Hans Kung: a theologian for everyone
[Originally posted at ‘Pearls and Irritations: John Menadue’s Public Policy Journal‘]
Hans Küng died last Tuesday aged 93. I had the honour of knowing him as a friend. He was a rare breed: a theologian who spoke to people of diverse beliefs and none.
It’s not often that you get a chance to improve a world-famous Swiss-German theologian’s English as you drive along the Reuther Freeway in Detroit, Michigan in your Volkswagen Golf. Yes, I know ‘world-famous’ is not a term that you usually apply to theologians, but this was 1983 and the theologian in question was writing op-eds for the New York Times, was being interviewed by all the major US networks, was giving lectures all over the country and was Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. I was his temporary amanuensis and occasional driver.
‘Paul, make sure I speak proper ‘English’ English, not American English,’ he said as we drove to yet another lecture. I took as our guide to ‘proper’ English some of the patter arias from Gilbert and Sullivan. No one can write tongue-twisting English like Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, and Küng took to the modern major general and Sir Joseph Porter, KCB like a duck to water. He was fascinated that the British navy minister was called ‘First Lord of the Admiralty,’ and he loved the ‘three little girls from the ladies’ sem-in-air-ry’.
Born in Sursee, Switzerland, in March 1928, into a middle-class family, Küng was the eldest of seven with five sisters. Deciding to be a priest at age 11, he studied for the Diocese of Basel and was educated at Rome’s Gregorian University, the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique de Paris. In his Memoirs he says that he grew up ‘in the time of Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power and the threat to our national and personal freedom’ in Switzerland and that, he says, ‘shaped my early years.’ Freedom of thought and speech were primary values for him.
For the rest of this article go to: A theologian for everyone.