Christians Should Reject Critical Theory
The short version of why Christians should reject Critical Theory (CT) is because the basic premises of CT are antithetical to a biblical worldview. I will defend this thesis while recognizing that an increasing number of Christians (and Christian leaders) are adopting CT as a helpful tool in social justice initiatives and living out their Christian faith in the culture at large. I see this as very concerning and damaging to the Body of Christ. As of yet, there is no universal rejection or acceptance of CT among the Church. It is still up for debate, and I hope to inject some helpful information and perspective into this conversation. For that reason, I will first throughly define CT using primary source literature before contrasting it with Scripture. My intent is to properly present the central ideas of CT before engaging with them so as to avoid being accused of straw-man arguments.
First, let’s define CT. Oxford languages defines Critical Theory as “a philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that seeks to confront the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures that produce and constrain it. The term is applied particularly to the work of the Frankfurt School.” This is a good, although somewhat ambiguous, definition. Brittanica.com defines Critical theory as a “Marxist-inspired movement in social and political philosophy originally associated with the work of the Frankfurt School. Drawing particularly on the thought of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, critical theorists maintain that a primary goal of philosophy is to understand and to help overcome the social structures through which people are dominated and oppressed.”
Put together, these two definitions give us a starting point in understanding Critical Theory. Put into my own words, it is an approach to understanding and alleviating social ills using an adapted Marxist approach that sees the world as identity groups competing for power. I will not delve very deep into the Marxist roots of Critical Theory in this essay, although it is an incredibly important connection to make. If you wish to read up more on that, a very good and brief historical detailing can be found here. As this link shows, Critical Theory is birthed directly out of Marxism in the 1930’s and has adapted over the years to the current form it takes today. This is where our focus will lie.
To help flesh out the modern form of CT more fully, I will draw on the book Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education by Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy. Lest you think I am drawing on a fringe or outlier source, consider that Robin DiAngelo is possibly the most influential person in the world right now in terms of advancing Critical Theory ideas. Her book White Fragility is the go-to resource on racial issues, having only recently been bumped down to #2 on the New York Times Best Sellers list in the paperback non-fiction category. It has been on the Best Sellers list for 109 weeks in a row. White Fragility is explicitly a work crafted from Critical Theory, with a focus on racism. Her book Is Everyone Really Equal?, on the other hand, more explicitly explains CT as it may apply to any social problem, not just racism. Therefore, the more broad scope of this text will help us to understand the underlying ideas of Critical Theory.
At first glance, Critical Theory is a tough concept to wrap your head around. This is because it cannot properly be summed up in one sentence (hence the problem trying to define it). It is, rather, a collection of connected ideas that develop a particular view of the world. I will outline below five core tenets of CT which will help the reader to begin to see the picture of what CT is and how it operates as an ideology.
- Social Binaries
By “social binaries” I mean that people are categorized into opposing identity groups. To quote DiAngelo and Sensoy, “for every social group, there is an opposite group…the primary groups that we name here are: race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, and nationality.” Elsewhere in the book they clarify, “although we are individuals, we are also—and perhaps fundamentally—members of social groups. These group memberships shape us as profoundly, if not more so, than any unique characteristic we may claim to possess.”
Thus, CT sees the identity of people not as primarily individuals, but as members of social groups. Your group membership is your fundamental identity. Based on this framework, my own fundamental identity is that I am a straight, white, Christian male. Very little else about me matters. Read the above quotes again. Notice that these social groupings create my identity more so than any unique characteristic I may possess.
This is incredibly important to understand. Coming from a CT framework, people are lumped into group membership and thus given the identity of those groups. That becomes who you are. Even though I may have my own unique experiences and opinions that greatly differ from other straight, white, Christian men, it matters very little. I am just like them because I am one of them.
2. Oppression Narrative
By “oppression narrative” I mean that one group identity asserts dominance over the other. According to CT, people are divided into opposing social groups, yet these groups are not on a level playing field. One group is dominant or oppressive, the other is subjugated or oppressed. Again, to quote DiAngelo and Sensoy, “Oppression involves institutional control, ideological domination, and the imposition of the dominant group’s culture on the minoritized group. No individual member of the dominant group has to do anything specific to oppress a member of the minoritized group.”
