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Deconstructing Critical Theory: Introduction

About four years ago, I came onto the campus of a secular university as a college freshman and Philosophy major expecting to take classes in metaphysics, ethics, ontology, logic, and the like. I was excited to develop intellectually by receiving a college education that would expand my thinking by teaching me to think critically and encourage me to debate issues of truth openly. As a young apologist, I was excited to discuss issues of God and faith in Christ in an intellectually driven way with other intelligent and driven people. A university is a bastion of free speech, right?

Imagine my surprise when I realized, over the course of four years, that I had come into college with a conception of the university that had all but died out entirely. I realized that my "liberal" (in the old sense of the word) ideas about public discourse had been replaced with something else, and I couldn't put my finger on exactly what had replaced it. I repeatedly witnessed instances in which students with unpopular views were castigated as bigoted, rather than shown to be wrong through argumentation and evidence. I constantly had this sense that everyone around me had signed up to a game whose rules eluded me and that I had never received the consent form.

I wasn't alone in this. The college that I attended had a huge Christian presence, and there were a lot of campus ministries. In my classes, I met many other students frustrated with this game and who had not, it seemed, received this consent form that everyone else had signed. They knew that if they spoke up in class in support of their views (whether they wanted to speak in support of biblical Christianity or conservatism or against views such as homosexuality or transgenderism), they would not be proven wrong, but silenced. When the professor is in on the game, what can you do? For most students that I knew, the best option was to stay silent. Get your grades and graduate, and don't cause too much of a stir while doing it. This was tragic to me because it is one of the goals of this game.

To be precise, there are two goals to the game. The first is to forward an agenda of cultural Marxism. That agenda is political, cultural, and philosophical. In my Philosophy classes, I was shocked to see that upper-level courses were not courses in ethics, epistemology, and the like, which are just the major areas of the field. No, I took classes in feminist philosophy, existentialism, and philosophy of law (where our readings included thinkers such as Michel Foucault and no mention at all of Locke or Hobbes). I am greatly blessed by the fact that, by God's own provision, I had read in philosophy before going to college. But my fellow Philosophy majors had no chance. Imagine going into a program in Philosophy and never learning about the major areas within the field in their own right. Imagine, on top of this, that the only major philosophers that you read as relevant for today are major European philosophers such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida (look them up). More to the point, imagine that your education in philosophy includes primarily the major figures in the last two centuries who have attempted to deconstruct more than two thousand years of Western philosophy, in an environment where giants such as Aristotle and Descartes are spoken of mainly with derision. Those two thousand years, influenced as they have been by the immanent goodness of the Judeo-Christian worldview, are the basis for Western civilization.

My four years in this program helped me to understand part of the method for the goal of forwarding this agenda. I saw classmates who were both radically committed to the agenda of cultural Marxism (through their education) and uninformed about Western philosophy, culture, and history. Through the university, these people will have access to positions of cultural and political influence. Just to be clear, I have no problem with learning about philosophers that I disagree with. I'm thankful that I had to read these philosophers. But in no meaningful sense did these classes-or many of my classes in college-represent open public discourse that contributed to a sincere search for truth. Why is that? Because that search requires that you read people with whom you disagree. Diversity of viewpoint is necessary for real education.

The second goal is perhaps more sinister. It is to silence opposition to that agenda. Notice that I did not say, "to show that the opposition is wrong or mistaken." I remember attempting to have discussions about these issues when appropriate in class, and I often found not reasoned disagreement, but anger. All around the United States, controversial speakers such as Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson have been denied platforms and subject to hatred from the internet. If one is denied a platform, one has not been proven wrong. One has been prevented from speaking. And it is often students who are influential in removing these people's platforms on university campuses. This is consistent with cultural Marxism. In order to bring about the Communist utopia, everyone must agree. If you don't, two options remain: shout you down until you shut up, or get rid of you.

I saw all of this happening among my classmates in college for four years, and I struggled with how to address it. In particular, how do I, as a Christian and apologist, navigate this contentious environment? Perhaps naively, I thought that this sort of environment existed mainly at the university. Outside the university, I thought, people don't really think about this. So, as I thought about how to navigate this game, I was thinking about my unbelieving classmates.

Boy, was I wrong. Not six months after I graduated, three tragic deaths unleashed a firestorm. Protests and riots swept the country. Suddenly, everyone was speaking the language I had learned about in college. For my friends and family, particularly people who were not aware of the agenda of cultural Marxism, all of this was bizarre and shocking. What had happened? They had been made part of the game but never received the consent form. And they had no clue what the rules are.

