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Compared to this reaction to the Kantian block, Adorno’s approach
to theology is less direct and less supportive. But it is also more
appreciative of present historical existence, and so is both more
promising and helpful for confronting the challenges facing
contemporary theology. Adorno’s perspective follows from his
interpretation of Kantian philosophy, and is motivated by the
following concern:

Certainly a ratio that does not wantonly absolutize itself as
a rigid means of domination requires self-reflection, some
of which is expressed in the need for religion today. But
this self-reflection cannot stop at the mere negation of
thought by thought itself, a kind of mystical sacrifice, and
cannot realize itself through a ‘leap’: that would all too
closely resemble the politics of catastrophe.51

In this statement, Adorno locates the contemporary ‘need
for religion’ in the effort of reason to resist absolutizing itself. He
suggests that theology is related to reason’s critique of itself.
Furthermore, he connects it with a determination to resist the
‘negation of thought by thought itself’ – i.e. to a rejection of
nihilism. It is also clear in these words that Adorno associates
religion with what he calls ‘metaphysical experience’. It cannot
be stressed enough, however, that this not to say that Adorno
thereby advocates a direct ‘return to religion’ or to a theological
ontology. Although he states that metaphysics is ‘a reprise, a
resumption of theology’ in the manner in which it ‘points to a
world behind the world we know’, he also argues that it is at
the same time a critique of theology.52

When Adorno claims
that rational thought pushes beyond itself, he is in no way hypo-
statizing this observation, turning it into a concept capable of

Adorno and Theology


contributing to a fundamental theology. That he criticizes science
for turning its facts into ‘idols’53

does not lead him to consider it
acceptable to turn what he calls ‘metaphysical experience’ into an
idol in its own right.
This is because the ‘metaphysical moment’ in thought does not
amount to a positive grasp of something directly ‘in-itself’. Here
one can see that Adorno is indeed a student of Kant. For him,
metaphysics is not an intuition into the ‘true nature of things’;
neither does it lead to the sense of some sort of meaning in life.
He insists that it is impossible after Auschwitz to posit ‘the pres-
ence of a positive meaning or purpose in being’.54

Instead, the
metaphysical emerges as a problem when the tension between
historical experience and conceptual thinking arises in reflection.
‘Metaphysics arises at the point where the empirical world is taken

As critical second reflection discovers that concepts
are inadequate to their object; ‘the question whether metaphysics
is still possible at all must reflect the negation of the finite which
finiteness requires’.56
Adorno’s argument here is that, as reason vigorously criticizes
itself, as it discovers the ‘preponderance of the object’, it must
admit that the object of thought as it is ‘in-itself’ always surpasses
discursive reason. Absolute objectivity exceeds what reason can
directly conceive. But Adorno does not understand this recog-
nition of the ‘non-identity’ between thing concepts and objects to
authorize abandoning conceptual thought. At the same time, any
denial of the existence of the non-identical, by prohibiting the
recognition of what he calls ‘metaphysical experience’, itself
becomes a positive theology, as the existing is absolutized:

[T]his explains the occasional alliance between positivism
and positive religion against metaphysics – against the
disintegrating force which they both detect in it. Auto-
nomous thought is a mouthpiece of the transcendent,
and is thus always in danger – when it approaches the
transcendent through metaphysics – of making common
cause with it.57

Adorno realizes that any appreciation of a metaphysical moment
is perilous at best. Although its destabilizing function is something

Actuality and Potentiality


to be embraced, there always exists a temptation to absolutize its
insights, which can only be fragmentary and fleeting. If the ‘meta-
physical’ or the ‘transcendent’ is mistaken to be a thing-in-itself,
then one escapes from one ideological perspective only to replace
it with another.

For Adorno, the individual subject plays a central role in over-
coming its own limitations. Since he follows Kant in asserting that
‘all our knowledge begins with experience’, he suggests that
objectivity is in fact ‘created by passing through subjectivity’.
Although certainly by no means does it ‘create’ the object, the
subject does serve as ‘the guarantor of objectivity’.58

Adorno criticizes the Kantian transcendental subject, along with
the implied division between subject and object, he nevertheless
insists that this distinction cannot be discarded (although it should
also not be absolutized, being historically determined).59

For ‘what
defines the prior object as distinct from its subjective trappings’
can only be comprehended by what conditioned it – the subject.
Thus, the ‘preponderance of the object’ requires ‘reflection on
the subject and subjective reflection’.60

