This article was originally published on Advocates for Truth.
The term “critical theory” is probably one that few Christians are familiar with. Yet, it is something that underlies much of what we hear and observe in modern society. Social sciences like “ethnic studies,” “feminist studies,” “queer studies,” “transgender studies,” and other similar fields all have connections to critical theory. Even subjects like mathematics are starting to be subjected to critical theory.
Critical theory is especially prevalent in our modern dialogue surrounding race. If you have heard the terms “being woke,” “social justice,” “white privilege,” “white fragility,” or “critical race theory,” then you may be more familiar with critical theory than you realize. Since critical theory affects so many issues in modern political and theological discourse, it is imperative that Christians understand it from a biblical perspective.
Before beginning, I want to express my gratitude to Christian apologist Neil Shenvi, whose materials were a big help in thinking through this clearly. I would highly recommend checking out his website here for more information regarding how to think about critical theory from a Christian perspective.
What is Critical Theory?
It is somewhat difficult to give critical theory a clear, concise definition. It was developed by a group of scholars at the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany during the 1920s and ’30s. Their goal was to be able to explain and critique (hence “critical” theory) how society works and how social change happens. Several key tenets of critical theory developed over the course of the 20th century.
One of the most fundamental principles is the idea about how society is socially stratified into “oppressor” groups and “oppressed” groups. This was in large part borrowed and developed from the philosophies of G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, who viewed society as being divided into dominant and submissive groups, or, as Karl Marx popularized, the bourgeoisie and proletariat. You might often hear critical theory called “cultural Marxism” because of its connection to Marx’s philosophy.
Another core tenet of critical theory is the concern with how “hegemonic power” is used by oppressor groups to dominate oppressed groups. Hegemonic comes from the word hegemony and refers to a dominant group that can exercise power and influence over other groups. In the case of critical theory, it is especially concerned with the use of power and influence in the realms of politics, society, and culture. This ability for dominant (or oppressor) groups to wield hegemonic power and the subsequent effects of hegemonic power are often referred to as “systemic oppression.”
Additionally, in critical theory, knowledge and truth become centered around an individual’s lived experience and group identities (such as race, sex, class, orientation, etc.) rather than around objective sources of knowledge such as science or Scripture. Objective truth, including scientific truth, becomes subservient to an individual’s lived reality or subjective experience. On this basis, oppressed groups have access to special knowledge unavailable to oppressor groups and are better situated to speak to issues of injustice and oppression as a result. In fact, according to critical theory, oppressor groups will use the idea of objectivity to downplay lived experience and keep oppressed groups marginalized.
Lastly, critical theory seeks to “liberate” and “emancipate” oppressed groups from oppressor groups. This could happen in several ways, but typically it occurs on a spectrum between two poles: 1) revolution, where the oppressed forcefully overthrow their oppressors, or 2) through a peaceful transfer where oppressor groups willingly surrender their power and influence to oppressed groups. Critical theory doesn’t merely seek to explain how things work but to push towards this goal of liberation.
Christians may look at the above paragraphs and have mixed feelings about critical theory. After all, haven’t some groups been oppressed or are currently being oppressed? Doesn’t Scripture tell us that God cares for those who are oppressed or suffer from injustice (Psalm 103:6)? Shouldn’t Christians care about oppression and injustice?
What is Good About Critical Theory?
While there are many faults to address within critical theory, it has become very appealing to our culture and even to some Christians for very good reasons.
First, critical theory recognizes the existence and evil of oppression. From a Christian worldview, a robust understanding of sin will help us see that oppression has existed throughout human history. The book of Romans tells us that all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and that we have inherited a sinful nature (Romans 5:12-21). It should be no surprise that, not only does our sin corrupt us as individuals, but can also corrupt the systems and structures which sinful humans occupy such as government. Because humans are sinful, we will sometimes make unjust laws which oppress entire groups of people to the advantage of others. Slavery is an easily recognizable example of an oppressive, unjust system that has been implemented throughout human history.
Second, critical theory also rightly points out the unjust ways in which hegemonic power can be used. Unjust laws (such as jim crow laws) are only one way hegemonic power can be expressed. Hegemonic power can also be seen through defining cultural norms. Hollywood, through its movies and TV shows, uses hegemonic power to influence people’s opinions and actions regarding societal standards of beauty or even people’s moral standards of sexuality. Another example would be mass media and cable news, which strongly influences the beliefs of our fellow citizens.
