The Swiss-born priest, now 77, was stripped of his license to teach Catholic theology in 1979 because he challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility. A prolific author, he was out of favor for decades in Rome. But when Joseph Ratzinger, Küng's former colleague from the Tübingen University theology faculty in Germany, was elected Pope Benedict XVI last April, the mood changed. Even though the pope is unmistakably conservative, he invited his rebellious old colleague to a friendly dinner. Among the topics they discussed was Küng’s new book on evolution, Der Anfang aller Dinge ("The Beginning of All Things").
Küng spoke to Beliefnet by telephone from his office at Tübingen University. The following is an English translation of his remarks in German.
Where do you stand in the current evolution debate?
I understand the views of the agnostics and atheists. But I also see the questions that agnosticism can't and doesn't want to answer. I can fully understand those who want to have a basis in faith but think that a fundamentalism that takes the Bible literally does justice neither to the Bible nor to today's people. We can reach what I would call a reasonable middle position.
What did the pope have to say when you met him last August?
We agreed that the reason of natural science can enter into a discussion with faith. The pope does not represent an irrational faith. Faith, as Pascal said, has its reasons that reason doesn't know. A dialogue is possible.
What does the pope think of your approach?
He said all specialists in fundamental theology should [dialogue with scientists] but you [Küng] are the one who can talk to them as an equal. That means I don't have to become a physicist or a biologist, but I must know the most important results of astrophysics or microbiology and recognize them. There's no use casting doubt on their conclusions because there are some small difficulties with them, as the Intelligent Design people or the creationists sometimes do. I think what is there is there. A theologian should not cast doubt on a scientific consensus, but should see how he can deal with it.
Did God intervene in evolution?
The word "intervene" is not very good because it means come in between. An intervention is usually something violent or aggressive. What I would reject is the idea that God could intervene against the laws of nature. I would even go further and say that for science, God is not a category because God by definition is a reality beyond time and space, and therefore does not belong in the world of our scientific experience. But there are questions that science cannot answer. The fundamental question of philosophy, according to Leibnitz, is "why is there anything at all and not simply nothing?" Science can't answer that.
In your book, you say religion can interpret evolution as creation.
Creation is a concept that explains the beginning of things but is also the continuing process of life. So we can interpret evolution as creation, but I do that as a believer, not as a scientist.
Where did the laws of nature come from?
I prefer to speak about the constants in nature. Take the speed of light. Why has it been there from the start? You have to ask: where did it come from? How did matter develop and not just stay as gas? Astrophysicists can only go back to just after the Big Bang. I have to go beyond time and space, and there we can say, “I don't know.” We should not speak too quickly of God in an anthropomorphic sense.
So you want to get away from the personal image of God?
I don't want to get away from it. But if I ask the question scientifically, I can't ask about God the Father. In scientific terms, that is absurd. The symbol of the father certainly has a function and when I read the Bible, I have no problems with that. The fundamental cause of the world is God. But I can also say Our Father.
Did matter need some prior intelligence to get organized?
Matter needs constants in the beginning. It needs some mass and an initial energy. Where does it get that from? This initial energy works according to certain cosmic natural constants and they are givens. They were not newly invented or introduced at any time. No biologist would say there is a need of an intervention or organizer so that life emerges from non-life. But what holds it all together and makes it work? Where does it all come from? Why doesn't it all fall apart? Those are the big questions that a scientist can't answer. As soon as one tries to intellectually force scientists to recognize God, one is on the wrong track.
Pope Benedict and Cardinal Schönborn have entered the evolution debate to counter what they see as the growing influence of materialist thinking. Did this influence you?
I agree that materialism is a primitive world view, even if it is presented in a sophisticated way. But it’s not good to try to prove religion to scientists. That’s not my intention. It is a gigantic achievement of humanity that, at the end of a process of 13.7 billion years, there are small beings who are the first, as far as we know, who try to understand all this. That is an amazing achievement. If I am a believer, science can explain the process of creation in a completely different and magnificent way than the view that it all happened in six days. And yet the scientist can get a different picture of reality when he admits, "There is more between heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy," as Shakespeare put it. You can't reduce music just to physics and mathematics.
Why do you say in your book that man is not the crown of creation?
"Crown" sounds too much like self-coronation, as if we were the final product. What will we be in a few billion years? It’s enough to say we are the preliminary final product.
Is man only a by-product?
No, I wouldn't say that. That is the big question of the anthropic principle. The latest research shows, as far as we can see, there is no life elsewhere in the universe.We are probably alone. How curious that we are on a completely secondary star of a Milky Way that is one of hundred thousand galaxies! A religious person can say that creation obviously has a goal. But that is a religious statement. We shouldn’t talk of intelligent design. That we have emerged is a product of necessity and chance.
Why is evolution so controversial in the United States and not in Europe?
There is an interest here [in Europe] too, but there is a big difference. There are fewer fundamentalists here. Religion classes in our schools are much more sophisticated. Biology classes are also better here. Many Americans have never had serious biology classes. Another thing we don’t have in Europe is, as in America, teachers who are afraid to teach these biological facts because some parents could make a big fuss. It is so politicized in America. These court cases over evolution are counterproductive. They damage religion and don't help at all.