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Apocalyptic Witness: Johann Baptist Metz (1928–2019)

Let us remember Metz’s apocalyptic witness dangerously, in our texts and in our embodied acts of solidarity.

In the first week of this Advent season, on December 2nd, 2019, Johann Baptist Metz became one of “the dead” of whom he so lovingly and insistently spoke. Upon hearing this sad news, I was immediately reminded of one of his early spiritual works, first published in 1959, called The Advent of God. In this text, he diagnosed a spiritual malady in modern society. He suggested that we moderns are in a state of rebellion against the vulnerability and finitude of our human condition. We don’t want to accept that our knowledge is limited, that we don’t have complete control over our lives, and that we will eventually die. We attempt to gain mastery over ourselves and others, as if in this way we might avoid the inevitable. Instead, he suggests, we ought to cultivate an advent spirituality through which we might learn to accept our precarity and wait in active hope for the coming of God, who alone might rescue us.

A surprising passage occurs in this early work, which shows a joyous side of Metz’s thought that is not often remembered:

When we become the hope-filled poor of which the Gospel speaks, when we dare to embark upon the great adventure of God’s coming, then we shall begin to taste some of the happiness that comes with advent existence. . . . Then we will be able to raise our weary heads and sing our songs with joy, listening for the accompanying voice of Him who is our future: God Himself. (The Advent of God, p. 35)

Metz is not well known as a thinker of joy. But, in some sense, he was. What he wanted was a solidaristic, all-inclusive joy for the living and the dead. He sought a universal and necessarily shared happiness that, strictly speaking, could not exist while others remained unhappy, abused, or forgotten. He longed for an ultimate beatitude that fragile human beings had no power to secure for themselves but that could only come with God’s gracious and healing gift of God’s very self, and he refused to settle for anything less. Throughout his career, he never abandoned this advent spirituality. Rather, he developed and intensified it, adding layer upon layer of critical nuance.   

As much as Metz learned from the Frankfurt School about how to think “politically,” and it was quite a lot, he was never satisfied by its treatment of the dead. This band of celebrated Western Marxist critical theorists, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, and eventually Jürgen Habermas, prompted Metz to turn from a Heideggerian and Thomistic style of existential fundamental theology closely resembling the work of his teacher Karl Rahner toward a practical fundamental theology focused on the material dialectics of history and society. The Frankfurt School gave Metz many of the decisive ingredients for his new, post-conciliar Catholic political theology (which might be compared in many respects to that of Edward Schillebeeckx). Metz called his political theology “new” because it rejected the nineteenth century Catholic reactionary models of Joseph de Maistre, Donoso Cortés, and Louis de Bonald that had been fatefully appropriated in the early twentieth century by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. Metz was vehemently opposed to Schmitt’s so-called “political theology,” which, far from advancing a universal solidarity of the living and the dead guided by the memory of suffering and the practical struggle for emancipation, instead encouraged political rulers to dictate who gets to live and die based on their own arbitrary or nationalistic inclinations. Like other Christian political theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothee Soelle, who came of age in a similar mid-twentieth-century German context, Metz was horrified by Christian complicity in Nazism and sought to move political theology in a radically new, socially critical direction.     

The works of a close associate of the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin, helped Metz understand that the remembered stories of those whose lives and hopes were crushed by historical and social violence ought to be deeply unsettling for anyone blithely enjoying the present order of things. Such memories of suffering become “dangerous,” in the positive, Metzian sense, when they spark a politically energizing hope that there will soon be a decisive interruption in history that will right its wrongs.

Metz was incensed by a falsely progressive, technocratic, instrumentalist, and capitalist world order that reduced all value to profit and consequently exploited and discarded the poor. In his later works, he also turned his attention toward the problem of a Western imperialism that racialized and dehumanized its supposed others in the global South. In his efforts to grapple with these issues, he both significantly influenced and was influenced by Catholic liberation theologians from Latin America such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff. His critical thinking in these areas has also recently found a reception in the Catholic womanist theology of M. Shawn Copeland. Metz believed that it was unacceptable to ignore any form of cruelty or injustice, wherever it might occur. Yet it seems clear that the historical wrong closest to his heart was the anti-Semitic rage that blotted out the lives of millions of God’s chosen people and corrupted the Christian tradition virtually from its inception. As a devoted practitioner of Jewish-Christian dialogue, Metz learned a great deal from his Jewish contemporaries. In particular, he learned how to pray “after Auschwitz” by reading and deeply internalizing the writings of survivors and poets such as Elie Wiesel, Paul Celan, and Nelly Sachs.     

