Christianity, Race and Critical Theory

As we are again encountering major discussions of race, one of the things that Christians must keep in mind, if we wish to be rational, is the issue of Critical theory, and the over-arching post-modern culture which guides it, a type of pseudo-intellectualism that infected even the academy. I noted critical theory in my last post, but I want to put some legs to the argument as to why it should be rejected by Christians. To begin, a lay level description (that will not cover every aspect) of critical theory will be required. Starting in the seventies, humanities professors became enchanted with the writings of Foucault, who argued among other things, that literature and historical writings were preserved because of their role as instruments of power rather than because of any intrinsic truth they might contain. He describes the writings themselves as artifacts, and his major work putting for this position is The Archeology of Knowledge. Foucault’s work is significantly influenced by Nietsche, and neo-marxism. This led to what is called the politicization of the humanities, which maintained two separate but fundamentally incoherent elements, first a charged and biting hatred for Western culture and Christianity in particular, second a belief that all things are essentially relative. Critical theory is one stream of this post-modern movement that suggests every aspect of history should be understood in terms of oppression and oppressed. This requires a discussion of racism in terms of structures, referring for example, to whiteness, cultural imperialism or cultural hegemony.

There may be some discussions of “structural racism” that may be useful in sociology, but the question of “structural racism” is a more problematic assertion in discussions of ethics, though even here, there are some valid questions that need to be raised—these include whether it is appropriate to think of sociology as a science[1]—the question of whether it should be used in ethical discussions is far more dubious. Critical theory is not about facts concerning society or history, rather critical theory is a system of interpreting those facts. Similarly, critical theory is ultimately not a matter of “proof” the themes of the critical theorists are rather assumed and then applied to history. One of the central contentions is that the West’s role in the world is because of western technology, which has imposed a set of western values on the world. Within Critical theory, Christianity, with its missional aspect, is either the driving force of imposing things such as Christian sexual norms on native peoples from other traditions or it is a means of oppression by western imperialism. There is a sense, then, in which one can accept critical theory, or one can be a Christian, but one cannot be both without significantly modifying Christianity.

The Self-Refuting nature of Critical theory and Post Modernism

One of the major problems with post-modernism and therefore critical theory, is that it is, in philosophical terms self-refuting which means, if one accepts as true the beliefs of post-modernism and critical theory, one must then reject post-modernism and critical theory as false. For example, I noted earlier that Foucault noted that all writings are artifacts and should be interpreted in terms of the way they are used as a means to power, and draws these ideas from Nietsche. But, Foucault does not treat Nietsche’s writings the way he claims we should treat all literature, nor do post-modernists treat Foucault as an “artifact.”[2] Similarly, if everything comes down to concerns about power, this would imply that critical theory is, itself, simply another means of pursuing power. In fact, critical theorists have made a point in the academy of not hiring Christians or conservatives into their departments, indicating that critical theorists are not, in point of fact, interested in tearing down power structures, but rather they are in favor of building structures for their own benefit. A feminist writing within critical theory could argue that biographers of Washington are merely trying to build their own power base by appealing to patriarchal myths, but feminists have their own myths, and they are attempting to build their own bases of power.[3] When making these types of arguments, the critical theorist is asserting that his own motives should not be judged in the same way he judges the motives of his ideological opponent.

