506 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and love than we have
ever been. The result of this is evident. We are living through the greatest crisis in the history
of man; and this crisis is centered precisely in the country that has made a fetish out of action
and has lost (or perhaps never had) the sense of contemplation. Far from being irrelevant,
prayer, meditation, and contemplation are of the utmost importance in America today.1
- Thomas Merton
This article argues that prayer, meditation and contemplation are of the utmost impor-
tance for the promotion of social change and political transformation in IR. This may
seem like a rather surprising claim since the question for scholars of IR is how on earth
(and not in heaven) can theological or spiritual insights such as those of Thomas Merton
actually be made relevant to the study of IR? One could add the perspectives from other
religious and spiritual traditions, such as those of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Martin Buber
and Thich Nhat Hanh who have all combined a variety of types of spirituality with social
and political action. What can a scholar of IR actually do with these kinds of perspec-
tives? How can such insights from theology and spirituality be made relevant to foreign
policy, for whom are they relevant, and in what way?
For over a decade the ‘religious turn’in the study of IR has examined how religion has
been marginalised in the discipline, and why it remains relevant to understanding inter-
national conflict, security and cooperation.2
Religion has been theorised broadly within
the approaches of realism/neo-realism and liberalism/neo-liberalism that dominate the
positivist mainstream, or it has been studied within social constructivism (for some
scholars these approaches have overlapped).3
However, the use of critical theory is one
of the clearest ways to show how prayer, meditation and contemplation are relevant to
IR. The reason is it can open up a wider, more challenging, conceptual space than the
positivist mainstream or social constructivism for theological and spiritual insights rel-
evant to the theory and practice of IR. For theologians, activists and people of faith
(categories which often overlap in the global South), critical theory offers a more com-
pelling way to bring their religious and spiritual insights to bear on the problems of world
affairs. Critical theory can do this because it offers a wider, more probing, conception of
what theory is, for whom it is for and what it is supposed to do in IR; it has a more holistic
conception of what international relations are; and it asks more deeply what ‘knowledge’
is, how it is constructed and for whom it is for in IR; and, moreover, it offers a more
satisfying ethical conception of what the final goal is of IR.
Why, for critical theorists, is this argument worth making at all? Why should they be
interested in bringing the insights of religion and spirituality into a critical theory of IR?
The reason is that critical theory has a radical, transformative, vision of IR that could
1. Thomas Merton, ‘Contemplation in a World of Action’, in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, ed.
Christine M. Bochen (New York: Orbis Books, 2000), 84–7 (emphasis added).
2. Fabio Petito and Pavlos Hatzopoulos, eds., Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile
(London: Palgrave, 2003); Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler, Bringing Religion into International
Relations (London: Palgrave, 2004). Scott M. Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the
Transformation of International Relations (London: Palgrave, 2005).
3. Daniel Philpott, ‘Has the Study of Global Politics Found Religion?’Annual Review of Political Science 12
(2009): 183–202; Eva Belin, ‘Faith & Politics: New Trends in the Study of Religion and Politics’, World
Politics 60 (2008): 315–47.
engage better than it has so far with a wide variety of secular and religious constituencies
around the world. However, two factors seem to limit its full potential and relevance in IR.
The first factor, dealt with in the initial section, is the problem of the reception of critical
theory in the global South, which by 2050 will comprise almost 90 percent of the people
in the world. Critical theory, with its broadly secular assumptions, has to engage more
effectively with the religiosity of the global South, and the global resurgence of religion.
The second factor, dealt with in the subsequent section, is the reception of religion in
critical theory, how religion is often conceived within its broadly Marxist assumptions. For
many critical theorists religion is a problem to be overcome if there is to be genuine social
justice and emancipation. In fact, critical theory’s engagement with religion, particularly
the Frankfurt School, is more complex than is usually thought, even though its conceptions
of religion are still limited by the way they are informed by the Eurocentric experience of
modernisation, colonialism and imperialism. This article focuses primarily on some of the
key theorists in Critical Security Studies to illustrate some of these arguments. However,
since they share many of the same core values, goals and assumptions of critical theorists,
it can be argued that they also apply more generally to critical approaches to IR.
The final section briefly examines some of the areas in critical theory where it may be
possible to open up a conceptual space to engage with religious and spiritual perspectives on
social justice and emancipation. The article focuses on Christian theology – Desmond Tutu’s
ubuntu theology, political theology, Neo-Calvinism, contextual theology and Catholic social
teaching – and it focuses on Judaism, to more broadly indicate the areas where theologians,
activists and people from various religions may be able to creatively engage with critical
theory in IR.The reason for choosing Christianity and Judaism is that critical theory emerged
out of the Western tradition, and it may be difficult to disentangle Judaism from the early
Frankfurt School. At the same time, the article indicates for critical theorists what some of
these perspectives might consider the limitations of critical theory in IR.
Rethinking CriticalTheory for the Religious World of the
It is now more widely recognised that the global resurgence of religion is one of the main
characteristics of contemporary IR. Some of its main features in the global South are briefly
examined in this section, and why critical theory needs to engage better with this world.
Firstly, the global religious resurgence is not confined to any particular region – be it
Christianity in the Southern United States or Islam in the Middle East; it is occurring in coun-
tries with a wide variety of religious traditions, which are also at different levels of economic
development, so the religious resurgence is not driven, or is not primarily driven, by poverty
or social exclusion (mega-cities, mega-churches and educated, middle-class lifestyles from
São Paulo, to Lagos, to Seoul, to Jakarta all seem to go together). The religious resurgence is
also more broadly based than what is usually called religious fundamentalism, which briefly
can be defined as the strict, rigid adherence to a set of rituals, doctrines and practices.4
4. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the
World (London: Penguin, 2009); Scott M. Thomas, ‘Outwitting the Developed Countries?’ Journal of
International Studies 61, no. 1 (2007): 21–46.