I'm sorry to say it, but I was wrong in thinking that the game was quarantined in the university. Now it's in the culture at large (and has been for a while, unbeknownst to me at the time). If you want to be an effective follower of Christ and apologist in this culture, you must know the game and its rules. If you don't, you'll easily make the mistake of thinking that these massive cultural shifts are random and disconnected from each other. This is not true. There is a contrary worldview that has taken root and is exerting influence in every major cultural institution in the United States. The more you know about it, the more you'll see it at work in American culture today.

So what's the game and its rules? Christians have, in the last several months, attempted to make sense of the connections between classical Marxism, cultural Marxism, and critical theory. I recommend that you read an article by Phil Blair about this, as well as my article, on FreeThinking Ministries. Both of these articles wrestle with the connections between the components of this worldview.

In this post, I am going to attempt to explain what the game is and begin to outline its rules. First, however, I want to explain briefly why I'm doing this. As I've written before on this blog, there are two commands given to us as defenders of the faith in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, which says (NASB):

"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ."

Those two commands are:

  1. Tear down the opposing worldview.

  2. Winsomely replace the opposing worldview with Christ.

Over the next several weeks, I'm going to take each individual component of critical theory and explain it in detail. Then I'm going to apply Scripture to each component to formulate a Christian perspective on that component. Hopefully, by doing this, I can equip some to see and address the worldview quickly becoming dominant in the culture today.

On May 31, I posted a blog post called "Thank You, Critical Theory." That post quickly became my most read post. If you haven't read it, I encourage you to read it, since it is a good primer for what I'll be discussing in the next several weeks. In that post, I referenced an article by Christian apologist Neil Shenvi, in which he lists seven main elements of critical theory:

  1. Individual identity is inseparable from group identity as "oppressed" or "oppressor."

  2. Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups through the exercise of hegemonic power.

  3. Different oppressed groups find solidarity in the experience of oppression.

  4. Our fundamental moral duty is freeing groups from oppression.

  5. "Lived experience" is more important than objective evidence in understanding oppression.

  6. Oppressor groups hide their oppression under the guise of objectivity.

  7. Individuals at the intersection of different oppressed groups experience oppression in a unique way (i.e., intersectionality).

For each post in this series, I will take each element in order and discuss it in more detail philosophically. I'll also try to apply it to current events in a way that shows you that this isn't mere theory. Worldview has a huge impact on how we think and act in the world in ways that aren't immediately clear to us until we consider them. In one sense, this is an invitation to you to think more critically about your own beliefs and the beliefs of others. That alone is of benefit to you as a person and follower of Christ. Just to clarify one more thing: if you are a Christian who supports BLM (either as a movement or organization), who posted things like the black square or raised fist and who supports claims of systemic racism, obviously, we are going to have points of disagreement. Serious disagreement that will affect how we see ourselves as Christ-followers in the world and as brothers and sisters. But let me stress that we are united in Christ. If you truly believe in Christ alone for salvation and follow Him with all of your heart, we are one in Christ. What's painful is seeing brothers and sisters in the body disagree on something that, frankly, is unbiblical. At the same time, I acknowledge that I didn't see this clearly just a few years ago. I believe that critical theory is a form of deception, and I want to appeal to brothers and sisters out of love alone, without hostility, in bringing correction.

Until now, in sharing my experience in college, I've described the experience of finding that public discourse has skewed away from liberal ideas of open debate as being part of a game, whose rules you don't know, without a consent form. What is the game? Essentially, this is a worldview. For the rest of this post, I'll describe in broad detail what this worldview is.

Classical Marxism vs. Cultural Marxism

There is significant controversy surrounding how to describe the current philosophy descriptive of the radical Left in the United States. Some want to describe the worldview as critical theory. Others acknowledge that cultural Marxism is an accurate description but prefer not to use the term because they see it as inflammatory. I understand this at the same time that this worldview is Marxist. So what is Marxism? There is a significant difference between Karl Marx's philosophy (what I will call classical Marxism) and cultural Marxism.

Let me start with classical Marxism. In short, classical Marxism begins with a description of society. For Marx, the type of society typical of the West is capitalism. (A lot of people aren't aware of the fact that "capitalism" was first termed by Marx.) In a capitalist system, there are only two types of people: the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The bourgeoisie is the smaller class that controls the means of production, or the capital involved in producing commodities for a profit. The proletariat is the much larger working class that is hired by the bourgeoisie to work to produce those commodities. In a capitalist system according to Marx, only the bourgeoisie benefits from the fruits of the labor of the proletariat. In other words, the workers do all the work, and the owners gain. Because of this, it is in the best interest of the bourgeoisie to pay the working class as little as possible to maximize its profit and to prevent the working class from owning any of the means of production. Because of this, all of the wealth of the society is owned by the ruling class. This results in a relationship of exploitation and injustice, since the majority working class is subject to the whims of a minority ruling class. For Marx, this is the inevitable result of the capitalist system.

