Dangerous Memories and Interruptions A Theological Itinerary

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Born in 1928 in Auerbach in northeast Bavaria, Metz describes his small-town origins as follows:

One comes from far away when one comes from there. It is as if one were born not fifty years ago, but somewhere along the receding edges of the Middle Ages. I had to approach many things slowly at first, to exert great effort to discover things that others and that society had long ago discovered and had since become common practice. (Metz 1984: 171)

This recollection places Metz, at least initially, in that generation of Catholic scholars who took it as their work to continue the dialogue with modern (viz. post-Enlightenment) culture and thought that was interrupted by the suppression of modernism in the early twentieth century. Above all, it associates him closely with Karl Rahner. Indeed, Metz's close relationship to Rahner for some three decades, as student, collaborator, and friend, provides the justification for one of this essay's principal heuristic strategies: Metz's theology can almost always be illuminated on a particular point by comparison with Rahner's.

Like Rahner, Metz understands his task as that of helping the Catholic Church make the journey from the "far away" arch-Catholic world of an Auerbach into the secularized, multicultural world of modernity. This implies neither a despairing farewell to that integral Bavarian Catholic culture, with its rich fabric of popular customs and its tacit sacred ontology, nor a complete capitulation to the terms on which modernity will accept claims about reality and how we ought to live in it. Describing Rahner's transcendental paradigm, Metz calls this task "the attempt to appropriate the heritage of the classical Patristic and Scholastic traditions precisely by means of a productive and aggressive dialogue with the challenges of the modern European world" (Metz 1998: 32). The underlying conviction is that the life of faith made possible by "Auerbach" can and must survive the storms of modernization, albeit embodied differently, precisely so as to resist those storms where necessary, and to reweave a new fabric appropriate to a new situation. Without such labors, even were the doctrines, customs, and practices of an Auerbach to survive, they would comprise little more than a museum piece, or another "lifestyle option" to embellish the lives of secularized moderns.

Metz appropriated another, often underappreciated, feature of Rahner's thought. However much Rahner wished to articulate and interpret Christian faith and practices on modernity's terrain, he did not feel compelled thereby to sacrifice every feature of Christianity that appeared incongruous on modern grounds. Thus, Rahner wrote extensive and tightly argued essays on devotion to the Sacred Heart, purgatory, the cult of the saints, and the theology of indulgences (to name a few). He was willing to tarry with these allegedly archaic remnants of an earlier age. Metz praises this practice, naming it the "adventure of religious noncontemporaneity," "creative naivete," and "aggressive fidelity" to the church's tradition (Metz 1984: 171; 1998: 108, 92f.). In fact, Metz believes that "coming from Auerbach" offers a distinct advantage for this "adventure," insofar as it opens up a certain critical distance from the slogans and clichés that define modernity. This distance often enables a theologian to see resources and pitfalls invisible to those who have "grown up" taking them for granted. A theologian who cultivates this "productive noncontemporaneity" will pause just a moment longer with images and concepts that "modern consciousness" wants to discard, but precisely for the sake of "freeing" modern consciousness from the stultifying circle of what "reasonable persons" accept as rational and practical in the public sphere. Metz's insistence on the contemporary relevance of the apocalyptic sense for time is a prime example of this "productive noncontemporaneity."

In 1963 Metz took a position in fundamental theology at the University of Münster and began to diverge from his friend and teacher. On his own account, he shifted from transcendental Thomism's focus on epistemology and the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason to the Kant of the second critique and of the philosophy of history, along with the extension of that line of thought in the work of Karl Marx (Metz 1970: 63; 1980: 53f.; 1998: 33). At this point another remembrance became increasingly determinative for Metz's theology:

Toward 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 Würzburg 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 the dead, overrun by a combined bomber and armored assault. I could see now 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 of my childhood dreams crumble away. A fissure had opened in my powerful Bavarian-Catholic socialization, with its impregnable confidence. What would happen if one took this sort of thing not to the psychologist but into the Church, and if one would 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 about God ... ? (Metz 1998: 1f.; cf. 1987: 39f.)

This memory discloses a further interruption in Metz's biography. In the early 1960s Metz responded to the impact of secularization on Catholic cultural-political identity ("Auerbach") by developing a "theology of the world." While critiquing an unwarranted secularism that absolutized the world's secularity, Metz argued that faith and theology must "turn to the world," participating in God's "turn to the world" in the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity (Metz 1969). This development was shaped to some extent by Metz's encounters with a number of revisionary Marxists: Roger Garaudy, Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. A major part of their agenda had been to identify and evaluate the prospects for a genuinely human emancipation in the face of a network of mutually reinforcing modern forces -economic, scientific, technological, and political - which were proving remarkably capable of absorbing and defusing those social contradictions that Marx had argued would eventually bring capitalism down. On what would the revolutionary impulse nourish itself in a totalizing social system that could appropriate and even make a profit on human beings' utopian imagination, their suffering, their outrage? This led them to ask whether underappreciated features of the human life-world - music, art, and literature, for Adorno and Benjamin, and even religion for Garaudy and Bloch - might offer a vantage point "outside" the juggernaut of Western capitalist modernity from which it might be critiqued and transformed in a more human direction.

