Contemporary Critical Theory Explained Part 2

TL;DR

  • Despite contemporary critical theory (terminology from Neil Shenvi) and Christianity sharing the goals of liberation and ending oppression, CCT and Christianity are fundamentally at odds with each other. Don’t know what CCT is? Read Part 1.
  • This article shows why they are incompatible worldviews.
  • CCT and Christianity disagree on many things: humans’ fundamental problem and solution in life; what our primary identity is; the nature of Truth and morality; and what constitutes hegemonic discourse and oppression

Humans’ Fundamental Problem

Christian understanding

Christianity believes that the fundamental problem in human society (and every human heart) is sin. By “sin,” Christians mean that we live in ways that are opposed to God. Our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls, though originally made perfect by God, are marred by desires to live in ways that do not align with God’s will for our lives. Sin affects the heart of every human that has ever lived, except one, our savior Jesus Christ. Because of our sinful nature, we treat other humans (and ourselves!) in unjust and oppressive ways.

Because of our sinful nature, all humans are set at odds with the holy, perfect, and sinless God. If there is no solution to our sinful nature, our destiny is eternal separation from God’s presence – Hell. 

CCT understanding

On the other hand, CCT believes that the fundamental problem in human society is not sin but oppression. CCT believes that the battle is not ultimately with sin and how sin perverts everything it comes in contact with, but rather the battle is a power struggle between unequal groups, the oppressors and the oppressed. 

The Solution to Humans’ Fundamental Problem

Christian understanding

Christianity believes that the solution to our fundamental problem of sin is salvation. Salvation is God’s gracious forgiveness of all our sins and eternal union with Him. We receive salvation through repenting of our sinful nature and believing that Christ’s death on the cross paid for our sins. When we are saved, God’s grace through the power of the Holy Spirit equips and inspires us to live our lives after the example of Christ. Because Christ modeled a life of promoting justice and ending oppression, Christians should do likewise.

CCT understanding

For CCT, the solution to the fundamental problem of oppression is liberation. Liberation is achieved through activism. Activism takes the form of raising awareness of oppression, protesting, and generally “dismantling” hegemonic power. The ultimate goal is not salvation but liberation and equality.

Incompatibility

Clearly, Christianity and CCT have different understandings of ultimate problems and ultimate solutions. However, this might not convince you that Christianity and CCT are incompatible. You could say, understandably, that it is okay that CCT does not look at root causes like sin. You could suggest that Christians can affirm that sin is the real problem, but that we can work within CCT to alleviate the problems of sin – injustice and oppression – even if some do not affirm the root cause of sin. And you could likewise say that it is okay that CCT does not have the ultimate goal of eternal salvation, but rather just concerns itself with the here-and-now.

Such a working relationship between Christianity and CCT would be tenuous, at best. Unfortunately, CCT only gets more incompatible with Christianity from here, so a working partnership is impossible.

Identity

Christian understanding

In Christianity, all humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Likewise, all humans are fallen and sinful (Romans 3:23) and in need of God’s mercy. These are our primary identities in life. Yes, people are born male or female, of any number of races or ethnicity, with many different abilities, and in many different parts of the world. But none of these secondary “identities” means you are more or less a child of God. No identity grants you greater or lesser access to God’s grace. We are equally God’s good creation, equally fallen as sinners, and have equal access to God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. 

CCT understanding

CCT has no understanding of an individual’s primary identity as an image-bearer of God. Instead, CCT utilizes secondary identities like race, sex, sexual orientation, among others, to define who you are. You are not primarily a child of God; you are the intersection of your many identities, each of which is either an oppressor identity or an oppressed identity. 

Incompatibility

CCT’s understanding of identity has no place in Christianity. Scripture states that for those who are in Christ, aka the Church, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This does not mean that the biological differences between males and females are erased, or that there are no meaningful cultural differences among us. It means that, in the Church, all Christians are utterly equal in their identity in Christ. No secondary identity can define or divide us. 

