Resonances with Critical Theory and Marx

In his essay "Philosophy and Critical Theory," Marcuse rejects a philosophy whose interest in reconciliation resides in the realm of ideas rather than in concrete reality. By recasting metaphysical philosophy as social theory with a practical, emancipatory intent, the interest in reconciliation is directed toward concrete human happiness (Marcuse 1968: 142). The material conditions that render human happiness possible are themselves the object of theoretical interest. "The philosophical ideals of a better world and of true Being are incorporated into the practical aim of struggling mankind, where they take on a human form" (p. 142). Critical theory confronts the "bad facticity" of an unjust and therefore irrational world with the "better potentialities" inherent in history and social forms. A distinguishing feature of a "rational" society is one where the economy serves human needs and where freedom and happiness are pursued as ends in themselves rather than being accidental by-products of success in a competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive world (1968: 144). Critical theory reverses the "flight toward the eternal" (Horkheimer 1978: 45) that is a central feature of metaphysics and theology, recasting the hope of the future as not in "the afterlife of individual existence in a Beyond but [in] the solidarity with men who will come after us" (p. 102).

Marcuse understood that in so far as philosophy accommodates or ignores the role of economic and political structures in determining the human condition it colludes with injustice (Marcuse 1968: 153). Critical theory refuses to depict a future world or ally itself with any particular politics or social organization, preferring to dwell with the negative from which hope emerges. Critical theory's focus on the negative means that it must account for the negativity of human experience and the reasons for unnecessary human suffering. Thought must achieve a "felt contact with its objects," meaning it must be mediated by the particular (Adorno 1974: 247). In this respect, critical theory engages in the kind of "critical correction" of philosophy that Metz proposed for theology. "Political theology," he writes, "is now also the effort to formulate the eschatological message of Christianity in the conditions of present-day society" (Metz 1970: 35). From this perspective Christian concepts such as salvation are reformulated to express eschatological hope as the struggle for justice, "the humanizing of man, the socializing of humanity, peace for all creation" (Moltmann 1967: 329, emphasis in original). These statements by Metz and Moltmann illustrate the strong impact of critical theory on the development of critical, political theology (Fierro 1977: 108).

Political theology and, to an only slightly different extent, the liberation theologies that emerge along with it unfold within, on the one hand, the parentheses of Jas. 2: 17 - "faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead" - and, on the other, Marx's eleventh thesis on Feuerbach - "the philosophers have only interpreted the world . . . the point is to change it" (Marx and Engels 1976: 5). The critical relationship between theory and practice elaborated by political theology has its source in Marxian social theory, which in some respects resonates with the social justice themes of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that emphasize the connection between love of God and humanity and the praxis of "doing justice" (Gutiérrez 1973: 194-6). Here thought is a practical activity. The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, another important intellectual source for political theology, describes Marx's second thesis on Feuerbach as proposing an idea of truth that is not "a theory relationship alone, but a definite theory-practice relationship" (Bloch 1995: 268). Marx writes that the question of "objective truth" is not "a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice" (Marx and Engels 1976: 3, emphasis in original). Thought for Marx is "an activity, a critical, insistent, revealing activity" (Bloch 1995: 268), and is concrete and dynamic only when mediated in political action (Davis 1980: 17).

Davis agrees with Marx's rejection of the traditional division between theory and practice where theory is reduced to contemplation of "stable object[s]." Davis writes that, for political theology, theory becomes "the consciousness of practice, the reflective element of social activity and, as distinct from ideology, inseparable from the concrete historical effort to overcome the contradictions of existing society" (1980: 117). Jürgen Moltmann seems to have something similar in mind with his own "Thesis 4," which states that "The new criterion of theology and of faith is to be found in praxis," which means among other things that Christianity must "bring the hoped-for future into practical contact with the misery of the present" (Moltmann 1969: 139). Like philosophy which has hitherto been content with interpreting the world, Christianity has too long speculated about an "eternity beyond time," with the effect that it has inevitably supported the status quo of domination. Political theology seeks to address the contradictions within religion in order to uncover its inner dialectic of emancipatory and regressive inclinations that helps clarify the contribution of theology to injustice. In this way political theology aspires to be in itself a force of social change. This idea is taken up by Gutiérrez as well when he describes liberation theology as "part of the process through which the world is transformed" (1973). Quoting Schillebeeckx, he writes: "The hermeneutics of the Kingdom of God consists especially in making the world a better place" (p. 18).

