Christianity and Critical Theory: A Summary

Critical Art

What follows is a summary of our four-part series, “Christianity and Critical Theory.” I pray it is of some value to the ongoing “social justice” discussion in the Church. Let me know your thoughts.

The Enlightenment and Karl Marx

The central contribution of Karl Marx—that which places him among Weber and Durkheim as the fathers of sociology—is not his specific critique of capitalism, his communist eschatology, nor even his apprehension of the striking social ills of his day, but rather his historical materialist critique of the whole. The Enlightenment era which preceded Marx had sought to throw off the “tyranny” of the Church over ideology and the de facto authority of traditional metaphysics, replacing them with reason and rational justifications and explanations. It was a turn from the transcendent and dictated to the immanent and discoverable. Many had critiqued private property, capitalist markets, oppressive social orders, and the dismal conditions they were thought to produce, but Marx believed they had all failed to grasp their historical causes and preconditions.

Rather than look to this or that injustice or social ill, Marx examined the whole social order from its material roots. As Hegel had put Spirit/Mind as the central reality driving mankind through the dialectic of historical development, so Marx put material man and his material environment as the central and only historical reality driving the same. The basic conditions for human life, such as food, shelter, procreation, etc., are the wellspring of all man’s ideas, religions, sciences, and political and social philosophies. For Marx, the current materials and means of production necessarily determine the mode of production; in turn, the mode of production—like slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism—necessarily produce the ideas and ethics of the society. Thus, as one sees poverty, war, subjugation, oppression, whatever, the cause and solutions are not ultimately to be found in the ideology per se, nor even in the believed and stated motivations of social actors, but in the underlying system of relations operating at the brass-tacks level of human existence—the “ensemble of social relations” produced necessarily by the means and modes of production of human life. And as per the nature of dialectic, the tensions within the “ensemble” not only lead to dysfunction and misery, but also contain within the immanent solutions that such crises will inexorably realize, driving humanity forward toward final resolution and utopia.

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

This method of critiquing the problem and unmasking ultimate causes has outlived Marx’s specific critique of Capitalism, his bifurcation of proletariat and bourgeoisie as the embodiment of the dialectic, and has even outlived his radical materialism. By the time Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research (ISR) relocated to the United States in 1934, its leading figures, like Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and Walter Benjamin, had already begun to reject many of Marx’s specific critiques in the face of his many failed predictions and historical ratiocinations. Fascism was on the rise in continental Europe, tyranny on the rise in the Soviet Union, and the middle class on the rise in the liberal republican United States, all which contradicted the “scientific” expectations of earlier Marxists. The “Frankfurt School” also rejected the determinism of Marx’s historical description of humanity and carved out a space for the interior, psychic, life of man and and its causality, largely through the work of Sigmund Freud, coupling the two philosophies together to describe and diagnose the whole host of social ills they sought to address.

Thus, with Marx’s critical method in hand, and Freud’s analysis of the subconscious, the Frankfurt School saw “human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Between Philosophy and Social Science, p. 21, as quoted in SEP), contrary to Marx’s historical determinism. The call of the ISR was a call to action in every area of social life, not just to description and participation in Marx’s historically and materially determined dialectic of necessity.

The phrase “critical theory” itself was coined by Max Horkheimer in his 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory.” Even eighty years later, as the theory has changed, splintered, and led to a host of specialized “spin-offs,” Horkheimer’s summary captures well the heart of what may be considered uniquely “Critical Theory”:

[T]here is a human activity which has society itself for its object. The aim of this activity is not simply to eliminate one or other abuse, for it regards such abuses as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized. Although it itself emerges from the social structure, its purpose is not, either in its conscious intention or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any ele­ment in the structure. On the contrary, it is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order, and re­fuses to take them as nonscientific presuppositions about which one can do nothing. … [T]he critical attitude of which we are speaking is wholly distrustful of the rules of conduct with which society as presently constituted provides each of its members. The separation between individ­ual and society in virtue of which the individual accepts as natural the limits prescribed for his activity is relativized in critical theory. The latter considers the overall framework which is conditioned by the blind interaction of individual activities (that is, the existent division of labor and the class distinctions) to be a function which originates in human action and therefore is a possible object of planful decision and rational determina­tion of goals. (pp. 206-207)

(For more, see “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt“)

The Uniquely Distinguishing Characteristics of Critical Theory, Past and Present

Four features, I’d argue, are identifiable in Horkheimer’s description which uniquely identify that which is properly Critical, even within modern Critical Race Theory, Critical Feminism, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Studies, etc. They are, 1. Social Pathology, 2. Historical Immanence, 3. Anti-Essentialism, and 4. Social Change as Rational Participation.