508 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
Second, the religious resurgence is being reinforced by the politics of religious
demography. The future global religious landscape is characterised by the massive, gen-
eral demographic shift in population from the developed countries in the North with
their declining or stagnating populations – Western Europe (more so than NorthAmerica)
and the lands of the former Soviet Union – to the booming populations of the developing
countries (although the story is complicated by falling fertility in Japan and China). The
North accounted for 32 percent of the world’s population in 1900, 29 percent in 1950,
25 percent in 1970, about 18 percent in 2000 and it is estimated that the North will
account for only 10–12 percent of the world’s population in 2050.5
The term the ‘global
South’ reflects this demographic reality of IR. What is driving this demographic shift to
the global South? One of the most important reasons is religious demography, that is,
how faith influences lifestyle. Theology has emerged as one of the most accurate indica-
tors of fertility, far better than religious, denominational or ethnic identities. Why? More
devout families – Jews, Muslims and Christians – believe children are a blessing from
God, and so they have more of them than their secular counterparts. What this means for
the politics of the secular, liberal West – especially for Europe – is that its population,
especially with its immigrants from the global South, may be more religious at the end
of the 21st century than it is now at the beginning. Thus, the concept of the religious
world of the global South is not an indication that a new type of ‘North–South gap’
characterises IR – between a secular North and a religious South.6
Religion in the North
certainly exists, even though it is lived out in a variety of ways.7
Religion, moreover, for
all these reasons, will increasingly be a part of European politics as well as the politics
of the global South.8
It is surprising given their Marxist pasts that Christianity is exploding in China and
Russia. China now encourages established religions (such as Christianity and neo-
Confucianism, but not, for example, Falun Gong), even if it is to promote social order
amid rapid economic development. China (along with the United States, Brazil, Nigeria
and the Philippines) has one of the largest numbers of Pentecostal and evangelical
Christian populations in the world. The rest of Asia is also religiously dynamic. In
Asian societies the types of religion are less individualistic, more communal and
socially embedded. The secular forms of politics masks a religious spirit, and inside
a variety of politically modernising states other meanings are being constructed.9
genuine religious revival of Orthodox Christianity is taking place in Russia. The
Russian Orthodox Church’s unification of its domestic and overseas hierarchies (a
legacy of the Soviet era), and closer Church-State relations, have established the
5. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 84.
6. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2004).
7. Grace Davie, ‘Patterns of Religion in Europe: An Exceptional Case’, in Blackwell Companion to the
Sociology of Religion, ed. Richard K. Fenn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 264–78.
8. Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? (London: Profile Books, 2010); TimothyA. Byrnes and
Peter J. Katzenstein, eds, Religion in an Expanding Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
9. Richard Madsen, ‘Secularism, Religious Change, and Social Conflict in Asia’, in Rethinking Secularism,
eds Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (New York: Oxford University
Press, forthcoming 2011), 388–422.
religious and political foundations for a greater role on the world stage for Russia and
the Russian Orthodox Church.10
The world religions where we can really see explosions of religious fervour are Islam and
evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. The global Islamic resurgence reflects a genuine
Islamic revival, which is more wide-ranging than Islamic fundamentalism, while the global
spread of Pentecostalism and evangelical Protestantism is the most dramatic religious explo-
sion in the world today. Pentecostalism is rapidly spreading across the world, and is remak-
ing the face of global Christianity. Pentecostalism’s growing numbers, its popularity among
the aspiring middle classes and its increasing political involvement means it will be a major
social force shaping religion, politics, democracy and development in the 21st century.11
Critical theorists argue, contrary to the positivist mainstream, that ‘all life is lived
within theories; they create the structures within which we live and they provide the facts
that we take to be the real world’.12
While this view is in many ways correct, it insuffi-
ciently takes into consideration the religious world of the global South. All life is not only
lived within theories; far more importantly is the fact that for most of the people in the
world all life is lived within theologies and spiritualities. Critical theory, given its broadly
secular assumptions, has to develop a more complex understanding of religion since reli-
gion is an increasingly (or, indeed, always has been) an important part of the way people
in the global South interpret their personal lives and social world, and this understanding
is crucial since critical theory claims to be interested in emancipation in the global South.
This does not mean that other types of community relations are unimportant – race, clan
or ethnicity (for example, in African politics), or political or economic types of social
interaction (consider the new geostrategic alliance between the BASIC countries – Brazil,
South Africa, India and China). What it does mean is that for people of the global South,
how they interpret the world is a complex part of their theology and spirituality, their
doctrines about the nature of God and the presence of God in the world; and so prayer,
meditation and contemplation will inform their struggles for social justice and emancipa-
tion, as they seek to live faithfully amid the problems of world poverty, climate change,
conflict and development in the 21st century.
Rethinking Religion, CriticalTheory and IRTheory
It is often thought that in critical theory, religion is a part of the problem rather than the
solution, in so far as it is indebted to Marxism – from Marx, Engels and Feuerbach, to
Gramsci and Nietzsche, and the Frankfurt School. Religion is little more than false con-
sciousness, an ideological subterfuge; it is one of the main ideological pathologies, forms
of capitalist hegemony, that seeks to legitimate the status quo, to mask the potential for
social justice and emancipation, and to reinforce the fear and coercion that maintain the
10. John Garrard and Carol Garrard, Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
11. Paul Freston, Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2001); David Martin, Pentecostalism: The World their Parish (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).
12. Ken Booth and Peter Vale, ‘Critical Security Studies and Regional Insecurity: The Case of Southern
Africa’, in Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases, eds Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams
(London: UCL Press, 1997), 330–1.
510 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
prevailing domestic and international order.13
This is still the view of religion by some of
the leading critical theorists in IR, Ken Booth and Wyn Jones, for example, who often
identify religion with war, bigotry, racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, intolerance
When critical theorists have recognised religion’s potential for promot-
ing social justice and emancipation (e.g. Ken Booth, Hayward Alker or Fred Dallmayr),
it has been on the basis of mainly finding cognate ideas, concepts and thinkers acceptable
to critical theory and its emancipatory project.
In fact, the relationship between religion and critical theory, particularly the early
Frankfurt School, was far more complex than is usually considered to be the case. Some
of its early thinkers – for example, Adorno and Horkheimer – were not nearly as hostile
to religion as it is usually thought. Similarly, Habermas has more recently expressed the
need to preserve religious insights for democratic discourse since he sees them as still
having the potential for promoting liberation.15
The more recent dialogue on religion,
democracy and social transformation between Habermas and Cardinal Ratzinger (now
Pope Benedict VXI) is slowly making its way into IR.16
The efforts to bring religion back into critical theory is also part of a more complex
understanding of religion and religious critiques of authority that are altering our concep-
tion of the Enlightenment.17
The Enlightenment inveighed against religion to emancipate
people from a specific understanding of rationality, order and authority, and social theory
emerged out of this legacy. However, the Enlightenment, in the form of modernism,
applied its own oppressive rationality and authority to reorder the world. Critical theory,
at least the early Frankfurt School, responded to this ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’by argu-
ing that religion could be used to promote social transformation, and it could help to rec-
tify the kind of rationality, conformism and oppression the modern world has brought us.18
The desire to change the world in critical theory can be called a type of spiritual sen-
sibility. At least in Horkheimer, and perhaps also in Adorno, this desire seemed to be
infused with deep spiritual insights from the Jewish tradition, including the mysticism of
transformation; even if it can be debated whether this was a predominantly ‘atheistic
Jewish messianism’, unique to assimilated, central European Jews, especially in Germany.
13. Raymond Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1981); Grace Davie, ‘The Evolution of the Sociology of Religion’, in
Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, ed. Michele Dillon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
14. Ken Booth, Theory of World Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 22–3, 416–19;
Richard Wyn Jones, ed., Critical Theory and World Politics (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000), 45, 49, 53.
15. Craig Calhoun, ‘Secularism, Citizenship, and the Public Sphere’, in Rethinking Secularism, eds Craig
Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011),
111–34; Jürgen Habermas, Rationality and Religion: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 2002); and ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’, European Journal of Philosophy 14, no. 1
16. Mariano Barbato and Friedrich Kratochwil, ‘Towards a Post-secular Political Order?’ European Journal
of International Relations 1, no. 3 (2009): 317–40.
17. James E. Bradley and Dale K. Van Kley eds. Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe (Notre Dame,
IN: University of Notre Dame, 2001), S. J. Barnett, Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
18. Raymond Geuss and Margarete Kohlenbach, eds, The Early Frankfurt School and Religion (New York:
Indeed, their concept of emancipation, even if it is in the form of a this-worldly redemption,
seems to reflect almost a longing for a type of spiritual transformation.19
However, even if the more complex legacy of critical theory’s engagement with reli-
gion is acknowledged, it still has to grapple with how Eurocentric this legacy is, how
rooted the concept of religion is in the European experience of modernisation, colonial-
ism and imperialism. Many critical theorists still seem to expect the model of religion
and secularisation in Europe to be the model for the entire world.20
However, other schol-
ars, sympathetic to critical theory, increasingly use it to critically evaluate this kind of
Eurocentric approach to religion in critical theory.21
Therefore, for a variety of reasons it is important for critical theorists in IR to engage
more deeply with religion, and especially within their own critical tradition, and they
need to rethink their understanding of religion given the religious world of the global
South. This would mean recognising that the origin of many of the core concepts in criti-
cal theory and the sociology of religion emerged out of the European experience of
modernisation, which was driven as much by science and state expansion as by religious
convictions. They now need to be reconstructed as ‘global concepts’, adapted from the
cultural and religious experience of religiosity and modernisation in the global South
that is transforming the sociology of religion.22
Alasdair MacIntyre’s social theory may be able to assist critical theorists rethinking reli-
gion in ways that are relevant to the study of IR. Critical theorists argue strongly that life is
lived within theories, which provide the ‘facts’ that we take to be the ‘real world’.23
MacIntyre’s social theory and his revival of the virtue-ethics tradition also explain why this
is the case, but in a way that takes religion seriously. His approach provides some of the
concepts through which we can see how people live not only within theories, but also within
theologies and spiritualities as an important part of how their social world is constructed.
Religion is a type of social tradition, with a corresponding set of virtues and practices
historically extended, and they are socially embodied now in living faith communities.
Contrary to what we seem to believe the Enlightenment has taught us, values, norms,
virtues and moral judgements, and the answers to questions regarding what is good, what
19. Eduardo Mendieta, ed., ‘Introduction: Religion as Critique: Theology as Social Critique and Enlightened
Reason’, The Frankfurt School and Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers (New York and London:
Routledge, 2005), 1–20.
20. Critical theorists, often as much as their mainstream counterparts, have not sufficiently recognised the
extent to which the concept of ‘religion’ – as a set of ideas, beliefs, doctrines, as well as the boundaries
of what is called ‘the sacred’ and ‘the secular’, were themselves invented, constructed by (Western)
modernity, and, more often than not, they were done so as political decisions, as part of the state-building
projects in European history, and as a part of colonial and imperial domination. William T. Cavanaugh,
The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2009); Derek R. Peterson and Darren Walhof, eds, The Invention of Religion: Rethinking
Belief in Politics and History (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).
21. Harmonie Toros and Jeroen Gunning, ‘Exploring a Critical Theory Approach to Studying Terrorism’, in
Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda, eds. Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen
Gunning (London: Routledge, 2009), 87–108. For a critique of emancipation as simply a Western trajectory,
see Richard Wyn Jones, Security, Strategy and Critical Theory (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1999).
22. Jose Casanova, ‘Religion, the New Millennium, and Globalization’, Sociology of Religion 62 (2001): 415–41;
Grace Davie, Sociology of Religion (London: Sage Publications, 2007).
23. Booth and Vale, ‘Critical Security Studies and Regional Insecurity’, 330–1.
512 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
is social justice or what is emancipation, are not simply free-standing moral statements
or propositions to which anyone can assent to intellectually. Rather, as MacIntyre explains,
the meaning of such values, norms, virtues and moral judgements is shaped by the lin-
guistic conventions of a community, and are inseparable from the community’s cultural
and religious traditions. In other words, morality, rationality and conceptions of peace,
social justice or emancipation are tradition-dependent, and cannot be detached from the
traditions and communities through which most people in the world live out their moral
and social lives.24
MacIntyre’s social theory – with its concepts of virtues, practices and religion as a type
of social tradition – shows the limitations of the way many critical theorists have tried to
engage with religion. Critical theorists, in a post-11 September world, want to find Hindu,
Buddhist and (now especially) Islamic thinkers whose doctrines endorse their (allegedly
universal) conception of social justice and emancipation, without recognising that this
search is itself a product of liberal modernity and the Enlightenment project in the West.
The separation between doctrine and ethics, faith and life, beliefs and behaviour is itself
a modern Western construction. For if we go back to ancient history, philosophia in the
Roman Empire, early Christianity, Platonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism all named par-
ticular ‘ways of life’, in which each community of adherents shared similar views on the
ends of human life, and the nature of the virtues, and practices, as they aspired together to
live out the doctrines to which they gave their allegiance.25
Therefore, religion in critical theory needs to move beyond a verbal and propositional
conception of religion. Religions are not, or are not only, ideas, ideologies or doctrines
(theology), which are capable of being negatively manipulated by political elites for
power-political purposes (e.g. whether it is Nasser’s Egypt, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka
or Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević), nor are religions, as some critical theorists now argue,
simply a part of ‘trans-religiously or cross-culturally valid forms of highly motivating
narrative’ to promote justice and emancipation.26
Rather, religions, which critical theorists should appreciate from their own understand-
ing of the relational or intersubjective construction of social identity, are comprised of
ideas, but they are also comprised of rituals, practices and symbols. These are the aspects
that constitute the larger cultural and linguistic and intersubjective formulation of identity
and meaning for the individuals and faith communities that make up the global South, and
so what it means for them to live out their moral, social and political lives. This cultural-
linguistic conception of the social world reinforces the reasons already given for why
the struggle to live faithfully for people in the global South is an inherent part of their
24. For an explanation of MacIntyre’s social theory, and its relevance to international relations theory, see
Scott M. Thomas Thomas, The Global Resurgence and the Transformation of International Relations
(New York: Palgrave, 2005), 85–96.
25. Stanley Hauerwas, ‘On Doctrine and Ethics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine,
ed. Colin E. Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 22; Alasdair MacIntyre, God,
Philosophy, and Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition (Plymouth:
Sheed & Ward/Rowan & Littlefield, 2009), 21.
26. Hayward Alker, ‘Emancipation in the Critical Security Studies Project’, in Critical Security Studies and
World Politics, ed. Ken Booth (London: Lynne Rienner, 2005), 189–214; Fred Dallmayr, Dialogue Among
Civilizations: Some Exemplary Voices (London: Palgrave, 2003).
struggles for social justice and emancipation. It also reinforces the reasons why critical
theorists need to engage more creatively with scholars, activists and ordinary believers in
the global South who share these theological and spiritual perspectives.
Opening Up a Conceptual Space forTheology and Spirituality
in a CriticalTheory of IR
This section indicates some of the areas where it may be possible to open up a conceptual
space for critical theory to engage with the kind of religious and spiritual perspectives
that can contribute to social justice and emancipation. These areas of discussion include:
what theory is; the types of international actors; the nature of knowledge; and the final
goal of IR. It also indicates where the theologians, activists and people of faith can cre-
atively engage with critical theory in IR. At the same time, it indicates what, for these
perspectives, may be some of the limitations of a critical theory in IR.
‘Living Responsibly’ in theWorld – Challenging CriticalTheory’s Conception of
WhatTheory Is, andWhat It Is For
One of the central tasks of critical theory is to probe what theory is, whom it is for and
what it is supposed to do in IR. Its wider, more probing, conception of theory – theory as
foreign policy ‘problem-solving’, ‘theory as negative critique’ and as ‘everyday social
practice’ – opens up a conceptual space for a dialogue between a variety of secular, theo-
logical and spiritual perspectives that challenge the existing international order. However,
some of these perspectives offer a more radical, holistic, if also contentious, conception
of the underlying unity of the social and spiritual worlds.
Critical theory challenges the mainstream, realist/neo-realist and liberal/neo-liberal
form of theory in IR, what Robert Cox famously called ‘problem-solving theory’, that is,
theory as it is used within rationalist or positivist research programmes to explain (alleg-
edly objectively) the workings of the existing international system. Mainstream theory
makes use of the existing frameworks of diplomatic or political institutions, social relations
and social meaning to solve or at least manage more effectively foreign policy problems
for the great powers in the existing international order.27
In other words, problem-solving
theory is about the way great powers seek to rationally dominate the world since they seek
to replicate the working of the existing international system, rather than to change it.28
Critical theory begins with an assumption that we all live in one social world of IR,
characterised by global interdependence, with each part of the world connected in vari-
ous ways. This is why it argues that problem-solving theory is based on a kind of strategic
dualism – ‘our stability’ (i.e. the West) and ‘their instability’ (the ‘their’ usually refers to
27. Robert W. Cox, ‘Social Forces, States, and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’,
Millennium: Journal of International Studies 10, no. 2 (1981): 126–55; Ken Booth, ‘Critical Explorations’,
in Critical Security Studies and World Politics, ed. Ken Booth (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005), 4–10.
28. Robert W. Cox, ‘The Point is Not Just to Explain the World but to Change It’, in The Oxford Handbook of
International Relations, eds. Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
514 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
restless natives, peoples and countries in faraway places of which we in the West know
very little) – without probing too deeply into how the conditions of stability and instabil-
ity are related. Scholars may point to bipolarity, or nuclear parity and so on, to explain
the peace and stability of Western Europe, but this was intimately connected to the rest
of the world. What the West experienced as the ‘Cold War’ got rather ‘hot’ in South-East
Asia, Southern Africa and Central America.29
However, people of faith in the global South would add to critical theory’s contention
that we all live in one social world of global interdependence the idea that we also all live
in one spiritual world or one spirit world, as they would say in Africa or Asia.30
religions in many ways express this relational ontology or understanding of reality. The
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, for example, argued there is a covenantal nature to the
world, which binds the creator to the creation (human beings and the natural world), and
this is the source of our responsibility to the creator, to other people and to the creation.31
An important example of this relational and spiritual understanding of reality is
Desmond Tutu’s political theology, the ubuntu theology of reconciliation.32
ology can be broadly defined as the analysis of politics and social life from the perspec-
tive of differing interpretations of God’s ways with the world.33
Tutu has explained that
in the Nguni languages the word ubuntu – or botho in the Sotho group of languages in
South Africa – conveys this holistic concept of social and spiritual interdependence, and
this helped provide the theological perspective underlying the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission in South Africa.34
Tutu contrasts the African, ubuntu, inherently relational concept of personal identity,
and what it means to be human – ‘A person is a person through other people’ – with
Descartes’rationalist aphorism, which indicates an autonomous, individualistic (‘Western’)
conception of personal identity: ‘I think, therefore, I am.’Tutu explains, in terms that are
similar to Girard’s concept of mimetic learning:
None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or
speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other
29. Amitav Acharya, ‘The Periphery as the Core: The Third World and Security Studies’, in Critical Security
Studies: Concepts and Cases, eds. Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams (London: UCL Press, 1997),
30. Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (London: Portobello Books, 2008), 313–18.
See also, John Allen, ed., The Essential Desmond Tutu (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 1997), 54–5.
31. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970).
32. Michael Battle, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1997).
33. William T. Cavanaugh and Peter Scott, ‘Introduction’, in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology,
eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 2–4.
34. Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (London: Rider Books, 1999). Tutu’s concept of restorative
justice (not retributive justice), rooted in ubuntu theology, has been criticised for being a romanticised
vision of the rural African community. Richard A. Wilson, The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in
South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). This criticism is reminiscent of the way
Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of virtue-ethics has been criticised, as an inadequate way to interpret faith
communities since faith was also used to support segregation in the deep South. However, such criticisms
ignore the way that the struggle in debate, dialogue and action for what it means to be faithful is inherently
a part of a viable tradition. Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of
International Relations, 233–42.
human beings in order to be human. The solitary, isolated human being is a contradiction in
In other words, identity is formed through community.
Ken Booth also turns to the relational ontology of ubuntu theology as one of an array of
sources to construct his theory of world security. He wants the bits of religious ethics (with-
out the theology) useful to construct a politicised concept of community for a critical
emancipatory project, without recognising that the separation of ethics and theology in this
way is itself an inherently modern and Western project, and is not a universal one,36
the practice of ubuntu’s theology of reconciliation is inextricable from the theology under-
pinning it (indeed, ubuntu theology may be an example of the kind of religious traditions
that Habermas now sees as important for the ethical grounding of a democratic state).37
Critical theory correctly points out that one of the problems with a problem-solving
approach to theory is that it does not fully recognise we all live in one social world character-
ised by global interdependence, but from a theological or spiritual perspective its own critique
is not radical enough.At a time when European great powers began to rationally dominate the
world, John Donne recognised the ethical imperative of the world’s social, technological and
spiritual connectedness. He could write at the dawn of the global age that no person was an
island precisely because for the first time in human history almost no one was. Donne used
what was then the new language of geography, exploration and globalisation to express his
theology regarding the spiritual links between every member of the human community. In
other words, as his spiritual world was filling so too was the mundane world on the new maps
being made of the world.38
Theology and spirituality were at the heart of the way the global
age was first interpreted, and ubuntu theology is one type of political theology trying to
recover this spiritual conception underlying the social world of global interdependence.
Critical theory in contrast to problem-solving theory also posits the idea of theory as
negative critique. It probes how this one social world of IR came into being, and whether
it should remain this way. Political theology broadly shares with critical theory the idea
of theory as negative critique regarding the origins and workings of the domestic and
international order. Its Jewish and Christian versions strongly emerge from the prophets
in the Hebrew Bible.39
Christian political theology argues, ‘the eschatological message
of Christianity has a critically negative function which helps prevent it from falling under
the spell of any particular ideology’. It seeks in the gospel message a type of dialectic
35. Allen, The Essential Desmond Tutu, 5–6 (emphasis added). René Girard argues, through his mimetic
conception of identity, how we learn to desire through the desire of others, and, so he says, this
individualistic conception of personal identity is one of the main illusions of liberal modernity. See
Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations, 121–32.
36. Booth, Theory of World Security, 226, 136–39.
37. Jürgen Habermas, ‘Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?’, in The Dialectics
of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, eds. Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger (San Francisco,
CA: Ignatius Press, 2006), 19–47.
38. Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (London:
Profile Books, 2008); John Allen, Rabble Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu
(New York: Free Press, 2006), 347.
39. Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum and Noam J. Zohar, eds, The Jewish Political Tradition,
Authority, Vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).
516 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
often not available in secular ideologies, the ability to comfort the afflicted and to afflict
Unfortunately, religion also can ‘comfort the comfortable’, and give
them a veneer of piety and respectability, while further afflicting the afflicted (the reason
for the Marxist critique of religion).
However, if Christianity could be used to support oppression and exploitation, it
could also be used to undermine them. Kierkegaard famously inveighed against
‘Christendom’ and the comfortable Christianity of Danish Lutheranism, while Martin
Luther King (following Gandhi) famously convinced other black pastors to oppose seg-
regation with non-violent resistance. What these examples indicate is that in ‘theory as
negative critique’ the ostensibly ‘political’ issues were part of broader debates over theo-
logy, spirituality, social policy and foreign policy, debates over how faithfulness was to
be interpreted in the domestic and international order. This same concern was behind
Reinhold Niebuhr, a variety of Christian realists and liberals, who supported the creation
of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.41
Critical theory also posits the idea of theory as a type of everyday social practice. This
conception links together local and global politics, as well as public and private life. It is
really theory as a form of the moral life, and many people of faith would share this
approach to theory. One of the central tasks of critical theory is to be reflective about our
everyday social practices. People do not only ‘use’ theory to explain IR; all of us, as
scholars, workers, bankers, citizens and students, ‘do’ theory every day. In the way we
‘act’, the choices we make, in what we buy, in how we vote, in our lifestyle. Every day
we live out ‘the local politics of world politics’.42
This critical approach to theory as everyday social practice is shared with neo-Calvinism,
a type of Protestant political theology. Its influence extends well beyond the Netherlands,
South Africa and the United States, and is a part of the global spread of evangelical
Christianity. The modern Dutch Calvinist tradition emerged with Abraham Kuyper, the
Dutch prime minister, in the 19th century, and after the Second World War at the Free
University of Amsterdam.43
This Calvinist, or neo-Calvinist, tradition was as concerned
about ‘living responsibly’ in the world as are many critical theorists. It emerged out of a
concern for the destructive effects on society and on working people of urbanisation and
industrialisation. Neo-Calvinists emphasise the role of basic presuppositions and assump-
tions behind the construction of world-and-life views – what are now called paradigms
– in order to show how they link together in personal, social and political life as everyday
40. Marsha Aileen Hewitt, ‘Critical Theory’, in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter
Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 460.
41. Heather A. Warren, Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists,
1920–1948 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); John Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations:
Christian Churches and Human Rights (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005).
42. Booth, ‘Critical Explorations’, 1.
43. Herman Dooyeweerd, Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options (Toronto: Wedge
Publishing Foundation, 1979); Jonathan Chaplin, Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State
and Civil Society (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming 2011).
44. Bob Goudzwaard, ‘Socioeconomic Life: A Way of Confession’, in Aid for the Overdeveloped West, ed.
Bob Goudzwaard (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1978), 23–33; Bob Goudzwaard, Idols of Our
Time (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).
Thus critical theory’s wider, more probing, conception of theory can open up a
conceptual space for dialogue between a variety of secular and theological and spiritual
perspectives on what it means to live responsibly in the world, and some of these were
explored – ubuntu theology, political theology and neo-Calvinism. At the same time
critical theory’s wider conception of theory allows it to engage better than mainstream
theory with the powerful conception of the theological or spiritual foundations of global
What Is theWorld Like? Challenging CriticalTheory’s Secular Ontology of IR
Critical theory also offers a conceptual space for bringing theological and spiritual
insights into the study of IR with its wider, more holistic, conception of what interna-
tional relations are. Critical theory, unlike the rationalist mainstream, examines the prob-
lem of ontology in IR. It interrogates the kind of ontological claims about what the world
is like, what it is made of – the kind of actors that are conceived to exist and shape IR.
The focus on wars, diplomacy and the great powers actually gives a distorted impression
of what should be included in the study of IR. The conventional focus is often on those
types of international actors (and, at least since the 1970s, non-state actors) that influence
Ontological claims are important for the study of IR. Debates over the theology of
religious actors, and their potential for violence (with their counterclaims for just war,
justice and self-defence) became important for IR after 11 September, although the ‘reli-
gious turn’ has shown this is not the only way religion has come into IR. A variety of
terrorist groups, nationalist movements or liberation movements (IRA, PLO, ETA), and
now ‘religious terrorist groups’ (Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, etc.), figure prominently.
