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.
In the following, I intend to make good on my promise to evaluate Critical Theory in light of the Scripture. We have already explained the philosophical roots of Critical Theory, from Marx to Frankfurt, worked through the second and third generation Theorists, and identified, according to modern Critical Theorists’ themselves, what uniquely distinguishes Critical Theory from other and similar traditions. In our last post, we addressed the claim that Critical Theory is uniquely identified by the so-called “oppressor/oppressed paradigm,” and found the claim wanting. As we now move into evaluation, I will first give a historical example, though extreme, of an attempt to weld Christianity with Critical Theory, and then proceed to analyze the distinguishing characteristics we have identified in contrast to the Biblical witness of orthodox Christianity. As per usual, it is a bit long, yet still woefully incomplete given the nature of the subject.
One of the more frustrating trends in Evangelicalism is the incessant accusation of “Cultural Marxism” or “Critical Theory,” leveled against any who speak of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” This rhetorical move has insidious historical roots, but seems to have gained currency through wide-spread ignorance of both that which is being criticized and Critical Theory itself. We have sought to dispel this ignorance in the last two posts, clarifying precisely what distinguishes Critical Theory from its competitors. But I want here to likewise expose the absurdity of this further claim, viz., that the theme of “oppressor” and “oppressed” is a distinguishing characteristic of Critical Theory, such that all who appeal to the theme are liable to be lumped into this tradition.
No one denies that this theme is important to Critical Theory; it is, after all, a project of emancipation. But it is only one approach among many—many which likewise affirm the historic and persistent tragedy of human oppression via social institutions and relations.
Behind every work of art is an uncommitted crime. ~Theodore W. Adorno
[This post is a continuation of, “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt.” (And again, this is not an endorsement of these ideas; critique is forthcoming.)]
From Enlightenment to Critical Theory
In what is considered Critical Theory’s most seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodore W. Adorno critically interrogate the principles, goals, location, and historical effects of the project of Enlightenment. Consistent with the dialectical approach discussed in the last post, they see within the project both the immanent seeds of current human bondage and suffering, as well as the immanent seeds of emancipation therefrom. For Frankfurt theorists in general, social artifacts and systems are not to be analyzed in terms of a-historical transcendent ideologies; rather, they are to be critiqued as the products of contradictory internal forces which produce both the pathologies experienced by its individual actors, as well as the immanent forces of its own dissolution, both of which reside in the tension of existential experience until transformational crisis ensues.
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. ~Walter Benjamin on Angelus Novus (1920)
Introduction to Part 1
I have been asked multiple times for my thoughts on Niel Shenvi and Pat Sawyer’s article, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.” In short, I believe it is a great article and I am genuinely appreciative of the work they are doing. But what has brought me some discomfort throughout their project is the sense that they are offering a characterization of Critical Theory, rather than a faithful explanation or definition; maybe even a caricature? In particular, treating the identification of “oppressor” and “oppressed” as the definitive core, or premise, of Critical Theory seems more a collocation of a common theme pulled from disparate quotes than that which has (and does) distinguish Critical Theory from its “traditional” competitors.
Last week I posted the following thread on Twitter, in response to Justin Peter’s indignant request of Beth Moore:
As discussed in PART 1, the “gospel,” according to the Scripture, appears to be a much fuller concept than the mere facts of Christ’s death for sin and resurrection, though these are certainly of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Beginning with the New Testament epistles, we saw that the gospel also includes the certainty of impartial judgement on the Last Day, contradicts a host of both personal and social sins, dictates who we ought to eat with, and is actually something to be “obeyed.” Going back to the beginning, it became clear that the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 promised a restoration of all that was lost in the fall; that is, it promised resurrection of both body and soul, return to original righteousness, renewal of mankind’s natural habitation, and the restoration of society with both God and man (and in each case, much more than the original). The Apostle Paul calls this message of the Seed the “gospel” (preached to Abraham), and the author of Hebrews calls the promise of entrance into God’s seventh day rest the “gospel” as well (preached to the Israelites in the Wilderness), both drawing on Garden evangel themes.
The Gospel, therefore, is a public exhibition of the Son of God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16) to deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life. It is justly called a good and joyful message, for it contains perfect happiness. Its object is to commence the reign of God, and by means of our deliverance from the corruption of the flesh, and of our renewal by the Spirit, to conduct us to the heavenly glory. For this reason it is often called the kingdom of heaven, and the restoration to a blessed life, which is brought to us by Christ, is sometimes called the kingdom of God… . (John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke)
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. This is Biblically undeniable. But what is the gospel? There appears to be an underlying disagreement among Christians over this definition, fueling charges of both “Social Gospel” from one side and “Gospel-Only-ism” (or the like) from the other. The truth is, both of these systems obscure the true meaning of “gospel”; the former verging on Materialism and the eclipse of the individual, the latter verging on Gnosticism and the eclipse of community. I hope in this short series to offer some clarification, for I too believe that the gospel is the answer to all individual and social ills.
Just as “Blackness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and shades of brown—beginning around the time Gomes De Zurara’s bogus descriptions of African peoples as a beastly lot, in order to justify Prince Henry’s enslaving prowess—so “Whiteness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and lighter shades of brown to form the “White Race.” There simply was no such thing as “White People,” the “White Race,” or “Whiteness” as a concept defining distinct people-groups until, really, the turn of the 18th century.
Prior to the development of colonial governments in the Americas, people-groups were largely identified by nationality; there were Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Slavs, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Malians, etc. At the beginning of the 17th century, these men and women worked side by side in the construction of the New World, primarily as indentured servants subject to the term of 6 years under British common law.
[T]here is nothing wrong with Black people as a group, or with any other racial group. That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal. There are lazy and unwise and harmful individuals of African ancestry. There are lazy and unwise and harmful individuals of European ancestry. There are industrious and wise and harmless individuals of European ancestry. There are industrious and wise and harmless individuals of African ancestry. But no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever. Under our different-looking hair and skin, doctors cannot tell the difference between our bodies, our brains, or the blood that runs in our veins. […] Black Americans’ history of oppression has made Black opportunities—not Black people—inferior. (Stamped From the Beginning, p. 11)
As I’ve stated before, the existence of SYSTEMIC OR INSTITUTIONALIZED RACISM, i.e., “polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities” (Vernellia R. Randal), is a simple deduction from three premises:
- Well documented and vast social and economic disparities between black and white Americans, including de facto neighborhood, school, and church segregation.
- All racial groups are equal; in Ibram X Kendi’s words, “no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever.”
- The majority of Americans are not overt racists, members of a neo-Nazi party, or intentionally discriminating against black Americans due to conscious prejudice and hatred.