Throughout history, the church has found itself at the crossroads of the sacred and the secular, where competing voices would lead us in different directions. The recent surge of interest in varying aspects of critical theory has forced many church leaders and members to make active decisions as to how, or to what extent, to engage with these issues. The purpose of this article is to interact with critical theory from a Reformed, Christian perspective, particularly wrestling with the question of whether the two systems are compatible. This will be done in five steps. First, the importance of the subject will be addressed. Second, an overview of the origin and history of critical theory will be given. Third, the worldview of critical theory will be examined. Fourth, a critique of critical theory from a biblical and theological point of view will be offered. Finally, some practical ways the church can engage the issues critical theory has raised from an unapologetically Christian point of view will be proposed.
The Importance of Critical Theory
Rhetoric related to critical theory is everywhere we turn. Watch the news, read social media, or listen to the radio. It would be hard to miss the nearly endless references to racism, sexism, and the economic and legal disparities between those who are perceived to have power and privilege and those who are perceived to have been deprived of those things. Whether we like it or not, embrace it or not, concepts related to critical theory are here to stay. However, the world’s ways of addressing the realities of sin never work; they only tend to compound problems and create division. Thus, we are reminded again of our desperate need for the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the church is extensively infiltrated by distinctively secular ideas, it is worth taking the time to study those influences and to give them serious consideration. This is true of critical theory and the contemporary movements that derive from it.
Behind many current cultural movements are ideologies and theories that shape them. Intellectual schools of thought such as critical race theory, intersectionality, and queer theory have become very popular in recent years—especially this past year. Critical race theory is a term that originated in the 1980s. Critical race theory is to be distinguished from critical legal studies, a movement that emerged in the 1970s after the civil rights movement. Critical legal studies argued that laws were designed with inherent social biases, and that such biased laws tended mostly to benefit those who established them. Critical race theory, a related but distinct movement, is more singularly interested in the intertwined relationship of laws with racism and racial biases. “The Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism and power.”1 Though it began with a large focus on the relationships of laws to black people, it grew branches over time, expressing concern for other groups perceived to be socially vulnerable or disenfranchised (Latino, Asian, LGBT, etc.). Advocates of critical race theory argue that it is more of a verb than a noun, underscoring the activist goals of the movement, which strives to bring about legal and social equity wherever possible and by whatever means necessary.
Intersectionality is a movement closely related to critical race theory. Broadly speaking, it focuses on the way in which categories such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation overlap and create unique legal and vocational barriers for people. Intersectionality has given focused attention to those who live at the intersections of more than one social liability (such as a black female, who is not recognized for her distinct identity as both black and female but is rather lumped into either the black category or the female category). Kimberlee Crenshaw, a well-known law professor, is often credited with originating some of the ideas of intersectionality. She suggested that black women were often overlooked in both anti-discrimination laws as well as in feminist theory. The former saw black women as primarily black, and the latter saw black women as primarily women. Neither truly appreciated the way that black women lived at the intersection of both.2
Queer theory is another activist school of thought deriving from particularly postmodern ideas about human sexuality, seeking to cast off historical (especially Judeo-Christian) definitions and characterizations of sex and gender. “Queer theory is about liberation from the normal, especially where it comes to norms of gender and sexuality. This is because it regards the very existence of the categories of sex, gender and sexuality to be oppressive.”3 The movement wishes to detach gender identity from the historical trappings of the past that have deemed certain sexual behaviors as right or wrong. Like its ideological siblings noted above, queer theory advocates seek to reshape the ways that gender identity has been assigned.
Each of these recent, formidable movements—and numerous others—draws from the older, more established philosophical well of critical theory in one fashion or another. Whether or not we are familiar with these concepts, they are very much becoming a part of the air we breathe. They are taught in college courses, and the morality and narratives that these theories promote are found even in children’s shows.4 Workplace diversity training, whether military or civilian, now advocates many of these perspectives.5 The narrative often portrayed is that white, Christian, heterosexual males are oppressors. Christianity is often viewed as the ideological root of many of society’s contemporary social ills.
