A Response to Dr. Levinson On Critical Theory

The conflict between contemporary critical theory and evangelical Christianity is the center of our concern.

I fully admit that my understanding of Christianity is based on a historic, Protestant and evangelical reading of Scripture. Dr. Levinson is quite right to call attention to that fact. While contemporary critical theory is indeed compatible with various forms of Christian mysticism or liberation theology, my contention is that it is not compatible with historic, Protestant/evangelical theology. Since that is the theology that Bradly Mason, The Gospel Coalition, The Aquila Report and I all share, it presumably goes without saying that the conflict between contemporary critical theory and evangelical Christianity is the center of our concern.

 

I’d like to begin by thanking Dr. Levinson for engaging in dialogue. Academic disagreement is inevitable and is best settled through public discussion.

In his recent letter to The Aquila Report, Dr. Levinson raised almost identical concerns to those shared in his email to Bradly Mason, which was posted almost two months ago, and to which I already replied. My response to Dr. Levinson today is also largely unchanged, and hinges on three main points. First, Dr. Levinson affirms that the four tenets I describe are indeed taught by some contemporary critical social theorists, such as those I’ve cited. Second, Dr. Levinson doesn’t actually state that any of my four tenets are false. Third, and most importantly, Dr. Levinson doesn’t offer any quotes from primary sources to challenge my claims or to substantiate his critiques. Consequently, his recent letter doesn’t contradict either my characterization of contemporary critical theory or my assertion that it is a threat to evangelicalism.

First, in a crucial paragraph, Dr. Levinson writes:

[Shenvi’s four tenets] highlight certain authors who popularize aspects of “critical theory,” mainly via Critical Race Theory and Whiteness Studies (e.g., Robin Diangelo, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva), but who are themselves subject to much debate and criticism within a broader movement for social justice. Shenvi insists that these represent the “manifestation of critical theory that’s most relevant to our current culture.” He cites the best-seller status of some of these authors, and shows how other thinkers in the church commonly cite them as well.  That may well be, but they should not be allowed to tell the full story of critical social theory.

Note that Dr. Levinson affirms here that my four tenets do highlight the beliefs of “certain authors who popularize aspects of ‘critical theory,’” which is exactly what I claimed. Whether these authors are “subject to much debate and criticism” is irrelevant to whether they indeed espouse the ideas I describe and whether those ideas are highly influential.

I agree that these authors alone do not tell the “full story of critical social theory.” However, I never claimed that they did. In my writing, I do not attempt to characterize the critical tradition as a whole from Marx to the present. Instead, I attempt to characterize a specific subset of contemporary critical scholars who coined or popularized phrases like “white fragility,” “colorblind racism”, “white privilege”, and “intersectionality”, which permeate our culture. If we want to understand these terms, we should look to the scholars who developed them before looking elsewhere. Moreover, these scholars –and not other critical social theorists– are being cited by evangelicals and are promoting ideas that are taking root within evangelical churches. For example, in evangelical pastor Daniel Hill’s book White Awake, DiAngelo is cited six times along with Beverly Tatum and David Roediger, one of the pioneers of critical whiteness studies. It isn’t necessary to come to grips with the entire critical tradition in order to ask whether these particular ideas are compatible with evangelical theology.

Second, while Dr. Levinson calls these tenets a “caricature”, he doesn’t actually say that any of them is false. Indeed, if you read his commentary on my four tenets closely, you’ll see that he affirms that each one is taught by critical social theorists, and merely lists additional considerations. I readily admit that these 1-2 sentence summaries are simplifications, but such were the constraints of the strict, 1000-word limit of my blog exchange with Mason. Elsewhere, my collaborator Dr. Pat Sawyer and I have discussed how ideas like “intersectionality” or “internalized oppression” complexify these four tenets. But in no case do the elaborations offered by Dr. Levinson undermine or call into question the basic framework I’ve outlined.

For example, the “social binary” between dominant and subordinate groups is not erased by intersectionality; rather, intersectionality shows that an individuals’ experience will be mediated by interactions between the various dominant/subordinate groups of which they are a part. In a forthcoming article for the CBMW, Dr. Sawyer and I cite Chan and Erby, who write “Intersectionality theory has revolutionized critical scholarship to determine overlapping forms of oppression, decenter hegemonic structures of power relations and social contexts, and enact a social justice agenda” (“A Critical Analysis and Applied Intersectionality Framework with Intercultural Queer Couples,” Journal of Homosexuality, Chan and Erby, 2017).  Notice here that the authors do not see “intersectionality” as overturning or reversing categories of oppression, but merely as determining the form that oppression takes for various multiply-oppressed social groups. Similarly, Dr. Levinson’s co-author Dr. Kafi Kumasi lists “Intersectionality” as a “Key Concept” of critical race theory, and defines it as “The fact that race does not function independently of other modes of domination [such that] racial oppression exists in multiple layers based on gender, class, immigration status, surname, phenotype, accent, and sexuality” (Beyond Critique, p. 209).

