Hans Küng Prefers Death to Disability

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I feel for Hans Küng, Roman Catholic author and theologian. Besides fading eyesight, he is losing his physical abilities due to Parkinson’s disease. Understandably, he grieves the mounting losses that may already merit the label, “disability.”

A story from Reuters quotes Küng’s recently published memoir, “I do not want to live on as a shadow of myself . . . I also don't want to be sent off to a nursing home.”

It must be terribly frightening to see one’s abilities slowly fade. I do not yet live with losses like this, so I do not want to speak lightly of them. But many, many other people do live joyfully with disabilities of various kinds, including loss of eyesight and Parkinson’s.

Sadly, this creative and controversial theologian suffers from a lack of creativity with regard to his own life. He prefers death to disability, imagining that the changes disability will bring into his life will be unbearable.

Therefore, Küng says that he would either like to die suddenly or to take his own life, “surrounded by his closest colleagues at his house in Tuebingen or in his Swiss home town of Sursee.”

I have not read his memoir, but if this story reports Küng’s views accurately, then he suffers from the perspective that his life has value only in his independence and productivity. In his memoir he asks, "How much longer will my life be liveable in dignity? . . . A scholar who can no longer read and write - what's next?"

It seems that he has so identified himself as a scholar that he cannot imagine any other identity for himself. Yet, the Bible teaches that our identity comes not from what we can produce but from the simple fact that each of us bears the image of God who created us to be his friends.

Küng’s stature as well as his public advocacy for assisted suicide could do great damage to people who live with disabilities. His open support for assisted suicide implies that any life lived with disability is not worth living.

Once again, I feel for Hans Küng. I too will grieve deeply someday if disability takes away my ability to write or to see the face of my beautiful wife. I pray that God will sustain him day by day. I pray that God will bring about in him a change of heart, in which he will recognize that his identity, value, and even his dignity stem from what God has done for him, not from what he can do. Finally, I pray that he’ll be able to write about that change of heart before he loses that ability.

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Thank you for that fascinating reflection, Mark. As a (part-time) academic theologian and full-time pastor, I can personally imagine some of what Küng fears, how he laments his decline, and how he will grieve his loss. On the other hand, I would expect one of the most famous (sometimes infamous) theologians of the twentieth century to understand that lament and grief are part of living in a world groaning for its redemption, and that suffering can at least potentially be or become redemptive; not least of all in the Suffering Servant himself, but also how our suffering can in some mysterious way participate in Christ’s sufferings. I think of the very difficult-to-interpret saying of Paul, Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Not that there is something lacking in the value of Christ’s suffering, but that we also take up our cross, die with Christ, and also experience fleeting moments of resurrection and new life. The NLT might be on the right track when it renders this verse “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church.” Suffering is a profound mystery, one that apparently eludes this theologian (presuming his views are rightly represented, and presuming that his utterances are deliberate reflections and not just cries of desperation.) Being united with Christ also means that our suffering, perhaps even what we think of as “natural” suffering, can at least potentially take on a meaning and significance that cannot be found in a naturalistic worldview, one with which Küng found himself far too comfortable. The utterly secular, vacuously utilitarian view of suffering that Küng appears to buy into is astounding and disappointing. It is not, however, terribly surprising to those familiar with his rationalistic theological method, which exegetes culture more than listening to Scripture, and seeks to defensively justify Christian faith to a secular world, when the Christian faith rather stands as a prophetic critique of secular, materialistic, utilitarian—in a word, hopeless naturalism. When I was in seminary I read his 800 page book Does God Exist? and at the end I still had no idea what Küng’s answer was. I hope for his sake, and perhaps for the sake of those who admired his culturally respectable, but scripturally inadequate and, it seems, spiritually comfortless theological work, that he comes to a deeper, more authentically biblical, more genuinely spiritual view of the matter, and also that he comes to see how harmful and dismissive his statements are for those who don’t have perfect minds and bodies. And perhaps this is not Hans Küng at his best, but in his weakness, and perhaps were he in a better state of mind and spirit he would not say such things.

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Randy, thanks so much for your thought-full answer. I appreciate your the qualifications you make to give Kung the benefit of the doubt. In case someone doesn't click "more" I want to quote one of your sentences in full, "I hope for his sake, and perhaps for the sake of those who admired his culturally respectable, but scripturally inadequate and, it seems, spiritually comfortless theological work, that he comes to a deeper, more authentically biblical, more genuinely spiritual view of the matter, and also that he comes to see how harmful and dismissive his statements are for those who don’t have perfect minds and bodies." Yes, especially so because no human has a perfect mind or body!

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