Third, critical theory rightly draws our attention to the lived experiences of others. While subjective experience most certainly should not be used as a means of undermining objective truth as critical theory does, Christians should recognize that a person who is different from yourself can often have insights into subjects which you might have very little experience in. Christians should be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19), valuing our different God-given experiences and insights while measuring all things against his Word (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
What is Bad About Critical Theory?
Although critical theory has some good points worth considering, there are far more negative consequences to critical theory. There are two primary theological objections.
First, critical theory undermines the authority of God and God’s Word. Part of this stems from the elevation of lived experience over objective truth. If your subjective experience seems to come into conflict with Biblical morality (for example with homosexuality), critical theory would assert that the Bible was the product of oppressive structures from which we need to liberate ourselves in our interpretation and application for today. This blatantly contradicts the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The other part of critical theory which undermines God’s authority comes from critical theory’s rejection of hegemonic power and authority. Because it views the use of hegemonic power as inherently oppressive, what does that mean for God himself, to whom all power, authority, and dominion belong (Psalm 62:11, Matthew 28:18, 1 Peter 5:11)? In the view of critical theory, God becomes the ultimate oppressor from whom we would need liberation.
Second, critical theory holds to a different view of mankind which ultimately serves to divide us rather than unite us. Critical theory views mankind through group identities, whether it is the oppressor/oppressed lens, or others such as race, class, gender, orientation, etc. Group identities serve as indicators of whether you belong to the oppressor or oppressed classes (you can even be both!), but in the end, the oppressed are always in conflict with the oppressors. The Bible, while certainly acknowledging our many differences, nevertheless paints a picture of a united humanity. We are united in creation, being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27) and having a common lineage to Adam (Acts 17:26). We are united in our sinfulness and our need for forgiveness in Christ (Romans 3:21-26). And in Christ, we have an identity, faith, and unity which transcends our group identities (Colossians 1:19-23, 3:11; Galatians 3:28), and we become one new humanity in him (Ephesians 2:14-18). This results in a forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace between groups which is unattainable under critical theory.
There are also several philosophical objections to critical theory worth mentioning:
- Even though critical theory condemns the use of hegemonic power as oppressive, it uses hegemonic power to advance its own agenda. Typically in the United States, we see this take two primary forms: 1) The government uses the force of law to coerce oppressor groups to give their power and influence to oppressed groups (think about the debate of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves). 2) Cultural pressure is brought to bear in order to effect change (such as boycotting a business unless they change a certain policy deemed oppressive, such as holding to a biblical view of marriage and sexuality).
- Critical theory falls into the logical fallacy of Bulverism, a term coined by C.S. Lewis. Bulverism always assumes the opposing argument to be wrong and seeks to explain why it is wrong, often criticizing the opponent based on their identity or motive. In critical theory, this plays out clearly in the oppressor/oppressed dynamic. According to critical theory, it inevitably follows that you are an oppressor of some kind. If you disagree with critical theory and deny being an oppressor, then that is only further evidence that you are an oppressor who is unable to sympathize with the oppressed. No matter what, you are deemed an oppressor. There’s no room for disagreement.
- Critical theory views any disparity between groups as a result of injustice. For example, if group A makes more money on average than group B, then the observed disparity must be the result of discrimination, oppression, or injustice towards group B. However, this completely ignores that different groups have different values which can lead to disparities. Even subgroups or individuals within groups can have different preferences, priorities, and personalities which can result in disparities brought about through individual choice, not systemic injustice. Of course, this does not deny that such an issue may have systemic origins, but it should not be a foregone conclusion that it is a result of injustice.
As we seek to love our neighbor well, we would do well to remember the words of Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” While critical theory brings out a few key concepts worth considering by Christians, it functions as a fundamentally different worldview deeply at odds with the Christian worldview. Engaging with concepts rooted in critical theory such as critical race theory, intersectionality, social justice, white privilege, and many other buzzwords of our day will require Christians to become educated about critical theory and use discernment in their engagement with the culture.