The Marxian idea that thought is itself a practical activity with emancipatory potential is a central concept of early critical theory. Horkheimer's famous 1937

essay "Traditional and Critical Theory" emphasizes this point as a key difference from "traditional" theory. Critical theory does not merely present "societal contradictions" as an "expression of the concrete historical situation," but also acts itself as a "force" within history "to stimulate change" (Horkheimer 1972: 215). The object of inquiry - history, society, and human experience - cannot be treated separately from theory, as is the case with traditional theory as well as theological and philosophical metaphysics. "Every part of the theory presupposes the critique of the existing order and the struggle against it along lines determined by the theory itself" (p. 229). For Horkheimer and for political theology, critical thought generates transformative action. The role of the theoretician engaged in such analysis is to form "a dynamic unity with the oppressed class" (p. 215). In a statement that strongly resonates with Schillebeeckx, in the passage quoted above, Horkheimer writes that the "Marxist categories of class, exploitation, surplus value, profit, pauperization, and breakdown are elements in a conceptual whole, and the meaning of this whole is to be sought not in the preservation of contemporary society but in its transformation into the right kind of society" (p. 218, emphasis in original). For both critical theory and political theology, the task of the theorist/theologian is to organize his/her thought in terms of what is needed to bring into being "the right kind of society," or make the world "a better place."

Political theology shares with critical theory a method of recasting the relationship between theory and practice with an emphasis on negative critique. As has been stated, neither critical theory nor political theology advocates a particular form of politics or social organization, although they certainly may be understood to imply it. For Metz, the eschatological message of Christianity has a critically negative function which helps prevent it from falling under the spell of any particular ideology, since it advocates a sustained critical negation of all particularity, of the concrete existent. From the point of view of critical theory, the kind of sustained negativity advocated by Metz becomes somewhat blunted by the theological symbolism of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, in that the Incarnation represents God's embracing of the world in its full secularity while the Crucifixion stands not only as the sign of the negation of the existing world, but also as the guarantee that it is not the last word. Unlike critical theory, which deliberately refuses any such consolation, political theology turns to the eternal realm as guarantor that there is meaning in human suffering, which will one day be vindicated. The famous controversy between Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin some sixty years ago illustrates critical theory's rejection of any such consolation, on the grounds that inherent in such consolations is a tacit acceptance of the conditions that produced the need for it in the first place. For Benjamin the case was somewhat different. For him, the historical past had to be open so that people living in the present could forge an anamnestic solidarity with the dead of past generations. He hoped that in this way their suffering and death would not be meaningless. Horkheimer thoroughly rejected this idea:

The thought is monstrous that the prayers of the persecuted in their hour of greatest need, that the innocent who must die without explanation of their situation, that the last hopes of a supernatural court of appeals, fall on deaf ears and that the night unilluminated by any human light is also not penetrated by any divine one. The eternal truth without God has as little ground and footing as infinite love; indeed, it becomes an unthinkable concept. But is the monstrousness of an idea any more a cogent argument against the assertion or denial of a state of affairs than does logic contain a law which says that a judgment is simply false that has despair as its consequence? (Horkheimer, cited in Peukert 1986: 209-10).

Political theology preserves a religious consolation that critical theory rejects because, from the latter's point of view, religious consolations inevitably support the status quo. In the end suffering will be overcome and justice established not in history, but in a future beyond history. For critical theory, this means that political theology ultimately loses its critical social and practical function. For Horkheimer, "good," or perhaps authentic religion maintains its focus on the immediate, real conditions of human beings so that the desire for change is constantly nurtured. Such religion must "sustain, not let reality stifle, the impulse for change, the desire that the spell be broken, that things take the right turn. We have religion where life down to its every gesture is marked by this resolve" (1978: 163). From its own point of view, political theology intends exactly that.

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