Our New Redemption: Critical Theory as Theology Without “Theos”

There is one, almost singular, theological and philosophical problem that has haunted Western civilization since the rise of modern skepticism in the mid-17th century, i.e. since Descarte. It is a theoretical problem that has launched a thousand ships of philosophical speculation, all floundering on the open seas of human inquiry, and subject to the acidity of the rational mind reasoning about itself.1 Kristen Irwin expounds on the view of the early, modern philosopher Pierre Bayle, who questioned the reliability of reason, “The sense in which Bayle is a skeptic is not entirely straightforward, but what is clear is that Bayle exhibits a profound suspicion of reason’s ability to deliver certain knowledge. In Bayle’s view, reason seems to be useful in enabling us to draw conclusions about the world, but it runs into so many contradictions and yields so many paradoxes that it ultimately undermines itself, and thus cannot be trusted. Thus, Bayle’s skepticism is, minimally, skepticism about the reliability of reason.” in https://iep.utm.edu/bayle/#:~:text=The%20sense%20in%20which%20Bayle%20is%20a%20skeptic,ultimately%20undermines%20itself%2C%20and%20thus%20cannot%20be%20trusted. But, it is a theoretical problem that plays out in the everyday life of every man, woman and child; a theoretical problem that cannot be easily ignored (as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems perhaps can be). That problem is how to think, speak, and act morally apart from any metaphysical grounds for moral values or moral duties. This problem, at first considered soluble if baptized in the waters of pure reason, a reason unadulterated by claims of divine revelation and church authority, quickly became an unassailable fortress against which no weapon formed by human heads seemed able to prevail. The Enlightenment, many now claim, failed to illuminate the issue of human morality, making it only more obscure to us than it was under the transcendent light of its predecessor, the Queen of the Sciences: Theology.

The existential void the Enlightenment left behind in western culture, in virtue of seeking after a universally applicable moral system grounded in reason alone, provided the seedbed for the emergence of a new kind of philosophy: Critical Theory. Early Critical Theory2 I am thinking here of Marx and The Frankfurt School in particular, along with all of its subsequent, social scientific subsets, e.g. Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, etc., sought, and still seeks, to construct morality apart from anything ontological other than the human subject herself, and apart from any phenomena other than that of human experience. Critical theory as such is a purely empirical theory, but one where the human reasoner is himself part of the empirical data subject to social and historical analysis.

Where the enlightened modernists failed to successfully replace religious morality with Reason (capital “R”), the post-modern critical theorist now took up the mantel of moral progress. This new, critical philosophy consisted of Marx and his successors on the one hand, e.g. the cultural Marxists: Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse, et al., and Nietzsche on the other (few have been willing to embrace Nietzsche as an ethicist worth emulating, but perhaps someone like Ayn Rand might fit the bill). Abandoning the first principles of metaphysics, and the classical theories of knowledge, the question of ethics was now placed squarely in the realm of the human will by both parties; either with the emphasis on its communal (Marx), or its individual (Nietzsche) forms.

However, while the moral axiom: “How now shall we live?” remains the question that motivates us all, at least as a culture, if not as individuals, the answer remains an elusive target. Further, it is a question that motivates us even apart from, and independent of, any religious commitments. For we cannot help but live in a society of peers, and we cannot help but have moral intuitions about our relations to each other, and to the environment in which we live, and move, and have our being. And, even if one were banished and isolated to the proverbial deserted island, moral questions about how to treat oneself would still be with us even there.

“How now shall we live?” seems, therefore, to be a question that cannot be answered with any kind of unifying consensus if there is no agreement about our religious commitments, and even if there is agreement in our total rejection of any religious commitments whatsoever. With our without acknowledgment of God, we seem lost to a never-ending series of speculation about what is “the good” and what is “the good life.” To have unity on moral values and duties we would seem to require a real, extant, and clear moral principle, or Person, to either guide us into the Good, or tell us about it, or even model it for us.

Otherwise, what do we really have to say about morality?

