The Advent Logic of Class Treason

Johann Baptist Metz died soon after I decided we could be friends. His work initially struck me as anti-theological, an anaesthetized Marxism permitting religion to be more than an opiate but less than a passion. This is asinine, but it took both time and re-reading to see that. I was demanding system and speculation while I should have been listening for a voice crying in the wilderness. As is transparent in his name, he is more John the Baptist than John the Beloved, more interested in disturbing your slumber than in dazzling your sight. If his work is theologically underdetermined, this is intentional.

Metz forges categories rather than elaborating them, and this because he wants to establish the fundamental logic governing any theological endeavor and does not enact the endeavor himself. This is why the remnants of his project often crystallize in the form of slogans: “dangerous memory,” “mysticism of open eyes,” “theology after Auschwitz,” “suffering unto God,” etc. That is, no viable Christian mysticism can shield its eyes from the poor, nor can theology evade the specter of Auschwitz, nor exegesis deaden the shock of the memories attested in scripture. Thus, he provides the formal categories which govern a theology grounded in history, while leaving the material content and its explication to others.

Perhaps an image will help: imagine Metz in a room full of theologians discussing the mysteries of the Christian faith. While the theologians talk, Metz is the gadfly intruding upon their conversations, asking, for example, if their God offers hope to those who suffer. If so, the analysis may proceed and conversation may continue. Thus, Metz is not a participant so much as an interruption, and it is this quality that renders his work both inchoate and formal. As Matthew Ashley observes in his excellent monograph: “These interruptions are often brilliantly evocative and suggestive; often they are fragmentary and frustrating . . . They briefly, dazzlingly, light up the scene; but by the time one’s eyes have adjusted, the light is gone. One wants more.”[1] Metz’s interventions are therefore often diagnostic in character, intended to illuminate a terrain that had been taken for granted. Then theology can resume with surer footing.

Take his critique of bourgeois religion. Metz distinguishes between “messianic” and “bourgeois religion,” the former brimming with apocalyptic tension and open to God’s entrance into and action upon history. The latter is a religion for those “who already possess a future,” whose proclamation of the kingdom is little more than a “ceremonial elevation and transfiguration of a bourgeois future already worked out elsewhere.”[2] For those of us who live relatively secure lives, our futures are often assumed rather than hoped for. Because of the various social and cultural safety nets attendant upon material privilege, the bourgeois subject largely experiences time as a succession of anticipated and foreseeable events.[3] Consequently, bourgeois subjects are almost entirely incapable of imagining a future other than the one immediately present to them, which is another way of saying they barely have a future at all.

By failing to preach a messianic gospel, European Catholicism was complicit in the cultivation of bourgeois religion. Because it is eschatologically barren and has no space for God’s entry into history, this faith expects no disruption and is therefore complicit with the “a priori of the market, wherein the market rewards dispositions that make one ready to negotiate.”[4] Vibrant democracy and authentic pluralism are hard-won rather than cheaply bought. But bourgeois society masterfully repackages democratic ideals such as “pluralism” to render its subjects endlessly supple to the forces of commodification and, consequently, subjugation.[5]

If the Marxist patois is disorienting, allow me to translate: shoppers make for docile subjects. Metz thought the European Church made a pact with bourgeois society by injecting an already lethargic citizenry with a comatose theology, one safe for consumption since it challenged no injustice and incited no virtue. He disrupted this truce by reminding us that Christianity is and has always been brutally, urgently dangerous.

For Metz, perhaps the greatest sign of the gospel’s danger is its grounding in a divine advent. God discloses his being by entering human history, therefore revealing himself as the one who disrupts, transfigures, and bestows a future upon it. In a little book entitled The Advent of God, he writes:

Christian faith involves a continuing effort to keep ourselves open to the coming of God . . . He is Emmanuel, God with us. He breaks in upon us, becomes visible in our horizon, and forms part of our human future. He is ever coming down to us and weaving Himself into our historical pageant.[6]

