Understanding Critical Theory Part 1: Worldview and Identity

In May 2020, America erupted after the brutal killing of George Floyd. Once again, everyone talked about racism, police brutality, and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. For many of us, this new and unfamiliar term kept popping up, Critical Theory. People discussed Critical Theory everywhere, from the pastor’s pulpit to the presidential debates. Depending on who you listened to, you probably heard it described as either an essential and valuable way to view racial injustice or false teaching that threatens to tear us apart. My goal with these posts is to help in understanding Critical Theory. What’s wrong with it? How is it a worldview? What does it tell us about identity?

To quickly review my last post, I hadn’t planned on covering this issue, but lo and behold, I found myself taking a Critical Theory class at college. Bear in mind in all of this that I’m a straight, white, Christian male, so feel free to take what I write with a grain or two. I’m going to do my very best to be fair and honest with the sensitive subject during these posts.

The Basic Worldview

Critical Theory as we know it began in the first half of the 20th century at the Frankfurt School in Germany. Scholars like Max Horkheimer or Theodor W. Adorno developed it as a philosophy for freeing people from slavery and oppression. They took inspiration from Karl Marx, leading Critical Theory to be considered a form of neo-Marxism. Marx saw the world as divided between oppressor and oppressed. Marxism examines the oppression between upper and lower classes within capitalism. Critical Theory takes that same model and applies it to other categories like race, gender, or sexuality. Most of us heard about it as Critical Race Theory, but it also includes categories like Feminist Criticism, Queer Criticism, Postcolonial Criticism, or Marxist Criticism.

Horkheimer and Adorno

If that sounds confusing, think of it like this. The philosophy has become a worldview. What is wrong with the world? Oppression and inequality. How do we solve it? Activism to achieve social justice and equality. It is not a philosophy content to stay in the abstract or the classroom.

Oppression Through Ideas and Language

Power and oppression are the primary focus of the philosophy. Who is in power, and how are they using language, stories, ideas, or whatever else to oppress others? What people mean by words like racist has changed with Critical Theory. Maybe you’ve heard people say that “All white people are racist.” To some, this sounds absurd. We all know plenty of white people that don’t hate or treat their darker-skinned neighbors as inferior. According to Critical Theory, oppression also happens unintentionally or with the best intentions. Oppression occurs not just through violent hate crimes or derogatory slurs but through the support of the status quo. By being a part of the dominant and oppressive group, you are inherently racist.

Critical Theory Divides Our Identity

One of the dangers of Critical Theory is that it intentionally divides everyone. You are either with us or against us. Everyone gets placed into different identity boxes related to oppression. The idea of intersectionality is about how those different boxes overlap in your oppression. How does oppression differ between a white woman and a black woman? What if the white woman is in the LGBTQ community, but the black woman is straight?

Mapping out all the categories for intersectionality is going to take longer than I can get into here.

On the one hand, I appreciate the attempt to make sense of the mess we’ve made of our identities in culture today. On the other hand, as Christians, God already solved this problem. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NIV).

Does that mean we should do away with what makes us unique culturally? No. Neither does it mean that we won’t have conflicts of this sort within the church.  It does mean we are not divided by them now that we are united in Christ. Critical Theory does not let you have that unity but instead segregates us into oppressor and oppressed based on those differences.

Critical Theory is a Package Deal

I hesitate to denounce Critical Theory completely. Awareness of our cultural differences and being willing to listen to people with different backgrounds are good things. The attention given to how our language and behavior affects people is very important if we are serious about sharing the Gospel. However, Critical Theory is not something that we can pick apart, take the pieces we like, and leave out the bad parts. It has been elevated from a philosophy to a whole new worldview, trying to answer life’s biggest questions. What’s wrong with the world, how do we fix it? The answers that Critical Theory gives are incompatible with Scripture. Its goal is social justice and equality by tearing down ideas and institutions.

Maybe you think that tearing down the things that make different races unequal is a good thing. Are you also willing to say that race is interlinked with your gender, sexuality, culture, and economic class? Critical Theory is pretty clear on that. To support racial equality, one also needs to support the ending of all gender roles, heteronormativity, capitalism, objectivity, and rationalism, just to name a few. Critical Theory is a package deal, and it’s one with many pieces I would avoid. Can we learn from it? Yes, but we can learn these lessons elsewhere without the baggage and conflicting worldview. You don’t need Critical Theory to show compassion, feel empathy, and listen to each other’s grievances.

Hopefully that helps as least a little bit in understanding Critical Theory. Next time we’ll delve more into how it views truth.

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