Social Pathology

First, Critical Theory treats the social ills that confront ordinary men and women as pathological, rather than easily individualized and conceptually isolatable sets of bad actions, ideas, practices, policies, or stereotypes. Just as a pathological liar lies habitually and without even taking note of it, or just as a disease can infect a whole body that yet appears healthy with looming death, so economic exploitation, racism, and sexism can be embedded within whole social systems, producing symptoms that may even seem quite normal and ineradicable, though most feel the existential burdens of its bitter fruit in one form or another.

Further, this pathology affects reason itself, through instrumentalization and socially constructed systems of false conditions. Individuals know there is something wrong, but their historical location, with its “ensemble of social relations” and socially constructed set of meanings and values, leaves them often unable (or unwilling) to articulate and contemplate its immanent historical roots.

Historical Immanence

Second, though rarely couched within the language of “dialectics” in modern Critical studies, Critical Theory continues to argue for the historical immanence of societal and individual ills; that is, that the underlying roots of pathology, as well as the means for its cure, reside within the everyday facts of life and are discoverable in its seemingly mundane artifacts. For example, Marx argued that the central cause of infant mortality was not lack of money or underfunded hospitals, but a system of production that treats individuals as mere objects of the social calculus of capital formation. Likewise, Critical Race Theorists do not look at the murder of Treyvon Martin as a mere neighborhood scuffle in the street between a “trespasser” and a man concerned for his safety, but rather see it as an event which manifests local (and society-wide) racial assumptions, fear of the other, white flight, prejudicial public school policies, and a legal system designed to benefit the enfranchised. The “event” was just the immanent artifact of the social system that produced it. We could, of course, even go further and ground this instantiated complex social event in the United States’ own history of production and the intentional racial marginalization it both relied upon and produced.

Last, this immanence eschews transcendence. Though it often relies on transcendental arguments, it does not rely on transcendental explanations nor transcendental prescriptions. Human experience exists in human history; this history contains both the problems and the solutions and they mean very little when abstracted from it.


Third, we can identify within Horkheimer’s description the anti-essentialism characteristic of all Critical approaches. In Horkheimer’s words, “the critical theory of society…has for its objective men as producers of their own historical way of life in its totality”; that is, men and women are not subject to Marx’s natural deterministic teleology, nor Hegel’s previous version built around Spirit, nor are there any God-given, transcendent, essentialist identities or institutions. Man himself creates and recreates his environment, social systems, symbols, ways of thinking, collective meanings, and the institutions, policies, and actions they produce. The furniture of social reality is socially constructed, not fixed, natural, or deterministic.

Social Change as Rational Participation

Last, though solutions to the pathologies indicated above diverge massively among Critical Theorists then and now, there is a common core. If we assume that social ills are pathological, history and explanation are immanent, and the furniture of social reality is socially constructed, then critiquing society by definition includes engagement in shaping it, and vise versa. As modern Critical Theorist Donald E. Comstock notes,

Since all knowledge is rooted in social practices and social practices are ordered, in part, by social science explanations, theory and action are inseparable and all facts and theories are warranted as valid from a particular framework of social practices. The only legitimate activity of a critical social scientist is to engage in the collective enterprise of progressive enlightenment…. (Comstock, p. 630)

Further, it assumes that rational participation through social change alone can reconstruct social reality and cure its pathologies, bringing about emancipation. Though the internal life of man was built into the Critical equation, theorists continue to argue that the pathology of interior life is asymmetrically coordinated with structural social externalities. According to modern Frankfurt theorist, Axel Honneth, “[f]rom the fact that a deficit in social rationality leads to symptoms of a social pathology, one first infers that subjects suffer from the state of society” (Pathologies of Reason, p. 38). The solution is to “reactivate” human rationality through social transformation. Critical Theory, whether in Frankfurt past, Frankfurt present, or in its many modern manifestations and “spin-offs,” remains committed to the central task of critiquing all that is, unmasking its historically immanent preconditions, exposing its contradictions, and effecting the social change necessary to liberate the individual’s reason and social relations from that which distorts them.

(For more, see “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 2: What Makes ‘Critical Theory’ Critical Theory?“)

“Oppressor” and “Oppressed”?

