Johann Baptist Metz on why Christian theology should embrace secularization

Johann Baptist Metz
Johann Baptist Metz

The Secularity of the world, as it has emerged in the  modern process of secularization and as we see it today in a globally heightened form, has fundamentally, though not in its individual historical forms, arisen not against Christianity but through it. It is originally a Christian event and hence testifies in our world situation to the power of the “hour of Christ” at work within history.

(Theology of the World, 19-20)

In her autobiography, Dorothee Soelle listed Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz’s Theology of the World alongside Theology of Hope (Moltmann) and her own book as something of an early trilogy in modern political theology. I’m currently reading Metz (it is excellent so far) and hope to move on to Soelle’s contribution next.

The first essay in Theology of the World is called “How Faith Sees the World: The Christian Orientation in the Secularity of the Contemporary World.” Many Christians bemoan the secularization that has long been taking over the Western world – worrying that it is an indication that Christianity has failed and is receding. But Metz sees in the incarnation of Jesus the full acceptance of the world – in all its worldliness – by God. Below are some selections from this chapter that get to the heart of his argument. 

In Jesus Christ, man and his world were accepted by the eternal Word, finally and irrevocably – in hypostatic union, as the Church and theology state. But what is true of this nature that Christ accepted is also fundamentally true of the acceptance of man and his world by God.

This acceptance in no way makes the world of the human into something temporary, merely illusory and ultimately unreal. The human nature of Christ is not “lessened” by being taken up into the divine Logos, made simply into a dead tool, a mere accessory, a gesture of God within the world, but given its hitherto unsuspected full human authenticity: Jesus Christ was fully man, indeed more human than any of us.

For God does not do violence to what he accepts. He does not suck it into himself, he does not divinize it theophanistically. God is not like the gods, he is not a usurper, a Moloch. God’s divinity consists in the fact that he does not remove the difference between himself and what is other, but rather accepts the other precisely as different from himself. He is able, and wants, to accept it precisely in what distinguishes it form himself, in its non-divinity, in its humanity and worldliness, and only because he is able to do this, has he been happy to “create” a world and finally “accept” it wholly in his eternal word. Acceptance by God is therefore more fundamentally being made free to be one’s self, to have the authentic, independent being of the non-divine. God’s truth “makes free” (see Jn. 8, 32); acceptance of him makes the other free to be uniquely himself. The majesty of the freedom he bestows is that he is the one who truly lets things be what they are. He is not in competition with, but the “guarantor” of the world. The world’s specific gravity increases in the advent of God. He does not put out the light of the non-divine, but makes it shine more brightly – ultimately to his greatest honor.

(Theology of the World, 26-27)

Acceptance of the world by God brings liberation to humanity in all its secularity. Because Christianity brings about the secularization of the world, we should not see it as a sign of the end of Christianity but as its natural fulfillment. Christians have nothing to fear about these changing times. After all, secularization is not a sign of Christ’s absense, but of his presence! 

What happens in the modern world is not fundamentally a “de-secularization” of faith because of the superior power of the world that is inimical to faith, but the secularization of the world because of the historical power of the Christian faith, which accepts the world and sets it free. It is not secularization of the world that is a misfortune for the Christian faith, but, we feel, the attitude which we Christians had towards it (and largely still have today). Have we not here, as it were, failed to recognize our own child, so that it ran away from us at an early age and now confronts us in a form that is secularistically distorted and alienated from us? Did not Christianity hesitate too much at the beginning of the modern period to embrace this new approach to the world? Have we not shut ourselves too much against it, generally making it seem fundamentally dubious and of little value, so that the world, which the divine Word had freed precisely in order that it could find its own radical worldly quality, could be itself before us only with a bad conscience? And does not the inner insecurity and instability of the secular world, its nervousness and its lack of fundamental authenticity, as well as its hubris and false will to autonomy, arise partly (though not only) from the fact that in order to find itself Christianity released the world far too hesitatingly and really only under protest?

(Theology of the World, 38-39)

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