the faiths around the world for unless there is such understanding, there is little chance of lasting peace between nations.

There is a restlessness within each of us that looks for guidance. We need to listen attentively to those about us for in their words might be the seed of direction that we are seeking. The words of the prophet written on the subway wall are there if we care to read them.