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Topic: Critical Social Theory

Talking It Through
4/15/2017 3:50:39 PM

My children probably have memories of when they had to go have a "talk with papa". This idea, that it can be helpful to talk things through, was not just an accident.

It had to do with my reading of a social philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, perhaps the most important thinker in Germany in the post-war period. He focused not just on the individual (psychology) and not just on the community (sociology, political science), but on the interaction between the two. And the means of that interaction, when you think about it, is language, the way people talk with one another.

It was when I worked at Bemidji State University that I began to think that the most helpful focus for thought was the interaction between the individual and the environment. But it was not until I was working for a metropolitan planning agency in St. Paul, Minnesota, that I ran into Habermas. He was part of a school of thought called "critical theory" which had provided the philosophical basis for some of the movements of the 1960s.

If you don't talk things through what's the option? Only power and force. The United States is an extremely violent country. Though we are a democracy, which seemingly relies on talking things through, we actually operate on the basis of police power domestically and military force overseas. I think this is partially explained by the history of slavery in the South, which was extremely violent. The need to use force to keep blacks and people of color in line is deeply embedded in the white psyche of the country (based in fear). We now have an administration that believes not in talking, not in education, not in discussion in the political process, but in force and dominance.

Still, the ideas of Habermas can be helpful. A big new biography has been published. Here is a review.

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Understanding the Context for Preaching
7/16/2016 3:20:57 PM

Over the years at seminaries around the country there has been growing awareness of the importance of "context" for ministry and preaching. It is not just doctrine, theology, or text, that is important, but these cannot be understood without some view or perspective of the current world in which we live and see and speak. And we can't just take that for granted, as if current social/political/economic views are so clear or obvious. Right now, for example, we see on television cable news twenty-four hour descriptions of the violence of terrorism, killing of black people by police, and in Dallas the killing of white police by a young black former soldier. How to interpret the depth of racial and class division in our society is not so easy. And yet not to speak of it at all is pretending the church has not interest in the world at all, which is completely against what we see Jesus doing in the bible all the time, walking the streets of his time.

Just what perspective to take on our current historical context is not an easy question. But for years I have been reading something known as "critical theory" which emerged from among some mainly Jewish thinkers in the Weimar Period in Germany. They had to leave when Hitler took power, came to New York, and then returned to Germany after the war. One figure was Walter Benjamin who died trying to escape the Nazis. He is known now as one who had amazing powers of observation of his times including both the rise of fascism and the influence of capitalism and consumerism.

I have placed on the website a helpful article which compares the Weimar Period with our own times. I mention there that the views of Jews in Germany at that time are "views from below", that is, the intellectual understandings coming from those were the victims of a terrible genocide. We are more likely to get real truth from victims than oppressors. The bible itself is the record of history of a little known people in the Middle East, the Israelites, not the history of one of the great empires of the time. Jesus was not a soldier or a government official or a politician, he was a teacher and viewed the world from below, along with a few fishermen and other workers.

So to understand the "context for preaching" today it is wise to consider the views of those who are seeing the world from below, not those who are in powerful positions, and especially not those who only report the views of the powerful. I hope you find the Benjamin article helpful as we seek to understand our own times.

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A Dark Day for the UK
6/24/2016 1:33:14 PM

Stuart Eldon produces a website on "Progressive Geographies" which combines geography with critical social theory especially including studies from Michel Foucault, the French philosopher I have been reading for some years now. Eldon is a person I have come to respect for his lucid commentary on many items. His comments on the recent decision of Britain to leave the European Union is worthy of much reflection:

Yet again I find myself in a minority in a national vote. It was hard to take in the past – 1992, 2010, 2015 – but with those there was always the hope for the future. Now it is hard to see where. This is a backward step that cannot be reversed. This vote was always about more than EU membership. It was a vote about what kind of UK the people wanted. An open, inclusive, tolerant nation that saw itself as part of a wider world; or a closed one which saw divisions and barriers which it wanted hardened. 17.5 million people have voted for the latter. Some of those people may claim that they saw the vote as means of achieving the former, and I look forward to hearing from the left-exit voters and leaders how they will go about that. It seems clear, as it always appeared, that this has simply handed further power to the right.