It is undoubtedly true that from the very beginning, oppression—”marginalization, status hierarchy, domination, exploitation, and cultural imperialism” (“What is the Point of Equality?,” p. 312), has been a central concern of Critical Theory. It was to be,

…an essential element in the historical effort to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of men. However extensive the interaction between the critical theory and the special sciences whose progress the theory must respect and on which it has for decades exercised a liberating and stimulating influence, the theory never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such. Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery. (Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 246)

But it is not uniquely so, nor is Critical Theory distinguishable from its many emancipatory competitors by use of the “oppressor/oppressed” category. Long before Critical Race Theory, men and women like Frederick Douglass spoke of society-wide racial oppression, woven into the very fabric of American institutions; “[t]he fact is, the whole system, the entire network of American society, is one great falsehood, from beginning to end” (p. 55), “when society is divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor, there is no power, and there can be no power, while the instincts of manhood remain as they are, which can provide solid peace” (p. 629), “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors” (p. 200). And long before Critical Feminism, men and women like John Stuart Mill and Sarah Grimke spoke of the systemic oppression of women, as a form of “slavery”; “[a]ll women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others…. All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men” (J. S. Mill, “The Subjection of Women”). Many, many examples could be given. And even long before Marx there were critiques of oppressive economic relations, capitalism, and colonialism. The reality is that the so-called “paradigm of oppressor and oppressed” is as old as the Fall of Man and is addressed throughout the pages of sacred and secular history.

If there is indeed something unique about Critical Theorists’ use of the category “oppressor/oppressed,” it is precisely because of the four distinguishing characteristics discussed above, viz., social pathology, historical immanence, anti-essentialism, and social change by rational participation. That is, social, economic, political, racial, gender, or any other form of oppression, is considered by Critical Theorists to be properly pathological, resulting immanently from the very fabric and construction of created human social structures, and is therefore to be addressed by the relentless critique of everything, even the most mundane cultural artifacts and social relations. No individual act of racism, sexism, etc., occurs in a vacuum, and every action and cultural artifact in some way, and to some degree, carries within it the systems and structures which cause and sustain such social oppressions. In turn, oppression can only be addressed through reorganization of the whole.

I believe this is a particularly important point to make. Nearly every day I see people characterized as Critical Theorists, or advancing Critical Theory, simply for acknowledging and condemning oppression and oppressive relationships, even though their words and works bear no resemblance to that which uniquely characterizes Critical Theory as a system and a whole. Which brings us to our final point.

(For more, see “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 3: ‘Oppressor’ and ‘Oppressed’“)

Is Critical Theory Anti-Christian?

Is Critical Theory, as a total system of belief and practice, anti-Christian? Certainly; without any doubt. But not more or less so than Platonism, Aristotelianism, Rationalism, Materialism, Empiricism, Idealism, Positivism, Libertarianism, Egalitarian Liberalism, Conservatism, Nationalism, Americanism, etc., all of which you and I and the Church as a whole have drawn many valuable concepts, categories, and arguments. Critical Theory is really no different and should be judged in the same light.

Social Pathology, Critiqued

To begin with, it is very important that Christians understand the pathological nature of sin, whether it be individual, familial, social, or systemic and institutional. We are not to be friends of “the World” which benefits and exalts the prideful, the powerful, the high, the rich, the mighty, and the oppressor. Sin has not only brought about spiritual and physical death, but sin has broken man’s community with God (Gen. 3:24-25), broken his community with neighbor (Gen. 3:16; 4:1-8; Gal. 5:14-15), corrupted his economic activity (Gen. 3:17; Isa. 3:5; Mic. 2:2), corrupted his habitation and environment (Rom. 8:19-21), and has even distorted his very mind and reason (Matt. 15:19; Rom. 1:28; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:18). But we, as Christians, must ever know that God alone defines the pathology. His Word determines what is right and wrong, what is properly an individual or social ill, and prescribes the path of righteousness.

Historical Immanence, Critiqued

Second, the method of critique provided by Critical Theorists, including many of its “spin-offs,” is immensely valuable for cultural, social, and political critique by Christians. It is undoubtedly appropriate to study how our ideas and enjoyments are shaped by our daily economic activities, to acknowledge how all of life can be infected by “commodity fetish,” to agree with Postman’s critique of the culture industry in Amusing Ourselves to Death, to see that current disparities along the “color-line” have resulted from powerful historically entrenched institutions and thought patterns, that 1492 and 1619 have a lot to do with 2019, or that a single event, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin, can expose a whole historical narrative.

But, again, we as Christians are nevertheless to be governed by the ontology, teleology, and eschatology of the Scripture. Christianity is not materialist, and therefore not historically materialist. There are in fact transcendent standards of morality and truth; there is a cosmic ontology that includes both the visible and the invisible; and we Christians properly believe that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19), not primarily out of the current “means and modes of production,” or the current social order or power structure. Further, Christianity itself is not a byproduct of the mundane, or of the historically immanent; it is a supernaturally revealed religion. God is very much alive, sovereign, and providential in history.

