Like so many of his generation, he took as his theological labor interpreting and promoting the theological riches of Vatican II. Along with Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, O. P., and others, he was a cofounder of the journal, Concilium, which had this purpose.
For him, in particular, this work meant helping the Catholic Church make the transition from the seamlessly Catholic world of Auerbach to the techno-scientific, multicultural, religiously pluralistic and often secularized world of today. In the 1960’s he became one of the founders, along with Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothee Sölle, of a theological approach called “political theology,” which he himself named the new political theology, in order to distinguish it from the work of Nazi legal theorist, Carl Schmitt.
Political theology was a prophetic protest against the privatization of Christian faith: the reduction of its scope to one’s relationship to God and one-on-one ethical behavior towards others. For Metz, religion in general and Christianity in particular, is inherently political.
So too is Christian theology. Christianity’s privatization, Metz warned, is a principal way that it has been domesticated in the modern world, with the church too often going along, explicitly or tacitly. Yet Christian faith was not for him simply a source of meaning or a social glue in society; it was not a kind of sacred canopy, as sociologist Peter Berger once put it, a religious authorization or echo of what is going on in society anyway.
Religion is, rather, for Metz, provocative and interruptive. It breaks through our self-reliance and self-satisfaction, attitudes often purchased at the cost of ignoring the suffering of those put on the margins of society or who had been left beaten on the side of the road in its march of progress.
Remembering them is dangerous, but these dangerous memories are liberating. And they are ultimately sustained by the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ, who died and was raised by the God of the living and of the dead. It is a memory that can give rise to great hope, but only if it is put into practice, a “combative hope,” as Pope Francis puts it.
Metz followed these insights with thoroughness and integrity, realizing that for a German the dangerous memory above all others had to be the memory of the Jews and the fate they suffered under the Third Reich. He will be remembered for insisting that Christian identity, “after Auschwitz,” can only be reconstructed and saved together with the Jews and by retrieving the lost or suppressed roots of Christian faith in Judaism.