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 one or more axes of identity, they can still be accused of ‘internalized oppression,’ which occurs when the member of an oppressed group accepts and conforms to the ideology of their oppressors. This cynical stance towards evidence and reason is almost impenetrable.
Third, Christians will be accused of failing to be sufficiently concerned about the plight of the poor and oppressed. The Christian emphasis on our personal sinfulness and our need for personal redemption and transformation is seen as a calculated opiate that renders oppressed groups submissive and hinders their political and societal liberation. It is secularists and progressives who are ostensibly in the vanguard of social justice, while Christians are only concerned with ‘saving souls’ and not with dismantling unjust societal systems. Finally, the most fundamental obstacle that critical theory introduces is a strong sense of works-righteousness. Granted, those sympathetic to critical theory will certainly not use this term or perceive in their efforts an attempt at works-righteousness. Nevertheless, it is operative. Many cultural observers, both Christian and non-Christian, have compared critical theory to a religion. While the metaphor can be taken too far, they are correct that critical theory offers a comprehensive metanarrative which competes with Christianity. Oppression is the original sin, by which nearly all of us are indelibly tainted. Even individuals at the intersection of multiple oppressed groups will likely experience some kind of privilege through their education, class, nationality, or place of birth. We procure absolution from this original sin through daily acts of penitence: acknowledging our privilege, actively rejecting our privilege, educating ourselves about oppression, standing in solidarity with marginalized groups, tweeting about the right causes, joining the right protests, liking the right comments, supporting the right candidates, and a myriad of other ways we signal to the world that we care, and care deeply. Such efforts are the pathway of ‘salvation’ for the ‘oppressor’. The conscience is soothed. One ‘feels better’ because of the difference he or she is making in the world. Salvation for the ‘oppressed’ comes through moral and political revolution, as oppressed groups are liberated from the cultural dominance of their oppressors.
III. Engaging Critical Theory
So how do we, as apologists, engage people who are influenced by critical theory? As we get started, our advice here is in no way comprehensive. What follows are a few helpful suggestions among a myriad of possible pathways that one might take. If you have specific questions that are not addressed in the following, please reach out to us, and we will try to help you walk through the question or situation you are dealing with.
First, we need to seriously consider the charges that critical theory lays at the foot of the Church. Instead of screaming “Marxism” or being myopic and purblind to egregious uses of power in society, we need to ask ourselves serious questions:
Are we failing to fulfill God’s commands to care for the poor?
Are we seeking justice?
Do we love mercy?
Are we challenging systems and institutions when they injure the vulnerable, marginalize and disenfranchise various groups, or reify bigotry and racism?
Here, we see the absolutely crucial role that a vibrant local church plays in society via a demonstration of the love of Christ and the reconciling power of His Gospel (Matt. 5:14-16, John 13:35, John. 17:23). When we point to a body of diversified believers that is a picture of unity, love, service, and accountability across lines of race, class, and gender, it is a powerful rebuttal to the idea that the only route to ‘equality’ is through political or cultural means.
Second, we need to reassert the primacy of truth. We should wholeheartedly affirm that oppression is wrong and that harm should be avoided. With that understood, we are then compelled to point out that what constitutes ‘oppression’ and ‘harm’ will depend entirely on what is true about reality. Seatbelts take away our freedom and vaccines make our arms sore. But liberating people from seatbelts and vaccines brings mild, short-term happiness at the cost of extreme, long-term suffering. In the same way, to argue that a Christian sexual ethic is ‘harmful’ or ‘restrictive’ is both to misunderstand the Christian sexual ethic and to assume that Christianity is false. If Christianity is true, then obedience to God will produce joy in the present relative to sexual expression and connection and joy for eternity. So where should our ethics be rooted? Explore this topic more in Corey Miller’s article. Christians are right to be concerned with the well-being of others, but that well-being must be rooted in a Christian understanding of what humans are, what our purpose is, and what behavior will lead to our ultimate flourishing. This distinction underscores the fact that our discussions of critical theory must be tied to and in tandem with discussions about the veracity and validity of Christianity at the point of ontology, the very nature of human being.
Third, we should press the moral argument. While critical theory accepts a postmodern critique of truth claims as thinly veiled bids for power, it takes a thoroughly modernist approach to moral norms. The discourse of critical theory is suffused with ‘shoulds’, oughts’, and ‘musts’: we ‘should’ care about the marginalized, we ‘ought to’ work for their liberation, we ‘must’ resist hegemony. The claims and exhortations of critical theory are to be understood as universally binding on all people in all cultures at all times. Yet such an appeal is impossible if there is no transcendent standard against which all cultures are judged. How else can we insist that traditional cultures ‘must’ embrace modern notions of female equality or sexual liberation? People influenced by critical theory who self-identify as atheists need to be shown the glaring contradiction between the moral realism of critical theory and the moral anti-realism of atheism. Only theism provides a plausible account of the universal moral imperatives upon which critical theory so heavily relies.
