Gary Simpson poses a question both timely and crucial, and
responds to it by engaging seminal theorists of critical social
theory as it emerged and developed in the Frankfurt School: In the
face of disturbing, even enraging circumstances of suffering and
injustice that appear as givens, how might Christians congregations
in North America today retrieve and practice prophetic imagination?
The author argues that critical social theory oriented around its
communicative turn, and nuanced by its initial engagement with
Christian theology, may help congregations in that retrieval. His
constructive proposal is crafted from three conceptual ingredients:
1) the initial articulation of critical theory by Max Horkheimer,
2) three essential and collaborative elements of prophetic
imagination argued by Paul Tillich as they intersect with
Horkheimer's thought, and 3) Jurgen Habermas' theory of
communicative reason and action. The stakes are high. The issue at
hand in this book is at the heart of critical theory and of
Tillich's theology of prophetic imagination. The issue is "the
overwhelming givenness, matter-of-factness,
that's-just-the-way-it-isness of the status quo" (37) when it
includes forms of "suffering from something man-made, which
can...and should be abolished" (citing Habermas, 73).
 Simpson correctly and succinctly situates critical social
theory as a reaction against the reigning trajectory of
sociological positivism; as drawing upon predecessor critical
theories of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, while also diverging from them;
and as a response to the spread of fascism. Horkheimer, Director of
the Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt
(3), coined the term "crit theory" in a 1937 essay pointing to the
convergence of fascism and positivist social sciences. Positivist
sociology's emphasis on the soundness of the reigning social order
and on maintaining it rather than propelling change, worked against
challenging the inadequacies of that order. Positivism's objective,
certain, descriptive and supposedly apolitical epistemology bred
the passivity that accepts the social order as a given, rather than
as a human construct subject to human agency. Horkheimer called for
a critical (rather than positivist) theory of society aimed at
emancipation from socio-historical processes that produce misery
 Key components of Horkheimer's theory form the initial layer
of Simpson's constructive proposal. They include the impulse
against positivism, the claim that relevant historical changes
reshape critical theory, and the notions of immanent critique and
ideological critique. The former taps the founding norms and ideals
of a given social order, to critique processes within it that cause
suffering and injustice, assuming that those processes represent
departures from the founding standards. Critique of ideology goes
further, investigating where suffering and injustice exist as an
"outgrowth of [rather than a departure from] norms and ideals that
have always been false" (127), but that have seemed good.
 Chapter two traces an initial Christian theological
engagement with Horkheimer's critical social theory in the work of
Paul Tillich. Tillich, who supported Horkheimer's appointment to
the Institute and participated in the circle of people associated
with it, offers the next layer of Simpson's proposal: an insistence
on three necessary elements of social criticism if it is to expose
falsehood masquerading as truth, and reveal the changeability of a
supposedly immutable status quo. Those elements are a distinction
between rational criticism and prophetic criticism, partnership
between the two, and the "overcoming" (42) of both by grace. (Grace
leads one to "question the sole sufficiency of criticism.")
 Tillich's positive valuation of rational criticism is the
key distinction between him and Horkheimer who finally abandoned
reason in his quest for an emancipatory social theory. That move
grew from his thesis - influenced by the evil of Hitler's Germany
and Stalin's Russia - that reason is by nature "instrumental
reason" in which the subject inevitably dominates its object, thus
turning from emancipatory purposes to domination and oppression.
Tillich proposes the congregation as "the Protestant form of grace"
(48) - the third necessary element of effective criticism - and as
"locus for the union of rational and prophetic critique" (130-1).
While Tillich did not pursue that suggestion, Simpson does. It is
the heartbeat of his proposal. "How," he asks, "might congregations
become the socio-historical locus for imagining and enacting
rational prophetic criticism for the sake of a more rational and
 Simpson's response, stirred by an insight of Dennis McCann,
is that yet another element - in addition to Tillich's three - -is
needed and that it might be "'something similar' to Habermas'
theory of public discourse" (52, citing McCann). Pursuing that
hunch, Simpson, in chapters three through five, probes Habermas'
theory of communicative reason and action "for a decolonizing,
emancipatory 'society' rooted in a civil society that makes a
deliberative democracy and a stakeholder economy possible" (xi).
"Communicative" is a kind of code word describing "life together in
communication that is free from coercion" (citing Habermas, 73).
"Communicative" stands in contrast to the modern philosophical
paradigm of a subject with the right and capacity to master the
 Habermas retained continuity with Horkheimer's critical
theory of the 1930s, but opposed his later rejection of reason.
