Understanding Critical Theory and Christian Apologetics
By Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Patrick Sawyer
“Stop the Christian fascists!” the woman was shouting as she passed out pamphlets. Neil wasn’t particularly surprised to hear this message as a graduate student at UC – Berkeley in the early 2000s. But in the last few years, both of us have seen more and more people voicing objections to Christianity that seem to fit a similar profile:
“Christians want a theocracy.”
“Christianity promotes a harmful view of sexuality.”
“Christianity is a tool of Western imperialism.”
“Christianity degrades women.”
In these statements, Christianity is not merely being dismissed as false; it is being dismissed as immoral and hurtful. Why are these objections increasingly popular? And where do they come from? As apologists, it’s not enough for us to understand the arguments for the truth of Christianity. We also need to understand the people to whom we’re speaking. In particular, we need to understand the ideologies that shape their ways of thinking. Critical theory is one such ideology. It is rapidly growing in influence both on college campuses and in the culture at large.
- In the first section of this essay, we’ll explain the central tenets of critical theory and show how we can see these principles at work in popular discourse.
- Next, we’ll explain some of the practical objections that are outworkings of critical theory.
- Finally, we’ll close with strategies for engaging students who are influenced by critical theory.
I. Tenets of critical theory
Fundamentally, critical theory views the world through the singular lens of power. Critical theorists are interested in the power dynamics between different groups, as these relate to law, economics, social norms, and even truth claims. In analyzing these relationships, critical theorists work to expose the ways in which hegemonic power –that is, the power to shape cultural norms, expectations, and values- is deployed to justify and perpetuate the interests of dominant groups.
Differences from traditional theory
Unlike traditional theory, which primarily aims to describe reality, critical theorists are driven by the desire to transform reality by liberating marginalized groups from the values, norms, systems, and structures which oppress them. Critical theory is the basic ideological paradigm in numerous fields of academic study, including, but not limited to, Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies, Queer Studies, Critical Race Theory, Cultural Studies, and Critical Pedagogy.
Critical theory is a multi-disciplinary approach to social theory that simultaneously borrows from and influences a range of macro fields of study including sociology, philosophy, communication studies, political economy, anthropology, and historiography. Culturally, the modern progressive movement has embraced the concepts and language of critical theory wholeheartedly.
The difficulty in characterizing critical theory
Like many broad disciplines, critical theory can be hard to characterize. It’s possible to trace its development from its origin in the Frankfurt School during the 1930s through the post-War era to the present. However, we find it more useful to characterize modern critical theory according to several basic axioms that it affirms. We list them below along with some everyday examples of how we see the foundational assumptions of critical theory worked out in practice.
Basic axioms affirmed by critical theory
1. Individual identity is inseparable from group identity.
In particular, our identity as an individual depends on whether or not we are part of an ‘oppressed group’ or an ‘oppressor group’ along some particular axis of identity, such as gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality. For example, all men are part of a dominant, oppressor group, and all women are members of a subordinate, and consequently oppressed, group. Critical theorists deny that it is possible to separate someone’s individual identity from their group identity. This first principle explains why the term “old, white man” is often used as a pejorative label. According to critical theory, old, white men are part of multiple oppressor groups, and this identity ought to govern how we think about their beliefs and actions.
2. The power of oppressor groups rests not in the group’s size but in the fact that it dictates society’s norms and expectations.
Men, or whites, or heterosexuals are classified as oppressors not because of overt, or even covert, acts of cruelty but because they have the power to define the ‘other’ and to normalize their own status. We see this understanding played out in the LGBTQ+ community’s desire to use gender-inclusive pronouns, which do not reinforce the concept of a gender binary. Even our language, critical theorists argue, shows how cis-gendered individuals have normalized their own identity and cast trans- individuals as deviations from that norm.
3. Our primary duty as human beings is to work for the liberation of oppressed groups, either by resisting hegemonic power (if we ourselves are part of an oppressed group) or by eschewing our power and standing in solidarity as an ‘ally’ of the oppressed (if we are members of an oppressor group).
