Although I am a conservative evangelical who leans toward a young Earth, I have always insisted that a literal six-day creation must not be a litmus test for orthodox Christianity. But that does not mean I am “soft” on Darwin. Many would argue, as I once did, that the Christian faith does not rest on what one thinks about Darwinism. While that may be true theoretically, the practical result among college students is often quite different.
As I have seen many times over my teaching career, a college student may, for a time, embrace Darwinism and maintain an allegiance to the Nicene Creed, but the naturalistic worldview that undergirds Darwinism will, too often, slowly wear away at his faith. First, he will come to see his fellow Christians who do not embrace Darwinism as backward, uneducated, and close-minded. Second, he will come to doubt the authority of church leaders, the church, and finally, the Bible. Worse yet, he will come to feel superior both to the church and to the Bible, patting himself on the back for his liberation from what he now falsely considers to be the anti-science ethos of the Christians he once respected.
Over the last 10 years, I have seen the same insidious process happen to college students who, wanting to be fashionable, progressive, and/or compassionate, embrace critical theories and social justice ideologies related to race, class, the sexes, and sexuality. At first, they cling to the Bible, often so that they can mine it for all those verses that seem to line up with their newfound concerns. Soon, however, they begin to re-view the Bible, the church, and Christian theology through the worldview lens of critical social justice. Inevitably, the authority of the Bible erodes, to be replaced by an assurance that the student is morally superior to the God of the Old Testament and to Christians who continue to hold to the theological truths and ethical standards of Scripture.
I wish I could say I was exaggerating here, but I am not. Were the problem confined to virtue signaling, I could shrug it off, confident that when the student gets married and joins the workforce, he will grow out of his utopian smugness and wake up to reality. Sadly, frighteningly, this does not seem to be happening. And the fact that it is not poses a serious threat to the future of the church, the family, civil discourse, and our two-and-a-half-century experiment in democracy.
Thankfully, to help us all, but especially those in the church, navigate these dangerous waters, Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer have co-authored a survival guide to what they dub “contemporary critical theory” (CCT): Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology — Implications for the Church and Society. Shenvi, who holds an A.B. in chemistry from Princeton and a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry from UC Berkeley, and Sawyer, who holds a B.A. in psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in educational and cultural studies from UNC-Greensboro, make a formidable team as they unpack the details of and worldview behind CCT and equip their readers to carefully critique and effectively respond to the details and the worldview.
The Triumph of Intersectionality
Shenvi and Sawyer wisely devote half of their 500 pages to providing an irenic, objective, non-polemical overview of the theories and ideologies that they critique in the second half. Their patience and thoroughness in doing so wins them the hearing they deserve from readers on all sides of the debate. The fact that they base their analysis on quotes from the actual theorists they will critique rather than making blanket statements about Marxist-inspired ideologies adds to their credibility as well as their accessibility.
At the core of their overview and critique lie four essential elements of CCT that they argue hold true whatever the specific focus may be: social binary, hegemonic power, lived experience, and social justice. According to the first, “Society is divided into dominant/privileged/oppressor groups and subordinate/marginalized/oppressed groups along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, physical ability, immigration status, religion, and so forth. Included in this central idea is the concept of intersectionality.”
Most readers will recognize this element, which was born out of Marxist identity politics, a phrase the authors oddly avoid. Rather than treat people as individuals, identity politics reduces them to members of groups that are either victimizers or victimized. Shenvi and Sawyer do a particularly good job showing how, despite the distinct critical origin of each power binary, the triumph of intersectionality “ensures that they can never [again] be treated independently. Today, intersectionality functions as an overarching framework that has fused various disciplines. For example, contemporary texts on critical race theory will dedicate sections or even entire chapters to sexuality and gender. Books on queer theory will include discussions on race, class, and disability.”
Those who argue that modern American society no longer oppresses blacks or women or gays should pay careful attention to the second essential element of contemporary critical theory, hegemonic power: “Oppression and domination are not limited to cruelty or overt acts of injustice, but also include the ways in which dominant social groups impose their values, traditions, norms, and ways of being and doing on society such that they are accepted as natural, normal, or even God-ordained.”
Rich white male heterosexual Christians, whether they are aware of it or not, possess privilege merely on account of their being members of the dominant social groups. Meanwhile, poor black female lesbian atheists, even if they do not believe they are being oppressed, are. Indeed, if they do not, it is precisely because they have internalized the hegemonic power structure.
In the case of race, critical theorists will argue that “racism is concealed beneath ideas like colorblindness, meritocracy, individualism, neutrality, and objectivity.” Such “white” Enlightenment ideals may claim to be neutral and objective, but their purpose is to serve the interest of the dominant social group. CCT adherents will often claim their goal is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, but “it’s important to ask how they determine when equality of opportunity is attained. If their answer is ‘We know that equality of opportunity is attained once outcomes are equal,’ then they are functionally committed to equality of outcome regardless of their protests to the contrary.”