Not only does CT give you an identity based on social groupings, it also gives you moral qualities. What this means is that you are either an oppressor or an oppressed person depending on your own group identity. For example, if you are male, you are an oppressor. If you are a woman, you are oppressed. I can imagine some men raising their hand in objection and saying, “Wait a minute! I’m not oppressive towards women. I’ve never done or said anything to demean a woman in my life.” The canned response from a CT perspective would be “It doesn’t matter. You’re still an oppressor.” Once again, I encourage you to read the quote from the previous paragraph again. Note particularly the phrase “No individual member of the dominant group has to do anything specific to oppress a member of the minoritized group.” This means that, quite literally, you are given a moral label based not on anything you have ever personally done, but simply based on your group identity. In fact, in White Fragility, DiAngelo expands on this idea to argue that people who try to defend themselves from the accusation of being an oppressor based only on their group identity are actually demonstrating their oppression in real time. The only solution for an oppressor group member to escape their moral dilemma is to admit their own obvious or internalized oppressive ways and actively renounce them.
It is worth briefly noting here that CT is playing directly off of Marxism in these first two points. It was Marx, after all, who developed the theory that the world was broken because the rich oppressed the poor. This opressor-oppressed dichotomy has simply been expanded by Critical Theory to include other aspects of culture. Yet, the root theory remains the same. This ought to cause Christians at least some alarm considering the atheistic origins of Marxism and the horrific atrocities the ideology carried out in practice under Communism. Christianity has been enemy #1 for Communist regimes, yet its slightly prettier but just-as-evil step-sister Critical Theory is being embraced by the Church. Consider the origins and connections of CT and be warned.
Perhaps the most important thing you can learn from DiAngelo and Sensoy’s book can be seen in the following chart which succinctly and plainly summarizes Critical Theory in one image:
Recall that these same authors argue that no individual of a dominant group must actually do anything in order to still be considered guilty of oppression. If this chart neatly outlines who is the oppressors in society, I am perhaps one of the most oppressive people I know. Also note that to be a Christian is to be in a dominant group. Once again, I should hope this gives followers of Jesus a pause. Though Christ calls us the salt of the earth and light of the world, Critical Theory calls us oppressors. Which label of identity should we accept? How would accepting one over the other change your view of yourself and of others, and of your role in the world?
I observe that many Christians attempt to use CT as a tool to engage in social justice initiatives. Indeed, remember that the subtitle of DiAngelo and Sensoy’s book is “An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education”. Many believers see the secular world rising up against racism and think to themselves, “I am against racism too. This is a shared value. We can work with the world to fight this together”. This perspective is naive and fails in two regards. The first is to recognize that Christians and Critical Theory have different definitions of racism. The Christian believes racism to be partiality or bigotry based on skin colour. In that sense, anyone can be racist. CT on the other hand would define racism as prejudice plus power. This means that only people in the power group (whites) can be racist, and it is impossible for a member of the minority group (people of colour) to be racist. Lest you think I am overstating my case, DiAngelo says in White Fragility that “A positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.” I see no way a Bible-believing Christian can adopt this line of thinking in aiming to help bring peace to racial issues, as it blatantly runs against basic Christian doctrine.
The second error Christians make when trying to wed themselves to social justice movements is to fail to recognize that Critical Theory defines their very faith as oppressive. You may think you are on the same team fighting against racism or poverty, but it is only a matter of time before the activists turn on you. You, as a Christian, are a member of an oppressor group. To support CT as a Christian is to feed the monster who will later devour you. Sooner or later you will have to tackle that confrontation, and only two results will come. Either you will compromise your faith and bow to cultural pressure, or you will stand firm and be persecuted as a result. Scripture is not silent on which of these outcomes are expected of believers.
3. Lived Experience = Reality
By this I mean that truth is determined by people’s life experiences, especially the experience of the oppressed. This concept is born out of postmodernism which essentially rejects objective truth. According to CT, the experiences and perspectives of the marginalized define how things really are. DiAngelo and Sensoy explain, “Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive… Minoritized groups often have the widest view of society, in that they must understand both their own and the dominant group’s perspective — develop a double-consciousness — to succeed.”
Put differently, people who are a part of oppressor groups are blind to their own privilege. They live in a society that is designed to benefit them, and thus they live in a protected bubble without even knowing it. People in oppressed groups, on the other hand, see life with a broader perspective since they can see both the protective bubble of the privileged and the harsh sufferings of the disadvantaged. Thus dual-perspective, according to CT, means their point of view is actually more authoritative.