Only the subject can
overcome the biases and presuppositions that it imposes upon its
object, and it can only do this when

it entrusts itself to its own experience. In places where
subjective reason scents subjective contingency, the
preponderance of the object is shimmering through –
whatever in the object is not a subjective admixture. The
subject is the object’s agent, not its constituent; this fact has
consequences for the relation of theory and practice.61

Ironically, the critically self-reflexive emphasis of Adorno’s
negative dialectics makes it much more open to the preservation
of an ‘eschatological reserve’ than Milbank’s more positively
motivated reaffirmation of the Christian metanarrative. Although
Milbank is reacting to similar concerns regarding the limitations
of Enlightenment rationality and of modern society and culture,
his project limits the effort to reconcile broken human experience
to the boundaries of the Christian tradition. His strong form of
communitarianism confines reconciliation within the boundaries
of his ecclesiology. Adorno’s attempt to reconcile the gulf between

Adorno and Theology


subject and object is more perilous, perhaps, but it is also more
relational. It searches for the symptoms of both hope and suffering
within the brokenness of actuality, while Milbank must look
beyond the given to find evidence of an ‘Other City’.
Despite this rejection of Milbank’s strong form of communi-
tarian concern for the formative power of local narratives and
practices, his warnings against underestimating the seductive power
of contemporary global capitalism do challenge the central role
that Adorno grants to the individual subject. As Gillian Rose has
astutely noted, Adorno’s thought ‘is haunted by [a] ghostly missing

He both denies the efficacy of the subject, due to its
implication in commodity culture and instrumental rationality,
while at the same time making the subject the agent of an atten-
tive eschatological reserve. This attempt – in the words of Espen
Hammer – to ‘affirm the subject in its moment of involuntary
annihilation’ is ambitious, to say the least.63
Adorno’s critics frequently dismiss negative dialectics for this
very reason. Lyotard interprets his defence of the subject as a
hopeless commitment to a totalizing narrative.64

Jürgen Habermas
argues that Adorno cuts off the limb he is standing on, commit-
ting a ‘performative contradiction’ that employs reason and the
subject in a circular and groundless critique.65

Hans Jürgen Krahl,
a radical student of Adorno’s, came to view negative dialectics
as a recipe for a resigned pessimism, leaving the political subject
directionless and silent.66
If Adorno’s critical theory is to continue to be an important
resource for contemporary social theory and theology, as well as
an alternative path from that of Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy,
then it must prove to be more than a melancholy science that
ends in a resigned pessimism. If the subject is to play a role in
keeping open an appreciation for metaphysics at the moment
of its fall, then Adorno’s theory of subjectivity requires more
thorough elaboration. Attention to this issue will resume in
Chapters 5 and 7.

What this chapter has clarified, however, is why Adorno remains
interested in theology. It has shown that he relates it to the ‘meta-
physical experience’ that he thinks the Kantian block alludes to,
but also prevents philosophy from taking seriously. Theology’s
pursuit of a truth that cannot be reduced to the fashions of

Actuality and Potentiality


the status quo serves as a resource for holding open a conceptual
space that allows human beings to imagine the possibility that the
brokenness of contemporary life might be otherwise. And as the
comparison to Milbank’s critique of Kant demonstrated, he does
this without falling behind Kant’s distinction between reason and
knowledge, and without distracting his attention away from the
immediacies of human suffering found in the actuality of history.
One issue that emerged in the comparison with Milbank must
now be addressed more directly. In his critique of Kant, Milbank
argued that knowledge of true actuality is only received through
faith and revelation, and thus knowledge can be said to rest on
an ungrounded vision that has been shaped by its participation in
the divine mind. Adorno’s reaction to Kant is clearly opposed
to Milbank’s, but his own position is often criticized for itself
resembling a non-foundational and Platonic attitude towards
knowledge. For this reason, Chapter 3 now turns to a considera-
tion of his treatment of the relationship between truth and
knowledge as it relates to his view of modern science. It explores
how, in a heated debate with Karl Popper, Adorno’s thought is
dismissed for being ‘crypto-theology’. The analysis of his response
to such a charge offers further clarifications and insights into his
understanding of the important function of theology.


Chapter 3

Social Science and Metaphysical
Experience: Negative Dialectics
as Crypto-Theology?

It might be said that what purports today to be sociology’s resistance
to the allegedly theological inclinations of theoretical thinking is
really nothing other than the gesture of the knowing wink, which
implies that for sociologists, because everything is conditioned by
social interests, no such thing as truth exists at all.