This is the fundamental logic which animates a theology responsible to history: God is the kind of God who takes responsibility for history, who enters, becomes visible and even subject to it in death, while still remaining its Lord. Christianity threatens bourgeois society by calling us not merely to remain open to but even to long for this advent, to cling to the God who enters history so deeply as to die at its hands. Only then are future-less subjects given something worthy to be called a “hope,” a desire for more than what our securities allow us to conceive.  “There is no future that lies safe and secure from God’s coming and impact,” Metz writes, “there is no master lock that will keep Him out. There never was, and never will be.”[7] Thus God’s advent is dangerous for the subject, since it disrupts her futureless, timeless horizon by grounding her in the hazards of history, hazards adopted by Jesus Christ.[8]

This entry into history is also a judgment leveled against it:

[God] now threatens to appear before us in all the naked splendor of His fiery holiness and divinity . . . With this new appearance he will show up the world for what it really is and then transform it. All our masks and masquerades will fade, and only the poverty of love will abide.[9]

God’s advent in Christ is an apocalypse, a disclosure of the divine face who “puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly”(Luke 1:52). This is why the gospel is dangerous for those in power. In the incarnation, God reveals himself as partial to the cries of those who suffer, a partiality sustained through the church. Contrary to the homogenizing universality of bourgeois religion and a global economy, the authentic universality (dare we say catholicity?) of Christian love:

Does not consist in a refusal to take sides, but rather in the way it takes sides, that is, without hatred or hostility toward people, even to the foolishness of the cross. Does not the concept of universal Christian love lose all its dynamism and tension under the spell of bourgeois religion?[10]

The gospel is universally partial to those who suffer, and their cry commands the conscience of a church awakened to her global responsibility. Here, Metz adjusts Heidegger’s claim that one’s own death opens up the possibility for authenticity by arguing that it is actually the death of the poor and innocent that evokes authentic existence. For Heidegger, Dasein is the being for whom Being is a concern, while Metz sees the human being as the one for whom impoverished being is a concern.[11] Thus Metz provides a moving image of Christian discipleship as a mode of “class treason,” an abandonment of the comforts of power for the poverty of the cross.[12] Obedience to the love of Christ will threaten the accepted idolatries of any age, whatever shape those idols assume:

Christian love in periods of nationalistic thinking may well have to incur the suspicion of harming the national honor. In situations of racism it will incur the suspicion of race treason. And in periods when the social contradictions in the world cry out to heaven it will incur the suspicion of class treason for betraying the allegedly necessary interests of the propertied. Did not Jesus himself incur the reproach of treason? Was he not crucified as a traitor?[13]

But perhaps I have let Metz’s ardor get the better of my judgment? Do passages such as this confirm my initial suspicions? Has Christianity been turned into a social committee and ceased being a cultus? Perhaps if Metz were articulating the total content of faith per se, but he is not. Rather, he is outlining the formal conditions that make Christian faith not simply true, but believable. What Metz sees with relentless, startling clarity are the political implications of the gospel. Those implications, he believes, are the apologetic ground lending antecedent probability to its other claims.[14] After all, God can be appealed to in bourgeois religion, even upheld as a value and ideal, but the irony of my initial misjudgment is that the only God who can be worshiped is the God who kills and makes alive, whose advent threatens our inane securities, who is not just living, but Lord:

The bourgeois religion demands nothing, but it also fails utterly to console. God can indeed still be quoted in it, but no longer really adored. God’s grace does not break in, cast down, or raise up: it simply overarches, as a “value,” our bourgeois identity and becomes in this sense truly “cheap grace,” that very graciousness which we bourgeois preeminently bestow upon ourselves. And so, just as our bourgeois society provides less and less material for dreaming and poetry, our bourgeois religion itself supplies scarcely anything for mysticism and adoration, for resistance and conversion.[15]

A bourgeois god can be quoted but not adored. Let the theologian scrutinize the eternal procession of the Word from the Father, the union of natures in Christ, the hidden alchemy whereby the risen Lord identifies his martyrs with his very self (“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Acts 9:4), the operations of grace in the motions of the will, and the thousand other questions our faith elicits. Let the discourse continue, but Metz will simply interrupt now and then, asking: is this God merely a value, or our very life and adoration? And what are the signs that such adoration exists?