Critical theory and Western History

Critical theorists will often note that some historians have tended to cherry-pick western and American history in constructing meta-narratives that laud the greatness of America or the West. One would think, if this were the cases, critical theorists would be more careful in their readings of history, sadly, this is not the case; in my experience post-modernists are worse about leaving out elements of history that are not conducive to their theories than are traditional historians. For example, the dissertation prospectus I am working deals with Old Testament slave codes, in rebutting a point raised by an author, I started looking for a references in articles on the impact of the Massacre of 1804 on antebellum Southern slave codes. For those who are unaware, after the Haitian revolution ended, there was an attempted genocide of the French on the island, initially it was to include women and children as well as the men, but some of the women who married black men were allowed to live. The event had a major impact on the American South, before the massacre, many Southern thinkers, such as Jefferson and Madison, were strongly pushing for an end to slavery by means of gradualism, in fact, this goal was a part of the state of Virginia’s stated reasons for participating in the American revolution. However, the massacre ended those discussions, unfortunately, because it was feared that if the slaves were freed, similar retaliatory gestures would be taken. While I found a number of recent articles (particularly within scholarship laden with Marxist tropes) of the effect of the Haitian revolution on the American South, the massacre, the most significant event of that revolution on Southern policies, was never mentioned. While the Massacre of 1804 does not justify the increasing harshness of Southern slave codes—at least for a Christian (Matthew 5:23), an atheist making denunciations here has some significant problems in grounding those denunciations—it does tend to indicate the attempt to understand American history solely in terms of lust for power are inadequate, fear may have played a bigger role in the greatest travesty of American history than avarice or will to power. Similarly, as Rodney Stark has noted, the cannibalism and the human sacrifice occurring on a massive scale that early European explorer’s found in the Americas tends to be excised by most modern treatments of the early contact between native Americans and Europeans. While it is true that the Spanish sought to exploit the natural wealth of the Western Hemisphere, there are indications that they were partially moved to act by the human suffering they found. One should be as distrustful of claims made by groups such as the 1619 project as one must be from historians that always put a positive spin on American history, or for that matter any attempt to oversimply history, history is far more complicated than so many seem to realize. One cannot deny that there is significant racism in European and American history, but critical theory is not about affirming that racism exists, it is about affirming that race is fundamental to understanding European and American history.

Additionally, we should be distrustful of claims that Western culture is dominate because of its technology. As Rodney Stark has wisely noted, Western technological progress, and the tendency to put innovated technology into practical use is not an explanation of the West’s role in the world, but is, itself, a part of what needs to be explained. That is, what must be asked is why, by the age of exploration, were reading glasses only in widespread use in Europe? If all cultural values and virtues are equally valid, then this would necessarily include intellectual virtues, but the technological development of the West suggests that, in point of fact, western intellectual virtues are objectively superior to those of other surrounding cultures.

Of course, here again, Post-modernism is self-defeating, post modernism itself is dependent on beliefs that are, themselves, drawn from western virtues and traditions, virtues that do not exist always exist in other places. While care should be taken about overstating the case, what is unique about the west is not the existence of slavery—slavery was, until the 19th century, nearly ubiquitous throughout the world, with the exception of much of mainland Europe—what is unusual about European values is that the enslavement of other men was thought to be wrong, that the treatment of slaves in European colonies was not in accord with Christian or Deistic principles concerning the way we ought to treat our fellow man, and the desire to end the practice. In a sense, then, critical theorist is, in his own terms, guilty of a type of western cultural hegemony. After all, why should Europeans tell Arabs that their participation in the slave trade is wrong?


[1] It seems to me to describing sociology as a science would seem to assume a type of mechanistic account of humanity, that is to accept that sociology is a science, one would need to assume a priori that man has no freewill, and therefore no soul. Science, among other things, works from beliefs in natural law, and studies those natural laws, but natural law is what happens when agents do not intervene in the course of events. Of course, if human beings have freewill or souls, then they are agents. Because much of sociology is dependent on Kuhn’s philosophy of science, and Kuhn is controversial, there are additional misgivings of whether to describe the social studies as sciences, or rather empirical studies of another sort.

[2] Some will argue that since Foucault and Nietsche are writing as philosophers, somehow a different standard should be applied, but this does not seem to work either. Without getting too technical, if one takes this kind of approach one will tend to find that these “second order” criteria that are used to justify this type of philosophical approach that are different from other types of literature require a “third order” set of criteria, and then a “fourth order” set of criteria to justify this third order set of criteria, until we have no basic criteria to work from, at all. Second order criteria, to operate well, need to be able to function within the rule sets they create.

 [3] There is, within this discussion, a tendency to legitimize a logical fallacy, argumentium ad hominem, arguments should not be raised against the man, rather against the case he makes. Thus, for example, environmental studies by an oil company are they support should be rejected because they are the product of an oil company. It is true that an oil company has a vested interest in putting forward a study, but while this raises grounds to suggest carefully reviewing the study, it doesn’t prove the study is wrong; that would require that one dig into the facts asserted, verify that they are true, that no cherrypicking has occurred, etc.