The third essential element of CCT holds that the “lived experience of minoritized and oppressed groups rivals and at times is prioritized over objective evidence and reason when it comes to understanding the world.” This element further chips away at the Enlightenment faith that reason, logic, and science provide neutral ground for structuring society — as witnessed by growing charges of microaggression leveled at those in dominant groups:
The victimized person, not their aggressor, determines what does and does not qualify as a microaggression. Moreover, the seriousness of the supposed harm is to be determined solely by the victimized person and accepted without question, no matter how disproportionate the magnitude of the response might appear to others. The legitimacy of their response is not open for discussion as even the questioning of what is legitimate is seen as a product of white supremacy and hegemonic oppression.
This, along with the previous two elements, feeds into and legitimizes the fourth: “Social justice is concerned with the transformation of society via the emancipation and empowerment of marginalized and disenfranchised groups. Social justice requires us to dismantle the systems, structures, and hegemonic norms that create and perpetuate the social binary.” Shenvi and Sawyer do well to remind us that justice often “requires not only a change of individual hearts but also the abolition of unjust systems,” but they do equally well to warn us to carefully “critique the way that contemporary critical theory defines justice and the way in which it identifies which systems are unjust.”
Redemption for People of Every Tribe
Central to Shenvi and Sawyer’s critique of CCT is that it, like Christianity, functions “as a worldview and a metanarrative.” To prove their point, the authors compare the two worldviews in terms of the questions they ask and the solutions they offer. While Christianity treats all men as made in God’s image, CCT claims we “are part of various oppressed and oppressor groups locked in a struggle for dominance. Our primary problem is not sin, but oppression; dominant social groups have imposed their norms and values on us. The solution is not redemption, but activism. We don’t need salvation from outside; we instead need to free ourselves through liberatory politics. … Our primary moral duty is to dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate oppression.”
Clearly, the assumptions upon which Christianity and CCT rest are not only opposed to one another; they are foundationally incompatible. Shenvi and Sawyer offer numerous examples of this incompatibility. CCT “assumes that essentially no dominant social norms are actually natural, just, and God-ordained, and … that essentially all social hierarchies are unjust and oppressive.” Such a view cannot be reconciled with Scripture or the historic witness of the church. God’s moral laws are universal, and the Bible upholds hierarchies in the political, domestic, and ecclesiastical realms, even as “it redefines them in terms of love, service, and sacrifice.”
Whereas CCT’s social binary “posits an adversarial relationship between different genders, classes, and ethnic groups … Christianity insists on fundamental solidarity between all human beings and a nonnegotiable familial relationship between Christians.” Whereas CCT teaches “that the regime of law itself is a mechanism to preserve the power of the ruling class,” Christianity “affirms the goodness of God’s law.” Whereas CCT puts its focus exclusively on our world, Christianity, “while concerned about temporal needs and flourishing,” treats them as “strongly secondary to the soul’s eternal needs and flourishing.”
In mounting their critique of CCT, Shenvi and Sawyer focus heavily, though not exclusively, on critical race theory (CRT) and queer theory, often reminding readers that the two go hand-in-hand, and, true to the law of intersectionality, cannot be separated. In summing up their remarks on the former, they warn their Christian readers of the “susceptibility of those who embrace CRT’s approach to lived experience to commit eisegesis, illegitimately reading racial concerns into the text of Scripture where they do not exist or using one’s race, gender, class, ethnicity, or any other demographic marker as a hermeneutical (interpretive) lens to understand the meaning of Scripture.”
In between their critiques of CRT and queer theory, Shenvi and Sawyer wisely pause to take up the contested issue of ancestral, or inherited, guilt. Is it possible to hold all whites collectively responsible for slavery? Through careful biblical exegesis, the authors show such thinking is untenable.
Although God does often punish collectively the covenant community of Israel, “Whites are not a covenant people any more than redheads or speakers of Spanish are covenant people.” True, the church may need to repent for certain forms of collective guilt, but the church is made up of people from all races and ethnicities. Christians are called, like the good Samaritan, to offer aid to those in need; still, the Samaritan in the parable bears “no moral guilt for what happened.”
Shenvi and Sawyer offer many more insights in their important and timely book that I haven’t the space to mention. Still, in closing, I must enumerate the eight statements that form the subheadings for a chapter they title, “Ideas That Will Devastate Your Church”: People of color in the U.S. are oppressed; sin is oppression; straight, white males need to listen; the Bible was written from the perspective of the oppressed; whiteness is wickedness; justice is part of the gospel; there can be no reconciliation without justice; and Christianity is about liberation from oppression.
Although Shenvi and Sawyer show their willingness to learn from the writings of CCT throughout, they make clear that ideas like the eight just listed…
…will erode people’s orthodoxy, their relationships with others, and the health of their local church. These ideas will divide the body of Christ into warring camps based on gender, race, and ethnicity. Perhaps more fundamentally, they will divide the body of Christ into Allies and Bigots, regardless of the demographic group to which they belong. … The solution is not to divide the body of Christ into the Woke and Anti-woke! The solution is to call everyone back to Scripture — to tell a better story, the old, old story of Christ’s love for sinners and his redemption of people from every tribe, and nation, and tongue.
The hour is late, but the day is not yet over. There is still time to reassess the claims and assumptions of CCT, rescue college students and the church from its slow-acting poison, and build again the bridges it has come perilously close to burning down.