Critical Theory and Christianity

What is justice and what tools can we use to achieve it? Understanding justice involves a set of philosophical beliefs about 1. human nature and purpose 2. morality, and 3. practical rationality—how we know things and justify true beliefs. There are 3 sources for truth depending on what school of thought you follow: God (theological worldview), human reason (enlightenment worldview), sentiment-morality (post-modern worldview).

Critical Theory, and the study Critical Race Theory under that school of thought (henceforth CRT), is not only theoretical; it is not just an academic curriculum. CRT is a worldview. Meaning it is an overarching narrative by which we interpret all of reality. ‘Social justice’ or ‘equity’ is used as shorthand to express commitment to critical theory. As we will see, CRT is incompatible with another worldview: Christianity. There are a number of premises that a Christian worldview asserts that I will explain and a number of premises that CRT asserts conversely.  

First, Imago Dei. We are primarily made in the image of God.  This identity marker underpins all of Christian ethics.  Human beings, whether male or female, black or white, young or old, are made in the image of God and thus possess equal value and dignity regardless of race, gender or status.  And not only that, the Christian identity is wholly found in God’s definition of us.  We do not essentially define who we are.  Who we are is designed by His Word and we become who we are meant to be by Him.  

“We do not have ultimate self-determination. God decides what is true, not we; God decides what is right, not we; and if we are saved from sin it will be God who saves us, not we ourselves.”

-Theologian John Piper

But CRT posits that there isn’t unity in our humanity. In fact, the expression ‘we’re all human’ is considered covert racism. And, conversely, under CRT, we are not essentially individuals either. Rather, we are united in our self-defined identity groups of those in the margins being oppressed by those who are dominant, those who are supreme. Under CRT, God and His word are not supreme. It is, rather, a people’s will to power that is supreme.

Second, the Bible is God’s Word. Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. This is antithesis to the CRT belief in ‘lived experiences’ and personal ‘storytelling’ rather than objective, absolute and authoritative truth. CRT believes that Biblical authority doesn’t exist and that any group whose doctrine dictates human identity and ethics is a power grab to dominate and therefore oppress people. For example, the Bible was only written by men therefore its authority is considered intrinsically oppressive. Under CRT, God and His Word doesn’t define who you are, you do. Through the Bible Christians believe in objective, absolute truth and not moral relativism. Christians do not believe a value or truth claim is intrinsically wrong just because a dominant group holds them. Value claims are intrinsically evil if they rebel against God’s Word.

Third, sin. According to the bible, human beings are united in their rebellion against God. Sin infects us all universally. Every culture comes with particular sinful idolatries. No race or people group is inherently more sinful than others.  But if the moral stake is not human beings in rebellion against God but rather identity groups in rebellion against oppressors as CRT posits then it undercuts the primacy of God and our existential relationship with Him.  And it undercuts the unity we all have as sin-saturated, fallen, human beings.  

As Theologian Tim Keller said, CRT:

“offers a highly self-righteous ‘performative’ identity. The Christian identity is received from God’s gracious hands, not achieved by our actions—we are loved absolutely apart from our performance. Contrarily, this view (CRT) provides two kinds of identity that are highly perfomative: either being a member of an oppressed group fighting for justice or a white anti-racist ally. 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)”.  Keller goes on to say, CRT “sees all injustice as happening on a human level and so demonizes human beings rather than recognizing evil forces–“the world, the flesh, and the devil”–at work through all human life, including your own.”

Fourth, liberation through redemption.  CRT believes we have solidarity in our identity groups as they relate to power structures while Christianity believes we have solidarity in redemption as we relate to our Savior. The Bible says that for Christians, the divisions between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free are all broken down.  These differences are not erased but they are demoted in importance. The good news is all Christians share equal access to God and equal standing before Him regardless of race, gender and status.

Fifth, authority and hierarchy.  CRT sees power as intrinsically evil and hierarchy as oppressive but the Bible sees the abuse of power as evil. As for hierarchy, the bible commands us to submit to our parents, to submit to our political leaders, to submit to our church leaders and- ultimately- to submit to God. 

