Throughout history, the church has found itself at the crossroads of the sacred and the secular, where competing voices would lead us in different directions.
The recent surge of interest in varying aspects of critical theory has forced many church leaders and members to make active decisions as to how, or to what extent, to engage with these issues.
The purpose of this article is to interact with critical theory from a Reformed, Christian perspective, particularly wrestling with the question of whether the two systems are compatible. This will be done in five steps. First, the importance of the subject will be addressed. Second, an overview of the origin and history of critical theory will be given. Third, the worldview of critical theory will be examined. Fourth, a critique of critical theory from a biblical and theological point of view will be offered. Finally, some practical ways the church can engage the issues critical theory has raised from an unapologetically Christian point of view will be proposed.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CRITICAL THEORY
Rhetoric related to critical theory is everywhere we turn. Watch the news, read social media, or listen to the radio. It would be hard to miss the nearly endless references to racism, sexism, and the economic and legal disparities between those who are perceived to have power and privilege and those who are perceived to have been deprived of those things. Whether we like it or not, embrace it or not, concepts related to critical theory are here to stay.
However, the world’s ways of addressing the realities of sin never work; they only tend to compound problems and create division. Thus, we are reminded again of our desperate need for the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the church is extensively infiltrated by distinctively secular ideas, it is worth taking the time to study those influences and to give them serious consideration. This is true of critical theory and the contemporary movements that derive from it.
Behind many current cultural movements are ideologies and theories that shape them. Intellectual schools of thought such as critical race theory, intersectionality and queer theory have become very popular in recent years—especially this past year.
Critical race theory is a term that originated in the 1980s. Critical race theory is to be distinguished from critical legal studies, a movement that emerged in the 1970s after the civil rights movement. Critical legal studies argued that laws were designed with inherent social biases, and that such biased laws tended mostly to benefit those who established them.
Critical race theory, a related but distinct movement, is more singularly interested in the intertwined relationship of laws with racism and racial biases. “The Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism and power.” Although it began with a large focus on the relationships of laws to black people, it grew branches over time, expressing concern for other groups perceived to be socially vulnerable or disenfranchised (Latino, Asian, LGBT, etc.). Advocates of critical race theory argue that it is more of a verb than a noun, underscoring the activist goals of the movement, which strives to bring about legal and social equity wherever possible and by whatever means necessary.
Intersectionality is a movement closely related to critical race theory. Broadly speaking, it focuses on the way in which categories such as race, gender, class and sexual orientation overlap and create unique legal and vocational barriers for people.
Intersectionality has given focused attention to those who live at the intersections of more than one social liability (such as a black female, who is not recognized for her distinct identity as both black and female but is rather lumped into either the black category or the female category).
Kimberlee Crenshaw, a well-known law professor, is often credited with originating some of the ideas of intersectionality. She suggested that black women were often overlooked in both anti-discrimination laws as well as in feminist theory. The former saw black women as primarily black, and the latter saw black women as primarily women. Neither truly appreciated the way that black women lived at the intersection of both.
Queer theory is another activist school of thought deriving from particularly postmodern ideas about human sexuality, seeking to cast off historical (especially Judeo-Christian) definitions and characterizations of sex and gender. “Queer theory is about liberation from the normal, especially where it comes to norms of gender and sexuality. This is because it regards the very existence of the categories of sex, gender and sexuality to be oppressive.” The movement wishes to detach gender identity from the historical trappings of the past that have deemed certain sexual behaviors as right or wrong. Like its ideological siblings noted above, queer theory advocates seek to reshape the ways that gender identity has been assigned.