Defining and Describing Critical Theory
Intellectual movements are often easier to describe than they are to specifically define. This is certainly true of critical theory, a twentieth-century philosophical ideology that has birthed the numerous previously mentioned critical movements (and others) that stand against established institutions, whether secular or sacred, that are perceived as using power as a means of oppression. At its core, critical theory perpetually challenges the notion of institutional authority and the idea that true freedom can be identified with any one system of thought—whether that be a particular religion, a stream of political thought, or an overarching view of the world. At its core, critical theory attempts to analyze authority relationships from both a philosophical and practical point of view by searching for hidden biases and ulterior motives with an interest in replacing power structures with new ones that promise greater autonomy and material benefits.
Rather than beginning at a single moment in time, critical theory began as a confluence of several intellectual streams that came together to form a larger body of thought. The first of these streams is often referred to as the Frankfurt school (or the International School for Social Research) that originated in Goethe, Germany, during the 1920s and ’30s. Men such as Theodor Adorno, Eric Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer, working in different disciplines, were some of the early architects of the movement, with Jürgen Habermas becoming one of the better-known, later luminaries.6This school was something of a multi-disciplinary think-tank focusing on contemporary social issues such as power, oppression, wealth, identity, and politics. The school was eventually forced to relocate due to pressures from the Nazi party, which perceived it as a threat to its political agenda. The overlapping timelines of Nazi ideology and the Frankfurt school are important to note, as the latter sat in stark contrast with the former. One was an ideology of oppression through totalitarianism; the other sought liberation for the oppressed through philosophical reflection on power structures and how change comes about. Both movements were highly political and were a threat to one another in different ways.
Another significant influence on critical theory was, and is, Marxism. “Critical Theory was conceived and birthed within the intellectual crucible of Marxism.”7 But critical theory should not be equated with Marxism or reduced to it. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that early architects of critical theory had something of a love-hate relationship with Marxism, sometimes drawing from Marxist ideology and sometimes forcefully rejecting it. Marxism is well known for its portrayal of the tensions that exist between various economic classes that are collapsed into the categories of “oppressors” and the “oppressed,” with capitalism being one of the main causes of oppression. At the same time, critical theorists saw in Marxism yet another system of thought that proved unsuccessful in its attempt to bring equity to the world.
One of the great, idealistic hopes of the Enlightenment was that man would finally be free from God and the various biblical, pre-Enlightenment ideas that held man captive. Many envisioned a secular utopia. The French Revolution is just one example of such a hope. Instead, man was unable to liberate himself. The French Revolution gave birth to “the reign of terror,” and the twentieth century witnessed world wars and many other tragedies. Looking back at this history, critical theorists see little more than alternatives to the biblical worldview that failed, including Marxism, socialism, and even modern liberalism. As a result, critical theorists believe that moral autonomy is the last possible alternative to all these failures. Liberating anyone who claims to be oppressed remains the one transcendent virtue. The practical reality of such a view, however, is that a form of secular materialism is wedded with moral anarchy. Within this framework, the only god is power.8
Is critical theory’s worldview compatible with Christianity? This is an important question. While it may be possible to find Christians who endorse critical theory, it is nearly impossible to find critical theorists who endorse Christianity. This is because Christianity is an overarching system of thought that seeks to define reality and posits objective moral values. According to critical theory, Christianity fosters unsafe ideologies and institutions that perpetuate anti-scientific thought, intolerance for certain sexual behaviors, parochialism, patriarchy, and a punishing authoritarianism for any who do not conform.9 Pre-Enlightenment Christianity is seen as stuck in the dark ages of intellectual barbarism, and the post-Enlightenment church is viewed as perpetuating colonialism, racism, sexism, chauvinism, and homophobia. Critical theory is critical of virtually all worldviews, including Christianity. Its goal is human autonomy from any objective authority whatsoever.10
At the same time, some critics of critical theory are able to agree with some of its tenants. This isn’t surprising, since “all truth is God’s truth.” Neil Shenvi, an evangelical critic of the movement, is one who finds some truth in critical theory. For example, he notes, “Critical race theorists affirm that race—as it has been defined historically and legally—is a social construct and not a concept legitimately rooted in human nature or human biology.”11 The Bible recognizes only one race—the human race. While we might distinguish between ethnicities, it is a misnomer to distinguish between races.12 If critical theory’s view of humanity stopped there, it would be easier to find more with which we could agree. Wed to postmodernism, however, it takes on additional meanings: “One of the most important characteristics of postmodern thought has been its emphasis on the contingent, indeterminate, and socially constructed nature of the categories with which we perceive and converse about the world.”13 Deconstructing and reconstructing these categories becomes a chief end for critical race theory in its struggle against racism.14 This has birthed new terms such as “whiteness,” “white privilege,” and “white fragility” and has ultimately led to an entirely secular reconstruction of the way in which conversations about racism are now being framed.15
In addition to the concept of race, critical theory also finds the concepts of gender and sex to be modern inventions, as has been noted previously.16 Christian definitions of gender and sexuality are perceived as manmade social constructions intended to repress human freedom.17 “Queer Theory presumes that oppression follows from categorization, which arises every time language constructs a sense of what is ‘normal’ by producing and maintaining rigid categories of sex (male and female), gender (masculine and feminine), and sexuality (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and so on) and ‘scripting’ people into them.”18 The contrast between the teachings of queer theory and the Bible on gender and what it means to be made male and female in the image of God is stark.
