The Church and Critical Theory
Critical theory is a funny thing. No matter how much one might study it, like the Marxism from which it is derived, if you do not embrace it, you clearly do not understand it.
Critical theory is a Marxist idea developed in post-modernity in which absolutes, objectivity, and absolute truth are no long accepted. Critical theory purports to explain the world in terms of power and its proponents believe those with the least power have the most moral authority to speak. Power is, therefore, mapped through intersectionality — race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. The white male heterosexual Christian has the most power and therefore has the least moral authority to speak in society.
Critical theorists also believe reality is constructed by language. Change the language and you change reality. Power is exerted through language — including the power to shape reality through “dominant discourses.” The way to reshape reality is to reshape language. So critical theorists oppose free speech, free enterprise, academic freedom, etc. The freedom of the privileged to engage in dominate discourses must be reduced for the non-privileged and oppressed to rise.
Undoubtedly, some critical theorists will take issue with my descriptions, but therein lies part of the problem. The proponents of critical theory are hard to pin down on language and definitions because those shape power and who am I, a white man, to tell them about their theory? It is, in their minds, no more appropriate for a critical theory critic to describe critical theory than it is for a capitalist to describe Marxism.
Though critical theorists deny it, the bottom line about critical theory is that it makes reconciliation between races and other groups impossible as power is always shifting. The oppressed becomes the oppressor. The dominant discourse changes from the language of the white man to the language of whichever group feels most oppressed. There can be no forgiveness.
Critical theory has invaded the church — a post-modern Marxist theory that believes there are oppressors and oppressed and that reality is constructed through language, not objective reality. It is trying to speak into and explain the world and theology to a people who worship absolute, objective truth.
Critical theorists cannot actually, truly understand, interpret, or follow the God of all Creation because that God calls Himself the way, the truth, and life. He is objective reality. Critical theorists will scream about me saying this, but a theory that cannot acknowledge absolute, objective truth is a theory that cannot explain or orbit around Christ.
I have friends who think critical theory can be used in church settings and it is not just that I disagree with them, I think they are fundamentally wrong and playing with a fire that is about to burn through the church. But many of these same people are so disgusted by what they see as modern American evangelicalism’s turn to Trumpism that they’re actually okay with striking the match and letting God sort it all out in the flames.
If you want a sense of just how nuts critical theory is within the church, consider Tim Keller offered a great take down of critical theory and other secular theories of justice. He included this on critical theory:
If all truth-claims and justice-agendas are socially constructed to maintain power, then why aren’t the claims and agendas of the adherents of this view subject to the same critique? Why are the postmodern justice advocates’ claims that “This is oppression” unquestionably, morally right, while all other moral claims are mere social constructs? And if everyone is blinded by class-consciousness and social location, why aren’t they?Intersectionality claims oppressed people see things clearly—but why would they if social forces make us wholly what we are and control how we understand reality? Are they less formed by social forces than others? And if all people with power—who “call the shots” socially, culturally, economically, and control public discourse—inevitably use it for domination, then if any revolutionaries were able to replace the oppressors at the top of the society, why would they not become people that should subsequently be rebelled against and replaced themselves? What would make them different? The Postmodern account of justice has no good answers for these questions. You cannot insist that all morality is culturally constructed and relative and then claim that your moral claims are not. This is not a flaw that only Christians can see, and this may therefore be a fatal flaw for the entire theory.
Keller received pushback from a fellow PCA (at the time) elder named Greg Thompson who has bought into critical theory. Thompson argued that one must be trained in critical theory to truly understand it and then argues that critical theory does not have a “coherent whole.” He defended Marxism claiming that those who oppose critical theory have a “tendency to willfully neglect the long tradition of Christian Marxists around the world (especially in the Catholic Church) and to traffic in the demonstrably false binary of Christian vs. Marxist.” Frankly, enough in the PCA are getting polluted by critical theory to the extent some are beginning to advocate reparations and attempting to put scriptural weight behind it — they are becoming Trumpists in the opposite direction of Trump, putting scriptural authority behind their preferred secular policies.