Simpson adopts three dimensions of Habermas' move. First is his
theory of communicative rationality that reclaims reason from its
reduction to instrumental reason. Next is the broadening of
communicative reason to imply communicative social action. The
third dimension is Habermas' identification of civil society as the
locus of communicative action and reason. By civil society, he
means a pluralistic network of associations, organizations, and
movements that emerge from the "lifeworld"of a society, and
function as a "threshold" between "lifeworld" and the two systems
of state and economy. For Habermas and for Simpson, a central role
of civil society is to mitigate against the "colonizing tendencies"
of state and economy, and hold both accountable to the pluralistic
public. Civil society "imparts normative resources for a more
emancipatory and just deliberative democracy and for a more
responsible stakeholder economy, thereby weakening . . . the
colonizing effects [of state and economy]" (136). These three
features of Habermas' communicative turn in crit social theory form
the final layer of Simpson's proposal.
 Chapter Six outlines that proposal. It aims at Christian
prophetic imagination that enables congregations in their "vocation
as communicatively prophetic public companions." That vocation
calls them to "participate with other institutions of communicative
civil society to create, strengthen, and sustain the moral fabrics
that fashion a life-giving and life-accountable world" (145).
Simpson's proposal builds on the initial critical impulse and
emancipatory aim of Horkheimer's theory; draws upon Tillich's
theology of prophetic reason to argue an essential collaboration
between rational criticism and prophetic criticism, and to add a
third essential element, grace; and finally finds in Habermas'
communicative theory the three aforementioned "other elements"
(51-52) needed to develop a Christian prophetic imagination."
 The contributions made by Simpson's book are many and
diverse. The first three noted below are methodological, and the
following three more content-related. First is his basic move to
bring the theoretical insights of the Frankfurt School into direct,
constructive dialogue with Christian theology for the sake of
empowering congregations for their prophetic public vocation.
Secondly, he resists the seductive temptation to become mired in
academic debates about what the giants of the past "really said,"
and focuses instead on their value for the work of the church
today. Finally, Simpson deftly negotiates the difficult dilemma
inherent in any effort to craft a constructive proposal on deep
knowledge of complex theories and historical debates with which
some readers may not be familiar. One risks providing either too
much or too little theoretical background, thus either losing less
knowledgeable readers or boring others. Simpson avoids either
mistake. While not an easy read for the reader not well versed in
the Frankfurt School and in Paul Tillich, it is indeed a possible
 The book's content-related contributions are no less
significant. Foremost is the author's principle point - both
explicit and implicit - that ongoing dynamic encounter between
critical social theory and Christian theology is a monumental
resource for a church called to participate with other civil
society players in nurturing "the postmodern milieu toward
sustainable justice and freedom" (143). Equally important, Simpson
- in arguing the emancipatory potential of civil society - avoids
the increasingly common error of prescribing civil society as a
preferred alternative to the state for citizen pursuit of enhanced
democracy, social welfare, and social justice. That error feeds
anti-state sentiment in its libertarian, communitarian,
neo-liberal, and post-Marxist forms, and obscures the state's role
as agent of social justice and widespread well-being. Simpson - in
line with Habermas (119) and with many contemporary feminist
political theorists - clearly retains that role of the state. His
move to regenerate civil society without disclaiming the role of
the state is vital in the current political climate.
 Thirdly, Simpson's project implicitly tenders to the church
a challenge issued by Tillich, and at the heart of Christian public
vocation today: To bring effective religious criticism (rational,
prophetic, and issuing from grace) to bear on cultural, economic,
and political roots of suffering and injustice, as an integral
aspect of being "companions" in God's ongoing work to nurture and
sustain life" (143). Finally, in challenging the church to
prophetic public criticism and practice, Simpson points to the
limitations of "immanent critique" and the necessity of
"ideological critique." The distinction is made above. Its point is
that prophetic public companionship calls for ideological criticism
in order to unmask evil that parades as good, and to expose
alliances between supposed truth and dominant sector interests.
Another Lutheran making a similar plea was Dietrich Bonhoeffer in
his Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison.
 Only one methodological flaw appears in Simpson's argument.
He bases his "normative account of civil society" on a theory:
"Habermas' three models of democracy suggest that three different
modes of civil society also exist" (137). Simpson rightly describes
the two dominant modes of civil society as historical social
realities, giving historical evidence for them. The problem appears
when he claims the "historical" emergence of the third mode - "the
communicative model of civil society [that] . . . takes its
practices, procedures, and attitudes from the paradigm shift to
communicative rationality and action" (139) - but gives no evidence
of this mode's actual emergence in history. Basing a claim for
historical emergence, on a paradigm shift that has occurred in
theory, but not necessarily in practice leaves a gap, and confuses
description with prescription. Fortunately, this flaw does not
significantly weaken Simpson's argument.
