Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Recovering Neglected Theologians #3: Johann Baptist Metz

A guest post by D. W. Horstkoetter, recent M.A. (Theology and Ethics) from Union Theological Seminary (NY), soon-to-be Ph.D. student at Marquette University, & owner/operator of the theology blog, Flying Farther. 

Metz the Man:
I was at a bit of a loss for a theologian for the Levellers series on neglected theologians, but then thought of someone I had never heard of until I had half a class on him at Union: Johann Baptist Metz (b. 1928). Metz is German, from Bavaria more specifically, and like other Germans of his time — Dorothee Sölle and Jürgen Moltmann, his scandal was theodicy. Other than the Holocaust, he also experienced his own brush with death. Conscripted into the Nazi war machine at sixteen, he was sent to deliver a message. He left his company, of more than a hundred boys of similar age, only to return and find them all slaughtered:


Towards the end of the Second World War, when I was sixteen years old, I was taken out of school and forced into the army. After a brief period of training at a base in Wüzburg, I arrived at the front, which by that time had already crossed the Rhine into Germany. There were well over a hundred in my company, all of whom were very young. One evening the company commander sent me with a message to battalion headquarters. I wandered all night long through destroyed, burning villages and farms, and when in the morning I returned to my company I found only the dead, nothing but dead, overrun by a combined bomber and tank assault. I could see only dead and empty faces, where the day before I had shared childhood fears and youthful laughter. I remember nothing but a wordless cry. Thus I see myself to this very day, and behind this memory all my childhood dreams crumble away. A fissure had had opened in my powerful Bavarian-Catholic socialization, with its impregnable confidence. What would happen if one took this sort of remembrance not to the psychologist but into the Church? and [sic] if one did not allow oneself to be talked out of such unreconciled memories even by theology, but rather wanted to have faith with them and, with them, speak to God?1

Metz the Theologian:
Metz is important to theology. He helped form and drive theological discussion. Indicated above, in the two questions from the quote, is his general direction. More specifically, he dwelt on: dangerous memory, anamnesis, hope, Bourgeois Christianity and Anthropocentrism/hominization vs. Messianism and apocalypticism; questions of theodicy, suffering, oppression, and solidarity; carrying on theology after Rahner by putting forward an interruptive, narrative, and historical theology rather than Rahner’s transcendental theology; and a slew of other important points, in post-Nazi Germany.

Metz is still important to theology. He is still very relevant. The Christology and ecclesiology in my thesis on torture is fundamentally Metzian. It is more than a viable alternative to how Christians organize themselves in America today. Most notably, it has teeth. Christ was and is interruptive. The incarnation was interruptive, Jesus living — preaching and acting the basiliea — was interruptive, dying on the cross in the manner he did was interruptive, and finally the resurrection was interruptive. This interruption continues in the body of Christ; the church is to be interruptive.

This next next section explaining Metz deeper is taken from another post:

Metz: Hoping Rightly, Remembering Dangerously, and Solidarity with the Dead

A Christian historical consciousness is radically and diametrically opposed to a “purely historical relationship with the past that not only presupposes that the past is past; it also works actively to strengthen the fact that what has been is not present.”2 Rather Christian historical consciousness – remembering – is a reforming experience; it brings an idea of change, pushing Christians to change not only themselves, but also the surrounding world. “Identity is formed when memories are aroused” and likewise narrative achieves the same ends – we are given a vision of a great past and a brilliant future.3 This idea of a tangible past changes who we are in the present and gives hope to move our current present towards the eschatological hope. Thus the Christian vision of dangerous memory interrupts our conception of the present, by giving an alternate vision of history; we are re-contextualized within a different story, an informative and liberating story. This new and biblical story, informs us on who we are, gives a new identity – practitioners of a social, Christian praxis.

