Part 1 – What is critical theory and why should we care?
Part 2 – Conflicts Between CT and Christianity
Part 3 – Critical Theory in the Church
Part 4 – Advice for Dialogue
III. Conflicts Between CT and Christianity
The first and most fundamental problem with critical theory is that it functions as a worldview. A worldview is a story that answers our basic questions about life and reality. Who are we? What is our fundamental problem as human beings? What is the solution to that problem? What is our principle moral duty? What is our purpose in life? A worldview is a metanarrative, a lens through which we view and interpret all other evidence and all other claims.
Christianity is one such worldview. Christianity tells one comprehensive, overarching narrative about reality in four basic acts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Who are we? We are the creatures of a holy, good, and loving Creator God. What is our fundamental problem as human beings? We have rebelled against God. What is the solution to our problem? God sent Jesus to bear the penalty of our rebellion and rescue us. What is our primary moral duty? To love God. What is our purpose in life? To glorify God. This is the basic story that Christianity tells us and is the grid through which we ought to interpret everything else.
Critical theory also functions as a worldview., but it tells an alternate comprehensive, overarching story about reality. The story of critical theory begins not with creation, but with oppression. The omission of a creation element is very important because it changes our answer to the question: “who are we?” There is no transcendent Creator who has a purpose and a design for our lives and our identities. We don’t primarily exist in relation to God, but in relation to other people and to other groups. Our identity is not defined primarily in terms of who we are as God’s creatures. Instead, we define ourselves in terms of race, class, sexuality, and gender identity. Oppression, not sin, is our fundamental problem. What is the solution? Activism. Changing structures. Raising awareness. We work to overthrow and dismantle hegemonic power. That is our primary moral duty. What is our purpose in life? To work for the liberation of all oppressed groups so that we can achieve a state of equality.
As you can see, Christianity and critical theory answer our most fundamental questions about reality in very different ways. I worry that too many people are trying to hold on to both Christianity and critical theory. That’s not going to work in the long run. We’ll constantly be forced to choose between them in terms of values, priorities, and ethics. As we absorb the assumptions of critical theory, we will find that they inevitably erode core biblical truths.
To provide just one illustration, Union Theological Seminary posted a Twitter thread in response to the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. Their very first statement was “we deny the Bible is inerrant or infallible” because it “reflects both God’s truth and human sin & prejudice.” But how do you determine which is which? They explain: “biblical scholarship and critical theory help us to discern which messages are God’s.” I commend them for their clarity here, but it shows exactly how critical theory strives with Christianity for pre-eminence. These are two worldviews fighting. In the end, one will win.
Second, there is a difference in epistemology, that is, how we know the truth.
Critical theory often takes an approach to truth claims that is in conflict with Christianity. Normally, when someone makes a claim about what is true, we require the claim to be supported by reason, logic, and argument. We test that claim against the available evidence to determine whether it is true.
However, critical theory encourages an alternate approach to truth claims that is very popular but is logically invalid. Remember premise #5? “Oppressor groups hide their oppression under the guise –the pretense- of objectivity.” Because of this premise, when someone makes a truth claim, the first question asked by critical theory is not “is this claim true?” but “What incentives does this person have to make this claim? What social or political agenda motivates this statement? How does this statement function to preserve his power and privilege?” If you’re familiar with the work of C.S. Lewis, you’ll recognize the logical fallacy that he christened ‘Bulverism.’ Bulverism is a species of genetic fallacy; it dismisses a claim as false because of the assumed motives of the person making the claim. In the same way, critical theory bypasses the question of whether the claim is true and focuses the discussion on the claimant’s group identity.
If the person making the claim belongs to an oppressor group, then the response is easy: “Of course they would say that. They’re just trying to maintain their power and privilege.” But what happens if the person making the claim belongs to an oppressed group? In that case, their claim is ascribed to ‘internalized oppression.’ The subordinate individual has internalized and accepted the claims of the dominant group. Now the response is: “Ah, you’re suffering from internalized oppression. You’ve been so thoroughly immersed in the dominant power structure that you’re unable to recognize it.”
If you’ve ever discussed pro-life arguments, you’re probably familiar with this reasoning. Let’s say that a man makes a deductive logical argument that abortion is morally wrong. What is the response to him?
Do people say: “That argument, while logically valid, is unsound. Premise 1 is false for the following reasons”? Sometimes, but not very often. Instead, what’s one of the most common responses that men will hear? “Of course, you would say that! You’re a man. You just want to control women’s bodies!”
But let’s say I grab my wife and she makes exactly the same argument: same premises, same conclusion. Now what’s the response? Internalized oppression. She has absorbed the values and norms of the Patriarchy without even realizing it.