If you want an even crazier manifestation of critical theory in the church, consider Lisa Sharon Harper, a progressive theologian:
How INCREDULOUSLY PRIVILEGED for Keller—a RICH WHITE MAN WHOSE MINISTRY TARGETS RICH PEOPLE—to fashion himself as the judge of whether or not injustice rises to the level of OPPRESSION!!! No!!!! The only ones with divine authority to define the bounds of oppression are the oppressed themselves!
Oppressed and colonized people wrote every single word of The Bible. The Jewish people were colonized people. Jesus, himself, was a brown, indigenous, colonized man. Not one person who the scripture was written by or originally written for sat in the social location of Tim Keller.
The only person in all of scripture who came close to the social location of Tim Keller was Pilate. Look at what he did. He pontificated on the meaning of truth. Then he stepped back and let the forces of injustice kill Jesus.
That right there shows you exactly why critical theory should be avoided by authentically Christian churches. That a highly regarded Christian pastor cannot speak on justice because he is white is antithetical to Christianity.
But there is a flip side to all of this.
The American church, particularly in the South, often turned a blind eye to or collaborated in injustice against black Americans. It is something that, to this day, many churches do not want to talk about.
I am fascinated by the trend of some in the church to scream loudly that any conversation about racism in the church is somehow bringing critical theory into the conversation. In fact, a lot of well meaning, reasonable, and grounded theologians think the church needs to account for the individual and corporate sin around issues of race. But those who simply refuse scream about critical theory and Marxism as if anyone who brings up the issue has bought into critical theory.
Keller, again, is a great example. Having written critically of critical theory and received the arrows and barbs of critical theory proponents, he equally has gotten attacked as “woke” for daring to say the church does need to address the issue.
Other pastors, both black and white, have raised the issue and been met with loud criticism and attacks as adherents of critical theory despite clear evidence they reject it. Some people just don’t want to deal with race and are screaming about critical theory as a way to distract from unpleasant conversations.
A number of well meaning theologians in evangelicalism used the George Floyd situation to try to engage on the topic. Frankly, I think it was unfortunate because they chose an inopportune time that corresponded with opportunists seeking to advance the woke agenda with critical theory. In their zeal, some of them seemed to shame congregants and Christians who already had their dander up over the Wokes.
Critical theory is having a perverse impact on the church. When Southern Baptist seminaries issued a joint letter repudiating it, a number of black pastors suggested they were no longer welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention. It is sad that a pastor thinks rejection of a Marxist post-modern way of thinking signals black Christians are not welcome in a denomination.
If anything, the rejection of critical theory means the truth of the colorblind God who sees neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, can fully be engaged with — something that is impossible through a theory that demands we be conscious of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.
Churches in America need an honest conversation about race. Christians who scream about critical theory to avoid that conversation need to repent. But critical theory itself needs to be more widely denounced from pulpits and seminaries. Its embrace within American Christendom will do far, far more damage than an evangelical embrace of Trump ever did. It will fully separate Christians from the truth of the gospel and drag them into a religion without grace that makes any sort of racial reconciliation impossible.
As Tim Keller wrote on critical theory:
The Christian identity is received from God’s gracious hands, not achieved by our actions—we are loved absolutely apart from our performance. Contrarily, [critical theory] provides two kinds of identity that are highly perfomative: either being a member of an oppressed group fighting for justice or a white ally anti-racist. Both identities—like all other identities not based in Christ—can produce anxiety because of the need to prove oneself sufficiently justice-oriented. The secure identity of Christians does not require shaming, othering, and denouncing (which is always a part of a highly performative identity). Also, the new Christian identity—that we are simultaneously sinful and infinitely loved—changes and heals former oppressors (by telling them they are just sinners) as well as former oppressed (by assuring them of their value).
The American church needs to deal with the sin of racism. The American church needs to reject critical theory as a means of interpreting scripture or of administering justice.