Readers may be familiar with the phrase ‘Critical Theory’. This wonderful expression is being bandied about more and more in the media. Sadly, also in the Church. Typically, we see comments, citing CT, coming from people who have little or no idea what it actually means – including Church leaders. So – let’s have a look at Critical Theory in all its glory. And see if, and how, it fits with Christianity, our faith and our witness to these in practice.
Those readers who have read my previous musings may recall that I used to be a university academic. This means that I was hit over the head for years by students and colleagues who liked to call themselves ‘postmodernists’ – another term that was a useful tool for those folks who do not like the current rules. Put simply, postmodernism is sceptical of all other theories. It allows a person to question everything, without having to come up with a viable alternative. Students used it as an excuse to avoid all the theories and scholarly literature they didn’t like. It prioritized feelings and other subjective (personal) views over rational objectivity.
The subjective nature of postmodernism leads to its biggest problem – the denial of reality in favour of whatever you choose to believe. A colleague of mine used to say that you can disagree with scientific positivism as much as you like, but when the doc says you have liver cancer, you have liver cancer. Disagree all you like, pal. It’s still there. The problem is, that when everything is reduced to values and feelings, we have to ask, whose values are the best? Whose values do we want to live with? Whose feelings matter the most? Whose values and feelings will direct our society? This is where we are now.
CT actually emerged out of postmodernist thought, but it has been eagerly developed – politically – to make its application to real life somewhat more obvious – and dangerous. CT takes postmodernism and applies it to a specific end – big changes in society, whether society wants it or not. Crucial to understanding CT is this: one of its principal underpinnings is the belief that people should be relieved of all ideologies that ‘enslave them’. This is a superficially attractive position and a very good virtue-signalling tool, to boot. But this is a problem in itself, as we shall see. All of CT’s dangers arise from this ‘liberation’ idea.
At my old university, my students were all postgraduates, from all over the world. But one of the things that struck me about these diverse groups was the ever-familiar parade of ‘fluffy words’ that came out of their mouths on a daily basis. Far from being diverse in their vocabularies, many of these far-flung classmates came together around the new religion of postmodernism. I would estimate that around 75% of them ‘spoke postmodern’ as their first language. I used to spend a year trying to get them to translate their fluffy jargon into practical action plans. When asked what the jargon meant in real-world practice, most could not answer me. Yet entire careers are made on these foundations, particularly in ‘activism’ of all sorts. Try getting an activist to show you a workable, fair and affordable plan. I can tell you now – it will never happen.
How did these jargon-speakers get ahead? Because they had learned to play the game. The game that produced advancement for them. When writing, or paying someone else to write, their PhD programme applications, many of them knew that the liberal (every pun intended) use of fluffy, postmodern jargon would bamboozle admissions tutors and in many cases, fool them into offering a place. The fact that most of these applicants did not understand what half or more of the fluffy words and phrases mean, was irrelevant. They looked as if they spoke the right lingo. The lack of concrete practical proposals, disguised by the fluffy verbal vomit, was neither here nor there. Admissions tutors would look at this twaddle and think either a) this person speaks my language, or b) I can tick some more diversity boxes here by admitting this person or c) both. Result!
These students had to come to my department to be trained in research methods before they could be progressed to full PhD registration – i.e. before they could begin their actual research. I had a mix of various social science disciplines in every class. Many were en route to careers as social workers, leaders in the peace and conflict resolution industry (most of whom could have started a war in a convent), international aid and development workers, academics and industry/management professionals. Interestingly, the only discipline that was largely exempt from the postmodernist plague was that of management. It always struck me that postmodernism was bypassed there because when money and economic progress enter the equation, postmodernism has no traction – it simply does not work with capitalism. That should tell us something.
My point is this. Social science – the sort that deals with people, their ‘lived experiences’, their problems, their inability to recognise responsibility, and a focus on their ‘rights’ – as well as all the good it does – is the prime breeding ground for postmodernism and its more recently-promoted offspring, Critical Theory. Now that the Church is in thrall to social science, this is where we are going.
