last word on critical theory

In these posts on “critical theory,” I’m doing what I pretty much always do: I am separating and sorting questions that tend to be conflated. That’s my thing, right? It’s why I wrote a book called How to Think, and why I say, in a blog post, that “it seems to me that arguments about Christianity and politics have an almost unique ability to reduce the intelligence of the people involved by at least a third. We desperately need clarity about what, exactly, we’re arguing about.”

So, in that spirit, onward! — with apologies for self-quotation. A number of these issues I have dealt with before, sometimes at greater length. Here I’m trying to sum up what I think are the key theological themes we need to keep in mind when evaluating what people are determined to call “critical theory.” It’s a bit of a stepping back from the details.

ONE: As noted in an earlier post, some of the questions raised by “critical theory” are empirical ones. Has the history of what became the United States been deeply, indeed essentially, implicated in the slave trade since 1619? Is our society still dominated by white supremacy? Is our social and political order structurally racist? To answer these questions is to evaluate historical and sociological evidence. You could be a deeply orthodox Christian and answer “Yes” to all those questions. You could also be a deeply orthodox Christian and answer “No” to them all. It would depend on the evidence you gather and how you evaluate it.

TWO: But — and here’s where things get complicated — the people who hold the political views mentioned above tend to hold other views that are philosophically unrelated to the historical claims. Indeed many people who are not “woke” at all in their thinking about race also hold these views, which cluster around what I have called “metaphysical capitalism”: I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. I am what I say I am. I am my own. As a Christian I do not and cannot believe this. My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.

But how can I communicate this to people who aren’t Christians? Can I give them any reason to believe that they are not their own without invoking Jesus? Is there some kind of political principle accessible to non-believers that would encourage them to overcome the I-am-my-own principle? I hope so, because I think that self-ownership is destructive to the self and damaging to that self’s community. But in a plural and indeed pluralist society it’s difficult to know how to make such arguments effectively. I have tried to explore some of these issues in this essay, which, though it is largely about intra-Christian disputes, has relevance for the larger social body. I hope.

THREE: More generally, we need a great disentangling. You can see from the above how philosophically unrelated claims get entangled with one another and can seem to belong to the same general movement even when that’s logically impossible. One cannot simultaneously be fundamentally defined by one’s group identity and free to be whatever one wants to be. The attempt to hold both views at once without acknowledging their incompatibility is what leads to situations like the Hypatia transracialism controversy, in which a single academic article shorted out the entire system. Similarly, the doctrine of “intersectionality” tends, as I have written in this blog post, to focus on intersections that intensify but to ignore intersections that cancel each other out. The problem with the Ongoing Oppression Thesis is not that it’s wrong about ongoing oppression, but that the people who deploy it tend to think they need in any given situation to have a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. That’s morally simplistic, and also cannot account for the distributed character of power, as I explain in this interview: “I’ve got a chapter in my book [The Year of Our Lord 1943] called ‘Demons,’ about demonic activity. Or if you don’t want to say ‘demonic’ activity, you can call it the activity of what St. Paul calls the ‘principalities and powers.’ It’s interesting, Foucault is a kindred spirit — the ‘principalities and powers’ is a kind of Foucauldian argument, right? In the sense that it is power — and what Weil would call force — disseminated through social and political structures.” That whole interview is relevant to a lot of the questions I’ve been exploring in these posts. It’s an attempt to think in as thoroughly biblical a way as I can manage about these questions.

FOUR: The final set of questions relates to what I will call, for lack of any catchy and concise term, the practical implications of theological anthropology. My point here is closely related to the previous one. Whatever Christians think about the issues I have raised above, we are obliged to conduct ourselves in ways that avoid what I call “rhetorical Leninism.” We have to extend mercy to those whom we believe to be wrong, even tragically wrong, because this is how God treats us. He loves the unlovely, and is gracious to the wicked — like me. We are to be imitators of Him. For us there can be no “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that racist over there,” or “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that pathetic cuck over there” – there can only be “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Because when we choose to measure others according to a certain standard, we are asking that that same measure be used to measure us.

Okay, that’s it, I’m done. No more from me about this — though I am, as I mentioned earlier, engaged with some colleagues on a project that will address many of the issues at stake here. But that has to remain a Big Secret for now.