This explains why the opinions of white, straight men are largely treated with contempt or dismissal. CT has taught society that this group of people have a comparatively limited perspective to that of, say, a black lesbian woman. As a result, CT tends to uplift the voice of marginalized groups to the exclusion of others. Reality is best defined by the experiences of the oppressed, and those people need their story heard.
In practice, however, CT doesn’t follow its own rules. Although marginalized peoples are to have their voices lifted up, that is really only true for people who speak in congruence with Critical Theory. For instance, women should be encouraged to speak out on women’s issues…unless that woman takes a more traditional view of gender roles, in which case they should not be paid attention. Likewise, black people are encouraged to speak up about the injustices they face…unless a black person rejects the idea that society is generally racist towards them, in which case we dismiss them and say they are a traitor to their own people. This kind of thing happens all the time. CT presents itself as promoting diversity while in reality it rejects true diversity—diversity of thought.
4. Intersectional Identity
By saying that people are fundamentally members of identity groups, CT creates a problem for itself: someone can be a member of an oppressed group and an oppressor group at the same time. Take a black man for example. According to CT, this person would be an oppressor as a male, but oppressed as a person of colour. What then?
Intersectionality attempts to sort through this dilemma. Returning to our text, DiAngelo and Sensoy state, “Intersectionality is the idea that identity cannot be fully understood via a single lens such as gender, race, or class alone — what legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) called a ‘single axis framework’ (p. 139).” The following image (from a different source) illustrates well how intersectionality works in practice.
The thick, purple line across the middle represents oppression or domination. All of the group identities above the line are considered dominant, while those under the line are considered oppressed or marginalized. You can then trace the “spokes” of the wheel from one end to the other to see which group identities are considered paired together. Pin-pointing your own group identities on the diagram is meant to help an individual find their place in society. For most people, they will be advantaged in some areas of life and disadvantaged in others. Intersectionality is meant to help you find those advantages and disadvantages so that you can orient yourself properly in society. In areas where you are an oppressor, you should “check your privilege”. In areas where you are an oppressed person, you should speak up and seek greater equality. This brings us to our final point.
5. Transformative Action
By transformative action I simply mean “social justice”. The first four points of CT have laid out a comprehensive view of the world; the final objective is to do something about it. The list of possible social justice initiatives and tactics are virtually endless. They include both large-scale initiatives like mass education programs and corporate diversity training to more grassroots things like local protests and social media campaigns. The actual means are generally less important than the goal: the absence of social disparities. Again, recall what CT has taught us. In a nutshell, it says that society is composed of advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Individuals of those groups are no exception to the rule. This oppressor-oppressed dichotomy is verified by the lived experience of marginalized groups. These resulting disparities among groups are considered problematic and therefore social action needs to take place for corrective measures. The ultimate goal is perfect equity among all people groups where no one is advantaged over anyone else. It is worth noting that this outcome seems strangely similar to the definition of Communism.
A Worldview Issue
The careful reader should note that Critical Theory functions, as I stated at the beginning, as a worldview. Though some call it merely a “tool” to help us analyze culture, it is actually far more than that. The five points of CT tell us who we are (oppressors or oppressed), what community of people we belong to (our group identity), where ultimate truth comes from (the experience of the oppressed), what fundamental ills have befallen the world (social advantages for some but not for others), and a worthy life purpose to pursue (the alleviation of oppression). Make no mistake about it: these are the components of a comprehensive worldview.
The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the world’s largest Evangelical denomination, is a prime exampling of trying to merge Christianity with Critical Theory. In what has become known as Resolution 9, the SBC moved to adopt CT as a useful tool to address social ills. Their resolution states, in part, that “critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture—not as transcendent ideological frameworks.” The problem with this statement is that it is fundamentally impossible. Critical Theory is a transcendent ideological framework. I believe I have demonstrably shown that to be the case in this essay. Thus, the entire theory would come under the authority of Scripture and be rendered virtually useless, since it fails to pass the test on almost every point it contends to make. Allow me to summarize briefly.
Critical Theory is wrong about group identity superseding individual identity. To define someone by their group identity at the expense of their individuality is, by definition, prejudicial. On the Last Day, does Scripture declare that God will judge you based on what your group identity has done? Or does it declare that God will hold you accountable for your own thoughts, actions, words, and motives? So you can see that God judges us as individuals. Similarly, does not Abraham plead with God to spare the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah? Does he not do so on the basis of God’s prefect justice, that it would be unrighteous of God to judge the innocent for the deeds of the wicked? So you can see from Scripture that God does not treat people fundamentally as members of social groups, but rather as individuals made in his image.