CT developed from the 1930s onwards. It’s not new. It’s just that it has become an evermore politically useful tool in the recent Marxist toolbox with which to bash those in power. That means the sort of ‘power’ that is defined by, er, Marxists. CT says that all the troubles in society come from ‘societal structures’, ‘cultural assumptions’ and ‘cultural values’. The idea is that these structures and cultural beliefs have too much power.
‘Structures’ in this sense includes the family, the nation-state, religious systems, the legal system, the educational system, the health system, the economic system, the political system, the language people use, the norms of western society and so on. Put bluntly, if it originated or flourished under the Judeo-Christian western civilization model, it is a problem to ‘society’ – for which read ‘a problem to postmodernists and CTists’. Never mind the fact that western society has delivered the best standard of living of any civilization to date, to the greatest number of people. Western civilization as it has been, is A Bad Thing.
‘Cultural assumptions’ and ‘cultural norms’ refer to what members of any culture believe to be normal and acceptable. That’s all it is. In Judeo-Christian culture, our norms have included the nuclear family (evolved from the extended family as economic gains advanced); the acceptance and expectancy that faith is a guiding force in society, providing values, moral standards and spiritual approaches to the things of life; education for all, based on the culture’s values; health provision and medical support; democracy; freedom of speech; freedom of religion; tolerance of others; the value of the individual, and so on.
The problem is that to postmodernists and all their philosophical descendants the CTists, Judeo-Christian, western culture is ‘oppressive’ and ‘unjust’. They don’t like it. Or at least, parts of it. It escapes most of them that it is this culture and its tolerances that allow them to challenge it freely, but hey, that’s their ‘right’!
Since its development by the Frankfurt School in Germany from the 1930s onwards, this approach to social science and society has grown, like a festering wound, into what we see today being proclaimed as ‘social justice’ – the latest bandwagon onto which the Church has jumped, without reading the small print first. The problem with social justice is twofold: it is not justice and it is anti-social. What CT and social justice mean in practice is far beyond what we see in their shop windows.
We can all agree, according to existing norms, that racism exists and is wrong. Indeed, it has been fought by the Church and Christians for a long time. Not well enough, probably, but it was an anti-racist, humanitarian resolve that led the British to abolish slavery. The same resolve enabled the UK to avoid segregation. I could go on, but you get the picture. Christianity has provided a foundation on which to build care and equality between all humanity – even if we have not yet got it right. We don’t need CT to know about and act against racism.
We can also agree that prejudice (unreasonable dislike) against minority groups is wrong. Again, we have not done well enough. But what other culture provides a better foundation in which minorities can thrive than a Judeo-Christian, democratic one? The West is, today, the best place for anyone belonging to a marginalized minority to live. If this were not so, how come Europe (and Australia, before legal changes were made) is always the destination of choice for such minorities when they can leave their own country? We don’t need CT to know about and act against nastiness to people who are not like ‘us’.
Movements that describe themselves as ‘social justice organizations’ are not all social justice vehicles. Many of them are political movements, thinly disguised as ‘caring’ charities or groups. Many of them promote the defunding of the police, the removal of the nuclear family as the social unit of child-raising, the overturning of biology, the denial of science in favour of the ‘lived experience’. All of these are driven and underpinned by Critical Theory. That is the philosophical foundation of the entire ‘social justice’ industry. This is what the Church wants to join and promote.
The problem is that this wonderful social justice only works in one direction – away from Judeo-Christian values. That is, those values that have underpinned the most successful, fair, open civilization seen to date, in which individuals have opportunities to thrive and progress, even if they don’t ‘fit the norm’.
This social justice, based on Critical Theory, says that in order to accommodate the beliefs and values of minorities, the majority has to give up its own values. To give up its own knowledge in science, government, education, health and all the rest of it. It is now a crime to say that we believe in the biological reality of sex. Parents cannot prevent their small children being taught that Daddy can become Mummy. People lose their jobs over comments they made as idiotic teenagers. People who do not possess vaginas have to be invited for cervical screening in case they get upset by being left out (NHS, I am looking at you). Black people shot by the police are always innocent by default. White folks shot by Black police don’t get a mention. These things are the reality of the application of Critical Theory to our society and culture.