Metz is interested in these signs, in the categories that transfigure the content of the faith into a veritable witness. We might say that Metz discerns the channels whereby speculative theology becomes martyrology. Apart from the latter, the former is but straw.[16] Of course, Christ forever dignified straw by making it his first bed, so this is not to say that we speculate in vain. This is only to say that Advent, the entrance of God into history, is the event grounding, sanctifying, and commanding our theology, not the reverse. Salvation is the continual assimilation of this advent into our lives, an assimilation which blossoms into sanctification, partiality to the poor, an open-eyed mysticism sparked by the dangerous memories of scripture.

There is something beautifully fitting (conveniens, the Scholastics would say) that Johann Baptist Metz died on December 2, the beginning of Advent. Like his namesake, he made the coming of God—and all the dizzying, glorious, sometimes frightful but always merciful implications of this fact—his life’s work. For Metz, the God of Christians is the consuming fire who enters history (Hebrews 12:29). And if this is indeed the case, if the Lord of seas and skies, at whose voice empires collapse, shadows flee, whose love the stars all praise together (Job 38:7), has become an infant laid in straw . . . could Christianity be anything other than dangerous?

[1] J. Matthew Ashley, Interruptions: Mysticism, Politics, and Theology i the Work of Johann Baptist Metz, (Notre Dame, IN: UNDP, 1998), 29.

[2] J.B. Metz, “Messianic or Bourgeois Religion?” in idem., The Emergent Church (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1981), 1.

[3] Of course, Metz would grant that bourgeois subjects experience tragedy: the unforeseen death of a family member, a chronic illness, etc. His point is simply that we attempt, through technocratic means, to create as safe and predictable a future as possible, one wherein tragedy is only an emotional, and not a material, concern.

[4] J.B. Metz, “Pluralism and Democracy: Religion and Politics on Modernity’s Ground,” in idem., A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 148.

[5] “Only at first glance does the inclusive language of this bourgeois-liberal theology and religion...disguise the fact that it is simply an integral element in the unquestioning self-stabilization of our society. In this sense it is nothing but the political religion of the bourgeois. In its total moralization of the contradictions in declares the conditions in society to be ‘natural’ and in this sense ‘unchangeable.’ In doing this, such a theology removes from sight the sacrifices our prosperity demands from others.” J.B. Metz, “Christianity and Politics: Beyond Bourgeois Religion,” in The Emergent Church, 74.

[6] J.B. Metz, The Advent of God (New York: Newman Press, 1970), 8.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Metz elsewhere makes the interesting comment that perhaps one of modernity’s greatest signs of ennui is that we are actually horrified by the prospect of eternity, by an endless, metronomic march of the same perpetuating its own banalities. See J.B. Metz, “God: Against the Myth of the Eternity of Time,” in The End of Time? The Provocation of Talking about God (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 26-46.

[9] Ibid., 14.

[10] “Messianic or Bourgeois Religion?” 4.

[11] Cf. Metz’s Poverty of Spirit, (New York: Paulist Press, 1968). For more on Metz’s engagement with Heidegger, see Ashley’s excellent treatment in Interruptions, 154-156.

[12] “Messianic or Bourgeois Religion?” 14-15. Also see Herbert McCabe’s crucial essay “The Class Struggle and Christian Love,” in God Matters (London and New York: Continuum, 1987), 182-198.

[13] “Messianic or Bourgeois Religion?” 15.

[14] I borrow the phrase “antecedent probability” from John Henry Newman.

[15] J.B. Metz, “Transforming a Dependent People: Toward a Basic-Community Church,” in idem. The Emergent Church, 88.

[16] It is worth noting that Karl Rahner, Metz’s teacher, is reported to have said that, of all the criticisms of his work, Metz’s is the only one he really takes seriously. I imagine Rahner had trouble finding his speculative rival, but in Metz he encountered something greater, namely, the challenge for speculation to bloom into witness.

Featured Image: Evelyn De Morgan, The Worship of Mammon, 1909; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Travis Lacy

Travis Lacy is a PhD Candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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