For the past year I’ve had a divided life between home in Coventry – near University of Warwick – and a rented flat in London, in the borough of Lambeth, which is close to where my wife works. Coventry voted to leave; Lambeth had one of the strongest remain votes. When the votes came in for Newcastle and Sunderland it was clear which way things were going. As someone who used to live in the northeast when I taught at Durham University it is devastating to see that the huge problems of that region are blamed on the EU and migration rather than domestic politics. Other places I’ve previously lived such as York and Bath voted to remain. The town I was born in, Ipswich, and the town where I grew up, Colchester, voted to leave. It is a divided country, by class, geography, age and other factors which may take some time to disentangle. 16 million people voted to remain. That at least gives some hope. But this was a one-off vote, the process begun cannot be reversed. Worse is to come. While the parties may have short term joy, the UK Independence Party and the bulk of the Conservative and Unionist party may have destroyed both the UK and the Union.

As an English European, an identity I saw as mutually reinforcing, rather than as an either/or, I feel that a part of that is being taken away. The EU was far from perfect, and there were serious problems with its democracy, its economic policies, its migration attitude and more. But it was a shared project to say that Europe in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond could be better, not just compared to the first half of the twentieth century but the centuries that came before. As a historian, a political theorist, a political geographer, those issues are very much in my mind. I have worked on two main topics in my research and teaching career – European thought and the question of territory. I will doubtless find ways to engage with the future politics and geography of the European continent, a continent of which the UK is and will remain a part, even though its future lies outside of the EU.

I worry for my non-British European PhD students, my European colleagues and friends who have made a life in the UK. I worry for my nieces and nephews, and the country they will grow up in. I worry for the future life of migrants, and the welcome they will, or will not, receive. I am married to a migrant, a US citizen who came here when we got married, took jobs in the UK, took citizenship and now works for the UK government on international development. What will be the future of that part of the UK’s role in the world? I worry for the future of the European project, which both includes and exceeds the EU. This is a dark day. Perhaps something good will come of this, but at the moment it is hard to see quite how.

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Jurgen Habermas: A New Possibility for Europe
7/21/2015 3:21:23 PM

During the late 1970s I was responsible for conceptual development in a policy planning process at the Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities in St. Paul, Minnesota. I read a lot of books on social theory and planning. One was by Jurgen Habermas on communication and that led me to critical theory and the Frankfurt School.

This became especially interesting to me because as a pastor I had studied Lutheran social ethics and was puzzled by why Lutherans, both theologians and lay people, had not been able to more strongly and widely reject the fascist political program of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Frankfurt School was a group of primarily Jewish intellectuals who did criticize Hitler, left Germany for a time in New York City at Columbia University, and after the war returned to Germany. The theologian Paul Tillich had interacted with the group in Frankfurt. Here was a group of thinkers who were able to be critical of "modernity" and "progress" especially as it was taking an extreme form in Germany.

The fact that these intellectuals were Jewish, for the most part, was no small thing. As time went on I realized I was attracted to this thinking partly because it was being done by the very people who were the target of Hitler's genocide. Those on the underside of power are able to see the truth about power better than those who benefit from power.

Habermas went on to become the foremost social thinker alive today. His focus on discourse theory is especially interesting to a Lutheran pastor since preaching the word is considered the very source of salvation in Lutheran theology.

Now Habermas has written a book having to do with the current great problems in Europe called The Lure of Technocracy in which he promotes greater democratic solidarity in Europe over against its growing technocratic bureaucracy. I have placed a review of this book on the website here.

