- Part 1 – What is ‘social justice’? What is ‘critical theory’?
- Part 2 – Critical theory as worldview
- Part 3 – Conflicts between critical theory and Christianity
- Part 4 – A Christian approach to social justice?
Discussing the conflicts between critical theory and Christianity is going to involve wading into some very hazardous subjects. They warn you not to touch ‘the third rail’ by talking about issues like race, gender, and sexuality. In this next two sections, not only am I going to touch the third rail, I’m going to lie down on it and then lick it. So please, grant me grace while reading this next section.
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 a comprehensive, overarching story about reality in four basic acts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Who are we? We are the creations 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 rescue us from our sin. 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. Critical theory 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, his servants, or his children. Instead, we define ourselves in terms of race, class, gender, 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.
Why does it matter that Christianity and critical theory are different worldviews? Because worldviews don’t play well together. Has anyone ever seen the old movie Highlander? Or the television show? Television is what people had in the olden days before Netflix.
Anyway, it was a show about immortal Scottish warriors who ran around killing each other with swords, but it had a great tagline: “in the end, there can be only one.” Worldviews are like that. You can’t have two different worldview rattling around in your head. They’ll conflict. They’ll fight. They won’t get along. Eventually, one will win.
To the extent that a person adopts a Christian worldview, they will have to abandon a worldview based on critical theory. And vice versa. It’s not possible to marry the two, any more than it’s possible to reconcile historic Christianity and atheism or historic Christianity and historic Buddhism. We need to keep that incompatibility in mind as we discuss the conflicts I’ll mention in what follows. I worry that too many people are trying to hold on to both Christianity and critical theory. That’s not going to work. 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 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, there can be only one.