Critical theory and Christian ethics

Can they co-exist?

May 17, 2019

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.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24