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Whose Speech is Actually Free?
1/14/2015 6:12:48 PM

Rodney D. Coates is the interim director of Black World Studies and a professor of sociology, social justice and gerontology at Miami University at Oxford, Ohio. He moderates an email list on critical sociology and today published on that list what I thought was an outstanding comment. So I have added it here:

The Internet and media across this country and world are all ablaze with the story – 12 shot dead because they dared to publish cartoons. Cartoons should make us laugh, not get us killed. But cartoons, unlike the old adage, are more than words and they can indeed cause harm and be very hurtful.

The cartoons that appeared in "Charlie Hebdo" universally were in poor taste, often racist and always pointed. When the rich and affluent are targeted, they can shrug and say it comes with the turf. But when those being targeted are racial or religious minorities – already pushed down, marginalized and ridiculed – it appears to be more than just fun, more than just comedy but is a tragedy. I have listened to this conversation and find myself torn.

Throughout this whole conversation, I have been troubled by how different issues, ideas and representations are expressed and understood. At the core of some of the madness surrounding these issues is how they are interpreted within and outside of various cultures. I believe that we, in the imperial West, have a decidedly different historical and cultural interpretation and value given to what is now being phrased as freedom of speech, than many other cultures and historical periods.

Particularly within the U.S. cultural stream, we have grown accustomed to what some may call an extreme faith in the "freedom of speech" – so extreme that the KKK is allowed to put up a cross during Christmas, to march in Jewish communities, even to adopt a highway. Under the guise of freedom of speech, all manner of very offensive, hurtful expressions have been permitted.

We have also gone through a period under McCarthyism, an era in which speech was decidedly curtailed, even criminalized. We have gone through a period in which Christian bigots have bludgeoned us with their notions of right and wrong. We have seen where the FBI and CIA have through counterintelligence programs used incendiary speech, rhetoric and outright lies to condemn, distort and even destroy reputations. We have undergone repression of speech in our attempt to silence those whose values are quite different from our own – repressing speech that's so-called pornographic, communist, civil rights, radical, peace, etc.

Even as we speak, there are efforts in many states to restrict or eliminate the teaching of ethnic and gender studies – to eliminate, for instance, any conversation regarding gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals.

I have experienced the covert racist/sexist/classist environments where academia is ever so "correct" in its framing of its conversation all the while it continues to circumvent any real change. Such forms of racism, sexism and classism become once again the norm, while we are careful not to say the N-word or others deemed unacceptable.

Works from James Baldwin to Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison to Maya Angelou, Alvin Schwartz to Judy Blume, Zora Neal Hurston to Toni Morrison become exiled to special collections that students are prohibited to read. All the while, we are having teas and ice cream socials, bemoaning the good ole days when minorities knew their places and real men were free to do whatever they chose.

It is this history, and the contemporary reality in the United States, that will make many of us who still remember being at the bottom of the barrel forever cringe when someone challenges the freedom of speech. We come out of a place where our speech was not so free. And so, as we mourn the death of those in France, we must never forget that freedom is never free. Neither can we forget that with freedom comes both humility and responsibility.

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Why Habermas?
3/11/2009 11:45:24 AM

I am putting some items about Jurgen Habermas and religion on the site right now. I first started reading Habermas when a friend who was a communication theorist suggested him to me when we were both involved in social policy planning at the Metro Council of the Twin Cities in the 1970s. I discovered Habermas was continuing in the tradition of Social Critical Theory of the Frankfurt Institute. I had become acquainted with critical theory through the book Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay which is a history of the Frankfurt Institute. Critical theory was said to have provided the intellectual background for the New Left movement of the 1960s, so I thought I would dig into it, and have been reading it ever since.

Habermas has moved away from some of the positions of the older critical theory and has become the leading social theorist in Germany. It was particularly his focus on "the linguistic turn" in philosophy that caught my attention, the active role of words creating inter-subjective understanding leading to the possibility of mutual action in the "public sphere," a term associated with Habermas. This emphasis on words, of course, is part of the Lutheran theological tradition.

Though older now, Habermas continues to play a key role in philosophical debate. He recently has been saying that religious faith has a legitimate role in public debate. His works are part of the content we want to explore at this website.
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