Third, if Dr. Levinson wants to critique my claims, he needs to offer quotes from primary sources, showing how my four tenets misrepresent the ideas of the scholars I cited. Often, the very language which Dr. Levinson criticizes can be found verbatim in these sources and even in Dr. Levinson’s own book, Beyond Critique. For example, Dr. Levinson suggests that talking about the “values, discourses, and structures of dominant groups” is misleading because “values (discourses) and structures don’t properly ‘belong’ to particular groups.” Yet his co-author Dr. Jacob P.K. Gross writes: “it is through enforcement of dominant groups’ codes that schools play an important function in maintaining hegemony” (Beyond Critique, p. 67). In the same book, Dr. Kumasi writes that “[hegemonic] dominance… is also supported through the consent of the subordinate group, in that the members of the subordinate group begin to accept, adopt, and internalize the values and norms of the dominant group” (Beyond Critique, p. 209).  Sensoy and DiAngelo define “hegemony” as “the imposition of dominant group ideology onto everyone in society” (Is Everyone Really Equal?, p. 224) and talk about how “ableism” includes “the integration of dominant group norms into the structures of society” (Is Everyone Really Equal?, p. 83). Bonilla-Silva writes: “when status differences between groups exist… the advantaged group develops its own ‘groupthink,’ values, and norms to account for and rationalize these differences” (Racism without Racists, p. 171).

To suggest that my characterizations are sloppy or misleading if I’ve accurately reproduced the ideas and even the language of these authors is unreasonable. Dr. Levinson should say explicitly how I’ve misunderstood these particular authors or the stream of scholarship of which they are a part. If readers are skeptical of my summary of these ideas, I encourage them to peruse my website, where I’ve reviewed dozens of books and have collected thousands of words of quotations from primary sources to substantiate my claims.

In particular, since Dr. Levinson recommended Patricia Hill Collins’ Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory to readers looking to understanding these issues, let me offer a handful of quotes from that very work:

Critical social theory is a particular form of intellectual resistance… [R]esistant knowledge traditions… aim to address the deep-seated concerns of people who are subordinated [by] racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, and similar systems of political domination and economic exploitation. Whatever the form of oppression they experience —race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, ethnicity, and nationsubordinate groups have a vested interest in resisting it.” (p. 10)

“(1) Race, class, gender, and similar systems of power are interdependent and mutually construct one another. (2) Intersecting power relations produce complex, interdependent social inequalities of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, and age. (3) The social location of individuals and groups within intersecting power relations shapes their experiences within and perspectives on the social world. (4) Solving social problems within a given local, regional, national, or global context requires intersectional analyses.” (p. 44)

“One way of conceptualizing intersectionality is to see it as a methodology for decolonizing knowledgeAll knowledge produced within existing Western epistemologies becomes suspect precisely because the validity of such knowledge rests on exclusionary, nondemocratic methodologies.” (p. 144)

“In a David and Goliath world regulated by dominant Western epistemologies [ways of knowing], intersectionality cannot simply assume that it is playing by the same set of rules as everyone else. Critical theoretical projects resist and criticize not just the intellectual and political arrangements that accompany specific forms of domination, but also how dominant epistemologies make these structures of knowledge notoriously difficult to upend.” (p. 152)

“Tools of epistemic resistance used by subordinated people –namely, testimonial authority, identity politics, and standpoint epistemology– all rest on implicit assumptions about the utility of experience for producing knowledge.” (p. 157)

A full review can be found on my website, along with a review of Collins’ Intersectionality, co-authored with Sirma Bilge, and a 5-part review of her 500-page anthology Race, Class, and Gender. I urge readers to compare these quotes to my “four tenets” to see if they detect any similarities.

Third, I fully admit that my understanding of Christianity is based on a historic, Protestant and evangelical reading of Scripture. Dr. Levinson is quite right to call attention to that fact. While contemporary critical theory is indeed compatible with various forms of Christian mysticism or liberation theology, my contention is that it is not compatible with historic, Protestant/evangelical theology. Since that is the theology that Bradly Mason, The Gospel Coalition, The Aquila Report and I all share, it presumably goes without saying that the conflict between contemporary critical theory and evangelical Christianity is the center of our concern.

As a final note, Dr. Levinson intimated to me that he had received negative emails, presumably from evangelicals critical of his “interference” in my dialogue with Bradly Mason. I would like to take this opportunity to state how much I appreciate Dr. Levinson’s willingness to dialogue and to participate in this discussion. As evangelicals, we should be fully committed to the truth, humble in our interactions, and eager to learn. If anyone has made rude or dismissive comments to Dr. Levinson, you should consider whether your actions reflect well on our commitment to Christ and apologize directly to him wherever necessary.

Read More about Dr. Neil Shenvi here.


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