Critical Theory and the Family
Perhaps one of the greatest points of tension discernible between critical theory and Christianity is seen in its disposition toward the family. One critical theorist, Marcuse, believed that one of the greatest negative achievements of civilization is the nuclear family. Civilization, for him, is built upon the principle of domination. Definitions of sexuality and morality that surround the family all flow from the Judeo-Christian concept of the nuclear family. Marcuse suggested that the family should be replaced by socialized, (i.e., secular) alternative institutions. The family, in his view, should be controlled by public powers.19
The perpetuation of this desire to redefine the nuclear family has been well illustrated on the Black Lives Matter website. Only after several months did the group take down its highly controversial statement regarding its subversive mission to undermine the nuclear family, which read, “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”20 In many ways, the battle for the family lies at the heart of so many aspects of critical theory.
Critical Theory and the Concept of Justice
In a certain sense, it is hard to compare the idea of justice from the perspective of critical theory with that of Christianity. It is interesting that in Critical Theory: The Key Concepts, a book of more than 350 pages, there is no entry for justice, especially given the widespread contemporary interest in so-called social justice. Dr. Sproul says this about social justice: “I can’t think of too many concepts that are more misleading in our contemporary culture than this idea of social justice. Social justice in the prophets, social justice in Israel, had to do with the rule of law and of righteousness in the culture.”21Justice, as a category, requires a positive affirmation of moral values and rightful laws. For a society to be just, it must have moral norms and consequences for those who violate them. Critical theorists long for a just world, and yet they cannot ultimately agree on a single system of thought to define justice, because critical theory is dedicated to pointing out biases and undermining systems of thought. From a Christian perspective, however, justice is foremost vertical. It begins with our relationship with God. Only a right relationship with God can enable a right relationship with others who bear the image of God. The world shouts for justice—but only on its own ever-changing terms. What one man deems just, another deems oppressive. But God is a just God (Deut. 32:4). The very category of justice derives from Him. What the Scripture says is right, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Augustine of Hippo, the North African pastor-theologian was prescient when he said, “You have formed us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in You.”22
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 23, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a world beyond racism in which people, including his own children, would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.23 It is ironic that his hope for a colorblind, post-racial humanity has come under such serious criticism by critical theorists who suggest it has been co-opted in a way that encourages racism.24 MLK knew that his dream could not be accomplished by human effort alone, just as revolutions and riots can neither eradicate sin nor create peace. It was for this reason that MLK self-consciously distanced himself from the violent instigations of Marxism.25 God would have to “make a way . . . where there is no way.”
