I appreciate the work Neil Shenvi has done to understand and explain critical theory and how it has permeated many of the conversations in our culture, particularly about race. I appreciate him because he has shown himself to be fair, recognizing the truth about evil episodes in the history of our nation and offering a non-sensationalistic evaluation of the arguments and solutions proposed by critical theorists.
Contemporary critical theorists—exemplified by popular scholars like Robin DiAngelo—divide reality into oppressed groups and their oppressors along axes of identity like race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, age, and so forth. Dominant oppressor groups (men, whites, the rich, heterosexuals) subjugate oppressed groups (women, people of color, the poor, LGBTQ+ individuals) not primarily through physical violence, but through hegemonic power, the ability of dominant groups to impose their values, norms, and expectations on culture….
I’ve documented the many ways in which basic Christian doctrine conflicts with the presuppositions of contemporary critical theory, but its approach to truth is particularly relevant.
According to contemporary critical theorists, oppressor groups conceal their bids for power under the guise of “reason” and “objective arguments.” Even when these desires are subconscious, dominant groups are blinded by false ideologies that function to maintain their privilege. In contrast, oppressed groups have special access to truth that enables them to “see through” these specious appeals. Oppressors should therefore recognize their own blindness and defer to the lived experience of marginalized groups.
This basic feature of contemporary critical theory becomes exceptionally important for Christians discussing controversial topics like racism and reparations. Discourse between Christians must non-negotiably be based on two premises: 1) we should assume the best of other believers’ motivations and 2) we should appeal to Scripture as the ultimate, sufficient, and perspicuous authority on all subjects. In contrast, contemporary critical theory would undermine both of these principles, by 1) insisting that privileged Christians are, consciously or unconsciously, motivated by a desire to maintain power and 2) insisting that “objective” appeals to reason, evidence, or even Scripture are unavoidably tainted by privilege. [Emphasis in original.]
Shenvi argues that we can’t let these ideas prevent our careful analysis of controversial topics:
We should certainly be willing to examine our own hearts and interrogate our motives. But we must not allow the desire to be on the “right side” of Tisby’s admonitions overwhelm our commitment to careful reflection and rational deliberation….
We’re all commanded to “consider others better than ourselves,” to “be slow to speak and quick to listen,” and to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Most importantly, all of our doctrine, beliefs, and practices have to be open to scrutiny. For this reason, embracing a hermeneutic of power which dismisses white, male, Eurocentric voices as blind and irrelevant is exceptionally dangerous. All Christians should be committed to pursuing truth and justice within the bonds of love and peace and under the authority of the Bible. To fail to do so, and to embrace patterns of thought antithetical to Scripture, even for the sake of temporal causes that we deem worthy and righteous, would be compromise indeed. [Emphasis in original.]
This topic is too important to not think carefully about it. I encourage you to read Shenvi’s full review for his insights on Tisby’s book and critical theory in general. And for more from Shenvi on the topic of critical theory, see “Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement” (only 28 pages!) or, if you prefer video, see here.