My late father-in-law worked with and around automobiles his entire life. I remember him telling me that, though antifreeze is poisonous, animals will drink it because it tastes sweet to them. This sweetness masks the deadly poison causing the animal to die from something they believed was good.
I thought about this as I read James Lindsay’s and Helen Pluckrose’s book Cynical Theories, which is a discussion of the development and impact of Critical Theory on our culture. In the last several years, Critical Theory has moved from the academy into government and business and is expanding its influence such that no organization is immune to it – including the church as Denny Burk pointed out recently:
“If I had a growing alarm about these ideologies from 2012-2019, my concern ballooned into a five-alarm fire over the Summer of 2020. I was as concerned as anyone about the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the like, and I expressed as much in this space. But as American cities began to burn (including my own) due to the violence of radicals, it became clear that what we are facing is more than an academic theory. This “theory” has hands and feet, it’s on the street, and it’s spreading at the popular level—including among those in evangelical churches. These ideologies are well into the mainstream, and every follower of Christ will have to reckon with them one way or the other.“
Critical Theory claims not only to offer the solution to society’s ills but to be the sole arbiter of what those ills are. But, like antifreeze, underneath the promised sweetness of justice and peace is deadly poison that fails to correctly identify society’s problems or to offer a way forward to deal with them. Instead, it does the opposite – cause division and chaos.
For Lindsay and Pluckrose, writing as non-Christians, Critical Theory is problematic because it rejects the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment. And while that is true, for Christians, it’s deeper than that. Critical Theory is a problem because it rejects the teachings of scripture. What I plan to do in these posts is take the authors’ analysis of what Critical Theory is and superimpose that over, not Enlightenment thinking, but Christian thinking, showing the two as incompatible.
First of all, what is “Critical Theory,” sometimes called, “Social Justice” or just “Theory?”
Pluckrose and Lindsay argue it is essentially “applied postmodernism:”
“Postmodernism had been reenvisioned and has since become the backbone of dominant forms of scholarship, activism, and professional practice around identity, culture, and Social Justice.“
“Whether we call it “postmodernism,” “applied postmodernism,” “Theory,” or anything else, then, the conception of society based on the postmodern knowledge and political principles—that set of radically skeptical ideas, in which knowledge, power, and language are merely oppressive social constructs to be exploited by the powerful—has not only survived more or less intact but also flourished within many identity-and culture-based “studies” fields, especially in the so-called “Theoretical humanities.”
Christian author Peter Jones also describes this Postmodern approach to truth in his book The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat:
Postmodern thinkers argue that so-called rational truth, like all truth, is ‘socially generated.’ Truth is a subjective opinion with no infallible relationship to the way things actually are.
He goes on to explain how this began to be applied to culture in the middle of the last century by French philosophers like Michel Foucault:
“Foucault argued that truth claims were merely power grabs; others’ condemnation of his homosexuality was only the straight majority view, powerfully and arbitrarily imposed on a victimized homosexual minority for purposes of social control.“
This is important because, as Lindsay and Pluckrose point out:
“The French postmodernists were altogether more focused on the social and on revolutionary and deconstructive approaches to modernism. It is the French approach that will be of most interest to us, because it is primarily some of the French ideas, especially about knowledge and power, which have evolved over the course of successive variants of postmodernism’s central occupation, that which is often simply called Theory.”
Truth in this belief system is not centered on the objective and the eternal but is localized within a victim group and accessed by listening to the “lived experiences” of that group. Quoting professor of Psychology Steinar Kvale, the authors’ write:
…the postmodern turn brought about an important shift away from the modernist dichotomy between the objective universal and the subjective individual and toward local narratives (and the lived experiences of their narrators). In other words, the boundary between that which is objectively true and that which is subjectively experienced ceased to be accepted. (emphasis mine)
So, the first point where Critical Theory conflicts with Christian teaching is the approach to truth. The age-old question posed by Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), is answered in mutually exclusive ways by Critical Theory and Christianity.
The Bible teaches not only that truth is objective and knowable but that it is revealed most perfectly, not through our “lived experiences,” but by a person, Jesus Christ (John 14:6). It teaches that special access to truth is not based on one’s ethnicity, culture or other identity characteristic, but based on whether or not one has been transformed by the Holy Spirit:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. – Proverbs 9:10
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. – John 14:16-17
Going further, it teaches that God has created the world so that even those who are not indwelt with the Holy Spirit understand objective truth exists and are accountable to God for it:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. – Romans 1:18-20
We sometimes call this common grace, grace that is available to all mankind regardless of ethnicity, nationality, gender or other identity characteristic. Those who deny that truth exists independently of their personal experience do so out of rebellion against God and are “without excuse” when they commit evil acts, regardless of what motivated them to do so.
There are more areas of conflict between Critical Theory and Christianity, but none more important than the approach to truth. Everything taught by a belief system is downstream from what it believes about truth. When the answer to, “What is truth?” is incorrect, everything after that is tainted.
In my next post we’ll look at what the authors’ call the “four pillars of postmodernism” which underlie all manifestations of Critical Theory and see how they compare to Christian teaching.
For more information on this topic, you can watch Al Mohler’s interview with James Lindsay here.