Prophetic Interruptions

Critical Theory, Emancipation, and Religion in Paul Tillich, Theodor Adomo, and Max Horkheimer (1929-1944)

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Bryan L. Wagoner
  • Atlanta, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , November
     277 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For many years Paul Tillich, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer shared the heady intellectual milieu of interwar Frankfurt. Beyond this biographical intersection, what does Tillich share with these architects of critical theory? A great deal more, argues Bryan Wagoner in Prophetic Interruptions. For Wagoner, the projects of Frankfurt School critical theory and Tillich’s “religious socialism” are “complementary emancipatory solutions to a common view of instrumental rationality and threats to subjectivity” (3). This stance in resistance to the ills of late modernity forms the bedrock of a general congruity between the three thinkers. The book thus aims to fill a gap in Tillich scholarship by providing a robust account of Tillich’s intellectual relationship to Frankfurt School critical theory. 

Wagoner construes this relationship in terms of confluence, consonance, and complementarity—terms intended to walk a line between a cause-and-effect relationship of “mutual influence” and one of “mere coincidental timing” (5). The comparative analysis is organized around four loci: reason, anthropology, metaphysics, and religion. Wagoner argues that the three thinkers are bound in dialectical critique of modernity’s shadow side: instrumentalization, domination, commodification, reification, alienation. A stark divide emerges between Adorno’s strident negativity and the positive moment of Tillich’s critical dialectic. In short, Tillich makes room for the possibilityof positive reconciliation, which Adorno cannot countenance. Wagoner contrasts the compounding negativity of Adorno’s dialectics with Tillich’s more “hopeful” outlook for human emancipation. Horkheimer assumes a mediating role, both in outlook and in the interpersonal drama that unfolds between Tillich and his former student. 

A concept of “emancipatory social critique” is Wagoner’s final object. Such critique “can be bothsecular and religious” (7). This is something that Tillich recognized, Wagoner suggests, but Adorno did not. Much of the book’s argument is thus pitched against Adorno, who appears here on the attack—against Tillich’s dialectics, against Tillich’s recognition of a continuous human nature, against Tillich’s embrace of religion as a potentially liberative social force. In short, Adorno appears—as in the title of an unsent 1944 letter written by Adorno to Tillich, a translation of which appears as an appendix—contra Paulum. At these points of conflict, Wagoner tends to defend Paulus (Tillich) against Adorno. Tillich better funds a project of “emancipatory social critique,” Wagoner claims, because such critique requires a working concept of human nature, an ontologically weighty set of norms, and, above all, a sense of hope grounded in transcendence. Without these, any form of critique would lack a “backbone” (211). In fact, Wagoner concludes that Adorno and Horkheimer themselves implicitly presume many of these elements. 

Wagoner’s comparative framework is promising. Tillich’s early thought is capacious, refracting movements in diverse intellectual spheres. Returning to these points of refraction may prompt scholars to reshape conversation regarding Tillich’s approach to philosophy, culture, and politics, pressing us to think beyond “correlation” and to revisit the creative figures of Tillich’s early critical imagination. The “prophetic” is one such figure. The prophetic, for Wagoner, transcends any division between religious and secular speech. It names “a combined power and will both to denounceand announce” (4). On this definition, what distinguishes the prophetic from the dialectical? It is too bad that Wagoner’s constructive argument does not return to the prophetic as a theme. 

Tillich scholars might find it odd that Tillich’s “theology of culture” is not addressed. It warrants discussion in a study of Tillich’s commonalities with the Frankfurt School. Presumably it is omitted because Tillich developed its main argument outside of Wagoner’s chronological boundaries, 1929-1944. Such a chronological limit may be necessary to focus such a broad comparative study. However, in this case, it pushes aside Tillich’s blueprint for a modern, criticaltheology.

Overall, Wagoner’s argument for the preferability of Tillich’s approach to social critique emerges somewhat suggestively. Wagoner argues that without transcendent “foundations” social critique is left without “persuasive” grounds for its normative judgments, leaving Adorno and Horkheimer standing on shaky ground (212). Wagoner might more directly confront Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s likely riposte: that Tillich’s brand of hopefulness and theological foundationalism are not the remedy to the disease of modern enlightenment, but its symptoms—not the ground of critique, but its object. This point of divergence has much to do with the three thinkers’ respective philosophies of history, a topic that might have received a chapter unto itself. As Adorno implies in his 1944 letter to Tillich, the belief that self-reflexive consciousness might somehow simultaneously abide “within and above history” (as in a kairetic moment) (293) is precisely the kind of theological illusion that stands behind forms of modern barbarism. Wagoner may be correct that Adorno and Horkheimer themselves rely upon a “‘myth’ of sorts” (280)—that is, the afterimage of messianism that can be discerned in their collaborative work. Indeed, it may be that all critique needs myth of some kind. However, Tillich’s “positive” mythical imagination—crowded with figures of breakthrough, kairos, the prophetic and the demonic—exhibits a Romantic-Idealist tendency to regard historical existence as a symbol of the eternal. This is the kind of thinking Frankfurt critical theory intends to leave behind. 

The gulf that opens between Tillich and the Frankfurt School at this point strains the congruity that Wagoner posits between them. In opposing the bad modernity that Weber called a stahlhartes Gehäuse with reference, implicit or explicit, to somekind of transcendence, Wagoner aims to show that Tillich and the Frankfurt School are drawn into an “intellectual matrix” of sorts. Yet the concept of “prophetic criticism” that holds this matrix together does not receive a robust definition. One is left to wonder if Tillich would recognize Adorno and Horkheimer, as Wagoner represents them, to be prophetic in their critique, and if the Frankfurt School would recognize Wagoner’s Tillich to be critical where it counts. 

Prophetic Interruptionsmaps the territory upon which these fault lines manifest, isolating pertinent points of contention and offering thoroughgoing analyses of significant texts. Any discussion of Tillich’s political thought must take its findings into account.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caleb Hendrickson is a doctoral candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bryan L. Wagoner is assistant professor of religious studies and philosophy, and director of the Morrison-Novakovic Center for Faith and Public Policy at Davis & Elkins College. He has served as president of the North American Paul Tillich Society.


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