God did make a way for us, first and foremost in the gospel. Jesus Christ is the “way” that God chose to make. He bridged the vertical chasm between God and man through His incarnation, perfect life, sacrificial death on the cross (the greatest injustice of history), and triumphant resurrection—which brought genuine reconciliation with God and the potential for true and lasting peace among men as only the gospel can accomplish. Jesus alone has perfectly done justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly with God. He humbled Himself to identify with the broken and bruised of this world. He gave His life for those who could never repay Him. He established peace between God and man and effected reconciliation and harmony between ethnicities, genders, and social barriers in His church. “Man’s estrangement from God splinters all other human relationships,” writes R.C. Sproul, so our only hope of achieving peace and justice among men is to first have our estrangement from God solved through faith in Christ.26
The church is thus a colony of heaven.27 It is where the faithful are gathered from every nation, tribe, and tongue and the earthly things that divide (race, gender, and class) are set aside as our identity and unity are ultimately found in Christ (Col. 3:11). Though the secular ideologies of the past, including critical theory, have never been able to bring peace or usher in their this-worldly utopia, Jesus brought the kingdom of God that is already present among His people by His Spirit and will one day be consummate when all things become perfectly one—in Him.28 The church embodies the kingdom of God on earth. It may not be all that the kingdom of God is, but it is certainly the way that God manifests the life and love of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The keys of the kingdom are held by the church. The righteousness and justice of God should be faithfully, creatively, and actively displayed in the church. The church should be the safest place on earth for the oppressed and the victimized as the mercy and compassion of God are tangibly expressed. The church “is a form of a reconciliatory theater: a theater of faith, hope and love. It is precisely because the church performs the gospel rather than some other script that it is also a revolutionary theater.”29 The church should be the most just institution under the sun, demonstrating the love, mercy, and kindness of God in ways that silence and captivate the watching world.
Yet perhaps one of the reasons why so many people—including Christians—have been drawn to forms of critical theory and their activism is that at times they see a lack of love and mercy in the church and abuses by those in positions of power who have used their station for evil rather than for good. In the place of fervent love and action, some see spiritual apathy and indifference. In the place of compassion, they see complacency. It may be the case that we love our own, but that, too, can be just one comfortable step away from only loving ourselves, while the needs of the “stranger in our midst” often go unnoticed and unattended. As Dr. Sproul noted, “If we reject either the ministry of personal redemption or of mercy to the afflicted, we express ‘unbelief.’ ”30 The world performs sins of commission—they do the things that Scripture says they ought not to do—and we rightly call them out. But the church can at times also be guilty of the sin of omission—failing to do the acts of righteousness, justice, and mercy that Scripture calls us to do as well.
There is a certain and profound sense in which the church does not need critical theory and its many sophisticated, anti-Christian offshoots. Many are being confused by it and led astray. The Bible already tells us to love all those who bear the image of God—black and white, male and female, born and unborn—all are members of the human race and are worthy of our protection, honor, and respect. These imperatives derive from a Christian worldview and are an outworking of a biblical theology of creation, the fall, redemption, and the church. Our theology and who we are in Christ (not critical theory) define how we should view and treat other people in the world.
The sin of oppression is nothing new, but neither is the temptation to deal with this world’s problems with worldly wisdom. The author of Ecclesiastes was confronted by both in his day. The powerful were oppressing the powerless, and there was no one to comfort the oppressed (Ecc. 4:1–3). It would be foolish to say the sin of oppression no longer exists; it does. The book of Proverbs says much about defending the rights of the poor and defenseless (e.g., Prov. 31:8–9). Justice pleases God; it should please us as well. Doing justice and effecting reconciliation does not require embracing critical theory’s redefinitions of important biblical categories, but it does require submitting to the Word of God. “Reconciliation to God is not only a privilege, but a duty. We are commanded to be reconciled to Him. But the mandate does not stop there. . . . It is a mockery of God to claim reconciliation with Him while at the same time refusing it to our brother (see 1 John 4:20–21).”31
Worldly wisdom has never been able to solve this world’s problems, and when left unchecked, it can lead the people of God astray. True comfort and lasting peace cannot be found in this world or on the world’s terms, no matter how much “material satisfaction” and “autonomous freedom” one enjoys. New oppressors always rise up to take the place of former ones. Sin is the greatest enemy, and death oppresses us all. But those who trust wholeheartedly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have true comfort and lasting hope that cannot be taken away. Jesus Christ alone can truly give to those who have been made in His image that which the world can never take away—the true freedom and lasting comfort of the gospel.
Christians have stood at these crossroads before. Oppression and cruelty, even ideological confusion, have confronted us time and again. As we gaze into the future, wondering where all these winding roads will go and what might be, it is also worth looking back. The angst of postmodern perceptions has already been answered by the sages of the past. Truth is inherited, not invented. Perhaps those voices of the past may yet again prove helpful to guide us into the future. Some very good questions have been asked in history, and some very comforting answers have already been given. We close with one of the best of each.