Critical Theory is wrong to characterize all members of oppressor groups with moral guilt. To say that all men, whites, straights, and the like, are oppressive without exception even in the absence of actual evidence is breaking the ninth commandment. It is bearing false witness against your neighbour. It is slandering them and accusing them of sin without justification. Certainly no Christian should accept or participate in a system of thinking that causes us to break God’s law and malign other people.
Likewise, Critical Theory is wrong to characterize all members of oppressed groups as victims. Surely people are actually taken advantage of by others in this world. No one denies this. But to say that all disparities are due to people being taken advantage of is flat-out wrong. Some people are disadvantaged in life for faults of their own. Scripturally, this can be attributed to God’s principle of sowing and reaping. God has built into creation mechanisms and consequences for actions that generally reward godliness and punish ungodliness. These should not be viewed as problematic but rather as part of God’s wisdom in action.
Critical Theory is wrong to ascribe asymmetrical ethics. By this I mean that those who are considered oppressors are governed by a different moral code than those who are considered oppressed. Oppressors, for example, are generally told to be quiet, check their privilege, and are much quicker to be castigated for stepping out of line with socially unacceptable behaviour. The oppressed, on the other hand, are told to speak up, assert themselves, and largely are given a pass for committing what would otherwise be considered socially unacceptable behaviour. Consider, as an illustration, when a black NBA player was seen during a game calling another caucasian player a “b**** a** white boy”. A few people in the media called him out for it, but the act was barely considered newsworthy. Now consider if the roles were reversed, and the white player had demeaned the black one with a similar racial epithet. Public outcry would have made headlines everywhere, and surely the consequences would have been severe. From a Critical Theory perspective, this moral asymmetry is perfectly just, since the white player is considered to have a social advantage over the black one. No one can fault the downtrodden for bending the rules against those who have the power. Yet Scripture does not support this. God’s law is applicable to all people equally, without partiality. Leviticus 19:15 states “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.” This ethic is consistent in Scripture. God’s commands go “both ways”. Thus, the moral asymmetry of CT is exposed for what it really is: a double-standard that perverts true justice.
Critical Theory is wrong about the nature of truth. CT posits that truth is not objective, but rather subjective. It also asserts that truth is largely shaped by the experiences and opinions of the oppressed. Yet this is not true, at least not exhaustively. It is just as possible for a “person of power” to see the truth as it is for a marginalized person. Neither has a monopoly on truth. Certainly, they each can have their own perspective. Additionally, Christian values would rightly state that a person’s life experience and perspective should be respected. But that is not the same as saying it is necessarily true. There is a difference (at least sometimes) between how we perceive things to be and how things really are. The Bible’s message is that truth is a fixed standard to which we can align ourselves or deceive ourselves, but it does not change even if it doesn’t jive with our personal experiences. We don’t determine truth. We humbly discover it. The obvious implication is that sometimes—and this is true for everyone—we are flat out wrong. Scripture gives us no indication that only powerful people have bias while marginalized people see reality. Both the advantaged and the disadvantaged are equally able to access or deny truth because both are self-centred sinners by default. Our sinful nature is the great equalizer that gives no one the “upper hand” when it comes to access to the truth.
Critical Theory is wrong about our intersectional identity. There are multiple issues here. One is that the categories are wrong. While CT emphasizes our gender, race, and sexual orientation as primary identity markers, Scripture uses different categories. I would contend that Scripture uses three foundational identity markers before getting to the ones that CT emphasizes. Our first identity is that we are human beings made in the image of our Creator. This is our first and fundamental identity. The second is that we are sinners. This is the next-most important identity marker with which God sees us. The third is as the redeemed or the unredeemed. Unlike the first two categories, which are universally applicable to all people, this third category brings distinction. God sees the redeemed differently than he sees the unredeemed. I would argue without hesitation that these three layers of identity (image bearers of God, fallen sinners, redeemed/unredeemed) are the most foundational markers of our personal identities. Only after these categories should we add our more unique characteristics like gender, nationality, and so forth. Doing this fundamentally changes the way we understand ourselves and each other and orients us towards a biblical approach to human relationships.