Likewise, the oppressor/oppressed identities do not work with Christianity. In Christianity, we are all oppressors (sinful) in some way or another. We are also all oppressed (living in a world of sin) in some way or another. In Christianity, we do not fight class-based identity power struggles as in CCT. Instead, with our identities found in Christ, our battle is with sin in all forms. We fight sin, not the sinner, and certainly not the sinner’s identity as white, black, male, female, or otherwise.

Truth

Christian understanding

Christianity believes that absolute Truth exists and is available to all people. The way we access Truth is through reason (such as philosophy and mathematics) and Scripture. Anyone can reason well and read Scripture and have access to Truth. Truth is true no matter who is stating the Truth, or whether or not someone is living by that Truth. 

Because humans are sinful and finite creatures (that is, not possessing all the perfect attributes of God), we will, at times, disagree on Truth. But the fact that we disagree does not reflect poorly on Truth – it demonstrates our fallibility as humans. 

CCT understanding

CCT has a different relationship with truth. As we saw in Part 1, CCT believes that an oppressed individual’s lived experience grants them greater access to truths that are inaccessible to the oppressors. CCT believes that oppressors are either consciously suppressing truth to dominate with (false) hegemonic discourses, or are merely unconsciously blinded by their privilege. Either way, the result is that the oppressors have less access to truth.

Incompatibility

So, Christians cannot coexist with CCT’s understanding of truth:

Christianity says that truth is available to all people. CCT says that some groups (the oppressed) have greater access to truth. 

Christianity says that disagreements on Truth are due to our fallibility as humans. CCT says that disputes on truth are due to the oppressors protecting their privilege.

Christianity says that disagreements on Truth can be addressed with reasoned debate. CCT says that disputes on truth must be resolved by the person with privilege (the oppressor) accepting without qualification the oppressed individual’s vision of truth.

Christianity and CCT have utterly incompatible understandings of Truth. Things are true or false, no matter who says it. A math equation has a right or wrong answer regardless if a male or a female solves it. A theological doctrine expounded by John Calvin or Pope Francis is not false because it wasn’t written by a female of color. God’s truth is not racialized, genderized, or anything else. God’s Truth is the same for all, in all places, at all times.

Moral Accountability

Christian understanding

Christianity’s understanding of moral accountability is similar to its understanding of Truth. Morality, like Truth, is absolute. Morality, like Truth, is also equally applied among all humans. While some moral responsibilities might change based on your stage in life (a married person has moral obligations that a single person does not have, and vice versa), in Christianity, no one has a different moral standard.

CCT understanding

CCT has a different understanding of morality. First, in CCT, your identity group bestows morality or immorality on you. If you are white (or member of some other oppressor group), you are “complicit” in all the perceived immorality of that group. If you are black (or a member of some other oppressed group), you are bestowed with the inherent morality of that group.

Second, in CCT, what is immoral for an oppressor can be moral for the oppressed. CCT allows the oppressed to “punch up,” but oppressors cannot “punch down.” CCT does not just let the oppressed to punch up, it encourages it. Calling out oppressors, sometimes utilizing means that would be immoral for an oppressor to use, is the moral action. 

Incompatibility

Take note of the logic of this last point: the oppressed can justify their oppression of the oppressors. This is rank hypocrisy. The ironic result is that so-called “oppressor groups,” such as white males, can justifiably claim that they are being oppressed and thus CCT gives them the right to oppress their oppressors in the same way. The apparent outcome of CCT is a never-ending cycle of oppressed/oppressor power struggles – the oppressed begin to oppress their oppressors, who then become oppressed and turn back to oppress their oppressors. 

This never-ending cycle of oppression can only be broken by forgiveness, a Christian ideal that is utterly absent in CCT. The lack of forgiveness in CCT should be enough to convince any Christian that CCT is incompatible with Christianity. But the problems with CCT’s morality do not end there.

Differing moral standards, as in CCT, is thoroughly unchristian. Christianity does not say that morality is different for someone because of their lived experience as an oppressed identity. Christianity does not allow us to say that you are inherently immoral because of an attribute that you cannot control, such as sex or skin color. Every individual is equally responsible for the moral expectations of the one, holy, and living God as put forth in Scripture.

