Clarke Scheibe, Director of the L’Abri Fellowship in Victoria, British Columbia discussed the rise of critical theory, both in the wider society and among young people from conservative backgrounds at the annual L’Abri conference in Rochester, Minnesota, on February 15.
Scheibe first discussed the increasingly popular idea that “social justice is the end goal of Christianity.” He joked that many people had anxiously asked him what he would say. He said that “social justice” is a hot button issue in the Evangelical world because many young people from Christian backgrounds “have given up on Biblical Christianity, and some have left the church, and some have left the faith.” He observed that in rejecting Christian faith and morals, converts to social justice doctrine regard Christian morality as immoral.
The line of thought that leads to the conclusion that orthodox Christianity is immoral begins with a “pursuit of justice” Scheibe said. The kingdom of God is to be realized in our day. The result for those affected by this line of thinking has been that “over time, [it] corroded their beliefs, corroded their confidence in God and in the Bible.”
Scheibe considered several questions. “How did we get here?” “What is at work?” “How does it relate to Biblical Christianity?” And finally, “is there a way forward?”
In answer to the first, he said that the ideal of the generation of 1968 was “to see justice in all areas of their life.” It is the pursuit of this as a controlling idea which has led people to ever more radical conclusions. Left leaning ideas and rhetoric “is hard to pin down, because oppression is polymorphous,” and so opposition to it has to be too. The ideas of the New Left, entering from the academic world then shaped beliefs. Some chose “to live in communes” away from the “tyranny of capitalism.” A major influence was the thinker Herbert Marcuse, who proposed silencing conservatives in the interest of progress.
These ideas were sown in the second half of the twentieth century, and “came to fruition” in the 2000s, Scheibe said. The September 11, 2001 attacks came to be seen as an act of revenge by victims, not a heinous crime. “Hate crime” and “hate speech” doctrine took hold with those moving to the left, moved by high profile crimes against people in groups held to be oppressed. The (generally judicial) enactment of same sex marriage added momentum, and the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 was the last straw for many people affected by liberationist ideas. For many of the young who used the narratives of the Left to interpret these events, critical theory, or “cultural Marxism,” finally became an “interpretive grid” for looking at life generally.
The critical component of this thought is the division of the world into the oppressors and the oppressed, between the “powerful, or advantaged,” and the “powerless, or disadvantaged.” This controls with way people informally relate to one another, resulting in unjust outcomes.
Scheibe said that those who embrace critical theory do not so much reject “the American dream” (which after all involves prospering in this world) as they reject Christianity (which is self-denying). The church seems “to play a part” in “patterns of oppression.” People even speak of “conversion experiences” when they realize that critical thinking discloses the truth.
The heritage of liberation theology, which began in the 1960s, is being used by young, disaffected Evangelicals today to advance critical theory in Christian communities. The Bible is interpreted in a new way. Rather than using rhetoric of obedience and forgiveness of sins, liberation theology uses the theme of liberation and oppression to interpret the Bible. The moral imperative of liberation, rather than the fall of man, becomes the new hermeneutical key. The oppression of the poor is seen as “the number one consequence of idolatry,” while sinners are to be befriended and religious authorities condemned. The result of this liberationist re-interpretation of the Bible is that the Biblical text appears “fresh” and “full,” a source of truth relevant to the contemporary world.
Scheibe said that the truly “subtle but important shift” that occurs for those who embrace critical theory is that it becomes “not just a helpful lens” to interpret the Bible, but is recognized as “the interpretive key,” becoming the “foundation” to derive truth from the Biblical text. The imperative of liberating marginalized groups becomes the point departure in Biblical interpretation, resulting in “black liberation theology,” “feminist theology,” “gay theology,” etc.
Critical theory focuses the thoughts and assumptions people have which reinforce oppression. This, Scheibe said, is called “internal oppression.” Freeing oneself from the oppressive ideas of dominant groups is to become “woke.” Everyone and everything fits somewhere into the hierarchical structure of power, and because nothing falls outside of it, critical theory is itself above criticism. In the analysis of “intersectionality,” one adds up categories held to be oppressed (black, female, infertile, LGBT, etc.) to gain advantage in the logic and rhetoric of liberation.