What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own,
but belong with body and soul,
both in life and in death,
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins
with his precious blood,
and has set me free
from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, all things must work together
for my salvation.
Therefore, by his Holy Spirit
he also assures me
of eternal life
and makes me heartily willing and ready
from now on to live for him. (Heidelberg Catechism 1)
- Ricard Delgado and Jean Stefanic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 3. See also Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, Kendall Thomas, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement (New York: The New Press, 1996).↩
- Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1:8 (1989): 140.↩
- Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (Durham, N.C.: Pitchstone, 2020), 89.↩
- For instance, the PBS cartoon “Arthur” actively promotes homosexuality as form of educating children; see https://deadline.com/2019/05/arthur-gay-wedding-mr-ratburn-pbs-kids-1202614162/. Countless similar examples could be given along the same lines. Children’s cartoons have become a prime spot for “re-educating” kids from the perspective of various critical theories.↩
- President Biden recently reversed the ban by former President Donald Trump on diversity training for the U.S. military from a critical race theory perspective. That curriculum is now in place and mandatory. See https://www.militarytimes.com/management/hr/2021/01/21/biden-overrides-trump-orders-on-diversity-training/.↩
- Bronner, Critical Theory, 3.↩
- Bronner, Critical Theory, 3.↩
- Foucault, “Subject and Power,” 226.↩
- Bronner, Critical Theory, 119–21.↩
- Bronner, Critical Theory, 43.↩
- Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity,” The Gospel Coalition, May 15, 2019, accessed August 10, 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/incompatibility-critical-theory-christianity/.↩
- For a helpful, biblically informed treatment of the subject, see John Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 234–40.↩
- See the introduction to Jayne Chong-Soon Lee, “Navigating the Topology of Race,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, eds. Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (New York: The New Press, 1995), 441–49.↩
- An argument against the liberal notion of “color-blindness” is made by Jayne Chong-Soon Lee, “Navigating the Topology of Race,” 441–49.↩
- “The good/bad binary is a false dichotomy. All people hold prejudices, especially across racial lines in a society deeply divided by race. . . . The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness.” Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon, 2018), 72–73. DiAngelo argues against the “good/bad” binary approach to racism in favor of a sociological one that leaves everyone (particularly white people) guilty of racism. Such a view runs counter to a biblical understanding of the personal nature of sin.↩
- Felluga, Critical Theory: The Key Concepts, 257.↩
- “It is impossible to think with any clarity about the politics of race or gender as long as these are thought of as biological entities rather than social constructs. Similarly, sexuality is impervious to political analysis as long as it is primarily conceived as a biological phenomenon or an aspect of individual psychology.” Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (Abingdon, England: Taylor and Francis, 1993), 10.↩
- Marcuse, “Freedom and Freud’s Theory of Instincts,” 230.↩
- Marcuse, “Freedom and Freud’s Theory of Instincts,” 230.↩
- Joshua Rhett Miller, “LM site removes page on ‘nuclear family structure’ amid NFL vet’s criticism,” The New York Post, September 24, 2020, accessed August 10, 2021, https://nypost.com/2020/09/24/blm-removes-website-language-blasting-nuclear-family-structure/.↩
- R.C. Sproul, “R.C. Sproul on Social Justice,” YouTube Video, 12:02, June 5, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIyiwrVhhn0.↩
- Augustine, “Confessions” 1.1.1, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Phillip Schaaf (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999).↩
- His exact words were “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 219.↩
- DiAngelo, White Fragility, 40–43. It is noteworthy that MLK’s studies took him to the well of liberation theology, another offshoot of critical theory. But MLK was also grounded in the traditional Baptist theology of his family.↩
- Martin Luther King Jr., “An Address Before the National Press Club” in The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 102.↩
- R.C. Sproul, The Hunger for Significance, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, P&R, 2020), 64.↩
- Hebrews 12:22–23; Colossians 3:11.↩
- 1 Corinthians 15:28.↩
- Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 427.↩
- R.C. Sproul, “Do We Believe the Whole Gospel?” Ligonier.org, December 1, 2010, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/do-we-believe-whole-gospel.↩
- Sproul, Hunger, 77.↩