Understanding Critical Theory Part 2: Truth and Postmodernism

In my last two posts, I’ve discussed my experiences with and some of the foundational teachings of Critical Theory. There is a characteristic of this philosophy that I have alluded to but am only now going to unpack fully. To understand any concepts of class, identity, or oppression, we need to answer the question, “What is truth, and can we know it?” How Critical Theory answers that question shapes every other part of the view. The relationship between truth and postmodernism gets especially interesting here in some contradictory and even dangerous ways.

What is Postmodernism?

The Christian worldview firmly believes that truth exists through God and can be known because he has revealed it. Jesus even goes as far as saying, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17, NIV) or that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, NIV). Not just that his words are true, but that he and his word are truth itself. The other philosophy central to Critical Theory besides Marxism is postmodernism. Postmodernism is a form of relativism, where there is no absolute or objective truth. We build reality through our experience and perception. This is why, as we discussed last time, a person is considered racist because of their demographic, not their heart or actions.

Is Objectivity Possible?

Objectivity is difficult. Everyone has biases, good or bad, that can influence how they view the world. I grew up with very loving Christian parents. My positive bias towards Christians and the church will lead to a different perspective than someone who endured abuse from people who claim to be Christians. We would typically say that objectivity is possible if you can identify your roadblocks to it and look past them. Postmodernism states that this is impossible. Instead of trying to see past our perspectives to absolute reality, postmodernism says that those personal perspectives are all that exist. Thus, my perspective is no more or less true than someone else’s.

In fact, objectivity is to be resisted. Objectivity is the tool of oppressors to maintain control. Since nobody can actually get past their perceptions, anyone claiming to have done so is really just trying to stay in power and devalue another person’s experience. If you adopt this view, how comfortable are you with rejecting all of logic, rationality, and scientific data?

The Postmodern Moral Contradiction

Moral relativism is broken. You cannot live consistently believing that there is no objective morality unless you’re willing to ignore injustice and inequality. If morality is subjective, you cannot condemn racism or oppression as anything more than something you or your culture does not like. Critical Theory is rooted in postmodernism but still holds to objective morals. It is objectively wrong to marginalize people, or equality is objectively good. Even if everyone agreed that slavery was right, it would still be wrong.

How does Critical Theory have that? What are those objective morals rooted in? This is yet another reason Critical Theory cannot stand as a worldview because it has no foundations for right and wrong. It begins with the assumption that certain things are good or bad and then tries to provide a solution. But if reality consists of only our perceptions, you cannot explain objective morality. The only way this is possible is by importing a system of ethics from another worldview, such as theism, which then tends to run into conflict with postmodernism. In short, the foundations are a bit of a self-contradictory mess.

The Death of the Author, Truth, and Authority

Post-Structuralism is one of the subsections of Critical Theory used to interpret and analyze literature. The phrase sometimes used to summarize it is “The death of the author.” Think of it like this. Imagine if I write a poem, two people read it and come to different interpretations. They argue with each other over which interpretation of my poem is correct. Traditionally, following previous structures, I would have the final word as the author. The poem means what I say it means. However, under Critical Theory, my voice is almost irrelevant. My interpretation would be no more or less correct than the two readers. Critical Theory takes the authority to decide meaning away from the author and gives it to the audience.

Did somebody call for some post-structuralism?

For everyday analysis, I can see some appeal of this. Audience perception does matter. Any missionary or apologist will tell you that. However, this cannot be a rule for Christians, especially as we consider the Bible. The foundation of interpreting scripture is trying to understand the passage’s original intent based on the context. If we were to apply Critical Theory, we would interpret the Bible by asking, “what does this mean to me, based on my personal experiences?” That’s how you get people twisting the Bible to mean whatever they want. This is not only unbiblical; it is frankly arrogant. Why study God’s word when ultimately it says whatever we decide it does?

What’s the Big Deal with Critical Theory?

This topic is not going away. Our universities will make sure of that if our culture doesn’t. There are good things to be gained from this worldview. I understand why some Christians are drawn to it. If taken as a whole, though, it is not compatible with the Christian worldview. You don’t need to accept unnecessary divisions, relativism, and a half-baked worldview to love your neighbor as yourself.

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