Critical Theory is taking our culture by storm and underlies much of the upheaval we see on the nightly news. As Christians, we must understand what it is, and how best to respond.
Several friends have asked me for my perspective on Critical Theory. This blog begins my two-part answer to that question. I’ll offer a brief summary of and response to Critical Theory. Others with more expertise than I have also addressed these issues, so throughout the series I’ll also suggest a number of other sources, both online and in print, that I think you will find helpful as you seek to gain a greater understanding of this influential ideology.
The History of Critical Theory
Critical Theory has its roots in Marxism. Marx argued that the ultimate problem facing society was that those with money (the bourgeoisie—the elite) oppress those without money (the proletariat—the working class). Therefore, his ultimate solution was to flatten out the economic disparity between the “haves” and “have nots.” In practical terms, the solution was for the working class to rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie. Only then would there be equality and could the good life be achieved.
However, in the early decades of the twentieth century Marxism wasn’t doing very well. Economic prosperity was on the rise in many countries. As a result, there was less and less economic disparity between the classes, as an affluent middle class emerged. And so there was less tension between the rich and the poor. Without the problem of economic disparity described by Marx, his call of “workers of the world, unite” to overthrow the bourgeoisie was less and less appealing to many.
Yet there was a group of intellectuals who were not ready to give up on Marx. They began meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, to discuss how Marx’s ideas might be reframed for this new reality. They became known as the Frankfurt School, and their solution was Critical Theory.
Intellectuals in the Frankfurt School reasoned that Marx’s fundamental assumption was correct—all problems are ultimately caused by disparity between the haves and have nots. However, they came to believe that the disparity was not along economic lines. Rather, the disparity was in terms of power. One group has power and uses that power to rule over the other groups in a society.
Since disparity of power among groups is the ultimate problem in our world, they reasoned that redistribution of power to other groups is the ultimate solution. And it was clear who has the power: whites, males, heterosexuals, Westerners, and so on. Therefore, equality can only be achieved and the good life promoted by taking power away from these groups and giving it to members of marginalized groups. Hence began the great social engineering project now known as Critical Theory, and with it the rise of “identity politics” between those who do and do not have “power” in society.
An Analysis of Critical Theory
From this ideology comes much of the social upheaval we are experiencing today. Critical Theory has become a full-orbed worldview, or even religion, that redefines everything in its wake. The ultimate problem, according to the gospel of Critical Theory, is not personal sin against a Holy God (an internal, universally shared problem). Rather, the ultimate problem is external and societal: the oppression of the powerless by the powerful. The white, male, heterosexual, or Western identity groups in a culture are seen as enforcing and maintaining power at the expense of the non-white, female, LGBTQ, and/or non-Western identity groups.
Therefore, the solution is not internal but external as well. Salvation comes not through individual repentance but through a change in society–the overthrow of the oppressors. One can obtain this salvation only by embracing the moral code of Critical Theory: demonizing the “oppressors,” becoming “woke,” affirming “intersectionality,” embracing and promoting the “cancel culture,” redefining what authors and books should and should not be in curricula from primary to tertiary education, and so on.
Ultimately salvation is obtained by working for “Social Justice” (intentionally capitalized). This is not the same thing as biblical justice, which we should all work toward, and which includes social justice (not capitalized). Biblical justice involves ensuring that everyone is treated equally, fairly and justly, has the same opportunities to flourish, enjoys equal protection from harm, and has equal access to and just redress of grievances when this is not the case: It is consistent with Micah 6:8:
He has told each of you what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
But under Critical Theory, “Social Justice” takes on a new meaning. It is no longer equality of opportunity, protection, and just redress of grievances, which biblical justice requires we give attention to (and which our history and current reality confirm that we must pursue with much greater vigor). Rather, Social Justice has become defined as greater “justice” for those of oppressed identity groups, often at the expense of justice for those of more “powerful” identity groups.
For instance, biblical justice clearly affirms that black lives matter, and we should work to see that every person of color is affirmed and defended as equally valuable, afforded equal opportunity and equally protected from harm, as people who are of ultimate worth since each equally shares in the Image of God. Yet the Black Lives Matter movement (capitalized) is driven by Critical Theory and Social Justice, with the ultimate goal of not just equality, but social superiority of those marginalized (not just black, but LGBTQ and others; see the BLM’s “About” page, https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/)
For a wonderful exposition of biblical justice and how it compares to Social Justice, I highly recommend Tony Evans’s Oneness Embraced: Reconciliation, the Kingdom, and How We Are Stronger Together. Dr. Evans is an African-American pastor and theologian who has experienced injustice firsthand for much of his life. Out of his experience, he has written a wonderful book pointing the way to true justice and reconciliation.
For a very interesting discussion of how Critical Theory now functions as a religion for many in our culture, I highly suggest this interview with Jacob Howland: The Rise of Secular Religion and the New Puritanism.
Next week I’ll conclude this discussion by offering a response to Critical Theory and helpful resources for further study.
Until then, grace and peace.