Does Critical Theory Matter for the Evangelical Church to Act for Social Justice?: A Response to Neil Shenvi

Dr. Shenvi wishes to debunk “critical theory” because he believes it is a “a growing threat to biblical theology.”

We have few illusions that any kind of “ultimate” or complete liberation can be achieved on earth.  We believe in a kind of human progress toward greater justice and more robust forms of democracy, but it would also seem to be in the human condition to fall back into patterns of domination (And this also represents a shift in critical theory itself, from early schematic Marxist notions of communist utopia to more pragmatic goals and benchmarks). Yet precisely for this reason critical social theory can and does co-exist with faith traditions that posit ontological liberation. Indeed, for many faith traditions, the struggle for social justice on earth is one of the holiest paths toward personal or congregational liberation (salvation?).


Recently I learned that Neil Shenvi posted an oddly congratulatory review of my book, Beyond Critique: Exploring Critical Social Theories and Education (Paradigm, 2011), calling it the best source possible to understand critical social theories. I thank him for such praise. Yet he then goes on to attempt to disprove or cast aspersions on most of the premises that animate our work, calling it antithetical to the “doctrine of Scripture.”

What I’ve learned since—through direct email exchanges with Dr. Shenvi, further reading of his other blog posts, and messages from others in the evangelical church—is that Dr. Shenvi wishes to debunk “critical theory” because he believes it is a “a growing threat to biblical theology” (“Critical Theory Within Evangelicalism”). Despite his professed commitment to combating the scourge of racism, he believes that raising consciousness of being part of oppressed groups against oppressor groups leads to “victimhood.”  Most importantly, Shenvi worries that any citation of critical theory elevates this false dichotomy of suffering that threatens the only real dichotomy that should matter to Christians: between those who’ve accepted Christ as their Savior and those who haven’t.

While I appreciate Dr. Shenvi’s rational approach to dialogue, he makes a move that has become all too familiar to those of us with close ties to faith-based liberation traditions. Like most Christian evangelicals, he arrogates to his own tradition the term “Christianity.” He then easily overlooks or discards the many other Christian traditions, from Roman Catholicism to mainline Protestant sects to Christian mystics and humanists. Only evangelicals are true Christians, apparently.  Given the inherent dogmatism of such doctrinaire fundamentalists like Shenvi (those who argue from unprovable first principles and never question the absolute truth of their tradition’s interpretation of the Holy Bible), there may well be a fundamental incompatibility here, since one of critical theory’s evolving hallmarks is a radical reflexivity and openness to historical contingency.  Of course, as an outsider to this faith community I cannot decide the question of compatibility. What I can do, however, is try to indicate where Shenvi misunderstands or mis-characterizes the tenets of critical social theories, as I understand them.[1]

I will address some of Shenvi’s main points, and the most compact summary of them appears in the first part of his debate with Brad Mason, where he writes the following:

“The core tenets of contemporary critical theory are:

  1. Society is divided into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, etc…
  2. Oppression is not defined only in terms of violence, but in terms of dominant groups (whites, the rich, men, heterosexuals, Christians, etc…) imposing their values on subordinate groups (people of color, the poor, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, non-Christians, etc…).
  3. We should expose and dismantle the values and structures of dominant groups. Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia are all forms of oppression that must be dismantled.
  4. ‘Social location’ determines our access to truth. In particular, oppressed people have special access to the truth through their lived experience, while members of oppressor groups are blinded by their privilege.”

These so-called tenets read to me as caricature. They carry minor grains of truth, but they also simplify and obscure.  Moreover, they 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.  Contemporary thinkers like Nancy Fraser, Iris Marion Young, Erik Olin Wright, and Pierre Bourdieu have arguably had at least as much influence.

Still, let me address each of these points in turn, before closing on a more expansive note.