The inevitability of the conflict between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is an important point to emphasize. Marx held to a doctrine called dialectical materialism. This doctrine interprets society and history in terms of social conflict (i.e., a dialectic) resulting from material needs within that society (i.e., materialism). This is sort of the mechanism of classical Marxism. On top of this, for Marx, wealth in a society was a zero-sum game. If the person on top is rich, then he is rich off the back of the poor. (For a pretty good article on Marx's economic theory, particularly his theory of value, see here.) So, for Marx, profit is only possible for the bourgeoisie if the owner exploited the worker at less than the value of his work, resulting in exploitation. Again, it is the social structure of capitalism which inevitably results in this injustice. So what's the solution?

The solution, says Marx, is revolution. Again, the inevitable result of capitalism is that the proletariat class is much bigger than the bourgeoisie class. If the proletariat class got together and wanted to overthrow the system, it could easily do this. So Marx predicted that, eventually, the working class would unite and revolt against their oppressors, thereby overthrowing the social structure putting certain people over the means of production. Remember, for Marx, it isn't reform that's needed in a capitalist system, but destruction of the system. What will replace it? Socialism will replace it. In short, socialism is an economic system in which the government controls all of the means of production, including all private property. Eventually, according to Marx, this system would give way to communism, a utopian system in which there is absolute equality of outcome and no governing authority.

Did the predictions of classical Marxist theory come true? If classical Marxism were to be judged by its predictions, then it is a demonstrable failure. It was such a failure that, in the early 20th century, Marxist theorists were discussing why it had failed. As it turns out, not a single capitalist society had experienced a communist revolution, in spite of the efforts of Marxists. The best example of a Marxist-style revolution was the Russian Revolution of 1917, but this revolution was led by academic elites such as Vladimir Lenin.

The Frankfurt School characterizes a movement of these Marxist theorists to expand the categories of classical Marxism to social categories such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and the like. This represented a transition from classical Marxism to cultural Marxism, though this term for the transition is somewhat anachronistic. What, in fact, the members of the Frankfurt School (among them theorists such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, among others) explicated was a new approach to formulating social theories called critical theory. I consider critical theory to be a kind of interpretive grid for cultural Marxism. Cultural Marxism claims that this dialectic, the inherent contradictions and conflict in society, is the result of competing social values and ideas. The inevitable result of the structure of American society (or the West in general) is a conflict between oppressor and oppressed, where the oppressed is a marginalized majority on whom the oppressor class imposes its view of the world. The ideas inherent in a cultural Marxist understanding of society can be explained by the main elements of critical theory. Cultural Marxism combines classical Marxism, which interprets society in economic terms, with postmodernism. I'll discuss all of these different strands in more detail in subsequent posts.

This short explanation of classical Marxism in its transition to cultural Marxism provides a nice background for the discussion over the next several weeks. The seven main elements of critical theory contribute to a cultural Marxist view of society. As people, particularly in university, imbibe cultural Marxism and then take positions of cultural influence, we should expect (and have seen) that cultural Marxism will become more mainstream in our culture. Marxists have always been subversive in their attempts to integrate Marxist theory in society. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, described this process of infiltrating society through influential cultural institutions, such as the media, university, and religious institutions. This has been called "the long march through the institutions." We are reaping the success of their project in 2020, and the result is clear: destruction of our institutions and history. My hope is that, as you read through this series, you will see with greater clarity how academic theories influence action. That was Karl Marx's goal, as he famously wrote:

"Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

For better or worse (definitely worse), Marx was successful.

Over the next several weeks, I'll take each of the main elements of critical theory and relate them to cultural Marxism, drawing a line from cultural Marxism and critical theory (as a theory) to current events. In light of the last year, finding relevant content won't be difficult.

I know that this post (and the series) may seem philosophically dense and difficult to wrap your head around. Again, I've struggled for four years to get my mind around this. But I can tell you that the benefit of being informed about these philosophical systems is very important. It will help you to see more clearly what's happening in American culture and, more importantly, to be able to assess your own beliefs in light of Scripture. My hope is that you will see clearly that the beliefs that you hold about issues such as racial justice, social justice, and tolerance are either grounded in cultural Marxism (ultimately) or Scripture. We must be careful to understand what we believe and why and "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). I encourage you to read these posts with a Bible in hand, ready to test what I claim in light of Scripture and to think deeply about these issues for yourself. Discussion is also worthwhile and welcome.

With that being said, that it for this post! Feel free to subscribe if you've enjoyed the content here. Thanks for reading!

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