Furthermore, CCT makes Christian ethical critique nearly impossible. If you are part of a privileged group, CCT makes it almost impossible to critique those who are not. If you are part of an oppressed identity group, nearly any critique of oppressors is justifiable because of your “lived experience.” Moral critique in CCT is not based on Truth and is not a two-way street. Morality becomes subjective and relative, based on an individual’s personal perception of their life. Thus, reasoned debate centered on an absolute and equally applied moral code becomes impossible. 

Hegemonic Discourse and “Oppression”

There are two other ways CCT and Christianity are incompatible. 

Hegemonic discourse

First, CCT is built on the rejection of hegemonic power. As you recall, a hegemonic discourse is a singular narrative about the set of values and norms that everyone should follow. CCT views such totalizing discourses as inherently oppressive and to be rejected.

The problem is, Christianity is a hegemonic discourse! Christians believe that Christ and Scriptures are the only Truth that can save you. Religions that say they are the absolute Truth and seek to convert people, like Christianity, are oppressive given CCT’s logic.

So, you might be a Christian who wants to use CCT to be “anti-racist” or to support “ending oppression,” but guess what? Once you agree with CCT’s view of the world, how will you defend your Christian faith once it becomes the target of those who say it is oppressing them? 

Oppression

Beyond the fact that Christianity as a whole is oppressive since it is a totalizing discourse, there are hosts of other Christian beliefs that are individually considered oppressive. Here are just two examples:

Christians believe that marriage is between one male and one female. 

CCT says that this belief is oppressive to homosexuals, non-gender-conforming individuals, polyamorous individuals, and a host of other identity groups that do not believe in traditional marriage.

For Christians, raising your child in the faith is considered a fundamental role of a good parent. CCT considers raising your child to be a Christian as oppression through the religious colonization of your child. 

These are examples of what CCT would call “oppression,” but what Christians must affirm. Christians agree that oppression is terrible – but we disagree on what oppression is. 

Incompatibility

Let’s be clear – Christians absolutely must support ending oppression. That is unequivocally part of what it means to follow Christ. 

However, Christians must be careful when we say we support “ending oppression.” We cannot end oppression on CCT’s terms. We cannot allow others to think we tacitly agree with CCT’s vision of ending oppression. We must work to end oppression on God’s terms. 

Summary

As we have seen, Christianity and CCT have different assumptions about the world. They disagree about:

  • what the fundamental problem in society is
  • the solution to our fundamental problem
  • the nature of and access to truth
  • moral accountability
  • our primary identity
  • what “oppression” looks like

There can be only one conclusion. Christianity and CCT are utterly, wholly, and completely incompatible. Christians cannot participate in CCT discourse and remain faithful to Christianity. CCT is a rival worldview to Christianity, and possibly a rival pseudo-religion. All of our future work against oppression must be separated from any organizations and rhetoric that are associated with and take inspiration from CCT. 

Check out Part 3 for CCT resources and further information.

Contemporary Critical Theory Explained Part 1

TL;DR

  • Contemporary critical theory (CCT) is the term given to the modern offshoots of Critical Theory, a Marxist and anti-Christian critique of Western society.
  • CCT says society is comprised of oppressed classes and oppressor classes who continually struggle for power.
  • The classes you belong to – white, black, straight, trans, able-bodied, etc. – are determined by your identity.
  • You are a complex matrix of class identities, some of which are oppressor identities, some of which are oppressed identities.
  • Membership in an identity class makes you an oppressor with privilege or one of the oppressed regardless if you perceive yourself that way.
  • The goal of CCT is to liberate the oppressed classes from the hegemonic narratives of the dominant, oppressor classes. Hegemonic narratives are stories and norms that oppressors tell to justify their position of dominance.
  • When people see through the hegemonic narratives of the oppressors they are woke. When oppressors give up the privilege that comes from the their dominant identities, they are said to be allies.
  • Oppressed peoples’ lived experience – their personal experience of life – gives them unique access to truth that cannot be challenged by oppressors.
  • Christianity and CCT are incompatible worldviews, as explained in Part 2.