The primacy of the duty of liberation can be seen in the relative lack of emphasis on (or even the complete absence of) any other moral imperatives in modern progressive discourse. For example, it is very rare for proponents of critical theory to affirm and promote moral norms like chastity, fidelity, honesty, patience, or self-control. In fact, some of these terms are problematized as being fraught with power implications that reify oppression and patriarchy. These perspectives flow out of an ideology which places ‘oppression of subordinate groups’ at the center of our moral concern. This does not mean there aren’t proponents of critical theory who are honest, patient, promoters of fidelity, or self-disciplined in ways that are consistent with normative understandings of these terms. Of course there are. It just means that these attributes are present because of beliefs outside of critical theory’s core concerns. To these three main axioms, critical theorists often add several corollaries.
4. ‘Lived experience’ is more important than objective evidence when it comes to understanding oppression.
The call to ‘check your privilege’ is built on the assumption that one’s status as an oppressor (that is, one who possesses and utilizes significant “privilege”) will make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to recognize or evaluate oppression. In contrast, an individual who is part of one or more oppressed groups will have privileged access to truths about oppression unavailable to individuals from dominant groups.
5. Dominant groups conceal their bids for power under the guise of ‘objectivity.’
This belief produces a skepticism of and resistance to reason and evidence, which are seen as excuses for the dominant group to justify their subjugation of the oppressed.
6. The concept of ‘intersectionality’ characterizes the ways in which people who are in multiple subordinate categories have an experience of oppression that is qualitatively different than those of any single subordinate group.
In addition, the experience of intersectionality produces deeper insight: the more kinds of oppression we experience, the greater our understanding of oppression. In connection with point 4, those who experience intersectionality are better equipped to lead society in all areas pertaining to oppression and possess the intrinsic authority and right to do so. Those who are ‘oppressors’ are primarily expected to listen, learn, express contrition, and follow direction.
II. Critical theory and Christianity
Elsewhere, we’ve discussed a number of ways in which the basic assumptions of critical theory are antithetical to Christianity. We urge readers who are new to critical theory to follow the links we’ve included below. In them you will find many references to primary sources of critical theory. As with any attempt to understand any topic, we encourage everyone to read primary source material, and not just lean on articles like this one. In this essay, our goal is simply to focus on some of the implications of critical theory for the apologetic endeavor.
Three implications of critical theory
First, one of the most significant obstacles, especially on college campuses, pertains to how critical theory contextualizes Christian sexual ethics. While many people reject Christian teaching on chastity outside of marriage and fidelity inside of marriage as ‘regressive’ or ‘puritanical’, critical theory adds another criticism: Christian sexual teaching actively oppresses the LGBTQ+ community. If the first (and only) commandment of critical theory is “thou shalt liberate the oppressed,” then its greatest sin is participating in oppression. This objection by the LGBTQ+ community is often more persuasive than a simple rejection of Christian sexual constraints because it is not couched in the language of self-interest. Instead, it is framed in terms of a concern for the well-being of others. To accept traditional Christian doctrine, we’re told, is to participate in the very hegemonic power structure that has marginalized and oppressed countless LGBTQ+ people for millennia. Furthermore, as difficult as this is to believe for many beleaguered conservative evangelicals on college campuses, Christians will be seen as members of a dominant group who possess oppressor status and privilege. Sexual mores are only one example of the ways in which Judeo-Christian norms have shaped our culture. Christianity’s exclusive truth claims are seen as marginalizing Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and others, notwithstanding Christianity’s insistence that all are equal before God and equally in need of His love and redemption, which He freely offers in His Son to everyone (John 3:16, Acts 17:30). Christianity is considered (erroneously) to be a ‘Western religion’ which spread exclusively through colonialism and European imperialism. Thus, the non-Christian is ostensibly being called not just into a community of oppressive sexuality, but into a bastion of historic oppression, imperialism, and white supremacy. Such a hurdle, if it were true, would be difficult for any moral or caring person to traverse, and rightly so.
Second, appeals to the evidence for Christianity, whether in the realm of science, philosophy, or history, will often be met with skepticism, particularly in light of the last point. Critical theorists will respond quickly that it’s not surprising that white, straight, male, cisgendered, educated, middle-class evangelicals try to justify their bigotry with appeals to ‘facts’ and ‘truth.’ The reality, they insist, is that these claims are merely mechanisms to perpetuate Christian dominance. Even if an apologist does not fall into the ‘oppressor’ group along on