On the other hand, if we’re speaking to a theist or a professing Christian who has been influenced by critical theory, we should point out that ‘sin’ cannot be reduced to ‘oppression’ or even to ‘harm,’ particularly as critical theory defines the concepts. Jesus speaks against many sins, like idolatry, sexual immorality, envy, and arrogance (Mark 7:20-23, 12:29-31), which are not forms of ‘oppression’ as critical theory understands oppression. To collapse all sin into categories of oppression and harm as critical theory explicates them is to reject what Jesus Himself had to say about the nature of sin. We must point the discussion back to Jesus: was He who he claimed to be? Did He rise from the dead? If so, then accepting Jesus’ lordship means viewing sin from His perspective.
If we get to this point, regardless of whether the person identifies as an atheist, religious, or spiritual, we can try to unpack the basis for their commitment to critical theory as an overriding rubric for how they see the world. We can expose their inability to name or locate the seat of authority that compels their belief in the tenets of critical theory. If they can name it, which tends to be rare, we can then begin to expose the epistemological inadequacies of such an authority. In time, we should ask point blank: if you could be shown and convinced that Jesus actually rose from the dead, that He is ‘God in the flesh,’ would you then look to Him to define your core beliefs and commitments? As apologists, whether they say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ will dictate what we say next. Either way, the direction of our conversation has been set and is moving into familiar terrain.
Finally, the gospel can be brought to bear in discussions of critical theory in what may seem to be a surprising way: through the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18. The tax collectors were Roman collaborators. They made their fortune by extorting money from fellow Jews on behalf of an oppressive, foreign, imperial power that was pursuing a policy of conquest, cultural domination, and murder. Understandably, the Pharisee thanks God that he is “not like this tax collector.” Yet at the end of the parable, it is the greedy, treasonous ally of the oppressor who is saved (Luke 18:14). Why? Because Jesus came not to save the righteous, but sinners.
It was the man who was willing to admit his sin and humble himself before God who was saved and the one who was confident in his own righteousness who was lost. This realization should be alarming to anyone who feels secure in their own moral goodness. A secularist’s sense of his own moral goodness can be built on being “woke” just as much as a religious person’s sense of her own moral goodness can be built on her religious piety. Yet both pathways are a fool’s errand when it comes to the justification of the self and soul (Proverbs 14:12). Our religious performance cannot save us. Our social justice performance cannot save us. Our love for the poor cannot save us. Our dismantling of unjust societal systems can’t save us. Our solidarity with the oppressed (or our experience of oppression) can’t save us. Jesus alone can save us.
In our discussions with those who have embraced critical theory as a philosophy of life, either tacitly or overtly, we need to show how embracing critical theory can serve to deceive the conscience into thinking that we can attain or have attained moral goodness through our efforts towards social justice. Moreover, critical theory’s appropriate concern for justice (which reflects the imago Dei, our being created in God’s image) falls short by being exclusively focused on temporal concerns. It is therefore woefully insufficient in showing us how to meet ultimate standards of goodness and justice, which a) must be met, and b) can only be found in a perfect and transcendent God.
In a way, there is a strange similarity between the proudly secular progressive who embraces critical theory and the devout but unregenerate religious person who embraces his or her good works. Both think that they can achieve moral righteousness through their own effort. They can’t. We are all desperate moral failures in relation to ultimate standards of righteousness and love for others. Let’s gently remind people that Jesus Himself declared who He had come to redeem: not the healthy but the sick (Matthew 9:11-13); that is, those who see themselves as they actually are, as we all are, desperate, broken sinners in need of a Savior. That’s the message Jesus preached two thousand years ago, and that’s the message we must share today.
Article: Critical Theory and Christianity
Article: Race, Class, and Gender: The Strengths and Weakness of the Ideology of the Social Justice Movement
Podcast: The Dangers of Critical Theory
Dr. Neil Shenvi received his PhD from UC – Berkeley in theoretical chemistry and his A.B. from Princeton. He has also completed postdoctoral research at Yale and Duke. He currently lives in North Carolina, where he homeschools his four children. Check out his blog at: shenviapologetics.wordpress.com/ His Twitter handle is: @NeilShenvi
Dr. Patrick Sawyer has a PhD in Education and Cultural Studies from UNC-Greensboro, an M.A. in Communication Studies from UNC-Greensboro, and a B.A. in Psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill. He currently teaches at UNC-Greensboro. He can be reached at email@example.com.