  1. The whole notion of intersectionality is meant to trouble and complicate the notion that there are easily identifiable dominant and oppressed “groups.” While some contemporary versions of feminism or critical race theory may indulge in fairly rigid categorical thinking, many of us practice a critical theory that emphasizes the historical fluidity of such categories.[2]  Just as identity is fluid, so too are the structures of inequality that “intersect” in complex ways in our everyday experience.  We can’t get away entirely from the language of groups, but groups are not permanent or metaphysical categories. Just as they came to be through historical processes, they can be undone through action-in-history as well.  My concern is that Shenvi’s reading of “groups” in critical theory projects onto them the same kind of metaphysical status that his theology attributes to believers in Christ.
  2. It is true that critical theory draws attention to the ideological dimensions of domination and injustice, which Shenvi succinctly defines as “dominant groups…imposing their values on subordinate groups.” In his review of my book, Shenvi cites a section where I offer the following as one of the “defining characteristics” of critical social theories: “ the assumed need to dismantle and critique taken-for-granted ideologies, to challenge the ‘false consciousness’ … or ‘misrecognition’… that enables social domination.”  He also focuses quite a bit on the notion of “hegemony” as first articulated by Antonio Gramsci. Yet I would remind the reader that our book was written primarily for a certain kind of scholar researching aspects of the educational process. Since education is a common vehicle for purveying ideologies qua knowledge, this aspect was highlighted. Yet any complete critical theory of justice acknowledges the spectrum of forces of domination, ranging from outright repression (“violence”) to manipulation of economic and political procedures, all the way down to the “internalized colonizer” who reproduces self-hate through the most intimate of gestures.  Such forces often work synergistically, but they may have their own histories and trajectories. Thus, for instance, to understand and explain the persistence of  racial inequality in schooling, one may examine how  textbooks and teacher practices produce “stereotype threat” (Claude Steele) or convey ideologies of racial inferiority. But one must also look to state legislative chicanery that abets de facto segregation and creates or deepens resource disparities, as well as the corporate interests that encourage or facilitate such policies through funding organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Similarly, in the larger political domain, the rise of Trumpism can only be fully explained if an ideological analysis of Trump’s discourse, which deflects the source of white working class anger and suffering from rapacious capitalists like Trump himself onto poor immigrants and ethnic “others,” is married to an analysis of tactics of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the pernicious effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has allowed so much unchecked money to flow into the electoral and regulatory process). In other words, critical theory tends to stake out the ideological dimension of power because it’s so often overlooked, but any critical analysis of power must examine the whole array of mechanisms, both material and ideological, that maintain domination.
  3. I would qualify Dr. Shenvi’s statement as follows: “We should expose and dismantle the values discourses and structures of dominant groups that maintain domination by varied dimensions of our experience and identity.” Again, values (discourses) and structures don’t properly “belong” to particular groups. By “dismantling” ideologies and mechanisms that sustain inequality and domination, we are creating a more just society in which all become freer.  In my understanding of critical theory, those who benefit materially from structures of domination still suffer psychically and emotionally; they may become divorced from the goodness of their own humanity, or unable to love and live fully and deeply.  In our book, one of the key tenets of critical social theory that Shenvi fails to cite is the “understanding of domination as structural yet dialectically connected to agency in people’s ‘everyday lives.’.” As I say on that same page, “domination refers to the condition in which some people are unfree, unable to realize their full human dignity in society, and unable to have fair access to the basic social and material goods of a society” (I would now revise this to say “all” rather than “some,” in the sense that nobody is truly free in a society till all are free). Importantly, by “structural” I point to “domination that is patterned and enduring, not just momentary; it is built into the institutions of society and is deeply embedded in everyday practices.”  Particular acts of discrimination are enabled by structures of domination. Yet the insistence on agency also recognizes that “structures can be altered through awareness and action…The structures came to be through the long accumulation of human agency and practice, and they can just as easily be undone by agency as well” (pp. 11-12). It’s not enough simply to correct or guard against single acts of discrimination; in the face of historically systemic or structural oppression, one must wholeheartedly embrace a life of reflective awareness and action.
  4. Shenvi only articulates what is called the “strong” version of standpoint epistemology, which sustains that those who occupy a given position in the social structure (or raced/gendered/queered etc. body) see the “truth” of that structure in a way no others can. Yet most critical theorists in fact assert a weaker version of standpoint epistemology—one that grants the uniquely powerful insights that the oppressed may have about the nature and quality of their oppression, as a corrective to the often arrogant assumptions of “objective” social science. Critical theorists would indeed sustain that whites tend to be socialized into ideologies that obscure their own racial privilege (just as wealthy capitalists rationalize their class privilege as the result of “hard work” or “entrepreneurial savvy”), but it would be self-defeating to believe that this situation is not correctible through humility, self-reflection, and dialogue. Similarly, there are plenty of those who experience racial discrimination but who, because of internalized oppression, may primarily blame themselves for their condition rather than the effects of a historically pernicious social structure.

So this is the core of my response to Shenvi’s reading of critical theory. As a social scientist, I might also add that my approach differs from the mainstream of disciplines like sociology and political science, where the procedures of the natural sciences are often transferred over to the social sciences, with the presumption that we can study and predict the “laws” of human society just as we might the natural world.[3] We must remember that the social sciences consist of highly conscious and enculturated organisms studying other conscious, enculturated organisms. Critical theory rightly insists, along with a broader interpretivist and pragmatic tradition (e.g., Wilhelm Dilthey, Paul Ricoeur, John Dewey), that humans studying humans requires a kind of procedural reflexivity often lacking in mainstream social science. This does not mean, as some detractors argue, that critical theorists (or anthropologists) refute the possibility of objective knowledge. True enough, among those who claim to be informed by critical theory one can find clumsy and formulaic statements that “science can never be objective,” or that “all reality is humanly constructed.” But most of us grapple with more complicated questions about how to qualify or nuance facile notions of objectivity, or carefully query the conduct of science by inevitably fallible (and ideological) human actors. Similarly, it does not mean that critical theorists characterize human behavior as unconditioned by biology and therefore infinitely malleable or entirely “constructed.” It simply means that biology is not destiny.[4]