Confused about where these new phrases come from?

  • Woke capitalism
  • Intersectionality
  • Political correctness
  • Identity politics
  • Anti-racism
  • Decolonization
  • Cancel culture
  • White privilege
  • Microaggressions

Asking yourself any of these questions recently?

  • Why are some fundamental, unchanging Christian moral beliefs now considered ‘bigotry’ and ‘hateful’?
  • Why can people of color say things and joke about white people in ways that, if it was the other way around, would be considered racism?
  • Why are men now told they cannot have an opinion on abortion?

The source of all the above terms and the answer to all these questions is contemporary critical theory.

Contemporary critical theory is a fundamentally anti-Christian critique of the world. Furthermore, it competes with Christianity as two incompatible worldview options. 

This article explains what CCT believes. Part 2 explains why it is incompatible with Christianity.

Contemporary critical theory vs. Critical Theory

Critical Theory (uppercase) refers specifically to the school of thought founded in the 1930s by what is called the “Frankfurt School.” If you need a primer, check out this short history of Critical Theory. This article addresses “contemporary critical theory” (lower case, utilizing the terminology of Neil Shenvi), which refers to all downstream academic work and ideology that the original Critical Theory movement birthed, but which has undergone many adaptations.

A simplified explanation of contemporary critical theory

Contemrary critical theory (CCT) is loose school of academic thought that functions as a worldview. CCT is a lens that views all human relationships as a power struggle between the fundamental categories of oppressor and oppressed. There are two parts to this. First, every person is either an oppressor or is oppressed. Second, every interaction is about the power struggle between oppressors and the oppressed.

Oppression

In CCT, oppression encompasses all the ways that a specific identity group is disadvantaged in society. The oppression can be conscious or unconscious, and it can be individual or systemic (built into the system). For example, a black individual could be disadvantaged by unconscious hiring biases (unconscious systemic oppression) or by a verbally racist neighbor (conscious individual oppression). Both would be called “oppression.” 

It is important to note that, in CCT, oppression does not necessarily mean physical domination or violence. “Oppression” in CCT is expanded to include dominating the norms, values, habits, and symbols of society. 

Identities

Back to the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. CCT believes you have many different identities, and each identity is either an oppressor or oppressed. Your identities are race, gender, sexual orientation, age, economic class, physical abilities, among others. If you feel that society somehow disadvantages you due to one of your many identities, you can claim to be oppressed. 

Conversely, you can be an oppressor based on your many different identities. When it comes to oppressor identities, CCT believes that there are inherent oppressor classes in Western culture: men oppress women, straight people oppress queer people, white people oppress black people, Christians oppress non-Christians, etc. 

It is important to note that you don’t have to have actively tried to oppress someone to be part of an oppressor group. This is because, in CCT, identities are class-based. You are by default part of a class of people who hold the same identity – White, Male, Black, Lesbian, Transgender, etc. Crucial to CCT’s understanding of the world is this focus on identity classes over and against individuality. Your individual identity only makes sense in relation to the larger group to which you belong. If you are white, then your identity is tied to Whiteness. If you are black, your identity is tied to Blackness, whether you consciously accept it or not.

Privilege

Those who share the identity of oppressor classes and benefit from it are said to have privilege. Privilege means you are not subject to the disadvantages of the oppressed classes. Privilege is inherent to your identities; for example, if you are white, you have white privilege whether you think you have it or not. The traditional oppressor classes – white, male, straight, Christian, among other – all have privilege that comes with belonging to that class.

Intersectionality

CCT believes that the more oppressed identities you have (or, the more oppressed classes you belong to), the more oppressed you are. This is the basis of intersectionality. Intersectionality is the idea that you are oppressed at the intersection of all your various identity classes. 