Haunted by Sachs’ depiction of the Jewish people as a “landscape of cries” (he quotes this line frequently) and permanently scarred by the traumatic loss of his entire military unit (all teenagers) during the waning months of the Second World War, Metz was adamant that the hope born of dangerous memories must be a hope for the living and the dead. It must, therefore, be oriented not merely toward the proximate future of potential political gains but toward an absolute end of all things, in which the dead might be raised and in which justice might at long last be done to their lives and their humanity. He helpfully clarifies: “This is where religion is fundamentally distinguished from any pure utopia, to which, as everyone knows, nobody prays and which also only knows about a promise for those still to come, a ‘paradise for the victorious,’ but nothing for those who died suffering unjustly” (Faith in History and Society, p. 80). His eschatological vision of vindication and restored subjectivity for the dead was something that he did not find in the Frankfurt School but in his own sincerely held and never relinquished Christian faith. It was a vision nurtured by his dialogue with Jewish sources but ultimately articulated in his own Christian idiom.

For Metz, “the apocalyptic” was not merely a melodramatic style of speech meant to add a greater sense of urgency to current political struggles. It was not merely the uncompromising forcefulness of a practice of negative dialectics, which gives it a certain air of absoluteness. It was a heartfelt cry that the God of the living and the dead might really appear.

The very God whom perhaps he now sees face to face.

What words, I wonder, might Metz be speaking in his first colloquy beyond the grave? Is he asking God the anguished questions of theodicy with which he so patiently wrestled throughout his career? Are any consoling answers finally forthcoming? As I strive to imagine this impossible-to-imagine conversation, I feel several things simultaneously. I feel grief, because another great theologian is gone. The good are dying (James Cone, Katie Cannon, Gregory Baum, Lamin Sanneh, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Sallie McFague, and now Johann Baptist Metz). And they are leaving us mired in a violence which they had no power to defeat. I also feel fear, because what if this picture of a postmortem tete-a-tete is mere fantasy, and the grave is nothing but decay and the permanence of loss? What if there is only darkness, and the laments of history are heard by no one, as Celan poignantly intimates? I also feel a certain sense of fragile yet resilient hope, because just maybe Metz is now enjoying the conversation his heart always wanted to have with the Creator of this badly damaged world. Just maybe—and, as a Christian, I do at some level believe this—we will eventually join him “there” or “then,” in an undying experience of universal solidarity.

Metz’s apocalyptic reflections on the final coming of the God of the living and the dead were inseparable from his Christological reflections on the coming of this God into history and society as the Word made flesh. According to Metz’s way of thinking, the incarnation affirms “the secular,” “the ordinary,” the bodily, and the here and now. He was highly critical of any sort of Christian spirituality that would direct one’s gaze primarily beyond this world or primarily toward one’s own individual wants and spiritual ambitions. These were tendencies he associated with “bourgeois religion.” He called for a “mysticism of open eyes,” that is, eyes trained to see the face of God in the fleshly faces of those in pain or need. He argued that the ascetical life of evangelical poverty, chastity, and obedience was not an end in itself but rather a means by which to free oneself for active solidarity with those who involuntarily endure similar conditions—the materially impoverished, those who are isolated and unloved, and those who are dominated by structures of oppression.

To follow Jesus was to find him present already in the least of these (Mt 25). Obedience to Jesus’s way of life involved, in part, really feeling and experiencing the interrogative cry at his moment of death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). For Metz, Jesus was both the crucified Lord and the still desperately awaited Messiah. Metz prayed often with the final words of John’s apocalypse, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20). He embraced Paul’s declaration that “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised” (1 Cor 15:13), and he used this passage to associate his own Easter hope with an unrelenting expectation that none of the victims of history will be forgotten. His apocalyptic political theology was undeniably Christian, steeped in biblical testimony. To the last, his was a generous labor of faith and spirituality amid the crises of modernity.

Let us remember Metz’s apocalyptic witness dangerously, in our texts and in our embodied acts of solidarity. Meanwhile, I do hope he is already singing songs of joy accompanied by God and the entire heavenly chorus. After ninety-one years, he has waited long enough.

Andrew Prevot

Boston College

(I would like to add a special word of thanks to Rabbi Michael Signer, of blessed memory, and to J. Matthew Ashley for opening the world of Metz’s thought to me.)

Select Bibliography of Works by Johann Baptist Metz

The Advent of God. Translated by John Drury. New York: Newman Press, 1970.

Christliche Anthropozentrik: Über die Denkform des Thomas von Aquin.Munich: Kösel-Verlag, 1962.

The Courage to Pray. Coauthored with Karl Rahner. Translated by Sarah O’Brien Twohig. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology. Translated by J. Matthew Ashley. New York: Crossroad, 2007.

Followers of Christ: The Religious Life and the Church. Translated by Thomas Linton. New York: Paulist, 1978.

Love’s Strategy: The Political Theology of Johann Baptist Metz. Edited by John K. Downey. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999.

Memoria Passionis: Ein provizierendes Gedächtnis in pluralistischer Gesellschaft. Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Herder, 2006.

Mystik der offenen Augen: Wenn Spiritualität aufbricht. Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Herder, 2011.

A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity. Translated by J. Matthew Ashley. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1998.

Poverty of Spirit. Translated by John Drury. Inclusive language version by Carole Farris. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1998.

Theology of the World. Translated by William Glen-Doepel. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969.

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