Deconstructing Critical Theory: Conclusion
A few weeks back, I decided just for fun to take the manuscripts of each of my posts in this series (so far) and copy and paste them onto a Google Doc to see how much I had written. The amount of pages came out to something like 75 pages. I suspect that, with the posts I've written since adding all of that up, I must have written around 100 pages on the topic of critical theory on this blog. Now that this series is over, I've had the opportunity to reflect on the process as a whole and on what I've learned from it. In this post, I want to write out those reflections.
The first post in this series was published on December 7, 2020. It has taken me over seven months to finally bring this series to a close, and with it, I hope to move on for the time being to other topics. While critical theory is a crucial area of apologetics for the Church to address, there are other things that I'm interested in. This post, I hope, will provide a nice sense of closure on the topic, though I hope to address it in other ways in the future.
To start, I can say that one surprising aspect of this series has been how much it helped me to organize my thoughts on critical theory. I initially suspected that the series would mainly be of aid to the Church, to those who read the blog and got a start through it in reflecting on these issues for themselves for the first time. What I didn't suspect was that I would come through it with a much deeper understanding of the topic and how the various elements of critical theory interact with each other. I'm thankful to God for that process because it's made me a better apologist already by giving me a more secure understanding of this subject.
So, what insights have been gained by reflecting on this series as a whole? Briefly, I want to discuss two insights. First, critical theory is a foundation that grounds a particular perspective on the world (i.e., a worldview), and that foundation is not the same as the foundation of Jesus Christ and the Christian worldview. Second, addressing critical theory and its claims is crucial to a holistic apologetic. But before I discuss these insights, let's summarize what we've learned from this series.
Critical Theory Summarized
In my first post on critical theory, in which I introduced the history and concept of critical theory, I distinguished between what I call classical Marxism and cultural Marxism.
Classical Marxism is Marx's theory in its original form, where society is divided into two types of people, oppressed and oppressor, defined along economic lines as the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Since the perspectives and interests of these groups are diametrically opposed to one another, from their conflict arises socialism via a violent revolution of the proletariat. From socialism comes communism, the utopian vision of classical Marxism.
Cultural Marxism is the result of the modifications made to classical Marxism by members of the Frankfurt School, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and others. Their work modified classical Marxism by claiming that one's oppressed status may be derived from group statuses that weren't economic, such as race, gender, or the like. Though there are only two types of people, now they can be defined by a multitude of group identities. Critical theory is the interpretive grid for cultural Marxism. It seeks to deconstruct the structure of a society in order to reveal the often-hidden injustices underlying its structure, and it must do this from the multitude of oppressed perspectives in that society.
Using Neil Shenvi's article on critical theory, I utilized his list of the seven major elements of critical theory. As the series progressed, I shortened these elements in a way that reflects the particular area of one's worldview that is affected by the element. The elements of critical theory are:
Metaphysical: oppressed and oppressor
Postmodern: hegemonic power
Political: solidarity through oppression
Moral: freeing oppressed groups
Epistemological: lived experience
The junction: the guise of objectivity
In each of the posts on these elements (each linked above), I analyzed the element in detail and then showed how each element conflicts with Scripture in some way. I also showed how each of the elements related to the others in order to show how critical theory (and therefore cultural Marxism) forms a cohesive worldview that, as a whole, conflicts with biblical Christianity. Feel free to read these posts in order to gain a more detailed understanding of each of them.
With the summary out of the way, let's get to the first insight.
Critical Theory as a Foundation
The image at the top of the post is a picture of the spectacular Cologne Cathedral. Standing at a whopping 516 feet tall at each of the towers on the west end of the cathedral, this behemoth structure is a wonder of Gothic architecture whose construction began during the Medieval period of European history. I did not choose this image because it has anything overt to do with critical theory. I chose it because it works as an appropriate image for what a worldview is.
When one sees a building so huge, particularly one built so long ago, one naturally wonders how such a huge and elaborate structure could be supported properly without collapsing. For instance, if you look closely at the image above, you'll see plenty of supports between the middle or near the top of the exterior walls to large supports that connect to the exterior of the cathedral. These supports look like they're hanging in midair between two parts of the structure. These supports are called buttresses (flying buttresses, to be precise), and they are crucial to the support of Gothic buildings. They provide support to the exterior walls. With many buttresses, the building can stay upright.
But, of course, no building can stand without a proper foundation. If the foundation of the Cologne Cathedral were to dramatically shift or sink, the whole structure would be in danger of collapsing. This image is helpful for us as we think about how a worldview operates. A worldview is like a foundation, a set of fundamental presuppositions about life, God, the world, ethics, meaning and purpose, etc. that undergirds all of our other commitments and beliefs. Like the Cologne Cathedral, if one's worldview is shaken too severely, then one's entire perspective on the world is in danger of collapsing. Jesus tells us as much when He says in Matthew 7:24-27 (NASB):
"Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts on them, will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and its collapse was great."
One's worldview undergirds how one interprets and copes with experiences in life, both the good and the bad. If experience shakes the foundation, one is prone to falling completely. Jesus is saying that the one who trust in and follows Him will stand on a firm foundation, even in the midst of the shifting trials of life. So Jesus tells us that the foundation is crucial.
What about critical theory? In a way, critical theory defines the internal structure of cultural Marxism and describes its deepest presuppositions. On the basis of those presuppositions, proponents of critical theory make claims and act. Cultural Marxism is the foundation, and the elements of critical theory are like parts of the overall structure whose connections are buttresses that support the other parts. Because of this, the elements of critical theory mutually support one another. If they fall, then the whole structure is in danger of collapsing. If cultural Marxism turns out to be false, then the whole structure will surely fall.
