A Review of Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination by Gary Simpson

[1] Gary Simpson poses a question both timely and crucial, and responds to it by engaging seminal theorists of critical social theory as it emerged and developed in the Frankfurt School: In the face of disturbing, even enraging circumstances of suffering and injustice that appear as givens, how might Christians congregations in North America today retrieve and practice prophetic imagination? The author argues that critical social theory oriented around its communicative turn, and nuanced by its initial engagement with Christian theology, may help congregations in that retrieval. His constructive proposal is crafted from three conceptual ingredients: 1) the initial articulation of critical theory by Max Horkheimer, 2) three essential and collaborative elements of prophetic imagination argued by Paul Tillich as they intersect with Horkheimer’s thought, and 3) Jurgen Habermas’ theory of communicative reason and action. The stakes are high. The issue at hand in this book is at the heart of critical theory and of Tillich’s theology of prophetic imagination. The issue is “the overwhelming givenness, matter-of-factness, that’s-just-the-way-it-isness of the status quo” (37) when it includes forms of “suffering from something man-made, which can…and should be abolished” (citing Habermas, 73).

[2] Simpson correctly and succinctly situates critical social theory as a reaction against the reigning trajectory of sociological positivism; as drawing upon predecessor critical theories of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, while also diverging from them; and as a response to the spread of fascism. Horkheimer, Director of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (3), coined the term “crit theory” in a 1937 essay pointing to the convergence of fascism and positivist social sciences. Positivist sociology’s emphasis on the soundness of the reigning social order and on maintaining it rather than propelling change, worked against challenging the inadequacies of that order. Positivism’s objective, certain, descriptive and supposedly apolitical epistemology bred the passivity that accepts the social order as a given, rather than as a human construct subject to human agency. Horkheimer called for a critical (rather than positivist) theory of society aimed at emancipation from socio-historical processes that produce misery and injustice.

[3] Key components of Horkheimer’s theory form the initial layer of Simpson’s constructive proposal. They include the impulse against positivism, the claim that relevant historical changes reshape critical theory, and the notions of immanent critique and ideological critique. The former taps the founding norms and ideals of a given social order, to critique processes within it that cause suffering and injustice, assuming that those processes represent departures from the founding standards. Critique of ideology goes further, investigating where suffering and injustice exist as an “outgrowth of [rather than a departure from] norms and ideals that have always been false” (127), but that have seemed good.

[4] Chapter two traces an initial Christian theological engagement with Horkheimer’s critical social theory in the work of Paul Tillich. Tillich, who supported Horkheimer’s appointment to the Institute and participated in the circle of people associated with it, offers the next layer of Simpson’s proposal: an insistence on three necessary elements of social criticism if it is to expose falsehood masquerading as truth, and reveal the changeability of a supposedly immutable status quo. Those elements are a distinction between rational criticism and prophetic criticism, partnership between the two, and the “overcoming” (42) of both by grace. (Grace leads one to “question the sole sufficiency of criticism.”)

[5] Tillich’s positive valuation of rational criticism is the key distinction between him and Horkheimer who finally abandoned reason in his quest for an emancipatory social theory. That move grew from his thesis – influenced by the evil of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia – that reason is by nature “instrumental reason” in which the subject inevitably dominates its object, thus turning from emancipatory purposes to domination and oppression. Tillich proposes the congregation as “the Protestant form of grace” (48) – the third necessary element of effective criticism – and as “locus for the union of rational and prophetic critique” (130-1). While Tillich did not pursue that suggestion, Simpson does. It is the heartbeat of his proposal. “How,” he asks, “might congregations become the socio-historical locus for imagining and enacting rational prophetic criticism for the sake of a more rational and just society?”(131)

[6] Simpson’s response, stirred by an insight of Dennis McCann, is that yet another element – in addition to Tillich’s three – -is needed and that it might be “‘something similar’ to Habermas’ theory of public discourse” (52, citing McCann). Pursuing that hunch, Simpson, in chapters three through five, probes Habermas’ theory of communicative reason and action “for a decolonizing, emancipatory ‘society’ rooted in a civil society that makes a deliberative democracy and a stakeholder economy possible” (xi). “Communicative” is a kind of code word describing “life together in communication that is free from coercion” (citing Habermas, 73). “Communicative” stands in contrast to the modern philosophical paradigm of a subject with the right and capacity to master the object.

