Social justice. Critical Theory. Are these subjects compatible with Christianity, or not?
On March 3, 2020, Dr. Neil Shenvi came to the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to address this important question. In his lecture, he describes Critical Theory, affirms positive aspects, critiques negative aspects, identifies how Critical Theory has infected parts of conservative Evangelicalism, and offers suggestions for moving forward.
Dr. Shenvi has a Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemistry from UC-Berkeley and an A.B. in Chemistry from Princeton. He homeschools his four children through Classical Conversations and can be found on Twitter at @NeilShenvi.
Watch his lecture above, or read excerpts below (edited for clarity).
Critical Theory tells a different story.
Why should we care?
“Several years ago I began noticing a theological drift, both among public figures and among people I knew personally, and it often began with an interest in social justice…. These same people began to display more and more unorthodox beliefs, and I couldn’t figure out why. How do you go from saying, ‘Racism and sexism are sins’ (which they absolutely are) to saying ‘Jesus is one of many paths to God.’ I couldn’t connect the dots…. Until I read this book [Race Class and Gender].… What I finally realized was that people were not just adopting a few new beliefs about politics; they were adopting a new worldview, which was gradually eroding their Christian worldview. That’s why I’m concerned.
“I see more and more Christians today — especially young Christians — following the same path, and I want to prevent that.”
What is Critical Theory? It’s hard to define.
“Critical Theory resists essentialism; it’s hard to say exactly what makes a Critical Theory ‘critical’….
“Look at these words and phrases: intersectionality, white privilege, white fragility, colorblind racism, internalized oppression, lived experience, heteronormativity, gender performativity, epistemic injustice, cisheteropatriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality, whiteness…. Where do these phrases come from? At a minimum, they come from the scholars that coined or popularized exactly these terms. What disciplines are these scholars working in? Lots of them….
“My co-author Patrick Sawyer and myself have coined the phrase Contemporary Critical Theory. Why? Undeniably these scholars are writing in the Critical tradition; that’s unquestionable. What’s more, their ideas are having the most impact on contemporary culture. This is a manifestation of Critical Theory that’s impacting our contemporary dialogue.”
What are the four ideas that produce these ways of thought?
- Premise 1: The Social Binary
“Society is divided into oppressed and oppressor groups.”
- Premise 2: Oppression Through Ideology
“Oppression occurs through hegemonic power.”
- Premise 3: Lived Experience
“’Lived experience’ gives oppressed groups privileged access to truth about their oppression.”
- Premise 4: Social Justice
“Social justice demands the liberation of oppressed groups.”
The Positives of Critical Theory
- Strength 1: Emphasis on the sinfulness of oppression.
“Contemporary Critical Theorists are right to identify oppression as wicked and evil. The Bible, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, says oppression is evil and that God calls his followers to resist oppression and to overturn and dismantle injustice. Major caveat: What Critical Theorists call oppression may not be oppression at all. But let’s be clear: When the vulnerable are being abused, and when the powerful are taking advantage of their vulnerability, Christians should absolutely work to stand up for the rights of the vulnerable.”
- Strength 2: Focus on structures, systems and norms.
“The focus on how systems and laws can promote sin. They’re right to do that. For example, chattel slavery in the U.S. or the holocaust should not be examined only in individual people doing evil things. In fact, in both cases, society had created entire systems and laws which codified sin into practice, and the law shaped human moral intuitions, as it always does. Of course, people were individually responsible for their sin, and yet that sin was enshrined and codified and amplified by these systems which encouraged human wickedness. A good example today would be abortion. We do want to change individual hearts about abortion, yes, but we also want to dismantle unjust laws. We can do both at the same time.”
- Strength 3: Recognition of hegemonic power.
“Hegemonic power does exist; it’s not imaginary. And it can have an insidious affect on how we think about our norms and values. Here’s an example that will resonate with conservatives: Think about how hard it is for Christian parents to teach your kids that beauty is not merely external. Why is that so hard? Well it’s hard because they’re bombarded with images from Hollywood, Madison Avenue, TV, music, magazines that teach them something totally wrong about beauty and sexuality. That is hegemonic power in practice.”
Problem 1: Critical Theory offers a different worldview.