Even if we grant that this approach to truth is a problem, is it really one of the most dangerous conflicts between critical theory and Christianity? Yes, because it undermines any appeal to the Bible. One of the driving forces behind the Reformation was the idea that our theology has to be reformed to and brought under the authority of Scripture. To do that, we need to be able to test theological claims against the Bible. Unfortunately, critical theory short-circuits this process.
If a person from an oppressor group suggests that our views are unbiblical, they can be dismissed as trying to ‘maintain their privilege.’ But if someone from an oppressed group suggests that our views are unbiblical, they can also be dismissed as having ‘internalized oppression.’ Do you think that the Bible teaches that abortion is wrong? That’s because “you’re trying to control women’s bodies.” Do you think that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin? That’s because “you’re motivated by homophobia.” Do you think that the Bible teaches that husbands have the responsibility to lead their family? That’s because “you’re trying to preserve male supremacy.”
The primary concern for people who have embraced critical theory is not appealing to reason, or argument, or evidence, or even to Scripture. Their primary concern is unearthing and deconstructing the hidden motives of their opponents, so that –according to critical theory- their claims can then be ignored.
C. Adversarial identities
Third, critical theory assumes an adversarial relationship between individuals that is profoundly antithetical to Christianity. Critical theory depends crucially on differentiating identity groups into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed.’ Conversely, if all human beings shared some fundamental identity marker, that fact would severely undermine the dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed and would call into question the foundations of critical theory. Yet Christianity offers not just one but three of these fundamental identity markers, which are shared by human beings across lines of race, class, and gender: we share a fundamental identity first in creation, then in sin, and then –for Christians- in redemption.
First, 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. This idea forms a basis for solidarity between the powerful and the powerless, which threatens the divisions introduced by critical theory.
Second, the Christian doctrine of sin teaches that human beings are united in their rebellion against God. We share a ‘solidarity in sin’ just as we share a solidarity in the Imago Dei. 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.
Finally, the New Testament talks very explicitly about the fact 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. Critical theory insists on ‘solidarity in oppression’ while Christianity insists on ‘solidarity in redemption.’ Christians must insist that we fundamentally and irreducibly relate to one another not as oppressed and oppressor, but as brothers and sisters who have been (past tense) reconciled to one another in Christ.
According to the Bible, all human beings are made in God’s image, all human beings are naturally dead in sin, and all human beings need salvation in Christ. These doctrines of human solidarity are radically subversive to racism, sexism, and classism, but also to critical theory. And for exactly the same reason.
D. Hegemonic power
Fourth, critical theory is built on the rejection of hegemonic power. It sees singular narratives and a singular set of values and norms as inherently oppressive. Unfortunately, the Bible is nothing but one giant, colossal hegemonic discourse from start to finish. God has all the power in the universe. God has told the true story of reality in the Bible. That means there is one true story of religion, one true story of morality, one true story of sexuality, one true story of gender, and so forth.
While Christians can and should celebrate the diversity that God has created with respect to non-moral issues, like food, music, and styles of dress, we cannot embrace diversity for diversity’s sake. For example, Christians can’t celebrate a diversity of views with respect to the deity of Christ or the sanctity of human life. In the final analysis, there is only one true story of reality and only one valid set of moral values: God’s. From the perspective of critical theory, this idea is completely unacceptable.
E. Moral Asymmetry
Fifth, I mentioned in section two that the designation of some individuals as oppressed and other as oppressors leads critical theorists to insist on a moral asymmetry between these groups. What is immoral behavior for an individual from an oppressor group can be moral for an individual in an oppressed group.
For example, here are a handful of Tweets from NYTimes columnist Sarah Jeong, which surfaced shortly after her hiring. I won’t read them aloud because they’re pretty vile, but obviously, this kind of language would be seen as horrifically racist if it were applied to any demographic group other than ‘white people’ or ‘white men.’ Yet many people defended these Tweets. On what grounds?
Here’s Zach Beauchamp in Vox. “The underlying power structure in American society” is what differentiates these Tweets from ‘actual racism.’ Yes, Beauchamp admits, these statements would be racist if they were directed towards non-whites. But they’re not racist if they’re directed towards whites.
What should Christians think about this kind of moral asymmetry?
First, God’s commands to particular groups never violate God’s universal commands to all Christians. When Christians are told to speak the truth in love or to let no unclean speech come out of our mouths, that applies to all Christians, not just to privileged Christians. Second, God’s particular commands are based on roles not power differentials. He gives some particular commands to parents, to children, to men, or to women, but never to ‘oppressed groups’ and ‘oppressor groups’ as such. Third, when the Bible does give particular commands to certain demographic groups, it affirms that Christians should show respect and deference to authority structures (see Rom. 12, Eph. 5:21-6:9, Col. 3:18-4:1, Titus 2:1-10, 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7, etc…) . The Bible recognizes that those in power can indeed abuse their authority and that authority must be wielded justly, but never suggests that all authority should be resisted or is somehow illegitimate. Finally, the Bible is emphatic that Christians are to judge impartially, applying the same law to all people.
