Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination

Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination

Papanikolaou, Aristotle

Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination. By Gary M. Simpson. Guides to Theological Inquiry Series. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. xiv + 178 pp. $14.00 (paper).

Gary Simpson’s book is the latest volume in the Guides to Theological Inquiry, a series dedicated to exploring how a conversation with nontheological disciplines and movements, such as feminist theory, cultural studies, postmodern thought, and literary theory, might influence the form of theological method and content. Simpson’s particular focus is on the relation between the “Christian prophetic imagination” and “critical theory”– specifically, Habermas’s theory of communicative reason and action.

One of the most useful aspects of this book is Simpson’s account of “critical theory,” an influential tradition of thought associated with the so-called Frankfurt School, which refers to the Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt. The first chapter gives an account of the genesis of “critical theory” in the thought of Max Horkheimer, who was appointed director of the Institute in 1930.

Chapter 2 briefly interrupts this history to discuss Paul Tillich’s understanding of the relation between rational criticism and prophetic criticism. It is at this point that Simpson’s own constructive agenda becomes clear. He follows Tillich’s distinction between rational criticism, “the variety of modern, critical disciplines for rationally analyzing cultural, psychological, sociological and religious structures and conditions,” and prophetic criticism, a form of criticism whose basis lies beyond all human reason (p. 36). Simpson is seeking to continue Tillich’s attempt to relate the two without collapsing prophetic criticism into rational criticism, the mistake of Ritschlean Protestantism, and without Barthian negation of rational criticism by prophetic criticism. He agrees with Tillich that the two must be related, since rational criticism without prophetic criticism leads to relativism, and a Barthian “prophetic criticism in abstracto” from rational criticism “leaves the status quo intact” (p. 39). According to Tillich, prophetic criticism can only become concrete in rational criticism.

Simpson, however, criticizes Tillich’s understanding of a Christian prophetic imagination grounded in rational criticism for “oracular prophetism” that can only manifest itself in “heroic personalism” that Tillich himself rejects. While it is never clear what Simpson means by “oracular,” he seems to imply a prophetic criticism that cannot be subjected to criteria of reasonableness. Simpson thus ends the chapter with the central question of the book: “Is ‘oracular’ the inevitable epithet for the Christian prophet imagination?” (p. 51).

The remaining chapters of the book are structured to show that a prophetic criticism grounded in Habermas’s theory of communicative reason and action avoids the tendency to the “oracular temptation.” Simpson continues the history of the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School, discussing the reasons for Habermas’s break with Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. He also gives a helpful and lucid account of Habermas’s theory of communicative reason and action with an eye toward how it might shape and form a nonoracular Christian prophetic imagination. The particular form of a laicized and communicative Christian prophetic imagination is the missional congregation. This type of congregation serves as a “public companion” working toward a more just, pluralistic, and sustainable civil society, while simultaneously acknowledging its participation in God’s creative agency “to bring, nurture, and sustain temporal life” (p. 143).

What is refreshing and distinctively new in this book is that Simpson’s use of Habermas’s theory to imagine the relation between religion and public life is targeted not to persuade those non-religious who think that the two spheres are mutually exclusive, but to Christians in order to help congregations think about how they can engage in prophetic criticism that is faithful to their Christian commitment and accountable to public reason. Although Simpson, following Tillich, criticizes Barthians, such as Stanley Hauerwas, of engaging in prophetic criticism in abstracto that results in sectarianism, a charge Hauerwas himself would reject, his discussion of a communicative and laicized prophetic imagination remains too formal and lacks concreteness. The book makes clear that Habermas’s theory makes possible a prophetic imagination that is laicized and communicative, but without any indication of what that would mean concretely for the shape and form of a congregation, or how such prophetic criticism may proceed. It also would have been helpful to give more of a context on Tillich’s debate with Barth and the latter’s response. In other words, how is it that a prophetic criticism grounded in rational criticism challenges the status quo in a way not possible for Barthian prophetic criticism? This clarification would be helpful especially in light of the Hauerwas’s neo-Barthian criticism that any form of foundationalism is simply a capitulation to modern liberalism, which he defines as the status quo.

In an age when many Christians are attempting to discern how they can be faithful to their particular commitments and be participants in the formation of a just and sustainable civil society, Simpson has offered an important voice to the conversation.


Fordham University

New York, New York

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved