Part 4 – Critical theory and Christianity
In the last section, I gave several general reasons to reject the tenets of critical theory. In the next few sections, I’ll focus on reasons for Christians in particular to reject critical theory.
Both Christianity and critical theory are worldviews; that is, they are comprehensive, coherent ways of looking at reality. However, I believe that they are mutually incompatible. To the extent that a person adopts a Christian worldview, they will have to abandon the basic tenets of critical theory if they are to remain consistent.
The first conflict between critical theory and Christianity relates to the issue of identity. Identity (that is, how we view ourselves and others) plays a tremendously important role in critical theory and in postmodernism. Critical theory would insist that gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, etc… are fundamental components of our identities. However, from a Christian perspective, there are three far more fundamental categories of identity which critical theory ignores. What is more, this omission is not accidental; it is a consequence of critical theory itself. As a result, we cannot simply tack Christianity on to critical theory, or vice versa. One will have to be rejected.
The three categories I have in mind are: 1) human beings as the imago Dei, 2) human beings as sinners, and 3) human beings as united in Christ. (continued…)
Identity and the Imago Dei
The doctrine underpinning all of Christian ethics is the imago Dei, the belief that all human beings, whether male or female, black or white, young or old, are made in the image of God and therefore possess equal value and dignity. While Race, Class, and Gender included numerous essays on how race, class, ethnicity, education, gender, age, and sexual orientation shape our identities, there was no mention at all of our identity as people made in God’s image. Can this omission be ascribed to the secular target audience of the book?
I don’t think so. Critical theory depends crucially on differentiating identity groups into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed.’ To suggest that all of us share the same fundamental identity marker is to undermine this dichotomy. On a Christian view, the difference between human and animal, or human and inanimate object, is so radical that it relativizes all other differences. If there is a rock or a tree blocking my path, I can smash it to pieces. If there is a human being in my path, I owe him the same deference that I would show to my child or my wife.
Yet this acknowledgement is unacceptable to critical theory because it would form a basis for solidarity between the powerful and the powerless. Many of the authors commented on how otherwise hostile groups were held together in coalition only by a common enemy. For example, several black feminists lamented the indifference of white feminists to racism. Yet feminists can still be united by their common gender, which is not shared by their male oppressors.
But what happens when all human beings share the most fundamental identity marker – God’s image? How do we sustain any coalition against ‘the enemy’, when we discover that ‘the enemy’ possesses the same intrinsic worth and value that we do? Incidentally, this realization is what has led nations to dehumanize their enemies during wartime. Leaders know that violence, aggression, and even genocide is easiest to sustain when the ‘other’ is viewed as subhuman.
The doctrine of the Imago Dei is radically subversive to racism, sexism, classism, but also to critical theory. And for exactly the same reason.
Identity and sin
The second core piece of Christian anthropology is even harder to fit into critical theory: the doctrine of sin. According to the Bible, human beings are united in their rebellion against God. We are united under the fall of the first man and woman and we ratify their rebellion in our daily acts of disobedience.
The doctrine of sin causes two problems for critical theory. First, it undercuts the idea that there is a fundamental moral asymmetry between oppressed groups and oppressor groups, something that can be seen in the elaborate rules governing the speech and behavior of out-group ‘allies’, the demand for safe spaces, and the legitimization of the mistrust of outgroup members. Rules and attitudes that we’d instantly reject as sin if they were applied to oppressed classes (women, POC) are acceptable when applied to oppressor classes (men, non-POC). Yet if sin is primarily against God, then our position in society or lack of power does not determine whether a thought, word, or deed is sin.
Second, from God’s perspective, all human beings are morally corrupt. One consequence of this doctrine is that all human beings share a ‘solidarity in sin’ just as we share a solidarity in the imago Dei. While there is no question that certain demographic groups have -in aggregate- used their power to oppress other demographic groups, we dare not see their sin as something alien to us. To the extent that our identity is rooted in our common rebellion and our common need for mercy, that will undermine the sharp line that critical theory draws between victims and victimizers.
Identity and redemption
Finally, Christians are committed to a view of identity that is antithetical to the idea that our fundamental unity is found in the experience of oppression. The Bible says that for Christians, the divisions between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free are all broken down. These differences are not erased, but they are demoted in importance. All Christians share equal access to God and equal standing before God. They are adopted into God’s family, not merely as brothers and sisters in their humanity, but as brother’s and sisters in salvation. Jesus went so far as to say that even our relationship to our biological family (let alone our ethnicity, or our nation) is secondary to our relationship with fellow Christians (Matt. 12:48). Critical theory insists on ‘solidarity in oppression’ while Christianity insists on ‘solidarity in redemption.’
