Karl Barth, a theologian from a previous generation was once believed to have said that he advised young theologians to, “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” While I disagree with Barth on a number of other topics, I do agree with him fervently on that quote. Christians are to use their Bible to interpret the world around them, not the other way around. As the revealed Word of God, the Bible alone has the final word on all issues. As it speaks so we believe. And as we attempt to faithfully live out our lives in an ever-changing sea of moral uncertainty, the Christian must firmly resolve to anchor themselves in the unchanging pages of Scripture.
Perhaps the most important philosophy undergirding much of the modern secular Social Justice movements is what is called Critical Theory. I confess that I feel as though I have been on a journey over the last year especially educating myself on this topic. Critical Theory seems to influence everything from Black Lives Matter to Cancel Culture, from University Safe Spaces to calls for Social Justice. What is this movement, and is it Biblical?
I recently picked up a book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay called Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody. I’m still working through the book, but it has provided such accessible insight into the development of Critical Theory and what it means for us today. What I want to do in this post is share a short synopsis of their framework in order to help my readers get a basis to understand what we’re referring to with Critical Theory. And then I’ll offer a few Christian reflections afterwards.
A Review of Their Framework
Pluckrose and Lindsay trace the roots of Activist Critical Theory back to the development of Postmodernism in the 60’s and up through the late 90s. In their opinion, Critical Theory is nothing more than an activated (meaning out from the world of philosophy and into the world of activism) evolution of Postmodernism. Postmodernism was largely a rejection of its predecessor modernism. Modernism succinctly stated was, “the profound cultural transformation which saw the rise of representative democracy, the age of science, the supersedence of reason over superstition, and the establishment of individual liberties to live according to one’s values (p. 22).” In other words, by these author’s perspective, Modernism largely laid the framework for our modern Western society’s values & ideals. Postmodernism’s begins with a skepticism and ultimate rejection of these values and ideals. Postmodernism is skeptical of all truth claims and believes instead that truth is relative. By rejecting all major claims to truth (including Science), postmodernism laid the groundwork to question the validity of every social institution.
Pluckrose and Lindsay lay out the following principles and themes to understand the heart of Postmodernism and therefore the heart of its current activated state, Critical Theory. [Note: what follows is my best attempt at succinctly summarizing their framework.]
Principle 1: The Knowledge Principle: Within this principle postmodernism doubts all claims of objective truth. Anyone who claims to know truth must admit that they are culturally bound and dependent on corrupted biased reasoning. Even the scientific method should be called into question since it was developed by cultural-bound individuals and does not equally represent the full variety of the world’s ways of discovering truth. This is why the Smithsonian recently posted (and then quickly took down) a full section on their website explaining how the scientific method is oppressive and a symbol of whiteness (a picture of the Smithsonian’s original post can be seen here).
Principle 2: The Political Principle: Postmodernism is intensely interested in the way power is held, particularly “systems” of power. “Power decides not only what is factually correct but also what is morally good – power implies domination, which is bad, whereas subjugation implies oppression (p. 36)”. Those with power have either intentionally or inadvertently organized the Earthly systems that exist to benefit themselves (systemic injustice). Once again, science and the use of logic and reason are “systems” developed by powerful men that unfairly oppress those outside that category.
Theme 1: The Blurring of Boundaries: Since we ultimately cannot really know objective truth, almost every socially significant category must be called into question: objectivity & subjectivity, man and animal, man and woman, health and sickness. By intentionally blurring the lines that once made these meaningful categories, postmodernism is able to “disrupt the systems of power that might exist across them (p. 39).”
Theme 2: The Power of Language: Postmodernism sees language as culturally biased and thus attempts to deconstruct words themselves. Words no longer mean what words once meant. Words are loaded with such baggage and hidden meaning to the point that no objective statement can actually be made at all. Since words can cause oppression, the words themselves must be deconstructed entirely. It is this ‘power of language’ that largely lies underneath such expansive conversation around things like microagressions, safe spaces, and cancel culture especially at the University level.
Theme 3: Cultural Relativism: Postmodernism insists that there is not any one culture that can be said to be better than any other. There are no norms or practices which should be advantaged or considered excellent above and beyond any other culture’s norms. of particular importance is that those from within the dominant culture are unable to make any legitimate claim of critique upon any other culture since it is, “ignorant or dismissive of the realities of oppression (p.41).”
