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)
Note: In this series, I address Critical Theory proper. For an introduction to Critical Race Theory, please see “In Short, What is Critical Race Theory?,” “What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading),”or the series beginning here: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the ‘Traditional Civil Rights Discourse’.”
Introduction to Part 1
I have been asked multiple times for my thoughts on Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer’s article, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.” In short, I believe it is a well written 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. (Edit: For further critique of Neil Shenvi’s faulty characterizations, please see: “Critical Theory, Dr. Levinson, Dr. Shenvi, and Evangelicalism: Final Thoughts.”)