Critical Theory as The New Theology

In his chapter, “To Seek to Salvage an Unconditional Meaning Without God is a Futile Undertaking: Reflections on a Remark of Max Horkheimer” the prodigious, second-wave philosopher of Critical Theory Jürgen Habermas says this about a comment made by his predecessor and founder of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, Max Horkheimer:

“Horkheimer’s interest in the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity was spurred less by a concern with God as such than with the redemptive power of God’s will. The injustice that comes to pass in a suffering creature should not be permitted to have the last word. At times it seems as if Horkheimer wanted to put the religious promise of redemption directly at the service of morality.”3 in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, 95

This passage, upon first reading, may seem obscure. However, once understood it can be shown that the idea contained herein, this notion of trying to realize the “redemptive power of God’s will” apart from any interest in God “as such,” is what lies at the heart of much, if not all, of the social justice movements that engulf and inflame our society today. It is the sentiment at the center of organizations like Black Lives Matter, and the fulcrum of initiatives that seek justice and the healing of division, yet attempt to do so without resort to a Divine Nature that grounds the apparently divine will found in traditional, religious texts. This, as we shall see, leads to a dangerous conflation: the confusion of the will of God with that of man; or the elevation of man to God rather than the descent of God to man.

First, however, what is Habermas saying about Horkheimer’s interest in “the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity?” Clearly, the critical philosopher, meaning Horkheimer, is presupposing “the death of God” as pronounced by Nietzsche, and assumed by Marx, as the inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment project of rationalization about religious belief. Thus, for all critical theorists, like Horkheimer or Habermas after him, that God is dead, meaning He never existed, is the starting point for any social theorizing, and any attempt to answer our question “How now shall we live?” Atheism is true, and we must simply get on with it.

Second, however, is the realization that we cannot seem to simply “get on with it!” The idea that the injustice that accompanies the suffering of sentient creatures, i.e. ourselves, animals, can be treated in a sterile, scientistic manner as mere “natural fact,” is simply unpalatable to the socially conscious, existentially sensitive human agent. How can we look at the long history of human and animal suffering, in all it horror, and say “well, that is just what molecules in motion do, and there is nothing more to say.” Certainly, there must be not only more to say, but also more to do! There must be a morality that gives us some meaningful context for that suffering, and that spurs us to some kind of ethical action. Stoic resignation is not an option for the critical theorist who seeks liberation from the oppression of such a woeful existence. In this sense, moral action becomes imperative for the critical theorist. For all critical theories, liberation from existential oppression is the focal point of all human thought and action.4 James Bohman writes in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosohpy entry on Critical Theory, “In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.

However, as we have alluded to above, morality according to the post-modern critical theorists cannot really be considered an object of the intellect, i.e. as something capable of being grasped or discovered by the natural light of reason. After all, if God is dead, then there is no ultimate truth about morality to grasp, nor universal standard to be discovered. No abstract reasoning about abstract “truths,” no further scientific investigations of natural processes, and no theological commentary about supposed special revelations from above, e.g. the Bible, will give us any real moral content. For, where there is no moral law Giver, there really is no moral law.

In light of this “reality,” the novel proposal to the problem of dealing with moral sensibilities about perceived injustices, arises out of being pressed in between a modern rock, which says there are only natural facts about the world, no moral ones, and a post-modern hard place, which cries out that we need morality to live and to thrive as sentient and feeling creatures. The proposal of Horkheimer then, and several others, was to assume the moral content of Christianity, and his native Judaism, as descriptively true, yet without assuming its God as real. Horkheimer does not consider the moral content to be true in the sense of referring to an ultimate, non-physical reality (which would make it an object of the intellect to be grasped), rather he asserts it, morality, as being useful to us for the sake of functioning well (imposing function being an object of the will).

Third, then, is assuming the particular Judeo-Christian content of morality, in spite of rejecting the metaphysics of biblical and theological claims. What then for Horkheimer (the ethnic Jew) is central to biblical morality?— it is the “religious promise of redemption.” Redemption, even a redemption without a Redeemer, is still the only hope for modern man to get on with modern life. Habermas details this aspect of Horkheimer’s thinking,

“Once the rationality of the remorse experienced by a religiously tutored conscience is rejected by a secularizing world, its place is taken by the moral sentiment of compassion. When Horkheimer expressly defines the good tautologically as the attempt to abolish evil, he has in view a solidarity with the suffering of vulnerable and forsaken creatures provoked by outrage against concrete injustices.” (Habermas, 96)