Two points should be noted about the impact of this intellectual current on Metz. First, Metz eschewed those trajectories within it (or in the "postmodern" generation that claimed to follow these thinkers) that led to a rejection of the modern project tout court. For him, what was worth retrieving and developing in their thought was the struggle to "enlighten the Enlightenment," to redeem modernity from its own self-destructive dynamic. Second, Metz rejected any tendency to "instrumentalize" religion, even for the worthy goal of social progress. To incorporate religion within the modern project (even to save it) would only collude with modernity's own drive to domesticate religion, which is to paralyze it. What Metz appreciated in these thinkers were certain emphases that might help contemporary systematic theologians examine their own allegiance to modern ways of thinking more critically, and understand the dilemma of Christian faith in the modern world in a more radical way than his earlier essays on a "theology of the world" allowed (see Metz 1980: 32-48, 119-35). Let us consider two of these emphases in particular.

First, he took over Ernst Bloch's emphasis on the power of suffering to call into question the present and the future that can be extrapolated from this present, opening up a heretofore undreamed-of "utopian" future. Second, he took from Benjamin the conviction of the importance of memories and stories (particularly those "dangerous," unsettling ones that lead to critical questions about the present) to open up perspectives on the present that escape the power of "technical rationality," with its ability to encompass human hope in a strangling net of facts and "scientific" accounts of that future in which alone "reasonable" persons can hope. Metz began to suspect that the same social forces that repressed human suffering and hope, or assigned them to be therapeutically managed (and depoliticized) by the psychologist - all for the sake of maintaining the political and social status quo - were also a deadly threat to the integrity and vitality of Christian belief.

When he began to ask these sorts of questions, it slowly (too slowly, he himself avers) began to dawn on him that there was one dangerous memory, one history, that had above all been suppressed from both German society and Christian faith and theology: Auschwitz.

Because of the way Auschwitz was or was not present in theology I slowly became aware of the high content of apathy in theological idealism and its inability to confront historical experience in spite of all its prolific talk about historicity. There was no theology in the whole world which talked so much about historicity as German theologies. Yet they only talk about historicity; they did not mention Auschwitz. It is clear that there is no meaning of history one can save with one's back turned to Auschwitz; there is no truth of history which one can defend, and no God in history whom one can worship with one's back turned to Auschwitz. (Metz 1987: 41f.)

This concern for those who have been swallowed up into the dark underside of history and forgotten by Christian faith and theology led Metz into a natural alliance with the theologians of liberation. His specific concern for Auschwitz has made him particularly sensitive to the ways in which Christianity has minimized or betrayed its still-constitutive relationship to Judaism.

These remembrances and the concerns to which they give rise set up a tensive field of desiderata, challenges, and aporias within which Metz has continually labored to find theological language and argument. They cannot all be easily accommodated by any one "system." Indeed, Metz has increasingly come to insist that theology's job is not so much to assimilate these remembrances into a system as it is to provide a language in which they can be articulated and allowed to irritate our "modern" consciousness. In any event, they provide a set of concerns that help one to make sense of his thought. Here I list four: (1) advocacy of an aggressive and creative engagement with modern culture and thought, along with an impatience with those who dismiss their challenges as irrelevant or external to theological discourse; (2) the concomitant willingness to rub modern culture and thought "against the grain" by holding on to counterintuitive (to modernity) images and ideas from the tradition (Metz and Wiesel 1999: 40); (3) an insistence that theology and faith must be so constituted that remembrances of history's catastrophes are indispensable if theology is not to become trivial and irrelevant, and Christian faith a banalized reflection of the prevailing social consensus; and finally, (4) a concern that theology "always be ready to make [its] defense to anyone who demands from [it] an account for the hope that is in [it]" (1 Pt 3.15). Theology is always for him "a defense of hope"(Metz 1980: 3) - a defense of hope, furthermore, that cannot be carried off unless it includes unconditional solidarity with and action on behalf of those who suffer, those whose hope is most endangered. In short, it is a hope that must be accompanied by the radical action of Christian discipleship.

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  • florian
    What is dangerous memory on feminist theology?
    8 years ago

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