The Role of the Theologian in Post-Modernity

“. . .it is the task of theology today to protect remembering and retelling from suspicion of reductionism and homogenization and to develop their communicative value, indeed superiority, for the intercultural exchange.”

(Unity and Diversity, Metz, 1989)

According to Johann-Baptist Metz, the theologian in current times has three primary duties. They are:

  1. to protect the narratives from distortion
  2. to decode dogmas into once again dangerous memories
  3. to use methods of inquiry that highlight the political

The first duty of protecting narrative involves more than just authentically communicating the Jesus story. While this aspect is at the heart of the theologian’s role, it involves many different facets. These differing facets express themselves in:

  • The Honest Retelling of the Jesus Story
    • understanding the context in which the Bible texts were written.
    • coming to understand the Historical Jesus and the Jesus of Faith.
    • understanding the primitive church’s issues.
  • Keeping Alive the Memories of Those Who Came Before Us.
    • reading these stories as dangerous memories that charge and reorient us
    • interpreting these memories as dangerous (challenging, critical, hopeful)for today’s world.

By helping the present generation remember past sufferings, the theologian helps prevent society from falling into the trap of bourgeois religion. If society is not mindful of its past failings living out its ideals, what will prevent it from failing again? It is the role of religion in society to constantly challenge its members to live better. The very human tendency is, however, to let religion become a justification for static social order that preaches values, but does not challenge people to live them out. Thus the theologian must be a guardian of true religion and not let it become complacent. Both context and subtext of theology presume certain social and economic values: they are political.

The second duty of the theologian is to decode dogma. Dogma is the truth held in common by members of faith community. By decoding dogma the theologian will:

  • help dogma touch our human experience and situation.
  • tell the stories of how it has been lived in the Past.
  • shape our hope for a future

The important role of the theologian is to challenge others to live their faith authentically. Metz uses the imagery of a cloak, i.e., coat, to explain the human tendency to fail to act out one’s faith. For example, Metz wrote in Faith in History and Society, ” . . . do we simply believe in compassion and remain under the cloak of a mere belief in compassion fixed within the apathy which accompanies life as domination?” If we believe in something then must live those beliefs consistently. (Metz, Faith in History and Society)

The third duty of the theologian is to the methodology in which theological reflection takes place. We must recall that all theology is political in the sense that it assumes and promoted a vision of our poltical, economic, and social world, a notion of the fully human life, and the concrete social and economic tools to sustain this. This is an issue for Metz since he finds that too many theologians tend to take a “shortcut” in coming to their conclusions. To illustrate this, Metz relates to his readers the German tale of the Hedgehog and the Hare.

In this story the hare challenges the hedge to a race and the hedgehog surprisingly agrees. Now what the hare did not know, is that the hedgehog had a wife who was identical to himself. So when the time for the race came, the hedgehog had his wife dress up in the very same clothes as he and wait in hiding at the finish line. During the race, the hedgehog merely ducked down in place and while the hare ran the entire course. When he got to the end he saw what appeared to be the hedgehog he thought he had left behind. Fooled by the hedgehog’s trick, the other animals declared the hedgehog the victor of the race.

While most may applaud the hedgehog for his cunning, Metz believes that for anyone to declare victory they must run the race. The race we must run in concrete human history, a history loaded with suffering, mistakes, sweat of real world. Too many theologians try to pull a trick of cunning, winning in theory or in advance as if Jesus gets us off the hook of acting the world. They will write about how people ought to live their lives without really living life themselves. This criticism is aimed at those who take the articles of faith and develop them rational within their minds instead of seeing how they should be lived out in the current age. A theologian must connect with the suffering of those around her, feel the claim of the suffering of others even in her technical theological discourse. In other words, she must run the race.

In this way theologians live up to the exhortation of I Peter 3:15: “Be prepared to give an account of the hope that is in you.”