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Critical theory and Christian ethics

Can they co-exist?

On May 15, The Gospel Coalition published a very good essay by Neil Shenvi arguing that critical theory is incompatible with Christianity. Considering the level of confusion and the accusations that are hurled against those accused of trafficking in critical theory, I want to commend Shenvi’s essay as a helpful, even-handed, and thoughtful explanation.

I also want to say that I agree with his analysis: Critical theory is an all-encompassing worldview that interprets and implicates the deepest levels of our existence—especially the epistemological framework that critical theorists approach the world with. Critical theory proposes to answer some of the deepest questions of human existence: Who am I? What’s wrong with the world and who can fix it? What’s right and wrong?

Critical theory is a secular social theory that may at times overlap with Christian ideas, as Shenvi rightly concludes, but the larger commitments it requires of its adherents are an acid bath to many key facets of Christian teaching. Bottom line: Critical theory renders Christian ethical critique almost impossible because it holds ethics hostage to identity politics and personal and social grievance.

Critical Theory and moral claims

I want to comment, however briefly, on why critical theory is incompatible with Christian ethics. Because critical theory relies on social location, lived experience, class oppression, and social conflict as the overarching interpreting framework for seeing the world and navigating social relations in society, we need to ask: Why is this approach problematic for Christian ethics? To answer that question, we need to understand how moral claims are first made according to critical theory.

Shenvi defines critical theory in this way:

Modern critical theory views reality through the lens of power. Each individual is seen either as oppressed or as an oppressor, depending on their race, class, gender, sexuality, and a number of other categories. Oppressed groups are subjugated not by physical force or even overt discrimination, but through the exercise of hegemonic power—the ability of dominant groups to impose their norms, values, and expectations on society as a whole, relegating other groups to subordinate positions.

What follows from this description is that morality is merely a matter of one’s social location, or one’s experience in negotiating claims of power. Morality becomes individually and culturally constructed. Or, as Shenvi writes, “any appeals to ‘objective evidence’ or ‘reason’ made by dominant groups are actually surreptitious bids for continued institutional power.” Thus, what is moral in the critical theorist framework is mediated by one’s identity and one’s ability to extricate themselves from their perceived oppression. “Right” and “wrong” are not absolutes; they are self-posited markers of one’s identity and how their identity has been treated within a power differential.

Practically, what does this mean? It means, for example, that someone who claims a gay identity in society understands their identity as an oppressed class. To be a member of an oppressed class means their experience is unlike the experience of their oppressor, and that any moral claim made against homosexuality is dismissible because such critiques are really about protecting heterosexual privilege. What’s lost in the process is whether homosexuality is something that is itself moral. But the prospect of offering moral evaluation is rendered obsolete because a person understands their identity (and their morality) through their lived experience.

Critical Theory’s incompatibility with Christian ethics

It should be clear that we’re treading in dangerous waters with this approach to ethics and morality. When morality is determined through this framework, ethical claims are rendered obsolete. Evaluating one’s actions or identity against an objective standard is impossible. This has deleterious implications for how the Scriptures understand what is right and wrong, and how moral claims are made upon one another. As Shenvi writes, “This stance is particularly dangerous because it undermines the function of Scripture as the final arbiter of truth, accessible to all people regardless of their demographics (Ps. 119:130, 160; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; 1 Cor. 2:12–14; Heb. 8:10–12). If a person from an oppressor group appeals to Scripture, his concerns can be dismissed as a veiled attempt to protect his privilege.” Shenvi is exactly right. Where Scripture measures what is moral against God’s holy nature (1 Pet. 1:16), critical theory measures what is moral by lived experience within a balance of social power.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how incompatible critical theory is with Christian ethics. Christian ethics rely upon an objective moral source, the Triune God. In a Christian worldview, ethics do not gain their legitimacy by their utility or their desirability in one’s lived experience. Morality is not self-emanated. In fact, I’d argue that living in accord with our desires leads to great human misery, but that’s a different blog post for another day. What a Christian ethic means, at its most basic, is that an action or desire is licit or illicit based on the commands of Scripture, which reflect a holy God, a true unmovable ground for morality.

Morality is not just perspectival. Sure, perspective and social location impact our experience in the world, but those realities cannot negate or overwhelm the ethical demands of Scripture that all persons are obligated to obey—regardless of identity, class, or lived experience. What this means, ethically speaking, is that certain actions and desires are always and forever wrong. Biblical morality does not provide exemptions based on someone’s lived experience.

If any of this sounds at all familiar, it should. We are awash in the critical theory approach to ethics. This is why in popular culture moral claims are not simply disagreed with, they are routinely dismissed. It’s why individuals believe they do not have to answer for their actions, identity, or desires. “You do not know what it’s like to be me, so you cannot possibly say whether my experience is right or wrong.” It’s why an ethic of “you do you” replaces an ethic of objective right and wrong. When critical theory reduces morality to one’s social location and lived experience, a person is made to believe (wrongly) that they are immune from moral critique.

This is not a sustainable pathway in which to evaluate what is moral. It leads to a radical ethical revisionism and ethical relativism that results in nihilistic madness.

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