[7] Habermas retained continuity with Horkheimer’s critical theory of the 1930s, but opposed his later rejection of reason. Simpson adopts three dimensions of Habermas’ move. First is his theory of communicative rationality that reclaims reason from its reduction to instrumental reason. Next is the broadening of communicative reason to imply communicative social action. The third dimension is Habermas’ identification of civil society as the locus of communicative action and reason. By civil society, he means a pluralistic network of associations, organizations, and movements that emerge from the “lifeworld”of a society, and function as a “threshold” between “lifeworld” and the two systems of state and economy. For Habermas and for Simpson, a central role of civil society is to mitigate against the “colonizing tendencies” of state and economy, and hold both accountable to the pluralistic public. Civil society “imparts normative resources for a more emancipatory and just deliberative democracy and for a more responsible stakeholder economy, thereby weakening . . . the colonizing effects [of state and economy]” (136). These three features of Habermas’ communicative turn in crit social theory form the final layer of Simpson’s proposal.

[8] Chapter Six outlines that proposal. It aims at Christian prophetic imagination that enables congregations in their “vocation as communicatively prophetic public companions.” That vocation calls them to “participate with other institutions of communicative civil society to create, strengthen, and sustain the moral fabrics that fashion a life-giving and life-accountable world” (145). Simpson’s proposal builds on the initial critical impulse and emancipatory aim of Horkheimer’s theory; draws upon Tillich’s theology of prophetic reason to argue an essential collaboration between rational criticism and prophetic criticism, and to add a third essential element, grace; and finally finds in Habermas’ communicative theory the three aforementioned “other elements” (51-52) needed to develop a Christian prophetic imagination.”

[9] The contributions made by Simpson’s book are many and diverse. The first three noted below are methodological, and the following three more content-related. First is his basic move to bring the theoretical insights of the Frankfurt School into direct, constructive dialogue with Christian theology for the sake of empowering congregations for their prophetic public vocation. Secondly, he resists the seductive temptation to become mired in academic debates about what the giants of the past “really said,” and focuses instead on their value for the work of the church today. Finally, Simpson deftly negotiates the difficult dilemma inherent in any effort to craft a constructive proposal on deep knowledge of complex theories and historical debates with which some readers may not be familiar. One risks providing either too much or too little theoretical background, thus either losing less knowledgeable readers or boring others. Simpson avoids either mistake. While not an easy read for the reader not well versed in the Frankfurt School and in Paul Tillich, it is indeed a possible read.

[10] The book’s content-related contributions are no less significant. Foremost is the author’s principle point – both explicit and implicit – that ongoing dynamic encounter between critical social theory and Christian theology is a monumental resource for a church called to participate with other civil society players in nurturing “the postmodern milieu toward sustainable justice and freedom” (143). Equally important, Simpson – in arguing the emancipatory potential of civil society – avoids the increasingly common error of prescribing civil society as a preferred alternative to the state for citizen pursuit of enhanced democracy, social welfare, and social justice. That error feeds anti-state sentiment in its libertarian, communitarian, neo-liberal, and post-Marxist forms, and obscures the state’s role as agent of social justice and widespread well-being. Simpson – in line with Habermas (119) and with many contemporary feminist political theorists – clearly retains that role of the state. His move to regenerate civil society without disclaiming the role of the state is vital in the current political climate.

[11] Thirdly, Simpson’s project implicitly tenders to the church a challenge issued by Tillich, and at the heart of Christian public vocation today: To bring effective religious criticism (rational, prophetic, and issuing from grace) to bear on cultural, economic, and political roots of suffering and injustice, as an integral aspect of being “companions” in God’s ongoing work to nurture and sustain life” (143). Finally, in challenging the church to prophetic public criticism and practice, Simpson points to the limitations of “immanent critique” and the necessity of “ideological critique.” The distinction is made above. Its point is that prophetic public companionship calls for ideological criticism in order to unmask evil that parades as good, and to expose alliances between supposed truth and dominant sector interests. Another Lutheran making a similar plea was Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison.

[12] Only one methodological flaw appears in Simpson’s argument. He bases his “normative account of civil society” on a theory: “Habermas’ three models of democracy suggest that three different modes of civil society also exist” (137). Simpson rightly describes the two dominant modes of civil society as historical social realities, giving historical evidence for them. The problem appears when he claims the “historical” emergence of the third mode – “the communicative model of civil society [that] . . . takes its practices, procedures, and attitudes from the paradigm shift to communicative rationality and action” (139) – but gives no evidence of this mode’s actual emergence in history. Basing a claim for historical emergence, on a paradigm shift that has occurred in theory, but not necessarily in practice leaves a gap, and confuses description with prescription. Fortunately, this flaw does not significantly weaken Simpson’s argument.

