Dr. Shenvi has responded to my publication of Dr. Levinson’s critique of his supposed “core tenets of contemporary critical theory,” by essentially arguing that Dr. Levinson really does agree with him, as though Levinson did not clearly state,
These so-called tenets read to me as caricature. They carry minor grains of truth, but they simplify and obscure.
no, I don’t think they capture the “core” of critical social theories. I think the Intro to my book gets closer to doing that “properly.”
which is all that I set out to demonstrate. Further, the “Intro” Dr. Levinson references does in fact state clearly his understanding of the “defining characteristics” of critical social theories, namely,
- “value-rationality” rather than instrumental rationality. In other words, it is not neutral in reference to values and has a definite (though not teleological) conception of “progress” and the social good, often a utopian vision or concept of “liberation.”
- the assumed need to dismantle and critique taken-for-granted ideologies, to challenge the “false consciousness” (Lukács) or “misrecognition” (Bourdieu) that enables social domination.
- an understanding of domination as structural yet dialectically connected to agency in people’s “everyday lives.” (Beyond Critique, p. 11)
Again, specifically not Shenvi’s fourfold construction.
Given that neither Dr. Neil Shenvi nor I are experts in any critical theory (CT) fields, I’ve opened up some email conversations with actual CT scholars while in dialogue with Shenvi, in order to test our readings of their texts. Dr. Bradley A. U. Levinson has been particularly helpful and willing to offer clarifications and direction. Dr. Levinson is a professor in Indiana University’s department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, as well as the author of a fantastic overview of historic and modern critical theories, Beyond Critique : Exploring Critical Social Theories and Education, and is sourced throughout Dr. Shenvi’s own attempted reconstructions of CT. (Levinson’s many contributions to the field can be viewed in his twenty five page CV.) In addition, he has proven to be a gracious and generous person.
I presented Dr. Levinson with Dr. Shenvi’s fourfold construction of the supposed “core tenets” of modern critical theories as found in his, “Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 1,” as well as his, “Christianity and Critical Theory – Part 1,” wherein he attempts to answer, “What is critical theory and why should we care?” (Levinson was already aware of Shenvi’s review of Beyond Critique.) In addition to stating, “I thought you do a fine job yourself of challenging his ‘tenets’” (see HERE), Dr. Levinson offered his own response to Shenvi’s construction, printed by permission in full below.
Allow us to take stock. The original topic proposed by Dr. Shenvi was, “Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism?” Shenvi attempted to present the “yes” position by offering the “core tenets of contemporary critical theory” (“fourfold construction”), arguing that these are contradicted by Scripture (“threat” in principle) and are held by some evangelicals (“threat” as “currently negatively impacting”), offering four quotes to demonstrate the latter.
I responded by noting that,
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….
The following is in response to “Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Neil Shenvi, Part 7.” Thank you again, brother!
Since the topic is now Shenvi’s fourfold construction, clarification is first in order:
T1: I don’t think anyone’s position is that, a priori, societies are divided into oppressor/oppressed, or that, a priori, “white” or “male” are dominant classes. The argument is that given a society structured to distribute advantages/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, a posteriori, question, not a subject of armchair theorizing nor biblical exegesis.
First, Dr. Shenvi asks how I’ve been mischaracterized. I count three in his latest post:
I’ll state for the third time that there are many critical theories which have developed since the origin of Critical Theory in the Frankfurt School, which is what Brad’s sources are characterizing.
Again, this is false. From my very first post, I pointed to Sensoy/DiAngelo and Delgado/Stefancic to define Shenvi’s own suggested titles for his fourfold construction, and added Levinson and multiple other sources in my last post. Must we do this again? I’m willing.
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).
[W]hen humanity is insulted and the rights of the weak are trampled in the dust by a lawless power; 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. (Frederick Douglass, “There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” 1878, p. 629)
As we concluded in our last post, abolitionist David Walker (1796 – 1830) saw “color prejudice”—the closest phrase to our own post 1930’s “racism”—as not simply, or even primarily, hatred or dislike of others based on race or color. Nor did he consider it in any sense natural. Rather, it was a presumption of the inferiority of black Americans, a presumption displayed more by the actions and institutions of white men than by their verbal professions. Further, contrary to the thought of many modern Americans, this belief in the inferiority of black Americans was born of the institution of slavery itself, not the cause of the institution. White oppressors sought to distinguish, debase, demean, and “other” those whom they exploited for monetary gain. “Avarice” was the true source of race prejudice, including the dehumanizing justifications it produced. Last, the response of African Americans to these exploitative circumstances—including even hatred—was not itself considered “prejudice” by Walker, given the relation that existed between oppressor and oppressed.
Moving on to Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895), we see many of the same ideas, though stated even more explicitly. As before, these posts are mostly just quotations from the abolitionists and civil rights advocates under discussion, as the purpose is to demonstrate their own understandings of “color prejudice” and “racism.” The claim is daily made that these definitions have been changed by modern antiracists, specifically by supposed adherents of Critical Race Theory. Over the course of this series, I hope to test this claim.