When religious concepts are used – militancy, extremism, radicalism and fundamental-
ism – or when policy analysts try to distinguish between ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’
Islamists, or try to fit Hamas, Hezbollah or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood into them,
ontological claims are being made about what categories are key for understanding the
role of religion in IR.
Religion has become what the Copenhagen School calls ‘securitised’ in foreign pol-
icy, that is, ‘religion’ in a variety of ways is perceived to be a new problem, a new kind
of threat that needs to be handled in a variety of extraordinary legal and political ways,
accompanied with a new set of research institutes and government funding (which rein-
forces even further the link between governments and problem-solving theory).46
forget this is nothing new; when the Dominicans and Franciscans were formed they were
‘securitised’ as religious cults that threatened the established order, and the Peace of
Westphalia securitised religion for centuries to come.
45. Steve Smith, ‘The Contested Concept of Security’, in Critical Security Studies and World Politics, ed. Ken
Booth (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005), 27–62.
46. Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, J. de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Lynne Rienner, 1998);
Carsten B. Lausten and Ole Waever, ‘In Defense of Religion: Sacred Referent Objects for Securitization’,
Millennium: Journal of International Studies 29, no. 3 (2000): 705–39.
518 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
However, historically speaking, the concept of IR as the political relations between
states is a rather limited conception. Robert Jackson has argued that, if IR is broadly
defined, ‘[t]heoretical reflection on the political world beyond one’s own community is
as old as the Western intellectual tradition.’47
Moreover, it can be argued that the concep-
tion of IR as relations between different political communities indicates that it is still
princes, aristocrats and leading statesman who are ‘doing’ IR, but here critical theory
correctly asks, on behalf of whom – the established states, city-states, empires or other
types of political communities?
What international relations are shifts dramatically if the question of whom the actors
are is expanded to include a variety of religious non-state actors. Some of the best known
mystics in Christianity were peacemakers or engaged in inter-religious dialogue. Francis
of Assisi was an active peacemaker among the Italian city-states, and during the Fifth
Crusade spent time with the Sultan of Egypt.48
Less well known, perhaps, is the peace-
making of St. Catherine of Siena;49
and the list could include a variety of priests, monks,
mendicants and laypeople – Las Casas, Erasmus, More, Vives, Colet50
– who worked in
a variety of historic international systems for peace and justice, and whose faith and
theology challenged the existing international order.51
In our times Gandhi, Dorothy Day,
the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and Desmond Tutu would strongly defend
the relevance of prayer, meditation and contemplation for political action. They would
undoubtedly say, ‘the choice was not either prayer or social action: rather, prayer inevi-
tably drove you off your knees into action’.52
Critical theorists, like their liberal counterparts, point to a variety of types of non-state
actors – non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and social movements – which even if
they are constrained by the existing configurations of political and economic power, still
emphasise the ‘agency’, that is, the possibility of social transformation. Unfortunately,
they have been as slow as their rationalist or even constructivist counterparts in examining
religious non-state actors in IR – the Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches and
the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (active in the anti-apartheid struggle).53
While the role of the churches is acknowledged in specific, visible political
changes (the US civil rights struggle, the anti-apartheid movement, and the end of
47. Robert Jackson, ‘Is There a Classical International Theory?’ in International Theory: Positivism &
Beyond, eds. Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marysia Zalewski (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
48. Scott M. Thomas, ‘The Way of St. Francis? Catholic Approaches to Christian–Muslim Relations and
Interreligious Dialogue’, The Downside Review 444 (July 2008): 157–68.
49. F. Thomas Luongo, The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
50. Robert P. Adams, The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives on Humanism, War and
Peace, 1496–1535 (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1962).
51. Ronald G. Musto, The Catholic Peace Tradition (New York: Peace Books, 2002).
52. John Allen, Rabble Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu (New York: Free Press,
53. On the one hand, it is true to say, ‘The most dramatic event in the history of southern Africa, the ending
of apartheid, was the result of the oppressed majority in South Africa and the people of southern Africa
working with the global meta-narrative seeking emancipation from racism.’ On the other hand, what is left
out of the story is the crucial role of the churches. Similarly, it is true to say, ‘the history of civil society in
Eastern Europe in the 1980s shows, governments are not the only decisive agents’, but, again, this leaves out
the role of the churches. Booth and Vale, ‘Critical Security Studies and Regional Insecurity’, 337–8, 342.
communism) less well covered by critical theorists (or even rationalist scholars) is an
area which is a core part of their emancipation project – the role of religion in the
formation of international institutions (e.g. the United Nations, European Union),
and the promotion of international norms such as justice and human rights (e.g. the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Perhaps, more research on religious actors
in these areas would provide further historical support for how a wider concept of
what international relations are can help us to better understand the role of religious
non-state actors in the actual functioning of IR.
Constructing Religious and Spiritual Knowledge – Challenging CriticalTheory’s
Secular Knowledge Claims in IR
Critical theory can open a conceptual space for theological and spiritual insights since it
probes more deeply into what ‘knowledge’ is, how it is constructed and for whom it is for
in the study of IR.54
One of critical theory’s defining features is that it rejects naturalism,
that is, the main claim of positivist, mainstream, social-scientific approaches to the study
of IR. The mainstream positivists assume that the same methods of the physical or natural
sciences can be applied to the study of human beings and social action.55
This is why criti-
cal theory rejects the fact–value dichotomy, that is, the distinction in mainstream research
programmes between facts and values, subject and object in IR. It denies that ‘brute facts’
simply exist; that they are out there waiting to be discovered like a mountain range. This
does not mean that there is no ‘real world’ out there, but it does mean there are no objec-
tive, value-free descriptions, conceptions or explanations of what the world is like (which
is the assumption of mainstream theories). Our access to the world is always mediated
through the concepts, theories and the language we use to construct the world.56
Critical theory’s relational, or intersubjective, conception of knowledge can open up a
space for theological and spiritual insights because its approach to what is knowledge and
how it is constructed may not be that far away from the conception of knowledge in theol-
ogy and spirituality. In the Greek, rationalist tradition, knowledge is formed by the private
mind, it is something worked out through ideas, and concepts, and is something done,
almost autonomously, by the individual, self-sufficient human being. It has been this
tradition that has most strongly influenced Western philosophy and Christian theology.57
What ‘knowledge’ is in the Hebraic (or Jewish) tradition is different from the Greek
tradition. Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas point out in different ways that the
Hebraic tradition had a very different conception of knowledge, one in which knowledge
was relational (Buber’s famous concept of the ‘I–Thou’ relationship). Knowledge is
arrived at through an encounter with ‘the Other’, opening up to the Other, giving the
54. Ken Booth, ‘Beyond Critical Security Studies’, in Critical Security and World Politics, ed. Ken Booth
(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005), 264.