Finally, let me address the contradiction that Shenvi appears to sniff between critical theory notions of “emancipation” and “liberation” and those underlying the Christian tradition.  Critical theory itself remains largely agnostic about the ontological dimensions of “liberation.”  When we use such terms, we are theorizing how to escape or dissolve historically constructed systems of domination.  It is a relational and historical concept: individuals and groups achieve relative liberation from the particular forms of harm and domination they experience. We have few illusions that any kind of “ultimate” or complete liberation can be achieved on earth.  We believe in a kind of human progress toward greater justice and more robust forms of democracy, but it would also seem to be in the human condition to fall back into patterns of domination (And this also represents a shift in critical theory itself, from early schematic Marxist notions of communist utopia to more pragmatic goals and benchmarks). Yet precisely for this reason critical social theory can and does co-exist with faith traditions that posit ontological liberation. Indeed, for many faith traditions, the struggle for social justice on earth is one of the holiest paths toward personal or congregational liberation (salvation?). Black Southern Baptists and Latin American Roman Catholics are just a couple of examples close to hand.  I would hope that Christians of any stripe could embrace such a view.

In the end, it seems to me of little consequence whether or not the evangelical church chooses to embrace or reject “critical theory” per se, since the tradition itself is internally diverse, vibrantly changing, and open to critique. Dr. Shenvi’s efforts to construct a coherent tradition of critical theory in order to then disprove it or demonstrate its incompatibility with Biblical theology seems misplaced. What matters more—and what evangelicals should be asking themselves, if you’ll forgive me the presumption—is whether the church recognizes the human role in perpetrating systemic evil in the form of particular historical events such as the enslavement of Africans, and whether it acknowledges the ongoing structural dimensions of domination pursuant to such historical events. If so, how might the church commit itself to a practice of reflection about how its members’ personal and collective agency reinforce such structures, or alternatively, can be leveraged to transform these structures? That would be a discussion worth having.

Bradley A. Levinson, Ph.D., Professor of Education Policy Studies and Anthropology, Indiana University.

[1] A few prefatory qualifications and clarifications may be in order:   I am first and foremost a cultural anthropologist interested in questions of power and inequality in education. My co-authors and I come to critical social theories as a way of better orienting our empirical inquiries and interpreting our empirical findings (I conduct most of my research in Mexico).  While I find myself flattered to be cited copiously at the center of a debate in evangelical Christianity, I am not convinced that our book is the latest, greatest exemplar of critical social theory traditions (Among others, I would recommend Ben Aggers’ Critical Social Theories or Patricia Hill Collins’ new book, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory).  We are not theorists per se.  Moreover, my co-authors and I wrote a book primarily for those who conduct qualitative research on educational phenomena.  So the book’s discussion of critical social theories is oriented to this audience. Next, the diversity of authors contributing to this book is only a pale reflection of the diversity of positions and contributions to the critical theory tradition.  As the book’s primary author and editor, I tried to allow for a diversity of expressions across the chapters—even if this meant, in some cases, that I would let remain some formulations that in fact differed from what I myself preferred.   I like to think that this editorial tension, which I resolved through negotiation and the allowance of diverse expression, reflects a broader commitment to openness and dissent across critical traditions.  Indeed, some current authors who write under the umbrella of critical theory display a penchant for generalization and rigidity that I find off-putting, and sometimes their popularity can be traced precisely to the unnuanced assimilation and application of such ideas.  In addition, those who identify critical theory with class conflict, Marxism and the Frankfurt School may not even accept the latest florescence of authors and approaches claiming the mantle of critical theory. But it’s all part of a rich debate among scholars and activists who are deeply committed to minimizing the perverse effects of stark inequality and social domination.  Finally, the book was written 10 years ago. There are some things I would now change if I could revise it.

[2] See, for example, the impressive historical literature on how the Irish (or the Jews, or the Italians) “became” white in America, or how the Chinese went from being reviled (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) to being characterized as among our “model minorities.”

[3] This is the basis, incidentally, for much of the popular and self-congratulatory “evolutionary” theorizing about race and human behavior, such as Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene or Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

[4] For a great riposte to sociobiological arguments about gender, based on anthropology and critical feminist theory, see Matthew Gutmann’s new book, Are Men Animals?: How Modern Masculinity Sells Men Short.