I mentioned above that one of the underpinnings of CT is the notion that people must be ‘liberated from ideologies that enslave them’. The question is, therefore, what is an ‘enslaving ideology’? In the case of those who bow down at the altar of CT, it is Christianity and Judaism. It is western capitalism. It is the norms on which our ancestors built the society in which we live today. It is the ‘ideology’ that you need to work for what you get; that life isn’t a bed of roses; that sh*t happens, but help is there to get you through it. It is the ideology that education cannot make all of us geniuses; that healthcare may sometimes have to be rationed (don’t we know it in the UK right now); that all cannot be winners; that sometimes life is unfair, but society has given all of us what we need to make the best of it. It is the Judeo-Christian cultural system that helps people, and has done, for thousands of years.
The fact that the Judeo-Christian western culture is the most tolerant in the world seems to completely miss the social justice warriors. They demand justice for ‘the oppressed’, but deny it to the non-oppressed – i.e. those who disagree with them. And get this – they get to identify who is oppressed and who isn’t. Good trick, isn’t it? The contradictions in CT are huge and unaddressed publicly.
CT paves the way for the disintegration of our society. CT supporters promote a ‘new, fairer society’. Yet they deny the rights of anyone who disagrees with their version of the ‘new, fairer society’. It’s all a one-way street. The irony is that our society is already open to accommodate the needs of those who do not fit with majority norms or identities. Yet, such accommodation is no longer sufficient. We now have to be told what to think and believe. If the Church were doing this – forcing Christianity onto atheists or other religions, it would be called ‘cultural genocide’ and ‘brain washing’. To the CT supporters, it is ‘social justice’ and ‘go educate yourself’. We’re seeing the same in the Church – the 2020 Living In Love and Faith materials are a prime example of ‘go educate yourself’ to the folks in the pews who don’t want to change their beliefs.
So how does all this affect the Church? Do I really need to explain? The Archbishop of Canterbury and his muscle the Archbishop of York, both continue to promote social justice causes as if they are somehow a Christian duty. The same situation pertains in the TEC. It amazes and saddens me to see that none of these ‘leaders’ have the insight, the wit or the conscience to see the CT-based ‘social justice’ industry for what it is – a social demolition movement aimed at destroying the Church and the public face of the Christian faith in western culture.
A recent letter to the Church Times by the Venerable Norman Russell calls for ‘a biblical and theological analysis of Critical Theory with respect to gender and identity’ by the Church. Dear God. I don’t think anyone in the CofE leadership is capable – and Synod certainly isn’t. If there were to be a real, honest analysis of CT in the Church, it would be seen for what it is – a problematic ideology in its own right, that seeks to destroy anything that is not of itself.
Is this something that the Church should be going anywhere near? Why is nobody asking ‘What does CT offer to Christianity?’ (Hint – nothing.) Instead, much of the western Anglican leadership is falling over itself to accommodate CT and its offspring as if it is all some new revelation from on high. The notion that honest, believing Christians are supposed to buy into this travesty is appalling.
‘Social justice’ sounds wonderful. Who doesn’t want that? Who wants social injustice? The arguments and the publicity around CT and social justice are very persuasive. They look caring. They look like a logical extension of our existing tolerance. They look almost Christian. But they are not. CT silences people who do not agree with it. Christianity gives everyone a voice – which has been one of the defining characteristics of our faith all along. We don’t need social justice to do justice. We can be tolerant of difference without believing that all human choices are appropriate and equal in value. Disagreeing does not mean hating.
Our Christian faith is already tolerant and accepting of difference. Not perfect, by any means. We are all on a journey. But our Church is being led by untrustworthy individuals who see ‘social justice’ as more important than the Word of God and the foundations of our successful society – which was built on the values of Judeo-Christian teachings. This is nothing more than enabling the Church to be destroyed from within. And the destruction of our own successful, tolerant society – by and for a dictatorship run by those who dress themselves up as caring and broad-minded.