In other words: even when we realize that religion is metaphysically false (and feel remorse because of it), we nevertheless recognize that our moral intuitions have been “tutored” by thousands of years of religious practice. And, even more, we still sense that those religious sentiments (even if they be only that, sentiments) are somehow correct, and worth defending. So, we feel compassionate in spite of the stark reality of a brute, naturalistic universe, a universe that is indifferent to us, and therefore are still moved to fight “evil” when we “see” it in the form of concrete injustices (knowing full well that there is no such thing as justice against which we can actually measure our feelings about the perceived injustice). Our outrage is stoked when we perceive these apparent imbalances in society, and our compassion demands we respond accordingly. Habermas goes on to tell us more about Horkheimer’s plundering of this particularly Christian moral content:

“The reconciling power of compassion does not stand in opposition to the galvanizing power of rebellion against a world devoid of atonement and reparation for injustice. Solidarity and justice are two sides of the same coin; hence, the ethics of compassion does not dispute the legitimacy of the morality of justice but merely frees it form the rigidity of the ethics of conscience.” (Habermas, 96)

But, now we come to the heart of the moral matter, if indeed God is not that heart. Having jettisoned religious belief as true but still finding that we have a conscience that has been trained in and molded by religious content, in particular that of Judeo-Christianity and the Bible, we are now told by the critical theorist that in a world where there is no “real” atonement and reparation for injustice, because there is no real God to do the atoning and repairing, our own “reconciling power of compassion” must be the vehicle by which “concrete injustices” are rectified. After all, if we are not going to be the ones to do the redeeming, then the redemption will not, cannot, come. Moreover, this immanent, and human-centered power of compassion, is not opposed to the “galvanizing power of rebellion,” but rather embraces it.5 one might think here of Saul Alinsky’s dedication in his classic work Rules for Radicals, where the author commends Lucifer for his rebellion, a rebellion that won him his own kingdom. In other words, if there is no God to atone for us, yet atonement is still necessary for us to live morally and to have an “unconditional” meaning that contextualizes our suffering, then in a world where there are concrete instances of things we perceive as unjust, and that “must” be made right for us to experience atonement, rebellion becomes a morally acceptable vehicle of redemption.

Compassion and rebellion are the new moral dynamo generating the new, moral society. This begins to look very familiar to what we see currently on our television screens and YouTube videos, where cries for justice and compassion are inevitably accompanied by acts of rebellion and revolutionary fervor. This is the politicizing of religiosity, the messianism of our times.6 Few journalist have done a better job of identifying and explaining the new religion of Social Justice than Andrew Sullivan, see here https://andrewsullivan.substack.com/p/the-roots-of-wokeness

But here is where those who identify themselves with “Christ” face the stark choice: We must decide whether the critical theorist is right in saying that religious belief itself is a mere product of man’s own making, and that its truth claims (like all others) are historically situated and thus unfixed from anything transhistorical, transfinite, or culturally transcendent. For if this is the case, then the redemption we need may tell us something about ourselves, our current “society,” but tells us nothing about anything beyond ourselves, or this latest version of ourselves. If Horkheimer is right, then Critical [social] theory is the new theology, in that it calls us to a form of moral life, even one replete with corporate atonement and communal redemption; however, it is a theology without a theos, or, at least, without a divine theos. It is religion “from below,” an earth without a heaven:

[Social theory] has superseded theology but has no new heaven to which it can point, not even a mundane one. Of course, social theory cannot completely efface [heaven’s] traces and hence is repeatedly questioned about how it is to be attained–as though it were not precisely the discovery of social [critical] theory that the heaven to which one can point the way is no heaven.” (Habermas, 98)

For in a world that is itself the sum of all reality, the new religion of social theory, with its hope for an immanent, social justice, the new heaven just is that culture which will result (perhaps for us, most likely for our children or grandchildren) if we were only to act now! What that new culture will be like, of course, is not something we can really say much about. You have to arrive in the “undiscovered country” before you can know what it will be like.

Alternatively to this New Theology, we can choose to believe that there is a something beyond ourselves, even a Someone, whose eternal life and transcendent nature is reflected in that which He has created. Further we can come to believe that our need for redemption tells us as much about the eternal Creator as it does of His temporal creatures. Instead of listening to the words of the critical theorist, we listen instead to the words of the critical realist, who says:

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20)

Either those things that are called moral evils are, as the critical theorist says, the product of human construction, and, consequently, the redemption that they demand also the product of human construction; or, they are, as the Apostle Paul says, the product of human rebellion against ultimate reality, and, consequently, redeemable only through the reconstructive action of the author of that reality. In ontological terms, redemption is either a bottom-up struggle performed by purely accidental creatures, and which has included in it the creation of culturally relative theological concepts and religious practices that aid us in our survival; or it is a top-down event, one enacted by a necessary Creator who has given us reason that allows us to form ideas, concepts, and language to describe that which is ultimately and actually real.