Theme 4: The Loss of the Individual & the Universal: Just as the notion of an individual is a myth since the individual is a product of culturally constructed language and norms, so is the universal (any metanarrative or universal ethic about humanity) a myth . Instead, postmodernism focuses on local group identity. “Applied Postmodern Theory (Critical Theory) tends to regard mainstream liberalism as complacent, naive, or indifferent about the deeply engrained prejudices, assumptions, and biases that limit constrain people with marginalized identities (p. 61).” Hence the origin of Identity Politics and Intersectionality (the idea that a person belonging to more than one oppressed group experiences oppression in both a cumulative and unique manner). It may be helpful to consider the irony between theme 4 and theme 1 at this point.
An Initial Commentary
Thus far I have only summarized the larger framework of Pluckrose and Linsday’s book. As I move towards providing a bit of Christian commentary it should not be difficult to notice how these underpinnings of postmodernism are so clearly seen in our modern Social Justice movements. That is no way to say that every individual idea within these social justice movements is false, it is simply to say that the framework above gives clear explanation to the methods and beliefs of some of the modern Social Justice Movements such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+.
I believe it is fairly that each of the themes and principles above are incompatible with a Biblical worldview. As it pertains to the Knowledge Principle, the Christian does indeed hold to a fixed and clear metanarrative as revealed to us in scripture. The Bible reveals the great framework of the human experience: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. This larger storyline of Redemptive History is not culturally naive nor unclear. Rather it is God’s revealed truth as clearly communicated through the Bible.
As to the Political Principle, the Christian does not and cannot reject all Earthly systems. Certainly we recognize the entry of sin into our world as capable and historically able to impact systems (one need only think of the legalization and normalization of abortion in our country). But not every system is inherently oppressive. The Church is a system which is inherently beautiful and good. The Church’s structure of leadership where qualified men serve as Elders is not oppressive but rather is beautiful and godly. Science, and the scientific method, is a system which is not oppressive nor culturally flawed. Christians embrace science and celebrate our ability to study all of God’s creation.
As pertaining to the four themes listed above, they as well do not hold up to the Biblical revelation. There is a clear distinction between man and animal, between male and female (Theme 1). God has revealed Himself through written words in a book that we call the Bible. Those words are clearly communicated and have actual meaning (Theme 2). There is such thing as definable objective right and wrong. Cultures that embrace immoral activity are wrong by God’s standard and must be changed else find themselves underneath the wrath of God (Theme 3). The individual and the universal both matter to God. Every individual is made uniquely in the image of God. Plus the great universal truth of Christ’s death and resurrection and his current rule and reign is a fixed truth (Theme 4).
What is the point of all this? My great desire is for our Church to be equipped to think about our times with clear Biblical focus. Many of the ideas our culture takes for granted are not Biblical in their nature at all, but rather are the fruit of postmodernism. The Christian must take back their standard of truth (the Bible) and be unafraid to say to the Critical Theorists, “Your worldview does not make sense.” The current trajectory of Critical Theory and our Modern Social Justice Movements cannot and will not sustain themselves because they are self-contradictory. A fascinating example of this is the current Transgender Social Movement which in its nature threatens to undo every gain of the Feminist movement of the last 75+ years.
But here is the most important point, at its very best moments Critical Theory is simply borrowing from the clearly revealed truths of the Bible. Critical Theory rejects the idea of any grand metanarrative yet demands justice is important, demands that oppression is bad, and that every life is worthy of dignity and honor and value. In these moments Critical Theory is not standing on their own foundation (the principles and themes above), rather they are borrowing from the Christian’s foundation. It is the Christian that has an actual basis to understand justice (Biblical Justice) because we have the unchanging standard of God’s Word that does not vary from culture to culture. It is the Christian’s foundation that provides a purpose for life whereby activism becomes meaningful. (Why fight for anything if no grand metanarrative exists? Why have a purpose, if your purpose is ultimately meaningless?) Rather it is the Biblical worldview that provides the basis and rational for living in a way that desires to see the world more just, more loving, more rid of sin. It is even the Biblical worldview that provides a rational basis for ‘considering others as greater than yourself‘ and living with such a humility that one can rightly see their own cultural bias and the beauty of cultures distinct from their own, while at the same time condemning all sin no matter what culture it is found in. The Christian can and must stand confidently on the Biblical worldview and reject the framework of Critical Theory when it contradicts God’s Word.