55. Booth, ‘Critical Explorations’, 10; Booth, Theory of World Security, 193–4, 244–6.
56. Friedrich Kratochwil, ‘Constructing a New Orthodoxy? Wendt’s “Social Theory of International Politics”
and the Constructivist Challenge’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 29, no. 1 (2000): 73–101.
57. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600), A History of the Development of
Doctrine, Vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 12, 45–55, 84.
520 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
Other power to influence us.58
Critical theory has explored some of the dimensions of this
relational or intersubjective conception of knowledge for ethics and epistemology.59
Critical theory’s inter-subjective conception of knowledge opens up a conceptual space
for a variety of types of political theology – liberation theology, and ‘contextual theology’,
that is, forms of liberation theology that engage Scripture, the theological tradition, and a
specific culture, society, with its politics and economics.60
Each type of theology can con-
tribute to what critical theorists call ‘knowledge for emancipation’, that is, knowledge
coming from the poor, the marginalised, regarding the working of international politics,
but they would also add the kinds of knowledge about God that contribute to emancipation
(such as the story of the Exodus in the Old Testament, or the stories of the prophets, which
shows God as a kind of God who hates injustice and liberates people from oppression).
Critical theory’s intersubjective conception of knowledge also can open up a conceptual
space for dialogue with neo-Calvinism. Neo-Calvinism developed a set of early criticisms
of the Enlightenment project, which are often identified with a variety of post-positivist
approaches to knowledge in the social sciences (e.g. critical theory, feminist theory and
postmodernism): facts cannot be separated from values; there is no objective conception of
reality, but a set of paradigms or world-and-life views through which people interpret the
world; and behind every theory is a purpose and a set of interests. Now, if theory as Cox
has put it, is always ‘for one or for some purpose’, then early neo-Calvinism was an
attempt to ‘out-narrative’ (to use John Milbank’s more recent term61
) the existing secular
accounts of the problems of Dutch society in the 1940s, and to construct a Christian world-
and-life view to help resolve them in social, economic and political life.62
In other words, both critical theory and neo-Calvinism reject the possibility of objec-
tive, value-free social inquiry, and seek the more realistic goal of gaining a ‘critical dis-
tance’ from the existing institutions or political arrangements in society. Critical theory
does this to appraise their potential for social change,63
and neo-Calvinism also does this
to promote social transformation. Both approaches pursue what critical theorists call their
own ‘knowledge interests’, which Booth has stated is to gain knowledge useful for ‘an
inclusive conception of human emancipation’.64
This is also a goal neo-Calvinism would
strongly endorse; except it has its own radical conception of human emancipation.
Neo-Calvinism’s radical conception of human emancipation is part of its understand-
ing of how knowledge can be deconstructed, which is also a major concern of critical
theory. Critical theory is concerned with how science, ideology, culture, gender, national-
ism and social class are part of the construction of knowledge. However, the theological
58. Joshua W. Cleggand Brent D. Slife, ‘Epistemology and the Hither Side:ALevinasianAccount of Relational
Knowing’, European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counseling 7, nos. 1 & 2 (March 2005): 65–76.
59. Daniel Warner, ‘Levinas, Buber and the Concept of Otherness in International Relations: A Reply to David
Campbell’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 25, no. 1 (1996): 111–28; David Campbell, ‘The
Politics of Radical Interdependence: A Rejoinder to Daniel Warner’, Millennium: Journal of International
Studies 25, no. 1 (1996): 129–41.
60. Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (New York: Orbis Press, 2002).
61. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).
62. L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s Thought
(Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1975).
63. Booth, ‘Critical Explorations’, 11.
64. Booth, ‘Beyond Critical Security Studies’, 269.
or spiritual insights of Thomas Merton, neo-Calvinists and many others point uncomfort-
ably to a deeper, more personal, deconstruction of knowledge. This kind of deconstruc-
tion begins to probe Merton’s concern for the way Faustian misunderstandings and
misapprehensions can so easily come to dominate IR. For it radically rejects the fact –
value dichotomy ‘all the way down’, that is, down to the very inner being of a scholar,
student, activist or policymaker. There is no autonomous knowing since everyone
engaged in social inquiry or policymaking proceeds from an underlying type of faith
commitment, basic convictions, presuppositions and conceptions, which at their roots
are ‘religious’ in so far as they are part of a person’s deepest inner motives, longings and
aspirations, for out of the heart are the very issues of life. Some of the early Frankfurt
School’s religious intimations would seem to fit with this deeper conception of knowl-
edge, even if it ended up with a more secular construction of it.
Towards a Radical Hope – Challenging CriticalTheory’s Concepts of Social
Justice and Emancipation in IR
Critical theory also can open up a conceptual space for theological and spiritual insights
relevant to IR since it offers a more satisfying ethical conception of what the final goal
is of IR. For critical theorists what might be done in IR ‘is inspired by the hope of chang-
ing the world’.65
The final goals of IR are bringing about global peace, justice and eman-
cipation (i.e. not only for ‘our’ own tribe, ethnicity, religion, community, country or
civilisation). Even if the meaning of these goals for critical theorists is controversial, and
are disputed, they remain central to a critical theory of IR. People of faith can share many
of these basic goals since they are central to the main world religions.66
However, while they share critical theory’s basic goals, the reasons many people of
faith may give for why they remain so contested and difficult to attain point to some of
the limitations of critical theory’s basic concepts, and of its critique of problem-solving
theory. Its critique may not be radical enough for it does not go to the root cause of the
problem, but remains a part of it, even if contentiously so – that is, the desire for the
rational domination of the world. Critical theory has dropped the cult of objectivity going
back to the Enlightenment (post-positivism), and (at least allegedly) the use of rational
knowledge to dominate the world (problem-solving theory). However, in our time, criti-
cal theory’s quest for ‘global security’ to avoid global turmoil can only come about by
some similar creative control, mastery of nature, politics and technology, so it remains a
new type of the Enlightenment’s conception of knowledge for the rational domination of
the world. What makes this project so Western (despite its claims to universality) is pre-
cisely the fact that it is based on a ‘dialectic of progress’, and irresolvable tensions
between domination and freedom – rational knowledge to dominate the world, and the