Whichever we decide will make a world of difference in what happens “down here” and in our daily lives. For on the former view the only authority against which we rise up is that of men and women just like ourselves, yet who merely constructed morality in a different fashion than we do today, a dynamic which implies an endless process of doing the same deconstruction and reconstruction with every generation of human society. On the latter view, however, the authority we are rebelling against is not like us, because He is not us, and we are not Him. Moreover, in virtue of not being like us, He (or It) may have an actual answer to our moral problem, so long as we can have access to Him (or It). And, if we have access to Him, we may be able to change who we are, and if we can be changed, then so can our moral behavior. And, if our moral behavior can change, so to the society in which we live.

Conflating the Divine Will With Human Will: Black Lives Matter And the Doctrine of “Heal Thyself”

In paragraph four of their statement about “What We Believe,” the most powerful and dominant social justice movement of our time: Black Lives Matter, claims the following: “Every day, we recommit to healing ourselves and each other, and to co-creating alongside comrades, allies, and family a culture where each person feels seen, heard, and supported.”7 (https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/) This doctrine of “self-healing” or “heal thyself” is fundamentally related to the above exposition of the early critical theorist, Max Horkheimer’s, notion of a theology without God. Upon further reading of the Black Lives Matter doctrinal statement, one will quickly discern that the moral and religious impulse is still there: human dignity is presupposed, redemption is what matters, and liberation is the key. The only problem is that we are the only agents of atonement (and, oh is there a process for how to atone!), as well as the only standard by which we name what is good “good”, and distinguish it from what is “evil.” Again, the determining factor of moral judgments no longer being the intellect seeking knowledge, but the will exercising power. Human power becomes the sole vehicle for societal change, because the human will is the sole determiner of moral “truth.”

In his short work Marxism and Christianity, former Marxist now Roman Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre says this about the role of religion in the life of the individual agent:

“But religion is only able to have this latter transforming function because and insofar as it enables individuals to identify and to understand themselves independently of their position in the existing social structure. It is in the contrast between what society tells a man he is and what religion tells him he is that he is able to find grounds both for criticizing the status quo and for believing that it is possible for him to act with others in changing it.”

MacIntyre. Marxism and Christianity. Apple Books, 13.

MacIntyre wrote this in 1968, many years before his conversion to Catholicism. This is why the astute observer will take note of MacIntyre’s fundamental metaphysical flaw when he says “it is in the contrast between what society tells a man he is and what religion tells him he is.” At that time, MacIntyre, like so many social justice theorists and social justice activists of today, confused the dictates of religion with the reality of God. Still a metaphysical naturalist, religion for MacIntrye was, as it remained for Horkheimer, merely a set of descriptive, yet non-referring claims—a set of sociological constructs, not universal moral truths revealed by a divine will. At some point for MacIntyre that understanding of religion ended, and his attention, unlike Horkheimer, turned to God “as such.”

To turn to God “as such” is to recognize the reality of the Divine Nature, and come to understand the words of the Bible and the content of the Christian faith no longer as just highly compelling products of human sentiment, but as divinely revealed fixtures of an intricately designed cosmos. A cosmos replete with essences and natural kinds, with ontological realities that can be examined by reason, be experienced with the affections, and by which we can gauge our moral attitudes, harness the best of our moral intuitions, and help guide our moral actions.

To not see this objective, mind-independent, fabric of the universe; a fabric not woven by human brains, but by a divine Mind, is ultimately to conflate God’s will with our own. For to look at the Bible and think of it as merely a human book, as Horkheimer did, even if a book worthy of plundering for the cause of moral action and the execution of justice, is to conflate the human will with the divine. It is to grant divinity to ourselves, and to elevate our own goodness as we conveniently ignore all the evil that we have done, and will continue to do. It is to try and do Christianity without Christ. It is to “heal ourselves.”

For many Social Justice theorists and activists today, society is all there is, and it does “tell a man what he is,” or perhaps “what it is.” For them to change society is for them to change man. But for the Christian this is not so, nor is it, as the younger MacIntyre erroneously claimed, religion that tells a man what he is. It is God who tells us who we are, and that divine speech act of identity, that communication from above, can be found both in the careful observation of His creation, and in the direct revelation of His Word.

That is the Old Theology. Theology with theos.