Consequently, the insistence of critical theory that individuals from different demographic groups should be held to different moral standards purely on the basis of their group identity is deeply unbiblical.
A worldview based on critical theory and a Christian worldview conflict not just with respect to a few isolated issues, but with respect to basic questions of epistemology, identity, power, and morality. It is impossible to reconcile the two. To the extent we adopt the premises of critical theory, we will have to abandon basic tenets of Christianity and vice versa.
In the next section, I’d like to provide some examples of ideas that are rooted in critical theory, but have achieved the status of ‘common sense’ for large segments of our culture and even for some Christians. I’ll trace the logical implications of these ideas and show how they end up severely undermining basic biblical doctrines.
IV. Logical Implications
A. “We should never challenge lived experience.”
First, consider the claim: “We should never challenge ‘lived experience.’” This claim is so popular in our culture. And certainly, we should be open to the possibility that our experiences may be limited by our privilege and not representative of reality. Yet serious problems arise for Christians who adopt this claim.
Look at the following assertions: “As a woman, I know that our society is deeply sexist.” “As a black man, I know that our society is deeply racist.” “As a lesbian, I know that sexual orientation is fixed from birth.” “As a Sufi Muslim, I know that Islam is true.” “As a polyamorous man, I know that sex outside of marriage is okay.” “As a Hindu, I know that all religions are paths to the divine.”
You might be inclined to agree with some of these claims and disagree with others. But if you accept the premise that the ‘lived experience’ of subordinate groups should never be challenged, which of these claims do you have to accept? All of them. If you’re going to be consistent, you have to accept all of them.
Yes, Christians should be kind, gentle, and irenic when talking to people describing their ‘lived experience.’ We should listen. We should be open to correction. But we can’t allow ‘lived experience’ to take precedence over Scripture or objective evidence.
B. “We need to liberate our theology from privileged groups”
Second, I’ve heard many Christians correctly observe that modern evangelical authors are overwhelmingly white men. They argue that writers and theologians from cultures other than ours will have a unique perspective from which we can greatly benefit. This limited claim is reasonable. Our culture does have blindspots and these blindspots will affect our interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, it is useful to read authors from outside our culture and outside our time period who can give us alternate perspectives.
On the other hand, Christians should be wary of the sweeping (and vague) claim that we should ‘liberate our theology from privileged groups’
What does that mean? Where do we draw the line? Should we jettison ‘white theology’ for ‘black theology’? Which ‘white theology’ and which ‘black theology’? Should we jettison the white theology of John Piper or Joel Osteen? Should we embrace the black theology of Voddie Bauckam or Creflo Dollar? Should we jettison ‘Western theology’? Should we jettison the ‘Eurocentric’ creeds of the Reformation and embrace the liberation theology of South America? Should we supplement the Bible with other spiritual books written by female authors, since the biblical writers were all men? If we’re hesitant to embrace these ideas, then we should question the very premise on which this enterprise rests.
While we can indeed benefit from the study of multiple perspectives, we can’t assume that oppressed groups are correct by virtue of their oppression or that dominant groups are wrong by virtue of their privilege. Rather than trying to find theological beliefs that aren’t tainted by privilege, Christians should be committed to determining which theological beliefs are objectively true because they are taught by Scripture, regardless of their origin.
C. “We should dismantle all structures which perpetuate privilege”
Finally, critical theory assumes that power imbalances are inherently bad and that they should be dismantled. We’ve already seen that, fundamentally, this claim is incorrect because God’s infinite power is not only unassailable but unequivocally good. Yet many Christians still assume that human power imbalances are inherently bad.
But if we accept this idea, what is our response to the following claims? Should we reject private property because it perpetuates economic privilege? Should we reject male eldership because it perpetuates male privilege? Should we reject traditional marriage because it perpetuates heteronormativity? Should we reject the connection between sex and gender because it perpetuates cisgender privilege? Should we stop preaching about biblical morality or about the exclusivity of Christ, so that non-Christians aren’t marginalized? Insisting that all power imbalances are bad will have serious repercussions for our theology.
Each of these ideas contains an element of truth but leads to serious problems when taken to its logical conclusion. If we’re speaking to a Christian who has accepted these ideas, we should gently press them on the logical implications of their beliefs. This exercise is not hypothetical. Many formerly conservative evangelicals have followed exactly the trajectory I’m describing. We should warn people where these beliefs will take them, if followed consistently.
Next, I’d like to look at some examples of how critical theory is influencing the evangelical church.