Why is it important to think of cultural Marxism and critical theory in these terms? Imagine that I were a tour guide for the Cologne Cathedral. I take you through the building, describing all of these details about it, including its history, design, structure, architecture, etc. That is much of what I've done in this series on critical theory. If cultural Marxism is a worldview with a certain structure, then much of what I've done is describe that structure. Let's say that, after having toured Cologne Cathedral, you were to visit the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. You would quickly notice that Cologne Cathedral and the Notre Dame Cathedral are different. They have different histories, designs, structures, etc. In a similar way, much of what I've done in this series is point outward to a different worldview with a different structure: biblical Christianity.
By showing how the two worldviews differ, I've argued that attempts to force the two together do not work. "No one can serve two masters" (Matthew 6:24). Attempts at syncretism (the blending of beliefs based in different worldviews) cannot work. Critical theory (or critical race theory, the most popular form of critical theory today) is not an "analytical tool" that can be divorced from its deeper philosophical roots. These theories were not "appropriated" by secular scholars; secular scholars created the theories. Professing Christians who argue otherwise are either ignorant, mistaken, or deceptive.
Addressing Critical Theory as a Part of Holistic Apologetics
This is the 45th post on this blog so far. When I started this blog in February of 2020, I had the idea of presenting apologetics as an appeal "both to the head and the heart" (one of the mottos of this blog). That appeal was unique in that it incorporated what Paul Gould calls "cultural apologetics" in his excellent book, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World, which defends not only the notion that the Christian worldview is true but that it is good as well. In other words, the Christian worldview leads to flourishing in one's life. This approach looks at the heart in the sense that it appeals to the deepest and most human desires we have, including a desire for meaning and purpose in life and the desire for flourishing in a confusing and messy world.
Because of this, if you look at my posts prior to May of 2020, you'll see that the main focus of the blog was my attempt to bring these two strains together. I wrote on Christian theology and philosophy and arguments for and against God's existence, normal content for apologists. George Floyd's tragic death revealed the advancing wave of critical theory (and critical race theory especially) and all of the destruction that came along with it. What surprised me was how rapidly it advanced in American culture. What shocked me was how many professing Christians supported the advance of critical race theory.
Just to be clear, as I've said before, I was aware of critical theory and critical race theory long before George Floyd's death. Indeed, this shift to a focus on holistic apologetics was motivated in part by my attempts to share the gospel with college classmates who advanced critical theory and cultural Marxism. Cultural Marxism isn't concerned with the truth of Christianity. Cultural Marxism merely demonizes Christianity as racist, sexist, homophobic, and the like. In other words, to those who support cultural Marxism, Christianity is evil. And I wanted to answer that objection in a way that would show my classmates that Christianity is something you ought to want to believe is true because of the flourishing it brings. So the shift in focus was not a result of having first been exposed to critical theory.
So, why the shift? Why spend several months almost exclusively focused on this topic? There are at least three reasons for this. First, I had not realized until George Floyd that critical theory had infiltrated the church in America. Therefore, there was a need to discourage Christians from believing a false worldview, in spite of the deceptive language of professing Christians who support it while denying any connection to it.
Second, I was responding to a need in the Church for education about critical theory. Most people, especially those of generations prior to mine, are being exposed to critical theory for the first time and, though they can't quite put words to why it's wrong, just "sense" that there's something wrong with it. They are then confused by those professing Christians advancing critical theory and end up deeply uncomfortable in their own Christian community. I want to give brothers and sisters in Christ the words to express and advance what they already sense is true: critical theory is unbiblical and heretical and should never be adopted in the Church, lest the gospel be compromised and undermined in the process.
Third, I think that it is undeniable that critical theory is the apologetics issue of our day. I had already expected this for some time before George Floyd's death and the BLM protests and riots of 2020. But, having seen how forcefully it would be advanced in the West, there is no doubt in my mind that my generation of apologists, Christian philosophers and theologians must address critical theory if the Church has any hope of winsomely advancing the gospel in the coming decades. I am sure that, marching behind Jesus Christ our King with the Holy Spirit to strengthen us, we will do just that. Please, do not be blind to the urgency of the need to, like with any other argument "raised against the knowledge of God" (2 Corinthians 10:5 NASB), defeat this enemy as we have others in our past. Marx can do nothing to defeat Christ Jesus.
What does this have to do with holistic apologetics? Think of those around you who are not followers of Christ. Probably, some of them believe some of the underlying philosophical claims of critical theory. Some of them believe that Christianity is evil because of its advancement by American white slaveowners or because of its condemnation of homosexual behavior. To them, Christianity is bigoted. I love the arguments for God's existence and believe that they are fascinating as well as useful as an extra piece of warrant for belief in God's existence and a great answer to the atheist who claims that there is no evidence for God's existence. But arguments for God's existence have little if any appeal for the person who, fundamentally, thinks that Christianity is evil and that you're evil for advancing it. So, critical theory seeks to undermine in explicit terms the notion that Christianity is good. Therefore, it is a necessary component of holistic apologetics to address and refute it.
That's it for this post! I am thankful to have spent the time writing out these thoughts on the major elements of critical theory, not only because of the benefits for the Church, but also because I have benefitted greatly from organizing my own thoughts on the topic. I hope and pray that this series will continue to be edifying and helpful for people who find it and are committed to studying the topic in more detail. This series is a great place to start in studying critical theory in greater detail. In the coming weeks, I'm not sure exactly what I'll discuss next, but I'm pretty sure that I'll be getting away from critical theory for the time being. I'll still post about it occasionally, but not with the same focus as I have in the last several months. Either way, stay tuned!
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