Title: Does God Exist?
Author: Hans Kung
Translated from German by Edward Quinn
Publisher: Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1978
This is the most scholarly book I have ever read. It was a birthday gift I received in 1986 from a Catholic priest who taught me philosophy for two years. I had abandoned religion as well as God though it might be truer to say that God had given me up. I was a student of religion. I had ample faith in God. I used to pray half a dozen times a day. I wrote love poems to Jesus. “You took the brush and colours danced in my heart.” The ‘you’ in lines that smacked explicitly of romance in my poems was Jesus. I wrote those love poems when I was a student of philosophy. The only teacher to whom I dared to show those poems was the one who gifted me Hans Kung’s magnum opus on my 26th birthday when I had already proclaimed my atheism loudly enough. [The details are in my memoir, Autumn Shadows.]
Hans Kung is one of the most profound theologians of the Catholic Church. The Church was not quite pleased with many of his views and so he was even barred from teaching theology. He has written many books though I have read only two of them, the other being his History of the Catholic Church. This book is so profound that it will engage even a voracious reader for months.
The book looks at God from various angles: philosophy, psychology, mysticism, and religion with a focus on Christianity. Even science and mathematics make their presence felt in many parts of the books. The very opening sentence of the book is: “It is not surprising that mathematicians in particular have always had a special interest in an unconditional, absolute certainty in the realm of life and knowledge.” There is no mathematics without certain absolute truths. Hans Kung begins his exploration of God’s ontology with none other than Rene Descartes, the mathematician who gave us coordinate geometry without which much of classical mathematics would not exist. Descartes was a philosopher too. I think, therefore I exist. That remains his most famous saying. Like all mathematicians Descartes had to establish his philosophical edifice on a self-evident, absolutely true proposition.
Kung begins with a questioning of those absolute propositions of philosophy. “Does not consciousness include in addition to and together with rational thinking also willing and feeling, imagination and temperament, emotions and passions, which just cannot be attributed rationalistically to pure reason, but have their own reality, often opposed to reason?” He asks. Man is not just a cerebral robot. He needs more, much more, than reason to guide him, to give him meaning in life.
The eminent theologian then moves on to a lot of other philosophers like Blaise Pascal, Hegel, Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Kant, and Wittgenstein and discusses them in great detail. Anyone who is interested in philosophy will find this book thoroughly exhaustive and stunningly thought-provoking. Kung not only summarises the views of these philosophers elegantly but also critiques them subtly and sharply.
He also takes necessary insights from psychology. Adler, Jung and Freud all come under Kung’s piercing scanner. By its very nature, Kung informs us, “psychological interpretation alone cannot penetrate to the absolutely final or first reality.”
God remains beyond the rationality of philosophy and the analytics of psychology. Isn’t God an experience? The last part of Kung’s voluminous book focuses precisely on that question. No one can arrive at God without faith. In fact, no one can make life meaningful without the fundamental trust which enables us to say Yes to reality.
Being a Catholic priest, Kung obviously offers us the God of Christianity in detail though he would never suggest that Jesus’ God is the only true God. On the contrary, he states clearly that the Christian experience of God is only one of the many possible experiences. He dismisses any claim to universalism on the part of Christianity as “a sign of provincialism”.
People can and do experience God in their own ways. Kung quotes William James’s definition of religion as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Whatever. Even a wedge of rock that is made to look like a phallus can lead the believer to a divine experience.
For Kung, Jesus is the foundation of his divine experience. The God of Jesus is different from the tyrannical and capricious Yahweh of the Old Testament. Here is a God who loves, who cares, who is compassionate. Jesus is the “embodiment of a new attitude to life,” says Kung, “and a new life-style.” Jesus enables him to accept the evils of life. “I cannot myself attach a meaning to my living and suffering,” Kung says, “but I can accept it in the light of the completed life and suffering of this one man.” The sufferings of Jesus act as the buffer for Kung.
Well, that is where I parted ways with Hans Kung. If Jesus were indeed God, omnipotent and loving as Christianity envisages him, why couldn’t he show us a better way than that of the cross? As I put the mammoth book down some time in 1987 [I think I took about a year to read it], I realised that I had not travelled much farther from the mathematical logic of Descartes. My approach to reality remains intellectual even today in spite of the strong element of romanticism in me. I can stand in awe before a tulip. I can pet a kitten with the tenderness of a new mother. My love can turn passionate where passion is required. But when it comes to grappling with life’s realities, my intellect jumps to the fore.
God is an emotional experience. Even when profoundly religious people like Hans Kung give me intellectual reasons for their faith in God, I know ultimately even for them God is an emotional experience. Otherwise God is nothing. God is the awe that the tulip springs in me. God is the tenderness that the kitten extracts from my heart. God is the passion in my romance.
Hans Kung may find it difficult to experience that awe, tenderness and passion without the person of a God to uphold them. He concludes his book thus: “Does God exist? Despite all upheavals and doubts, even for man today, the only appropriate answer must be that with which believers of all generations from ancient times have again and again professed their faith.” What is it? It begins with faith and ends in trust, Kung answers in the last lines of the book. It is the instinctual faith of the infant in its mother; it is the conscious trust of the adult in the love that lies beyond.