 An indicator of quality work is that it nudges the reader
to probe conceptual conundrums percolating below the surface and
bearing real import. This good work does just that. The term "civil
society"- emerging again in the political discourse of the last two
decades - currently has as many definitions as definers, and is
used to denote and connote contradictory and changing realities.
Simpson rightly complexifies "civil society," especially as it has
existed historically. Yet, given that Habermas' notion of civil
society evolved in response to changing political and economic
arrangements, and given the substantive changes in those systems
now occurring on a global level, we are pushed to consider relevant
consequent changes in the nature of civil society (as both concept
and actuality). Since Simpson aims at a "global civil society," the
scope of vision must be worldwide. I note two currently shifting
political-economic circumstances that further complexify "civil
 First, Simpson's model of society, adopted after Habermas',
locates civil society in a sphere distinct from the spheres of
state and economy. In the globalizing economy, this three-fold
distinction no longer neatly holds. While once it worked to
illumine power dynamics, it now both illumines and obscures
normative account of civil society should theorize that porousness,
and explore its impact on the emancipatory role of civil society in
relationship to state and economy.
 Secondly, Habermas' model of society retains liberalism's
location of state and economy as parallel systems. That model fails
to account for the contemporary subtle trend toward encroachment on
state power by economic entities that are unaccountable to states.
A function of the state in Western democracies has been to mitigate
against forms of injustice that are rooted in economic life. If the
state becomes less able to do so because of a shift in power to
global economic interests, and if a function of civil society is to
"erect a democratic dam against the colonizing encroachment" (115)
of either state or economy, then a shift in balance of power from
state to economy must have some impact on the function and
potential of civil society in its interaction with these systems. I
do not purport to describe that impact, but only to suggest that it
be probed and accounted for in a normative account of global civil
society for the 21st century.
 Simpson's book leads one to hope that he would bring his
considerable knowledge of critical social theory and his agility in
constructively engaging it, to bear on subsequent projects toward
which Critical Social Theory points (in this author's opinion). One
pertains to his assertion that the prophetic imagination he
prescribes and locates in the congregation "hones...skills" for
critique of ideology (127). I applaud this insight. Honing those
skills is an indispensable and underpracticed element of the
church's role in moral formation. Perhaps Simpson, in another
project, would probe how prophetic imagination will help
congregations to "hone" them. Secondly, Simpson joins with a number
of feminist social theorists who deeply appreciate Habermas
(especially for his radically democratic ideal, attention to the
plurality of subjects in a given public, and early recognition that
presupposed homogeneity masks power differentials), while yet
finding in his theory some blind spots related to gender. It might
be fruitful to bring those criticisms of Habermas to bear
constructively on Simpson's proposal, in order to garner further
guidance for congregations in their vocation of prophetic public
companionship. Finally, the theory developed by Horkheimer and
Habermas is indeed a "social" theory; it pertains to "humanity"
(4). Given our unfolding realization that the fate of humanity is
inseparably tied up with the fate of the bio-sphere, "social"
theory may no longer be an adequate category for investigating
phenomena that cause misery and injustice. The anthropological
boundaries inherent in a "social" theory must expand in ways not
yet familiar in Western conceptual categories. Simpson hints at
this expansion and initiates it. He refers to "evil in human and
earthwide suffering" (129), aims at a "life-accountable world,"
(145) and alters the traditional "flourishing of human life" to
include "environmental life (38). Perhaps he will take these moves
further. In so doing, the Frankfurt School might again be a crucial
source. For it is Horkheimer that writes: "The disease of reason is
that reason was born of man's urge to dominate nature" (67)
 The question that Horkheimer answers one way, and Tillich,
Habermas, and Simpson answer another is crucial: Given the multiple
forms of devastation and deceit wrought by "reasonable" humanity
since the Age of Reason dawned, "can and how can reason serve
emancipatory purposes?" Reason, Simpson responds, must be freed
from positivism, put in partnership with a prophetic element,
grounded in and checked by grace, and guided by a communicative
principle. Christian congregations - in companionship with God and
other civil society players - are called to that prophetic work.
Simpson's is a hopeful, theologically rich, theoretically sound,
and well crafted response.
Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil
Society, and Christian Imagination, is available from
Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002.
© April 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 2, Issue 4
1 The examples are endless. At the UN General Assembly on the
Implementation of the World Summit For Social Development (Geneva,
2000), the Secretary General of the United Nations spoke of
"private corporations" as "civil society" (recalling an original
liberal notion of civil society), while many of the officially
recognized representatives of civil society publicly protested that
designation. On a worldwide basis, businesses increasingly are
funding "civil society" organizations and networks; civil society
associations are assuming functions previously held by the state;
and economic players are stepping into what has been the