Why the True Religion Needs Critical Theory

Christians have much to learn from the Frankfurt School of critical social theory. Pope Benedict makes this clear in his encyclical Spe salvi [Saved in Hope]:

"A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a 'longing for the totally Other' that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any 'image' of a loving God. But as this dialectic is always 'negative,' he highlighted and asserted that justice—true justice—would require a world 'where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.' This would mean, however—to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols—that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead."

The Frankfurt School relentlessly demystified the bloody pretensions of hegemonic materialist and technocratic progressivism. So consistent in their negation of every position in favor of those who are the crushed humus beneath the pyramids of power, the critical theorists open a way for the true transcendence of total kenotic love to interrupt the false totalities of irreligion and crypto-secular religion:

"Christians likewise can and must constantly learn from the strict rejection of images that is contained in God's first commandment. The truth of negative theology was highlighted by the Fourth Lateran Council, which explicitly stated that however great the similarity that may be established between Creator and creature, the dissimilarity between them is always greater."

Citing a dogma central to his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar's systematics, Pope Benedict reminds us that the only non-idolatrous theism is one of the ever-greater God, Who has opted for a totality without closure in the analogy of being, in which there is no upper limit for the energies of existence.

So. No to the idolatries within religion. But no also to the other secularism: the one that dooms us to a totality of power. There is a measureless measure. There is true judgment. Not in us. Rather: above us; below us; all through us. The Word made flesh, the tortured God, the Faithful and True, embraces within His stretched sinews everything there is in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.

"In any case, for the believer the rejection of images cannot be carried so far that one ends up, as Horkheimer and Adorno would like, by saying 'no' to both theses—theism and atheism."

In a thoroughly Balthasarian passage, the Pope points out the true negative theology—the absolute identification of God with the anguished human:

"God has given Himself an 'image': in Christ Who was made man. In Him Who was crucified, the denial of false images of God is taken to an extreme. God now reveals His true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man's God-forsaken condition by taking it upon Himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an 'undoing' of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright."

It is the faith OF Jesus, God the Son, above all in His abandonment by His Father, that is the hinge of history, the peripateia for all that is breaking. The fruiting of negative dialectics is the Word, true to the end, beyond which opens up the infinity of a Trinitarian life always greater than the hells of our lovelessness. The judgment of God is the vindication of every victim of sin, accomplished by the fidelity, the being-true-to-the-end, of Jesus.

"For this reason, faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing."

What Pope Benedict teaches here is a profound affirmation of the theologian Johann Baptist Metz, who learned so much from the Frankfurt School: the essential argument for faith in eternal life is the absolute necessity that every suffering human be vindicated. To be true to the memory of victims requires our hope-filled faith in the Faithful One, the One Who believes the unsurveyable plan of loving goodness of His Father, though all is dark, with the stench of history's abbatoir heavy in the air. The victims must be vindicated; therefore, there must be resurrection unto eternal life.

No Kingdom without a critical social theory that destroys all the idols of religion and of irreligion, so that in the stillness of the clearing, the true religion of totally self-emptying love may interrupt with utter faithfulness and true judgment the anguish of every social totality.

These are some of the themes we will discuss in tomorrow's final session of Massachusetts Citizens for Life's Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate Program. Tune in on FB Live around 9:15 am!