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

By Papanikolaou, Aristotle | Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

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


Papanikolaou, Aristotle, Anglican Theological Review


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.

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