Critical Theory and Christian Ethics: Can they Co-Exist?

Critical theory renders Christian ethical critique almost impossible.

Critical theory has become 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 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.

 

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 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 has become 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 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.

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.

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