Simply put, envisioning the Christian mission through memories is the beginning of solidarity with the dead. We are made responsive to past suffering through anamnesis, for it is the nature of Christianity to imitate the suffering Christ, as it is also a religion of the oppressed.4 Thus the Christian praxis, attuned to suffering, consistently interrupts the apathetic world through solidarity for and with the helpless and suffering, in the present.5

However, we have lost the “messianic praxis” of “discipleship, conversion, love, and suffering”, because we have accepted the secularized notion of a nationalistic anthropology and hope (both espousing the ideology that humanity will overcome, thrive, and conquer future frontiers).6 With secularized theologies and the forgetting of Christian suffering, the church does not act in its prophetic role to the world; instead of liberating, the ideology holds the globe within Americana’s oppressive custody.7 The secularization of the church through a form of secular hominization has caused us to lose not only the idea of suffering with and for others, but we have also lost ourselves. Thus the American church has ceased remembering the atrocities of Auschwitz, or cannot respond well to current genocides like Darfur, by accepting the hope of American promises.

Metz: Bourgeois religion and Privatization
A Bourgeois religion is dependent on privatization; in order to envision the Messianic nature of Christianity, we must first understand who we are.8 How we see ourselves is less universally governed by the church’s direction or definition, rather, as American’s our most universal understanding as to who we are is fundamentally through individual and nation-state interaction – a privatizing, enlightenment document we call the Constitution. The American Christians needs to realize the influences of the Constitution and understand how the idea of a church is fundamentally a contrary social institution – the body of Christ.9 We can only get to the Christian call when we get past the American Dream and its hopes.10

As a person “the Christian has the responsibility to develop his faith’s relationship to the world as a relationship of hope, and to explicate his theology as eschatology.”11 All of Christianity, not just single Christians, is to be grounded in a “horizon of eschatology,” and more specifically in an eschatological foundation that is primarily a creative and militant.12 Thus the church reveals the Christian forward-looking hope to the world. This revealing is inherently political, as it forms the church according the mission of Christ and moves the church toward declaring the eschatological hope of the kingdom to the world.13

It is the church that stands within the kingdom, as the kingdom’s mission; it is the church that continually interrupts the world’s attempts at self-redemption or self-production through love, sacrifice and solidarity.14 The church is the breaking of the kingdom into the now by visibly crystallizing the intensifying nature of the Christological sacrifice on the cross.15 Thus the church points for the world from the suffering and resurrected past to the future and its hope. Fundamentally, the church interrupts the world, by proclaiming the hope of the future in a revolutionary and imaginative way; the center of Christian life is rooted in the forward-looking, eschatological hope that places Christianity within the kingdom within the world.

With all this in mind, Metz is at best a semi-neglected theologian in America, for a number of reasons:

1. He is Catholic. Now, this is not to infer that Catholics are shunned in the wider theological world, but rather that many a Catholic theologian is in the Catholic world, and whether they are writing for Catholics or theology in general, few, and they’re almost always the same, Catholics are taught in the Protestant world. Its as if the biggest Catholic names slip through (the equivalent Protestants would be someone like Barth). Prof. Dorrien warned me (though not as if it was a bad thing) that getting a PhD at a Catholic school would mean I’d be a part of that world for the rest of my life. Actually, he seemed to imply that it would be my life, and other theological worlds might be hard to come by. There still exists something of a theological barrier derived from the ecclesial difference: case in point, if you want to find (rather than start) a discussion on Metz, you go to the Catholics. If you want to talk about Metz to non-Catholics, often they say, why aren’t you at a Catholic school? Or at least this is my experience. On the other hand, the barrier seems to be thinning and this is no longer an experience for all current theologians. However, I suspect for older, Catholic theologians, from the time when the barrier was much thicker, it is still difficult to be heard in the Protestant world if you weren’t a trouble maker before Vatican II or someone of Rahner’s stature (even though others had the same goal as Rahner in mind, notably his student, Metz). I have a sinking suspicion that this problem between Catholics and Protestants is partly subject to the intra-Catholic suppression of modernism in the early 20th Century, which was relieved later when “the church windows were opened to let the modern breeze flow through,” as the pope calling for a second Vatican council put it. Simply put, taking from the top of Catholic theologians doesn’t make us ecumenical. That’s called tokenism.

2. Metz has a relatively small corpus of work (even some of his chapters have been printed in multiple books), originally written in German, and it has been poorly translated to English. He also mostly did, and does, his work in essay form. Matthew Ashley, a professor at Notre Dame, has recently retranslated a few of Metz’s works, however, it seems like a side project for him.

