From the New Political Theology to Critical Political Ethics – H. Haker

From the New Political Theology
to Critical  Political Ethics

by Hille Haker

1. Political Theology as Critique and Struggle for Liberation from Injustice

In its foundational reflection, theological ethics[1] must certainly position itself in relation to the two dominant modern concepts of freedom, namely the Anglo-American concept of liberty and the Kantian concept of moral autonomy. Theology emphasizes that the self is derivative (abkünftig) and inscrutable (unergründlich), rendering the human being vulnerable as well as open to others. Freedom must attend to the derivatedness (Abkünftigkeit) and inscrutability (Unergründlichkeit) of human subjectivity and the vulnerability and openness of the human being. Religions position humans in relation to an otherness that, paradoxically, cannot be named and still is given a name—one that will be infinitely questioned. Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, positions the humans in a relation to God, in an address that constitutes meaning but also calls for a response. Following Metz’ programmatic New Political Theology rather than Carl Schmitt’s political theology in the 1970s and 1980s, theologians have given freedom a critical twist, relating it to the liberation from oppression. In this, the New Political Theology coincided with liberation theology, feminist, black, postcolonial, and decolonial theologies. In their interpretation of the “authority of God,” these approaches insist that authority itself is paradoxical, derived from the vulnerable individual, groups, or peoples, and not resting on the sovereignty of political-theological leadership, as the Schmittian tradition argued. Critical theory pointed theology and ethics to a normativity that departs as much from a metaphysical ontotheological order of being as from the naturalism of modern sciences that pretend to be value-free. Horkheimer had claimed as early as 1937 that critical theory, in contrast to traditional (empirical and positivist) theory reflects the situatedness of any knowledge that constitutes at the same time an “interest” or direction of practical philosophy, namely the struggle against oppression, alienation, and the domination of nature, including human nature, through instrumental and technical reason.[2]  Critical theory opposes those concepts of rationality  that ignore the paradoxical status of the human as derivative, inscrutable, vulnerable, and agential. The group that formed the Frankfurt School in the 1930s was proven right in their critique of instrumental reason and authoritarianism: Western modern thinking had not prevented the Great War of 1914-1918. It did not prevent the rise of several fascist dictatorships in Europe, and it did not prevent the rise of Hitler in Germany. Instrumental rationality was exploited for the industrial killing of Jews and any declared “other” in the Nazi deathcamps, and the detonation of two nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US military. The verdict of critical theory was dire: the history of the 20th century demonstrated the “eclipse of reason” rather than its progress.[3] The “dialectic of enlightenment” pointed to an immanent and unresolved problem of modern thinking.[4]

Similar to critical theory, the New Political Theology aimed at changing the underlying epistemology of its own field, theology, in order to make room for a transformation of theological practices. It centered on the suffering human person, and its own historical roots called for a break with Christian anti-Judaism as well as antisemitism. My own approach takes up both schools, critical theory and political theology, however attending more closely to the consequences for theological ethics. For critical political ethics, the realignment of theory and practice means that solidarity with the suffering individual and/or group is not only the criterion of moral judgment but also the priority that must guide Christian personal and political action. It may well be difficult at times to distinguish between suffering that stems from bad luck and suffering from injustice, as Judith Shklar has argued,[5] but it is exactly for this reason that political theology must be complemented by a political ethics that addresses the questions of ethical judgments more thoroughly than this has been the case so far.

[1] The following essay relies upon a more thorough development of my approach, spelled out in Hille Haker, The Renewal of Catholic Social Ethics: Towards a Critical Political Ethics, Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 2020 especially Chapter 10.

[2] M. Horkheimer, Critical theory: Selected essays, New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

[3] M. Horkheimer, Eclipse of reason, New York: Seabury Press, 1974.

[4] T. Adorno/M. Horkheimer, Dialectic of enlightenment, London: Verso Books, Max. 2016 (orig. 1944)

[5] J. N. Shklar, The faces of injustice, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.