And conversely, the more oppressor identities you have, the more of an oppressor you are. Thus, the more of these that describe you – white, male, straight, able-bodied, Christian – the more oppressor identities you have. The fewer you have, the more oppressed you are by those who are straight, white, able-bodied Christian males. 

CCT and intersectionality result in a hierarchy of oppression, with your oppressor status being relative to who you are comparing yourself to. A straight, religious, white woman can be oppressed in relation to a white man, but she might be an oppressor in relation to a black, queer, transgender female atheist.

There is a struggle amongst the oppressed to decide whose matrix of oppression makes them the biggest victim of oppressors and is thus at the apex of the pyramid of oppressed people. Who is more oppressed? A black female or a white, transgender female? 

Liberation from oppression

The goal of CCT is to liberate the oppressed classes from the hands of the oppressor classes. As mentioned, the traditional understanding is that women need liberation from men, LGBTQs from straights, blacks from whites, etc.

How does liberation happen? In part by critiquing hegemonic narratives (or, hegemonic discourse). The basic idea is that the dominant groups in society – the oppressors – create narratives of why they are in a position of dominance that help them maintain their positions of dominance. The dominant group oppresses and maintains their domination by forcing their ideology on everyone. Furthermore, the dominant group creates societal standards that benefit themselves, and then minority groups are measured by those standards. 

This is a confusing idea, so here it is again another way. Culture says: “This is the way things should be, and if you do not live according to this way, you are wrong/bad/evil.” CCT says this is an example of oppressors (straight, white, Christian males) making up an entire system of how things should be, and then judge if others have lived up to those standards. By defining how things should be and also being the judges, the dominant oppressors set the rules of the game and then judge the game. They will always “win.”

An example of a hegemonic discourse:

An example of a hegemonic discourse would be the Christian idea of male headship. Here is a biblical passage on headship:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with weather through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:21-27

CCT would claim that Christian men use this hegemonic discourse to justify the oppression of women.

You might ask, “What if a Christian wife agrees with male headship?” CCT would say that the wife suffers from internalized oppression. Internalized oppression describes when an oppressed person has unknowingly embraced the hegemonic discourse of their oppressors.

Getting woke and becoming allies

When oppressed people see through the hegemonic discourses and understand how they are being oppressed, they are said to be woke. People who are not oppressed, but align themselves with the oppressed are also said to be woke.

If people who hold oppressor identities, such as white males, publicly perform acts of penance (denouncing your privilege in various ways), they can be considered an ally of the oppressed. Becoming an ally happens for each identity class – you are a trans ally, a people of color ally, etc. 

Lived experience

Another key idea behind CCT is the level of regard afforded to lived experience. Lived experience is precisely what it sounds like – your experience of living. CCT says that the lived experience of oppressed people gives them unique insight into truth and moral authority. Several implications result from the emphasis on lived experience.

First, CCT says that oppressors are blinded by their privilege and cannot readily see how they are oppressing. It is up to the oppressed, speaking from their lived experience, to “speak truth to power” and point out how the oppressor groups are perpetuating domination. Basically, oppressed people see truth more clearly than oppressors.

Second, this means that oppressor groups should give preference to the claims of oppressed groups. The claims of oppressed groups cannot be questioned because the oppressors are not in a position to question anything. The oppressors don’t have the lived experience and identities that allow them to see the truth of things. Furthermore, the oppressors’ challenges of the claims of the oppressed are based on norms that reflect the oppressors’ hegemonic discourse. 

In short, oppressors are blinded by their privilege and judge based on their own norms. They have no authority to question the insight of the lived experience and demands of the oppressed.

Isn’t liberation from oppression good?

So, if CCT is for the liberation of the oppressed, why should Christians not support it? After all, the Bible is clear that God is a God of justice, and liberation is a theme that flows through Scripture (see especially Exodus’ narrative of Israel’s flight from Egypt).

The short answer is that, while Christianity is for liberation from oppression, Christianity’s understanding of oppression and the role of Truth is radically different than CCT. The two movements are not interchangeable and do not work together in harmony.

Check out Part 2 for why Christianity and CCT cannot mix.