Saturday, September 15, 2012

More on Remembering: Metz and the Suffering of Ancestors

To complement what I posted earlier today in remembrance of my mother's death, another passage from Elizabeth Johnson's Search for the Living God (NY: Continuum, 2008)--(I warned you I'd probably be quoting this book incessantly in coming days, no?).  Here, Johnson is summarizing a central point of Johann Baptist Metz's theology of dangerous memory: 

However [as Metz writes], "ultimately no prosperity of the descendants can make up for the suffering of ancestors, and no amount of social progress can reconcile the injustice which befell the dead."  Only universal justice, which is the final gift of God, can heal and save.  Obviously, then, this is not a nostalgic kind of memory, but memory with the seed of the future in it.  The dangerous memory of past suffering stimulates a hope for the future for all the defeated and the dead.  In fact, Christians can risk looking into this abyss of pain precisely because they believe in God's eschatological promise.  On the strength of this promise, dangerous remembering challenges modern society which tries to anesthetize people against the sufferings of others with a culture of consumerism, happy optimism, and breathtaking banality that irons all suffering flat.  In place of this trite form of life, it impels people of faith to a meaningful life through action that resists unjust, domineering actions that are creating a new generation of victims (p. 66).

"[U]ltimately no prosperity of the descendants can make up for the suffering of ancestors, and no amount of social progress can reconcile the injustice which befell the dead": when I was interviewed for a theology position at Belmont Abbey College in 1991, the systematic theologian on the search committee asked me which 20th-century theologian I might consider to be my mentor more than any other theologian.  I was stymied by the question, and stumbled around trying to answer it.

I'm not a systematician, and I don't think like a systematician.  I have the historian's magpie mind, which picks and stores this bright bit here and that one there, indiscriminately--because they're all bright bits.  Not because of their provenance.  Where others easily see patterns and schemata, I see discrepancies.  Anecdotes.  Discontinuity rather than continuity.  That's what history is.

I tend to distrust the schola mentality of much of systematic theology, perhaps in large part because I have always sensed that there's not really a place in any school of theology for me, within a heterosexist institution whose theological academy is deeply imbued with the institution's preferential option for heterosexual males.  All the schools of theology within the Christian tradition have been, after all, invented by men presumed to be heterosexual, by men who taught that (their) heterosexuality is normative for the entire tradition.

But as the systematic theologian on the search committee pressed me, I told him that, among all theologians of the 20th century, it was Metz in whom I found the most powerful insights, the ones that most resonated for me.  I explained to him that when I wrote my dissertation, which sought both to understand and rehabilitate a foundational member of the American social gospel movement, Shailer Mathews, I came to the conclusion that Mathews had been wrongly criticized for presumed defects in his social process theology, which speaks of the need for social institutions to be reformed in light of Jesus's proclamation of the reign of God, which places all social (and ecclesial) institutions under an eschatological proviso.

Neo-orthodox theologians such as the Niebuhrs claimed that Mathews held a naively optimistic progressivist position which sees social progress as ineluctable, and which equates the reign of God with progress conceived as inevitable.  That wasn't, in fact, the case.  As my research discovered, Mathews was actually one of the very first American theologians to recognize the significance of the eschatological turn in German biblical theology with Johannes Weiss.

I came to the conclusion that if Mathews's theology of social process was to be critiqued (and it did need critique), it should be critiqued, instead, for the uncritical way in which it imported presuppositions  from the scientific theology of evolution into the realm of theology.  Here, Mathews was not very different from other seminal thinkers of the Chicago school of sociology and of theology to which he belonged.   

Along with John Dewey, he assumed that, just as biological evolution moves forward by eclipsing the imperfections of previous stages of a species, social evolution does the same: the terrible price we pay for progress is the pain and suffering of our predecessors, who have to suffer, and in many cases to have their lives stamped with the stamp of obsolescence, in order for us to "progress."

To my way of thinking, there is something deeply awry at an ethical level about this way of thinking, which is very typical of much of American thought in many fields in the 20th century.  It leaves no place for the unmerited suffering of the victims of history to have a voice, to be set right, to mean anything other than a sacrificial offering that sets the stage for our "progress."

It's far too easy, this progressive reading of history.  The path to the present is littered with the bodies of our ancestors and the ancestors of others, who in many cases experienced atrocious unmerited suffering--suffering that we must remember as a dangerous memory, if we expect to hold onto our humanity, suffering that needs always to fuel our determination to make things right for others who are experiencing unmerited oppression now.  And that determination to act for justice in the present scrolls against the backdrop of the daring eschatological hope that, finally, the unmerited pain of everyone, including our own unmerited pain, will be made right at the end of history--a hope to which, for Christians, the death and resurrection of Christ point.

These are some of the implications I've taken from Metz's theology of dangerous memory and of the eschatological proviso--implications that make sense to me as I try to make sense of the lives of my parents, of my ancestors and the ancestors of others, and my own life, with its ups and downs, its moments of tremendous joy and its unexpected grace, as well as its moments of tragic disruption due to injustice.

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