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Metz, the Trinitarian History of God, and the Nonidentity of Human Suffering

In his newly-translated Faith in History and Society, Johann Baptist Metz makes a great many fascinating contributions to political theology, engaging seriously with the problem of human suffering.  In the process, he makes a number of interesting observations about how other theologians deal with the problem of suffering.  Taking Karl Barth, Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann, and above Hans Urs von Balthasar together as exemplifying a distinctly Hegelian trajectory, Metz notes the trend in contemporary theology to articulate a vision of God’s Trinitarian engagement of the world in Jesus Christ as the answer to the problem of the history of human suffering.  “In light of God’s kenosis in Jesus Christ, the nonidentity of human suffering is taken up into the Trinitarian history of God.”

However, despite appreciating the claims of Balthasar (whom Metz sees as the foremost exponent of such a theological vision, drawing solely on his Mysterium Paschale), Metz argues that such a theological “solution” to the history of human suffering is insufficient.  Rather, he contends that “the nonidentity of the human history of suffering cannot be ‘sublated,’ even into a theological dialectic of Trinitarian soteriology, without sundering its historical character.  For this painfully experienced nonidentity  of suffering simply is not the same thing as that negativity that belongs to dialectically understood historical process, be it even that of the Trinitarian history of God.”  For Metz, such attempts to draw the suffering of human history into the life of the Trinity through Christ’s kenosis is to replace the particular histories of suffering with a general dialectic of already-overcome negativity that is sublimated in the life of God.

For Metz this confusion of “the negativity of suffering” with “a dialectically mediated concept of distress” will always attend attempts to “conceptualize and interpret the rending of the human history of suffering within the dialectic of the Trinitarian history of God.”  Metz argues instead that “we have to rule out any conceptual, argumentative mediation and reconciliation between the redemption that has occurred in the past and is operative now, on the one hand, and the human history of suffering, on the other.  They lead either to the dualistic, gnostic eternalization of suffering in God or to an interpretive reduction of suffering to its concept.”

While I think that Metz has perhaps failed to read some of his interlocutors carefully enough (primarily Balthasar and Barth – he may indeed be right about Moltmann), there is certainly a helpful protest against any theodicy which would fabricate a kind of conceptual closure or systematic tidiness to the problem of suffering.  Metz insists that a proper soteriology that takes seriously the history of human suffering cannot be “worked out in a purely argumentative way; it must be done narratively.”  For Metz what remains essential is to narrate the dangerous, apocalyptic memory of Jesus Christ in such a way that it neither sublates or legitimizes the present, but rather calls it into question.  Metz leaves theology suspended precariously between eschatological hope and the nonidentity of the suffering world in which we live.  The theologian cannot offer a vision of soteriological closure, in which all questions are answered, but only attempt to nurture an alternative imagination which proclaims the apocalyptic coming of Jesus Christ which ever and again interrupts the world.


  1. Christian wrote:

    Dude, those glasses are out of sight! They would go great with your new haircut…

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  2. If I’d seen this picture of Metz, Halden, I would’ve recommended him for your Ugly Theologians riff. And Christian, despite all the is wrong in the picture (turtle neck??), you gotta like the pipe.

    On a more serious note, yay Metz! I’m glad to see him making his way onto the blog.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, that’s a pretty ugly mug. But the pipe puts him firmly in the ranks of the true theologians.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  4. roflyer wrote:

    No guys, it is not the glasses or the pipe. It’s the comb over!

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  5. Christian wrote:

    The comb-over is terrific. That too would go well with Halden’s new hair-cut…

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    I’m going to steal all your beer forever. Just know that.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  7. Tony wrote:

    Seriously, while, as you yourself say, we should take Metz’s warning about “any conceptual, argumentative mediation and reconciliation between the redemption that has occurred in the past and is operative now, on the one hand, and the human history of suffering, on the other”, his proposed way out of this aporia, i.e., through narrative, is not sufficient. The telling of stories may be therapeutically necessary, but Balthasar’s “dramatic” presentation is a step closer to holding on to the tension of the aporia: one must step onto the stage of history and act out one’s mission…. Metz’s account holds on to a basically dialectical opposition between history/histories of human suffering and the Trinitarian history of God, but Balthasar, while not rejecting this outright, nevertheless attempts, on the basis of the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection/Pentecost, to put in dialogical relation that is biblically and Christologically warranted, our history, and the history of God.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 11:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I agree, Tony. I don’t think recourse to narrative is sufficient, and I also would look to Balthasar, who I think Metz reads in a very limited way here, not doing justice to the breadth of his corpus, basically equating him with Hegel, which is simply not a proper reading of Balthasar, particularly in light of the apocalyptic eschatology he purts forth in the Theodrama. For my money, Metz’s warnings help us in seeing the right way to appropriate thinkers like Balthasar, i.e. by not using them as “resources” throuch which we fashion a conceptually tidy “answer” to the problems that the world poses to our theology.

    Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 12:27 am | Permalink
  9. It seems to me that Metz’s idea of remembrance (it goes beyond stories actually) is more than therapeutically necessary (I’d call this something like intellectual masturbation). In fact, that there is a synthesis between human suffering and the Trinitarian God in the life of Jesus, cross and resurrection (and the entire Trinity suffering in Jesus’ suffering – see one of Metz’s old conversation partners, Moltmann). In short, I do not actually see a dialectical tension, rather there is a meeting point in the Christ that forms the church, and as we remember back (through all manners, ie liturgy as well as narrative and ethical praxis) the church is called into engagement with and for the suffering – hence we call Metz a political theologian.

    Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 12:32 am | Permalink

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