I am thankful for the opportunity to engage with Dr. Neil Shenvi; may our Lord bless this conversation. Dr. Shenvi’s first post can be found here: “Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 1.”
I was reticent to agree to this topic since I’ve likewise argued that Critical Theory (CT), as a total system of belief and practice, is anti-Christian. But given the constant claim that those actively confronting racism in the Church are “driven by,” “steeped in,” or “following” CT rather than the Bible, while simultaneously never presenting an accurate description of CT, I’m motivated to engage.
Dr. Shenvi rightly anticipated this response but seems to underestimate its import. If one is going to attribute CT to an evangelical’s beliefs in order to claim dangerous influence, one is required to attribute that which is distinctive to the tradition, not simply that which is included, though common to other and much earlier traditions (see, e.g., the entire history of the Civil Rights movement).
And, to be frank, I don’t at all believe Dr. Shenvi’s construction of the “core tenets of contemporary critical theory” to be individuating nor definitional of the tradition either, whether called “modern CT,” “critical race theory,” or “critical social justice,” as suggested.
When “modern critical theorists” (Crits) Sensoy and DiAngelo give “A Brief Overview of Critical Theory” in Is Everyone Really Equal?, they include no mention of Shenvi’s fourfold core. They rather focus on the Frankfurt tradition, the socialization of knowledge, social constructivism, and social critique motivated by “the ideals of equality.” In like manner, I’d argue that the best description of CT is still Max Horkheimer’s, the scholar who coined the term “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. (“Traditional and Critical Theory,” pp. 206-207)
Accordingly, I have argued elsewhere, from current Critical scholarship, that CT is distinctively individuated by social pathology, historical immanence (historical dialectic), anti-essentialism (social constructivism), and social change as rational participation.
How about “critical race theory” (CRT)? Again, Shenvi’s fourfold construction is not discoverable in Critical texts. For example, Delgado and Stefancic ask in their popular Introduction to CRT, “What do critical race theorists believe?” In answer, they offer the following tenets: the ordinariness of racialization, interest convergence, the social construction of race, differential racialization, intersection of identities and anti-essentialism, and the “unique voice of color”—only the last of which obscurely figures into Shenvi’s construction.
How about “critical social justice” (CSJ), the phrase used by Sensoy and DiAngelo to describe their own work? Fortunately, they also define it:
A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this. (p. xx)
That is, CSJ is simply social justice approached from the perspective of CT described in their “Brief Overview.”
Now, if Shenvi’s fourfold construction is not definitive of, nor distinctive to, CT, CRT, or CSJ, then we are really only able to say, “Some dangerous ideas common to CT are also shared by some evangelicals.” But, I don’t even think his four points, as stated, accurately represent ideas advanced by modern Crits.
To begin with, so-called “oppressor groups” are not essentialist categories, such that, e.g., “white” or “male” equals “oppressor” as such. Rather, given a society structured to distribute advantages and disadvantages according to socially constructed group membership, dominant groups are in a structurally oppressive relation to subordinate groups, by virtue of said distribution. No one can doubt this was true of “white” and “male” throughout American history; and all should recognize that this is not true of societies structured along different lines. Whether one lives in such a society is an empirical question, not a subject of armchair theorizing nor biblical exegesis.
Further, that Crits claim “oppressed people have special access to the truth…” is highly misleading. Standpoint Theory (ST) is itself rooted in empiricist, evidentialist, epistemology. The epistemic relevance of ST has to do with evidence and justification, not the nature of truth, its objective character, nor its public accessibility. “The claim is that members of marginalized groups are more likely to have had experiences that are particularly epistemically salient for identifying and evaluating assumptions that have been systematically obscured or made less visible as the result of power dynamics” (Kristen Intemann, p. 791). Or, in Sensoy and DiAngelo’s words, “[m]inoritized 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” (p. 70).
As for tenets 2&3, it is simply not the case that “oppression” definitionally requires “violence,” not in the dictionary, nor in the Bible. And, last, I’d hope we’re all interested in dismantling systems which distribute advantages and disadvantages based on constructed identities.
Continue to Dr. Shenvi’s response, “Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 3.”