To put it another way, if they are both believers in Jesus, a rich, white, educated, American, suburban businessman has more in common with a poor, uneducated, Vietnamese peasant woman than with his rich, white, educated, American, suburban, non-Christian next-door-neighbors. If Christianity is true, then the identity that Christians share in their Savior goes deeper than any differences in race, class, or gender. Insofar as our identity in Christ relativizes and deprioritizes all other identity markers, it will undermine the idea that these markers are the ultimate basis for Christians’ solidarity. We are fundamentally united by our humanity, by our corruption, and by our Savior. If a Christian finds greater communion, fellowship, and solidarity with people of his own same race, class, or gender, than with his brothers and sisters in Christ, then he needs to reexamine the Bible’s teaching on our identity.
Worldview and power
Second, the tenets of critical theory come into fundamental conflict with Christianity over the nature of power. Recall that the principle aim of critical theory is to dismantle power structures, which necessarily result in oppression. To be clear, the Bible recognizes and condemns the fact that the powerful often oppress the weak. Jesus himself noted that earthly rulers ‘lord it over’ those they govern and forbade his followers from doing the same. So Christianity does not reject the connection between power and oppression.
The difference between critical theory and the Bible is that the former sees power as necessarily oppressive while the latter sees the abuse of power as oppressive. In the Bible, not all human relationships are defined by power dynamics and not all power differentials lead to oppression. This difference might seem minor, but it has massive implications.
For example, many critical theorists place ‘adultism’ -that is, the oppression of children by adults- alongside sexism and racism. From the perspective of critical theory, this analysis is uncontroversial; power differentials necessarily result in oppression. But from the perspective of the Bible, it is not the power of adults that is a problem, but the abuse of that power. The power of adults over children, used rightly, is exercised for the child’s flourishing within the context of a relationship of love and trust. Two different worldviews provide two very different analyses of the parent-child relationship.
Or consider the power that many husbands have over their wives. Even in the most egalitarian of marriages, the husband is -on average- physically stronger and makes more money than his wife. Does this mean that his wife should see him as her oppressor? Or should she recognize that within the context of a loving, marriage relationship, she can trust him to use his power to serve her?
The most serious implication of the link between power and oppression arises when we reflect on God himself. The greatest power differential of all is the one between creature and Creator. If we take critical theory seriously and consistently reject all power structures as oppressive, how can we suddenly balk when we apply this critique to God?
Seeing power as intrinsically oppressive leads to a very different view of the world than the one offered by Christianity. If we follow the implications of critical theory consistently, what will we do with the Bible’s commands to submit to our parents, to submit to our political leaders, to submit to our church leaders, and -ultimately- to submit to God? Something will have to go: either a view of power grounded in critical theory, where power is necessarily oppressive, or a view of power grounded in the Bible, where power is something that sinful humans can abuse but which can be good and life-giving when wielded by someone who loves and cares for us.
Worldview and liberation
Finally, critical theory’s commitment to ‘liberation’ as the ultimate good conflicts with the idea that God’s moral commandments are universally binding on all human beings.
Philosophers from Nietzsche onward have sought to ‘deconstruct’ morality. According to this view, the practices that a given culture sees as ‘good’ and ‘right’ are merely the arbitrary impositions of those in power. The powerful create a ‘morality’ which ensures they will remain at the top of the social hierarchy.
For example, many feminists see social expectations surrounding “women’s roles” as thinly-veiled attempts by men to control women and buttress the patriarchy. Marxists see prohibitions against ‘theft’ or insistence on “property rights” as a mere pretense for the rich to continue their oppression of the poor. In both these cases, the critical theorist deconstructs the values of the powerful, in order to liberate the oppressed from their bondage.
The problem with this critique is that it is grounded in moral relativism, which Christians reject. Some values and laws may be man-made constructs designed to perpetuate oppression, but God’s laws are not. The Christian must insist that there exist transcendent moral laws to which all cultures and all people are accountable, even cultures which are currently experiencing unjust oppression. Simply pointing out that the dominant group embraces certain values (or that the oppressed group does not) is insufficient to determine whether those values are evil.
In other words, the critical theorist aims to expose all the values of the oppressor as human constructs and tools of oppression, which can then be rejected. In contrast, a Christian must be willing to scrutinize all value claims, whether those of the oppressed or the oppressor, to determine which are human constructs and which are grounded in God’s law.
See all content on critical theory here.