CRT has three assumptions that form its worldview:

  1. self-deification (my sovereign will decides)
  2. self-determination (I will decide my own truth and my own morality without deference to any authority outside myself because absolute truth is a tool for oppression)
  3. self-definition (I will define my own essential identity)

With these assumptions each person finds unity in intersectional people groups seeking liberation from dominant authority (oppressors).

Whereas, Christians have these alternate assumptions:

  1. God is deity (He decides)
  2. God determines truth and morality
  3. God defines our essential identity

With these assumptions each person finds unity in our shared humanity, our shared corruption and by our shared redemption through our Savior.

While CRT posits liberation from oppression the bible posits liberation through redemption. While CRT posits liberation from dominant authority the bible posits submission to the ultimate authority.  While CRT posits man-made identity.  The bible posits God-designed identity.  While CRT posits power as the ultimate existential force at work in our lives the bible posits corporate sin, individual sin and demonic sin but also love, humility, graciousness, forgiveness and salvation as the ultimate existential forces at work in our lives.  

This is the blunt conclusion.  Inside CRT, God is small and negligible.

“Biblical justice is more penetrating in its analysis of the human condition, seeing injustice stemming from a more complex set of causes—social, individual, environmental, spiritual—than any other theory addresses. Biblical justice provides a unique understanding of the character of wealth and ownership that does not fit into either modern categories of capitalism or socialism. Biblical justice has built-in safeguards against domination. As we have seen, to have a coherent theory of justice, there must be the affirmation of moral absolutes that are universal and true for all cultures. Without appealing to some kind of transcendent universal truth and morality, there is no way to further justice. Christianity does not claim to explain all reality. There is an enormous amount of mystery – things we are simply not told.  We are not given any ‘theory of everything’ that can explain things in terms of evolutionary biology or social forces. Reality and people are complex and at bottom mysterious. Christianity does not claim that if our agenda is followed most of our problems will be fixed. Meta-narratives have a “we are the Saviors” complex. Christians believe that we can fight for justice in the knowledge that eventually God will put all things right, but until then we can never expect to fully fix the world. Christianity is not utopian.  Finally, the storyline of the whole Bible is God’s repeated identification with the wretched, powerless, and marginalized. The central story of the Old Testament is liberation of slaves from captivity. Over and over in the Bible, God’s deliverers are usually racial and social outsiders, people seen to be weak and rejected in the eyes of the power elites of the world.”

-Theologian Tim Keller

Biblical justice includes impartiality or universality. Truth and value applies universally to everyone. CRT inherently does not. Marginalized identity groups are more true and more valuable than dominant identity groups and each marginalized identity group has exclusive access to their own truth that a dominant group is refused access to also known as ‘standpoint epistemology’. Biblical justice includes retribution or punitive punishment and judgement. Because human beings are so valuable, Imago Dei, we are served our just deserts. God’s moral commandments are universally binding on all human beings therefore Biblical justice includes impartial punishment for sin.

Insofar as we accept the claims of Christianity, we’ll have to deny the claims of critical theory. We can’t accept both.

What are some Biblical resources for social justice?

The Bible

Tim Keller’s Justice in the bible

John Piper’s critical race theory part one and part two.

Here is a response to John Pipers essay from Christian apologist Neil Shenvi.

Here is a link to all of Neil Shenvi’s critical theory work. The man has been remarkably thorough.

Here is a crash course from Shenvi and especially his advice for dialogue.

Some recommended reading to study critical theory:

Derrick Bell: Race, Racism And American Law

Kimberle Crenshaw: Critical Race Theory

Ibram X Kendi: Stamped From The Beginning

Ibram X Kendi: How To Be An Antiracist

Robin DiAngelo: White Fragility

Robin Di Angelo: Is Everyone Really Equal

Richard Delgado: Critical Race Theory

Critical Theory and Christianity

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