65. Booth, ‘Beyond Critical Security Studies’, 269.
66. Bustami Mohamed Khir, ‘The Islamic Quest for Sociopolitical Justice’, in The Blackwell Companion to
Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 503–18; Abdul
A. Said and Nathan C. Funk, eds, Islam and Peacemaking (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2008).
522 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
rational autonomy of the individual; these notions are at the root of modern Western
culture, and its idea of progress going back to the dawn of the global age.67
The dialectic of progress can be seen within critical theory. Firstly, critical theory is
still committed to the Enlightenment’s conception of the final end of human flourishing
– the ideal of the rational autonomy of the individual. This is clear when Ken Booth, one
of its central theorists, broadly defines the concept of emancipation:
Emancipation is the theory and practice of inventing humanity, with a view to freeing people,
as individuals and collectivities, from contingent and structural oppressions. It is a discourse of
human self-creation and the politics of trying to bring it about.… The concept of emancipation
shapes strategies and tactics of resistance, offers a theory of progress for society, and gives a
politics of hope for common humanity.68
Furthermore, in a more specific ‘test of a theory of emancipation’, Booth argues, the
‘only transhistorical and permanent fixture in human society is the individual physical
being, and so this must naturally be the ultimate referent in the security problematique’.69
Emancipation appears to be about the global spread of the (Enlightenment) ideal of the
rationality, autonomy and freedom of the individual. Its concepts of a ‘global individual’
or an ‘inclusive humanity’ are based on a conception of universality produced by the
Enlightenment. Booth acknowledges that individuals ‘exist collectively, in some social
context or other’, but there is no deeper recognition that in the global South religious
communities are the real existing communities of IR.70
Thus, critical theory does not
seem to have accepted fully the implications of its own relational, intersubjective con-
ceptions of identity and knowledge for rethinking its Enlightenment goals of justice and
emancipation, nor how religious actors might contribute to them.
Secondly, critical theory has also retained the Enlightenment’s conception of progress.71
Disagreement over the nature of modernity is why the controversy over emancipation in
critical theory is difficult to separate from the tension regarding the ideal of the rational
domination of the world. For critical theorists closer to the Frankfurt School, for example,
emancipation is a central part of a critical approach to security, and is connected to the
concept of progress; whereas, for other scholars closer to post-structuralism and postmod-
ernism, emancipation and progress are tainted ideas, too closely associated with modernity
as an overarching meta-narrative, which has wrought colonialism, imperialism, the
Holocaust and totalitarianism.72
Critical theorists recognise that the early Horkheimer con-
sidered emancipation to include the increased control or domination over nature; whereas
later, he and Adorno famously argued as part of the ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’ that the
67. Bob Goudzwaard, Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society (Toronto: Wedge Publishing
Foundation/Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1979).
68. Ken Booth, ‘Emancipation’, in Critical Security Studies and World Politics, ed. Ken Booth (Boulder, CO:
Lynne Rienner, 2005), 181.
69. Booth, ‘Beyond Critical Security Studies’, 264.
70. Booth, ‘Beyond Critical Security Studies’, 264–8. Jean Bethke Elshtain, ‘Really existing communities,’
Review of International Studies, 25, 1 (1999): 141–46.
71. Booth, Theory of World Security, 124–33.
72. Booth, ‘Emancipation’, 184–5.
very control over nature actually leads to domination and oppression, and were the con-
sequences of civilisation.73
However, without a doctrine of progress – without keeping
some notion of emancipation in play – Wyn Jones argues, critical theorists would be
forced to accept the repetition, calculability and predictability of mainstream theory.74
Thus, ultimately, what may be on offer by critical theorists to resolve the crisis in
global security are faith and hope, for they embrace a faith in progress, and a hope in
progress (even the concept of immanent critique seems to assume a life time of endless
The problem is it is a faith, a hope, in the doctrine of progress that underlies
the same core ideals of the Enlightenment that in the first place contributed to global
insecurity, for the unresolved, and irresolvable, tension between the Enlightenment
ideals – rational knowledge to dominate the world, and the rational autonomy of the
individual – remain central to Western culture, and also central, even if controversially
so, to critical theory and its emancipatory project in IR.
Critical theory is one of the clearest ways to see how prayer, meditation and contempla-
tion are relevant to understanding and responding to what Merton called the Faustian
misunderstandings and misapprehensions that drive so much of IR. This can be seen in
some of the key theorists in Critical Security Studies examined in this article. It was
argued that since critical theorists of security share many of the core values, goals and
assumptions of critical theorists more generally in IR, they also share many of the similar
contributions and limitations briefly examined here. Therefore, a greater dialogue between
theology, spirituality and critical theory or Critical Security Studies does not mean it
should be denied that a variety of religious pathologies could debilitate working for jus-
tice and emancipation (like the variety of secular pathologies). What is required is not to
ignore or marginalise religion, nor is it to promote a kind of secularism that cannot
engage with how the people of the global South conduct their moral and social lives.
Rather, critical theorists share a variety of insights with theologians, activists and
ordinary believers – on peace, justice, emancipation, consumerism and materialism –
which underlie the culture of capitalist modernity, even if there may be limitations to the
Enlightenment definitions of some of their core concepts. It should now be easier to see,
at least provisionally, how living faithfully can be a way of living critically, if critical
theorists can take seriously the actors that make up the religious world of the global
South, more critically reflect on the concept of religion within their own tradition, and
how the global South’s religiosity and modernisation challenge their understanding of
religion, modernisation, justice and emancipation. For people of faith – such as those
adhering to the Christian theologies as indicated in the article – critical theory offers a
more holistic, radical, challenging, way to approach ‘Christian discipleship’ in interna-
tional affairs than one based on trying to relate Christian ethics and theology to the
73. Richard Wyn Jones, ‘On Emancipation: Necessity, Capacity and Concrete Utopias’, in Critical Security
Studies and World Politics, ed. Ken Booth (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005), 215–36.
74. Richard Wyn Jones, ‘On Emancipation’, 215–36.
75. Booth, ‘Beyond Critical Security Studies’, 263–74.
524 Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39(2)
mainstream theories of IR. This raises the question whom is critical theory for? It was
scholars, priests and the lay faithful who were the carriers of liberation theology a gen-
eration ago to their poor communities, and if the same thing happened with critical
theory, then what would be the possibilities for social and political transformation?
Perhaps, critical theorists and theologians alike challenge all of us – maybe the world
needs fewer scholars and more witnesses to what such transformed lives and communi-
ties might look like in the 21st century.
The author would like to thank Jeroen Gunning, Andrew Linklater, William T. Cavanaugh, Stanley
Hauerwas, A. Alexander Stummvoll, Robert Joustra, the editors and anonymous reviewers for
their most helpful comments on earlier drafts.
Scott M.Thomas lectures in international relations and the politics of developing coun-
tries at the University of Bath, and is a research fellow in the Centre for Christianity and
Interreligious Dialogue, Heythrop College, University of London.
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