- 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?
Having shown that there’s more at stake than a few isolated disagreements, let’s look at several areas where there is a real conflict between critical theory and Christianity. Unfortunately, these conflicts are not purely theoretical. As we’ll see, even conservative Christians who ultimately reject critical theory as a worldview can nonetheless be influenced by the ideas of critical theory in very harmful ways.
Critical theory often takes an approach to truth claims that is ultimately in conflict with a Christian worldview and even with traditional conceptions of ‘truth.’ 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, there’s an alternate approach to truth claims that is very popular but is logically invalid. When someone makes a truth claim, instead of examining their argument or the evidence they use to support this claim, we shift the focus to their motivations. We don’t ask “Is this claim true?” Instead, we ask “what economic or political or psychological incentive do they have to make this claim?” If we can impugn the other person’s motives, we think we can dismiss their claims as false. C.S. Lewis coined the term ‘Bulverism’ to refer to this line of reasoning. It is, of course, completely logically invalid. You can’t know whether a claim is true or false by studying the psychology or politics of the person who makes the claim.
For example, if a woman with a PhD in immunology who runs major biotech company tells you that vaccines are safe, you can’t conclude that vaccines are unsafe just because she has a vested financial interest in believing that vaccines are safe. Perhaps they are unsafe, but you can’t know unless you without looking at the evidence. To know whether a claim is true, you have to examine the claim itself, not the person making it.
How is this relevant to critical theory?
Remember premise #6? “Oppressor groups hide their oppression under the guise of objectivity.” This basic principle strongly encourages Bulverism. When someone makes a truth claim, the first question asked is not “is this claim true?” but “What incentive does this person have to make this claim?” In fact, critical theory goes farther and actually provides immediate answers to this question.
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? That situation is a little more challenging, but the claim can still be met with a charge of ‘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 very familiar with this reasoning. Let’s say that a man makes a deductive logical argument that abortion is morally wrong. What is the response?
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 you 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 serious areas of conflict between critical theory and Christianity? Yes, because it undermines any appeal to the Bible. One of driving forces behind the Protestant 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 be dismissed as having ‘internalized oppression.’ Are you pro-life? That’s because “you’re trying to control women’s bodies.” Do you think that homosexuality is a sin? That’s because “you’re motivated by homophobia.” Do you think that husbands are called to lead their family? That’s because “you’re trying to preserve male supremacy.” People who have embraced critical theory don’t think they have to appeal to reason, or argument, or evidence, or even Scripture; instead they can simply impute sinister motives to their opponents and ignore their claims.
Before I continue, let me take a step back and ask a pointed question: in the last talk or in this talk, were any of you wondering what my motivations were? Were you trying to put me into a particular cultural or political or theological category so you could say “ah, I get it. I know where he’s going with this. Now I can ignore the claims he’s making, because he’s simply trying to justify X, Y, or Z.” Catch yourself. That’s Bulverism! It’s everywhere. I do it too. It’s so insidious. Until we get rid of the assumption that we can adjudicate truth claims on the basis of the motivations of the person making the claims, we won’t be able to think about anything clearly. Focus on the argument and the evidence, not on the person.
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.’ To be clear, this distinction is not made on the basis of actual behavior; it’s not that a particular man or a particular white person or a particular heterosexual is treating others cruelly. It’s that the group to which they belong exercises hegemonic power over culture, thereby dividing society into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups.
Conversely, if all human beings shared some fundamental identity marker, that fact would severely undermine this dichotomy 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 humans, whether male or female, black or white, young or old, are made in the image of God and therefore possess equal value and dignity. 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 respect 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. The doctrine of the Imago Dei is radically subversive to racism, sexism, classism, but also to critical theory. And for exactly the same reason. Oppressors and the oppressed are all human beings who share the same fundamental identity marker that distinguishes them from everything else in creation.
Second, the Christian doctrine of sin is also difficult to reconcile with critical theory. 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. We 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 reality 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. 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 nationality) 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.’
I want to pause for a moment on that last point, because I think it’s extremely important. We can think about the entire biblical narrative in terms of God’s redemptive work to reunite people alienated from himself and from one another by sin.
In Gen. 1 and 2 we see man and woman united in harmony and love. Because of sin, we see estrangement, both between God and man, and between man and woman. In Gen. 11, we see all of mankind dispersed at the tower of Babel. When Christ comes as the second Adam, he comes to reverse the curse of Babel and to redeem people from every tribe, nation, and tongue to constitute a new humanity, centered around his Lordship.
Given this reality, think what it would mean for Christians to adopt critical theory’s approach to identity within the church. It would mean that every woman would have to look at every man as an ‘oppressor.’ Every person of color would have to look at every white person as an oppressor. Every poor person would have to look at every rich person as an oppressor. Every uneducated person would have to look at every educated person as an oppressor. Is that Paul’s vision for the church? Is that Jesus’ vision for the church?
Critical theory rightly rejects a model where one dominant demographic group demands the assimilation of all other demographic groups. And it rightly recognizes the goodness of diversity within organizations so that we shouldn’t simply divide into monoethnic or monocultural churches. But its solution to these two problems is to bring the world’s enmity into the church and to divide it into oppressed Christians and oppressor Christians, which is equally unacceptable. Christians must insist that we fundamentally and irreducibly relate to one another as brothers and sisters who have been (past tense) reconciled to one another in Christ and who now must do the hard work of living with one another in love, sacrificing our own interests for those of our fellow Christians.