3. His methodology is unusual. He never set out to construct a system, but instead addresses what he called, “subject concepts.” Matthew Ashley explains, “‘Subject concepts’ are to be evaluated not so much by how they cohere into a system as in terms of their capacity to articulate and undergird the ways that specific person in specific times and places struggle to become and remain subjects: agents of their own histories, persons who recognize the symbols and narratives that make up that history to be their symbols and narratives, rather than an alienating imposition.”

4. Also, any current dissertation I do hear of on Metz is generally one per school, if that, and is always limited to Catholic schools. Simply put, I do not see many people taking his work and running with it beyond a class or two.

Those of us who do know of Metz and recognize his foundational influence that now surfaces in footnotes or as the basis of a book here or there, are the lucky few. It also seems that the older theologians, ones a generation or two back, are much more aware of Metz than students today. When I talked with a well known and highly influential Protestant theologian/ethicist (who taught for a number of years in the Catholic world) about a paper of mine built on Metz and future PhD work including Metz, he said something to the effect with surprise, “I’m glad that people are still reading and teaching Metz. It has become all too rare.” Few theologians are carrying Metz on and his influence is waning as we talk about his less and less.

Interestingly, as time has gone on and Metz wanes, he is still as relevant as ever. The issues he addressed, mentioned above, still prominently exist, if they have not intensified. Metz warrants much more attention than he receives right now, especially if we take seriously ecumenicism, any of the topics he touched on, or simply what it means to be a theologian.

In my book, Metz warrants much more attention than he receives right now, especially if we take seriously ecumenicalism or any of the topics he touched on.

1. The block quote is from A Passion for God, page 1 and translated by Matthew Ashley.
2. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Foundational Political Theology, (New York: Seabury Press, 1979) 190.
3. Ibid., 66, 188.
4. Ibid., 52, 71.
5. Ibid., 57-58, 229.
6. Johann Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Postbourgeois World, (New York: Crossroad, 1981) 27 and Theology of the World, (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969) 68.
7. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith and the Future, (Maryknoll, N.Y.; Orbis Books, 1995) 55.
8. The Emergent Church, 12.
9. Theology of the World, 133.
10. Ibid., 146.
11. Ibid., 90.
12. Ibid., 90, 94.
13. Theology of Hope 330, 337, 338.
14. Ibid., 338; Metz, Faith in History and Society, 171.
15. Faith in History and Society, 89.


August 16, 2008 - Posted by | theology


  1. […] Recovering Neglected Theologians #3: Johann Baptist Metz By Michael Westmoreland-White However, I suspect for older, Catholic theologians, from the time when the barrier was much thicker, it is still difficult to be heard in the Protestant world if you weren?ta trouble maker before Vatican II or someone of Rahner?s … Levellers – https://levellers.wordpress.com […]

    Pingback by Religion News, Blogs and More » - protestant religion | September 11, 2008

  2. Dear Mr. W. White,
    Happy to see soemthing on Metz in your blog. In a nutshell you have depicted the relevance of Metz to today’s theology.Good. One more point ( I feel) that has to be underscored is the relevance of his theology in the context of postmodern passivity.
    thank you
    Emmanuel Dosan

    Comment by Emmanuel Dosan | September 13, 2008

  3. Mr. Dosan, D. W. Horstkoetter, the guest blogger, deserves all the credit for the Metz entry. I just posted it.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 20, 2008

  4. I understand that theologian Johann Baptist Metz was instrumental in imput to the “Emergent Church”, but in perusing the information regarding this on the internet, I find no specific involvement. If anyone has any relative information re this matter please advise.

    Comment by C. Ludlow | October 17, 2008

  5. Its a different understanding of “Emergent.” Metz wrote a book back in the 1981 titled The Emergent Church but it meant something very different, and in my book, much much better than this newer “Emergent Church” movement today.

    Comment by d. w. horstkoetter | November 24, 2008

  6. Metz, to my mind, is one of the great theological thinkers of the late 20th century. Great because of his insistence on an honest analysis of the Church and its adoption of secular values, which made Christians prey to collusion in the Nazi War machine. He refused to deny his own personal experiences and especially the contradictions inherent in European Christian countries preaching love while waging war on each other.I am interested in how his ideas can be related to the European Church’s silence about the Israeli destruction of the Palestinian people.

    Comment by Anne Candlin | December 2, 2008

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