Anti-Essentialism, Critiqued

As for Critical Theory’s anti-essentialism, it is plainly true that mankind can create and rearrange the furniture of social reality in many ways, including its artifacts, its institutions, its systems, and its thought patterns, but only within the essentialism of Biblical anthropology. For example, the Scripture is decidedly anti-essentialist about race, ethnicity, class, particular forms of production, and statecraft, but is nevertheless intractably essentialist in many other ways. All humans are made in the image of God; this is part of our essential identity. This includes specific mental capacities and a specific moral conscience, i.e., God’s Law (Rom. 2:14-16). These, according to the Scripture, cannot be changed through social action nor environmental re-jiggering. God has created men and women. He has given us institutions like marriage, family, church, state, and work. These, like human nature itself, are also not plastic, but are defined and governed by revelation and transcendent standards. And their ends have been ordained from the beginning. While Christianity is not deterministic, history is nevertheless directed toward God’s ultimate plan; it is teleological and eschatological.

But to argue, for example, that the idea of intersecting identities shaping an individuals’ social relations is somehow anti-Christian or Marxist is simply absurd. There is a reason that our Lord first revealed Himself as Messiah to an (1) unmarried, (2) Samaritan, (3) woman (Jn. 4:7-26). There is a reason that Christ taught the leaders of Israel the meaning of “neighbor” through the example of a Samaritan traveler, contrasted with a Jewish priest and Levite.

Social Change as Rational Participation, Critiqued

Last, as Christians, I hope that we all know we are duty bound “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke,” “to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house,” and “when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh” (Isa. 58:6-7); that we are to “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech. 7:9-10), whoever he may be; and that God will judge all those “who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless” and “those who thrust aside the sojourner” (Mal. 3:5).

Nevertheless, the assumption that the primary means of overcoming “the world” is through external social change and revolutionary social action is simply rubbish. The basis of all social change is the glorious declaration that the God-Man has won the victory. All movement toward the eschaton and all social action should proceed on this premise. Christ has overcome the devil, taken up the throne, and His Kingdom is here and expanding. It is He who is making all His enemies His footstool and it is His cosmic redemptive work which will put down all rule and authority (1 Cor. 15:24-26). Though we are participants in this redemption, by His grace, and ought always to seek His justice in every realm of life, it is nevertheless not our social action which draws us forward into the eschaton, nor creates the New Heaven and Earth.

We must recreate social structures out of love for our neighbors, yes; but we cannot recreate the hearts that have created these unjust structures, nor the hearts that continue to reinforce them. Yes, we can create social conditions which deter men and women from practicing evils like prejudice and discrimination in the public realm—and we absolutely should; but we cannot thereby remove such corruptions from their hearts. Social action itself must be gospel driven, and never neglected, but the gospel alone can remove the stony heart and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26), pointing men and women to He who will “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20).

(For more, see “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 4: Is CT Anti-Christian?“)


To conclude, as we see the label “Critical Theory” thrown around daily in the context of Christianity and “social justice,” it is important to understand that critiquing one’s opponent by arguing that this or that phrase, sentence, or argument sounds like this other one, or is even a direct quote from this other tradition, does not constitute a valid critique. When I sense the Socratic method being employed, I do not say, “Hold up. You know that method is from a pagan philosopher and is built on the assumption that humans can remember the pure forms from before their spirit was imprisoned in their bodies. I will have no more of your paganism.” Nor do I assume that when someone quotes, for example, Thomas Sowell that he or she has therefore turned atheist, adopted the historical materialist eschatology of free markets, and has become captive to an alien ideology making “inroads” into the Church, rather than engage his specific argument on its merit.

It seems patently obvious to me that one who confesses the authority and inspiration of the Scripture, the Trinity, the Virgin birth, the Incarnation, the atoning death of the God-Man, His Resurrection, His immanent return, the Last Judgement, and the final resurrection of the dead is by definition not captive to the distinguishing set of ideas that constitute Critical Theory or its “spin-offs.”

In the last analysis, I do not think that critique by ideological taxonomy is a way forward in the Church’s “social justice” discussion. I believe that those who engage in such “critique” run the immediate risk of having their mischaracterizations exposed by one side, thereby losing all credibility, and offering only rhetorical fire power to the other side, allowing them to ignore actual arguments and conclude discussions with guilt by association or illegitimate totality transfer. I’d argue that the best way forward is to critique the actual arguments of opponents. If they are wrong, show why. Defeat the arguments. Attempting to rout ideological opponents by connecting their arguments to alien traditions we consider “bad” will only appease the uninformed and bolster the rhetorical.

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