Scheibe said that Herbert Marcuse’s doctrine of “repressive tolerance,” advanced in the 1960s, is the proposed path of liberation. Changing language and facts will change consciousness, and thus change personality and culture to end the oppression of marginalized groups. It necessarily involves the suppression of conservative judgments (repression), and the toleration (or really, it would seem the acceptance) of the radical claims of groups held to be marginalized. This project has effectively prevailed on many American campuses today. The expression “speaking as an ‘X,’” does not merely assert one’s identity, Scheibe said, but is a claim to be “morally privileged,” because of one’s oppressed status. Any disagreement is held to be oppressive, an attack on the oppressed person as a person. “There is no impartial space for dialogue.” Even physical violence has been justified if directed at members of the oppressor class.
Scheibe believes that critical theory will neither “eliminate oppressive structures,” nor “create a unified society.” It results (as it did in communist dictatorships) in “a new oppressor class.” Since all is based on raw power violence is justified. Tensions are not relieved, and society is not unified, although it is transformed in a new hierarchical system. He referred to the new diversity slogan of a Canadian bank: “difference, the only thing we have in common.” But it would seem to be the natural result of a culture (really, an anti-culture) focused on different identities.
By the time one has fully accepted critical thinking, Scheibe said, one comes to see even “the Bible as a hegemonic power.” To respond to critical theory, it is necessary to get its adherents to at least consider the possibility that the Biblical text, and not critical theory, is finally authoritative. He referred to the surprise of a Jewish lesbian who became a Christian at learning that even white men struggle with the Bible.
Several principles are important in understanding the Bible on its own terms. 1) “The world is God’s creation, and therefore good,” 2) “Human power cannot be the basis for understanding reality,” and 3) “There is a unified field of knowledge and morals, based on revelation, instead of the ‘facts of the dominant culture,’ or simply analysis of oppressors and oppressed.” All are persons equal, instead of an asymmetry of oppressors and oppressed. Scheibe said that while the Western liberal tradition has claimed that the equality of humans is self-evident, it is not, in fact self evident. It is known by divine revelation, and uncritically adopted by secular Western thought.
Another point Christians must make is the oppression is based on sin. “It does not originate externally, it originates internally.” Internal rebellion against God, Scheibe said, “is what creates unjust structures.” He referred to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’ s experience of wanting to kill the creators of the Gulag Archipelago, but his realization that he could not, because he would become like the oppressors. He recognized, Scheibe said, that “sin cuts through every human heart.” This, in fact, “equalizes us.” We are also equal in our need to respond to the call of Jesus. We all need forgiveness of sin. While “God has a special concern for marginalized people, they are also called to repent.” The freedom that the Bible offers is a freedom from sin.
In considering “a way forward,” Scheibe pointed to the social reform achieved by Evangelicals in the nineteenth century. He referred to Jas. 1:27 as the proper approach to social justice by Christians: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
A questioner asked if the categories of oppression identified by critical theory are compatible with the idea of oppression presented in Scripture. Scheibe responded that he does see instances of structural injustice. Critical theory, however, by its very principles, uncritically accepts the claims people in categories deemed oppressed. The possibility that those classed as oppressed might in fact be oppressors in some situations is excluded.
Another questioner observed from his experience where critical theory is widely accepted that “no matter how kind you are, and gentle you are” people cannot be made to see the bad consequences of implementing critical theory. Scheibe responded that where critical theory is widely accepted, it may be difficult if not impossible to engage the situation from a Christian standpoint.
It was asked at what point it becomes necessary to leave an institution dominated by critical theory, and move, if possible, to new institutions. Scheibe said he encouraged people to remain in their institutions if possible, but also said that there may be times when one has to leave institutions that have become pervasively corrupt with critical theory. He said that he was thankful that homeschooling was still legal in Canada, and even many people who are not Christians homeschool their children to avoid the radicalism of critical theory taught in public schools from kindergarten. Regrettably however “the current liberal government of Canada is trying to figure out how to get to the homeschool kids.”
It was also observed that people from Christian backgrounds affected by critical theory tend to regard evangelism as a kind of aggression. Scheibe responded that the gospel can be truncated either by eliminating the effort to win souls to Christ or ignoring injustices in society. He said, however, that it is “really through the conversion of hearts those structural changes come.”
Finally, Scheibe observed the “cultural exhaustion” of many Americans with respect to critical theory. He said he had seen “pastors burn out,” and churches “lose many people.”
Scheibe’s review of the most striking consequence of critical theory, identity politics, will be discussed in a subsequent article.