Christians and critical theory

Here’s the question I mentioned in my last post: What should be the Christian’s response to critical theory? Note that this is not a question that is equally relevant to everyone concerned with the debates over “critical theory.” (I still hate that term.) Neil Shenvi is a Christian, but James Lindsay is an atheist, last I heard anyway. What follows is specifically for Christians and will likely be of no interest to anyone else.

But note: this will not be good. Because of other commitments I don’t have time to do this thoroughly, and anyway I have serious doubts that anyone will pay attention to anything I say — the whole discourse is now running like a perpetual-motion machine and I can’t do anything even to slow it down, much less stop it. But I have promised some people that I would say something, and this is something.

Let’s begin by trying to replace the question by a more specific and more accurate one. How should Christians respond to a workplace environment in which employees are pressured to acknowledge the historic and ongoing systematic oppression of racial and sexual minorities by white straight people, and to welcome and support all efforts to remedy that oppression? I think that’s the really substantive question for the church to deal with. The questions of intellectual genealogy that I pursued in my previous post are not especially relevant here, though they might be relevant in another context.

Before going any further, it’s important to recognize that this whole question feels a lot different to a person of color than it does to a white person. I do not mean that all persons of color will agree with the Ongoing Oppression Thesis, or that all white persons will disagree with it; neither is true. But the Thesis will have different valences for different people, and much of what I say below will be more directly relevant to the fears of white people than to the experiences of others. This makes me slightly uncomfortable, but it’s white people, by and large, who are asking the question. I do believe that the general principles I articulate are valid for all Christians, as will become evident. What I’m exploring here today provides but a particular instance of the kind of challenge that most Christians regularly face, in infinitely varied forms. In one sense it represents nothing new under the sun, and there is a great tradition of faithful Christian response throughout our history for you to draw upon for instruction and courage. You’ll see what I mean.

Now, let’s get to the substance. Any valid response to the question I’m addressing will necessarily have three components: the empirical, the prudential, and the principial.

Empirical: If you claim that our society is characterized by “historic and ongoing systematic oppression of racial and sexual minorities by white straight people,” you’re making an empirical claim, a claim that is to be assessed by gathering and sifting evidence. It’s not clear to me that Christians will, or should, do this any differently than anyone else. Some Christians will believe the claim to be warranted, and some will not; but I don’t see that what they believe about these matters has any necessary relation to their Christian faith. After all, a Christian might believe — many Christians do believe! — at one and the same time that (a) homosexual acts are forbidden to Christians and (b) straight Christians have singled out gays and lesbians for demonization while turning a blind eye to their own sexual sins. The empirical questions are distinct from the theological ones.

Prudential: It’s when we get to remedies that things get complicated. If your employer is suggesting remedies that you don’t think are ideal — let’s suppose that you’re not opposed to “diversity” hires but think that not enough attention is being paid to professional qualifications; or, again let’s suppose, you think an enormous amount of valuable company time is being devoted to woke “training exercises” — what, as a Christian, do you do? You do what every intelligent person does: You try to exercise prudence. You reflect on the difference between major and minor problems; you think about who in your workplace might serve as your advocate or ally; you look for ways to gently nudge the company in what you believe to be a healthier direction. Meditate on Joseph and Daniel: you think they didn’t have to deal with some messed-up stuff? They put up with certain practices and policies that troubled or even offended them because they had a strategy for faithfulness. If you don’t have one of those, you should think about getting one.

Principial: But of course, as the example of Daniel illustrates, sometimes you’re invited — or rather ordered — to cross a line that you can’t in conscience cross. Most of you will know what that line is when you’re presented with it; it’s very difficult to say in the abstract what it might be. Indeed for me it’s impossible, not knowing your situation. But that will be at the very least a small martyrdom for you, and the rule about martyrdom is very simple: Lord, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done. That said, do, please, take prayerful thought to distinguish faithfulness to the True God from obeisance to any of many false gods who forever seek to occupy the highest place. It was the tragedy of Stonewall Jackson’s life that he conflated the cause of the Confederacy with the cause of Christ.

One more post is coming on all this, connecting these general reflections to some of the more technical theological issues. It also will be bad.