The previous two chapters have outlined how Adorno’s critical
philosophy intends to establish a very difficult balance. His work
challenges a simplistic faith in the self-evident nature of material
reality while maintaining a deep commitment to dialectical mate-
rialism. It also seeks to uncover alternative possibilities contained
within actuality without abandoning the centrality of concrete
historical existence. These are commitments that are difficult to
hold together, and they involve many theoretical perils. The com-
parisons between Adorno’s thought and that of Milbank and
Tillich have demonstrated some of these issues, but numerous
other epistemological questions remain to be explored. On what
basis does Adorno claim to recognize ‘possibility’ within present
social forms? As his work seeks to illuminate how nature is
actually ‘second nature’, what replaces the proceduralism of
instrumental rationality?
Adorno’s critics frequently accuse his writing of implying some
privileged access to knowledge, which only he, the prophetic
critical theorist, is in possession of. Such detractors suggest that
critical theory can be reduced to a learned form of ‘mumbo-
jumbo’ that relies on a revolutionary deus ex machina rather than
critical reasoning. Given such dismissals, one must ask: what is the

Social Science and Metaphysical Experience


nature of Adorno’s alternative access to truth? How does this
relate to modern science? Does his epistemology suggest some
form of romantic and intangible grasp of reality or, in theological
terminology, an otherworldly revelation?
In issues such as these, critical debates over the legitimacy of
Adorno’s project overlap with challenges facing contemporary
Christian theology. As Nancey Murphy recalls, epistemological
changes during the early modern period resulted in an under-
standing of knowledge that eroded the credibility of theology as a
rational discipline. Descartes attempted to defend theism from
scepticism by securing it on a firm foundation established by
deduction. In Locke’s thought, reason becomes understood as the
guarantor of revelation by serving to support established knowl-
edge based on miraculous signs. By the time of David Hume,
however, such a foundation came to be thought of it terms of
sense experience, which Hume used to demolish the traditional
philosophical proofs for God’s existence. Uniform experience
became the ground for trusting that knowledge rested upon
recurring events in the world.2
Jeffrey Stout observes that the development of probable
reasoning leaves theology with only two directions from which to
choose. It can accept Hume’s sceptical criticism of metaphysics
and seek to ground theology in position located outside of foun-
dational reason; or it can ignore the changes in modern rationality
and seek to carry on as before. In either case, theology is left with
an air of absurdity compared to the standards for legitimizing
modern knowledge. Taking Hume’s position for granted, Kant
and Schleiermacher sought to separate religious thought from
scientific knowledge. Kant relocated theology to the sphere of
morality and practical reason, while Schleiermacher moved it to
the realm of feeling. But after concluding that Schleiermacher’s
liberal theology only leads to Feuerbach, Karl Barth, like Kierke-
gaard before him, described theology as a paradox, which stands
outside the possibility of rational apologetics entirely.3
The difficulty Christian theology experiences in legitimating
its truth claims in modernity highlights issues found in Adorno’s
critical theory. Perhaps Lorenz Jäger’s harsh judgment presents
the problem most bluntly: ‘the history of critical theory may be
summed up as follows: the more the assumptions of Marxism

Adorno and Theology


came to seem implausible, the more its shrinking body of ideas
was believed capable of explaining an ever increasing number of
social phenomena’.4

Just as theology is accused of making
ungrounded truth claims compared with the certainties of the
modern understanding science, Adorno’s critical philosophy is
frequently dismissed for similar reasons, to the point of being
labelled a ‘crypto-theology’ by his critics.
To illustrate the issues involved in such a criticism, and to
explore Adorno’s response, this chapter revisits the so-called
‘Positivist Dispute’ that followed a meeting between Adorno
and the philosopher of science Karl Popper. What is particularly
noteworthy about this debate is that both Adorno and Popper
accuse each other of being ‘closet’ or ‘crypto’ theologians. While
Popper argues that Adorno’s resistance to the authority of estab-
lished scientific procedures resembles an irrational and subjective
Gnosticism, Adorno counters by suggesting that Popper’s faith in
science is exactly that – an ungrounded faith in the status quo
which remains blind to the ideological nature of reality as it
presents itself. Each accuses the other of epistemological heresy,
and this confrontation illuminates the concepts of theology that
Adorno both dismisses and claims as his own. The image of criti-
cal theory that emerges out of this analysis is that it is a discipline
that cannot be established on a firm logical foundation, but which
involves what Popper calls a ‘moral attitude’ and what Adorno
refers to as a ‘metaphysical moment’.
To set the confrontation between Adorno and Popper in con-
text, the chapter begins with a brief summary of the environments
out of which their particular perspectives emerge: Adorno’s
critical theory develops out of the early work of the Institute of
Social Research, and Popper’s critical rationality as a response to
the Vienna School of Logical Positivists.

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