Johann Baptist Metz on Eschatology and Flight from the World

Johann Baptist Metz. Image Source
Johann Baptist Metz. Image Source

Over the last couple days I read Metz’s Theology of the World. This is a collection of essays that Metz wrote between 1961 and 1968 on themes of political theology. I shared some selections from the first essay in the book on secularism.  From start to finish this book is fantastic. Like Moltmann, Metz gets his bearings for political theology from an eschatological orientation. Future hope is not the appendix to Christianity, but its fundamental driving force:

Although theology has a tract on eschatology, it generally puts this eschatology in a corner well away from the center of theology in the treatise “on the last things.” Eschatology lacks a vital relationship wot the whole of theology and it thereby fails to be related to the theology of the world. Christian eschatology must come out of its corner, into which it was shoved by a theology which has forgotten the relevance of hope and of the future. Since Christians are simply defined by Paul as “those who have hope,” should they not understand their theology in every aspect as eschatology, and as the responsibility of hope? Eschatology is not a discipline beside other disciplines, but that basic discipline which determines, forms, and shapes every theological statement, especially those concerning the world. (90)

Hope is central for political engagement because Christianity must not hope only for its own future but also for the future of the world we are a part of. Metz continues:

From the viewpoint of the future the often used – perhaps too often used – distinction between the natural and the supernatural recedes into the background. In our relationship to the future we cannot be satisfied with a distinction which separates the natural future of the world from the supernatural future of the faith and of the Church. Both dimensions converge in our relationship to the future. In other words, since hope of the Christian faith is oriented toward the future, it cannot fulfill itself in bypassing the world and the future of the world. And because this hope is responsible for the one promised future, it is therefore also responsible for the future of the world. The Christian faith hopes not only in itself, the Church hopes not only in itself, but they hope in the world. (91-92)

Many theologically aware Christians are wary of over-emphasis on eschatology, which (at least in its popular forms) tends towards a flight-from-the-world / escapist bent (leading to political disengagement if anything). In contrast, Metz claims here that Christian hope is not “flight FROM the world” but “flight WITH the world” (into our common future). This sense of solidarity with the world emphatically does not mean we passively accept whatever is called “progress” in our current situation. Metz takes seriously the biblical call to renounce the world / not be conformed to this world, but, as he explains below, “The Christian is moved to flee and to renounce the world not because he despises the world but because he hopes in the future of the world as proclaimed in God’s promises.”

Is the biblical hope, however, really so radically oriented toward this one and undivided future? Is the Old Testament’s  conception of hope as hope in the world and in its future still valid? Does not the New Testament require that this hope be impregnated with and accompanied by a renunciation of the world? It would indeed be unwise and an empty compromise with the spirit of the times, if we would suppress or minimize this motif of the New Testament’s conception of hope. I am aware of this motif and I consider it important – even for our times. However, everything hinges upon a correct understanding of what is properly meant by the renunciation of the world. Because man can never live apart from the world or worldless (that is, without a world), this renunciation could never be a mere flight out of the world.   For such a flight would then be a deceptive and illusory flight into an artificially isolated world, which de facto is often the more comfortable religious situation of yesterday. Not a flight out of the world, but a flight with the world “forward” is the fundamental dynamism of Christian hope in its renunciation of the world. This renunciation is therefore a flight only out of that self-made world which masters its present and lives solely out of its present, and whose “time is always here” (see Jn. 7,6). Christians should attentively listen to Saint Paul when he exhorts them to renounce the world, and when he urges them “not to be conformed to this world” (see Rom. 12,2). Paul does not criticize here the Christian’s solidarity with the world, but his conformity to the existing world as enraptured with its own appearance and as concerned only with its self-glorification.paul criticizes this world insofar as it tries to determine its own future and to degrade this future to a function of the powerful and power-hungry present. The Apostle does not demand a one-sided (undialektisch) denial of the world or a total refusal of engagement with the world. But rather he urges Christians to be prepared for a painful estrangement from the present world situation. He exhorts them to renounce the foregone conclusions of their times (see also Mt. 12,29ff) and to abstain from the proud boastfulness and vanity of the world (see 1 Cor. 1, 29. All of this, however, is done for the sake of the future promised by God. The Christian is moved to flee and to renounce the world not because he despises the world but because he hopes in the future of the world as proclaimed in God’s promises. And this hope gives him a responsibility  for the world and its future – a future from which we can too often isolate ourselves in forms of presumption and despair. This Christian renunciation of the world has its origin in the spirit of biblical hope and it serves the hope of all. It is the imitation of Christ at the hour of his crucifixion. This hour represents the singular affirmation of the world and the overcoming of the world. The Christian renunciation of the world takes on the servant’s form of a crucified hope for the world. A faith which is guided by such a hope is primarily not a doctrine, but an initiative for the passionate innovating and changing of the world toward the Kingdom of God.  (92-93)

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