A second problem with intersectional identity is one of application. Who is to say which identity markers are important and which are not? Why should we not add other categories to the list? Right handed or left handed? Curly or straight hair? Freckles or not? Athletic or musical? High or low IQ? Raised by single parent or both? First born or youngest in the family? Sexually abused or never taken advantage of? Raised in the city or countryside? The point here is that there are an infinite number of ways to categorize people, and an infinite number of potentially life-altering circumstances that people face. Therefore, if we aim to take intersectionality to its logical conclusion, what eventually happens are enough categories of distinction can be applied so that everyone is reduced to being a unique individual. No other person on the planet lands in the exact same categories as you. Thus, intersectionality renders itself useless because we are left with the very thing intersectionality intends to destroy: the uniqueness of every person. Rather than treating me the way you assume a straight, white man should be treated, you should see me as a unique individual who has a completely non-replicated life experience. No one sees, feels, thinks, and experiences things exactly as I do. The same goes for you. This concept means that every person on the planet is a fascinating individual who reflects the creative diversity of God and should be interacted with as such. CT, on the other hand, develops canned responses to certain people groups that rob individual people of their uniqueness and overlooks the beauty of God’s design in humanity.
Critical Theory is wrong about social justice. Or, put more accurately, it develops a faulty foundation for social justice. There is no question that God calls on believers to express their faith in concrete ways. We are to love our neighbour through good deeds. Most Christians conflate this call with secular social justice; yet I think this is a mistake. The secular call to social justice is to alleviate oppression as defined by Critical Theory. Therein lies the problem. As I have shown, CT does not reliably define justice and actually perverts true justice in many instances. My belief is that Christians engage with social justice because of (1) common language and (2) a misunderstanding of definitions. Social justice uses some biblical language, calling people to care for the helpless, aid the marginalized, alleviate the oppressed, speak up for the voiceless, and help the downtrodden. This sounds a lot like what we read in our Bibles. Yet the devil is in the details. By understanding how CT defines these terms, we can see that social justice operates by principles that are contrary to God’s Word.
Critical Theory is wrong about gratitude. More pointedly, CT actually lacks gratitude at all. The CT perspective is that the advantaged should feel bad about their privilege and the marginalized should be angry about their disadvantage. There is no category of gratitude for either group. Yet we know that Scripture calls people to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Biblically, both those that CT defines as oppressors and oppressed are to give thanks to God. Yet this runs completely contrary to all that CT outlines. Perhaps this alone ought to show us that CT need be rejected as useful in the life of a believer.
Critical Theory is wrong about God. Technically, CT completely ignores God altogether. It should then not surprise us that most of the conclusions CT draws are fundamentally wrong. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. Since CT does not incorporate God at all, it does not begin with a foundation of wisdom. Perhaps the most significant problem with Critical Theory is that it runs contrary to the sovereignty of God. The Bible teaches that God is in control of all things, that he appoints people their lot in life, and does so for his own good designs and purposes. CT comes along and essentially accuses God of making mistakes that need correction. CT attempts to straighten out God’s sovereign plans and direct them towards different aims. Is it not God’s design to sometimes bring people down low? To strip away their wealth? To take away their health? To make them unseemly in the eyes of the world yet precious is his sight? To raise up kings and take them down? None of God’s sovereign plan omits the Christian call to alleviate suffering in this world. We are to bear one another’s burdens. Yet even in the midst of it, God is at work in ways we cannot understand. He is orienting the circumstances of life in order to bring about his sovereign plan. This core Christian value makes the premises on which CT stands virtually untenable.
What then are we to make of all this? Colossians 2:8 tells us: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” Put simply, we are to reject the philosophies of this world and stand firm on the truth of God’s Word. Critical Theory makes truth claims that are contrary to Scripture. As I have shown, these truth claims are not “fringe” points in CT, but the very fundamentals of it. Instead of relying on CT to instruct us in good works, we must follow the source which God has provided. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In theological terms, this verse speaks to the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible is sufficient to “equip us for every good work”. It alone can provide us with the framework we need to do God’s will and fulfill the command to love our neighbour. This means that CT is a dispensable tool. Not only does it fail to be grounded in Scriptural principles, but it cannot prepare us for Christian service the way God’s Word can. If you wish to be a faithful believer in the world shining the light of Christ, do not bother yourself with Critical Theory. Instead, rely on God’s Word to guide you and the Spirit to empower you as go about showering the world with the love of God it so desperately needs.
*Special thanks to Neil Shenvi for his research on this subject. See his website at shenviapologetics.com