“The most fundamental problem with Critical Theory is that it functions as a worldview. A worldview answers basic questions about life and reality, questions like, Who are we? What’s our problem as human beings? What’s the solution to that problem? What’s our primary moral duty? Christianity answers these questions with a metanarrative, a story arc from creation through fall to redemption to restoration….
“Critical Theory tells a different story. There is no creation element within Contemporary Critical Theory. Our identity is not primarily as God’s creatures (vertically) but as members of various social groups competing for dominance. What’s our main problem in life? Not sin, but oppression… The solution? Activism, to either throw off the chains of the oppressor, or to ally yourself by divesting of your own power and privilege to promote and lead to the goal, which is equity, or liberation, or social justice.
“These two ideologies offer extremely different answers to our basic questions. That’s a problem…. We can’t combine the two; it’s not going to work.”
Critical Theory assumes an adversarial relationship between different identity groups that is profoundly antithetical to Christianity.
Problem 2: Epistemology
“Critical Theory bypasses the question of whether the claim is true and shifts the focus of the discussion to the claimant’s group identity. If the person making the claim belongs to an oppressor group, the answer is easy. You say, ‘Of course you’d say that; you’re just trying to preserve your power or privilege.’ But what if the person making the truth claim belongs to an oppressed group? In that case, you can accuse them of suffering from ‘internalized oppression’…
“The primary concern of people embracing Critical Theory is not to appeal to reason or to argument or evidence or even to Scripture. Their primary concern is unearthing and deconstructing the hidden motives behind those truth claims and then ignoring them.”
Problem 3: Identity
“Critical Theory assumes an adversarial relationship between different identity groups that is profoundly antithetical to Christianity. Critical Theory depends crucially on differentiating between victims and victimizers… If there were some fundamental identity marker that unified people across lines of race, class and gender, that would deeply undermine the entire project of Critical Theory. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Christianity gives us not one but three such ideas. All human beings share solidarity in first creation, second sin, third redemption.”
Problem 4: Hegemonic power.
“Contemporary Critical Theorists tend to problematize and reject hegemonic power. They see singular narratives and singular sets of values as oppressive. Is that a problem? Well, yes, because the Bible is nothing but one gigantic, colossal hegemonic discourse from start to finish. It’s a story about how God justifies his own complete sovereignty and power and goodness. It tells one true story of religion, one true story of morality, one true story of sexuality, one true story of gender, and so forth. To Critical Theorists, that is wildly oppressive. Do you see how we can’t possibly marry this singular narrative given to us by the Bible with the approach of Contemporary Critical Theory? It’s not going to work.”
If you are concerned about how dangerous these ideas are, the worst thing you can possibly do to is to ignore or minimize racism.
The dangers of Critical Theory in the church.
“Ideas have consequences. The bigger the idea, the bigger the consequence. We’re just now beginning to see the cascading complications that the cascading acceptance of Critical Theory will have on the life and health of the church…. You cannot remain silent and hope this all just blows over. If you’re an elder or a leader or a pastor, you are called to shepherd the flock. That means you need to explicitly repudiate these ideas. If you don’t, you are neglecting, you’re ignoring, you’re rebelling against God’s role for you. In fact, I would argue this: As Christians, all of us are called to exercise discernment and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ. These are terrible, dangerous ideas. We can’t just be afraid of being called a bigot, or a racist, or a sexist by pointing out that this is really, really bad for your theology.”
How can we get to a better conversation? Acknowledge and fight racism.
“We need to acknowledge and fight racism. Let me speak very plainly. People are embracing these ideas in large part because they are rightly concerned about the wickedness of racism. Listen carefully: If you are concerned therefore about how dangerous these ideas are, if you are worried (like I am) about how they may impact the church, then the worst thing you can possibly do to is to ignore or minimize racism, or sexism, or any form of injustice….
“Serious question: Do the people in your church understand that racism is a sin? Have they really understood the implications of the idea that all people are made in God’s image, that we’re all fallen in sin, that we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ? Do they know that? Maybe you’re worried that if you go in your church and talk about racism, you’ll be accused of virtue signaling. Aren’t you more worried that people won’t repent of their sin?”