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.