[13] An indicator of quality work is that it nudges the reader to probe conceptual conundrums percolating below the surface and bearing real import. This good work does just that. The term “civil society”- emerging again in the political discourse of the last two decades – currently has as many definitions as definers, and is used to denote and connote contradictory and changing realities. Simpson rightly complexifies “civil society,” especially as it has existed historically. Yet, given that Habermas’ notion of civil society evolved in response to changing political and economic arrangements, and given the substantive changes in those systems now occurring on a global level, we are pushed to consider relevant consequent changes in the nature of civil society (as both concept and actuality). Since Simpson aims at a “global civil society,” the scope of vision must be worldwide. I note two currently shifting political-economic circumstances that further complexify “civil society.”

[14] First, Simpson’s model of society, adopted after Habermas’, locates civil society in a sphere distinct from the spheres of state and economy. In the globalizing economy, this three-fold distinction no longer neatly holds. While once it worked to illumine power dynamics, it now both illumines and obscures them.1 A normative account of civil society should theorize that porousness, and explore its impact on the emancipatory role of civil society in relationship to state and economy.

[15] Secondly, Habermas’ model of society retains liberalism’s location of state and economy as parallel systems. That model fails to account for the contemporary subtle trend toward encroachment on state power by economic entities that are unaccountable to states. A function of the state in Western democracies has been to mitigate against forms of injustice that are rooted in economic life. If the state becomes less able to do so because of a shift in power to global economic interests, and if a function of civil society is to “erect a democratic dam against the colonizing encroachment” (115) of either state or economy, then a shift in balance of power from state to economy must have some impact on the function and potential of civil society in its interaction with these systems. I do not purport to describe that impact, but only to suggest that it be probed and accounted for in a normative account of global civil society for the 21st century.

[16] Simpson’s book leads one to hope that he would bring his considerable knowledge of critical social theory and his agility in constructively engaging it, to bear on subsequent projects toward which Critical Social Theory points (in this author’s opinion). One pertains to his assertion that the prophetic imagination he prescribes and locates in the congregation “hones…skills” for critique of ideology (127). I applaud this insight. Honing those skills is an indispensable and underpracticed element of the church’s role in moral formation. Perhaps Simpson, in another project, would probe how prophetic imagination will help congregations to “hone” them. Secondly, Simpson joins with a number of feminist social theorists who deeply appreciate Habermas (especially for his radically democratic ideal, attention to the plurality of subjects in a given public, and early recognition that presupposed homogeneity masks power differentials), while yet finding in his theory some blind spots related to gender. It might be fruitful to bring those criticisms of Habermas to bear constructively on Simpson’s proposal, in order to garner further guidance for congregations in their vocation of prophetic public companionship. Finally, the theory developed by Horkheimer and Habermas is indeed a “social” theory; it pertains to “humanity” (4). Given our unfolding realization that the fate of humanity is inseparably tied up with the fate of the bio-sphere, “social” theory may no longer be an adequate category for investigating phenomena that cause misery and injustice. The anthropological boundaries inherent in a “social” theory must expand in ways not yet familiar in Western conceptual categories. Simpson hints at this expansion and initiates it. He refers to “evil in human and earthwide suffering” (129), aims at a “life-accountable world,” (145) and alters the traditional “flourishing of human life” to include “environmental life (38). Perhaps he will take these moves further. In so doing, the Frankfurt School might again be a crucial source. For it is Horkheimer that writes: “The disease of reason is that reason was born of man’s urge to dominate nature” (67) (italics mine).

[17] The question that Horkheimer answers one way, and Tillich, Habermas, and Simpson answer another is crucial: Given the multiple forms of devastation and deceit wrought by “reasonable” humanity since the Age of Reason dawned, “can and how can reason serve emancipatory purposes?” Reason, Simpson responds, must be freed from positivism, put in partnership with a prophetic element, grounded in and checked by grace, and guided by a communicative principle. Christian congregations – in companionship with God and other civil society players – are called to that prophetic work. Simpson’s is a hopeful, theologically rich, theoretically sound, and well crafted response.

Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, is available from Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002.

End Notes

1 The examples are endless. At the UN General Assembly on the Implementation of the World Summit For Social Development (Geneva, 2000), the Secretary General of the United Nations spoke of “private corporations” as “civil society” (recalling an original liberal notion of civil society), while many of the officially recognized representatives of civil society publicly protested that designation. On a worldwide basis, businesses increasingly are funding “civil society” organizations and networks; civil society associations are assuming functions previously held by the state; and economic players are stepping into what has been the state’s terrain.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda holds a joint appointment in ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Church Divinity School of the Pacific.