We may think of theologians as people who think deep thoughts about God in a quiet study somewhere. We may suspect that their theologizing has little connection to life as you and I live and experience it. This was certainly not the case for Johann Baptist Metz.
Born in Bavaria in 1928 and having lost his father when he was about 12, Metz, at the end of World War II when he was not yet 17, was forced to leave school and join the united armed forces of Germany. I quote from an obituary: “In a searing incident, he was once sent from his unit to deliver a message and returned to find all the other members, boys his own age, dead from an attack. The memory of the trauma remained with him in his life and future work.”
The obituary continues: “After being captured by Allied troops, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp on the East Coast of the United States for seven months. He returned to Germany and, after finishing high school, entered the diocesan seminary in Bamberg. … He was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Bamberg in 1954.”
Father Metz’s career as a theologian was characterized by his focus on “the victims of history,” and he placed a priority on “building solidarity with the oppressed. He challenged German Catholics to face the reality of Auschwitz [this particular concentration camp being cited as a symbol of the entire Holocaust] when many did not.” In other words, he took the stuff of his life — his own connection with what so monstrously occurred in the aggression and genocide of the Nazi regime — and he continued to ask: What is the meaning of the organized horror which came about among the people of his own nation?
To turn again to an obituary: “Professor Metz devoted himself to understanding the nature of suffering, which he saw as the primary theological question. ‘He never thought it was a question you could answer,’ said J. Matthew Ashley, an associate professor at Notre Dame who has translated his work into English. ‘He was always wary of theologies that thought they had all the answers.’”
And indeed, questions crying for answers are the stuff of theology. In the interest of asking vital questions, Father Metz took part with Elie Wiesel in a set of interviews published in 1999 as Hope Against Hope. In this book, Father Metz stated: “The theological question after Auschwitz is not only ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ It is also ‘Where was humanity in Auschwitz?’”
You and I are about to enter into our annual celebration of the birth of the Savior. We can be distracted by a sentimentalizing of this event. We must not be so distracted. We know that God’s becoming human will ever remain an object of amazement. Professional theologians, and all of us who seek to apply their insights as we live out our earthly days, ponder how it is that God would love us by becoming human. Father Metz’s work moves us to feel the urgency of our God in responding to sinful humanity by making the utterly personal gift of the Son, Jesus, in whom we see the dignity of all human beings.