Third, 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. And all people everywhere are accountable to that singular narrative and a singular set of values, expectations, and norms. 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.
Of course, the claim that the Bible specifies one set of moral norms that is binding on every culture and every person is very different than the claim that any one culture is the perfect expression of biblical teaching. That’s ridiculous! Every culture falls short of God’s standards and every culture must be called to reform itself to God’s standards. Moreover, not every facet of culture is a moral issue. God does not specify what language we should speak or what kind of food we should eat or what genre of music we should enjoy.
Nevertheless, while Christians can and should celebrate the diversity that God has created with respect to non-moral issues, we cannot embrace diversity for diversity’s sake. All cultures, including our own, need to be held accountable to God’s commands. The moral practices of all cultures must be tested against Scripture. Yes, we should recognize how dominant groups have sinfully distorted Scripture to justify their own power. Yes, we should recognize our sinful tendency to exalt our own culture at the expense of other cultures. But we simply cannot abandon the idea that, 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.
Fourth, I mentioned last week that the designation of some individuals as oppressed and other individuals 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. Consider several examples from just the last few months.
Consider this passage from an op-ed piece in the Washington Post a few months ago. In an article entitled “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”, Professor Suzanne Walters tells men what they must do if they really want to be feminist allies: “Pledge to vote for feminist women only. Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power…We have every right to hate you. You have done us wrong.”
A few weeks ago, it ran another op-ed by a seventy-year-old history professor entitled “Thanks for not Raping Us All You ‘Good Men’” in which the author recounts that she yelled at her husband for 30 minutes, announcing that “I hate all men and wish all men were dead.” (It’s been a bad few months at the Washington Post.)
This language is seen as acceptable because of the moral asymmetry between men and women. Men are oppressors and women are oppressed, so women have ‘every right to hate’ men.
Another example. Here are a handful of Tweets from NYTimes columnist Sarah Jeong, which surfaced shortly after her hiring. I won’t read them aloud, but obviously, this kind of language would be seen as horrifyingly racist when applied to any demographic group other than ‘white people’ or ‘white men.’ Yet many people defended these Tweets. On what grounds?
Listen to Zach Beauchamp in Vox: “The underlying power structure in American society” is what differentiates these Tweets from “actual racism.”
One might think that Christians would reject the idea of moral asymmetry between two groups of people based solely on demographic characteristics. You’d hope that Christians would recognize that all people are accountable to the same moral commands. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Below are two quotes from Christians. I have not provided attribution, because I do not want to focus on the people involved, only on the ideologies. I have no interest in disparaging fellow believers, but I do want to show that the ideas of critical theory are at work in the church.
Here’s a passage from a series of articles entitled ‘Listening Well as a Person of Privilege”, written by a Christian professor. She writes: “Privileged people who are committed to listening well will eventually encounter oppressed people who are angry (and rightfully so). Most of the time, this anger will seem directed at the privileged person or at privileged people in general… Now is not the time for privileged folks to be a ‘prophetic voice’ in the lives of oppressed people by speaking hard truth about what (privileged people think) oppressed people should be doing to improve their situation. Privileged people lost their right to the prophetic megaphone when they knowingly or unknowingly participated in societal systems that benefit some people and oppress others. Sorry folks – you can’t be a prophet and an oppressor at the same time.”
The fingerprints of critical theory are all over these statements. People are categorized as either ‘oppressed’ or ‘privileged.’ Privileged people have “lost their right the prophetic megaphone” not because they are actively sinning in some way but because they “knowingly or unknowingly participated in societal systems that benefit some people and oppress others.” In contrast, the oppressed person is “angry (and rightfully so)” even when that anger seems to be directed against the privileged person or privileged people in general.
Another example. This statement is from a document written by a Christian racial reconciliation for white people involved in racial reconciliation. It says: “Don’t chastise POCs (or dismiss their message) because they express their grief, fear, or anger in ways you deem ‘inappropriate.’… Provide space for POCs to wail, cuss, or even yell at you.” People of color should be given space to “wail, cuss, or yell” not just at injustice in general but “at you” – at the white person. We’re told that this behavior is to be accepted because historically, “white people have silenced voices of dissent and lament.”
How should we respond to these claims of moral asymmetry? What does the Bible say? On the one hand, God does give particular commands to certain groups based on roles. For example, he gives different commands to parents and children, to servants and masters, and to elders and their congregations. But there are several fundamental differences between the commands God that gives to particular groups, and the moral asymmetry that critical theory relies on.
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 people in authority, not work to dismantle that authority (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 power and that power 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. For all these reasons, 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. Consequently, it is impossible to reconcile the two. To the extent that we adopt the premises of critical theory, we will have to abandon basic tenets of Christianity and vice versa.
But what are we left with? Many people are attracted to critical theory because it purports to be the only solution to systemic injustice. Critical theory takes racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression very seriously, whereas Christianity is seen as concerned only with saving souls and not dismantling unjust systems. I’ve argued that Christians can’t embrace critical theory because of its numerous conflicts with Christian theology. But what is the alternative?
In the next section, I’ll offer a few basic biblical principles that should shape how we think about laws and institutions. If we desire to apply biblical principles of justice to society, what factors should we take into account?